About henrymclaughlin

Henry McLaughlin’s debut novel, Journey to Riverbend, won the Christian Writers Guild Operation First Novel Award. He brings a love of history and a background of social services and ministry into his writing. Henry enjoys working with other writers to sharpen his craft and to teach, coach and mentor. Besides writing, he also enjoys reading and traveling. Born in Rhode Island, he now lives in Saginaw, Texas, with his wife of forty-three years. Four of their five children and grandson are scattered across New England, New Jersey, and Missouri. Their eldest is in heaven. WordServe client since 2011 Member: ACFW, CWG, NTCW (North Texas Christian Writers) Website: www.henrymclaughlin.org

A Time for Every Purpose

MP900289709-300x197Many times, people come up to me and say they want to write a book but can’t find the time. Aspiring writers, people who are making an effort to write, often say the same thing.

Both groups cite full time jobs, church obligations, family responsibilities and activities that prevent or hinder them from pursuing their desire to write. These are all legitimate undertakings that must be accomplished if we’re to support ourselves, raise God-centered children and contribute to our faith communities and neighborhoods.

I want to share one insight I’ve gained over the last ten years of pursuing this writing dream: You’ll never find the time to write. You make the time to write.

When I whined to my mentor, DiAnn Mills, that I couldn’t find the time to write, her simple, straight-forward advice: GET UP EARLIER. Not what I wanted to hear but it took root in my heart and God nurtured it. Okay, he nagged me. I started getting up at 4:00 a.m. to write. This gave me one-and-a-half hours of solid, productive writing time every morning before I went to my day job.

Jerry B. Jenkins wrote between 9:00 p.m. and Midnight so as not to take time away from his family.

One of my close writing buddies negotiated with her children (she has 6) and husband for a certain amount of undisturbed writing time each week.

A soccer-mom friend uses soccer practice to write.

Need to make time to write? Take a couple of weeks and track your time. Make a simple MP900385402-214x300chart that blocks out the hours of the day and then note what you’re doing during those hours. After two weeks, you’ll be able to identify at least five hours in your present schedule for writing without having to get up earlier or stay up later. Start with your television and internet time and go from there. Set a schedule, negotiate with your family, find a writing spot and do it.

And pray. If writing is the desire of your heart, God will give you the insight into how to make the time to live out His call, His plan, for you.

The World of Our Story

View of Earth From SpaceIn his book, The Writer’s Journey(third edition), Christopher Vogler writes, “The Ordinary World in one sense is the place you came from last. In life we pass through a succession of Special Worlds which slowly become ordinary as we get used to them.”

As writers, we often talk about creating story worlds. In reality, we create two. There is our hero’s ordinary story world, the world she lives in before the inciting incident launches her into her story. Once launched, she enters the Special World of the story we are writing.

Interestingly, in many novels, the worlds may be exactly the same in terms of geography, time, economics, politics, and a myriad of other details. The world moves from Ordinary to England 1Special when our hero decides to embark on the journey to solve the story problem or answer the story question.

Then, even if she continues to live in the same house, work the same job, go to the same church, her world becomes Special. She is now on an adventure to resolve the story problem. And that story problem transforms her world from Ordinary to Special, whether it’s solving a murder, dealing with an unwanted pregnancy, or losing her spouse.

town 4Think of the world of our lives. Everything is going along fine and then something happens. We lose a job or we get a promotion to a more challenging position, a loved one dies or a prodigal returns home, a car accident, a medical problem, a windfall. We win the lottery or we spend all our pay on lottery tickets and miss by one number.

Whatever it is, our Ordinary world becomes Special while we live through the changes until the Special World becomes Ordinary once again.

Can you think of a time when your own Ordinary World became Special? How can you use that experience to write a Special World for your characters?

Having Problems with Your Plot?

question marks man in circlePlot problems?

Here is a tool that may prove helpful. Steven James presented this material at an intensive novel writing retreat I attended.

Whether you’re an outliner or an organic author, these simple yet intriguing questions will get your creative juices flowing.

The questions open doors into areas of our story we may not have explored before and will lead us to more compelling stories.

What would this character naturally do in this situation?

Believability is the first priority. If our character does something he would not naturally do, it will the strain the reader’s investment in him and in our story.

For example, say our character is an inspector with the National Transportation Safety Board. What’s the first thing he would do at the scene of a plane crash? Would he ask where is the nearest Starbucks? Or would he ask if the black box has been found or if there are any survivors?

