Make-A-Story™ - Monday's Writing Prompt

Writing to spec – you’ve heard the term.  It means writing what the publisher wants.  Can you do it?  In our new feature - Make-A-Story™, we ask you to create a story with these elements.  The story can be set in any time frame, any length, must adhere to our guidelines and have our standard Christian world view.  
A secret garden
A gloomy old house
A special book 

Thursday's Tips: Don't Lose Your Reader

Readers are willing participants in your storyworld. They enter in with anticipation and willingness to let you keep (some) secrets and take them on an adventure. 

But readers come with expectations. A big key is not keeping readers in the dark. Many of the items in the list below relate with this. Here are some expectations readers have as they read your book:

·         Readers expect a logical flow. Help us see the world you’ve created and the action in a logical way. Don’t take leaps of logic that might lose or confuse readers. Don’t suddenly mention a character who’s been in the room all the time but who wasn’t revealed until he offers a remark (unless you’re writing a suspense). While you’re following a logical path, be careful of not falling into what I call “progressive” steps either. Like: Jon opened the door. Jan walked through the doorway. Jon closed the door. (etc.)

·         Readers expect to not be lost in confusion. It’s so difficult to be objective about our own writing. That’s where critique groups come in handy. As writers, we picture exactly what we mean to portray, but sometimes the portrayal doesn't work. Be clear. Step back and read the passage again. Have you kept too many secrets? Be purposeful about the secrets you’re keeping. A confused reader is likely to give up on your book and may not be eager to pick up your next one. 

·         Readers expect to see a story question so they know why to keep reading. Be clear in your own mind about the story question before you begin the story. Include that question as early in the first chapter as you can. First page is best. 

·         Readers expect to be hooked right away (some of that is accomplished by introducing a clear story question, some by involving the reader in action early in the story). Work to hook your reader through as many means as you can—story question, action, character sympathy, etc.—as early as you can. 

·         Readers expect to get to know and like your MC (main character). Help your readers learn about your MC. Help us understand their ordinary world, their coping mechanisms, their main problem, their fears, their goals. Give your character layers via backstory (all of which you know; some of which you’ll share with your readers), and complex emotions. Always answer the question “Why?” when it comes to your character. Why does Jon do this or that? What motivates him? Why? What does he fear? Why? What does he want? Why?

·         Readers expect to sympathize with your MC and eventually to love him/her. Help readers like your MC by giving us something to relate (sympathize) with. People relate with what are known as “universal themes.” These themes include, a father’s love, a mother’s love, wanting to protect children, justice, the need for acceptance, fear of rejection, a longing for forgiveness, etc. Through deep POV (point of view), help readers relate with your MC so we sympathize. That will keep readers hooked and help meet their expectations. 

·         Readers expect to understand your characters’ motives, including those of the antagonist. This ties in with believability, which is so key in storytelling. Yes, readers are suspending their disbelief, but even a fantasy world full of hobbits must have certain elements for believability. That comes down to characterization most times and includes character motivations. Would a character who fights for justice suddenly (and without cause) choose to harm the innocent? Unless you’ve provided clear, believable motivation, readers will reject this thread, come to despise your character, and probably stop reading the book. Furthermore, evil characters have a reason for doing what they do. Demonstrate that and your readers will not only believe in your character and his/her involvement in the story, they’ll sympathize with the antagonist. (Generally the more you can help readers analyze their own thoughts, motives, feelings, the better. It’s one of the ways fiction works to change lives. Giving readers conflicting reasons to sympathize and care helps facilitate this.)

·         Readers expect to suspend disbelief for the sake of story (which still involves logical flow). Readers will willingly follow, as I’ve stated above, so long as you keep them engaged without introducing unbelievable elements. Remember, they want to go along for the roller coaster ride. But it’s the writer’s job to keep them belted into the car. 

·         Readers expect clear point of view without head-hopping. Lastly for our non-exhaustive list, I’ll discuss point of view. Part of why readers get lost or confused in our stories is that the writer includes what’s called head-hopping. Be clear about point of view. Use one character per scene and/or chapter. Don’t switch into omniscient point of view. Take advantage of deep POV to not only give us the elements of the story, but to also give us more reasons to love your MC. 

Example of omniscient POV: 

The sun shone on the mountain top, highlighting the snowy ridges in pink. Villagers awakened from deep sleep and dreams of holiday celebrations. Everyone anticipated the huge Christmas extravaganza that afternoon. Bakers everywhere mixed up sweet treats to tempt the attendees. 

Instead, try helping us get into the MC’s head:

The sun hadn’t even risen by the time Christine Carson found herself in the kitchen. How in the world would she get five pies baked and three cakes frosted by herself? This was her chance to make a good impression. Her chance to get Tom’s attention. 

