Into the Dreaming Imaginative Fiction from Author, Reviewer, and Writing Coach Christine Amsden

Category Archives: Tips For Writers

Writing 101: Description

To celebrate the launch of my new editing venture, I’m writing a new series of blog posts that take us back to basics. These are the fundamentals of writing, the things you need to know before you’re ready to publish.

DESCRIPTION

For many new writers, and even some experienced writers, description is the bane of their existence. I’m afraid that our English teachers in school didn’t help when they encouraged us to spend a thousand words describing the ceiling. They meant well, and the exercise is not without merit, but seriously, who wants to read a thousand words about the ceiling?

Well, I don’t know … Is it the Sistine Chapel? Are there blood stains on it? Is a ghost floating around up there? Is the ceiling not actually there at all? Has there been a sudden reversal of ground and sky?

What I’m getting at is the key to description. The key to many aspects of writing, for that matter.

RELEVANCE

Description is challenging to new authors for a variety of reasons. For me, it was the fact that I thought it was utterly boring and usually skimmed through it in the books I read, so I wasn’t that thrilled about writing it into my own books. I’m not at all alone in that attitude. For others, for authors who love the art of turning pictures into words, the challenge is wordiness, pacing, and inflicting boredom on readers. Description is something that tends to turn authors into minimalists or maximalists, and you can get some heated debate over which approach is “right” and which is “wrong.”

There is no right. There is no wrong. There is only personal taste and relevance.

In other words, as long as what you are describing is meaningful to your story in some way, then it is up to you, the author, to tell us just enough or to truly create a canvas of words. The risk you run with the “just enough” approach is that the reader will fill in details that you leave out from his/her own experience. The risk you run with the “canvas” approach is that some readers will skim those paragraphs. As a mature writer, I tend to try to split the difference, to aim for the middle, but always with a keen focus on the relevance of every word I write.

As an editor, your personal preference is my top priority, but I will guide you with the concept of relevance in mind. For wordy writers, this means that I might steer you away from describing every last item in a room that turns out to have no bearing on either character or plot. For minimalists, this might mean that I ask you to add description of important people, places, or things that I have trouble imagining without some guidance.

Concerns over quantity of description should always take a backseat to the quality of description. I’m sure you’ve heard the advice to bring in your five senses, and that’s true. You should absolutely do that. But the best description does more than share sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches.

The best descriptive sentences move the story.

Wait … doesn’t description slow the story down or even stop it while you provide some relevant scene setting? Sadly, the answer to that question is often yes. This is why I skimmed so much of it as a child and why it took so many years for me to appreciate the wonderful power of a descriptive sentence to do more than one thing, to be more than superficial. Because the truth is, description can do more than BE relevant, it can ADD relevance.

Let me give you an example:

The green chair stood high-backed and proud in a ray of afternoon sunlight that slanted in through a large picture window.

This sentence does a lot to show you the scene. It even does it in the active voice, avoiding being and other passive phrasing. You now know something about the chair, and even what time of day it is. But is that all this sentence can do? Is there any other way in which that moment can mean more? Do more?

Lisa’s favorite green chair stood high-backed and proud in a ray of afternoon sunlight that slanted in through a large picture window.

Hmmm … I changed “the” to “Lisa’s favorite” and look what happened …. now you know something about a character too! What else can we do?

Lisa’s favorite green chair, faded and worn from decades of use and abuse, stood high-backed and proud in a ray of afternoon sunlight that slanted in through a large picture window.

Okay, now we have a bit of history … the history of Lisa and the chair. But I feel like we can take it one step further, to really connect this chair to this person and more, to whatever story is happening around her. Even assuming that I care about Lisa in some way, based on whatever has come before now in the story, right now the chair is nothing more than a prop in her environment.

Lisa’s favorite green chair, faded and worn from decades of use and abuse, stood high-backed and proud in a ray of afternoon sunlight that slanted in through a large picture window. What would happen to that chair tomorrow, when she left her home forever to live out her days in a nursing home? Would one of her kids take it, or would they throw it away like some useless relic that had lived beyond its usefulness?

