Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Setting - tone, mood, place - TIME

Eric Witchey, our October speaker, gave us some good information on how to use setting to evoke tone, mood, and place. I want to share with you how to use it to show the reader where in time they are.

For those of you who read my blog, you know I was a tidbit disgruntled over a submission I received at The Wild Rose Press. It was sent to the Cactus Rose line as a western, but there were so many things within the setting that were not easily discernable as to the time to tell if it really was a western.

So, I decided to show you how to make your setting show your place in time.

1) The dust circled, causing a small whirlwind of grit and dung to swirl about the carriage and enter the small confines. The male passengers raised lace handkerchiefs to their noses as the women fluttered fans.

2) The dust circled, causing a small whirlwind of grit and dung to swirl about the wooden, spoke wheels of the wagon. Horses nickered and tugged on the leather tethering them to the hitching post. A strong wind flapped the saloon doors as the clientele hunkered behind the bar and waited for the storm to hit.

3) The dust circled, causing a small whirlwind of dirt to swirl around him as he once again tried to start the automobile. His arm ached from wrenching on the crank. He wrapped the scarf around the lower half of his face and grasped the cold crank handle. Scrunching his face against the particles in the air and bracing for the strain, he gave the wretched piece of metal one more turn.

4) The dust circled, causing a small whirlwind of dirt to coat his newly waxed Ferrari. He punched a button, and the radio blasted to life warning all residents to head to the nearest emergency shelter.

Now, I know this seems simple enough. If you are writing about a certain time period it should come through in your writing. But what if:

The dust circled, causing a small whirlwind of grit to swirl about the wheels. Horses nickered and tugged on the rope tethering them to the post. A strong wind flapped the doors as the clientele hid inside.

Where in time and place does this put you? It's adding the little things and making sure they are right for your time and place that grounds the reader in your story.

So, can you guess the time periods of the four paragraphs above?

Monday, October 30, 2006

Writing Devices

No, I'm not talking about those nifty little Alpha-smarts or the invention of the laptop (although how people wrote BEFORE laptops were invented I'll never know. How they did it without the internet blows me away, too, but that's a whole other topic.)

I'm talking about those little mechanisms writers use to bleed out emotion in their stories, to draw you in, flip you over and -hopefully- keep you riveted to the edge of your seat. Things like prologues, epilogues and flashbacks.

Personally, I like prologues, but I know a lot of people who say they never read a prologue, that it's backstory and not relevant to the novel. My thought is, why would someone skip part of the story? Makes no sense to me. I devour books, page one to the end, prologue and all. Granted, I've read books where the prologue really wasn't that great, sometimes not even necessary, and I've read others where the book would have been a great let-down had the prologue been cut.

If you're going to write a prologue, here are a few things to keep in mind.

  1. Be sure the prologue sets the mood for your novel. You're setting up the book for your reader. Don't try to pull a one-eighty to hook them. If your book's a romantic comedy, make sure the prologue's funny. If it's a dark and gritty romantic suspense, there had better be something chilling in that prologue. One of my favorite prologues can be found in Allison Brennan's The Hunt. A woman is running through the Montana wilderness and the man who kidnapped her is hunting her down with a rifle. Yes, this is a dark and gritty RS, and it's set up right from page one of the prologue. Allison said she originally wrote that scene for herself as backstory to get to know her character, but once it was finished realized she had her prologue. Would the book have worked without that particular prologue? Maybe, but I don't think the threat would have been as immediate or as "real" to the reader.
  2. A prologue should take place before the story starts. Hence, the definition of a prologue. An event that happens an hour or immediately before chapter one isn't really a prologue - it's the beginning of your book. Short chapters are okay. If your book really starts in your prologue, then call it chapter one.
  3. Don't call your prologue Chapter One if it's really a prologue. Readers are smart, and this is a very irritating phenomenon writers seem to be using more and more because some judge on a contest circuit somewhere said prologues were a no-no. Call it what it is and move on. You aren't fooling anyone by being tricky with your headings.
  4. Keep your prologue short. The goal is to show a past event that has some major impact on your story now. Long, drawn out prologues defeat their purpose. Three to five pages is your best bet.
  5. A prologue should have a GOAL. Prologues are not fluff. As with all scenes, they should show something important - characterization, a pivotal turning point for a major character, motivation and/or conflict. If you take the prologue out of your book, the book should suffer. On the flip side, if you can take it out and it doesn't impact your story, then it's not needed in the first place.

Epilogues are another device writers tend to use to evoke emotion. Technically, an epilogue occurs after the story ends. They're often used in romances - particularly romantic suspense - to show the happily ever after moment after the harrowing climax. The hero and heroine kiss; a wedding's taking place; a baby arrives. Whatever your reason for including an epilogue, ask yourself if it's really necessary. I admit to liking prologues a lot, but epilogues usually leave me feeling blah. The story's over, and usually (as far as I'm concerned) the author could have wrapped it all up in the last chapter without the epilogue.

One area I find epilogues helpful though are in series. A lot of times an epilogue really is the hook that gets a reader to move into the second or third book in a series. For example, Cindy Gerard uses epilogues in her Bodyguard Series to get the reader interested in the next book. It's generally a family gathering where the reader sees that yes, the hero and heroine are living happily ever after, but there's always foreshadowing about the next sibling or the next story that will happen. In this case, I can usually stomach them because I'm already somewhat invested in the secondary characters that will become main characters in the next book.

And finally, the last writing device I want to talk about are flashbacks. I recently read an article by Tara K. Harper titled, Flashbacks - Absobloominlutely Not. The gist is that flashbacks are lazy, irritating writing devices new authors tend to use because they don't yet know how to successfully incorporate backstory into their novel. Stephen King calls them weak writing. Why? Because the idea tends to be that flashbacks are "cheating". That you should be able to convey the emotion and event through dialogue and backstory in order to keep the reader "in the moment". I tend to disagree. Granted, I don't want to see flashbacks in every book, but in some instances I think they work. They can also be needed.

JR Ward uses a couple of incredible flashbacks in Lover Awakened, the third book in her Black Dagger Brotherhood series (yes, this is the one Lisa conned me into reading). Could she have told the character-shaping event through dialogue and backstory? No. Not at all. The hero in this book was closed off both emotionally and physically from the people around him. He would have NEVER spilled his guts to anyone and talked about what had happened to him in his past. The only way the reader was going to understand why he was such an ass was through a flashback. And it worked. Now, you might be wondering, if it wasn't explained through dialogue, did the heroine ever learn the backstory? And the answer to that is, not completely. She learned snippets but not the entire thing. And that was okay, because she didn't need to know the details, but in order for the reader to connect with him, the rest of us did.

As with Prologues, there are a few things to keep in mind when writing flashbacks:

  1. Don't let anyone tell you you CAN'T use a flashback. Only you know your story. Only you know what works and what doesn't. As with all "rules", know when to break them when doing so makes your story better.
  2. If the flashback shows a crucial moment in the character's life and it's IMPERATIVE to the current story, use a flashback.
  3. If the flashback isn't relevant to the current story - no matter how much character it shows - don't include it.

So time to chat. How do you feel about prologues, epilogues and flashbacks? And what other writing devices do you like or dislike and why?

