Amanda, Amanda, Amanda

Since writing during this month is about word count, not producing a finished work, I haven’t spent a lot of time or thought on visuals to ground potential readers in the scene, I just jumped in with the character and started writing. During rewrites, I’ll go back and add the setting — it’s not a good idea to start every every scene with the character’s name (though many writers do it). Here are some of the sentences I temporarily used to open new scenes. Poor Amanda.

Amanda opened her husband’s closet and stared at his clothes, wondering if she’d ever be able to get rid of them.

Amanda pushed the grocery cart through the aisles, looking for foods that didn’t remind her of meals with David, but every time she reached for a can, bottle, or box, her stomach clenched. 

Amanda checked her emails.

Amanda went from eating nothing but yogurt to eating cookies, candy, cake, crackers, chips — anything she could grab and eat without cooking or having to sit at a table to dine.

Tired of crying, of holding the shattered pieces of herself together, Amanda hugged David’s robe-wrapped ashes one more time and climbed out of bed.

Amanda stared at her reflection in the mirror. The woman looked familiar, as if she had known her intimately long ago, but the woman seemed to have nothing to do with her todays.

Amanda felt her life, her love for David rewinding.

Amanda checked to make sure the box was empty.

Amanda woke to light seeping in from between the slats of the closed blinds.

Amanda wandered through the house, seeing not the shabby furniture, the shelves overloaded with books, the 20-inch out-of-date television, but the home she and David had created.

Frenzied with grief-induced adrenaline, Amanda yanked open the door to David’s closet and slammed his underwear into a garbage bag.

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Building a Story from the Inside Out

Jordan Dane, national bestselling and award-winning thriller writer, is guesting my blog today. I know guesting isn’t a word, but I’m still pleased that she consented to be my guest blogger. She is also hosting a discussion on my Suspense/Thriller Writers  group on Facebook, so stop by and add your bit to the onion, or leave a comment for her here. Jordan writes:

Ever thought about building an onion from the inside out? (Come on. Humor me!!)

This little exercise of writing the dialogue first came from having to split my time between my day job and writing. On my special writing days, I’d grab lunch by myself and take a notepad with me. (I wasn’t really alone. Like Sybil, writers never are. Oh, I just scared myself.)

People would always comment that my scenes jumped right into the action with pace, sharp concise narratives and to-the-point dialogue. In trying to explain to another writer how I do this, I had to understand it myself. That’s when I realized how much my little lunchtime exercise had trained my brain to think this way-in terms of breaking down elements to any scene.

I had broken apart the dialogue from the rest of the narrative as a more efficient use of my time before I got home that night to finish the scene. Consequently, the dialogue got my full attention. And I usually tend to visualize the scene in my head as a TV program or movie. Visualizing it like a movie stirred my thoughts on the scene and helped orient me into the characters’ motivation too.

I later learned aspects of this method are called LAYERING. You can use it to build that onion as I describe below or use it to add more emotion or tension or atmosphere to your scenes-whatever you want more of-even after you think that scene or book is finished. Layering is one of the last steps I use when I’m doing my final edits on a novel. I read through the book and punch up the various scenes until I’ve come to the last page.

1. FIRST-Use dialogue as the framework for the scene (like a screen writer)

Consider writing the dialogue first so you can concentrate on it (Use this as an exercise only. Once you get this down, you won’t need to do this time and time again.)

Make the dialogue important-There’s nothing like witty banter or a clever verbal skirmish between two adversaries

If your character confronts someone at a high school reunion that they haven’t seen in twenty years when they buried a body after Prom, you better have them say more than, “Gee, nice sweater.” Chitchat would never happen in real life, given this situation, unless these two people are guiltless serial killers. Too much introspection can kill the impact of their first meeting. Personally, I like a challenge like this. And don’t get me started on the whimsical world of the serial killer. But think about it-what WOULD they say to each other?

2. SECOND-Body Language/Action

Body language can be fun, especially if it contradicts what the character is saying in dialogue-Use it! Manipulate it!

Be concise and not too wordy with action, but keep it REAL. If guns are blasting, remember your characters are dodging bullets, not witty banter. Bullets stop for no man…or woman!!!

3. THIRD-Mood & Setting-Use it to accentuate what’s happening.

I LOVE LOVE LOVE the mood created with a great setting. It can embellish the emotion in a scene or add an underlying tension (ie an escalating storm or a well-placed gust of wind against a silk blouse or skirt). The beauty is in the details.

4. LAST-Emotional layering-Introspection

Give your character a journey through the scene. Don’t just repeat the same old thoughts over and over in different ways no matter how clever you are. Have their introspection grow or change.

Too much introspection, for me as a reader, slows the pace. But if an editor wants it, read my first point over again and build upon the emotional layers with new material. Insights into a character can be a wonderful gift to your reader.

5. THEN STAND BACK AND TAKE A LOOK-What’s there? Do you have a whole ONION or a lemon?

Make every scene into a tight mini-story with a hook beginning and a memorable page-turning end. Or end it with a beautiful image a reader will remember and feel long after they’ve put the book down.

Or stop in the middle of the action and continue it on the top of the next chapter.

You are in control of your story’s layout. Make it interesting.

NOTE: For more writer resources, please check out my website FOR WRITERS page for craft tips, promotion ideas, and other articles like my “First Sale” story or “How to Make a Book Trailer FOR FREE”.

