Thursday, May 31, 2012

Raising the Stakes

Piggybacking off of Betsy's fantastic post from yesterday, I couldn't help but want to underscore one of the points she made, namely the importance character development in writing.

Since I spend the bulk of my freelancing life critiquing films, I can't tell you how many times I've seen gazillions of dollars spent on setting just the right note aesthetically with perfect lighting and over-the-top special effects, only to forget the characters completely, leading them to be nothing short of insufferable bores.

In fact, I couldn't help feeling sorry for Snow White, who's played by Kristen Stewart in the flick I screened last night, Snow White and the Huntsman. Now for anyone who was actually looking forward to a darker look at the classic fairy tale, I hate to be a killjoy,'s not all that great. If forced to convey my feelings with one simple adjective, I'd have to go with "meh."

Sure, the gothic scenery is intricate and incredible, and the shots are all beautifully composed, but poor, poor Snow White. In addition to not being given much to do, save for looking forlorned from time to time, they also forgot to give her a defined personality, a unique manner of speaking, and perhaps, the worst flaw of all, a sheer lack of conviction.

I think if you're going to bother to name a movie after someone, you might as well make the titular character memorable. But unfortunately, Snow is anything but. We know she has royal lineage, that she doesn't need a guy to make her world complete and for whatever reason whenever she gets herself into the proverbial pickle, the filmmakers give her a very easy out. The plot got so darn convenient at times, that unintentional giggles actually emerged from my screening audience, which I'm pretty sure wasn't the reaction the filmmakers were hoping for.

All that to say, there's a very good lesson for writers nestled in my recent film-going experience. If we're going to write a story, we need characters that sparkle (maybe not literally like Edward Cullen in the Twilight franchise, but you get my drift). We need to know what motivates them, what they like and what they don't. We need a grasp of their personality and what makes them tick. Above all, they need to be people that matter.

And when they're in a tricky situation, we don't need to do the audience any favors by protecting them from harm. Life is full of struggles and complications, so our stories should be, too. After all, there's nothing worse than reading a story with boring people in the starring roles. Reading is supposed to be fun, after all, and when it's not, well, it's not worth doing, right?

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Have you ever read a book, and when you finished it, thought "Man, that could have been SO great if only X..."

What do you think X is?

Let me share a few of my X's.

"If only..."

1. The characters had been better developed.

If we can't relate to the characters as readers, the book falls flat - no matter how exciting the story itself is. Make sure you flesh out your characters and give them heartbeats. Make them real and relatable and 3 dimensional. Give them habits and quirks and physical descriptions and fears and strengths and weaknesses.

2. The book had gone through more editing.

Typically vanity presses or self publishing gets the most heat here, and for good reason - the stories aren't edited by a professional editor. (in most cases) Either the author thinks "Good enough" or there is miscommunication between the author and the publisher and the author thinks there will be an editing service that isn't provided. Of course this isn't always, but it is often. On the other side of that coin - sometimes traditional houses leave mistakes in their books too. Accidents happen, and I'm not dissing vanity or self pub - I'm just speaking from what/where I see the most of. If you publish yourself or use a vanity press please be aware of the editing process, and hire a freelancer editor to give a thorough overview of your book - NOT JUST FOR TYPOS AND GRAMMAR AND SPELLING BUT FOR STORY CONTENT!!!! Using commas correctly throughout isn't nearly as important to readers (in my opinion) as it is making sure you don't contradict yourself throughout the story or change the character's hair color suddenly in the middle of the book, etc. All of that is considered editing as well.

3. The author had used more internal thoughts to help us get to know that POV character better.

Too much white space is a bad thing. If your story is nothing but action and dialogue you are missing an important piece of your book. We can't get to know your character (see Point #1) without getting inside their heads. Show us their mental and emotional reactions in scenes. Visceral reactions as well. Show us what they see/hear/taste/feel. Not just where they go or what they say.

4. The author had laid off the amateurish use of repeated dialogue tags and used more action beats.

I've harped enough on this lately, so you get the idea. ACTION BEATS ARE STRONGER THAN DIALOGUE TAGS. USE THEM. Moving on :)

5. The setting had been more vivid.

Setting can be a character in your story too. I've heard it said to set your story somewhere that the story wouldn't work otherwise. As in, make your setting a crucial element of your story. I don't totally agree with that, because not ALL stories require their setting to be a significant part of the book and if you force it, its obvious. BUT setting definitely still needs to play a part. So use your descriptions throughout, and do some research and try to incorporate unique things in whichever city you're setting your story in. Wildlife or landscape or weather or physical landmarks or restaurants, etc. If you make up a fictional setting, this is still important. SHOW where your character is.

