Monday, April 7, 2008

A B Cs

A B Cs
I’ve noticed the last few days that we’ve got quite a few new authors reading our blog. Including a few who are still thinking about typing… "It was a dark and stormy night…” for the first time.

So, I’m going to try and go over a few basics. And the other Seekers are going to yell at me and tell me I’m missing about 90% of the basics…which isn’t just me writing a bad column, it’s also probably true of my work.

Set the Scene:
When you’re writing, you’ve got to Set the Scene. This is something I had trouble with. I have always enjoyed dialogue. I like my characters moving, talking, sassing each other. That’s fun for me. But setting the scene was a weakness…as I was told many times in judge's comments. ‘I don’t know if you’re inside or outside’. ‘What are your characters wearing?’
‘What does the room look like?’ ‘are they standing or sitting?’ 'are they in Chicago or New Orleans or on a ranch in rural Texas?’
The scene descriptions are not allowed to drag on either. It slows the story. So you choose your words very carefully, insert them in bits. Tag dialogue with, ‘she shoved the sleeves of her favorite, black Harvard Law School sweatshirt up to her elbows’

The Five Senses. This is amazingly important. While the scene setting needs to be subtle and quick, the senses are what really draw the reader in. If your heroine smells smoke, sure you’re going to mention that, but are the trees overhead rustling in the wind? Is traffic whizzing by? She inhaled the scent of fresh hot coffee and warmed her hands on the heavy white pottery mug. The touch, scent, vision, sound, taste bring a reader deeply into the book in a way that’s kind of hard to explain and is easy to skip as a writer, but it’s really effective. Use your sense, use the senses. (Hey, that’s like a novelist fortune cookie!)

POV = Point of View
This is something that is NEW, IMPORTANT and CONFUSING. Especially in a world where so many established authors break this rule.
POV is; Whose head you’re in?
One POV per scene. And no, Nora Roberts doesn’t obey this. But news flash: You’re not Nora. Obey this.

You’re in the heroine’s head, you can only KNOW what she’s thinking, feeling. There are ways to show what he’s thinking/feeling through her POV, though.
She saw his eyes brim with tears and knew he had never gotten over the death of his first love. A handy thing about this is she can ‘know’ what he’s thinking and be completely wrong…so you, as the author, need to let the reader know she’s wrong, and you can do that later when you’re in HIS POV. “He remembered the moment they’d talked of his first love and he’d had to fight back tears of relief that the battle-ax was dead.”

So now we’ve got the reader inside everybody’s head--but in their turn--one at a time. The characters can be mixed up but the readers can be clear.
POV is tricky. And one POV per scene is the rule.

Back Story Dump
Next comes Back Story Dump. This is just an almost uncontrollable urge every author on the planet--including me--has to tell the reader what brought the characters to where the story begins.
You’re supposed to begin your book with an explosion. Not always an actual explosion, an emotional one is fine…but honestly, I prefer if something really blows up. Bring on the dynamite. Well, we can’t be blowing things up now can we if we’re locked inside the heroine’s head while she’s driving along remembering her mother’s death and her fiancé’s betrayal and her boss firing her for not submitting to his disgusting advances and now she’s penniless and almost out of gas and there are wolves howling in the dark woods through which she is now driving.
NO! Stop thinking about the past and explode the story.

Here’s the thing with back story. You need it. You wouldn’t have made it up if you didn’t need it. So, you’ve got to assume you need it for a REASON. Therefore, that back story is going to wind it’s way into your story somehow.
Seriously, it makes its way in. You do NOT need to write a three page back story, certainly not. Not even a one paragraph back story. Try half a sentence per page for the whole book.

Dialogue…get OUT of her head. If she’s fighting for her life then, okay, she can not talk, but otherwise, get her a friend or a dog or a teddy bear or something so she can talk not think. Thinking is very slow.

Which brings us to action. Make her MOVE.
Make someone move. If your book starts with her driving along for ten pages, reflecting on her whole life up to this point—alone—with no five senses—in an omniscient POV, which I am not going to attempt to explain here…Google it…then you’re making a mistake and you need to fix it.

