Guest Post by Cindy Ervin Huff
There are a few interesting factoids I’ve learned while writing and researching my stories. I’ll share a few things about setting that I found both interesting and surprising.
I am directionally challenged. If you tell me go west, then turn south my eyes roll back in my head. I need landmarks and left/right directions, and even then it can be iffy. Writing a novel in the town I live in suffered from my affliction. I needed my husband to help me rewrite scenes for New Duet to get the placement of setting correct. He can go somewhere once and still remember how to get there.
Directions are just one piece of the setting that is very important to get right in novels. People from the area may read your book just because of the setting, and if you mess it up, they are disappointed. I read a novel set in the town I went to high school in. This best-selling author crafted a wonderful story, but the details of the setting were so off. She must have relied on maps and never visited the town. It ruined the story for me.
In my first historical romance novel, Secrets & Charades, I named my fictitious towns off the top of my head. I submitted the manuscript to a contest and had judges telling me the towns were in different areas of Texas. I guess my subconscious mind chose names of real towns. After much research, I finally found two names that didn’t exist as towns in Texas. I named the hero’s town after one of my favorite Golden Age actors, Charleton Heston. So Charleton, Texas passed muster. I researched ghost towns for the brief mention of the town in Missouri my heroine came from.
I also made sure the church in New Duet that would be closing did not exist in Aurora. That kind of plot twist could offend a congregation.
Some publishers are very picky about using well-known branded names such as Cubs, Red Lobster, or Panera’s. There can be copyright issues. And if a crime is committed in McDonalds or Target you might have a lawsuit.
Most privately-owned businesses don’t mind. They love the idea of their shop being a location in a book. C Hope Clark has a whole series of murder mysteries set on Edisto Island. The residents love it. Knowing what the publisher expects and asking for permission ahead of time saves the headache of going through your manuscript and changing the names of restaurants to something made up.
Even if you create a fake town be sure the saloon or restaurant is always located in the same area of town. Draw a visual for yourself to keep it straight. Even a two-street tiny town can be confusing to readers if the mine is south of town in chapter one and north of town in chapter sixteen. And it is lots easier to do than you would suspect.
Double check setting details before you submit, and your future editors will thank you.
Cindy Ervin Huff is a multi-published writer and her debut novel Secret’s and Charades won the Editor’s Choice Award in 2014 and placed third in the Maxwell Awards in 2017. Her contemporary romance New Duet released in May 2018. She has been featured in numerous periodicals over the last thirty years. Cindy is a member of ACFW and founding member of the Aurora, Illinois, chapter of Word Weavers. Although she has been creating stories in her head since childhood it wasn’t until high school those imaginary characters began appearing on paper. After raising her family, she began her novel writing adventures. Cindy loves to encourage new writers on their journey. She and her husband make their home in Aurora, Illinois. They have five children and six grandchildren. Visit Cindy on Facebook at www.facebook.com/cindyehuff, follow her on twitter @CindyErvinHuff, or check out her blog at www.jubileewriter.wordpress.com.
Amazon Buy link for Secrets & Charades: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1946016144
Amazon Buy link for New Duet: https://www.amazon.com/New-Duet-Cindy-Ervin-Huff-ebook/dp/B07CRV46PQ
Vary Sentences to Make Your Writing Interesting
(guest post by M.R. Anglin)
When I submitted my new book, Prince of the Sun, Princess of the Moon, to the publisher, I had already written the second book in the series and had a rough draft of the third ready. My release day came and went, and I set down to prepare the second book to send to my publisher. But when I read the draft, I noticed something odd. The first few chapters felt . . . dry. Normally, I like to use the first few chapters as an introduction to the point of view characters (those characters whose POV I’ll be telling the story from). But this time, it felt like I was tossing the characters at the reader saying, “Here. This is so-and-so. Let’s get the intros out of the way so we can get to the story.” To be frank, it was boring.
And I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. The content of the chapters themselves were interesting; the characters felt compelling to me; but the presentation was off. Then it hit me. It was the structure of my opening sentences. In the first five chapters, four of them started in roughly the same manner. That made the text come off as stale.