Now, finally, we have description connected to story, interwoven so tightly that either one without the other would be incomplete. That chair is more than a chair now, it is a symbol of Lisa’s own fears about her future. If you chose, you could go room by room, showing more memories and deepening that emotional bond between Lisa and everything she’s leaving behind. It’s not absolutely necessary, because you’ve already said a lot, but you could. The bigger point is that you make magic happen when your words do double or even triple duty.

Good description stems from relevance; great description creates relevance.

Finish the Story Grand Opening Special: FREE First Chapter Edit

This week is the Grand Opening of Finish the Story.

I’ll be working alongside Claire Ashgrove and Dennis Young, two fantastic fellow authors/editors, to offer a greater variety of services than I could on my own. We are a full-service editing company, which means we strive to help you prepare for publication no matter where you are in the process. We include services such as book fixing, for books that need a little doctoring before they’re ready for editing, and formatting, for authors who are ready to publish. Our package rates bundle services to keep the costs down, and give you access to more than one editor through the different phases of editing to ensure that your finished product is as error-free as possible.

All genres of fiction welcome! Non-fiction and memoirs welcome!

Give us a try! Now through the end of March, send us your first chapter (up to 5,000 words) and get a FREE, no-obligation developmental-style edit.

Learn more at Finish the Story

Universe of Creativity: A Writer’s Affirmation

Oh universe of creativity,

of light and life that dwells in me.

I see you out there vast and strong,
as curious as time is long.

Through me you’ll find a willing heart
to think and dream and do my part.

I’m a writer through and through;
my words are my gift to you.

I judge them not but set them free,
little wisps of eternity.

Please guide me as I find the strength to set aside internal restraints. I need the courage to challenge fear, that voice of doubt within my ear.

Your beauty is a part of me; I honor that so let it be.

~Christine Amsden

Feel free to share, just share the credit!

Keeping Secrets in Romance

I’ve written more than one blog article on the dangers of withholding information from the reader. If the point of view character knows something that the reader does not, the story keeps the reader at a distance and they can’t properly connect to the characters or events.

(Please note, the reader doesn’t need to know a thing that the point of view character does not know. In fact, the reader and main character can enjoy learning secrets together — that’s called a mystery.)

Yet time and time again the romance genre, I see withheld information being the principle “conflict” in the story. The theory seems to be that the reader finds out when the romantic partner discovers the truth, but this is a failing strategy. Let me explain why:

Romantic conflict is a simple formula: That which draws them together vs that which keeps them apart.

When “that which keeps them apart” is a secret, the whole thing falls apart. Why does she keep pulling back? Why does he? The worst part is if they do get intimate before the secret is revealed because there they are, connecting to one another on the page, when I have yet to connect to them.

Here’s the bottom line: Romance writers, you don’t get an exception to this writing rule. It has failed for bestselling authors such as Julia Quinn and Lorraine Heath. It will fail for you, too. Let us get to know your characters, inside and out, and let us feel the true pain of their inability to have a relationship. That’s what romance is all about — that feeling of perfect pain.

The Quest for the Three Magic Words

Put simply, the quest for the three magic words is an irksome phenomenon I’ve witnessed in novels with a strong romantic component, characterized by the stubborn refusal to say the words, “I love you.”

In a broad sense, the goal of any HEA romance is for the characters to fall in love, and often the realization of this love is the climax of the story. The dramatic tension in such a story (or subplot) is the constant interplay between that which brings them together and that which keeps them apart. When these forces are in perfect balance, when we desperately want the couple to find true love and happiness but desperately believe in the obstacles preventing such a union, there can be a moment of true emotional pain.

On the other hand, when he loves her, she loves him, they are both acting on this love, showing one another this love, and the only thing holding the HEA at bay is that one or both is afraid of saying three little words, then you have the quest. What is keeping them apart? Maybe he is afraid of commitment or doesn’t believe in love. Maybe she’s been burned before or doesn’t believe in love. (I get a lot of the whole not believing in love thing, especially in the male’s perspective.) Whatever the reason, they would be blissfully happy together if only one or both would pry open those lips and say a few words. Nothing else really needs resolution – there’s no anger, mingled feelings of hatred or jealousy, or even guilt over betraying a deceased love with this new love. (Though I should say that in all of these situations, when the angst goes on for too long, I’m still liable to brand it a quest.) There’s just a refusal to say the words and possibly a fear of commitment (which becomes all the more ridiculous in regency romance novels in which the couple is already married).