6. The author had used more subtext and made the dialogue count instead of using so many fluff words.

Subtext is crucial, as is writing tightly and not filling your manuscript with "okay" and "thank you" and "you're welcome" and "mmmhmm" and other fluff words that work in real ife but that slow down the scene in fiction. There is ALWAYS a stronger, better cohice if you let yourself get creative and think :) Challenge yourself to let some of your phrases of dialogue carry a double meaning. Start noticing it in the books you read and see how it's done. It makes a world of difference in your writing.  :)

Which of these ring true for you? What is your X list?

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Where Your Treasure Is...

“There will your heart be also.”

So you love to write?

Prove it.

Today, I want you to tell yourself: 

Make time, not excuses.

Now repeat:

Make time, not excuses.

Going to follow my own advice now…

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Writing Characters Not Caricatures

"When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature."—Ernest Hemingway
Now I'll be the first to admit that Ernest Hemingway had his fair share of flaws. He was perpetually drunk, didn't treat any of his four wives very well and when it came to writing, well, he didn't care who he had to hurt to get ahead. 

Questionable character aside, though, the guy really could write, and his emphasis on keeping your sentences simple—and true—has always challenged me since I naturally gravitate toward the verbose. On a side note, if you ever find yourself in the creative doldrums, read Hemingway's A Moveable Feast. Not only are the descriptions of his everyday life in Paris downright breathtaking (yeah, you can practically smell the whiskey), but so much of what he says about the writing craft still resonates today...

As you may have already guessed by now, one of my favorite Hemingway soundbites is the one I led the post with. Ever read a novel where the author is clearly in love with his/her leading man or lady? Or the one where the protagonist is being handled with veritable kid gloves? There's nothing more annoying than a story with people who don't feel flesh-and-blood real. 

See, the trouble with characters is that many writers tend to pattern them after themselves—be it a little or a lot. And when we're borrowing from our own life experiences, it's tempting to put a shinier veneer on life's rather cringe-worthy moments. Perhaps, we're even afraid that people will view us differently if we make the subjects of our stories TOO flawed. 

But if we're doing that, giving readers the caricature rather than a living, breathing person, we're robbing them of something that truly resonates on a deep, deep level.  After all, nobody's perfect, and that's something Hemingway really understood as he even wrote about himself in true warts-and-all fashion.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Let's Talk About Words, baby!

Betsy here, with another handy-dandy writing craft tip. (oops, can you tell I've been watching Blues Clues with a certain 3 year old blonde?)

Let's talk about talk.


Dumm dum dummmm.

Do you dread it in your story, or look forward to witty banter between your characters? Some find dialogue natural and fun to do, others find it incredibly tricky.

I think that's because there's a fine line between making your dialogue real (realistic) but not to the point of displaying every cough, grunt, throat clearing and use of fluff words that happen in real life but in fiction, drag down our work.

Fluff words include "Thanks" and "You're welcome" and "Good morning" and "Hi" and "Okay talk to you later, bye" and etc. Things people politely say every day in real life when checking out at the grocery store or hanging up the phone. But in our stories, we need to write tight. Make every line count, whether that be via internal thought, narrative or dialogue. Think subtext when you write dialogue - make your characters imply more than what they're saying. Do double duty!

Also, watch your length of dialogue. Break it up with action beats and internal thoughts from the Point of View character and their noticing reactions from the other person they're conversing with. When you're talking to someone in real life, you notice how they're responding to you. You notice if they take a sip of coffee or bite their lip like they're disagreeing with you or cross their arms like they're defensive or looking off like they're distracted. Play that up in your writing, but make sure it MEANS something and isn't just for the mere sake of doing it.

Think white space. You don't want your characters drowning in a monologue or rambling on and on and not giving the other character a word in. (that unfortunately happens in real life but in our stories we need balance ::wink::) The reader will get tired of all that dialogue without a white space break and will probably shut the book or skip the scene.

At the same time, make the character's dialogue purposeful. Use it to provide information and move the story forward, and show who they are as a character. Don't just have your characters chit-chat about the weather if the weather isn't about to play a part in the story. MAKE IT COUNT :)

Here's a scene of dialogue from my novel, ADDISON BLAKELY, CONFESSIONS OF A PK. I used this example in a "What Not To Do" craft article I wrote for the January/February issue of the Southern Writers Magazine (  I used this to example the importance of tags vs. action beats in writing. But its an example of dialogue as well.