I had known for a long time that the first sentence in a story will draw your reader in or will put them off. But now I’m realizing that the first few sentences in your early chapters could just as easily color your story in a negative way.
For an example, I’d like to share with you the first sentences of the first five chapters in the sequel while in revision:
1. The human world had a saying that always made Plandte smile: “Great things come in small packages.”
2. Alandri lifted her hair and examined herself in the mirror.
3. Lumina alighted on the sun and blinked in its brilliance.
4. Marcos tapped his fingers on the desk in his apartment, listening to the hold music on the other end of the phone.
5. Shielle narrowed her eyes at her computer and continued to type.
Do you see it? After the first chapter, there is no variation in sentence structure. They follow the pattern “character, verb, object/prepositional phrase.” Having the same type of sentence over and over again gets monotonous and boring. The solution: vary the sentences.
There are several ways to change up the sentence structures so that your old standbys don’t get stale. Here are some examples:
- Start with dialogue. Some writers don’t like this technique because it sort of throws the reader in with no context, but I am a fan. I just try to explain what’s happening quickly and smoothly without an infodump.
- Start with a gerund. For example, “Looking in the mirror never gave Amber an accurate view of herself.” In this case, the phrase “Looking in the mirror” is the subject of the sentence even though it contains the verb “looking.”
- Start with some background descriptions. I don’t like doing this unless I tie it into a character. For example, “The setting sun sparkled off the lake water, dazzling Kevin’s eyes.”
There are other ways to vary your sentences to make your writing interesting. So don’t settle for just one. Find different and interesting ways to give your sentences a punch and see if it doesn’t make your story that much more interesting.
-*heart* M.R. Anglin
M.R. Anglin has always had a fascination with space—particularly the moon and stars. She also has three amazing nephews, two adorable “near-nephews” (with another one on the way), and one brilliant niece, so it’s no wonder she eventually wrote a story that combines these loves into one. You can often find her gazing up at the Florida sky at night or hunching over her notebook/computer by day.
She is the author of several books, including the self-published, ongoing Silver Foxes series and Lucas, Guardian of Truth (LampPost 2012). She has also has stories included in anthologies and posted online.
Social Media Links:
Purchase Link for referenced book title: https://www.amazon.com/Prince-Princess-Moon-Rulers-Galaxy-ebook/dp/B078T6KJSN
Should you use flashbacks?
Expert Harvey Chapman says, “…if you can tell the story without them then so much the better.”
Author K.M. Weiland says, “Don’t let unnecessary flashbacks take over and rob the forward momentum from your story’s main conflict.”
Author Nancy Kress says, “Flashbacks offer many pitfalls. This is because even the best-written flashback carries a built-in disadvantage: It is, by definition, already over.”
Author Joëlle Anthony says, “Flashbacks inevitably go on too long and aren’t usually the best way to tell a story. A flashback is only effective if it moves the story forwards and it’s the only way to tell that part of the story.”
Screenwriter Jenna Milly says, “It’s better to see your character react to the information the writer wants to get out there in the here and now rather than have it explained in flashback.”
Personally, a recent professional critique made me realize I shouldn’t use a flashback in an opening scene. Making the story chronological gives the reader a chance to be grounded in the present. Author Bharti Kirchner says, “Don’t use flashback immediately after the opening, when the story hasn’t yet gotten off the ground.”
Another editor pointed out where a flashback scene in my novel wasn’t necessary. I read the story without the flashback and it made sense, so I totally cut it. Maybe writing the flashback was necessary for me to know what the characters were doing, but it wasn’t necessary for my reader.
But how do I get the information from the past into my story without a flashback?
First off, during a life and death situation, you don’t. A main character hanging by their fingertips doesn’t have time or energy to spend on memories—they’re trying to figure out how to survive!
Something from the past can be shared in brief dialogue or thoughts. And these thoughts or words could be inspired by a found object, sensory experience, or current event. In other words, something reminds the character of the past. For example, certain scents take me back to a vacation spot in the redwoods when I was a child.