Or, he’s an ER doctor and the paramedics have brought in a victim of a gunshot wound. Would he ask when the next available tee time is? Or, would he assess the patient’s need for immediate surgery?

If the reader notices our character is acting unbelievably, another character must also notice it and comment on it. Otherwise, our story loses credibility.

How can I make things worse?writer's block 2

Escalate the tension by throwing more obstacles at our character. Increase the tension to keep the reader interested. It has to be believable.

Say my story involves terrorists taking over a nuclear power plant and holding the staff hostage. How can I make things worse? Here are some examples:

They strap bombs to the core.

There is a group of school kids there on a field trip.

They start killing the hostages.

The daughter of the chief government negotiator works at the plant.

She’s aiding the terrorists.

The key is to avoid coincidence because this will destroy believability. Everything must build on something that happened before.

ShockHow can I end this in a way that’s unexpected and inevitable?

Readers don’t want endings to come out of nowhere. The ending needs to be natural and inherent to the story. We want the reader to be surprised and satisfied.

In my novel, Journey to Riverbend, I established throughout the novel that my protagonist believed he killed his father and that he would never kill again. At the end of the story, I put him in the position where, to save someone, he has to kill the villain. The ending was inevitable yet surprising and satisfying to the readers. It was also believable because of the foreshadowing I layered in.

Steven James writes, “The first question will help focus your believability. The second will keep it escalating toward an unforgettable climax. The third will help build your story, scene by twisting, turning scene.”

What are some techniques you use to make sure your reader is engaged in your plot?

Creating Plots

I recently attended an intensive writing retreat given by Steven James and Robert Dugoni.

Happy PeopleHere are some of the highlights from the session on creating plots.

One way to look at plot is to ask: What’s a story? It’s the protagonist’s journey. There has to be movement on some level—we don’t want to confine the character. The journey can be physical, emotional, or spiritual. Or all three. As long as we keep the protagonist moving.

What motivates the character to start the journey? The motivation can be simple: love, justice, hate, revenge, power, greed, fear, or adventure.

Here’s a five-question exercise for brainstorming a story, given by Robert Dugoni:

  • Who is my protagonist?
  • What is my protagonist? (accountant, police detective, stayquestion marks man in circle-at-home mom, lawyer, etc.)
  • Where is my protagonist? The setting for the story.
  • What does my protagonist want?
  • What stands in the way of achieving it?

Also, when you’ve answered all these questions, you have the basics of your elevator pitch.

The basic elements of plot are the beginning, the middle, and the end.

In the beginning we establish the tone and the genre. And we introduce who we are going to be traveling with on the story journey—the protagonist.

Also, at the start of the story, we want to create empathy for our hero. One way we can do this is to give the character a wound we all share and a goal we can identify with.

We also want to hook the reader by asking a question or introducing a problem that launches the protagonist into the story.

In the middle, the story continues to develop as we take the protagonist deeper into the story question or problem. And we add twists and surprises.

StrivingWe also add escalating obstacles that make the situation worse. These obstacles must serve one of two purposes: they must move the story forward by raising the tension, or they must further develop a character trait, or both. If they do neither, they need to be cut. Otherwise, the dreaded sagging middle will occur.

The obstacles lead us to the climax where the protagonist either achieves his quest or doesn’t.

The end of the story answers the story questions. It must be satisfying to the reader and it needs to show the protagonist changed by what he experienced in the story.

Here are two excellent resources for plotting. There are many others but I find these very helpful:

  • Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell
  • Plot versus Character by Jeff Gerke.

Being Equipped

Criticism 1Many times, when I meditate on God’s Word, my eyes are drawn to encouraging and uplifting verses like John 3:16, or “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” or “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

And sometimes, as only God can do, He whacks me upside the head with a mackerel as he did during my prayer time the other day when He led me to Proverbs 29:1 (NLT): Whoever stubbornly refuses to accept criticism will suddenly be destroyed beyond recovery.

In the King James Version, this verse reads: He, that being often reproved hardeneth his neck, shall suddenly be destroyed, and that without remedy. Not quite as in my face as the NLT. The Old English makes it a little mushier with having to untie the knots in the sentence.

Not the NLT. It’s like stepping on the wrong end of a rake.