Friday, October 27, 2006

Slaying the Green-eyed Writing Monster

True Confession Time: Struggling with jealousy and negative emotions has been a big part of my writing journey. In the past, I have had hard time reading author websites. There's this cold lump that forms whenever I search for other authors in my genre or click on a contest winner. It's as if my pea-size brain assumes that success is a finite commodity and that if X author has it, I am that much less likely to get it myself. Or conversely, the dour pea-sized brain reads tales of failure as universal truth-X author's long road = doubly long road for me. I really don't like this part of myself, the part that measures and comparesn, and spends way more time speculating than actually writing.

Articles loudly proclaiming the coming apocalypse of the publishing industry and others which cite how very few writers actually manage to make a living writing and how that number is expected to drastically decrease in coming years don't help matters any. It's easy to let your insecurities run wild when naysayers lurk everywhere. Dire industry predictions only fuel the idea that success IS finite, making it that much harder to have true empathy for those who also travel this road.

But, from all my green-eyed browsing, I do know that I am not alone in the struggle to find true empathy. Many writers get trapped by their own fears and insecurities and have a hard time celebrating the successes of others. With the Golden Heart deadline approaching, I spent some time researching past winners in my genres, not sure whether to be elated or dismayed at each author's success or lack thereof. I realized that I was doing it again--looking for external clues for my own future instead of spending the time making it happen. Hard as it was, I made myself stop this destructive line of thinking and really think about what I was doing.

I think we all want that crystal ball: "In four manuscripts you will be published." "You will have a best seller by 45." "You will never publish. Give up now." With success so tenuous and uncertain, it's no surprise that we look to other writers for clues: this one had 10 manuscripts, that one finaled in three categories and still didn't sell, that one sold her first manuscript. But, really, I have to ask myself, what am I really looking to find?

When I let the emotions of jealousy wash over me, I realize that all I really find are my own insecurities as a writer reflected back to me. I could take solace in how many others share this road, but instead, I often allow my fears to isolate me. While improving craft is certainly vital, I think as writers we also have to recognize the need to develop and affirm our own self-esteem and self-worth as writers. In fact, if there is a commonality among all published author websites, it is that the author has developed enough faith in her abilities to stay the course, however long it may be, and have a strong enough sense of her own worth to allow herself true empathy for other writers. This what I aspire to. I want to feel truly happy for the success of others and uplifted by their journey. In recent months, I have made a conscious effort to choose empathy and connection over petty emotions and I already reaped rewards--my writing is more free, my characters are more empathetic and likeable, and most importantly, I feel a true sense of connection which inspires and enriches me.

Does the green eyed monster stand in your way? Did it in the past? Have you found ways to keep jealousy and other negative emotions out?

Thursday, October 26, 2006

So Why Do I Need a Website?

As a reader, I often visit authors' websites. Generally it's because I've read and really enjoyed one of her books, and now I'm looking for three things:

1. What else has she written?
2. When is her next book coming out?
3. What is she like as a person?

Book signings are less interesting to me, as not many authors make it to my little burg, but news and sightings are also fun.

What does that mean to you, the author? Your website is your opportunity to sell the reader on YOU. She's already liked one of your books, or heard good things about it, or she wouldn't be looking for your site. So your goals for your site may be the following:
  1. Help your reader to develop a connection with you by sharing information about yourself. This might include biography, family, favorite things, hobbies, photographs, funny stories about yourself, why you started writing -- whatever you feel comfortable sharing.
  2. Provide news. Touting an upcoming book or recent award is obvious, but if you don't have those, improvise! Describe a trip you've taken to an area that you've written about or plan to write about. Talk about research you've been doing for your next book, and maybe share interesting tidbits or anecdotes. This will heighten interest in the work that's coming. The news can take the form of a blog (more about this below).
  3. Provide information. As a reader, I really appreciate finding an easily printable backlist that I can take to the bookstore. You can also link your titles to Amazon or another bookseller. You'll get valuable information about which books people are choosing, and you provide an easy way for your readers to purchase the books. Other information to consider providing are articles for writers or readers, and links to resources related to writing or related to the subject matter of your books.
Your primary goal should be to offer something of value that will bring readers back. You want them to bookmark your site, subscribe to your blog feed or sign up for your newsletter. In addition to what we've mentioned above, consider incentives like a monthly drawing. If you don't have a published book to offer as a prize, how about a T-shirt or a fancy chocolate bar?

But I'm Not Published Yet!

What does all this mean for you if you are an aspiring author? When do you need a website, and why would you need one if you don't have books to sell?

First, you have to believe that you are going to be published, and act accordingly. Once you make that assumption, then it follows that you will need a website in the not too distant future. Now is the time to prepare to make that site a success.

If you have not done so already, register your domain name. Typically this will be the name under which your books are published, like noraroberts.com or jajance.com. If you use your real name and a pen name, register both names. It costs less than $10/year to hold a name, and every day more names become unavailable. Twice in the past year I have had to help a new client purchase her own domain name from someone who had gotten it first. In both cases, the price was over $300. Even if your name is unusual, there are vultures who look for names of aspiring authors or others who are likely to be wanting to register a name down the road. They will not hesitate to register it for you and then charge you an arm and a leg to get it from them.

There are many registrars who can register a name for you. You will typically need to create an account with them and then pay for the registration by credit card. Three that I have used and recommend are NameCheap, RegisterFly and GoDaddy. They all offer names for less than $9/year, have been in business for several years, and have good reputations. There are many other registrars who are equally good and reasonably priced; I would just look for a recommendation from someone who has used them. There is nothing wrong with using these "budget" registrars. Paying more money may get you some extra features (which you may or may not need), but will not get you a better or safer registration.

When you register your domain, make sure that you write down the name of the registrar, the address of their website (like www.godaddy.com), and the username and password for your domain account. Put this in a safe place. It can be difficult to get access to your domain if you lose this information. Make sure that you give the registrar a good email address for your annual renewal reminders. I also recommend writing a note in your calendar for 30 days before the domain expires, to make sure that you renew it. Expired domains become hot targets for hijacking -- you don't want your domain name to be turned into a redirect for gambling casinos or porn sites.

I Have a Domain, Now What?

You can "park" your domain with the registrar, but I strongly recommend building a simple website -- even if you have nothing to say! The reason is that Google, the most widely used search engine, considers longevity as part of its criteria for ranking a website. Newly built sites typically have zero rank with Google for the first six months, even if they are full of good information. It seems to take at least one to two years for Google to consider a site to be fully "mature." So start your site now to start the clock ticking, so that you have a chance for your site to be found when people start looking for you, or for books on the topics that you are writing about.

Here are three ways to create that website:
  1. Hire a webmaster. Okay, I'm a web developer by profession, so I'm partial to this option! But seriously, for a top-notch site you need to find someone who knows what they're doing. A professional will be able to understand and implement features that aren't available in do-it-yourself packages. The downside is cost. You need to budget at least $300-500 for a simple site, and the costs go up from there.
  2. Do it yourself, using FrontPage, Dreamweaver or one of the other site-builder programs. These programs can make attractive simple sites. Unfortunately, if you try to do "fancy" page layouts or scripts, you may find that the site that works great on your computer looks awful or doesn't work at all on someone else's computer. So if you use these programs, I recommend sticking with the clean and simple look, unless you can test the results on a variety of browsers and computer platforms.
  3. Do a blog. Google's Blogger offers the option to host your blog under your own domain name. So instead of "yourname.blogspot.com," your site appears on "www.yourname.com." This will install the content on your own website, thus starting the process of building a good search engine ranking.
If you work with a webmaster, they will probably recommend a hosting provider. For options 2 or 3, your simplest bet may be to host with your domain registrar. RegisterFly offers some nice free hosting included with registration. Alternatively, look at a modest priced hosting provider. I like 10for10, but it is beefier than most starting writers will need. The Open Directory Project has a category of free web space providers. Use at your own risk, though, and make sure you have a local copy of your site, as some free providers tend to have short lifespans.

