Friday, September 30, 2005

Description/Setting--Part II

Happy Friday, BGs.

I have been traveling all day--going to the Zondervan novelists' retreat. Missed my connection in Chicago, got stuck there for hours. Now finally at the hotel, only to find they don't have wireless, so I'm in their business center, where there's only two computers, and I shouldn't take up one for long. So I'll have to keep this short for tonight, and we can pick up on this topic on Monday.

By the way, thanks to all of you who read my post over at the Charis Connection. Maybe they won't kick me off of there quite so soon with y'all's support. Part II is up today.

I'm going to deal with one of the scenes posted from yesterday. I sort of eenie, meenie, and got the middle one. My suggestions for this scene are merely those of cutting. Sometimes we can say just as much with fewer words. I'm going to do this pretty quickly, but off the top of my head, here are my suggestions. Please let me know what you think, and what suggestions you might have for the author. I'll run the original first, then my version with some tightening.
Michael hadn’t expected to see her tonight. In fact, he hadn’t planned on ever seeing her again. Yet there she was in a designer wedding gown, the sequins of her fitted bodice glistening in the moonlight. His heart began to race. Perspiration moistened his palms. She sauntered toward him, her layered silk dress blowing in the breeze. He wanted to turn and run, but his body froze in rebellion. Closing his eyes, he hoped she would disappear, that she was a figment of his imagination, the result of too many late nights. But when he opened them, Leila was still there standing before him like a dream ─ a bad dream.

The warm summer breeze swept through Central Park where nosy spectators gathered to watch the spectacle. Trying to calm his nerves, he inhaled through his nose and caught a whiff of Middle Eastern cuisine mixed with Leila's unmistakable scent. He shivered, remembering the last time he saw her. Michael looked up at the night sky. The full moon shone bright, unlike that night two years earlier. It had been cold and snowing. Michael’s face contorted as he played that evening over in his mind.

Leila came closer, moving back and forth with seductive grace. He zoomed the camera out and captured her entire body. The shutter snapped, echoing in his ears like a ticking time bomb. The entire crew at the photo shoot faded away. Leila puckered her lips as if her kiss was meant only for him. She lifted her dress and revealed the garter that hugged her thigh. He felt the passion stir, the appeal of her body awakening desires he had suppressed for almost two years.

The cabs of New York City’s crowded streets honked their horns with fervor as jaywalking pedestrians tried to cross over to the park. Michael shook his head and tried to rid himself of the memories. Rubbing his sweaty palms on his jeans, he fought to control his rising emotions. The hot and cold thoughts merged inside his head, swirling around raging like a tornado, silencing the noises of Manhattan’s nightlife. Michael felt himself losing control, her presence consuming all of his senses. He focused on her sapphire eyes, her golden hair slicked back off her narrow face accentuated her high cheekbones. There was no denying it, she was still ravishing.
Michael hadn’t expected to see her again. Yet there she was in a designer wedding gown, sequins on the fitted bodice glistening under the full moon. His heart picked up speed, perspiration moistening his palms. She sauntered toward the camera, her layered silk dress blowing in the breeze. He wanted to run, but his body froze. He closed his eyes, hoping she was a figment of his imagination, the result of too many late nights. But when he opened them, Leila stood before him like a bad dream.

The warm summer breeze swept around the spectators in Central Park. Michael caught a whiff of Middle Eastern cuisine mixed with Leila's unmistakable scent. He shivered, remembering the last time he'd seen her two years ago on that cold and snowy night.

Leila came closer, swaying with seductive grace. He zoomed the camera out and captured her entire body, the snap of the shutter like the tick of a time bomb. Leila puckered her lips at him and lifted her dress, revealing a thigh-hugging garter. Renewed passion surged within him.

Cabs honked at jaywalking pedestrians trying to cross to the park. Michael shook his head, trying to rid himself of his memories. Hot and cold thoughts raged like a tornado in his head, silencing the noises of Manhattan’s nightlife. Leila's presence consumed his senses. He focused on her sapphire eyes, her golden hair slicked back off the high-cheekboned face.
What I tried to do:

1. Cut extraneous stuff. I think we still have most of the information and feeling left. Some sentences simply weren't needed at all, such as the last sentence about Leila being ravishing. Obviously she's ravishing, so we don't have to be told that.

2. Fixed a few sentence rhythm issues.

3. Brought up to the top the fact that Michael is seeing Leila through a camera. I think we need to understand that up front.

This is a quick, once-through pass, BGs. What do you think? Gina, how about you, seein' as how it's your story?

Oh, btw, responses to two comments from yesterday.. Deb--don't you know I'm out to ruin the world for you? And Stuart--of course Paige gets in the hot tub.

Read Part 3

Thursday, September 29, 2005


Happy Thursday, BGs (that’s bloggees, or blog readers for you new folks out there). We had quite a few comments yesterday about how critique groups are working for y’all. Thanks to you who took the time to tell us your experiences.

Before I forget, have you been reading the Charis Connection blog? (Link over on the left.) I mentioned it a month or so ago when it was first launched. It’s a group of Christian fiction authors who take turns posting. Well, today and tomorrow-I’m up. We’ll see if I remain a member of that illustrious group after that. When I sent the two-part post into Angie Hunt, I told her this is what she gets for asking a murder and mayhem type to join the crowd. Your comments are welcome over there. Believe it or not, through my crazy story (which really did happen, by the way), I do have a point to make, although it’s below surface and takes both posts to put it all together.

Okay. Day before yesterday a number of you bewailed your setting/description problems. Here’s one BG’s comment: I have a really hard time establishing setting in my stories. I actually just avoid it because it feels so unnatural to me. I can't figure out how to integrate it into the story without pausing in the midst of everything else that's going on.

Yes, I do think the trick is not stopping the story for a bunch of narrative telling, especially if you’re writing suspense. So we’re left with weaving in description through the character’s eyes. This is why, during our discussion of backstory last week, I said that my definition of backstory includes anything that isn’t current action. (If you haven’t read those posts, you might want to do so in order to understand the context of that statement.) Too often, I see the story stopped for description. It’s like the author says, “Okay, wait a minute. Let me stop here and tell you that this story takes place around a lake, which is surrounded by forest, etc., etc. Now—back to story.” The author may begin describing the setting through the character’s eyes, but soon he/she slips into straight narrative telling—which stops the story. Therefore, many of the same kinds of points we discussed about backstory can apply to fitting in description of setting. My main suggestion for guidance is this: Weave in the description through the character’s eyes as motivation for that character’s next Action Objective. Remember we talked last week (in the backstory posts) about a character’s continually changing Action Objectives, which pull him through a scene as he deals with conflict that arises. How can your description of setting become a part of these motivation/action sequences?

I can show you my own struggles with this in the first chapter of Violet Dawn (which still needs to go through the rewriting process). I had a lot of things that needed to be established right up front, but I didn’t want to stop the story. I needed to characterize Paige enough—her aloneness; her sense of a big, bad world; her yearnings—so when she’s suddenly faced with doom on page two, her choices of action will be understood. I needed to establish the setting around a lake for this brand new series set in a fictional town. I tried to weave in bits of description through Paige’s eyes as she moves through her surroundings, and then use that description to elicit a reaction in her, which in turn will lead to action. Here’s how the chapter begins:

Paige Williams harbored a restless kinship with the living dead.

Sleep, that nurturing, blessed state of sub consciousness, eluded her again this night. Almost two a.m., and rather than slumbering bliss, old memories nibbled at her like ragged toothed wraiths.

With a defeated sigh, she rose from bed.

Wrapped in a large towel, she glided through the darkened house, bare feet faintly scuffing across worn wood floors. Out of her room and down a short hall, passing the second bedroom—barren and needing to be filled—and the one bathroom, into the small kitchen.
She unlocked the sliding glass door. Stepped outside onto the back deck. The grating rhythm of cicadas rose to greet her. Scents from the woods—an almost sweet earthiness—wafted on a slight breeze.

The dry Idaho air was still warm.

A large hot tub sunk into the left corner of the deck was her destination—a soothing womb of heat to coddle and comfort. There, looking out over the forested hills and Kanner Lake, Paige could feel sheltered from the world. No probing stares upon her, no cradle of lies. The closest neighbor on either side was a good quarter-mile away.

Captivated by the night, she padded first to the deck’s edge and gazed up at the heavens. A slivered moon hung askew, feeble and worn. Ice chip stars flung themselves in all directions. The Big Dipper tipped backwards, pouring over its ladle into Kanner Lake, which seemed almost brooding under the spangled sky. Across the sullen waters, a few downtown lights resolutely twinkled.

Intense yearning welled within Paige, rising so suddenly that she nearly staggered in its presence. She clutched the towel tighter around her body, swaddling herself. The universe was so vast, the world so small. A mere speck of dust, Earth churned in the spheres of infinity. Upon that speck, mothers and fathers, children and friends, laughed and cried and celebrated one another. No bigger than dust mites they were, compared to the vastness of space. Their lives, their loves—insignificant.

So why did she long to be one of them?