Through conflict. Jenna Milly says, “Or better yet, another character notices how upset your protagonist is when he or she picks up the ring and then pushes for answers. This is how you get conflict – in the here and now – into a scene and also give us the information that would come out in the flashback.”
Use summaries. “One way to keep readers engaged with summaries is to keep them short and mix them between scenes,” Kyla Bagnall says. “You can also use a summary sentence or two as a transition between scenes.”
Tips for using flashbacks:
In her article “The Only Reason Your Story Should Have Flashbacks,” K.M. Weilland shares two reasons to have flashbacks. First, “the character has an interesting backstory.” And second, “the backstory moves the plot.”
In her article “3 Tips for Writing Successful Flashbacks,” Nancy Kress talks about using a flashback after a strong scene, orienting the reader in time and space, and using verb tense conventions to guide the reader in and out of the flashback.
In his article “How to Handle Flashbacks In Writing,” Harvey Chapman has three points: 1. “Make It Clear You are Moving Back in Time.” 2. “Hook the Reader First.” 3. “Make the Flashbacks Natural.”
And I love what Kayla Bagnall says, “A flashback should significantly alter either how the reader perceives the present, or how the character does.” This is from her article: “5 Ways To Handle The Passing Of Time In Your Story.”
Flashbacks can be a useful tool in nonfiction, too. This article “Time Traveling: Writing Graceful Flashbacks” by Mason Inman has interesting examples and explanations.
Writing is a solitary act for most of us. And usually we are too close to what we’ve written to see what is working and what isn’t. This is where a critique can be powerful. My favorite critiques are from other writers. (This is all separate from an editorial letter from an agent or editor, which would be after critiques.)
I’ve been in a number of critique groups as I moved around the country. Critiques of my work have caught typos, pointed out awkward or confusing sentences, asked for more depth, inspired me, taught me, and corrected me. My critique partners have suggested where to tighten, brainstormed when someone is struggling with a particular issue, shared marketing news, cheered successes, discussed possible comp titles, and become faithful friends.
So, what elements have I seen that make a good critique?
First, encouragement. It can be as simple as “Nice title” or “I like this character” or a smiley face. It could be: “I know you’ll figure this problem out.”
Second, kindness. A lot depends on how something is said. E.g. “I’m not getting this.” versus “This doesn’t make sense.”
Third, honesty. I’d much rather hear something isn’t working than be told polite lies that will become evident when others see my manuscript. E.g. “This is really good,” when it’s not.
Fourth, basic writing knowledge. Most of us don’t know everything about grammar and spelling, but critiquers need to have some basics to catch others’ mistakes.
Fifth, current readers. Those who read in the category and genre you write will have a better understanding of what is working in the current market.
Sixth, questions. Sometimes I learn more from questions than anything else. “Why is your character doing this?” “Where or when is this happening?” “What is your character’s motivation?” Oh, I haven’t made that clear, I realize. Or, I hadn’t thought about that. One of my critiquers often asks, “What’s the heart of the story?” Such a good question. Audrey Chin says, “Critiquing has taught me that the best stories are still the ones that move hearts.”
Seventh, time. It takes time to give a critique, whether it is in person or written. My favorite critique groups are face-to-face and have the writer read the material aloud. Each listener writes comments (positive and negative) on the manuscript, then the comments are shared aloud (unless someone else has already mentioned an issue). Time consuming, but so helpful, especially when one person’s comments prompt confirmation, disagreement, or suggestions from others.
Am I missing anything? Your thoughts are welcome in the comment section.
Have you ever spent time on twitter reading #tenqueries, #500queries, #querytip, or the like? If you haven’t, you might want to consider it. It’s a good reminder of what TO DO or NOT TO DO in a query and/or sample pages.
If you’re not familiar with the concept, agents post brief summaries of a sampling of the queries in their inbox on twitter and whether they would “request” or “pass.” I think we can learn from both. Sometimes you can find these on blogs and contests too.