There is a lot more that could be said, but we're out of space and time! If you have questions on this topic, post them as comments, and I'll answer as many as I can.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Tips on Handling Rejections

Let's face it: rejection hurts. While rejection letters are not meant to be personal, they certainly seem that way. No one wants to hear "your baby is ugly", but it sure feels like that's what an editor or agent is saying. And, all those "pep" talks about how many times someone was rejected before they were published, doesn't help either.

Here's a short list of ideas or ways to deal with rejection. Forget drowning your misery in chocolate or tears. Once that's done, it's time to get real with the problem.

1) If the letter is a flat, straight forward, "I can't get excited about the project" type-letter - move on to the next editor/agent.

2) If the letter offered reasons why they didn't like the manuscript, then take a long, hard look at the work and see if you can fix or strengthen that area. For instance, if the editor wrote: "I didn't like your heroine; too whiny." Then analyze your heroine closely. Is she a bit too whiny? complaining? Soft? Indecisive? Flighty? Weak? Where can you strengthen her?

3) If the editor says your writing is not strong enough, this means to pay closer attention to details. Are you careless with word choices? Are they strong enough? Exact? Historically incorrect or an anachronisim? Manuscript full of spelling or grammar mistakes? Awkward turns of phrase? Or clumsy dialogue?

4) If the editor's letter is vague or confusing, write or call her back. (You can do this!) Have her clarify what she means. What does she mean when she says the hero is "too transparent?" Or, "ambiguous?"

5) If you've been hammered with rejections on the same work, then let the work "go cold" for awhile. Set it aside for a month or two, then go back and re-read it. You'll be amazed at the number mistakes and problems you missed during your last edit.

6) Start a new work, or complete a manuscript you've been working on - get your mind active again with writing.

7) Give yourself permission to "quit" - temporarily. Re-think the work; is the editor/agent right? Does the manuscript need to go somewhere else? Different line or genre?

Dig deep. Hang on. Stay the course. Remember what Yoda said: "Do, or do not. There is no try."

Christine S

Curb your avoidance behavior

As writers, we are masters of avoidance behavior. I'd love to write a book and study what writer's use as tactics to avoid their work. But you know what? I'd probably avoid the project.

Over the weekend I hit a new low for avoidance behavior. I watched 10 episodes of a show that I figured I'd rather have my fingernails pulled out than watch. On the bright side I still managed to get some editing done.

I found some tips that I'm going to use to help me keep writing when the going gets tough, hopefully you'll get something out of it too.
  • Set a daily goal and reward yourself. I've talked to people who eat a piece of chocolate after meeting their goal or allow themselves to watch their favorite television show. The TV tactic is much easier if you have a digital video recorder (Tivo) because you can store it until you've met your goal. It's easy to say "oh well, the show's on in 10 minutes and I can't miss it!"
  • Pay yourself an hourly or per page wage. Then withhold activities like movies or that new sweater you're dying to buy until you can afford it with your "writing money."
  • Set a time for 15 minutes or 30 minutes and force yourself to write until the timer goes off. Then take a break and repeat.
  • Have a competition with your critique partners or friends. Keep track of daily page counts or hours and set up prizes for the winner.
  • Remove games from your computer (that includes solitare, Alice) and even the internet it that's a distraction for you. Or, a better option would be do your writing on an Alphasmart so the only option you have is to type.
  • Most of us are readers first, so don't let yourself start a new book or read a current one until you've met a writing goal.
  • Give yourself a day off so you have something to look forward to during the week. Days where you failed to produce anything don't count as days off.

I'm planning to use a couple of these tips to keep me moving. Do you have any tips to add?

Monday, October 23, 2006

Writer's Block

I think there are several degrees of writer's block. Some are minor, some are career threatening (!), many fall somewhere in between. This blog is not meant to be all inclusive, but hopefully offer hints for those times when panic hits and you can't seem to write. I'm going to corral a very complicated subject into three stages:

First is the block that happens when your writing is going along well until you write a scene and everything seems to fizzle apart. The scene is good, entertaining, etc., but heaven help you, what in the world comes next?

From experience, I have found there are two methods to cope with this.
1. Write the scene that comes after the one stumping you. I know many of you have heard this antidote, but I recall once needing to get a young boy off of a sailboat unseen. I just couldn't think of a clever way to do it. It stopped me for a year. That poor kid, alone on the boat, probably got hungry, but I just left him there. Nothing worked until I wrote the scene with him walking up the dock AFTER he found a way off. All of a sudden I understood that the method of disembarking wasn't that important to my story. In the end, the transition ended up being a couple of sentences.

2. Nowadays, this one happens to me several times during a book, and keep in mind, I write a pretty thorough synopsis before I ever start. I believe it also happens to Eli who is afraid of writing a synopsis, so there you go. Anyway, what I have discovered is that if I cannot think of what to do next it means I just did something wrong. I made a misstep, so to say, painted myself into a corner, sounded a wrong note. This is not always obvious. I'll take a day or so off and try to go back and it just cowers there like a bullied kid. Eventually, I'll figure out I let the tension drop and if I go back a ways and rev it up, presto, I'm off again.

If your book comes to a sudden halt, see if one of these things has happened. Don't leave your character adrift but don't make life too easy for him, either. And keep the tension high.

The second kind of block is a little more serious. You can't make yourself sit down. You can't concentrate, you can't believe in yourself, you can't write. The result is you spend less and less time at the keyboard, commit yourself to fewer hours, let story plots fade. Pretty soon, writing is not a passion, it's a hobby, something you toy with and think about with a sense of loss.

1. Perhaps you are letting what Barbara Samuels calls "The Girls in the Basement" get the better of you. These are evil creatures that I'm afraid we all host to some degree. They lurk in your subconscious. They feed on your fears. They remind you that your work isn't important, it isn't good enough, you'll never be famous, why do you knock your head against a wall? Someone was talking the other night about the spell check corrections that run automatically as you write, correcting things or flagging things as you go. I turn this feature off. Why? Because all those corrections are like yummy hot fudge sundaes to my particular "girls." They just gobble them up and in doing so, yank me right out of creating and force me to remember I am just putting words on a screen, not love or hate of fear. Just words. Misspelled words at that. "Hey, you crank, can't you even spell?" they scream. To hell with them. They don't DESERVE ice cream.

Being a perfectionist can also be an undoing. There's a reason writing a novel is an art and not just a craft. Art is not perfect. I would argue that the imperfections, in fact, make the art what it is.