Oh, man. With my fresh eyes I’m already seeing things I want to change. Still, it’s one example of trying to weave description and setting into the action of the scene. If you were to print out that scene and highlight all the description, you’d see that you already know quite a few things about Paige and where she is. (At the same time, I’ve purposely raised questions in the reader’s mind—another use of backstory, as we discussed last week). From where we left off the scene, Paige stops herself from thinking too much—a bad thing for her—and turns away from gazing at the night. She now needs the comfort of the hot tub all the more. She slips into it . . . and the fun begins.

If one of you brave souls would like to post a short scene in which you’re having trouble with setting, we can take a look at it tomorrow.

Read Part 2

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Mascots and Critique Groups and Who Knows What Else

Well. You BGs put me to shame. You came up with so many ideas yesterday. Thank you, thank you for thinking when I couldn’t. Sometimes I just get brain dead.

First, we have a new acronym. High time, don’t you think? BGU. Bloggee University. Gotta love it. Of course our theme song is “Stayin’ Alive.” Goodness knows that’s hard to do when you’re a novelist. Especially at deadline time. They don’t put the “dead” in that word for nothin’. Our mascot? Somebody said , “Ooh, hope it’s not a spider.” Well, of course it’s a spider, what else? Anybody got a better, more fitting idea? After Violet Dawn comes out, our mascot could be a black mamba, but, hey, would that really make you feel any better?

With all the suggestions/questions to respond to, it’ll take awhile. Good thing. I don’t have to think of another topic for days. Yay! Today, I’m going to respond to some of the shorter issues. Then we’ll take one of the bigger ones and start tackling it tomorrow.

First, I want to respond briefly to LaShaunda’s question about revising a manuscript so it’s ready for submission. That is a little question with an absolutely huge answer. Revising means making it better. There could be a million and one ways to make a manuscript “better,” depending upon the weaknesses within it. LaShaunda, if you’re new to this blog, I suggest you go back to, oh, around June (after we ended our NES—Never Ending Saga) and read through the posts up until now. We’ve covered quite a few techniques that may help you. Also, in general, I always advise writers to submit to an agent first before sending to publishers—a good, solid, reputable agent with experience in the market. (Unless you’ve gotten the go-ahead from a publisher at a conference to submit your material.) The process for finding an agent is a good sounding board for the readiness of the manuscript. If the work is publishable, you’ll find an agent to represent it. If no agent takes it on, you know the manuscript needs more work, and meanwhile you haven’t shot through all the publishing houses you’d like to send it to.

Now, Lynette E., who ran into the editor at the airport—I have a word for you. Send in the manuscript. What do you want next, a bolt from heaven?

Suzan asked about critiquing groups. They can be wonderful and they can also be nightmares. People have had vastly different experiences. ACFW runs a great critique group program. If you’re a member of ACFW and wanting to get into a critique group, go for it. You’ll find encouragement and friendship there as well as help with your writing. When the group works right. If personalities don’t mix, or the critiquing you’re getting just doesn’t sit right with you, find a new group. I know quite a few BGs are in critique groups that have really meshed well.

A possible problem with a critique group is when everyone’s pretty much at the same level. How do you help each other improve in writing? Well, folks at the same level can still help each other. One person may have studied how to handle speaker attributes, for example. Another may have bought the CD for some workshop on backstory or tone or setting. One way a group can become more effective is to divvy up the learning. Have one person really study up on how to handle description, and have another study dialogue. Then report to each other during meetings and within the critiques. Also, in general, simply having a pair of fresh eyes read your work can really help. Others will see things in our work we can’t see, because we’re too close to it.

It’s sometimes good to have a mentor in the group—someone who’s published and way ahead of the others in the learning curve. The inherent problem there is that this person becomes the “last word,” and that shouldn’t be the case. Everyone—even a brand new writer—can come up with good suggestions for improvement. Think back to our editing of the AS (action scene). Many of you made suggestions for editing, and some of those were things I’d missed. Together, we all worked on that scene.

Another positive thing about a critique group is that it helps you develop that thick skin we authors must have. It’s hard hearing what’s wrong with our work. We just want people to read our stuff and love, love, love it! Learning how to listen to another’s opinion is a tough but good lesson. Trust me, you’ll be listening to lots of opinions as your book goes through the editing process at a publishing house.

Who out there is in a critique group? Is it working? Have you been in a past one that didn’t work? Do you have a way of dividing up assignments for learning particular techniques?

Check back tomorrow. We'll tackle description. Or maybe marketing. Or maybe one of the other ideas y'all threw my way.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

So What Now?

Well, we sure shot through subplots in a hurry. No follow-up questions or nothin’. Y’all are letting me get off easy. When has this BG group ever gone through a topic in one day?

Are you all out there a week post-conference brain dead? Or is it just me? Honestly, I can’t think of one fiction craft issue we haven’t yet covered. Done POV? Yeah. Story structure and plotting? Oh, yeah. Dialogue? Uh-huh. Complete with subtexting. Backstory? Yup. Chapter hooks? Twists? Yup, yup. Character emotion? Uh-huh, check our AS (action scene.) Sentence rhythm, tight writing, strong verbs—done them, too. What’s left for us? Is this blog hitting its natural end? Will the BGs go out dancin’ their Nights on Broadway, vowing they’ll be Stayin’ Alive?

Talk to me, BGs. I’m out of ideas.

Meanwhile, I will tell you what’s up with me. I’m supposed to be plotting book two in the Kanner Lake series. Yeah-supposed, as supposed to start last week. But I’ve had so much conference follow-up to do, plus various volunteer things, plus a bunch of marketing stuff. And Friday I was on a plane again--going up to Idaho for the weekend. (This, I will never complain about.) So, well, I ain’t started yet. But I will. Soon. Really.

Meanwhile my editors out there are reading Violet Dawn. I should be hearing back from them in about two weeks. Ye ol’ editorial letter. Which leads to ye ol’ rewrite. Sigh. I figure I’ll give that a couple weeks. Before then, I really should have a week’s worth of work done on book #2, which means I should start next week. But, hey, how do you start when you don’t know what you’re writing?

I have today and tomorrow to figure out something. Then Thursday I’m off traveling again—this time to the Zondervan novelists’ retreat in Michigan. Be back Sunday. At the retreat we have two days of meetings at the Z headquarters, learning what’s up with the fiction dept., marketing, etc. Hearing from folks in the industry regarding book sales and bookstores and general state of the market. Interesting stuff. Plus, we’re a bunch of crazy novelists, so naturally we’ll have fun. And we're wined and dined--very nicely, I might add--on Z's tab, so, hey, who can complain?

Next week I’m stuck back in my California office. Supposedly writing my new book. The plot I don’t know yet.

We covered plotting on this blog, right? Maybe I better go back and read the stuff. Maybe I’ll learn something about how to plot a book . . .

While I’m at Zondervan, I’ll be talking to the marketing guru about marketing for Web of Lies. Oh, yeah, BGs, that book’s a-comin’. (February pub.) There’s some ideas cooking about the WOL marketing. If we decide to carry through on these ideas, y’all will be the first to know.

My newsletter, Sneak Pique, will be released next week. If you’re an author and had a novel release in August or September, send me a paragraph blurb about it so it can be included. Actually, send it to my assistant at: If you’re not signed up to receive SP through email, you can sign up for it on my Web site. It’s an easy way to keep up with the new Christian novels, as I cover new releases in all genres. Also, my assistant informs me we still need an author question for the newsletter. If you want to ask a question about some Christian novelist—what’s his next series, what happened to so-and-so series that suddenly stopped, whatever—please email the question to me. I’ll contact the author to find the answer.

So there you have it. My news up to date. What shall we talk about tomorrow?

Monday, September 26, 2005


Happy Monday, BGs.

Before we get into subplots, I want to respond to numerous comments from Friday about writing supernatural thrillers for the Genesis Award, hoping for one of those five Warner Faith slots. I, too, think you should write what you feel impassioned to write, and not what you think a publishing house will want. You can’t always judge what a house wants by what it has published so far, anyway. As one BG mentioned, look at the new television season line-up. Supernatural stories are everywhere. It’s as hot now as forensics was a few years ago. A house that has published no supernatural thriller may want to do so, but simply hasn’t seen the caliber of manuscript yet in that category that’s gotten them really excited. So write a slam bang one and excite them with yours.

Okay, subplots. Do I use 'em? Yes. Pretty much in every book. I’ll just talk a little here about how I use them and why, and then y’all can ask questions as necessary.

1. My subplots grow naturally out of my characters’ (particularly the protagonist’s) personal lives. In my current Hidden Faces suspense series, Annie’s son, Stephen, has provided a subplot in all three books currently on the shelves. He’s been a rebellious kid, and falling more and more into drug use. I’ve used that as a continuing struggle in her life. I’ve also used a romantic subplot to a lesser degree. There was no romantic subplot in book 1, the beginnings of it in book 2, and a stronger one in book 3. Book 4 will continue the romantic subplot.

2. In suspense, subplots help ratchet up the tension and keep it there. I’m always looking for high tension, and this can’t be caused by a dead body showing up or some chase scene on every page. Most of the time the tension has to come from that corkscrew effect of things in the protagonist’s life turning tighter and tighter. A messed up kid, or some other relationship, a physical handicap or illness, a loss—any of these things can help make things difficult for the protagonist. With a good subplot going, you can let the main suspense plot rest for a minute and focus on the growing difficulties coming from these other issues in the character’s life.