See how we get immersed into the story elements? We can relate with Christine. We can guess what others in the village are doing, but we can’t know unless our main character knows and decides to mention it. (By the way, only mention extra information if in deed, it isn’t “extra.” Be specific about where you choose to use your story’s words.)

This isn’t an exhaustive list, as I’ve said. What are other ways that readers can be lost in the dark, so to speak, when it comes to beginning a story? And how have you overcome them?

Tactical Tuesday: Advice for Self Editing

In writing romance, the challenge is to show the love of the characters in unique ways that touch the heart of the reader. However, there is a trend for authors to overuse phrases to tell us that one character is falling in love with another. Though most editors haven't taken to thinking of these phrases as cliche, an author would do well to stay ahead of the curve and work to replace such phrases with creative scenes that show the developing romance, whether or not the couple is aware of their feelings.

Phrases that are quickly hurdling toward the "overuse" column deal with the fluttering of hearts, the tingle of skin when one's hand touches the others, and the warmth a heroine feels when the hero places his hand on the small of her back to gently lead her away. Just like a cliche, they are becoming droll and mundane. Yes, some readers actually laugh at the flutter of butterflies in a stomach, and they grow tired of the tingling skin.

Why? Because these are not true reactions. Young crushes might result in giddy excitement or a niave heroine might experience a jolt when the hero touches her hand, but most often true romance happens subtly. The feelings sneak up on a couple. Sometimes they don't even realize what has hit them. The key to winning a reader's heart and giving her a love story to remember is in letting the reader see what the characters might not even recognize.

Let's look at some romantic films and/or stories for examples of ways to show the blossoming or the contining romance:

1. Sacrifice. The hero or heroine is shown whether covertly or overtly giving up something important for the good of the other. In the classic story of the beautiful woman and the beastly ogre, the beast gives up the possibility of having the spell broken and returning him to his human form. Their relationship grows through the story, and his ultimate sacrifice is one that is not forgotten as it is the key that eventually releases the spell over him.

2. Reactions. In the movie The Way We Were Katie walks into the party at the beginning of the movie and sees Hubble sleeping in the lounge. The screenplay then sweeps the reader back to their college days (not something recommended in writing, but in screenwriting, it works well). As Katie is drawn back from the past, she moves toward Hubble and with a tender touch, she brushes his hair from his forehead. That one reaction to seeing him after so long a time is worth a million well worn phrases.

3. Familiarity: As the romance grows in the movie Two Weeks Notice, the hero and heroine are usually at odds, but the writing was so well done that the audience realizes even with the bickering and with the heroine’s intent to leave the burdensome employment, that the couple are falling in love. The first hint of it is so subtle that a viewer might miss it: It’s the restaurant scene where they receive their meals and as they discuss business, each takes something from the others plate. That simple interaction shows the audience what the couple obviously don't realize at that moment. They are made for one another.

In self editing, look for ways in to replace worn phrases with vivid scenes that show the couple's blossoming love or even the true depth of their love. Readers may not be able to tell one fluttering-hearted heroine from another, but an author who takes time to layer in the moments of sacrifice, reaction, familiarity and other indications of true romance, will have a story not soon forgotten by the reader.

Happy editing.

Make-A-Story™ Monday Prompt

Writing to spec – you’ve heard the term. It means writing what the publisher wants. Can you do it? In our new feature - Make-A-Story™, we ask you to create a story with these elements. The story can be set in any time frame, any length, must adhere to our guidelines and have our standard Christian world view. A thunderstorm A baby's receiving blanket A lost kitten

Thursday's Tips: Don't Drain the Tension

Homeostasis. Are you familiar with this term? Here’s the definition: a state of equilibrium or a tendency to reach equilibrium. People strive for this in our lives because no one wants to be out of control or in pain, or whatever it is that takes us out of balance. Makes sense. It’s commendable, even, but our characters cannot have a homeostatic existence. If they do, our writing is dry and without tension. 

Let me explain. Because writers are human and like peace, composure, and balance, we tend to help (let?) our characters have that as well. A threat approaches in the story and we instinctively try to squelch it. We come up with a quick fix and since we’re the writer, we enact it. There. Problem solved. Except, now we’ve unplugged the hole and drained out all the tension that our story inherently tried to gain. 

I believe one of the reasons writers do this is because they’re afraid of not keeping things straight. That reasoning might fit the SOTP (seat-of-the-pants/non-outlining) writers. If they solve the problem quickly, they don’t have to remember to tie up the thread. Solution: make yourself a note and get back to it later. 