2. Perhaps your problem is time. Woven into not having time is the concept that you deserve to have time. Yes, you have to feed the kids. But you can also take time for yourself. It's not selfish to feed your soul, to nurture your muse. If you make no money, if you never sell a blasted word, if you are a writer, you NEED to write. If you love someone, a child or a mate, do you not want for them a life with true meaning? Then want it for yourself. Do you realize how many people spend their lives wishing they could do what you CAN do if you allow yourself the opportunity?

End of pep talk.

The third and final writer's block is the one that cripples and maims. I speak from experience about this one for I have endured it twice. Number three blocks are to number one blocks block what a tsunami is to a rainy day in Oregon.

Let's face it. Life can be hard. You can get sick. Your children can suffer terrible heartache. Your parents can die, your demons can surface, you can go from a writer to a non-writer in a blink of an eye. Mine have both been precipitated by emotional upheavals which you can't completely avoid unless you spend your life in a coma which makes writing really hard anyway.

The first time, I went from finishing a book to full blown "I can't remember how to type," seemingly overnight. It was like being a musician and suddenly not knowing how to read music or hum a tune. It was devastating and it lasted months. Toward the end of it, I flew to Connecticut to take weekend training to teach writing as my career was OVER. When I got back, I sat down and wrote a book called THE BABY SEASON which marked a spurt of writing growth for me. I quit teaching after a month.

The second time it happened, it lasted even longer but wasn't quite as severe. I could hum a tune, I could even catch snippets of lyrics. Eventually, I could write the lyrics down but the writing was stilted, like newborn baby steps, cautious, ungainly. Two books came out of that block, MY SISTER, MYSELF and DUPLICATE DAUGHTER. It was the first time I signed a contract for two books at the same time, another growth in more ways than one as the books are different somehow, more complicated perhaps, at least to me.

It almost happened again this winter after I'd sent the last book off. Caused by illness this time, I just shut down. But this time, I didn't panic. Well, not much, anyway. This time I kind of knew it would come back if I was patient. And it did.

Three stages for something that really has a million, all as varied as the writers they have an effect on. My solemn wish is none of you ever experience any of them. But remember if you do, there are ways out 99% of the time. Be nice to yourself, ask other writers how they have coped, have faith in yourself, evict the naysayers that lurk in the deep dark dungeons of your psyche, eat chocolate…be happy.
NaNo Rebeling

A couple of Octobers ago, members of an internet RWA writing chapter I belonged to chattered excitedly (adjective) about the upcoming November, and writing a novel in a month. The idea intrigued me, but the timing didn't.

So a group of us rebelled.

In a good way.

We branched out from the RWA Chick Lit Writers of the World and formed another loop, our own Yahoo group. We called it Novel in a Month. (NoMo?) And we started our writing frenzy in mid-November, instead of November first, which fit our schedules better. We checked in daily, or nearly daily and shared our word count, our angst, our joys and over the two-year stretch, our life stories.

What started out as a one-month, cranking-out-the-copy fest, turned into true friendships. We hold each other up when life kicks at us. We empathize over a particularly (another adjective) hurtful rejection. And we continue to set goals and push each other with "wet cyber noodle lashes".

Whenever one of us sets a goal for personal reasons, or for an agent or editor, the others chime in with their own goals. Then we check in daily, weekly, whenever we can. When inevitable things slow us down -- difficult pregnancy, a new baby, a sick family member -- we use the loop as a sounding board, and take time off as needed.

For me, it's been (a to-be form of a verb -- shame on mel!) a lifesaver in keeping my writing going through all of the things that slowed me down this past year.

Some of you may enjoy forming your own spin-off group -- a goal-setting, friendship, support sort of writing loop. The only problem with that is, I'd want to be a part of your group too, and I'd spend my dab of writing time reading emails instead of writing....

So...Never mind.

Forget everything you just read, and carry on with the nation wide NaNo-ing. And good luck, I'll be rooting for you!

Friday, October 20, 2006

Show, Don't Tell Me Your Story!

We've all heard it before. Show, don't tell the story. But what does it mean?

Maybe this post will help clear this up a little.

When I first started working for The Wild Rose Press, I noticed that most newbie writers tell their stories. They proudly pound out 400 pages of what could ultimately be a great story, but then, it falls short because they've TOLD the reader what the character feels. They use too many emotional qualifiers and end up losing the reader's interest. Fast. What they should have done instead is let the reader develop their own feelings through the characters actions, and reactions, to the situations they're in throughout the story.

Now I have some good news, and some bad news.

The bad news is, no writer can force a reader to feel anything; but the good news is, a good writer can coax feelings out of a reader and the reader won't even know it's happened.

For example, if wrote that Marsha has to give a speech and she feels nervous and a little humiliated. Do you all of a sudden feel nervous humiliation too? I'm guessing, no. Unless you're one heckuva empathetic person.

As a reader, you want, and have, to experience actions and responses yourself, before you can understand what the character's feeling.

As an author, you need to go through your story and look at your character's emotions, watching for emotional qualifiers; if you've used them, it's a good chance you're "telling" the reader how to feel, rather than letting the reader develop their own feelings through the character's actions and reactions.

An emotional qualifier would be something like-- she was...happy, sad, overjoyed, devastated, angry, indifferent, tender, rough, etc.-- stop and ask yourself...Would it be better to replace the qualifier with a series of action-reaction events? I'm talking about physical motions that happen to the character that generate the condition for that emotion. You can't make the reader feel the emotion simply by giving a qualifier. Emotions demand context. Marsha's nervous humiliation won't be real unless the writer makes it real enough for the reader to get inside Marsha's skin.

For example:

Marsha Marshall's life sucked.

It wasn't her fault she was a genius. In fact, being a genius could be a real pain in the--

"Marsha, you're on in fifteen!" Ms. Perky, Richmond High's guidance councilor, bounced past in a flurry of organized panic.

"Yeah, um, I know. Thanks Ms. Perky," Marsha croaked past the lump in her throat. She'd only checked her Seiko a thousand and one times so far this evening. Yep, in fifteen short minutes she'd be standing behind the podium, in front of her entire graduating class, delivering the valedictory.

Being intelligent was a curse, no matter what her parents preached. Weren't your teen years supposed to be spent being somewhat reckless? Weren't you supposed to have some fun; you know, do stuff like hangout with friends, eat greasy food, be crazy in love with some immature guy who doesn't deserve you? Why couldn't she just be one of those kind of teens? You know, average. Normal. One nobody held to such a high standard. It's not like she'd wanted to be Valedictorian. It just sorta happened. There hadn't even been a close second when they chose the Salutatorian. Face it, she was the highest ranking nerd in the whole school. And it sucked.

Marsha sighed and flicked her wrist for the one-thousandth and second time.

Eight minutes. Great. She could feel the sweat as it collected and slicked under her armpits. Little pellets of perspiration slid down between the cleft of her size B's,--the only average thing about her--and rolled to a stop; each one soaking into the waistband of her granny briefs. Jeez, whatever. When this evening's torment was over she was going straight to Victoria's Secret and buying a decent pair of underwear. Something that didn't come up past her navel. She tugged at the sodden elastic, but it refused to budge.

Again, she gave the old Seiko a glance. Oh crap, three minutes. Too close. Too close. Too close.

Marsha's heart squeezed. The lifeblood shot out her aorta and tangled with the muscles along her spine tying them into a perfect knot. The blood continued its surge up through the veins in her neck. It poured into her eardrums and shut out all sound but the rapid tumult in her chest. Oh no. This couldn't truly be happening.