Look at what these agents have to say:
NOT TO DO
“Mystery / suspense. Good concept but first three chapters are all backstory. Not entirely sure what this protagonist has to fear. Pass.” – Sharon Belcastro“Adult Psychological Thriller. The thriller aspect of this query is not focused on in the way it should be. It’s not the forefront of the pitch, making it feel like a subplot instead of the crux of the tension. Pass.” – Peter Knapp
“Do not, I repeat, DO NOT query a project you’re not done writing! Pass.” – Laura Zatts
“Something I see way too often in sample pages = ‘her brain rattled with shock upon seeing the dead body.’ That's going to end up in the ‘quality of writing not-quite-there-yet pile.’” – Sara Megibow
“Women's fiction. Premise is a bit flat and run of the mill. Nothing unique. Pass” – Scott Eagan
“Let me make this clear: I do not accept email submissions. And it is not in fact easier than Query Manager. If you can't respect that, I am not the agent for you.” – Natascha Morris
“If you're querying and find yourself using phrases such as your character ‘becomes someone he's not’ try to find more descriptive ways to show what the story's about. You want to pull readers into your story and to do that you need these details.” – Kortney Price
“A query letter that starts out ‘in lieu of a query I am sending...’ goes straight to spam. Email address flagged as ‘divert to spam from now on.’” – Janet Reid
“If your query focuses on a character who readers don't meet till halfway through the novel, you either started your book in the wrong spot, or you need to take another stab at that query synopsis.” – Michaela A. Cane
And WHAT TO DO!
“Your comp titles tell who your book's audience is. A quick reason why you chose them is helpful, e.g. ‘Fans of Satanic balls and political irony, as found in Bulgakov's THE MASTER AND MARGARITA will enjoy my super awesome book.’” – Mary C. Moore (Note: I’ve seen and heard agents say don’t tell us how good your book is.)
“Before you query, check the opening pages. Does your opening line raise a question? Does the story start in scene? Are the stakes clearly established? Make sure you engage the reader (agent).” – Jennifer March Soloway
“Pitch contests are fantastic, but never underestimate the power of an old fashioned query sent to an agent’s inbox. I’ve signed the majority of my wonderful clients from queries, so it still happens!” – Penny Moore
“Be Honest- If you previously had an Agent or your book had gone on submission to Editors before let the Agents you are querying know that.” – Christa Heschke
“If you don't mention genre or age group in your query (maybe because you're not sure?), it's obvious. Better to be decisive than to hope agents just won't notice.” – Melissa Edwards
“The query did a good job of capturing a fantastical plot with multiple surreal elements, which can be so hard to summarize, and the opening page drew me in with its voice, detail, and delicate sorrow.” – Rebecca Podos
I hope you found this selection of thoughts helpful.
Introspection by your main character is good, but it can also be too much of a good thing. I know I get annoyed when introspection does the following:
I like what novelist Gail Gaymer Martin says, “Too much can be boring since introspection is passive, and too little deprives the reader of getting to know the depth of a character’s needs, longings, and struggles.”
Check that your main character’s introspection serves a purpose. Does your character change because of his thoughts? Does she realize something new? Is a new action realized due to the internal monologue? “Introspection is one of the key elements of growing up and moving forward,” Kelly Rogers says. That works for our characters too.
Just like with description, mixing internal dialogue in with action helps avoid too much at once. “That new understanding or new goal or desire, and the size of it, may only become apparent in bits and pieces and stages, not necessarily one huge Moment.” – Emma Darwin
Introspection should also show something of the main character’s personality or beliefs. I love this quote I found in an absolutewrite forum, “Make sure it oozes personality: Is your character funny? Sarcastic? Morbidly dark? Hyperbolic? Adding bits of their personality to the introspection makes it more engaging.” – Raivnor
Keep on target. Elizabeth Grayson says, “While our thoughts sometimes come in stream of consciousness, a genre fiction character’s thoughts are relentlessly logical. They must segue from one to the next in a manner the reader can follow — even if the character you’re writing is a flake.”
What are your thoughts on introspection?
SM Ford writes inspirational fiction for adults, although teens may find the stories of interest, too. She also loves assisting other writers on their journeys.