3. In my opinion, a good subplot ends up dovetailing into the main plot. I’ve read books with personal issue subplots that never affect the main plot at all. It’s just this side thing going on in the character’s life. I come away from those books feeling as if the author couldn’t think of a main plot deep enough to fill the pages, so this subplot had to be tacked on. Just doesn’t set very well with me. I want to see the two plots coalesce. There’s a more subtle way to do that, and a more “gotcha” way, and well, you know me, I’m gunnin’ for the latter.

4. First, the more subtle way of bringing the two plots together. I’d call it the “Finite Energy” approach. As problems in a protagonist’s personal life weigh her down and sap her energy, she’s left with less vitality to fight in the main suspense plot. The added vulnerability and exhaustion can lead her to overlook an obvious clue, tempt her to just give up, and in general push her more to the brink. And of course in suspense, it’s all about torturing your protagonist. She’s got to end up at the brink, or the reader’s not likely to feel satisfied. (Suspense readers are a sadistic lot.)

5. The second way of bringing subplot and main plot together could be called “Converging Streams.” This is the approach I’ve used in all three Hidden Faces books with the son Stephen subplot. I’m not going to get real specific here, because I don’t want to give away any of the stories for those of you who haven’t yet read the books. (Notice the word yet, heh-heh.) Some general examples: In Brink of Death, (book 1), Annie makes a choice of where to go because of her son’s issues. That choice places her in a location in which she ends up doing something in regard to the main suspense plot. In Stain of Guilt (book 2), son Stephen’s choices directly affect what happens to his mother in the main plot. In Dead of Night (book 3), there is a real clashing of the main serial killer plot and the son’s subplot. If you’ve read Dead of Night, you’ll see how the foundation for that ultimate clashing is set up right away. The very short prologue deals with the serial killer main plot. Chapter one deals with the son’s subplot. Chapter two goes back to the main plot. I would not have appointed such an important chapter—chapter 1—to deal with a subplot without a strong reason. And, even as chapter 1 deals with the subplot, Annie’s reactions and choices are largely fueled by what’s going on in the main plot.

A character is the sum of his experiences, just as a real person is. So even as your character faces some major dangerous crisis in his life, all these surrounding, smaller things are still happening. He may be fighting with a roommate, he may be about to lose his job. The possibilities are endless. So really, a good subplot ends up helping to characterize your protagonist and create him into a more three-dimensional person.

You can also create subplots based on secondary characters. These, too, should end up affecting the protagonist and the main plot in some way. Otherwise it’s gonna feel tacked on. And those secondary characters might try to take over the show.

I’ve hardly said anything of rocket science level here. Are there particular problems anyone’s having with a subplot that you’d like to talk about? If so, you know what to do.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Backstory--Part II

I wanted to tie up some discussion about backstory, then next week we can move into subplots. First, however, for two days’ running I’ve forgotten to answer a BG’s question about the ACFW Genesis Award next year (formerly Noble Theme). Yes, Wayne, you are right—the top five scorers, regardless of category, will go to Pub Board at Warner Faith. Which means, first of all, that not all first place winners will go to Warner Faith, because the contest encompasses more than five categories. Second, it means that if one category scores lower than others, its first place winner might be beat out for Warner Faith by a second or even third place winner of another category.

If you think about it, this is exactly how the contest should be. It means that only the very best in the entire contest will be presented to Warner Faith. As far as placing first, second and third in a category, each writer will continue to compete only with other writers in that genre. These placements themselves are wonderful awards and are recognized in the industry. But to be sent to Warner Faith, each writer is competing with every other writer in the entire contest. Now that’s a challenge. One I hope every unpublished BG will take on.

Now—backstory. First, to put Bonnie at ease--no, prologues aren't necessarily backstory. They can be--and usually should be--as action oriented as chapter one. If you're starting with a prologue, that's obviously your opening scene, so it better be mighty compelling. Follow the Don't rule for backstory in a prologue the same as you'd follow it for the first chapter.

In his comments from yesterday, Stuart said he needs a fair amount in his opening scene in order to explain motivation for his (rather unique) character. Sounds like you’ve woven in backstory in the right way, Stuart. Certain stories do need more at the beginning than others. My Don’t rule isn’t to negate backstory totally. I’ve simply found it the best place to start. If you teach yourself to really dislike backstory, you’ll use it only when you absolutely have to. Under that scenario, you’ll be surprised how much you can cut out.

In the class I taught, I admitted my struggles with the first chapter of Violet Dawn. (Remember the opening line, which y’all critiqued months ago?) This scene required more backstory than usual, because, frankly, everything that happened to Paige before that first line could fill an entire book. And she’s very quickly going to be faced with dire circumstances, and in those circumstances will make some very bizarre choices. Only they’re not bizarre to her—in fact they’re her only choice. But a rational reader who knows nothing of Paige is gonna think she’s insane. So I had to spend some time building this motivation, which will not begin to pay off until the second chapter.

Yet because of my Don’t rule, I added every little piece with much kicking of cabinets. Had I not approached the challenge this way, I’d easily have had a page or two of complete story stoppage. No way can I afford that. So I wove what’s needed into Paige’s thoughts, using them partly to motivate her next action. But again, most of the motivation supports chapter two and beyond. At first I tried to move the backstory to chapter two for more immediate action payoff (and to get it off the opening scene), but I found that didn’t work at all. By then we’re deep into action, action, action. Paige doesn’t have time to be thinking all that much. Backstory there, even used correctly, slowed the story. Nope. It had to go into chapter one.

Even now, with all my work on that scene, I wish I needed less backstory. But I’m not sure I can get away with much less. However, the editors are now reading it, and maybe they’ll point out some things for me to change in my rewrite (which will hit next month, Lord help me).

In the end, because of my concern with that first page of chapter one, I decided to add a prologue. The prologue is very short—a scant printed page in a book. I discussed my reasons in class, and I don't have time to go into it fully here. In short, I wanted to immediately establish a dark tone to the story through characterization of the antagonist. I like this prologue and think I’ll keep it. We’ll see what the editors think.

I tell you all this to show you I struggle as much as anybody. In fact, I probably struggle a lot more than anyone who doesn’t use the Don’t rule, because writing too much backstory can be all too easy. For your own stories, therefore, the ultimate judging of success in your opening scene isn’t necessarily a complete lack of backstory. It’s—did I use the absolute least amount needed? And even then, remember—you may need less than you think. This is where the fresh eyes of a reader can be so helpful, because after working so long with a scene, you just can’t see its weaknesses any more.

Any more questions/comments, please leave 'em. I'll address them Monday and then most likely go right into subplots.

Happy weekend, BGs.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

A Bit on Backstory

Two questions from yesterday—from our two Ginas. Gina One asked about backstory. Well, hey, you get a post just for you. Gina Two asked if it’s okay to let editors know other editors are interested in the same story. Answer—yes. Nothing raises the attention of an editor quite like knowing someone else might beat them to the punch. Well, okay, maybe a few other things raise it more, but there’s still truth in that statement. Besides, if a manuscript is submitted to more than one editor at a time, it’s common etiquette to write “simultaneous submission” at the bottom of the cover letter.

So. A few highlights on backstory. I can’t go into this with the detail that I did in class. If you remain really interested in this topic, you should look into buying the CDs. I used examples from the work of those in the class, and examples always help to bring the point home. By the way, two things about these CDs. First, I receive no money for the sale of them. Proceeds go to the recording company. This is a good thing. I can urge people to buy the CDs without feeling self-serving. Second, in case you’re wondering about buying all four CDs of the class, the first day of instruction focused on character emotions. Jennifer gave us the purchase link in her comments:

1. I have kicked myself to a high standard regarding backstory in the first few chapters of my books. My rule is simple: Don’t. Granted, I do this because I write “seatbelt suspense,” and my readers expect a fast start. Other genres have a tendency to be more lenient with backstory. But I urged the class not to fall into that leniency. Writing backstory is just too easy. It allows us to write less than a really compelling opening scene. What if you held yourself to the Don’t rule? How would it change how you construct your first scene?

2. We make the mistake of looking at backstory only as a way to answer reader questions. That’s part of its function. But we should also use backstory to raise reader questions. Often, a good sentence of backstory will raise more questions than it answers.

3. To me, backstory is anything that isn’t current action. That’s a very strict definition. In this definition, even description can fall into backstory. Well, too often it does, because we stop the current story to describe. That’s very different from working description into current action.

So start with the Don’t rule. Hold to it. Add backstory kicking and screaming. It should be a last resort.

4. Backstory is necessary only when it is absolutely needed for the reader to understand the current action. Note the penultimate word: Current. The bit of backstory may well be needed somewhere, but it is needed here? Don’t be afraid to leave questions in the readers’ minds. Questions keep readers turning pages. Your goal shouldn’t be to answer questions right away. Rather, your goal should be to delay the answers as long as possible. I’ve often seen bits of backstory that answer questions better left hanging until the middle of the book. And even if you think the backstory is needed to explain current action, think again. We tend to think readers need more backstory than they do.

