Increasing your climactic conflict

When I took a seminar taught by New York agent Donald Maass, the one thing I took away was that most of the manuscripts he sees don’t have enough Conflict with a capital C. There are lots of ways to increase conflict, but the biggest is to make it the climax of your story. It’s easy to do—ask yourself, what’s the absolute worst thing that could happen to my character? Then have it happen and ruin your character’s life right at the climactic moment near the end. I can see you cringing, but it must be done. Grow a backbone. Sock it to your character. If your heroine is afraid of death, have it stare her in the face in the climax. If your hero wants to save his ranch, have a tornado destroy it. If your heroine needs a heart transplant, have her donated organ arrive unviable. If your hero is trying to catch the serial killer, have him realize he’s been after the wrong suspect the entire time. Be brutal! Be ruthless! Be evil! You’ll discover how absolutely GREAT your book’s climax can be if

Learning to get into the writing zone

Before, I talked about left and right brain roles for writing . Left brain is more analytical, right brain is more creative. For some people, it's very difficult to switch between the two completely. Usually when I switch from analytical to creative, I'm not 100% into my creative mode--there are vestiges of analytical thinking going on. That's why for some writers it's difficult to be as creative when you switch between editing and writing, editing and writing. The analytical side--editing--doesn't fully relinquish brain energy to the creative side for writing. However, switching quickly--and more importantly, more completely --between sides can be trained, to an extent. This is especially important for busy writers who juggle different duties and tasks. Set an alarm clock (your watch alarm, phone alarm, PDA alarm) at odd hours during the day. When that alarm goes off, drop everything and write for 8 minutes. Grab whatever's handy--pen and paper, computer

Separate right and left brain activities

Ooooh, that’s a nice description. Oh no no no, that’s a terrible way to put it. Oops, you wrote a passive verb. Hey, you just laid down three adverbs in a row! The right word just isn’t coming to me . . . Sound familiar? That pesky internal editor. Most writers say to lay down a bad first draft and edit later. There’s actually scientific reasoning behind it. Right brain is creative stuff like writing prose and brainstorming. Left brain is editing your prose and sifting through which brainstorm ideas you should keep or chuck. When you use both at once--like brainstorming and editing at the same time--the brain can't keep up with the switching back and forth. Your creativity can stall or your analysis can be way off. This is why many writers recommend turning off your "internal editor" when writing the first draft. Don't correct, don't second-guess that word, don't fiddle with that phrase, don't decide that action is too bland, don't stop and do


Sometimes called “off the nose” dialogue, subtexting is a character saying what he wants to say without actually saying it. It’s when characters talk about one thing, but they’re really talking about something beneath the surface—sometimes fencing with their words, or avoiding the subject while yet hitting it dead on. One of the most recent and more memorable instances of subtexting was a scene from near the end of the movie Serenity . (Don’t worry, I’ll try not to spoil anything, but if you haven’t seen Firefly and Serenity , go rent it now! Great instances of characterization and innovative dialogue.) Mal is talking to his first mate Zoe, and the actual dialogue is discussing the ship and how she’s taken a few knocks, but she’ll run true. In actuality, they’re discussing the hard knocks the crew has gone through in the movie, but that they’ll still fly true. Subtexting adds depth to your dialogue. Is there a scene where the characters are just explaining things to each other? Or may

Too many action beats

The writing book, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King (second edition), suggests eliminating dialogue tags in favor of action beats. For example, instead of he asked, she said, he demanded, replace the dialogue tags with action beats whenever possible. I've mentioned this before, but I thought I'd use a few more examples. Sometimes we writers go overboard on the action beats. For example: “How have you been?” He tucked in his tie. “Fine. How are you?” She fidgeted with her necklace. He sipped some water. “Work’s been busy.” “How’s the new manager doing?” She wet her lips and glanced around at the other diners in the restaurant. He looked up. His eyes pinned her to her seat, while his smile reminded her of Hannibal Lector. “He’s doing fine, just fine.” Only keep in the action beats that do something for the scene. If an action beat indicates emotion, or if you’re trying to convey a character’s personality in the beginning of the manuscript, then le

