Monday, June 23, 2008

The Creeping Blush

I recently noticed something in a lot of published books. That's not to say that it's a recent phenomenon, just that it's recently jumped out at me.

The creeping blush. The author will say something to the effect of, "A flush rose slowly from her neck."

It bothers me because it seems like a physical impossibility. Whenever I've blushed, it's been an instant heat in my cheeks. And when I've seen others blush, it's been the same thing. A split-second reddening of the face.

And it's not hack writers who are putting this in their books. I'm talking about authors who excel in craft. But there it is, the slow blush that starts in the neck and rises, flood-like, to the face. In that moment, the character of a book becomes a cartoon to me.

I have a feeling that authors write it because they've seen it in so many books they don't give it a thought. But maybe I'm wrong. So I want to know, have any of you ever seen a slow blush? Have any of you ever seen a blush starting in the neck?

I really want to know. Call it scientific curiosity.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Review: Only Uni

Only Uni by Camy Tang, Zondervan, 2008

Genre: Contemporary fiction/chick-lit

Man-crazy Trish Sakai hasn’t been living out her Christianity. Her temperamental artist ex-boyfriend was terrible for her, yet she finds him physically irresistible. He’s determined to win her back, and he has Grandma’s approval. Trish is one of the cousins who always wants to please Grandma, so this double attack is almost more than she can withstand. Her mom is in the hospital and Trish isn’t speaking to her dad. The latest slip in her backsliding journey has her three cousins mad at her.

Feeling alone in the world, Trish decides it’s time to get back with God. She makes three rules to follow based on 2 Corinthians: #1 don’t look at boys, #2 tell others about Christ, and #3 rely on God. She figures if she goes through the steps of becoming fully devoted to God, her heart will follow. Everyone she’s close to can see she’s setting herself up for failure, but Trish is determined to prove them wrong, and at the same time proving herself worthy of God’s forgiveness.

Rule #1 gives her the most trouble when the hunky Spencer Wong is assigned to her research team. He’s got dimples, for crying out loud. How’s she supposed to not look?

Camy Tang does it again. This second look at the wacky Sakai family was thoroughly enjoyable. The grandmother is just as determined and domineering as she was in book one.

Excellent spiritual thread. I could see from the start that Trish was going about things the wrong way with her three strict rules, which she attempted to follow out of a sense of obligation rather than love. But she truly meant well, so I was pulling for her. She couldn’t figure out how so much could keep going wrong in her life now that she was serving God.

Trish is much more of a people-pleaser than Lex, but the propensity for not filtering her words must be a family trait. Her hasty tongue leads to a series of mini-catastrophes—in true chick-lit style. I can’t wait to see what Camy dishes out next in the Sushi series.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Tip #3: Character Goals

I talked briefly about goals earlier, but that was mostly as it related to an individual scene. The most important element in an overall plot is your character's goal. A character striving for something is what moves a story forward.

If your main character doesn't have a goal to go after, you don't have a story.

Most of you, hopefully, are saying Well, duh! But I've come across several manuscripts where the characters don't have any kind of goal. A goal has several functions.

1. Moves the story forward (as I already said). As your character moves closer to achieving her goal, or is distanced from the goal, that's story.

2. Wins reader sympathy. Everyone can identify with having goals. When we see a strong desire in a protagonist, it tweaks our sympathies. Forges a connection. Makes the character more real.

3. Makes for a satisfying ending. Most stories end with the protagonist reaching his/her goal. With no goal--nothing acheived, nothing realized--how can the ending of a book possibly be satisfying? There's no sense of accomplishment in the end. The story is simply over, as if the writer ran out of words.

I'm sure there are other functions, but I'm flying by the seat of my pants here. I recommend Brandilyn Collin's book Getting Into Character for an in-depth look at character goals, which she calls Desire.

Friday, June 13, 2008

First a word...

...about the review below.

As a member of ACFW, I was "acquainted" with Camy Tang before she got published. I put acquainted in quotes because she probably doesn't know who I am. Maybe my name is vaguely familiar to her. But through various resources, I've become very familiar with who Camy is.

I don't know why it took me so long to get around to reading her first book. I've been looking forward to it since I learned of her contract with Zondervan. It was worth the wait. It's a great book.

I usually skim or skip the acknowledgments page, but I read Camy's because I "know" her. I read the first name--ooh, I've heard good things about her. The second name--ah, I know who that is, too. And the third... My excitement grew with each name--I recognized almost every one in the sizable list. It pays to be a member of ACFW. I feel so connected. :o)

Review: Sushi for One?

Sushi for One? by Camy Tang, Zondervan, 2007

Genre: Contemporary Fiction

With her cousin’s wedding looming, Lex Sakai falls under the title she dreads: Oldest Single Female Cousin. The OSFC is her grandmother’s special project. She feels so strongly about getting all her granddaughters married off, she hands Lex an ultimatum. Find a boyfriend in four months or have her volleyball team’s funding cut.

Lex has plenty of reasons to avoid dating, but she can’t let her team down. Her grandmother starts throwing every eligible man in the Asian community her way, but Lex won’t settle for just anyone. She makes a list of biblical qualities she wants in a man. The trouble is, the only man she feels comfortable befriending doesn’t seem to have a single one of those qualities.

This is a wonderful book from a debut author. Camy Tang’s engaging voice—with the sassy ring of chick-lit—won me over immediately. And she went on to unfold a solid plot with many layers. We see Lex at church, at work, playing sports, and at family gatherings, and she’s got unique problems in each area. The humor had me laughing out loud. The more serious elements touched my heart. Lex felt like a friend from the early chapters and I can’t ask much more from a book.

