~ By Lyn Cote
(First published in "Writer's Forum," a publication for students, faculty, and friends of Writer's Digest School, Fall 1998 as “Dramatic Sentences in Seven Steps.”)
When I completed my first manuscript, I thought a national day of celebration should be proclaimed. Imagine my chagrin when I discovered contest judges, agents, and editors weren't impressed by my 700 neat pages. They expected not only that each chapter, page, and paragraph be effective, but they also demanded that exacting standard apply to each sentence and even each word. Didn't they know that perfectionism of this level put them at risk for early cardiac arrest?
When I had no luck changing their minds, I decided I would have to conform. Being a seasoned (or shell-shocked) English teacher, I went back to the basics of sentence structure. There are only four types of sentences in English. (Yes, that's all we have to work with.) They are:
Simple: subject + verb
Compound: subject + verb + conjunction + subject + verb.
Complex: subordinate conjunction + subject + verb, (comma) subject + verb.
Compound-complex: a compound and a complex sentence joined by a conjunction.
These are the basic building blocks for every page you will ever write. So you ask, what's a dramatic about them? How could the Brontës, and Jane Austin do magic with these building blocks? Here's how.
Seven Power of Rules
1. The simpler the better. The clear, simple sentence packs more power than a long string of clauses.
2. Keeping #1 in mind, a variety of sentence structures is preferred to repetition of just one. Even one paragraph of only simple sentences irritates the reader.
3. In a paragraph of long sentences, a short sentence takes on prominence and vice versa.
5. Subordinate conjunction subordinate or weaken the clause they introduce. They make the clause dependent on another clause, one which can stand alone. Example: "when we come home late" cannot stand on its own be and understood. (Common subordinate conjunctions: if, because, after, before, since, when).
6. Don't bury your most striking word or idea in the middle. Example: "Jake will explode when we come home late." Explode is the most evocative word in the sentence and it lies buried in the middle. Why not build up to that evocative word? "When we come home late, Jack will explode."
7. When you break rule #6, everyone notices! If you put the most important word first (instead of last), you give it special emphasis. Example: "Explode, that's what Jake will do when we come home late."
These seven rules are the touchstones of powerful sentences. And, once you can create these, you'll be able to use those sentences to build evocative stories and articles -- and make sales.
USA Today bestselling author, Lyn Cote has written over 45 books. A Romance Writers of America RITA finalist and an American Christian Fiction Writers Carol Award winner, Lyn writes contemporary romance, romantic suspense and historical novels.
No matter which kind of story, her brand “Strong Women, Brave Stories” comes through. Her most recent achievement is being added to Romance Writers of America’s Honor Roll for bestselling authors.
Lyn's new novella, Loving Winter, is part of the 14-author box set of sweet holiday novellas, Sweet Christmas Kisses 4.
Visit her website/blog at http://www.LynCote.com and find her on Facebook, GoodReads and Twitter.
This is Part 2 of my observations from judging lots of RWA contests for unpublished manuscripts. I really love judging, not only to give back to a process that gave me my start in publishing, but by critiquing someone else’s writing, I discover weakness in my own.
Part 1 focused on the actual beginning of your story and the delicate balance of backstory in the first three chapters. Now, I’m going to discuss a craft item that affects not just your first chapters, but you entire book. Deep POV.
First, let me say, this is a very brief overview of the subject. There are craft books and blogs and courses that delve deep into the subject. (I really enjoyed Margie Lawson’s Empowering Characters’ Emotions.) But, what I learned from judges’ comments on my first contest entries was that I had a BIG POV problem. And, upwards 75% of the contest entries I judge have POV issues, some major, some minor.
POV=Point of View
Deep POV=Immersive storytelling
Generally, an author tells their story from one to three different characters’ POVs. Usually in a romance, it’s the hero, heroine, and/or maybe a villain. (Or H/H or h/h or H/h/H, whatever genre you’re writing. For simplicity, I’m going with H/h.) With Deep POV, your goal is to get the reader into the character’s skin. Your reader should see what the hero sees, feels, touches, hears, smells… You want to break down as many walls between the reader and the character as possible. Writing in Deep POV will help you do this.