As far as dramatic tension goes, this quest quite simply puts me to sleep. In fact, in a straight-up romance with no subplot, I’ll usually stop reading as soon as the story devolves to this quest. Why? Because I know how it’s going to end. Sooner or later, they’re going to say the words and live happily ever after. It’s just not that interesting to find out how he or she finally comes to realize what is already so incredibly obvious. She’s afraid to risk her heart? What? It’s already gone!

I’ll tolerate the quest if another parallel plot such as a mystery or suspense is holding my interest, but even then it often earns an eye roll. This is because of the other issue I have with the quest for the three magic words: In my mind, it is more important by far to actively love someone than it is to say you love someone. Call me quirky if you like, but I guess I’ve taken the old writing advice, “show, don’t tell,” to be more than a useful trick for bringing a story to life. It works in real life relationships – show me you’re my friend, don’t just tell me. Show me you’re an expert, don’t just tell me. Show me you love me, don’t just tell me. Yes, you can say the words too, but in the grand scheme of things it simply is not that important. And that is the key characteristic of the quest for the three magic words – they’ve already reached their HEA. I know it. I feel it. They’ve shown it. They just haven’t said so.

I suppose the point of the quest is to show a person coming to a turning point in his or her life in which they finally realize the truth about themselves, a truth previously blocked by a host of preconceived notions (eg the hero doesn’t believe in love). And since the quest for the three magic words is such a popular part of the romance genre, I imagine that it must work for a great many readers, perhaps readers who have had a different experience with life and love than I have, but for my part, you can feel free to imagine me rolling my eyes anytime you see these words in a review: I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a quest for the three magic words.

The Omniscient Narrator Must Flow

 

The fully omniscient narrator who sees all and knows all is out of style these days, but the perspective is rooted in a proud, long-standing history of classic literature. A fully omniscient narrator has no limits and no boundaries – you can use him freely not just to jump from one person’s thoughts to another, but from location to location. You can report on the doings of people and creatures whose lives and deaths will go unnoticed and unremarked by anyone else. It is a truly powerful perspective, and a truly limitless one.

 

But with great power comes great responsibility.

 

The advantage to today’s more popular perspectives – first person and third person limited omniscient – is that they are bound to a single character (at a time). The story is going to flow through that character. What happens next? Well, what does the character do next? What does she see and hear? What does she think? Whatever the answer, you have a powerful tool to keep the story in flow. The use of a snigle character’s perspectives helps you move the story effortlessly, keeping events orderly and maintaining the rhythm of the prose.

 

Yet there are times when the omniscient narrator still makes sense. I find it particularly useful in stories where no single character is the focus, yet there are a great many characters. It is also useful when you want to follow events that nobody sees or could possibly know about. When the world is in danger and you need to be in a dozen places around the planet to show it, some of them well below sea level or in the high winds of a hurricane, an omniscient narrator can be very effective. This was the case in “Mother of Storms” by John Barnes. Through an all-seeing narrator, we watched a chain reaction that created massive, never before seen hurricanes overtake the earth. In some scenes, we were the hurricane.

 

I’ve also found that the omniscient point of view works well in horror, when you want to show us danger that the main character isn’t aware of. Stephen King often uses an omniscient narrator that, at times, goes deep into certain points of view.

 

But regardless of why you have chosen to use an omniscient narrator – which can be simply because you want to and it’s your story after all – you have a challenge in front of you. You must find a way to tie events together. You must create flow.

 

An omniscient narrator is not the absence of a narrator. It’s not the absence of perspective. You still have someone telling the story, it just happens to be someone from on high. That person can get out of the way, be invisible, or can have a grandiose voice. That’s up to you. But either way, the narrator must guide the story seamlessly from one event to another.

 

Jumpiness. Look at this. Look at that. Look over there!