Interview on writer's voice

Kaye Dacus interviewed me about writer’s voice. The interview is below. You can also go to her blog for more answers on writer’s voice by Gail Martin and Shelley Bates . Kaye: How did you find your unique writing voice? Did you struggle to find it or did it come easily to you? Camy: Both, actually. When I first started writing, my voice was very muted because I didn't understand what a writer's voice was. Then I started to realize that each writer needs to let her natural "voice" come out in order to distinguish herself from every other writer out there. If you pick up an Amy Tan book, you can tell the writer's voice is very different from Helen Fielding's (Bridget Jones). You'd never mistake one for the other. I wanted my voice to be distinctive like that. Once I figured that out, I let go of all inhibitions and wrote exactly how I wanted to write, regardless of rules, etc. I fixed things up in revisions, but my voice was there on the page, uninhibited an

The Daphne writing contest

ATTENTION: UNPUBLISHED MYSTERY/SUSPENSE & ROMANTIC SUSPENSE AUTHORS The Kiss of Death Chapter's 2007 Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence in Mystery/Suspense is rapidly approaching, and although the body count is adding up, there's still room for yours! Look what New York Times bestselling author Allison Brennan has to say about the Daphne … "In 2003, I finaled in the Single Title Daphne and came in second. While I didn't sell that book, the editor and agent comments were invaluable in helping me figure out my writing strengths and weaknesses. As a result, the next year I found an agent and sold THE PREY to Ballantine." -- Allison Brennan, author of SPEAK NO EVIL, out now!!! So pull those manuscripts out of the crypt and send them post haste. Why? Because the deadline is March 15, 2007. What happens if you don't? It frightens us to say. The Daphne has enlisted the help of some acquiring editors and agents as final round judges who rarely judge contests.

Naming emotion

This is a trick I learned from both Colleen Coble and the book, Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias . Instead of naming an emotion, show the character under the strain of the emotion. Instead of writing, “Anger burned through her,” show the anger burning through her, without writing the word “anger.” A volcano exploded in the pit of her stomach, spewing gases up to sear her nose and make her eyes sting. She could barely breathe through her taut throat. Her hands shook with the strength it took to hold them back from slapping him. The strength of the imagery and the power of the emotional moment is heightened if you can show the emotion rather than naming it. When writing the rough draft, don’t think about stuff like naming the emotion or not. Just get the scene down. I even write notes to myself in brackets so that I can plow through without stopping to enhance my language or fix my typos. However, when you’re revising, go through each scene and look for places you might n

Use your nose

For every new scene, there’s typically some sort of description to ground the reader into the setting. Whether it’s a kitchen in a quaint farmhouse, or a Regency drawing room, or the wild Montana wilderness, or an urban police station. As writers, we strive for accuracy. Farmhouses typically don’t have crystal chandeliers, and Regency drawing rooms wouldn’t have a computer sitting on the Chippendale desk. But don’t just give your readers the visual descriptions—give them the experience of walking into the setting by stimulating their olfactory senses. In other words, smell. Our scent memory is incredibly powerful. We don’t necessarily remember the exact smell so much as we feel certain emotions triggered by a smell, or even the mention of a specific scent. Contrast a diner with the aroma of hamburgers and fries versus a Midwest farmhouse filled with the warm, spicy smell of Grandma’s apple pies in the oven. Or maybe walking into a New York high-rise office that reeks of the editor-in-

Revisions - Dialogue tags

The writing book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King (second edition) is one of the best books for bumping your writing up to the next level and making it look more professional. If you haven’t read this book yet, I strongly suggest you buy it or borrow it and read it right away. They suggest eliminating dialogue tags in favor of action beats. For example, instead of he asked, she said, he demanded, replace the dialogue tags with action beats whenever possible. The reason is that dialogue tags are often redundant. Many times, it’s already obvious who is speaking. The dialogue itself can sometimes indicate how the character is speaking, with what emotion. And dialogue tags are often accompanied with an –ly adverb, which can be “telling” the reader the emotion when you should “show” it instead. “Did you have to kill the postman?” he demanded angrily. Dave sailed into the kitchen. “How are you doing, Mary?” He stopped short. “I’m just waving around a bloody