Old school romances were often written with one paragraph detailing the heroine’sinternal thoughts, then the next paragraph would jump into the hero’s head, all in the same conversation—back and forth, back and forth. Think 80’s and 90’s romances by Kathleen Woodiwiss or older Julie Garwood books like The Bride, which I love. That style has gone out of fashion with good reason. Nowadays, an author will spend an entire scene or half a scene in ONE character’s head and then switch.
(As an aside, I wrote THREE books (90k+ words each!) head hopping like a jackrabbit on crack. And, yes, I revised them all after learning about head hopping from a contest judge.)
But staying in a character’s head for a scene is only one aspect of mastering Deep POV. The other aspect is…becoming the character. That’s the only way I know how to put it. You should become your hero, heroine, or villain, and describe everything as it filters through your character’s senses.
You want your reader to feel, hear, see everything as your character does. This means most of the traditional ‘sense’ words—heard, saw, smelled, felt, thought, wondered, realized—are unnecessary.
For example: She heard the bell ring and startled.
Better: The bell rang. She startled.
In the first, you are removing the reader from the immediacy of the moment. In the second, the reader is experiencing the bell ringing right along with the heroine.
Let’s delve into the sense of sight for a moment. Unless you’re writing about a lumberjack, avoid using the word ‘saw’ or any of its derivatives. Assume anything you describe while in your character’s POV are things he/she can see.
For example: He saw the man creep out from behind the bush.
Better: The man crept out from behind the bush.
The reader understands that your POV character can see the man.
Internal sense words like thought, knew, wondered, and realized are often redundant.
For example: He knew he was falling in love.
For example: She wondered if the man would gather the courage to approach her.
Better: Would the man gather the courage to approach her?
The most frequent transgression I come across is overusing the word ‘felt’ as it pertains to feelings. In my opinion, the word ‘felt’ is often a cop-out.
For example: He felt angry.
Better: His hands curled into fists, and he shuffled into a fighter’s stance.
Instead of stating the feeling, like the first example, push yourself to find a more interesting way to depict the emotion. Using ‘felt’ does work beautifully sometimes, but really examine every single time you choose to use it and determine if you can make a stronger, more revealing sentence.
Authorial Intrusion and POV Slips
Beware authorial intrusion. This is when you describe something your POV can not see.
For example: Every man’s head in the room turned to watch the woman slink around the tables. Every man, but Jack, who stared into the brown dregs of his coffee.
Jack is looking at his coffee, not the approaching woman. This is a no-no, unless you’re going for an omniscient POV, which I’ve never attempted and is difficult to pull off convincingly.
More common than major authorial intrusions are simple POV slips, like the heroine describing something about herself she can’t see/know. An example from one of my WIPs:
Fire burned in her gut. As if nature itself felt her fury, a salty breeze lifted from the sea and plucked her auburn hair like tendrils of flame around her face.
I love that passage, but I knew when I wrote it that it was a POV slip. Do you see that in my heroine’s POV, she can’t describe her hair as ‘tendrils of flame’? Delete, delete, delete…
I read so many descriptions from a POV character about their own eyes. ‘Her eyes flashed with anger.’ Except a character cannot describe her own eyes this way. Better to write a physical reaction to the anger. Ditto with saying something like, Tears welled up in her brown eyes. A character is never going to think about the color of her eyes like this. Don’t use it as a shortcut for physical description.
This is by no means a comprehensive guide to writing Deep POV, but hope this post helps some budding writer to avoid the mistakes I made. If this made a lightbulb go off about your own writing, then go forth and learn and practice, practice, practice.
An award-winning author, Laura Trentham was born and raised in a small town in Tennessee. Although she loved English and reading in high school, she was convinced an English degree equated to starvation. She chose the next most logical major—Chemical Engineering—and worked in a hard hat and steel toed boots for several years.