"Ugh," Marsha groaned. She wrapped her arms around her waist as her stomach roiled. Gas bubbles pinched her intestines then raced through to her bowels. Marsha's eyes widened as her colon constricted. Oh bejesus! She needed a bathroom. Now.

Do you have a little bit better understanding of why Marsha's feeling nervous and humiliated? Maybe not. It's like, 2:30 a.m. and I'm getting loopy. But my point is, watch your qualifiers.

Now, this is not to say that emotional qualifiers aren't necessary and should never be used. They just need to be used mindfully. Let your story create the setting; write so your readers become so deeply engrossed in the story that they express their own feelings and emotions. Then they'll be able to laugh, cry, sweat, and feel their blood boil, right along with the characters in your story. That's all we as readers want. To feel what they feel and experience all that they experience.

That's my story and I'm stickin to it.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Creating Sexual Tension

I would like to put a disclaimer on this: I am not an expert, this is just my take on how to do this.

I came up with this blog after attending a workshop at the Emerald City RWA conference. I went to a workshop which was called "Gimme and O or Not!" It went on to say "Learn to create sensuality in your story without delving into the technical aspects of lovemaking, by including the 5 senses in your writing."

Now to me, this meant I was going to learn how to intensify sexual tension. And I believe Terri Reed who was sitting next to me thought the same. :) Only we were both shocked and Terri turned red from the words that were flying about the room. The only part of the workshop that was the slightest bit interesting or on the subject was when the speaker asked the one male in the room how he would describe a woman's nipples. He said, "Sweet, ripe raspberries. Chocolate drops." He viewed a woman as a delectable dessert.

On to my thoughts on creating sexual tension - sexual tension isn't about the hero and heroine arguing or baiting one another. Sexual tension is the force that pulls their bodies and souls together as they battle against their logic.

Every scene between the hero and heroine should show their chemistry and reveal the battle within themselves to not become involved.

"Let me help you." Brock's hands touched hers as he took the saddle. Electricity shot up her arms from his touch. She stepped back as he placed the saddle on the rack. Had he felt the charge? He didn't appear to be as flustered as she felt.
Brock took a minute straightening the stirrups and cinches on the saddles before turning back to the woman. He didn't want her to see how her touch affected him. It had been a long time since a woman set off bolts of need through him. And the curvy, brunette who’d taken over his house did.

"I know," he mumbled.
"You know what?" she stepped close. He could smell her perfume and the scent of baby powder.
"I know I'm not around enough, but they also need fed and clothed and this god-forsaken land is what puts food on the table and clothes on their backs."
"But they need you, too." Her face softened. "Physical contact is something the body needs as well." She reached out rubbing his arm. "You're a wonderful father when you're with the children. And I've no doubt Maddie had a terrific time with you today."
Her touch frightened him. God help him. Between the zing of her touch and the passion in her words, his body overruled his good sense.
Grasping her shoulders, he pulled her to him and held her against his chest, breathing in the scent of her. It felt good to hold a woman again. Especially, one who'd just given him such high praise, even if it was after raking him up one side and down the other.
When she didn't pull from his embrace, he continued to hold her, forgetting all the reasons he'd built to stay away from a woman.
"Daddy! Carina! Are you coming in soon?" Maddie called from the house.

These are examples of sexual tension. They show the physical attraction and yet give insight into the struggle going on inside the character's head as well. The more you can show the attraction and the internal battle in the character the more you build the sexual tension and make their coming together all the more satisfactory for the reader and the characters.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

How To Be A Good Critique Partner And Why You Even Need One In The First Place

I was introduced to critique partners at my very first MWVRWA meeting. Before that, I didn't know much about the concept. At that meeting, Leah Vale, Terri Reed and Lissa Manley spoke about their critique partnership, how they worked, what they did, and why each felt the other was invaluable on their road to publication. I decided - then and there - I needed to find myself some CPs.

Finding critique partners, however, isn't as easy as it sounds. Especially if you're a new writer. Luckily, the internet is an invaluable tool for locating valuable assets like this. Most of the chapter/writing loops such as KOD and RWC advertise critique partner lists at least once a week. They can be hit or miss, but sometimes you find a real gem in the group you can work with.

I found my critique partners through the RWC crit loop. Members would send in chapters for anonymous critiques. I'd been reading a series of chapters by one woman and found myself sucked into the story. Her voice was similar to mine, and her style was easy to follow. So I emailed her, told her how much I loved her story, and asked if she was looking for a critique partner. Turns out she was, we hooked up and have been CPs ever since. Along the way we've added other people, dropped some when it didn't work out, but overall we've become good friends. We each have other CPs outside our group, and every person has their own unique strengths when it comes to critiquing.

So, why do you need a critique partner in the first place?

Easy. CPs will always catch things you'll miss, no matter how many times you may read through your manuscript. They have a different and fresh perspective. They'll tell you when the hero's acting out of character or when you've lapsed into a passive voice. One of my critique partners is an English teacher. She catches all the grammatical stuff I overlook (And thank goodness she knows the difference between lay and lie!). Another one is married to a firefighter. Whenever I have fire questions, she's the one I turn to. Critique partners want to help you, so they'll always be honest, even when you might not like what they have to say. In return, they expect you to be honest, too.

Below are things to keep in mind when choosing a critique partner:

1) Before going into any critiquing partnership, lay down the rules. Make sure each person understands how the process will work. Will you critique one or three chapters at a time? How soon do you expect turnaround? What kind of critique are you looking for - big picture stuff? Or grammatical corrections? Will they write in red all over your manuscript or use track changes in Word? Laying the foundation before you begin critiquing will make the process that much smoother.

2) Know your strengths and weaknesses. Be upfront about them. You don't have to critique in the same genre you write in, but be sure you explain your strengths and weaknesses before you begin. For example, I can read an historical and critique it for grammar, spelling, big picture stuff, characterization and plot. I cannot, however, critique an historical for factual information. I don't know it. Therefore, I would never make a comment on an historical reference or even pretend to know what is correct and what is not.

3) Send a sample chapter. This might sound like a no-brainer, but it's important. The first time you critique for a new partner, send a sample of your work. One chapter to see how they critique. If your chapter comes back slashed to hell and back and there's nothing in there you can take away from the experience, you'll learn they might not be the CP for you. In the same vein, reading a sample chapter of someone else's work will give you an example of their writing style - can you read their work objectively? Is it something you can critique? If you go into a partnership on a trial "first chapter sample" basis, you won't feel bad if it doesn't work out.

4) Be careful who you choose to work with. Try to choose "up" if you can. Working with CPs who are at or above your level will make your writing stronger. Working with CPs who are far beneath you will consume your time as you try to pull them up. If you are surrounded by newbie writers and you're a more experienced writer, you'll be spending too much time trying to teach them new concepts. Choose your CPs wisely. Keep in mind also that having one newbie writer in your group isn't necessarily a bad thing. People who teach tend to reinforce and remember the skills they're teaching, so taking someone under your wing can be beneficial for both the newbie and you.