The Christian Writers’ Market Guide

The Christian Writers’ Market Guide by Sally Stuart Camy here: This is one of the best resources for Christian writers who want more information about magazines, publishers, and agents. I personally used the magazine listing more than anything else, especially in trying to find markets to publish my short fiction stories. This is only a jumping-off point—it’s up to the writer to get sample copies of the magazine and figure out the style and tone of the articles for each publication. But writing articles is a terrific way to beef up your resume, even if you’re writing a novel at the same time. One thing I do caution is for writers to write what they delight in. If you don’t like writing articles or short stories, then don’t. But if you enjoy it, then go for it and beef up your resume. And above all, if you want to write that novel, you have to schedule time to work on it in addition to any other articles or stories you do. If your goal is to finish that book, then don’t give up too mu


After I was contracted, several people—including my senior editor and my agent—mentioned that one reason I was so "sellable" to the publishing committee was because I had a definite brand and niche in the marketplace. I know many authors hate to brand themselves or lock themselves into a certain genre or type of writing, but because it's becoming so difficult to get a contract these days, it's definitely something to think about. Several writers have been published in multiple genres quite successfully, but unfortunately, they are very few and far between. To maximize a writer's chances of presenting a manuscript that will be accepted to a pub board, they have to think about branding. The pub board doesn't care as much about the writing--after all, that's why the manuscript has gone through the editors, to ensure the writing is strong. The pub board cares about if they can sell this book to booksellers, if they can make any money off of the print runs. If

ACFW 2007 Genesis contest

I can’t believe I haven’t mentioned anything about the Genesis contest yet. Well, it’s finally here! The 2007 Genesis contest for unpublished writers, put on by American Christian Fiction Writers . The Genesis contest, formerly known as the Noble Theme contest, is becoming one of the largest Christian Fiction writing contests in the world. Yours truly is the contest coordinator (again) this year. Head on over to the Genesis page on the ACFW website for more information. Some highlights of the contest: --We have TEN CATEGORIES of Christian Fiction --You can enter as many entries as you like, in as many categories as you like (although you need to pay a separate entry fee for each entry) --It is all electronic this year, which means no postage, no printing, no copying, no self-addressed stamped envelope, no entries or scoresheets lost in the mail. All entries will be judged using Microsoft Word’s Track Changes feature. And if you don’t have Microsoft Word, no problem! We can return you

Likable characters

You don’t want your protagonist to be perfect—repeat after me, Perfect is boring —but you do need your protagonist to be likable. Think to yourself what makes your friends and family likable. What traits, actions, feelings, morals? What do you most admire in others? Give those characteristics to your protagonist. Look at other books, plays, and movies and take note at how the author makes the character likable (or fails to make the character likable). For example, in Jane Austen’s Emma , the heroine is mistaken in her observations and decided in her head-strong opinions, yet she is likable because she often shows genuine love for her silly friend Harriet, acknowledging how Harriet’s open and heart-felt manner makes her a better person than Emma herself. Emma is certainly not perfect—if she were, the story would be only a couple chapters long—but Austen makes her likable with actions and traits that make the reader respect and admire her. Make your own characters strong, flawed—and lika

Character descriptions

You don’t need a paragraph to describe your character, whether the Point of View character or any other character in the scene. A segment of descriptive narrative slows down the reading flow, and you want to keep your reader riveted to the page. Make character descriptions short, strong, and unique. Short—Again, you don’t need a paragraph. Start off with a short phrase or sentence at the beginning of the scene, and sneak in bits of description as the scene progresses. Strong—Use vivid and specific language. Don’t be wishy-washy and use words like nice car, lovely flower, short man. Instead, use richer language like firecracker-red Mazda RX-7, a crisply unfolding creamy orchid, a few inches above a fire hydrant. Unique—Avoid clichés. Period. Instead of dirty dishwater blonde, think up something more original and unusual, limp hair lying in strips like a paper mulberry tree. Read good writing to see good description at work.