Writing Sex Scenes

In its essence, a sex scene in a novel is no different from any other scene, and the key to writing it is to figure out its objective. If you’re just putting it in there because you think it’s time for some titillation, it will not have the resonance of a motivated scene. (Though in some novels, category romance especially, titillation alone is an acceptable objective.)

There are many other objectives for a sex scene besides titillation: to bring the couple closer together; to show that they want each other even though they can’t tolerate each other; to bring them comfort; to show the maturation of one character (perhaps he couldn’t commit, and now he can); to show the intensity of the relationship; to slow the pace of the book or speed it up; to bring a bit of humor or playfulness to a somber work.

Once you know the objective, you can write a fitting action/reaction sequence. If comfort is the objective, you can show them together at the beginning, close the door during the action, and show them cuddling afterward. If tenderness is the objective, you can show a bit of the action in addition to the before and after. And of course, if their desperation for each other is the objective, you will need to leave the door open during the scene. As with all resonating scenes, when it is over there must be some reaction, some change to the character or the direction of the story. And the objective dictates that reaction. If the scene was about bringing comfort to the characters, we need to know whether they found comfort or failed to find it, and we need to know the characters’ emotional response to the success or failure of that objective. This reaction, in turn will help set up the next scene.

Scenes also help show who the characters are, and where better to do this than when they are at their most vulnerable. The sex scene I wrote that I like best is one where the woman calls out her partner’s name, and he exults to himself, “I’ve still got it!” That defined them and their relationship.

The problem I have with sex scenes is that, in the end, there are only so many different ways of writing them and after a while they begin to seem ho-hum. Finding the objective helps make the scene unique, as does sense description not related to the act. Can they smell the garbage outside the motel window? Is the traffic only a faint hum from her penthouse? How does the office desk feel beneath her back? Each of these bits gives the scene a depth it might not otherwise have.

I wasn’t sure if I was going to have a sex scene in my current work. After devolving (or evolving depending on your point of view) from graphic sex in my first novel to none at all in my fourth, I thought I’d run the gamut. But then I realized I have never done a humorous sex scene, so that’s what I’m going to aim for. Not a bad objective.

The Fun of Writing: the Passion, the Puzzle

Blogging about writing is a way of focusing my thoughts. It might seem as if I’m obsessing about minor points or over thinking a scene, but for me that’s part of solving the writing puzzle. So many pieces need to fit together. What is really going on in the scene? What do the characters feel? What do they want? How does the scene fit with the rest of the story? Is it important? What am I trying to accomplish?

Most how-to books on writing suggest getting the first draft down as quickly as possible so that the passion shines through. This is good advice, and I would follow it if stories came easy to me, but they never do. I worried about this (for five minutes or so), wondering if my novels would feel dry and unemotional because I approach them as a puzzle, but the only difference between my way of writing and the so-called right way is that I do my thinking as I write rather than as I rewrite.

Is one way better than another? I don’t know, but if we accomplish what we set out to do, both the logical writers and the passionate ones can end up with interesting stories that will evoke emotions in our readers. In my case, during rewrites I get rid of much of the dryness that comes from the puzzle approach. In your case, perhaps, you lose some of that freewheeling passion when you organize what you have written into a more cohesive story.

We all have to find the best way to write. I am not condoning poor grammar, typographical errors, bad plotting, ignorance of story elements, or any of those other rules that new writers rail against. I’m talking about the fun of writing, the passion, the puzzle.

Samuel Johnson remarked, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” I guess that makes most of us blockheads, because we write knowing that except for a select group, there is little money to be made from writing. We need other reasons for spending so much time bleeding words.

For me, it’s the puzzle. As frustrating as it gets, I love figuring out plots, character’s motives, new ways of presenting common thoughts. Beats crossword puzzles any day.

A Reason For Now. A Reason For Later.

During the past few months, I was privileged to read the first chapters of many unpublished novels and the critiques other readers left. One thing that interested me was how often readers would mention that a certain episode didn’t fit and should be taken out, and the writer would counter that it was necessary to the story. Can’t argue with that, I suppose, since only the writer knows what he or she intended. But it made me wonder why readers don’t see the same thing in published books. Do we just assume because it’s been published that everything fits? Do we have a different set of rules for published and non-published works?

Last night the answer came to me. It’s not so much that we’re looking for things to pick at in a work we’re critiquing. (Is that even a word? I’ve used it so much that I no longer know.) It’s that good authors know how make every episode in their novel do double duty. If has to be in there to set up a later episode or scene, it must also have a reason for being in there now. If a character places a gun in an unlocked desk drawer to make it available for a murder in a later scene, for example, the character must be a reason for putting the gun in the drawer and not locking it. Perhaps he’s a cop and was cleaning it. So what could have been so terrible that he would forget his training and toss it in an unlocked drawer? Maybe one of his kids is trying to drown the other in the bathtub. A skilled author can make the gun in the unlocked drawer seem so reasonable and natural that readers forget it’s there until someone finds it and shoots it. The reverse is also true. If there is a gun in an unlocked drawer at the beginning, someone must use it in the end.

So, to make your novel tight and keep from jarring your readers out of the story because something doesn’t fit, make certain that everything has two reasons for being there: a reason for now and a reason for later.