5) And finally, find a beta reader. I know this doesn't have anything to do with "critique partners" but I'm adding it because I think it's an important part of getting feedback on your work. I have two beta readers I use - two non-writers who read my material after it's been through my critique partners and after I'm sure I've caught everything. Doesn't matter how many writers read it, a beta reader will ALWAYS find something they miss. They're not looking for POV changes and info dumps and -ly adverbs. They're reading for flow. For characterization. For plot. They will point out things all your writing partners miss.

Critique partners - to me - are invaluable. I appreciate having a fresh set of eyes read my work and give me honest feedback. I've also made some great friends through the process. If you don't have a critique partner yet, I urge you to find one.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

50,000 Words in Month????

I'm Bethany and I'm delighted to be a part of MWVRWA. I write contemporary romance and YA. I finished my first manuscript about a year and a half ago and I'm nearing the finish line on my second. One of the neatest parts of the writing journey is how it introduces you to other writers and the writing community. Last year, I undertook NaNoWriMo or National Novel Writing Month where you pledge to write 50,000 words in one month. I wrote about 30,000 words on my second manuscript during last November. I didn't make it to 50,000, but this year I'm re-evaluating what I want out of NaNoWriMo and re-committing to the process.

Why pledge to write 50,000 words in one month? The answer lies in knowing yourself as a writer. I write in fits and starts and starting is my greatest challenge. If I leave something too long, the procrastination devil takes over and I find it nearly impossible to get my momentum back. Committing to a month of intensive writing means little to no time off, and the procrastination devil doesn't have a chance to take hold.

Others may not have to battle quite so intensely with the procrastination devil, but may instead fight the battle of the dreaded white space daily. NaNoWriMo doesn't let you sit and stare into the white obilvion. Many writers find the process intensely freeing as they "just write" without limitations or restrictions, writing without editing or self-censoring. Many writers who consider themselves "pantsers" (otherwise known as those who hate to plot) love the process because it allows them to write in the most free-form method possible. (See No Plot, No Problem for more ideas) These writers accept the process and their end goal is simply to get words on paper during NaNoWriMo.

While I see the benefit in this free-flowing writing, I have come to accept that I am an absolute die-hard plotter. A year ago, I knew this, but I didn't embrace it fully and I think this contributed to my running out of steam. In Feb., I went to the story board retreat our chapter held, and discovered a new way to approach plotting thanks to Karen Duvall's great tutelage. (For more on this process, check out the workshops/materials by the Queens of Story Magic) For a plotter, the battle is waged in preparation. While the writing begins on November 1st, the plotting needs to begin far sooner.

My preparation thus far has consisted of first picking the idea I wanted to develop (I keep an idea file in my journals for future stories). Next, I brainstormed possible story arcs. Then, I "interviewed" my characters using a technique picked up at another RWA meeting. This allowed me to further flesh out my story arc notes. As part of the character interviews, I used the technique Karen taught us for fleshing out the hero and heroine's goals, character flaws, black moments, and barriers to a relationship. I used these charts to do the story board, using post-it notes for each POV. Now, what I am doing is transforming my story board, which is mass of sticky brain dumping into an easy to use outline. This way, on Nov. 1st, I can follow my outline and move quickly.

A big bonus to using an outline to achieve a set word count goal like NaNoWriMo is that you have writer's block insurance. You know what is coming next. You know your characters and can anticipate their reactions. Further, if a particular scene is bogging you down, you can simply skip further down your outline to a scene that speaks to you more, then return to the problem scene later.

Whether you are a plotter or a pantser, NaNoWriMo is uniquely suited to romance writers. Even if you sit down with nothing more than a single sentence in mind: Woman travels to Europe for first time and meets mysterious ex-pat or Victorian Duke finds himself in American frontier town, you know the driving force of your story: Two people fall in love and overcome an obstacle to achieve their happy ending. Knowing this major story arc, writers can use the NaNoWriMo process to get the main story down on paper, then spend the revision process adding in details, doing necessary research, layering in subplots. Knowing WHAT you are writing is a huge part of the battle to conquer all that white space, and if you know that you are writing a romance, you have already passed the first hurdle.

Now, who's up for the next hurdle? Who's willing to commit to NaNoWriMo? If you hate the idea of NaNoWriMo, why? Are you a plotter or a pantser?

Monday, October 16, 2006

Mid-Willamette Valley RWA

Mid-Willamette Valley RWA

Rewriting/Revision: A writer's best friend

This is my first blog, so bear with me! I don't know about you guys, but I have always had an easier time writing fiction than fact. In one critique group I belonged to a long time ago, a survey was distributed. It asked for answers to basic questions. We were attempting to figure out how each member felt about rules and such, in the hopes we could create a kind of "Bible" for our group (you do things like this when you get a particularly destructive member who creates a situation where you end up drawing straws to see who gets the unpleasant task of asking her to go away.)

Anyway, that survey was impossible for me. I hate answering questions. So I wrote a little seduction scene instead, using a young woman and an older man. He posed questions, she answered them. Suddenly, it was easy! It was dialogue. I could throw in little racy tidbits or whacky things like, "Now, cupcake, don't worry, sit on my lap and tell me how long you think a trial membership should last," or, "Oh, baby, please, you're squeezing me too tight. I can hardly breath…ooh, this is how I feel when a member of my group sabotages my work!"

The woman who correlated the surveys ran my silliness throughout the results. Of course, the rest of the information was so dry and boring, everyone just read the seduction story. What does this have to do with blogging? Nothing. This is free association. Now I'll get to the meat of the matter: rewriting.

All of us do it. From my experience, people tend to write in one of two ways. They either write without ever stopping, without ever going back or rewriting until the end when they go through it again, rewriting everything in one long sweep, perhaps several times.

The other way, my way, is to write and rewrite at the same time, either as something occurs to you or when you happen to see something you don't like or when forward progress is slowed because your little brain is trying to figure out a plot point, etc. For me, writing and rewriting are so closely related I can't separate one from another.

As I was rewriting the other day (I tend to interchange rewriting and revision), I tried to make mental notes of what kind of things I look for. When it comes to telling other writers what to do, I feel like a flopping fish, very uneasy and unsure of myself. So I'll just share what I do.

These things occur no matter if you rewrite all at once or piecemeal:

1. Weed out words (descriptions) that fight your meaning. For instance, a very weak old man would not have icy blue eyes. The images collide and confuse. A frightened child wouldn't skip along a sidewalk. Of course, sometimes you want jarring images. You might want the incongruity or be using those icy blue eyes as a hint that the old man isn't as feeble as he's pretending to be. Just make sure your decision is a conscious one.

2. Remove redundant clauses or sentences or paragraphs! I'm not as bad at this as I used to be, but I still do it. What do I mean? Let's see. You write, "Using the dark shade of the huge trees for cover, they skirted the clearing, getting back unnoticed." You don't need that last clause. (English alert! Is this a clause? Maybe it's a phrase. I'm not sure. Hope you get the meaning.) Some of this amounts to just cleaning things up, but look for ways to tighten, to eliminate unnecessary words that muddle things. I think we stick this stuff in an attempt to make sure we get our point across.