She writes sexy, small town contemporaries and smoking hot Regency historicals. KISS ME THAT WAY, Cottonbloom Book 1, is a finalist for the Stiletto Contest and for the National Readers Choice Award. THEN HE KISSED ME, Cottonbloom Book 2, was named an Amazon Best Romance of 2016 and is a finalist for the National Excellence for Romance Fiction. TILL I KISSED YOU, Cottonbloom Book 3, is a finalist in the Maggie contest. When not lost in a cozy Southern town or Regency England, she’s shuttling kids to soccer, helping with homework, and avoiding the Mt. Everest-sized pile of laundry that is almost as big as the to-be-read pile of books on her nightstand.
FoodGreece being Greece, the book naturally has a lot of scenes with food. One of my characters, after having been away from Greece for six years, returns and is served snails. In the original scene, that's it. A relative is cooking snails. But thanks to an actual experience in my cousin's kitchen, the scene now has the added flare of a snail climbing out of the pot.
Then, to my delight, I got my hands on some family recipes, including the recipe for a cake that appears in the opening scene of the second book of the trilogy.
Around the Village
In my fictional world, the village bakery is owned by protagonist Katerina's family.
Here's the real thing, complete with dakos.
On a whim, I decided to tell the real-life baker that I was writing a book about a Cretan bakery and asked if I could look in the back. She gave me a quick tour, but wouldn't allow photos.
Still, I now have a better idea of what I'm writing about.
Then there's the village museum, old church and school where protagonist Evi spends time with Mathaios.
Whenever I pass through the area, I feel like they're going to show up.
(Note the retsina bottles in the museum window. I haven't decided how to work that into the story, but the possibilities are endless.)
Let's not forget the beach. My characters spend a lot of time there, doing yoga, drinking frappe, taking boat rides, swimming, etc.
The DonkeysAll three books revolve around a fictionalized version of a donkey sanctuary that's in the mountains right above the village. While I was writing the drafts, all I had to go on was the sanctuary's Facebook page. But now I can say that I've actually been there and I've fallen in love with the donkeys and the rescue dogs. Because I've learned what it feels like to hug a donkey (they're so dirty and fly-covered, but it's worth it), I must, must, must rewrite a few of the scenes. I also visited the sanctuary's gift shop, which they use for fundraising. Some of my characters paint rocks and knit toy donkeys, and now my descriptions will be more authentic. As an added bonus, on the way home from the sanctuary, I got to visit a farmer who picked fruit for us and introduced us to his animals. My books are already filled with goats (and sheep, “and stuff”), but now I have this experience to draw on. I can't wait!
The BeesThe second book of the trilogy involves complicated scenes involving beekeeping. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the village beekeeper gives workshops and was thrilled to answer my many questions. In Greek, my name means honeybee. Sorry about the silly selfie, but here I am in front of "my name."
The beekeeper is anxiously waiting to read my books, which may have something to do with the fact that I promised to put him in the acknowledgments.
Whatever the reason, I appreciate the pressure.
The PrettyLastly, I'll leave you with some random but pretty village pictures that are rotating as my desktop wallpaper as inspiration.
Now What?I know that most of my writing won't happen here, but I'm thankful that I've got my photos, my souvenirs, and my memories to keep me going once I leave. I've also got YouTube, so I can close my eyes and pretend I'm there. (Cretan music sounds nothing like "Zorba." It's its own genre.) There you have it! Let's give the science fiction and fantasy writers a run for their money. If you need some inspiration, take some time to build your world. Take or find photos (even make a collage), listen to music (even create a playlist), bake (smell and taste are surprisingly powerful), or do whatever it takes to dive head first into your contemporary yet fictional world.
* How do you build your world? Leave a comment and let us know!Melina writes contemporary romance with a pinch of oregano and a dash of chutzpah. She loves to travel, especially to her family’s village in Crete, and turn her adventures into research for her novels. In July of 2012, she moved to Jerusalem with her adorable but sneaky cocker spaniel. Her family now includes an incredibly sweet yet troubled rescue puppy. You can visit her at http://melinakantor.com
* Who are your favorite "funny" authors? Do you have any tricks for adding humor to your stories? *Becke (Martin) Davis moderated the Garden Book Club and the Mystery Forum at BN.com until the forums were discontinued last year. Prior to that, she was a writer and instructor at B&Nâs Online University and for two years she wrote a garden blog for B&N. She has written six garden books and one book about âN Sync, co-authored with her daughter. Becke has two adult children, two wonderful granddaughters and two cats. She has been married almost 45 years and lives in Chicagoâs Hyde Park.