5. When backstory is necessary (and a certain amount of lines usually are), don’t stop the story to go into author narrative. Many times entire backstory paragraphs can be negated with one carefuly written sentence, or even phrase. Find a way to weave the brief backstory into the current action, either through conversation or thought. But be careful with the latter. I’ve seen plenty a transition into “thought” that quickly becomes a full paragraph or more of narrative backstory. Be careful weaving it into conversation, too. Would the characters really say that to each other? Or is the dialogue really the author speaking to the reader, filling in information? Readers pick up that kind of stilted dialog in a heartbeat.

6. Here's the key to weaving in backstory as thought in the right way: the thought should serve as motivation for the next character action. Those of you who have Getting Into Character may remember the chapter on "Action Objectives." These are the changing goals of a character as he moves through a scene. He starts with one Action Objective, which results in a certain action taken. Conflict arises, pushing him off the path to achieve that objective. Another objective arises to deal with conflict #1. Result--another action taken. Conflict #2 arises. A third objective arises to deal with conflict #2. Result--a third action taken. Etc. A good sentence of backstory provides motivation for the next Action Objective, which leads to the next action.

The Don’t rule is a hard standard to follow. ‘Course, you know me—I find everything about writing hard. But I think this one’s tough for everybody. It’s why so many people fail to handle backstory well. Far easier to fall into, “Wait, reader, I gotta tell you this and that, and the other. Okay, now we can return to the real story.”

When I employ backstory in an opening scene, I've done so very deliberately. Most of the time, it's to motivate current action. Once in a while it will have a less immediate payoff. In that case, it will serve as foreshadow, perhaps toward the ultimate twist in the book.

You may read these rules and wonder, “So how do I weave in bits of backstory the right way? And how much is right?” These questions can’t be answered without examples of the right and wrong way to do it. This is where the CDs would come in handy for you.

Questions? Bring 'em on. I know I've just skimmed the surface, and I fear I've confused more than enlightened. Those folks who asked for the subplot conversation—I haven’t forgotten you. We’ll get to 'em eventually.

Read Part 2

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Editor Follow-Up

Sorry for the late post. I usually post the night before to accommodate you early East Coast risers, but was apparently taking a nap. When I finally could post this in the morning, I see that crazy took everything I tried to do last night, which supposedly got lost in cyberspace, and posted it after all. Sheesh. I deleted all the wrong posts. However, I don't know if comments were left for any of them. If so, they're now gone. Sigh. Dontcha just luuuuv technology?

Added to our BG winners announced yesterday, congratulations also to Tamara Cooper, who won second place in the Noble Theme Contemporary Romance. Waytago, Tamara!

Okay. Based on comments from yesterday, we’ll tackle editor follow-up first, then go on to subplots. I have never taught on subplots, but I have written plenty of them. I have no idea how I do what I do with subplots. I suppose I’d better find out.

But for now—editors. You came away from an appointment high as a kite. The editor requested to see your work. May be a partial, may be a complete manuscript. You only had 15 minutes with the guy/gal, but something about your pitch worked.

Now what?

I doubt anything I say here will be rocket science. Just a few cautionary reminders.

1. Think of this primarily as a learning experience. It will teach you to write because you have to, not just because you want to. It will teach you to hone your skills, knowing an editor’s waiting to tear them apart. It will teach you not to obsess.

2. The editor will be inundated after the conference. He has to return to his regular duties, plus handle all the new manuscripts he’s just asked to see. So you really don’t have to send your stuff tomorrow. On the other hand . . .

3. As my agent Jane Jordan Browne used to say, “Jump when the fire’s hot.” An editor interested in a certain manuscript and genre now may not be as interested many months from now. That particular slot may be filled. The direction of the house might change. The editor might become an agent. Who knows? At any rate, this is not the time to dally with your writing.

4. How long do you need to get your manuscript in shape? Figure out what needs to be done, then estimate time needed. How much can you do each day? Set yourself a sensible daily goal. Fulfillment of daily goal will mean the manuscript is done on X date. Make that your firm deadline. Stick to it. Life will happen. Your brain will freeze. You’ll tell yourself you can never make this deadline. Welcome to the reality of writing fiction. Make it anyway.

5. Can you identify weaknesses in your manuscript? If so, seek teaching on those issues. Through this blog, through ACFW online course archives, through other writing blogs, through various conference CDs, you should be able to find teaching on just about any subject. Better to take this time and understand a technique than to start writing blindly. Oops. This will give you less time to make your set deadline. Does it need adjusting? Try to stick to it if possible. This will mean more daily work for you. Welcome to the reality of writing fiction.

6. Work hardest on your beginning. If you only pitched to the editor, she’s read nothing of the story yet. If your beginning’s not divine, you will lose her in the very first paragraph. Make her want to turn that page. This means no backstory at the beginning. Hear my words. No backstory. We talked about backstory in the ACFW conference professional class on the second day. I assume this would be the third tape of the class, and some of the fourth. You might want to buy them. I think the CDs are $6.95 apiece. I came away without my piece of paper for the company that did our tapings. Somebody please post the Web site for buying CDs. (The entire professional class includes four CDs.)

7. Details. Make sure you follow the house’s guidelines for manuscript set-up. This probably wasn’t discussed in your editor session, since there was so little time. Check these guidelines in Sally Stuart’s Christian Writers Market Guide, or check out the publishing house’s Web site. You never know the odd things they might want. I was surprised in my ACFW conference class to see manuscript excerpts with underlining instead of italics. I’ve never used underlining, and in fact had to ask, “What’s this all about?” But with this one publisher—that’s what they wanted. I never would have guessed.

8. Mark your submission, whether e-mailed or snail-mailed, with "Requested Material." A couple months from now the editor isn't going to immediately remember your name. You need to distinguish your package from all the other unsolicited stuff he/she is receiving. You might also add a dash and the name of the conference.

9. Remember this blog’s NES (Never-Ending Saga) about my journey to publication? You’re on your own journey. This may be a major step. It may turn out to be a small one, even a sidetrack. In the words of Karen Ball, “It’s all gooood.” God’s got His hands on you. Pray your way through writing each day. Pray for your craft, pray for your attitude, pray against the voices in your head that will tell you you’re not good enough. In the words of Nike, “Just do it.”

Are there particular questions on this issue? If so, fire away.

If you didn’t come away from an editor with a request—this is not the end of the world. God has other plans for you. Hold on to that promise. Keep writing and keep praying. I’m cheering you on.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Post Conference

Howdy, post conference! First, welcome to those new BGs we’ve picked up from the conference. (BGs = bloggees, or blog readers.)

It was so great to meet some of you face to face. I was happy to whip out my spider stickers and slap ‘em on your name badges. Thanks, Lynette, for that idea. You all were wonderful and supportive to me at a very busy time, and I’m so grateful for your encouragement. Thank you, thank you!

And again, to those of you who finished our BG story, the BGs at the conference send their kudos. Although I did hear a few, “He did WHAT to my character?” comments.

Someone asked about the legend of Pinky Palmer and now Bloody Bart. Which, by the way, I toted home in my suitcase. Bloody Bart, that is. Right on top. Just hoping that the powers that be at the airport would choose to search my bag. Imagine opening a suitcase to a red-tainted hand, with half a blood-stained arm. Heh-heh.

Pinky Palmer was a rubber hand I brought to the conference a few years ago as a joke to give Tracie Peterson, based on her strict writing rule about “floating body parts.” (A rule to which I do not adhere.) Somehow—and I can’t remember exactly how—after I gave her the hand, it started being mailed from one ACFWer to another. Remember, this was when the organization was waaaay smaller, and still called ACRW. As the lucky member would receive Pinky Palmer from a friend, the hand would arrive in a box complete with travelogues and pictures from all the places she had visited. The new recipient would take Pinky Palmer on whatever journey she desired, add her own notes and photos, and mail Missy P. on to someone else.

This worked great, as long as the organization was all about women. Then the men started to come along.

Enter Randy Ingermanson. Who received Missy P. Who proceeded therewith to shove poor Missy P. into a cabinet and promptly forget her. There she has languished for going on two years. No more adventures. No more thumbs-out hitchhiking. No more palm readings. No more finger-pointing. No more nailing bad guys.

And so, from the dark side, Bloody Bart was born.

He is everything Pinky Palmer is not. While Missy P. is gentle and fun, Mr. B. is gory and hell-bent. Where she is always ready to lend a hand, he is close-fisted. He has already visited a number of ACFW members, trailing damage and havoc.

A book came with Bloody Bart, depicting some of his adventures, many of which were captured in photos or in drawings. He and his book now reside in my house. He shall not stay here long. I fully intend to send him on his disastrous way. Woe be to any of you who ends up with this destructive digit-man.

The conference went very well. The ACFW conference is known for its hard learning, fun atmosphere, and worshipful attitude. Do make it a priority to come next year if you can. It will be held in Dallas for the next three years—a fairly central location to all American travelers.

I want to congratulate two BGs who were big winners at the conference. Lynette Sowell won the Noble Theme award in the sci-fi/fantasy category, and Camy Tang won the award in the suspense/mystery category. I know of these two because they tend to leave comments. If there are other BGs out there who finaled or won in the Noble Theme contest, please let us know.