Check it out -

Nothing makes writing appear more amateur than an author who uses too many tags and not enough action beats in their story. A tag is “she said” or “he exclaimed” or “she yelled” or “he mused.” Typically, the only tags that should ever be used is the somewhat invisible “said” and even then, sparingly—because action beats not only serve the purpose of clarifying who is speaking, but flesh out the scene and provide the reader with visual detail. See how the below examples compare.

Example 1: Tags
“What’d you do, throw a rock from twenty yards?” I asked.

“I’ve got a good arm,” Wes said.

“Then why are you slumming around Crooked Hollow instead of playing for the pros?” I asked.

“Professional sports teams tend to frown on jail records,” he laughed.

“What? You’ve never—”

“Never what?” he questioned.

“Nev-never mind,” I said.

Example 2: Action beats

“What’d you do, throw a rock from twenty yards?” I snorted like I wasn’t flattered he’d nearly busted the window with a pebble. It shouldn’t matter what he did for me. But it did.

He shrugged. “I’ve got a good arm.”

“Then why are you slumming around Crooked Hollow instead of playing for the pros?”

“Professional sports teams tend to frown on jail records.” He winked.

“What? You’ve never—” The words froze on my tongue, and I swallowed them, cold and hard. The things I truly knew about Wes could be counted on maybe one and a half hands—and that was if he was telling the truth about the number of his tattoos. I sort of figured he was lying about that one.

He took a step toward me, his jacket opening slightly at the neck and revealing a hunter green pullover. “Never what?”

“Nev-never mind.”

Any questions? :)

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Hands Raised High

I had a meet-Jesus moment on my kitchen floor this morning, hands-raised to heaven, voicing praises with my eight-month-old. (Yes, she loves to “sing”…)

He met us there. Unexpectedly. In the words, You give and take away, You give and take away, and blessed be Your Name…

It’s been a “give” season, not a “take away” season. I know the barrenness of empty places, but I’m currently rejoicing in this abundance.

Last Sunday I met with five teens in our small group. We talked about Abraham, and how God asked this man to lay everything on the altar even when it didn’t make sense.

We talked about one of my favorite quotes (I’m not sure who said it): “What did Daniel’s friends lose in the fire? ---- Only the chains that bound them.”

And in my heart, I knew this receiving wouldn’t last forever. It’s not God’s intent for us to always be comfortable, but it won’t stop me from thanking Him whatever He sends… because He is in it.

I don’t know what tomorrow holds. My career could crash, I could lose anything that provides this false sense of security…

But in the end, I am secure in Him alone. And for that reason, in all seasons, I will raise my hands to heaven and sing, Blessed be Your Name…

Why is your heart singing today?


Note: Sorry I forgot to post yesterday… post-dating now. :)

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

I loved Erynn's post on sap! ;)

Keeping in that same thread, I thought I'd post something today on keeping our characters real, as well. Because we've all been there - reading a novel (or even writing one, yikes!) when the hero or heroine (or even a side character) did something so random and perfect, you just wanted to put the book down in digust.

It all (always) goes back to one question - "is your writing contrived?"

Are you setting the scene up in a way that would really happen if your book took place in an actual room with actual people instead of on a page? Or are you setting the scene up because you need to be able to get to the next scene, so X and Y simply HAVE to happen?

If your answer is the latter, odds are you need to revise!

Now don't get me wrong, sometimes characters NEED to do things out of character. But only when that act comes from growth and character arc, usually toward the end of the story - such as a hero who was phobic of water being able to jump in the lake at the end of the story to save the heroine's child. Throughout his journey, we saw his phobia, respected it, sympathized for him, urged him into those muddy waters, and applauded him after. It was an arc. He didn't reveal his phobia and jump in the pond the same day. It was part of his journey, and in good Christian fiction, there would be a spiritual lesson mixed into that as well (such as letting go of control, trusting God when we can't trust anything else, etc.)

Revealing your heroine's fear of public performing in Chapter 2 and then having her leap up on a karaoke bar in Chapter 3 and have a blast belting out Shania Twain is NOT character arc and growth ;)

See the difference?

This is true when it comes to plot, as well. "Coincidences" happen in real life, and answered prayers, and spiritual intervention - of COURSE we believe that as Christians. But just like angels don't swoop down to save us in every day life, and just like we don't get the tangible hand of God writing His plan for us in the sky every day, we shouldn't let it happen to our characters regularly either. Because in fiction, it's even more obvious that it's a coincidence.

It's all about the build-up, folks. Plan it out. Build it up. Weave that thread. There's nothing more annoying to me in fiction (I harp on this all the time, and I'm sorry but it's just TRUE) than a "how convenient" moment of disgust when that SAME thing could have happened and been totally accepted by me and appreciated had it just had the proper weaving/build-up throughout previous chapters.