3. Tighten language. (Caveat: Try not to browse the thesaurus unless you know the word you want but can't think of it. Don't go word shopping, throwing in fancy words just because you can. They stand out.) Rework long convoluted sentences until they are as taut as a violin string. Up the wattage. Change "some bushes" to "a smattering of bushes." Change "moved across the floor" to "fidgeted his way across the floor" or "slunk across the floor." The verb will tell your reader about the floor crosser's personality, state of mind or character. Look for ways to make your choice of a particular word or phrase do double duty. For instance, if your heroine is an artist, she might see a cerulean sky. And remember the more specific your sentence, the better. "The boy pulled a wagon," isn't as good as "The boy pulled a red wagon," which gets beefed up more with "The boy pulled a beaten-up red wagon." Throw in a wobbling rear tire and you've hit nirvana!

Falling into this category as well is the weeding out of clichés. Also, look for clever metaphors, look for snappier descriptions, review all your words, always keeping an eye open for a better way to say what you want to say.

4. Make sure your POV is one hundred percent correct. As Elisabeth said last week, don't mix up your point of views until you know how. I have a friend who used to call it "talking heads." A reader should never have to consciously think about who is talking. It throws him/her right out of the book. Also look for instances when you are in one character's viewpoint but acknowledging another character's thoughts. You can't have the hero think, "She looks beautiful in that light," when you are in the heroine's viewpoint. She might notice the way he stared at her, the way his eyes searched her face, she might hope he thought she was beautiful, but we can't be in her head and his at the same time.

5. Dialogue. Stay true to your character. Don't have people saying words people never really say. Use dialogue to further the plot, to enrich the story, to offer insight. Make it strong. The dialogue of a character helps define that person, so keep it true. A strong character needs to talk strong. There's a lot of difference between, "Listen, Poletier, I've had enough of your equivocating," and "I think you're beating around the bush, Poletier. I need you to explain this to me. I'm depending on you." The first one, to me, is strong. Since I want my hero to be a no nonsense kind of guy, this works. The second one looses steam because it's too long. It also uses words like "think" and "need" and "depending". Hey, he's my hero! He doesn't need anybody but the heroine!

Warning: dialogue can get away from you. Those pesky characters can go off on a tangent, and damn, it's entertaining. Pretty soon, you're off on a wild romp. Trouble is, sometimes, it's the wrong romp. A conversation gone awry can throw a writer off. Take charge of your characters. You're bigger than they are. You know how to type. And you're real!

6. Take out as many qualifiers as you can! "He was almost sure she was pretty angry with him," goes to "Man, was she pissed." Or something. But every time you a word like almost and kind of, etc…it waters down your story.

7. Obviously, look for grammar, punctuation and spelling. Remember the computer won't tell you if you mean to type bass and instead typed ass but it will probably change your meaning and it certainly looks sloppy. You can only catch these things with your eye. That's part of rereading, rewriting. Also pay attention to that ugly list of words you aren't supposed to use and try to rephrase. I was so intimidated by the list that I decided to forget it so I can't tell you what it is. I can find out though if anyone wants it. Also, weed out passive voice, stuff like that. Good luck on that one, too. Grammar, not my friend!

8. Of course, the biggie is revising a plot. Taking out a character or story line and pulling the threads throughout your book. Sacrificing something you love because it doesn't belong. Eliminating an unnecessary character, adding a character, rewriting a new ending, a tighter beginning. Once I had an editor tell me she needed a mystery to fill a slot and the book of mine she had just bought would be perfect if I just killed someone. Okay. I had that one day to murder someone. That meant I had to create the victim, interact with him, murder him, lament his death, and find his killer all in a few hours and in as few pages as possible since the book was already long and the additional material would have to be faxed. This was pre internet everything. What a day! It was my eighth or ninth book, but it was the one that made me feel like a real writer! And it was a decent book!

I hope some of this was useful. I have a feeling I left out a lot of points. Anyway, every time I read a page in my WIP I change something. I tweak. Eventually, you have to let it go, but hopefully not until the words that tell your story are strong words, convincing words, words that say more than it appears. That's the goal and I imagine we all reach it on occasion and fall short on others. For me, rewriting is fine tuning. It provides the nuances that bring it to life. I hope you enjoy this process as much as I do.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Pitches aren't that scary, I promise

Last weekend at the Emerald City Writer's Conference I did my first agent and editor pitches, both were in the group format. Leading up to the conference I wasn't very nervous for a couple of reasons: 1) A lousy pitch isn't going to break my career and a good pitch probably won't make it; 2) I work in public relations and pitch media all the time so I should feel comfortable with it by now (I don't and probably never will, but I digress).

I also thought that getting my first choices were slim. My view of pitches were jaded after not even getting one this past RWA Nationals. But, after I checked into the hotel and got my registration packet I found that I had been given both of my top choices. And the nail biting began.

The agent is in my top three list of dream agents. Talk about pressure! I kept telling myself, it's just a pitch. No big deal. But we as humans have illogical reactions to things. My brain told me not to be nervous, but it did nothing to control the tremors in my hands.

The first workshop I went to was pitch practicing. That made me even more nervous, hearing some of the great pitches that other people had. Also hearing some of the things I should be prepared to answer made me squirm - I'm not an on-the-fly thinker. That's why I'm a writer - I can think, revise, edit.

After the pitch workshop was a workshop by the agent I was to pitch to, it was about tips for getting an agent. I hoped I would pick up some good tips on pitching to her for the next day's pitching. I got even more from that workshop. I got piece of mind and the ability to sleep well that night. She said that she hates the pitching process. We're writers, not TV producers. Our writing is what sells us, not our ability to make our 90,000 word novel sound like the best thing since sliced bread in under two paragraphs. Wow. Talk about a light bulb moment.

I'll be honest, I was still nervous but on a smaller scale. So I went in to pitch to the agent. I had practiced my two paragraph pitch, which I wrote using the format Diana Peterfreund suggests on the Romance Divas forums, under the AOTM thread. (check it out!) When we sat down she said she just wants two sentences from us and most likely she'll ask us all for three chapters anyway. So up from I knew I was going to succeed. I knew my length was right for single title, it's a fairly interesting concept and that she was accepting my genre. I was in the clear.

That pitch was 100% a piece of cake. I'm not lying to make you feel better, it was. Ask Paty, she saw me come out of there smiling like I just won a million dollars. I practically had, I conquered a fear of mine and was successful.

The next pitch to the editor went fine as well. I wasn't nervous at all.

So, to sum up my very long story. Don't be frightened of pitches. They aren't going to make or break you.

Here are also some good tips to make you look good in a group pitch session - don't be a pitch hog!
1) If they say pitch under two sentences, keep it under two sentences. They want to know you can follow directions.
2) If they open it up for questions, don't ask question after question after question. Let others ask questions too, after all it is a GROUP pitch.
3) Don't pitch a second book or find a way to talk about something that leads them to ask you about a second book. Once again, this is a GROUP pitch. Meant to be informative for the good of the group.
4) If reading your pitch off a notecard will keep you from rambling, then read off the card. Just look up to make occasional eye contact. I noticed that a lot of people rambled, but did very well when the read off a card.
5) Write down a couple of good questions ahead of time. Good questions impress agents, particularly if you ask about one of their clients or something they've done, it shows you've done research.

I've shared my pitching experience. Tell me about yours. The good, the bad, and the ugly.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Description - how to make the best better.

This past weekend I attended the Emerald City Conference in Bellevue, Washington. Author Megan Chance gave a workshop on utilizing description to set mood, tone, and strengthen character development.