Show not Tell.Yes. Very important. This involves the reader more in the story and makes them figure things our for themselves, which results in a far more satisfying experience. Don’t tell the reader Sarah is depressed. Show this by having her refuse to eat a slice of her favourite cake or sit staring at a newspaper but not turn the page for half-an-hour. Don’t tell your reader how John is angry. Show this by him walking into the room fists curled, cheeks flushed and eyes flashing. However… sometimes showing just doesn’t make sense. One emotion I always struggle to describe is “sheepish.” A character has done something wrong and is found out – they may not give eye contact or they may fiddle with their watch or clear their throat and start rambling or… I mean it really can, sometimes, be quite exhausting getting your character to do a whole manner of actions when you could just say: Megan looked sheepish. So I use my common sense. My general rule is show where you can, as long as it doesn’t hinder the rhyme and flow of the sentence and story.
Write from the heart.Hmm. Writers are told this again and again. And for the most part I agree. However I am first and foremost a commercial writer. I hope for an audience; aim to make a living from my writing. It is my career. So I keep an eye on the market as well and try to connect with the Zeitgeist when I choose a theme or title. Only once have I not done this. Years ago with a novel that is firmly under my bed. It is chicklit set in Ancient Egypt. Many people I mention this book to say they would LOVE to read it – it even stars Tutankhamun! But it doesn’t fit the market. Didn’t back then. Still doesn’t now. An agent or publisher doesn’t know where to place it. So that was one year’s wasted work – not in terms of learning about writing, but in terms of pushing my career forwards and trying to get an agent and publishing deal.
Don’t over-use exclamation marks.I do love a good exclamation mark! (Ha, see what I did there :) ) But again, they can produce lazy writing. And I recall one agent who said she doesn’t read a submission if there is an exclamation mark on the first page. An exclamation mark can show anger, surprise or humour…. any strong emotion, when often the words should be doing that. For example: “I can’t believe you just did that!” said Paul
as opposed to“I can’t believe you just did that.’ Paul’s jaw dropped. So, once again, I try to be selective. If the sentence is really important or super emotional, an exclamation mark might just be what is needed. And I do think it depends on genre. I use them reasonably liberally in my romantic comedies – but I do carefully consider each one.
Avoid too much backstory in the opening chapters.Oh yes. Please! I cannot bear this and my eye drops to the bottom of the page immediately if I start a new book and the opening is full of the main character’s history. The irony is, this is one of my own biggest faults when writing a first draft, and I always end up having to restructure my first chapters. Don’t do it! When you meet someone new in real life and start to get to know them, you don’t begin by sitting them down and pouring our your whole life story, do you? So I take my time and try to thread the information in subtly so that the reader gets to know your character more slowly – this will make them emotionally connect with the character in a more natural way and getting a reader to care about your protagonist, or their story, is the key to getting them to read on. So there you have it. My view on just a few of the more well-known rules. And yes them’s the rules – but we aren’t in school now. My advice would be to learn them inside out and then trust your instincts and confidence to know when to break them. Samantha Tonge lives in Cheshire with her lovely family and a cat that thinks it’s a dog. When not writing, she spends her days cycling and willing cakes to rise. She has sold over 80 short stories to women’s magazines. Her bestselling debut novel, Doubting Abbey, was shortlisted for the Festival of Romantic Fiction best Ebook award in 2014. Her 2015 summer novel Game of Scones hit #5 in the UK Kindle chart and won the Love Stories Awards 2015 Best Romantic Ebook category. Writing romantic comedies is her passion. Her summer book 2016 comes out in July and is called Breakfast at Poldark’s!