“Fighting the high wind and blinding lightning on the heavily wooded rural highway distracted Madeline Blodgett from plotting revenge.
Something dashed into the road ahead of her and she instinctively jammed on the brake and wrenched the wheel to avoid impact. The nose of her rusted out Chevy Cavalier slammed into a rock alongside the road. The hood of her car blasted straight up and flames shot skyward. The car went into a spin. Lightning revealed a cliff directly ahead. Fighting the handle, Maddy wrenched the door open and threw herself out rolling, sliding along on the heartless, frozen pavement.
The choking smoke from the car burned her lungs and sparks rained onto her head. The car launched into midair. Momentum carried her after the car. Clawing at the frozen ground she tore her fingernails to bloody stumps. A slender branch slapped her face and she snagged it, stopping her fall. She tasted her own blood as she …

blah, blah, blah… I’d have her dangle, fight her way back up (the word cliffhanger came from somewhere!). Some blood drip in her eyes, a wolf howl, I'm picturing sleet to wed the 'frozen' with the 'lightning'. You know, the regular opening for a sweet Christian romance novel….

Dragging herself back up onto the bridge, she raised her eyes and looked straight into the dripping fangs of the alpha male of a growling wolf pack.
He was going to tear her to shreds and eat her flesh. Even so Maddy knew the wolf would treat her ten times better than her back-stabbing, cheating, lying, slimeball ex-fiancé.

That’s it. That’s all the back story you get for this page. We need a hero to jump between her and the wolves about now, don’t you think? Although I'm a big fan of heroines saving themselves. Still, this is a really tight spot. I'm sure she had a shotgun but it went over the cliff with her car. The hero'd better show up and be tough but have a real bad attitude.
Why the bad attitude? His own back story. But please, please, please don’t tell me about it yet. And you can’t anyway because we’re in her POV.
Anything about this you don’t understand you have to learn.
Have to.
Go look at your book. Are the senses there, the dialogue? Is the back story gone? Who’s POV are you in? Any questions that would make any of this more understandable?

Hit me with the opening couple of paragraphs of your book.

Let's see if you explode your story.


  1. Thanks for a great post Mary.

    My biggest weaknesses are definitely also scene and senses. I can have the sassiest dialogue but absolutely no sense of where it is taking place - half the time for all my readers know she could equally be in a mountain hut in Colorado or on a yacht in the Caribbean!

  2. It's something I've learned to go back and double check for.
    Something I'm really lame at is what they're wearing. I guess mostly, with my historicals, I just slap a gingham dress on the women and a Stetson on the men and call it good.
    In contemporary, blue jeans and a T-shirt. :)

  3. Oh, Mary, thanks for the fun book intro. But, hey, you had me at bloody stumps.


    Great post. Kara and Mary, I'm with you on setting a scene, too. I've had cp's ask me if it's day or night, what day of the week it is, what she looks like, what he's wearing. And I'll have to honestly say, I have no idea. So yeah, it's a growing area for me, too. LOL


  4. Mary, Thank you for the helpful post. I'll take the dare, and share the first two paragraphs from a current wip. Exploding? I'm not sure, you tell me.

    Trey LeMaster recognized the rumble even before the ground shivered and heaved under his boots.
    An earlier quake had disrupted his morning shower, forcing him to shut off the water and hastily wrap a towel around his waist. He had stood dripping, grasping the trembling towel bar and wondering if this would be his demise, regretting the idea of being found wrapped in a flowery towel in what his wife had dubbed as the ranch’s daffodil bathroom. He would rather have pictured himself slumped atop his well-worn saddle or having a raging bronco pitch him headfirst into the ground.

  5. Great post. I have just read a book where the pov keeps changing several times in one chapter so much that i got so confused i had to re read alot of the early part to work out who was speaking.

    Oh dont enter me i have read Golden days and loved it.

  6. Cute opening, Ed! I like the humor.

    I'm revising right now and just cut a page and a half off my opening. I'm still not sure I've cut enough. I need to come up with something punchy to start it. Right now it's pretty blah. I may post it later after I figure out what to do.


  7. HOLY COW, Mare, so NOW I know what I've been doing wrong!! Excellent post, my friend, and one new writers should print off and keep.

    But, uh, could you explain the one POV per scene again? I didn't get it ... :) Okay, so I'm a rule-breaker, but only with POV. For all you rule-breakers out there, let me emphasize that Mary is dead-on when she says Nora can get away with head-hopping (shifting/blurring POVs in one scene), but aspiring writers cannot UNLESS you do it clearly and concisely and usually not more than two POVs per scene. (Okay, okay,I actually do five POVs in one scene in Book 3 of the Daughters of Boston series, but then I'm a POV rebel, what can I say?)

    So, for all you multiple-POV rebels out there, here are some rules we DO have to follow:

    1.) You MUST double-space between POV shifts to show that one has occured.

