ABCs with Mary Connealy
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.
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.
Mary Connealy writes fun and lively "romantic comedy with cowboys" for the inspirational market. She is the author of the successful Lassoed in Texas, Montana Marriages, and Sophie's Daughters series, and her novel Calico Canyon was nominated for a Christy Award. She lives on a ranch in eastern Nebraska with her husband, Ivan, and has four grown daughters.
This post first appeared in Seekerville April 7, 2008.