 

You can’t just bounce from topic to topic, place to place, or person to person without some kind of transition. The transition can be as simple as, “Meanwhile, on the other side of the meadow…” or as complex as an entire page of description as the narrator’s bird’s eye shifts slowly across that meadow. Either way, you must guide the reader from place to place, always mindful of what they are currently focused on and that it is your job to gently shift the focus to something else.

 

I’ve seen this mistake quite a few times as an editor. Usually, it feels to me as if the author hasn’t given point of view much thought at all – that they have confused the use of an omniscient narrator with the lack of a narrator. Other times, they may simply be rushing through the story, thinking that the omniscient narrator gives them leave to be anywhere at anytime, telling the story any way they see fit.

 

Authors who want to use omniscience – you have a proud tradition to uphold. Consider carefully why you’ve made your choice, and make sure you are writing with both purpose and perspective.

T-Minus 2 Days to Madison’s Song

Pre-Laucn Jitters

MadisonsSong_med

Two more days to the ebook launch of Madison’s Song and I’m just about useless!

This is my seventh book release. Seven. And I still get sooooooo nervous when I’m about to put my book out there.

Some part of me feels like I should be more sophisticated by now, taking these things in stride, but if anything knowing what’s coming makes me more nervous. As of this moment, Madison’s Song is all mine. No one has told me anything about it — good or bad — that I don’t already know. In a couple of days, the world sees. The world responds. Inevitably, they will see things in the book that I didn’t know were there. And even if they love it, the book will never be entirely my own again.

Whew. That’s pretty deep. Actually, I might just be terrified that everyone’s going to think it sucks. 🙂

(Hey, if there’s an author out there who can honestly say they wouldn’t be nervous right now … please share whatever it is you’re using!)

It’s T-Minus 2 days to the release of Madison’s Song! Deep breaths…. one … two … three …

Characterization: Choosing a Name

When it comes time to choose names for your characters, there are plenty of strategies you might use: baby names books, Internet searches, random name generators, sitting in a crowded restaurant and writing down the first name you hear …

Most of these strategies are fine, especially for characters of secondary importance, but when it comes time to name your most important character(s), I would remind you of this important fact: Your character didn’t name himself. His/her parents did.

What does this mean? Well, for me it means that when I’m brainstorming a new idea and I just can’t call my main character MC anymore, then it’s time to start thinking about MC’s past, especially his or her parentage. Are they the kind of people who choose names that sound good? Would they name a child after a beloved friend or family member? Do they care about the meaning of a name? Were they high at the time and chose something that seemed hilarious but has been haunting the child ever since?

The answer to these questions could bear serious weight and import. Names are part of our core identity, and the origin of those names says something about where that identity began, even if just a little bit.

Cassandra Morgan Ursula Margaret Scot’s parents derived her many names from the names of powerful sorcerers and alchemists throughout history. They believed there is power in a name, in its length, its grandeur, and its namesakes. Cassie didn’t believe she lived up to the name, so she shortened it.

Authors of children’s books often have fun with alliteration, personification, and archetypes when choosing names. And that’s fine. Sometimes the story you’re telling is more of an allegory, in which case your names would reflect the style you’ve chosen.

But if you’re looking for realism in your characterization, then begin with the name – and know where it came from.

Life Cycle of a Novel: Slow and Steady

There are a lot of approaches to writing a rough draft. Some do it in spurts, writing tends of thousands of words in a few days. I’m more of a slow and steady kind of writer. I set measured weekly goals that I break down into daily goals — although if I’m on a roll I try not to stop!

I don’t believe in racing to the finish. NaNoWriMo has become a phenomenon in this country, such that whether it’s November or not the general consensus is to write until a draft is done. To keep going, not looking back at the starting line, only looking forward at the finish line.

Again, that’s not me. I write in fits and starts, pushing forward only to take a few steps back. I may rewrite a chapter several times (like I did today) before moving on. I try not to sweat the little things, but I see the beginning of my story as a foundation for the rest, and I can’t write atop a crumbling foundation. Little cracks can be overlooked or patched later, but big ideas need to be fixed.