    2.) You MUST start the POV shift off with an action or some clear indication whose POV is now taking place.

    3.) Limit your POV shifts to two per scene unless it is a reallllly long scene.

    4.) Do NOT shift POVs every other sentence or paragraph, but have a healthy portion of the scene between each.

    Just my 2 cents.


  8. See there Julie, and I was TAUGHT that you do not have to double space to show POV shifts, but the best tool to show a POV shift is to use the character as the first word of the sentence shifting to make the POV character own the scene. Actually it was Suzanne Brockmann's workshop that taught me that. Let me see if I can dig up some examples.

  9. Also another favorite tool of mine, also from the Suzanne Brockmann school of POV is DEEP POV. Here in Seekerville, Camy Tang has some great info on that on her website but here is the Brockmann philosphy on that

    And I quote" Deep POV is very similar to writing first person. (I, me, mine...) Except it's third person. (Sam's, He, him, his...) When I use deep POV (which is pretty much all the time!), I don't need to write "he thought," or "he felt" -- it's understood that the words I'm writing are this character's thoughts and feelings. This makes for tighter pacing and a livelier voice.

    Keep in mind, however, that when I use deep point of view, I usually limit myself to one single point of view for each scene. If I want to move into someone's head, I have to have a scene break. I usually find it too jarring to headhop from one deep point of view to another to another.

    If you want to learn how to write using deep POV, write a scene from the first person. Instead of using He or your character's name, use "I." Instead of his, use "my." And so on.

    Write as if you are your hero. Describe the world with his voice. Tell us what he feels -- or what he'll admit to himself that he's feeling! Then, after you finish writing the scene, go back in and replace all the first person pronouns with third person pronouns or your hero's name. That's deep point of view!"

  10. Excellent post, Mary. I'm guessing many of us have to remember to add senses and setting. It's fine not to have them in the first draft, but they've got to be there to give the story richness, to put the reader right where the characters are. That's where revising comes in.

    Julie, I sometimes give the h/h povs in the same scene but always use a scene break. POV purists wouldn't be pleased, but that's not head hopping, which isn't going to fly with editors.

    Ed, love the image of your hero wrapped in a flowery towel and more worried about how his corpse would look than about his survival. Fun stuff. And a great opening hook.


  11. I may have gone to far with the bloody stumps. You know I just made that little intro up. I actually spend WAY TOO LONG yesterday writing it, then revising it, reading MY OWN RULES and fixing that little blurb according to them.

    So bloody stumps, yeah, maybe. I couldn't reconcile the lighting and the frozen ground either.

    Still, I found myself hooked in it.
    It's the senses most of all I think that drag you into a story. I just gives the readers a really compelling experience.

  12. Ed, I love the humor and drama of the scene, HOWEVER, you may have noticed that, after the first sentence, you dived straight into backstory.

    Instead of doing that, why don't you either START with the towel in the shower, because that's funny, or leave the towel part until later.
    See the way you wrote it is really good, it shows really talent. I'm grinning, worrying, seeing the towel, the daffodil bathroom, the bronc, so you are talented, you just have to make sure not to let the reader off the hook of the shaking ground by going for the joke UP FRONT. It can still come. But later.

  13. Jenny, I'm used to reading multiple POVs per scene and it doesn't bother me, but I really like the one POV style. I think it's stronger, more intimate. Being able to climb into one characters head and know you're staying there lets you get really deeply absorbed in that one character's experience.

  14. Julie, I don't remember you jumping POVs, so whatever you did, you did it well.
    Five POVs in one scene? Wow, that never bothered me a bit.
    I don't count it as changing POV within a scene if you leave a space to make the jump clear, as breaking the rules.

    It's when one paragraph is her thinking, then the next is HIM thinking, then back to her. I just reread Julie Garwood's Saving Grace, one of my favorite books of all time btw, and I was a bit more aware of her head hopping then usual because I'd just written this post.
    But I love her work and forgive her anything. Still, for a new author, an editor who reads head hopping is going to IMMEDIATELY assume you don't know what you're doing...I'M NOT KIDDING.

    And reject you.

  15. For some reason I have Christy Barritt's voice ringing in my head when I think about POV. And since she almost certainly TYPED her instructions to me, that's even stranger that I hear her voice!!!

    But she used to say, Anchor the scene immediately and strongly in the POV you're using.

    She's say something...five sentences"Oh, I just figured out you're in the hero's POV, fix that, let me know immediately.

