Thursday, February 28, 2013

Keep Your Writing "Active" - PART I: Scene & Sequel

I'm only going to be able to touch on the basics of this topic. Trust me, there's a lot more to it (which is why you need to scoot out and buy Dwight V. Swain's Techniques of the Selling Writer forthwith). But I'm happy to answer questions at the end if anything is unclear.

Writer's talk about "scene" a lot. The pivotal scene. The opening scene. The climactic scene... but did you know that there are multiple kinds of scenes (on a technical level), and that they build on each other like bricks on a house?

Today when I use the word "scene", I don't necessarily mean the traditional definition:

"A division of a story, or of an act of a story, usually representing what passes between certain characters in one place."

When I use the word "scene" in this post, I'm talking about a traditional scene within which:

1. There is a stated goal.
2. A conflict or obstacle occurs.
3. Events take an unexpected turn, thwarting the original goal.

These three elements are the building blocks of your technical "scenes". Unless a scene includes these elements, it isn't a technical scene, it is sequel or transition.

("Say what?" You say?)

In the most basic sense, a novel is made up of ever-increasingly complicated, intertwining scene and sequels.

Scene is defined above. Every book should open with a scene which includes those elements.

Following a scene thusly defined, the reader requires Sequel:

1. Reaction to the events in the scene.
2. Consideration of a new course (mulling your options).
3. Decision / Determination of a new goal.

Do you see how this might become a cycle?

Here, let me show you:
Hopefully that demonstrates how scene and sequel work. I'm keeping it very simple, just so we can become familiar with the foundational structure. Obviously, the more skilled you become in using the structure, the more intrinsically you can combine them - giving one character a reaction, consideration and decision during the midst of a parallel goal, conflict, unexpected event. Or take one character through their conflict and event, while another reacts to the previous scene... and so on.

The important thing to note is: If your novel seems to be getting off track, or you're losing readers one hundred pages in, it may be because you've haven't been employing this structure.

Without them knowing it, this is the structure that draws a reader inexorably forward into your story. With the constant understanding of what the main characters are aiming for, the reader is able to gauge whether or not the story is going well. Because you keep introducing conflict, thwarting the goals, and changing them, tension builds. The reader starts to wonder, will the couple get together? Will the murderer catch his prey? Will the dictator kille everyone we're coming to care about?

 If you're receiving feedback that your pace is dragging, the reader isn't connecting with the characters, or the story feels aimless, try reading through your manuscript with this formula in mind. Identify the moments when your characters haven't stated their goals. Make sure every time something happens, the reader gets a chance to hear (or more importantly, see) how the character feels about it. Make sure your conflicts are organic, and throwing the main characters out of their chosen course.

Then start the whole process again.

Your Turn: Any questions? Do you understand why this structure will keep your story on point? Are you uncertain how to apply any of the elements?

Monday, February 25, 2013

A Writer's First Tool is Their Scalpel

I was delighted to discover a blogpost I wrote back in April of 2011. It's about the book that got me an agent. The one I pray will also get me an editor:

Too Close For Comfort – When Art Meets Life
(First posted April 2011)

Have you ever written fiction that is so close to your heart, so much a part of yourself, that it's actually painful to put into words?

In two years I've completed two manuscripts, worked significantly on three more and outlined a handful of others. I always feel for my characters and draw from my own experiences to determine the emotional tone of a scene, or a character's journey. But I'm usually one step removed - the outside observer. The big sister. The advisor. The friend.

Then earlier this week I got inspired and kicked off another manuscript which has me in its grip in a way that hasn't happened since the very first book I wrote.

But this time, it’s personal.

Every word rivets me. Every line is torn from somewhere deep. I feel this book in a way I've never experienced.

And yet, I recoil from it in the same breath. When I read through what I've written, I stare as if at the scene of a deadly car accident: Fascinated and revolted, face averted, but eyes locked on and unable to look away.

I am invigorated and drained. Excited and grieving. Obsessed, yet overcome with a desire to stick my head in the sand and Ostrich for all I'm worth.

This is amazing. And hard. I'm only 8,000 words in and haven't even touched the really hard scenes.

This is fiction!

I am, quite frankly, frightened of what's to come.