[Note: This blog is based on detailed comments I sent to Nancy Herkness in October 2013, as she prepared an article on various writing challenges. Several sentences of my material appeared in that article, in the February 2014 issue (Vol. 34, Number 2) of Romance Writers Report (RWR).]
I used to look askance at the sprints – large and small – which I saw people chatting about. My initial reaction was: Writing is a solitary endeavor, so just do it by yourself and keep it to yourself. But after I accepted an invitation from a colleague for a small group sprint one evening in late May 2013, I was hooked. In that hour, I had produced nearly 1600 words on a story which I otherwise would not have gotten back to in who-knows-when.
Chatting about that experience (and perhaps several afterwards), I kind of stumbled into a separate group (previously begun by one of my Clean Reads colleagues) which she calls the Write-A-Thon. In that space, she – and, now, many others of us who’ve gotten involved – post our progress on certain projects, our daily word production (if notable), and (of course) our word counts from various sprints, including the main weekly one (to be explained below).
For a look at my earlier thoughts about sprinting, please take at look at my blog from August 2013:
Sprints as a Writing Challenge
The Write-A-Thon group/thread had been going on for quite some time, I believe, before I paid any attention to it – for the reasons I indicated above. But I was so jazzed by my experience in that very first small group sprint that I was yakking about it on the CR group and after several weeks. Around Aug. 1, I believe, our weekly sprinting adventure had been invited to migrate to the Write-A-Thon group/thread as a convenient venue.
We don’t have an official name, but I briefly called it the “Yee-Haw CR Weekly Sprint”. [No particular reason]. Most participants, however, think of it as the Write-A-Thon Sprint… though the Write-A-Thon group/thread often has other smaller sprints throughout the week.
Ours has taken the form of one hour – typically late evenings (Eastern time) – one night per week. We currently “assemble” at the Write-A-Thon group/thread in the few minutes prior to start time, type furiously for 60 minutes, and then begin posting our word counts at that site. At the end, one of us tallies the cumulative word counts for all participants and we often have over 10k words produced during that hour.
How I Arrived (and Why I Needed Help)
Over time, I had allowed myself to be basically frozen once I had a manuscript contracted and in edits. Of course, the edit process timetable was unpredictable (to me), so I might sit (mostly) idle – i.e., not starting anything new – for several weeks in a stretch, just waiting for the edits to return for my next part of the process. I couldn’t force myself to work on something different because I thought my brain had to be zeroed in on the particular story in the edit pipeline. Therefore, I lost weeks and months of potentially productive work time… just waiting.
After following that odd pattern for roughly 18 months – through the publication of three full-length novels and one short novella – I finally accepted that challenge of CR colleague and friend, Opal Campbell, to sprint with her and one or two others.
Then I was hooked: excited by my measurable progress on a different story, and truly stoked to learn that I could pick up a tale in mid-stride and actually produce — not only volume, but quality.
One unpredictable bonus: each story I’ve sprinted on has developed some surprising and creative plot twists. I attribute this to the “flow” people describe when they’re sprinting without their inner editor being as engaged.
Difficulties / Coordination
Though the Write-A-Thon group/thread was begun by one particular author, this weekly sprint (which now uses that venue) is coordinated by the winner of the previous week’s competition. Our saying is: winner gets bragging rights for a week and the responsibility for setting (and announcing / promoting) the sprint for next week.
The biggest challenge is selecting a date and time which will be convenient for the maximum number of participants. E.G., some of our participating colleagues are in places like Great Britain or Australia which are MANY hours ahead or behind a time we set in the U.S. Even inside America, we have a three hour spread between Eastern and Pacific time.
We’ve sprinted on several different days, but seem to favor Tuesdays and Thursdays the most. Though most of our sprints (so far) have started at 10 p.m. or 9 p.m. ET, we’ve also experimented with morning or mid-day sprints, some of which draw sizeable crowds.
We have lots of flexibility, especially for those overseas: they’re allowed to sprint at a time workable for them and post their count. Then, when the rest of us sprint together, we aim for their mark.