One thing I’ve noticed about going from draft to draft is that as true as it is that issues can be fixed in a revision, the fact of the matter is that the words I write first have a tendency to haunt me. Strangely, I’m not entirely about the words I write badly — it’s the ones I write well that I can’t shake in redrafts. It’s hard to let go of a brilliant paragraph, even if it no longer fits into what I’ve rewritten.

Now that I’m working hard on my 8th novel (well, that depends upon how you count — but I’m not counting the three in the novel graveyard), I feel less like listening to other writer’s “supposed to” stories with regards to drafting a novel. I don’t have to keep writing without looking back. Looking back is how I move forward. I’m definitely not passing that along as a “supposed to” for anyone else.

Trust your instincts, especially when it comes to rough drafts. This is usually the most fun part of the writing process. True creation is going on right now, and it’s YOUR creation. You own it. For me, it’s got to be slow and steady.

Virtual Book Tours: Side-by-side Comparison of 9 Tours

Last week I posted an article entitled Virtual Book Tours: Wise Investment or Waste of Money? Of course the next logical question is: Which tour companies did I like best?

Generally speaking, the best tour companies were the ones who could COMMUNICATE effectively. Companies who responded quickly and professionally to my e-mails did a better job of organizing their tour stops and delivering a tight schedule. You better believe that if they’re not talking to you, they’re also not talking to their bloggers. Companies with ineffective communication skills were more likely to have missed or late stops.

When considering any tour company, try this simple test: Send them an e-mail and ask them something about their tours. It doesn’t really matter what you ask. It’s a test! If they take less than 24 hours to get back to you, that’s a good sign. If they take more than three business days to get back to you, run away.

VBT Recommendations

*Note: Cost is based on a one-month standard tour. Many tours offer different tour options — shorter or longer — but I tried my best to compare apples to apples.

Goddess Fish

Cost: $140

Highly Recommended

I mentioned up top that communication is the most important aspect of a virtual book tour. Well, Goddess Fish set a new standard for communication excellence during my November through January Secrets and Lies tour. I never had to wait long to hear from this company, and most days they were ahead of me when it came to stopping by a blog to thank the day’s tour host for posting. If a host didn’t post, they sent me an e-mail telling me so, and that they were working on it. The second it went up, I got another e-mail. They must have good communications with their bloggers too, because there were only a few delays. Posts were up as promised over 95% of the time.

I loved the packed schedule Goddess Fish offered me. Most tours have white space — a day or two that gets skipped. Not so with Goddess Fish. I had something every day (except the week of Christmas, which we all took off).

I highly recommend this tour company because the price is right, they are friendly, communicative, and professional.

The only negative thing I can say about this company is that their tour banners are not as attractive as those provided by other companies.

Bewitching Book Tours

Cost: $125

Highly Recommended

Cassi-Scot-Banner-AUTHORS-FB

I just signed up for a second tour with this company beginning in March. Next to Goddess Fish, they were the best communicators and ran the smoothest tour. It was a close second, too. Very few stops missed, and their banners are gorgeous! I even love the name.

I do not recommend buying the package that includes radio show coordination. All they did was send me contact info for these shows, including their own radio show. I recommend their standard tours.

Reading Addiction Book Tours

Cost: $90

Highly Recommended

I have worked with this company three times because the price is so competitive, Melissa is very friendly, they deliver what they promise, and there are few hassles. Communication was good — before I worked with Goddess Fish I would have given them top billing in this category. Even now, they’re a close second.

They’ve been inconsistent with their banners… I hope this means that they are getting better at it because my Cassie Scot (book 1) banner was not nice at all, but my Secrets and Lies (book 2) banner was nice.

For the price, you really can’t go wrong!

Innovative Online Book Tours

Cost: $95

Highly Recommended

 

I may have quoted the price for a one-month standrad tour (to make the comparison fair), but what I love about Innovative Online Tours is their review-only blitz. Talk about a great way to get some reviews! Vickie is awesome, and I might add that this is one of the few companies that is willing to help you promote an audiobook.

This is another tour company that may be getting better at banners over time.