I'm still processing everything that's happened since the day I wrote those words. But one idea has stuck in my craw many, many times as I've struggled with addressing the emotional content of this book (for me): Getting real makes good fiction.

Two years later, I won't claim that every time I open this manuscript, it has the same effect. Now, instead of bleeding all over the page, it's more like pointing at hard, pink lines of scar tissue and saying "I earned that!"

I think writing what you know is less about academic expertise, and more about putting your heart on the page. In the immortal words of Walter Wellesley "Red" Smith when asked if writing a daily column was difficult:

"Why, no. You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed."

Is there a book in your head that you're scared to write? I'd encourage you to give it a shot. There's no doubt it's a hard, painful process. But, oh, so rewarding when it's done!

Your Turn: Have you ever written a book that made you "feel" on a personal level? How do you know which of your stories are worth the hard work?

Monday, February 18, 2013

Character Development Series: Putting It All Together

If you didn't catc the entire series, or you have questions about character development, then this is the post for you. At the bottom I'll be taking questions. And rest assured, if I can't answer them, I'll find someone who can!


We introduced the character development series last year with one of my posts for YAtopia. It offered some food for thought on "getting real", using your own experiences and observations of others as fuel for making characters realistic.

Question #1 asks you to consider what impression your character thinks they give to others on first meeting, or first appearance.

Question #2 asks you to identify what is the primary impression your character actually gives others on first meeting, or first appearance. (Important, because that must drive your character's first appearance on the page so the reader gains that impression). It includes a writing exercise to help you ensure you're achieving that.

Question #3 focuses on identifying your character's primary trait, and how that works in favor of (or against) their role in your story. This post also includes an organizational exercise to help you keep track of your character's roles, traits and how they can aid your plot.

Question #4 will help you add depth to your characters. It asks you to identify what feeling, trait or flaw your character works (consciously, or sub-consciously) to hide from others in their story.

Question #5 discusses "tagging" your characters - find descriptors, visual cues, or sensory experiences that identify that character for the reader, even if the character isn't speaking or being watched by someone else. There's an additional exercise at the bottom here, to help you keep track of the tags you settle on.

Question #6 asks how your characters see themselves as "lacking", and what do they do to overcompensate for it? This is a critical character definition, one that can both drive your plot, and offer real fodder for how your characters will act, especially when they're in conflict.

Then, finally, Question #7 asks what your character is aiming for -- in a given scene, in the story, in their life. Again, this question is critical for a writer's toolbox because the answer drives the character at all times - in backstory, in your book plot, and after the book is complete. If you're stuck because you can't figure out what direction your plot will take, or don't feel like your characters are coming "alive", this is the question you most need to address.

So, that's it!

Now's your chance (if you want it), to ask questions about developing characters, how that drives your plot, any of these questions or issues raised by them that you're unclear on, or anything else that's weighing on your mind. If you've got questions, ask them in the comments or email me. I'll answer brief questions in the comments, or write blogposts about the more complex ones.

Thanks for coming along for the ride!

Your Turn: Any questions?

Friday, February 15, 2013

Is Romance Critical? (Answer and Win a Critique!)

I've got to give a shout-out to my new friend Lauren Denton, who asked me this question outright, right after I started thinking about it myself. *High fives Lauren* Great minds, my friend. Great minds.

Today I'm on the hunt for information. Opinions. First Person Points of View, if you will.

You see, for the past few months I've been literally burying myself in the romance genre. Late last year life got really heavy. I needed an escape at night. And I found it in returning to an old favorite: Regency era romance novels.

Now, before you go all "What?!" on me, hear me out. There are some very talented writers out there who serve up book after delicious book in this genre. I've bought, borrowed or gleaned something in the vicinity of 50 of them in the last six months.

Just lately, rather than spending more money on books, I've been returning to some of my favorites and re-reading. One week I devoured three. And it got me thinking:

Why do these books appeal to me so much? Why is it that I can re-read them with anticipation, rather than a vague sense of disappointment? Why can't I get enough of these?

Some honest self-analysis revealed: I love romance. I've always loved it. I adore books that focus on it. And as a writer, the romantic elements of the plot are my favorite to write.