Soapbox over.

Any questions on contrived writing?  :)

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Anyone else out there?

Don't fret, little one... Mommy really IS almost done with her edits...

Monday, May 14, 2012

When the Moon Hits Your Eyes

I'm sure we have all been there. Sitting there in a great chair, feet up, coffee drink next to us, blanket on top of us, book in hand when SUDDENLY...

Sappiness occurs.

Not in the coffee, of course. Coffee is rarely too sweet for me. But rather on the page.

Have you ever noticed this? I have read scenes so soggy I worried I was going to need a drop cloth for my lap while holding the book.

And yet, I find myself writing the exact same scenes.

So, how can we convey romance or emotion without becoming so sticky our readers feel the need for napkins??

1. Stay true to your character's personalities. Are they quiet? Don't suddenly turn them into a smooth talking Romeo. Are they funny? Don't have them burst into tears and quote love sonnets while telling the girl/guy their feelings. Are they serious, moody and proud? For goodness sakes, give them a cup of tea and introduce them to Miss Bennet already. ;)

2. Watch the Squish Factor. Example: "I couldn't help but fall in love with you the moment I saw the moonlight glinting across the artificial color of your hair." Be careful what kind of wording you use. If you stay true to the character, this should be an easier one. Try to imagine what you would say in a similar circumstance.

3. Take notes from real life. One of the most "romantic" girls I know was proposed to on her front doorstep after taking out the trash. Life is not always fairy tales and while having a incredible proposal/share the feelings scene is not at all a bad thing (not at all!), it's also important to remember that we want our writing to reflect what we see around us. Ask your friends, family, parents, etc how they met and married their spouse. You'll get some great ideas just from that!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Don't you hate it when they do that?!?

A client of my editing service and good friend told me the other day that she was struggling reading the book she was currently reading, because although it was by one of her favorite authors in the Christian industry, they were, as she said, "breaking all the rules you taught me to follow."

It's as the Bible says - if it weren't for the law, there'd be no sin. ;)

As a reader, when we don't know the way it's "supposed" to be done, we only focus on the story. The book is good or bad or ho-hum based on the story alone. That's kind of nice!

But once we dive into the industry for ourselves, and begin learning the craft of writing, we gain what I call the Internal Editor.

I'm thinking of naming mine, because man, she's doesn't shut up ;) 

This I.E doesn't turn off easily - even when we're reading a story we so desperately want to enjoy....but can't.

Because the author is head-hopping like a bunny rabbit on crack.

Or because the author is using so many adjectives and passive writing, every sentence is about 4 words longer than it should be.

Or because the author is using way too many dialogue tags (she said, he declared, she yelled, he exclaimed, etc.) instead of story-progressing, descriptive action beats.

Or because the author is over-explaining their plot and not trusting us as the reader to get it.

Or because the author is switching tenses from past to present or past-perfect to present or any other combo.

Or because the author is describing a country meadow at sunset for six paragraphs when two well-done sentences would have sufficed nicely.

And so on, and so on.

As writers we might get frustrated with the "rules" and forget that they're there for a reason - that they might our writing stronger. Our books more effective. Our ministry more uplifting.

So next time you get a hard critique from a friend or a less than stellar contest score or a rejection letter from an editor or agent, don't hide under the covers or quit your dreams. Eat chocolate, then glean from it. Where can you improve your craft? ARE you guilty of what they pointed out? (probably, and if it's an editor or agent than most definitely)

We're always learning and growing on this crazy ride, even us multi-pubbed authors. We don't stop, we always want to try to get better. I for one don't want to "peak" and then backslide. I want my every book to be better than the last and not as good as the next. Don't you? Then keep learning. Implement those rules instead of buck them. Give them a try instead of thinking you know more than the veterans or teacers teaching you. (maybe you do, but odds are for a while at least, you don't)

Some authors get away with the rule breaking (Nicholas Sparks) and we still love them because their stories are so powerfully and emotional. But think how much BETTER they would be if they followed the rules we're taught to follow in writing? Think how much STRONGER the connection we'd have when not being confused about whose POV we're in, etc.

Don't get frustrated because they get away with it and you don't. Just focus on making YOUR book the best it can by writing it the best way you know how. No short cuts.

Unless of course, your first novel was contracted for a million dollars, and almost every novel you've ever written turned into a record breaking award winning movie.

In which case you should take over this blog ;)

And buy me a pair of Jimmy Choos.

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Infamous White Space

I was at a conference, proposing what would one day be Miss Match to an editor when I first heard the term "white space".