Next year the Noble Theme award will have a new title and a new, very exciting finale. It will be called the Genesis Award. And it will be co-sponsored with Warner Faith Publishing. The top winners of the five categories will each have their manuscripts presented to the pub board (publication committee board) of Warner Faith for possible publication. These winners will thereby pass over the agent level, the acquisitions editor level—and go straight to the final cut of this top publishing house. This is a huge opportunity for all unpublished writers. I encourage every unpublished BG out there to start honing a manuscript now to enter into the contest. ACFW members only will be allowed to enter. So if you’re not yet a part of ACFW, get over to and join.

And now, BGs, here we are, post conference. New discussion topics are needed. Any particular issues you conference attendees discussed in workshops that you’d like to talk about here? Those who couldn’t attend—any ideas on your end?

Monday, September 19, 2005

Post Conference

BGs, I traveled home on Sunday and got in very late. I will post tomorrow and tell you some highlights of the conference.

Thanks to those of you who finished our BG Story. Your work was fab, indeed. Mighty creative. Grady, great ending. And that director thing was a great twist, too. What fun!

See ya tomorrow.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Negligee Nightmare

Hey, BGs, here’s a BG story for you from the conference. The author is in parentheses after the paragraph. Sometimes I’ve added editorial comments. These are in italics.

A shot rang out and the woman screamed. A bat landed in the woman’s hair. She was coming out of the hotel fire escape at 2 a.m., wearing a negligee and fluffy bunny slippers, clutching her computer. She couldn’t lose her manuscript in the fire. (All)

“Help, get this bat out of my hair!” Jackie frantically reached up to disentangle the bat. It nested deeper and deeper into her Texas-sized hair. She stumbled down the stairs. (Cara)

She realized she wasn’t alone. A deep, raspy voice screamed her name. (Elena)

Gripping her computer, she thought of the database for the corporation in her it. She regretted she had no back up! (Eileen)

Someone pushed her from behind into the railing. (Marjorie)

How rude. (Val)

(Someone please take care of the bat.) (Brandilyn)

The computer tumbled over the railing. (Evelyn)

(Stuart will now take care of the bat.) (Brandilyn)

Jackie’s foot slipped on the wet metal, and she tumbled after the computer. (Stuart)

She bolted upright and felt the virtual reality goggles tumble off her head. “Vigo!” she screamed. “I told you to take out the stupid bat!” With a huff she slapped the goggles back on. The bat dematerialized in her hair. (Stuart. Who else?)

She opened her eyes and found herself staring at a dashing young fireman. His was name Buff Ladderman. She whispered, “Where’s my computer” as she looked into his icy blue eyes. (Ron.)

He tipped his hat. Smooky suet covered his rugged cheeks. He paused, opened his mouth and said, “Time’s up.” The image of his face hazed and broke before her. It disappeared. (Dineen)

She took off the goggles, wondering where Buff went. What was wrong with the goggles? A bullet parted her hair. She ducked and grabbed her Glock out of the strap around her leg. (Pamela. Who else?)

She peered around the corner of the V,R, training room. A big, bulky man appeared. She slammed her left palm into his chin and gave him a roundhouse kick. She smashed the butt of the gun into his head. He collapsed on the floor. (Camy. She looks like such a nice girl.)

She ran up the stairs and out the exit. She searched her for car in the parking lot. She couldn’t find it. She spotted a Kawasaki 900 Ninja. She hotwired the motorcycle and took off from the Ferrari chasing her. (Bad guys travel in twos. This is an editorial comment. We will now find another bad guy.) (Val)

A flicker of light in the side mirror. It was blue. With two speeding tickets on her record, she didn’t know what would be worse—facing the bad guy or getting a ticket. (Linda)

Jackie’s tire hit a pothole. She slid across the pavement. The Ferrari screeched to a stop inches away from her. The gun skittered across the pavement. A guy in a tux stepped out of the passenger seat. He slowly straightened and stuck a cigar in his mouth. (Kelly)
BGs, the conference BGs invite you to add your own paragraph. Pick up the story from the commenter before you. Once this story is done, we will present to the editors here and see who would like to publish it.
Have fun.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

ACFW Conference--Day 1

Well, I'm here in a nice big hotel lounge, doing my best to post this here blog. Mighta done it two hours ago, too, except for many BG interruptions. Well, to tell the truth, I probably interrupted them. Normal people just trying to have a conversation, and I come along and greet everybody, and next thing you know the mood's kind of . . . changed. A little louder. A lot crazier.

One of these days they're going to kick me off the board of this organization.

I am now sitting in a corner of the lounge Wed. night (only place where you can get wireless), trying my best to look erudite and studious. No doubt failing miserably.

Looks like we BGs will be able to just meet here in the lobby Thurs. night during the late night chats. There are plenty places to sit and draw up chairs.

I am pretty tired and headed to bed. By the time y'all BGs read this Thursday morning, I'll be in board meetings.

So please forgive the quick post. Check back tomorrow--perhaps a few BGs and I can write the blog together. That oughtta be interesting.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Conferencing--Now or Later

Howdy, BGs. A quick post before I hit bed, only to rise all too early tomorrow (that is Wednesday, as you're reading this) to catch a flight to Nashville. (I must go a day early in order to be there for board meetings starting Thursday morning.)

Some of you will be at the conference. Others won't--but plan on going to a conference at some other time. Here are a few thoughts about conference life:

1. The conference is about you. If you're a regular paying conference attendee, you're the person the conference is geared for. You are the important one. Not the teachers, nor the editors or agents.

2. The editors and agents do not walk on water. They are people just like you. No need to be intimidated or in awe. They wake up every morning and ask God to please help them through their day's work, which mostly likely is overwhelming and often more than they can handle. Therefore . . .

3. You really don't need to be scared as you meet with an editor/agent. Your meeting will not make or break your career. Yes, we'd all love to have that meeting where the editor falls at our feet and demands 5 of our manuscripts. Or at least have the editor say he/she wants to see your manuscript. If this happens, be no more than cautiously excited. You've managed only step one of a very long process toward getting a contract. If the editor isn't interested in your stuff, this should not be the end of the conference for you. There are plenty of other important things to get from a conference. Such as . . .

4. Make friends with published authors. These folks are your future network. They can give you pointers on your writing and introduce you to people (including editors and agents). Hanging out with the authors can be as important as hanging out with the editors.

5. DON'T be defensive about your writing. If you meet with an editor/agent and that person tells you he/she can't take your manuscript, and points out a few writing reasons why--listen.

6. Take time to pray each day and keep focused. God's got your career in His hands. Do you trust Him with it or not? If you trust Him with it--what's there to be anxious about?

7. Leave room in your suitcase to take home books. Most authors at conferences discount their books. (My personal policy is to make no money on my books, but sell them at my cost. I even lug the things in a suitcase rather than ship them, just to keep the cost down.) A conference is a great place to not only save money on a book, but get one signed as a Christmas present for Aunt Maddie, or a Father's Day gift for Dad. Not to mention a gift for your spouse. If you think ahead regarding gifts you'll have to buy anyway, you could save some money in the gift-giving process. Or you might have a friend who'd love to have a signed book from so-and-so author, and give you the money to pay for it.

8. The conference is not about you. This is not antithetical to #1. It's a way to help you survive any stress you might have. Look--if you're worried about meeting with an editor, so is someone else. If you feel out of place--so does someone else. If you feel too fat, too tall, too short, too skinny, too anything--so do a lot of other people. If you're hurting over personal issues, so are many other people. Pay attention to others. What can you do for that person who looks a little lost? Who can you reach out to?

Perhaps you've noticed a common thread among these points. They're all directed at helping you keep calm, avoid the jitters, and keep things in perspective.

Blessings, BGs. I'll post tomorrow from Nashville.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

More Questions and Stuff

Dear BGs, I am getting crunched with conference preparation, so this post will be shorter than usual. First—saying again for all of you attending the ACFW conference: We’ll be having a BG hangout/shindig/whatever-you-wanna-call-it on Thursday night during the late night chats. If you want to attend one of the chats that first night—guess what—they’re being TAPED. You can buy a CD of a chat, but you sure cain’t buy a CD of our BG hangout, so hey, I don’t see a decision-making problem here. :) Don’t know where we’ll be hanging out. I will make the announcement during Thursday dinner, once I scope out the hotel. We shall have to do our best to behave. We don't want to be thrown out upon the streets of Nashville that very first night.

Second conference attendee reminder: When you first see me at the conference, flash me those spider-skitter/hand-typing fingers. I’ll flash one right back atcha.

Grady, yesterday you were truly a conjugation conflagration sensation. Waytago, man. Ya made us proud.

A couple of other topic ideas from Friday centered around creating character emotion. Creating emotion is a huge topic. And a never-ending pursuit for novelists. However, we did cover some techniques for showing emotion in our AS (action scene). Please look back through the archives in June and July for those posts.

Lynette posted a question about keeping the gender of the bad guy a secret, even while we’re in his third person POV. Here was the excerpt she posted:
"What do you mean she's gone?" Anger coiled, sharp and biting until it permeated the room.
The hand that gripped the phone squeezed tighter as though to resist reaching through the line to curl around the neck of the man who had the audacity to announce the escape of Cassidy McKnight.

"Find her. And make sure she's dead. Don't call back until you've succeeded."

The glove encased hand set the phone down with precise movements. Anger boiled and raged on the inside, but anyone looking at the carefully composed fa├žade would never know of the seething cauldron buried deep within.