I looked at my bookshelf and realized the books I've bought and chosen to keep over the years are all books with at least a love-interest-that-might-become-more subplot. At the minimum. Most have a very strong romantic component, some following more than one couple.

For me as a reader, love makes the world go around.

But is that true for everyone?

Definitely not. Yet, many writers (including my friend, Lauren) have come up against advice from critiquers and professionals regarding strengthening romantic ties in their books, giving greater focus to their romantic subplots, and / or creating romance where, perhaps, it hadn't existed before.

So here, my friends, are my questions for today. Tell me truly, what do you think? And do your romantic tastes as a reader influence your romantic developments as a writer?

Below are four brief questions. If you choose to answer them, put your name and twitter handle or email in the comments below. At the end of the week I'll choose a random commenter to win a query or first five pages critique.

I promise to share the results. And I'm going to find out what The Industry thinks too...

Create your free online surveys with SurveyMonkey, the world's leading questionnaire tool.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013


If you're interested, head over to The Creative Juicer, where I'm answering questions about my books, my process, and the most important advice I ever received.

If you aren't interested in that, then enjoy this clip on the potential hazards of 
following instructions without asking questions:

Thursday, February 7, 2013

When Someone You Know Hits the Big Time

I had a really, really cool experience last year. Sometime in October (November?) I got an email from my agent telling me what she'd been up to on the quiet.

See, it turns out that she isn't just Agently Awesomeness, she's also Writerly Wow-ness. Brittany (under her pen-name, Cora Carmack) sold tens of thousands copies of her book LOSING IT in October / November 2012.

Yes, you read that right.

In fact, I could go so far as to say, tens of thousands of books in days. That, my friends, is a feat I'd give my left knee to duplicate.

She then went on to garner a huge, multi-book contract with HarperCollins (because they saw the Wow in her writerlyness and wanted a slice).

So, sometime in early November (I think), Brittany let me and her other clients in on the secret. But we had to keep it under wraps because at that point the world didn't know Brittany Howard was AKA
Cora Carmack.

Not being able to shout her success on my blog was frustrating. This is big news, people! But it also gave me a chance to analyze how I felt about an author I knew and loved achieving what I wanted to
achieve. (Note aforementioned willingness to sacrifice body-parts to the cause).

I'm going to be really honest here, because I think it's important to face this stuff from a place of truth, not pretense:

I love Brittany. I admire her. I'm cheering for her - and meaning it. And I'll do everything I can to support her career as a writer (as well as, hopefully, contribute to her career as an agent). But I'm not
above some petty, selfish jealousy. I'm capable of simultaneously being excited for someone, and wishing it was me:

"God, if my friends become best sellers, does that mean they took my spot?"

"God, are you teasing me? Is this my chance to be close enough to cheer for someone I love, but also find out exactly what I'm missing?"

"God, will it ever be my turn?"

Now, maybe you don't direct your Big Questions to the Big Guy, but I suspect I'm not the first person to feel this way. Sometimes when we've been writing, trying, editing, crying, working for years without achieving the end-goal, discouragement gets served up for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

But what I learned in the past couple months is, that moment where you start to wonder if you're chasing a pipe-dream you have only two options:

1. Decide that it will never happen for you, give up, and take up crocheting instead.

2. Decide that you won't give up. No matter what the odds, the potential end result is worth striving for.

I choose option two. Not because I'm awesome and untouched by the baser feelings. But because it's literally pointless to wallow in that kind of energy.

Only God knows if I'll ever reach my goal of becoming an NYT Bestseller. There's nothing I can do about the not knowing. All I can do is keep writing. Keep learning. Keep practising and improving.
Because, seriously, what do we gain by second-guessing, jealousy, or self-pity? I'm asking that question for real: What do we gain?

Answer: Nothing but pain.

I've decided I'd rather spend the next decade trying to reach my ultimate goal and failing, than giving up and always wondering what would have happened if I'd kept going.

This way, in ten years at least I'll know the answer to that question. And that's a good enough goal in itself. That's one I know I can attain.

As a point of interest, I talked to Brittany about this post before I put it up. She had this gem of wisdom for me:

"You never know which book will be the one. LOSING IT wasn't even in my normal genre. Just write. Write always. Write whatever captures your attention, and success will surprise you when you least expect it."