I had no particular goals when I began. In my 134 weekly sprints so far, my highest count has been 1823 words for the 60 minutes involved; lowest has been 815 words. Occasionally, I’ve missed a significant chunk of the sprint hour… but not enough to fret over. My approximate average for all 134 sprints so far has been approximately 1100 words per hour — a total of 147,400 words so far in 134 hours of writing!
My on-going goal is to add 1500 new words to whichever manuscript I’m sprinting on that hour and hope that I come in with the second highest total. [That’s an inside joke, since the one with highest word count has to set and announce/promote the next week’s sprint].
Since May 2013, I have been busy revising, submitting, editing, correcting, proofing, and promoting other novels I’d previously written. Remember at the beginning of this article my whine about how I FORMERLY lost all those weeks and months between the various rounds of editing? Well, here is how I’ve done SINCE I began weekly sprinting in May 2013:
* started, finished, contracted, edited, and had published… two novels (G&MM and SOC8) and two novellas, (1SF and P2MM).
* started, finished, revised, and have either submitted or have ready to submit… three more novels (DOE, NEBA, and SM) and one novella (NEP).
* went thru the edits (for books previously submitted and contracted) on three novels which were released during this period (CUMC, HWR, and S7MI)
* started numerous other stories (to many to list and related the word counts).
Summary: But I think you get my point: While (previously) I felt sort of stymied by the indeterminate lulls in the editing phases --- since I’ve been sprinting for 134 weeks, I’ve been decidedly productive!What do you think? Have sprints helped you? Leave a comment and let us know. Besides 8 novels and 4 novellas (with three different royalty publishers), I’ve published non-fiction monographs, articles, book reviews, and over 120 poems; my writing has won nearly 40 awards, including several in national contests. As a newspaper photo-journalist, I published about 150 bylined newspaper articles, and some 100 bylined photos. I worked nearly 30 years in the field of librarianship. I’m a decorated USAF veteran (including a remote tour of duty in the Arctic). I’m the married parent of two and grandparent of six.
~ By Julia KellyOne of the cardinal rules of romance is that a story has to end with a happily ever after. But does that mean a couple has to say, "I love you," at the end of every romance? Maybe not. It's a question I asked myself when I wrote "Seduction in the Snow". The story unfolds over a week at a ski resort. Both Evan and Lydia tell themselves that their sexy hot tub encounters are just a vacation fling. Lydia is particularly tough to sell on the idea of love. Having seen relationship after relationship fall apart after a few short months, she’s scared of the big “L” word. Of course, this is a romance so we all know where the story’s heading—for the happily ever after—but given Lydia’s resistance to the very idea of love, I didn’t feel that a big, “I love you,” exchange at the end of the novella would be fitting with her character. Instead, I decided that Lydia and Evan should show us their deep commitment and potential for future happiness in a different way. As authors we have a responsibility to really get to know our characters. What are their fears? How can we push them out of their comfort zones? Would they actually say the words that we’re writing on the page? While “I love you,” is the backbone of many happily ever afters, it doesn’t have to be if it doesn’t fit with your character’s personality. Another thing to consider is your book’s timeline. Romance authors tell stories that unfold over decades, months, weeks, days. There’s such vast variation in the timelines in our genre that a one-size-fits-all approach to the happily ever doesn’t always work. If a character is more in touch with their emotions and open to the idea of falling in love, the, “I love you,” exchange rings true. But we know our heroes and heroines will continue to grow after our stories are complete. If that’s the case, “I love you,” may realistically take them longer to get to. Whether you decide to have your hero and heroine say, “I love you,” or not, the most important thing to remember is that it’s our job as authors to write a convincing love story. That means you’re not just telling the reader that the hero and heroine love each other. You’re showing their deep commitment through the actions and emotions. Write your story with that in mind, and you’ll have your readers falling in love. Julia Kelly writes sexy historical and contemporary romances about smart women and the men who love them. When she is not writing, Julia is an Emmy-nominated TV news producer. Her second book One Week in Hawaii releases May 2015. More information is available at juliakellywrites.com.