I also enjoy when a story takes me outside of my experience. Sushi gave me a glimpse into the Asian community. I don’t know of any books out there with an Asian main character, much less an entire cast that’s Asian. If this book is any indication, it’s a community that’s close, loyal, steeped in tradition, and in the case of Lex’s family, loud and a bit crazy.

Lots of fun with a serious side. I highly recommend it.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Tip #2: Scenes

In my work, I often run across a diabolical little story killer. What is it? A section of text all dressed up as a scene that really isn’t a scene.

It’s a section of dialog. Or an incident. Whatever it is, it doesn’t move the story forward. I get to the end of it and say, “What was that? Nothing happened.” I’ve come up with a title for tidbits of writing like that: What’s Happening in the Meantime.

The characters are about to do something that’s part of the story. But first, they sit down and talk about its significance. Or they have a little family time, which is no doubt meant to show how close and happy they are. The heroine’s sister is about to have surgery, so she sits down with the hero and talks about her fears.

“I’m really scared, John. My sister was all I had growing up.”

John reached for her hand. “I know, but it’s going to be all right.”

“What if it’s not all right? What will I do without my sister?”

“I’m here for you, Beth. I’ll get you through it. But you’re worrying for nothing.”

Beth is allowed to talk about her fears, but if that’s where the scene ends, what has it done for the story? Go straight to the story, and skip “In the meantime.” A conversation has to lead somewhere—to a decision, to a course of action. It can’t be there simply for the sake of characterization. Characterization comes out through the story, through the action a character is forced to take. You don’t need to set your story aside to take time for characterization. Keep the story moving.

Think of your story as a puzzle. Each scene has to be a piece of that puzzle. Don’t leave your reader studying the color and shape of a piece that doesn’t even belong. Your reader may not realize where the piece fits until later in the story, but it has to fit. If you can delete a scene without hurting your story, the scene wasn’t necessary.

It all comes down to your character’s goals. Others have done a good job of laying out the structure of a scene—Randy Ingermanson’s Writing the Perfect Scene, for example. So I won’t go into detail. Bottom line is, your main characters have to have an overall goal for the book, and each scene should either move them one step closer to that goal, or distance them even further through obstacles. Conflict.

The goal for individual scenes doesn’t have to be earth-shattering. It can be as simple as wanting lunch. Someone else comes along to waylay your character, and you’ve got conflict. Hungry hero versus chatty Cathy.

A scene can be mostly dialog. In one of my stories, the first step toward my heroine’s goal is making friends so she has someone to show her the ropes. During a conversation, she learns what another character wants, and she offers a trade. Basically, nothing happens except for a conversation. But it gets my heroine one step closer to her goal.

On the other hand, before I had a clear idea of my heroine’s goals, that scene was just filler. Once I knew her goal, I tweaked it enough to make it a necessary scene.

Okay, all of that was pretty vague. Follow up questions anyone? Need to see examples?

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Book Review: The Edge of Recall

The Edge of Recall, by Kristen Heitzmann, Bethany House, July 2008

Tessa Young is a landscape architect who specializes in labyrinths. Something hidden in her past has forged a connection with them. They fascinate her by day and haunt her dreams by night. Her therapist tells her that if she stopped building labyrinths, the nightmares would also stop. But she’s compelled to find the meaning of her dreams, as well as the identity of the monster who stalks them.

The past creeps closer when she receives a job offer from Smith Chandler—an almost college flame. Six years previously they had a falling out that shattered their friendship and provided more fodder for her life-long therapist.

Tessa has searched for God her own way all her life. To some, a labyrinth is a prayer walk—a time for introspection and journeying toward God. Tessa has incorporated that belief into her life. God is a mystical being to her. But Smith sees God as a personal God—Father and savior—who could help heal the childhood trauma she denies. She’s intrigued by this notion, yet repulsed. Her own father abandoned her as a child, so the image of God as Father isn’t an inviting one.

This is a brilliant piece of storytelling. Kristen Heitzmann’s poetic descriptions jump off the page. Her plot takes as many turns as the labyrinths she depicts, and deep characterization adds realism. Smith is unmistakably British—not just in the words he uses, but in the cadence of his speech. That shows an attention to detail I can only admire.

Two elements captured my attention from the start: A wounded woman with a buried trauma in her past, who still manages to be strong, and the most unique villain I’ve seen outside of a fantasy novel. The richness of the story pulled me along to the end. A must read.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Tip #1: Dialog

I have another book review ready to go, but I'm going to post it tomorrow.

For quite a while I've been toying with the idea of doing a series of writing tips. The problem was, when I sat down to do it my mind went blank. Now that I'm in the middle of a manuscript critique, problem areas are fresh in my mind. And they're something I've seen in almost every manuscript I've read. I'll start with dialog.

Too often I come across dialog that's stiff and unnatural. The characters aren't talking, they're reading from a script the author has given them. Or they're making small talk. Chit chat doesn't belong in a book any more than lots of long, profound speeches do.

How can you recognize stiff dialog?

Read it out loud. Does it sound like something an actual person might say? Or does it sound awkward in your ears? Copy and paste to fill up a page with only your hero's dialog. Do the same for your heroine. Does each character have a unique voice, or do they sound the same? If they sound the same, they probably both sound like you. There's a reason for that.

Why does stiff dialog happen?

The number one reason is that the writer doesn't know his characters well enough. I can picture him staring at a line of text on his screen and thinking, "What should she say next?" If you have to ask yourself that, either not enough is happening in your plot, or you don't know your character.

Get to know your characters inside and out. Even the secondary ones, to a lesser degree. Know what's happened to them in the past that's made them the way they are. Know their quirks and foibles and why they have those quirks and foibles.

When you know your characters that intimately, their dialog will flow. You'll have to make an effort to shut them up, not poke at them until they say something. They'll be the ones talking so you don't have to be off stage whispering their next line.