The only rela problem I have with this tour company is that they do not have individual tour pages like most companies offer. Current tours are all listed together on one page. But in terms of value for your dollar this is hard to beat, especially if what you really need are reviews.

 

Fiction Addiction Book Tours 

Cost: On Request

Tentatively Recommended

Tour badge blank

 

I hired this tour company for a one-day blitz in July. The event went off without a hitch and I have nothing negative to say about them. I simply don’t have enough information about them to highly recommend them. I have considered using them again, especially because they have a lot of UK blogs (their price sheet was in pounds), which would give me exposure to a slightly different audience. But again, one day isn’t a lot to go on.

Virtual Book Tour Cafe

Cost: $150*

Okay

Picture

I had to star the cost here because they do not offer a one-month tour. The $150 is for a 2-3 week tour.

I had some trouble with this company in July, when I signed up for a three-day blitz. BK said there was a technical malfunction and made it up to me by giving me a free three-day tour for Secrets and Lies, which went fairly well. I respect companies that own their mistakes and try correct them like this. They are professionals.

But I have not used them for a tour lasting longer than three days because their relative cost is high and they do not offer a tightly packed schedule. Communication and appearance are respectable but not phenomenal.

 ATOMR

Cost: $100*

Not Recommended

Cassie Scot Paranormal Detective Tour Banner

Cost is starred because it is not posted. This was the approximate cost for 20 stops back in August when I used them.

I signed up for a one-week “get me as many tour stops as you can” deal. They were booked months in advance, probably because when I signed up they were only just beginning to charge for their services. (They had previously been a free or by-donation service.) They didn’t get started organizing my tour until a few weeks in advance, even though it was booked months out. There were some communication difficulties when they finally assigned me a tour organizer. There ended up being quite a few no-shows the week of. And their billing was weird — half up front, half two months after the tour was over (by which time I had assumed that they were not going to charge me full freight because we only barely got enough stops to warrant it). I think they forgot to bill me and sent it later… but it struck me as being oddly unprofessional. And it was annoying.

My honest sense for this company is that they’re new and don’t have their legs under them yet. There’s a chance that they could improve, but I can’t recommend them based on my experience.

Pump Up Your Book

Cost $299

Not Recommended

Secrets and Lies banner 2 This company sucked me in with the idea that they somehow had access to higher quality blogs than other companies. (To be fair, their blogs do average more followers than those on many other tours.) When Cassie Scot: ParaNormal Detective sold very well during its release, I attributed a lot of of its success to Pump Up Your Book. (I even left a review to that affect, which I have since removed.) I rehired them for Secrets and Lies, despite the fact that they are expensive and frankly a headache to work with.

Communicating with PUYB is like pulling teeth. They are disorganized, often losing or not responding to e-mails. Almost half of their stops do not go up on time, and quite a few do not go up at all. When I follow a link to a tour stop each morning, it is with no expectation that I will see my book featured as promised. Their tour schedule is chaotic — you may have a stop a day for a week then nothing for a week. Most of their scheduling is done at the last minute, making them stressful to work with.

For those who would still consider this company, I don’t recommend using their longer tours. Tours longer than a month are only scheduled one month at a time, and again there is stress each month as I wonder whether or not my tour will be filled. At this point I have one month left for my Secrets and Lies tour with them and it is not full.

Review requests sometimes come in with little notice, and I often have to e-mail them back to ask for mailing addresses. Also, once book two in my series came out, I constantly had to ask whether the reviewer needed both books or just the second. In many cases, I never received an answer to that question.

They always try to make amends when things go wrong. The people who organize this company are perfectly friendly. But oh, the stress! The chaos!

This company is one of the oldest in the business, which could be part of the reason for their success. But against the many other options that are available today, I simply cannot recommend them.

Book Monster Promotions

Cost: $135

I included Book Monster for the sake of completeness — I said I worked with nine companies and this si the ninth. I am not going to make a recommendation regarding this company because the owner/coordinator was hospitalized several times during the tour and the months leading up to it. Obviously, things didn’t go off without a hitch, but I am human enough to accept that bad things can happen. I did get a partial refund. I wish the owner of this company better health in the future and would add that even when times were tough, she gave it her all.