He was flipping through my proposal and the sample chapters and said, "Oh, you did a great job incorporating white space."

I said, "Thank you." Because I really did not know what else to say. Mostly because I was too busy looking over his shoulder to make sure that I hadn't accidentally given him a blank sheet of paper.

So, I went home and researched. And realized that white space is exactly what is sounds like.

White space.

Whenever you are writing - particularly fiction - it's important to keep the story going with lots of dialogue, and not just dialogue, but back and forth dialogue which leads to large white spaces on the page. This looks less intimidating to a reader and so keeps their interest longer.

It's why a lot of times a novel will be a larger size than a nonfiction book - because nonfiction does not have a lot of white space and so looks more intimidating. If you open a book and see one constant paragraph for three pages, you start to get overwhelmed. Publishers have figured this out, so their job is to make your work as inviting as possible.

So, look at your work. Do you have a nice rhythm to your story so that you have some long paragraphs and then several short ones? Do your characters talk back in forth in eighteen-line monologues or do they have a conversation peppered with quick responses?

Listen to the people around you as well. There is a natural flow to conversation and the closer we can mimic that on paper, the more realistic our story will sound and the more easily we'll be able to sell it. ;)

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Week Where Nothing Goes As Planned...

First off, I want to apologize for not writing on my regularly scheduled day. Let's just say for a week that I planned to only work on (gasp!) my novel, it's been anything but productive on that front.

See, when I went to do my regularly scheduled workout, someone got the bright idea to smash the window of my beloved Sylvia (yes, I even name my cars, I'm a total dork) and snatch my purse that was crammed under the seat (of course, it was my favorite purse with my favorite sunglasses inside, not to mention all those vital things like my debit card, credit cards, drivers license, and yes, even my Starbucks gold card), not to mention my iPhone.

I still haven't gotten over that last one by the way, it's a like a phantom limb, and I keep reaching for it, even though it's not there.

So naturally, I've spent most of the week on my hubby's phone, calling nice customer service types and listening to a whole lot of soft rock and elevator music.

All that to say, it could've been so much worse. I wasn't held at gunpoint. It didn't happen at my home, and really, at the end of the day, the window is fixable, the gas they bought with my credit cards is making its way back to me, and all that's left is a bunch of stuff to replace.

But it did muck with my writing ambitions for the week, so perhaps, I'm still a little sore about that. So now that I've told you my sad little story, I can't help thinking about the application to writing itself. Sometimes our stories don't go exactly as planned, and that's actually a good thing.

While I always write a loose outline to help steer the ship (and sell the book, since it's part of the proposal), it's great knowing that sometimes your characters will take you places you never expected. And it's these unexpected journeys that make writing (and life) so much fun. Well, as long as your purse doesn't get stolen, mind you.

:) Have a great weekend all!

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Betsy here with another writing craft tip!! :)

By the way, I hope us Scribble Chicks are helping you guys with your writing questions and confusions and problems. We never want to sound like we're talking down to you or telling you craft advice you already know. We're just throwing stuff out there that either we struggle with or we come across in our teaching or our critiques or even our own edits from our editors. Please comment anytime with specific questions or email me privately at and I can answer your question anonymously on the blog. Just remember, we've all been where you guys are and you get better by asking questions, reading, and of course - WRITING!

Which is my craft tip for today.

We've mentioned this before but it's crucial enough to go over again. You have to actually WRITE. Sometimes word dumps (and this is hard for me to say because I can so rarely turn off my inner editor) are necessary. Writer's block or not, at some point, you have to turn off Facebook and Twitter and Pinterest, turn off the TV (or stick your kid in front of it! hehe), unplug the phone, put your cell on silent and WRITE. Don't read about writing. Don't even read our blog about writing ;)  Just write your story.

Sounds simple but we all know how hard this can be. Sometimes it's a lot easier to just read about writing and talk about writing and ask questions about writing than it is to actually get your booty in the chair and WRITE.

I challenge you today to do that. Because craft tips or not, critiques or conferences or workshops or not - if you don't ever WRITE, you will never truly learn.

Ultimately - You have to put it into practice and learn how to edit yourself in order to grow.

Now go :)

Then come back and leave a comment and tell me how it went and ask your questions :)

Tuesday, May 1, 2012


I'm taking a hint from my 7-month-old and hiding from the lens of the general public for the next few weeks. But it won't keep me from stopping by with progress reports on the current project: The Bare Naked Truth About Waiting is in the second edit/formatting phase. It's almost ready to get suggestions from my agent and then revisions from the publisher.

Pop in and leave a comment to tell me what you're up to this week. It's so easy you can do it with your eyes closed!