    And I love DEEP POV, too. I don't use She thought, or She felt much. You can get away with that if you've anchored the POV well at the beginning of the scene.

  16. Here's a none explosive first two paragraphs of The Husband Tree, which I'm working through with my critique group right now. But explosion or not, it is, I hope, a beginning that will make a reader ... read on.

    The Husband Tree

    Belle pitched dirt into the hole and a stab of spitefulness made her toss it right on Anthony’s handsome, worthless face.

    She probably should have wrapped him in a blanket but blankets were hard to come by…unlike husbands.

  17. I'm one of those newbies you are writing for. For the moment, I am fairly well disciplined in my POV, but I struggle with the senses. My characters have work to do, problems to solve, and even though I see them in a specific time and place, I often forget to give the reader enough sensory information to see them in the right setting. It is the most consistent criticism of my work. Thank you for reminding me AGAIN. I needed that.

  18. Mary, I love your The Husband Tree opening. Whew, in a few words you tell us plenty about this woman and her dead husband. :-) That's the hint of back story that hooks readers. Excellent.

    The fun part of writing setting is to show it through the POV character's eyes. I think Tina said this. Depending on the character's mood or their experiences, they'll see things differently. It's also fun to use weather that underscores the mood.


  19. Thank you for the comments, Mary! I really appreciate the constructive advice about eliminating backstory from the opening. I'll work on rewriting it.

  20. But don't eliminate the flowered towel, definitely have it in there somewhere because it's really funny. I can totally relate.

    Maybe he could even SAY this to somewhere, grumble..."I was afraid I'd die wearing one of my wife's daffodil towels. My corpse would have blushed."

  21. You know a great example of seeing the scene through an individual character's eyes? This is the way you give a character a VOICE.

    Wow, I could have included that.

    So if your character is a painter, they might focus on color and shape and beauty.
    If he's a soldier he might think in combat terms, in his head he'd use unusual terms unique to his profession and training.
    If he's a farmer he might really be aware of weather and growing things.
    If she's a cook, she might relate things to food and react especially strongly to food.

    If you want to see this done brilliantly, read Nora Roberts "Angels Fall" the heroine in that book is a cook. She is in love with food, the smell the taste, the sizzle when it cooks, the sound when a knife goes through celery.
    It's really a terrific example of a character's voice being uniquely her own.
    I heard once that if you can switch the dialogue from one character to the next without editing it, you're doing it wrong. Each character should have a personal, identifiable voice.

  22. Katherine, I do the same thing. It's all in my head, but doesn't make it to the paper! :) I guess that's what critiques and revisions are for. :)


  23. Well, I don't have any opening paragraph to submit yet, but this post is very enlightening to read. Thanks, Mary!!

  24. Hi, Jeanelle. Thanks for stopping by. I love your blog.

  25. Mary, great info! It's always good to relook the basics! I'm re-reading Dwight Swain's TECHNIQUES OF A SELLING AUTHOR. Basics but so, so good. Each time I read his text, I pick up something new!

    Tina, I'm with you! I try to stay in Deep POV. Seems to have made my writing more immediate. Another red flag for me is filtering. Watch for words like felt, heard, etc, that weaken the action.

  26. Great post, Mary!

    I don't mind changing povs in a scene, as long as it's once (two characters) or twice (three). Beyond that, then I feel pov-overload.

    I don't mind multi-pov stories, like Julie's, but...

    Okay, last week-ish, I read a book I thought was a romance because the author's previous books were romances. Heroine POV for the first two or three chapters. Then Guy1, who I immediately thought must be the hero becuase when a male pov is given in a romance that 99% of the time signifies he's the hero.

    Well, he wasn't. And I'm glad because he was a wuss.

    About 1/2 through the book-ish, Guy2 had a pov. Ahh, the hero. Nope. And I'm glad because he was a jerk.

    All in all, the story had 5 or 6 povs. No traditional romance ending, although the ending was quite fitting for the heroine and her story.

    But as a reader, I felt deceived by the author. Needless to say I'm moderately interested in reading her next book.

    Of course, I also feel cheated when a back-cover blurb mentions a heroine having to choose between two guys and then only one guy's pov is given. Duh. We know who she's going to choose the first time you put us in the guy's pov.

    And that's one thing that Julie's book that kept me guessing. Logic said Faith and Collin would get together because 1) this is a romance, 2) he's on the cover, and 3) he's mentioned in the back-cover blurb.