A secure future stood within grasping distance. Wealth and power loomed on the horizon. And Cassidy McKnight stood between it all. If the idiot on the phone couldn't take care of the situation in a timely manner, a trip to Brazil might be the only way to get rid of the problem.
Lynette, I think you’ve done a good job in hiding the POV in third person. It’s a difficult task. But the inevitable outcome of doing your job well will be a rather stilted form of writing, as you have here. And it has a distant, almost omniscient feel to it. We’re not really in the character’s head. We’re a camera sitting outside the person, watching the hand gripping the phone, etc. Sandwiched between other scenes of regular third person POV, these scenes will stand out as very different. And here’s the rub--their very difference might serve as a giveaway as to what you’re trying to hide, because it’s obvious you’re going to such lengths not to use a pronoun. You’ll really need to build the reader’s assumption that it’s the other gender very high. High enough that the reader won’t notice the vast difference in feel of writing. Also, I'd make the bad guy sound stilted even when he talks. Right now he’s talking rather normally, but thinking/describing in a very different narrative voice. If you have him sounding stilted all the time, that will come across more as his character than as a necessary writing technique.

We had a couple other commenters give their opinions about how to handle this challenge. I salute you, Lynette, for taking on something so difficult.

Another question from Friday: According to the Hero's Journey, the protag is supposed to start out in his/her natural world. Shouldn't I then open my story with a few paragraphs about the natural world before jumping right into the inciting incident?

Yes, we need to show the protagonist in his real world. But this can take very few words. In fact, you can be showing the character’s real world through little bits of info woven right into immediate action. An example from my own work would be the opening to Brink of Death. The action/threat is immediate, yet you get a picture of the twelve-year-old in her real world. If I opened the book by telling the reader two or three paragraphs of backstory featuring the real world of Erin and her happy home, it would be boring. Notice the little bits of information about Erin’s world as a younger child, and now as a preadolescent, woven into the opening lines of the story:

The noises, faint, fleeting, whispered into her consciousness like wraiths in the night.

Twelve-year-old Erin Willit opened her eyes to darkness lit only by the green night-light near her closet door, and the faint glow of a streetlamp through her bedroom window. She felt her forehead wrinkle, the fingers of one hand curl, as she tried to discern what had awakened her.

Something was not right.

An oak tree lifted gnarled branches between the street-lamp and her window, its leaves casting eerie spider-shadows across the far wall. When she was younger, Erin had asked that a small lamp on the desk by that wall be left on at night. Anything to dispel the jerking dance of those leaves. Lately she'd watched the dark tremble across the posters of pop stars on her wall with no fear at all.

But not tonight. On this night the shadows writhed and twitched.
Another thing to note. It’s a little different showing the protagonist’s real world in a screenplay than in a novel. People are more willing for a movie to start a little bit slower. They’ve gone to the theater (or rented the movie at Blockbuster), paid their money, and are now seated to watch it. After all that trouble, they’re not going to walk out of the theater after two minutes. Not so with a browser in a store, picking up a book and reading the opening paragraphs to decide whether she’s gonna buy it. Write with that fickle-minded browser in mind.

All right, BGs. See ya tomorrow, then it’s off to Nashville. I will be posting from there, but it’ll be stuff about the conference. All the best gossip and shenanigans I can find.

Monday, September 12, 2005

This One's For Grady

Topic idea! I don't know if it's easy, but I was wanting to know the importance of grammar/sentence structure technicalities. If a mugger jumps out and screams at gunpoint, "What is an adjective!" I would have to reply; "Being shot is less painful than trying to remember!" –Grady Houger

There once was a BG named Grady,
Who cried, “All this grammar stuff’s shady!
I don’t know a noun
From a hole in the ground.
I know! I’ll go ask blogger lady.”

Oh, boy, a grammar lesson. How wonderfully . . . boring. But necessary.

I shall do what I can to keep it entertaining. We'll go at a rather fast clip. So strap on your seatbelt, keep your hands inside the car, and don’t forget to b r e a t h e . . .

A noun is a person, place, or thing. Could be a common noun or a proper noun. No, common nouns do not refer to the non-elites. Necessarily. And proper nouns do not refer to the impeccably mannered. Necessarily. But they could. Common nouns are nouns that are, um, common. As in having all their letters share the same commonality—not capped. UNLESS YOU ARE SHOUTING AT YOUR DOG!! In which case dog—a common noun—would be not only capped, but all capped, although it still wouldn't be proper. (I’ve never seen a proper dog. They tend to have some rather interesting habits that preclude such distinction.) Proper nouns, on the other hand—hand is a common noun, by the way—are capitalized. Like the names of people. Grady is a proper noun. (However improper you may choose to act at the moment.) Timbuktu is a proper noun. (I have no idea how proper Timbuktu is because I’ve never been there.)

A pronoun stands in place of a noun. He instead of Grady. Them instead of the baby deer frolicking on our lawn in Idaho. It instead of our rumored neighborhood bear, which we finally saw, sauntering down our driveway like it owned the place. (Actually, as long as it was around, it did.)

A verb does something. There are two kinds of verbs—action verbs and state of being verbs. Action verbs—you guessed it—commit an action. Work. Jump. Talk. Eat. Sleep. (Hey, they’re getting better as we go along.) State of being verbs don’t do nuthin’ but just be. Sort of like couch potatoes. Without the television. These are—hey, there’s one of 'em now. Are. The plural use of is. Which is (hey, there’s another one!) the singular use of to be. Hamlet liked this verb a lot.

A noun usually serves as the subject of a sentence, whether common or proper. Grady is a BG. Grady is the subject. Grady is also a proper noun. Two definitions for the price of one. Sometimes, however, a subject comes from a verb. This happens when you take a verb and add ing. This turns the word from a verb into a gerund. Why it’s called a gerund is beyond me. It should be called verbouning. Writing makes me crazy. Writing’s a gerund, and the subject of the sentence. I took the verb write, added ing, and, voila! a noun. A common noun. Although there is nothing common about writing. Especially fiction. Especially fiction when a deadline approacheth.

Nouns also often serve as the direct object in a sentence. The direct object is the object directly affected by what the subject does with the verb. (Have I lost you yet?) Grady asked me about grammar. Me is the direct object. Grady reads my blog. Blog is the direct object. I kicked a cabinet yesterday. Actually, I didn’t, but cabinet remains the direct object whenever I decide to kick one next.

An adjective modifies a noun. In other words, tells us something about that noun. Think of adjectives as gossipy sorts—always adding details. BTW, sorts is a noun. Gossipy is an adjective. Student Grady Houger. Student is the adjective. It helps define Grady (whether you are acting studious or not). Grady Houger remains the proper noun (or perhaps the improper, nonstudious student, but we won’t ask too many questions).

An adverb modifies an adjective or a verb. If an adjective is gossipy, an adverb is very gossipy. In fact, very is an adverb. Why? Because it’s giving us a detail about just how gossipy the adjective is. It makes more sense when an adverb modifies a verb. It adds to the verb—hence, its name. I suppose we could call it an adadjective, but that’s rather cumbersome. When an adverb modifies a verb, there’s often an ly at the end. Editors don’t like these words muchly. They veritably, happily, and grinningly X ’em out in manuscripts. At least mine does.

My husband recently bought a new 2005 metallic red Corvette.

Can you handle this, Grady?

Not the car, the conjugation.

Husband is the subject. It’s also a common noun. Although I can say without an ounce of prejudice that there’s nothing common about my husband. He is a man extraordinaire.

Bought is the verb. An action verb, since it’s something he did. As in shelled out money. In Phoenix. Because he couldn’t find the color he wanted in California. Then he had to fly down to Arizona to pick said car up and drive it home.

But I digress.

Corvette is a proper noun. And boy, is it proper. As in fine. Fine, indeed.

Corvette is also the direct object. Husband (subject and noun) bought (action verb) what? He bought Corvette—the object directly affected by the verb.

Red is an adjective. It describes the noun Corvette. Although there’s no such thing as a proper adjective, this is one, in my opinion. Because if you’re going to buy a Corvette, it’s only proper that it be red.

Metallic is an adverb. In this case, an adadjective. It describes the red. It ain’t just any red. Not cherry (another adverb) red. Not dull (an adverb you’d never find associated with a ’Vette) red. Metallic red. As in sparkly under the sun.

2005 is an adjective. You see why? Even though it’s separated from Corvette, it’s describing the car. The metallic is not 2005. (Although, who knows, maybe they didn’t have this particular metallic in 2004.) The red is not 2005. (Ditto on previous parenthetical statement.) The Corvette is 2005.

I drive the Corvette when hubby is traveling. I play my CDs very loudly. Classic rock. This embarrasses my fifteen-year-old. Apparently I’m not acting my age. Which I forget anyway, so what difference does it make?

Grady, wanna tackle one or two of three of those sentences? Come on now, man, let’s see a little conjugation sensation. As for the rest of you BGs, anything in the grammar lesson I missed? Do make sure your additions are entertaining.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Twists, and Mysteries, and Suspense, Oh, My!

So here I am, brain-fried. Remember how three weeks ago I finished writing Violet Dawn in time for our family vacation? How I worked like a total idiot those last two weeks, finally writing the last two days pretty much straight through, including all night?