Another reason is we'd rather not feel tense. I was watching a TV show the other night and I noticed how tense I felt. Crazy. It was just a television show. But I wanted to avoid the tension playing out on the screen. Same is true in our writing. We'd rather avoid the tension we'll feel as we write the scene. But a good story, one that shows the contrast of light against dark (Christian fiction), must include some darkness. Don't avoid it. Include it. Then the ultimate breakthrough will be all the more impactful and emotional.

The best writing involves writer vulnerability. Writers must make themselves vulnerable, dig deeply into their own painful or stressful times, and include those elements on the page in order for readers to: 1) relate; 2) sympathize; and 3) stay engaged. Another reason not to return things to calm too soon.

A story without tension is not a (readable or enjoyable) story. We must have tension. 

As you’re writing your story, catch yourself if you find your character solving a problem too quickly. Let problems linger. Let your characters suffer. Don’t bring them back to a calm state too quickly. In fact, let the tension escalate by raising the stakes. Let things get worse. Let conflicts go unresolved for a while. Readers will love you for it as they keep turning pages.

Tactical Tuesday: Advice for Self Editing

Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary describes a cliche as a trite phrase or expression or something that has become overly familiar or commonplace.

While the use of cliches is perfectly acceptable for songwriters, editors generally frown upon them. Why? Because they are a lazy form of writing. Readers want something fresh and original, and there are some fun ways to add new life to tired old cliches:

1. Amp up a familiar saying or add some humor to it. For example: Nellie put her hands on her hips and turned to look at her husband sleeping on the couch. Outside Junior cranked the old lawnmower. It sputtered once or twice then kicked into gear. Nellie watched as he pushed the old contraption across the lawn. "The acorn doesn't fall far from the tree, but thank goodness sometimes when they fall, they roll away." She shook her head as she passed her husband's prone figure and headed into the kitchen. Junior would want some lemonade when he finished the job.

2. Counter a cliche with a reaction or a revelation into the insight of the charater. This might not always pass the muster of an editor, but assume an author develops a character whose uniqueness comes from the use of cliches. Maybe they are localized expressions or the character is simply the kind of person who utters cliches as a form of communication. Counter the cliche with a reaction from another character or as in the following example, let the cliche show the reader something about the character that the character might not understand about herself: Katie slammed the kitchen door. She stopped halfway between the porch and the barn and stomped her feet in a fit of anger. "You're as stubborn as an old mule, Zed," she yelled back toward the house. No wonder we never get anything done. You want it your way. I want it mine."

Zed opened the door with a smile. "Two peas in a pod, huh, Katie?"

Again, not all editors will be open to this, and it will take considerable talent to pull this off.

3. Twist the cliche. In an upcoming Pelican release, author Donn Taylor relieves the tense scenes in his thriller, Deadly Additive, by allowing characters to mangle the expressions so familiar to the reader, and it is a delightful addition to an excellent story, one you won't want to miss.

Cliches can be fun in our writing if we change them up in creative ways. When self-editing, these overly used sayings should be identified and either eliminated or used in a more creative manner.

Next week we'll look at some of the new "tired, old" cliches that are working their way into romance and discuss ways to bring new life to the way we show romantic feelings in our stories.

Until then, happy editing.

Write the Vision ~ Wednesday

When one thinks of Moses we all remember the leader, the prince, the great servant of God but Moses was also a writer. Many of his attributes can be encouraging to writers today.

*Moses had Vision...
Proverbs 29:18 says "Where there is no vision the people perish." Moses certainly had that, as did Noah...Abraham... Hebrews 11 is devoted to those who had Vision, and Faith to keep going. He could see what needed to be done.  He knew where he needed to go. He noticed things others didn't. He saw the Burning Bush when others didn't.

*Moses had earthly help...
Exodus 17:12 Aaron and Hur held up his arms when he couldn't keep them raised.Sometimes it's hard to keep our arms up, or hands to the keyboard. It's always wonderful to have that friend who like Aaron and Hur encourages--or perhaps you can be the person holding up another's arms. Moses didn't isolate himself, he accepted help from others.

*Moses didn't ever get where he wanted to be...he always worked toward a goal.
Moses saw the promised land but he didn't get there but the end result was--He never quit. He never stopped. He didn't rest on his accomplishments. This reminds me of an old saying -- "If you aren't green and growing, you're ripe and rotting." Moses never stopped trying--never stopped working. St. Paul reiterated this when he wrote,  "Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended; but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before."  (Phil. 3:13) Paul like Moses had his goal, and Paul like Moses kept pressing on.

Happy Writing

Make-A-Story™ Monday's Writing Prompt

Writing to spec – you’ve heard the term. It means writing what the publisher wants. Can you do it? In our new feature - Make-A-Story™, we ask you to create a story with these elements. The story can be set in any time frame, any length, must adhere to our guidelines and have our standard Christian world view. A jump rope A cat A ranch