    Yet, I was torn between what my mind knew was the logical ending and Faith's relationship with Mitch. And because Mitch had a POV, I didn't trust my logical assumptions.

    With openings, I'm okay without dynamite exploding. As long as there is conflict, an intersting/compelling situation, or the foreshadowing that something is about to happen, I'm good. I think it depends on the story and the genre.

    On a side note, I read another book over the weekend that had a 20-page prologue. I skipped the prologue and went directly to chapter one. After I'd finsihed the book(VERY enjoyable, btw), I went back and read the prologue. Yes, it was well written. Nope, it wasn't needed, imho. Or at least it didn't need to be 20 pages long.

  27. I still remember reading a book, which will not be named, with a prologue, which I promptly forgot all about when I got into the book. Then, by accident really, I opened the book and noticed that prologue and remember it...some childhood incident...I had no idea what the point was. It had nothing to do with the book, seriously.
    What was she THINKING???
    I was kind of engaging, maybe meant to give an insight into the fires that forged the heroine, but still, not one item in it mattered.

  28. GINA SAID:
    I don't mind multi-pov stories, like Julie's, but...

    Thanks, Gina, I was a little nervous there ... :)

    And I really don't like prologues either, ESPECIALLY long ones! In fact, I pretty much vowed to myself I would NEVER do one, then ate my words in book 2 of The Daughters of Boston Series. Wrote the book without it, then just HAD to write a prologue that picked up from the last scene in APMP to give myself closure on something. So I've learned to never say never! :)


  29. Gina, that feeling of being deceived is at the heart of branding.

    I don't mind if an author wants to try something different, I respect that, but WARN ME! I read a book once, and it was was one of the big name romance authors who I won't name here!

    No happily ever after! In fact the heroine dumped the ... I guess you'd call him the hero; and the secondary hero, who had been pure YUCK and been married to her and drugged her and abused her... seemed to now be 'reformed' and the end was left dangling like... he was going to go after her and convince her to give him another chance.

    And that was it. The end. Nothing was settled.

    I'm not saying I'll never read another book by this author, but I promise you I'll never BUY one again. That just pinches. If I'm expecting HEA and I don't get it, I'm majorly annoyed. So WARN ME.


    That can be done so easily on the book cover...

  30. I'm not a writer yet. But I am sure enjoying "Healing Promises" by Amy Wallce. Glad I read her book "Ransomed Dreams" first. Both grip you and won't let you put them down. I am forwarding them on to be passed around the family so everyone can read them. This means it is a good book if it has to be passed on. I also wrote reviews in four places for her. You want to know if you've got a good book - get a reader to read it.
    God Bless

  31. Mary, thank you for the excellent advice. After I read your post, I went back to my manuscript and chopped away about a third of the beginning so I could get to the good stuff faster, and I'm seriously considering if I should chop some more. Thanks!

    I think that it's easier to think of writing as layering sometimes than as writing and revising. My first layer usually doesn't contain all the senses. It's just me getting what I hear and possibly a bit of what I see down. The second layer adds more of the 5 senses. Right now, I think my current story has enough layers to survive Alaska.

  32. Absolutely hilarious Mary! The backstory thing was so me. Thanks for the post.

  33. Mary the one i was reading till i worked it out all the main charactors are Women all in first person and it would change several times and it took awhile to work out who was who after the first few chapters i was getting use to it but I did find it really confusing to start with. also the 2 main leads were very similar.

  34. SquiresJ, Amy is going to be a guest on my LifewithMissy blog this month (the 23rd) for the release of her newest book, and she told me to let readers know to be sure to read the first book first! So I'm glad you did. :)


  35. Oh, how I want to kick this blogger %*&$%##@ for deleting my comment!

    GRRRRRR!!! I'm not having a very good day.

    Mary, I love the opening of The Husband Tree. It sounds like exactly the kind of book I love.

    And I'm sorry y'all won't get the benefit of my profound thoughts, but I'm too annoyed to try to repeat them.

  36. Ed!! I just saw your name as a Genesis finalists! Congratulations!! Did any other readers final? (I'll save the Seeker finalist news for them to share!) :)


  37. Thank you, Missy. I feel honored to be listed among the finalists.

  38. Sorry, I'm a day late. Yesterday was...Monday. If I have to explain, grrr.

    Great post, Mary. It was riveting.

  39. Great post! I am a nonfiction writer, but making my first foray into fiction. I need to be reminded of these things as I start.