To be truthful, I'm a reader who skips long paragraphs of description. I don't like leaving the forward motion of a story to read long diatribes of description. At Megan's workshop I learned how a writer can avoid those dull paragraphs and move the story forward.

When writing a descriptive narrative you need to stay in the point of view of the character who is experiencing the moment. This is called impressionistic or subjective Point of View. Using this method will capture the mood of the setting as well as the character's mood. It will also capture the reader.

With this kind of description you need to be vivid and pick meaningful words. It is an immediate experience. The character not only sees everything, but uses all the senses to draw the reader into the story and his/her feelings. When using your character's POV to write narrative you are making the scene so integral to the character you can't take it from one book and use it in another.

Use words and phrases that trap the reader and provoke emotion, saving the most important element for last in the paragraph.

Here's a decent descriptive paragraph.

Jack looked over the hood of his corvette and studied Elaine. Her long, brown hair hung to the middle of her back. The red suit she wore fit her body well and stopped just above her knees. Moving his gaze down her shapely legs, he caught sight of a shiny pair of red, high heels.

Okay, that was not a bad description. But what if:

Jack stood at the driver's side of his prized corvette and watched Elaine toss her wavy, auburn hair over her shoulder and turn. The soft curls clung to her back as she walked away. He missed the seductive scent of her spicy perfume, but the sway of her hips and the way the red suit hugged her curves conjured up steamy nights. His gaze drifted down the short skirt to shapely legs and red, stiletto heels. Sweat beaded his brow at the thought of Elaine in nothing but those heels.

Not only did I describe the woman, I interjected Jack's thoughts, giving the description more impact and letting the reader know how this woman is affecting this man.

When you are describing setting you still need to put in the character's thoughts, but you can set the tone and mood as well:

The water splashed against the windows as the wind battered the house. The women inside huddled under their sleeping bags, interjecting their worries each time a gust of wind buffeted the windows. The power went out sending the house in darkness.


The spray of waves rapped on the quivering windows. Nose and eye stinging smoke filled the room from the defunct fireplace no longer emitting heat or light. Power surged through the house spiking the hair on our arms before darkness shrouded the heaving house. Could the night get any worse? Wind blasted the glass wall as the phone rang shrilly. Becky navigated the furniture and sleeping bags to reach the phone. She jabbed at the buttons until an anxious male voice urged, "Get out of there, it's a monsoon."

Now, take one of your narrative paragraphs and beef it up. Did it help set the scene or delve into your character or setting more?

Sunday, October 08, 2006

The Things I Wish I'd Known When I First Started Writing

I wish I'd been one of those writers who knew everything when they first put fingers to keyboard and typed Chapter One of their debut novel. Unfortunately for me, writing has been a learning process. A loooooooong learning process.

It's not that way for everyone, and honestly, I didn't think it would be that way for me. I consider myself to be a smart, mature, educated woman. I have a bachelor's degree in science and a master's in education. I've always been a good writer and a voracious reader, and heck, I even taught junior high reading one term (when I was forced). So when I decided to sit down and write my very first book, I thought, no big deal. I can do this.

I had no idea how clueless I really was.

It took me almost four years to get to the point I am now where I finally feel like I have a handle on the craft aspect of writing, two years of searching to find an agent who loves my work, five manuscripts before I discovered my voice, and I-don't-know-how-long before I sell my first book. Most of you (hopefully) will "get there" in much less time than it's taken me. But if not, in case you're finding writing isn't quite as easy as you thought it would be, I'm going to share the things I wish I'd known before I ever started. If I had, maybe the learning curve wouldn't have been so long.

The Things I Wish I'd Known When I First Started Writing

1. Voice - Your voice is unique to YOUR writing. It's what makes your stories different from everyone elses. Don't fight your voice. Don't try to make it sound like Nora Roberts or Susan Elizabeth Phillips or Jennifer Crusie. Write with YOUR voice and don't be afraid of it.

2. POV - Write in one POV per scene until you get the hang of how it works. I didn't. For a long time. In fact, I fought this whole one-scene POV thing with tooth and nail (and fingernails and toenails and incisors...well, you get the picture). Other successful writers swap back and forth, so why can't I? One reason - they know what the hell they're doing, and when they switch, it's done for a very good reason. When I stopped swapping POV, my writing got better, my characters got deeper, my scenes flowed easier. When you've got it, when you know how to do it well, by all means, swap POV to your heart's content. Until then stick with one per scene.

3. Commas - Learn how to use a comma. Go to an online tutorial (like Using Commas by Purdue University's Online Writing Lab) and learn when to use one and when not to use one. Nothing slows down a read like a comma in the wrong spot or an author who doesn't have a clue how to use one.

4. Misplaced Modifiers - This one took me a long time to learn. Thankfully, my English teacher CP was patient with me. Misplaced modifiers are descriptive words or phrases that are placed far away from the word they're supposed to be modifying. Here's an example:

Misplaced: Walking through the park, the grass tickled my feet.
Sounds like the grass is walking. That's a misplaced modifier.

Correct: Walking through the park, I felt the grass tickle my feet.

5. Clauses - Starting too many sentences with clauses, especially in close proximity, overwhelms readers. It's one of the things I highlight most when I'm critiquing. Keep your sentence structures varied in length and style. Don't start them all the same.

6. Verb Tense - Watch carefully to make sure you aren't mixing verb tenses in the same sentence, especially -ing and -ed verbs.

7. Rules - Hang out on any of the loops and you'll quickly learn the rules to writing romance. I'm convinced they were started by a few contest judges who wanted people to write the way they did. Their responses spread like wildfire along the contest circuit until we reached the point we're at now where we all know what they are. (Things like - never use a prologue or an epilogue; stay in one POV; avoid the word was; never use -ly adverbs, etc.) I'm not telling you to ignore the rules. On the contrary, pay attention to them. Some are good and worth using. But by all means, don't follow them to the letter. Know when to break the rules to make your story stronger. And remember there's no one way to do something right. For every writer who followed the rules and sold, there's another who broke them and sold anyway.

And finally, the last thing I wish I'd known way back when...

8. Rejection - Rejection is a good thing. Yeah, it hurts. And yeah, it sucks, but it's a stepping stone to get you where you want to be. If you aren't subbing and consequently getting R's, then you aren't putting yourself out there. And if you aren't putting yourself out there, you'll never make a sale. Sometimes there's even good stuff in those rejection letters that helps you hone your craft. Be objective when reading those rejections, feel crappy for 24 hours - you're allowed (but no longer) - and then send out five more queries. Persistence pays off.

That's it. Eight things I wish I'd known four years ago. Anyone care to add to the list? What things do you wish you'd known when you first started?

Monday, October 02, 2006


The first post. Wow. I can't believe I get the honors.

(Okay, okay, okay. Since I created the blog, I appointed myself. But still, there's a thrill...)

Welcome to the Mid-Willamette Valley RWA blog! We're a group of writers from West-Central Oregon, full of interesting and enlightening facts and discussions about publishing and writing in today's market. You'll find a list of blog contributors to your left, along with links to each of their individual blogs. Be sure to scroll down and take a look at our members' recent releases as well. We have some great published authors who will be joining in to share their expertise, so stay tuned. And while you're here, be sure to leave us a message and join in on the conversations.

Our first discussion is coming soon, so be sure to tell your friends and visit us again.