Well, I let the thing sit for a “fresh-eye” look before sending it off to the good ol’ editors. So I gots meself back to California after Labor Day, and the last two days have been reading through the thing.

Surprise, surprise—I now think it’s terrible. Sigh. Fickle author emotions. In my next life, methinks I shall be a secretary.

However, it is nice to see quite a few BG names in my acknowledgments.

Okay, onward and upward. Back to winding up our topic. Thanks to y’all commenters who said the discussion on twists has been helpful. I’m so glad to hear that. Ron left a question yesterday: “Do you think it’s easy to jump from writing mystery to suspense? The two seem to have so much in common.”

Yeah, they do. Let’s talk today about their commonalities and their differences. (These are notes taken from a workshop I’ve given numerous times on the subject.)

The Brandilyn Collins basic, not-rocket-science definitions:

Mystery: A who-dun-it? A puzzle to solve.

Suspense: Agh—what’s-gonna-happen? Danger involved.

Here are some interesting perspectives on the subject from a few of my writing pals:

Randy Ingermanson:

Mystery: Somebody is dead and the protagonist needs to figure out who-dun-it.

Suspense: The protagonist is in danger of winding up dead and therefore needs to figure out who's-gonna-do-it.

James Scott Bell:

Mystery: Who did it?

Suspense: Will he do it again?

Further: A mystery moves forward toward solution. Suspense is like a coil that gets tighter and tighter. Mystery can have suspense, and vice versa.

Terri Blackstock:

A mystery can move slowly, and is psychological. It's a puzzle to solve, but without a panic element. With a suspense novel, time is running out. There's a "ticking bomb" of some kind. A lot of my books are truly mystery/suspense. But some of them are just suspense, such as the ones in which I tell whodunit pretty early in the story, and the suspense is not in figuring that out, but in KNOWING who it is, and how much danger the protagonist is in.

Angela Hunt:

A mystery is a “who dun it.” You have a detective who is out to find the guilty party, and the reader is given the clues (and red herrings) along with the detective. No one knows who the bad guy is until the end of the book, and half the fun is trying to solve the mystery along with the detective.

In a suspense, you are often in the mind of the killer. You, the reader, know exactly who he is and what he’s trying to do. The fun there is watching the protagonist and the antagonist approach each other until the final climatic duel of good versus evil.

And from the book Writing The Thriller, by T. Macdonald Skillman.

A mystery concerns itself with a puzzle. Suspense presents the reader with a nightmare.

A mystery is a power fantasy; we identify with the detective. Suspense is a victim fantasy; we identify with someone at the mercy of others.

In a mystery the hero or heroine already has the skills he or she needs to solve the puzzle. In suspense, he or she must learn new skills to survive.

In a mystery, thinking is paramount. In suspense, feeling is paramount.

A mystery usually takes place within a small circle of friends. The hero or heroine of a suspense novel often finds him or herself thrust into a larger world.

Readers of mysteries are looking for clues. Readers of suspense are expecting surprises.

In a mystery information is withheld. In suspense novels, information is provided.

The mystery asks, who done it? In suspense the question is: What’s going to happen?

A mystery hero or heroine must confront a series of red herrings. The suspense novel hero faces a cycle of distrust.

Mystery endings must be intellectually satisfying. Suspense endings must provide emotional satisfaction.


I agree with Terri B. that many stories can be a combination. Most of my novels could be defined technically as suspense/mystery. They all have the danger, tightening coil element. And they are fast-paced. But because of the twists in the story, the reader also has plenty to try to figure out. My suspenses do not tend to be about telling the reader everything, then letting him watch the results of the fight between good and evil. Well, they may be that on the surface, but underneath, there’s always something else going on.

Bottom line, go for it, Ron.

Any thoughts from you BGs on mysteries vs. suspense?

Final note for the week: At the ACFW conference, we will have a BG get-together during the first night’s (Thursday’s) late night chats--starting at 9:45 p.m. I know some of you will want to go to one of these chats, and that’s certainly fine. We'll miss you. But this is the best time to plan something that is least in the way of anything else. (I can’t meet Thursday before the conference begins, because I’m tied up in board meetings until the afternoon, then will have many people to greet and books to get into the store, etc.) Without knowing the layout of our hotel, I don’t know where it would be best for us to meet (you know, where we’ll scare off the least amount of hoteliers). But, seein’ as how I’m emceeing the conference anyway, I’ll be able to make a quick announcement at dinner Thursday night. And—as Ron said. Don’t forget our BG typing-hand, actually-a-skittering-spider sign. In fact, whenever y’all first spot me across a room, do give me the sign. That’ll let me know you’re a BG, and that you especially rock. :)

See ya Monday. Um. I’ll have to think of a new topic. Got any ideas? Make ’em easy, with a conference coming.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Plotting--Twists, Day 5

Howdy, all. Sorry I had to take a day off yesterday, due to my server being down. So glad I have Gayle to pinch hit for me when it's necessary.

I wanted to wind up our discussion on plotting and twists. We had seven days or so (I lost count) of talking about plotting, then four more talking specifically about twists. I hope through the discussion, you've come away with something you can use. I've tried to show you what I do in plotting, and why, yet I never want to out-and-out say you must do steps A, B, and C exactly so. We all plot differently, and it's simply no use trying to abide by someone else's format when it doesn't work for you. The key is to look at other authors' plotting processes and see what we can take away for ourselves, adapting to our own styles as necessary.

As for the twist process--discovering the assumptions inherent in your premise, then turning chosen ones on their heads--I really do advocate this process for anyone who wants to find a twist, or even a mild surprise, in his/her story. I can't remember reading any other teaching on this particular subject. (Have you all seen anything?) It took me quite a while, even after I was writing suspenses, to figure out exactly what I was doing in developing my twists. I had to stand back from my rather automatic thought processes, and say, "Hm, how would I teach this twist stuff to someone else?"

Actually, it's been that way with a lot of my teaching. Over the years, as I learned my own techniques in writing, I'd do them almost innately. Then when someone pointed to some passage in my one of my books, or some point of story structure, and asked, "How do you do that?" I was challenged to figure out the steps of the process that I was automatically doing. My entire book Getting Into Character was born that way.

Someone asked the question on Tuesday--can the POV character (protagonist particularly) be surprised at the twist along with the reader? Oh, absolutely. But you still have to include an appropriate amount of foreshadowing/clues as to the truth. Perhaps the protagonist doesn't know what's coming, but the antagonist, who also has a POV, does. Or numerous POV characters may know bits and pieces of the total truth, all of which will become twists/surprises. There are myriad possibilities.

I mentioned a few days ago that in teaching the twist process, I was giving away a major trade secret of mine. I hope that doesn't sound arrogant, because it's not meant to be. All I mean is, as readers of my books hear of my process, they will be all the smarter in reading my next novel, trying to figure out the twists ahead of time. However, it's the smartest readers I'm writing for in the first place. More smart readers just keeps me on my toes all the more. My regular readers and I engage in a game. When they pick up one of my suspense novels, they're looking to solve the puzzle ahead of time. I'm looking to fool them until the last minute. But whoever wins that race, each of us is still a winner if I've managed to keep the reader flipping pages and entertained.

Today my 15-year-old daughter came into my office and asked that I stop my work as she explained to me a teenage suspense novel she'd just finished reading. She was frustrated, because it had a big surprise ending, but that ending didn't make sense to her. She couldn't make all the little pieces fit. As she explained the plot and questionable pieces to me, I saw the problem. Bottom line, the author had fallen down on the job. A few plot points about crime scene investigations had not been thoroughly researched, and were wrong. Another point just didn't make sense when you learned the truth. Remember, when you're writing toward a big twist in your story, you're really writing two stories--the one you want the reader to believe, and the story of what really happened. Every plot point, every tiny little doggone detail, has to fit both stories. It is maddening, and frustrating, and hard, and the reason I go majorly crazy while writing, particularly at the end of a book. But that's the way it has to be. Otherwise, we end up with readers like my daughter, who shook her head after our long discussion, and said, "That's too bad. Because I liked the rest of the book, but an ending that doesn't work really ruins everything."


I told my daughter how very, very hard it is to think of every detail, and how the author of a "twisty" book is really writing two stories. She understood, because she's read my suspense novels--and more because she's seen firsthand how hard it is for me to try to pull this off with one suspense after another. Nevertheless, her knowledge of the difficult process didn't lessen her disappointment in the story. A lesson for us all to learn.

Those of you who wrote about the premise of your book as we first started our twist discussion--I hope you'll take a good look at your premise, think about how you're going to write the inciting incident scene, and list all the assumptions inherent in that scene. It's one thing to read about how someone else does it. Another thing to do the process on your own book. If any of you want to flesh out your opening scene and see what assumptions others can see in it, you might try starting such a discussion on our discussion board.

If y'all have any other thoughts/questions about plotting or twists, you know where to leave 'em. Also, on another issue, the ACFW conference is coming up next week, and I know quite a few of you are going. I will look at the schedule to see when we can have an informal BG get-together. The schedule is very full, so I imagine the only time will be during the late-night chat sessions. If you have an idea, let me know. (Meal times are out, due to my other responsibilities.)

See ya tomorrow on good ol' Friday.