Characters—cannibalize traits

First off, let me say that I personally don’t advocate basing characters off of people I know. Aside from the fear of being sued, it can be awkward if the person doesn’t like how you portray them, or if other people don’t like how you’ve portrayed them, or if other friends get their feelings hurt that you immortalized so-and-so in print but not them. However, each person has traits you can borrow, and you can create your characters out of a composite of these traits. My father-in-law’s tendency to always tell bad jokes made it into my heroine’s Uncle Howard. My dad’s favorite pastime, bowling, made it into my heroine’s father. I do my best not to base the majority of a character’s personality off of a single person. I’ll usually try to come up with something general such as a mythological archetype (see 45 Master Characters by Victoria Lynn Schmidt ) and then create a three-dimensional personality by adding a unique background and different traits. Even when using archetypes, no two c

Character contrast

Here’s another great quote from Dwight Swain on characterization: The key to effective character presentation is contrast. Think about it. If your heroine is just like a typical heroine in your genre, she’ll be boring and two-dimensional. If she’s just like a minor character in your story, she’ll again be boring and two-dimensional. Contrast your characters both against other books, and against other characters in your book. The first is harder, but I keep in mind Donald Maass’s advice to make your characters larger than life. Make them do things you wouldn’t do. Make them better than who you are, make them even better than your real-life heroes. I’m not saying to make them perfect, but to make them richer. The most memorable characters in fiction are those who are out of the common mold, with multiple facets and a dominant impression on the reader. Also make sure your characters aren’t too much like the other characters in the story. The most obvious method is to make sure their dial

Take care of your body

As a writer, you need to take care of your body. If you are in good health, your blood is feeding your brain so it buzzes faster and the writing comes easier. I know it’s hard when you’ve been chasing kids all day and/or working a full-time job, but a few minutes and a couple small changes can make all the difference between blazing creativity or writer’s block. Take a ten minute stretch or walking break every hour. This can not only help a bad back, it will get your heart pumping lightly to send more oxygen to your brain cells. Another option is to stand as you work, whether with your laptop on a shelf or elevating your monitor and keyboard so you can stand at your desk. Drink lots of water. Keep a water bottle by your writing area so you can remember to drink enough. If you’re hydrated properly, your brain works more efficiently and fuels your creativity. See? Just a few small changes can help your writing tenfold!

Character development and stress

Dwight Swain made a point in Techniques of the Selling Writer that is a truth which endures today. How do you shape development of your characters? Stress is the formative factor, the thing that makes or breaks a man. So, plunge your people into conflict. Let pressure strip away the gloss and reveal them as they really are. No matter how much writing styles have changed through the years, this still holds true for all characters. Conflict and stress is what reveals their personalities to your reader. A character who seems rather two-dimensional can often be fleshed out more by putting him in an extreme situation. What are your character’s hot buttons? What are his fears? What are his weaknesses? Slam him with one of them in a difficult scene. Readers tend to root for the underdog, so putting pressure on your character can add to her appeal. Pressure can reveal more about the character’s inner depths and motivations as the character reacts to the conflict, which helps the reader unders

Too many characters?

After I was contracted on my Asian chick lit novel, I had what’s called macro edits or developmental edits. And one of the biggest problems I had to address in my macro edits was TOO MANY CHARACTERS. Trying to be cute—well, as cute as I thought I was being, anyway—I had named practically every person my heroine interacted with, from the receptionist to the talent scout she had to call. I had a quandary, because while I could get away with writing, “Lex talked to the talent scout on the telephone” in a synopsis, it was hard to make her dialogue with Mr. Nameless Talent Scout in the actual manuscript. Lex dialed Talent Scout, who picked up on the third ring. “Hello?” “Hi, Talent Scout. My name is Lex Sakai, and I work for SPZ Sports Zone.” The problem with too many characters, however, is that if you drop names of people who are never heard from again, it can confuse the reader and make the story seem “crowded.” They’ll have a hard time remembering the names of the minor characters who a