Though Brittany AKA Cora's rise was meteoric, this wasn't her first book. In fact, she started writing with the goal of publication in January 2008. She worked on four novels - some of them for years - before Losing It. She wrote Losing It in less than a month, solely for fun, without aiming for publication. It's outside her usual genre, and written under a pen name.

And it's a huge success.

Your Turn: What are your dreams? What are you reaching for that you'll never know until you try? And what goal can you set that is entirely in your control?

Monday, February 4, 2013

Character Development Series: Question #7 - What's Your Character Aiming For?

You may or may not have heard the quote: "Every character should want something - even if it's only a glass of water."

It's a piece of prime-rib writing advice and something you can self-edit your manuscript to reflect. But we'll get to that part later.

Question #7: What does your character want in this scene? In this story? In this life?

As you may have gathered, this question has three applications:

In each and every scene your character appears in, the reader should be aware of their goal. I think one of the primary problems with many novice manuscripts (including my own) is the tendency to get bogged down in plotting, and forget to tell the reader what the character wants. You see, when the reader knows what your protagonist / villain / hero / heroine wants, they're able to gauge whether the story is currently going well, or not.

Tension, for the reader, is based almost solely on their perception of whether the character's goals are under threat.

So, ask yourself (and your character) first, what do they want in this scene?

Whether it's to get rid of a headache, find a boyfriend, or save the world is irrelevant. They should step forward with a stated goal in mind. If the plot / villain thwarts that goal, then perfect! The events may turn the character towards a new goal - or make them even more determined to achieve the first one. Whichever it is, let the reader know.

Then, sometime in Act II of your novel, ask the character what do they want out of this story?

This is commonly referred to as the "story question", and usually applies only to the primary characters. It can't become apparent until the character understands what kind of bind they're really in. Each character will then have a story question.

In romance the story question is usually "will they or won't they get together?" In science fiction, it's often "Can they, or can't they achieve....?"

The best story questions put the main character's life, love or happiness under threat. But keep in mind, the story question is tangible. It's something the character must attain or achieve. In Techniques of the Selling Writer, Mr. Swain suggests that your story question must be specific enough that you could take a picture of your character answering it.

Will she get the guy?
Will she win the scholarship?
Will the murderer stalking her finally kill her?

Regardless, the story question should be a result of the final goal coming under threat. So ask your character, what do they want out of this life?

Is it freedom from pain? Eternal love? Physical, financial, or emotional security? To live without cancer? To die without regrets?

Determine what it is that your character really wants, at the bottom of their soul. Then make sure your story threatens that life, state or achievement.

Do you see how these all fit together?

If you want an exercise to help you process, consider this: Head up a page with each character's name, and answer the questions in reverse.

What does Ronnie want from life?

How does your story threaten that?

Ergo, what does Ronnie want from this story?

Once you've answered those questions, return to your manuscript and identify a scene Ronnie appears in. What is his goal in that scene? How does it take him a step closer (or further away) from the story question? And how does that bring him closer (or further away) from achieving what he wants from life?

(NOTE: Your protagonist and your villain should have conflicting goals. In order for one to win, the other must lose).

If you can identify what drives your characters forward on a daily basis, then tell the reader what's driving them towards that goal in each scene, you'll never be guilty of a novel that "drags". Your characters will always be moving forward, reassessing when they hit obstacles, then moving forward again.

Don't let them give up - then your reader won't give up on you.

Your Turn: Can you think of a book that really clearly expresses the goals of the characters, and how the good / bad conflict? Tell us about it!

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Backstory - Bane or Bounty?


It's all that information you know about your characters and the story that led up to the start of your book.

It's every emotion and motivation driving the characters into this plot.

It's all those interesting little tid-bits of history between characters / demons on their backs that make them real.

But it can also be a millstone around the neck of your novel.

See, backstory is important for you and the reader. But the reader doesn't care about the backstory until they care about your characters. If you try to give them too much early on, they get bored. If you don't give them enough, they get frustrated.

So how do you know when to include backstory? And how do you weave it in so it isn't an information that leaves your reader yawning and taking that trip to the bathroom?

Read the rest at YAtopia....