Read Part 6

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Server's Down

Hey all,

I know you were expecting Brandilyn. But it's just me, Gayle, her assistant. She arrived back in California, safe and sound, and was poised to write y'all like you expect she would. Problem is, her server's down. So she can't.

She'll be back soon, though. And I'm sure with this extra time to think, she'll have something mighty fine to share.


Gayle DeSalles

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Plotting--Twists, Day 4

Happy Tuesday post Labor Day. Now back to work for us all.

Thanks to those who posted ideas as to how to be in Lisa’s POV and keep her secret fear from the reader. (If you’re totally lost, better go back and read the last couple posts on twists.)

There’s no one right answer to the question posed Friday. It was interesting to see the various approaches. It was good to leave the question over the weekend to give us all a little “think time.” That’s the way plotting goes. Gotta have that mulling time. Here are my thoughts after mulling it over:

1. I’d give Lisa some other issue to fear. That way, when I’m in her POV, I can have her worrying about things not turning out right. I would write these passages about her fear very carefully so that they actually would be speaking about her fear that the baby was not John’s, without her coming out and saying it. At the same time I’d be placing the assumption in the reader’s mind that her fear is pertaining to some other issue. The most effective fear I can think of would be that she’d miscarry. Readers would find it understandable that this fear of miscarriage would be permeating. I need that kind of fear, because her other fear that it's masking--that John's not the father--would also be permeating. When Lisa looks fearful to John and he asks her what's wrong, I could even have her tell him that she's afraid about miscarrying. Remember, the character can lie to someone else in the story; she just can't outright lie to the reader through her thoughts.

2. I wouldn’t make this twist the ultimate twist of the book. To satisfy the reader, the protagonist has to have adequate time to work his/her way out of the twist. This kind of twist—that John isn’t the baby’s father—can’t be worked through quickly. John and Lisa are going to have a lot to deal with. Will he accept the baby; will he not? Will this be the end of the marriage? Or how about if Lisa somehow discovers the baby isn’t John’s, but John doesn’t know it. Will she keep it from him?

Well, drat,now I'm in a fine pickle. Now I have to ask myself—if this twist doesn’t work as the ultimate one in the book, but comes more in the middle of the novel, what is the ultimate twist? So I’m back to square one, trying to figure out what that is. I’ll have to head back to my assumption list and see what else I can twist. (Oh, no, maybe we have that alien baby after all!) If I can’t find a twist that would work well on top of the John’s-not-the-father twist, then I’ll have to nix the father twist altogether.

This is exactly why creating a well-conceived, tightly plotted story is so hard. An idea for a twist may work; it may not. My bottom line will be the character motivation and the believability of the story. If I can’t undergird a twist—however cool it may sound—with these necessary foundations, I’ll throw it out and find another one.

Last Friday, one person posted a question about how much hinting we need to do regarding the twist to be fair to the reader. It’s difficult to give a general answer to that. But I might suggest that we approach the question from the opposite direction. In a sense, everything we are writing tells the true picture of what’s happening. But if we’re skillful at placing the assumption we want to achieve in the reader’s mind, he will skew everything he reads to undergird that assumption rather than the truth. It’s kind of like what we called upstaging in theater. An actor’s downstage (toward the audience) doing something, but no one is noticing, because upstage (behind him) another character is carrying on something fierce, capturing all the attention.

I will admit this "upstaging" calls for some very difficult writing. To write a line that can be read two totally different ways is challenging. Invariably, amid all the action and all the thoughts, there will be certain sentences scattered throughout my book that are key in telling the truth. But, of course, they come cloaked in assumptions. Unfortunately, this is where this teaching breaks down, because I’m not about to give examples from my stories.

I asked an interesting post-read question to numerous fans who wrote me about my book Dread Champion (second in the Chelsea Adams series). My question was, “Where in the book is the first foreshadow of the twist?” I can remember only one person answering this correctly without some type of hint. The line is veiled enough that a reader seeing it for the first time is likely to pass right over it because of everything going on around it. But when I point it out to a reader, or give that reader enough hints that he himself can find it, the response is, “Oh, yeah, sure I see it now.” In fact, the short passage that houses this line isn’t needed in the story at all, and is only there for sake of foreshadow. But again, readers don’t stop and think about its unnecessary nature at the time, because I’m giving them too much else to think about.

I really struggle with this whole issue of foreshadowing, BGs. Often I’ll write a book and not know if I’ve been too oblique or too obvious in my foreshadowing of the truth amidst all the placing of assumptions. It’s hard for me to discern, since, obviously, I already know the truth about the story. This is where my editors come in. And this is why I won’t tell my editors what the story is that I’m writing, beyond the basic premise. I want my editor to read with fresh eyes. I have this same issue right now with Violet Dawn. Part of me says, “Oh, good grief, the twist is so totally obvious,” and the other part says, “No, you’ve placed the attention-pulling assumptions well.” I don’t know which one of those statements is right. I’m gonna wait to hear from my editors, and fix accordingly.

We are winding down on this subject of plotting and twists. If you have more comments/questions, please post them and I’ll respond. Or if I’m making no sense, please do speak up. (Knowing me, this could be highly likely.) When we all feel like we’re done with this subject, we’ll turn to . . . something else.

Read Part 5

Friday, September 02, 2005

Plotting--Twists, Day 3

Thanks for the comments from yesterday. I’m glad to see this twisty business is helping you BGs. Becky posted an important question I need to address:

I wanted to comment on what domino said: "the key is to find that extreme twist for the devastation." Seems to me, if an author uses that repeatedly, a reader of the series will soon become aware of this "key." Isn't there the possibility of becoming predictable by engineering the twist the same way over and over?

Yes and no. The author may become known for writing stories with twists, and the readers will start to look more carefully for clues to figure out the twists ahead of time. This is the situation I find myself in. This is exactly why plotting is such a hard process for me. I’m always trying to stay one step ahead of my readers.

Frankly, it doesn’t help that I’m giving away my trade secrets.

Oh, well, so be it. Yes, teaching my twist-based-on-assumption secret tells some of my readers what to look for. But it also seems to be helping many other writers with their own stories, and that’s important to me.

But here’s the other side of the coin, Becky, and the rest of you. First, you all are a lot smarter about this twist business than you were two days ago. Your eyes have been opened to how it works. But remember, most of the readers out there (who aren’t writing novels themselves and reading this blog) still don’t know. They’re still back with the basic try-to-figure-out-the-surprise crowd. Second, even for those who know what to look for, there are many possibilities to twist a story. Look at all the assumptions we listed for our Lisa and John scenario. And even with all of your collectives minds, I still found more. So no reader is going to see all the possibilities for twists.

Third—and this leads me to today’s topic—is how the twist is carried off. This is where the real work starts. In fact, with skillful writing, an author can take a twist that doesn’t seem that surprising on its surface—and make it very surprising. What’s the key to carrying off your twist? Strengthening its founding assumption in the mind of the reader.

It takes the entire book right up to the twist to do this strengthening. That’s why I have to know the major twist in my story before I start writing. Because everything that is said and done is leading the reader to continue in the assumption while in truth the story is moving toward the assumption's twist.

For example, let’s say I was writing the John and Lisa book, and I decided to turn this assumption on its head: the baby is John’s child. All right, so the baby won’t be his child. Now, on the surface, that’s not a wham-bam surprise. Unfortunately, it happens all too often—a little more often, I’d say, than the birth of a child that’s not human. So my job is to make it surprising.

I gotta tell ya, this is really hard. We authors cannot trick the reader by lying to him. Nor can we trick him by pulling some twist out of thin air at the last minute. So we’re forced to include foreshadow and clues to the truth, yet in a way that the reader won’t notice them until he’s read the whole book, and only then realizes the truth was right in front of him the whole time.

And, of course, as I’ve mentioned, some readers are going to guess the twist anyway. That’s okay. For these readers, our job is to give them a heck of a fun ride along the way, and make them doubt here and there that they’ve got it right.

So. I want to surprise the reader that the baby isn’t John’s. But I have to do the surprising fairly. I certainly have to present my characters adequately, particularly when I’m in the character’s POV. So what do I do with the first scene in which Lisa answers the phone? Remember, it’s supposed to be in her POV. And this will just be one of many scenes in which I’ll need to be in Lisa’s POV. If there’s a chance the baby is Mike’s instead of John’s, you know she’s going to be worrying about that. She can’t be nothing but happy about the phone call. She will now have mixed feelings—happiness, and scared to death that the baby isn’t John’s, and probably (I should hope) guilt over getting herself in such a mess. I’m not allowed to mislead the reader by never having Lisa wonder about this. You know that reader would feel totally bilked by such poor characterization. So now I have to think, “How do I write scenes in Lisa’s POV without giving away her fear of this possibility?” In other words, “Okay, Brandilyn, you’ve chosen this twist. Not just how do you expect to pull it off?”

What do you think? How would you handle the opening scene? Would you change it to John’s POV? But what about future scenes in Lisa’s POV? Give me your thoughts on the comments page, and we’ll pick this up on Tuesday. (I will be taking Monday, Labor Day, off from blogging.) By the way, remember that the discussion board is always open for further discussion of a topic.

Happy Labor Day weekend, BGs. And happy twisting.

Read Part 4