When I began writing seriously, the thing I feared most was receiving criticism. I had always been extremely sensitive to criticism. It came from having a poor self-image and being convinced in my mind I could never be smart enough or good enough. My first reaction was to shut down and then, at the first opportunity, I would go off by myself and brood.

Frustrated Woman at Computer With Stack of PaperImagine taking this attitude into a critique group.

But God, with His grace and favor and wisdom, prepared me. He showed me magazine articles, books, and blogs that talked about receiving and giving criticism. He brought me to my first critique group. There I observed a group of people much more experienced than I give and receive critiques in ways that were constructive and encouraging.

Most importantly, through prayer and wise counsel, He showed me, for the first time, how to see the criticism was not about me personally, but about my words.

Sometimes, it’s still hard to make this distinction. The enemy tries to wedge the door open and tell me negative feedback means I’m no good. But God has shown me, no matter what people think of my writing, I am good. I am His child and, as the old saying goes, God does not make junk.

To refuse and reject criticism is to set myself up for failure, to put myself in a situation of not being published, of developing a reputation of being difficult, if not impossible, to work with. This accomplishes several things I don’t want to happen. People won’t work with me or consider my work because I’m not open about improving it. It hurts God because it takes me out of His plan for me. And it gives the enemy a victory because it takes me out of the will of God and opens the door for him to do even more damage, and, thus, for me to be destroyed beyond recovery.

God’s shown me the purpose of the criticism, how it applies through this verse. The feedback is to help me improve as a writer, to develop and refine my craft, to become a better storyteller. To become a better servant of Him by taking my skills to the highest level possible. To walk in obedience and in the fullness of His plan and calling for my life.

After getting my attention in Proverbs 29:1, He led me to this Scripture, a part of a prayer in Hebrews 13:21 (NLT): May he equip you with all you need for doing his will. May he produce in you, through the power of Jesus Christ, every good thing that is pleasing to him. All glory to him forever and ever! Amen.

He’s equipped to me write and He’s equipped me to receive feedback and instruction to improve my writing so it serves Him even better.

What Does Your Hero Yearn For?

I’m not talking about story goals here. This is something deeper, more at the core of his being. James Scott Bell writes about this in his book Conflict & Suspense.

The hero may not even realize it’s present. It’s something he doesn’t have but yearns for. Businessman Running with UmbrellaBell defines yearning as a desire for something without which the person feels incomplete. And he may not even be aware the yearning is there until a story event triggers a response based more on the yearning than on the event itself. This could lead to behavior, an overreaction or under reaction, that makes little sense to the other characters and to the hero himself.

This yearning is in your hero’s history, perhaps something from his childhood. Whatever it is, it predates the story. When he comes into the story, he’s already carrying trouble in the form of this unfulfilled yearning. This gives you all kinds of possibilities for unpredictable actions by the hero as the unspoken yearning influences his behavior and relationships with others.

man prayingFor example, say your hero yearns for a strong father figure because his father left the family when the hero was a boy. In your novel, he might have a hard time seeing the antagonist as the villain because he develops a strong emotional attachment to the man early on. As the villain is slowly revealed, the hero rebels against what he sees and may even attempt to shield the bad guy, defend him, rationalize his behavior. Or he may feel betrayed which can send him down another path in the story

Next time you feel stuck with your hero, dig deeper into his history. See what unexpressed yearning he’s hiding from himself—and from you.Now the tension and potential for a tragic outcome is heightened as the hero’s yearning, and resulting idolization, of the villain conflicts with the reality of who and what the villain really is.

Editing Tips

 Books aren’t written, they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it… Michael Crichton

The workshop leader looked over the group—a motley crew of aspiring and published authors seeking to learn. She arched her eyebrow and said, “The purpose of your first draft is to get the crap out. Then you can go back and write the book.” Okay, I thought, that’s an interesting way to look at it. And it actually freed me to write better.

I’ve also learned that each draft has crap in it. The goal is to have less and less in each revision. Even today, I’ll pick up my published novel, Journey to Riverbend, and see things I would change. And the published version is the eighth draft.

ScissorsOver the years, people have asked me, “What’s the best way to edit?”

I don’t think there is one best way to edit. Each writer will develop his own way of editing, mostly though trial and error.

My editing process has evolved as I’ve written more, studied the craft, and learned to test approaches and keep the ones that work.

When I write, I begin the day by reading what I wrote the day before. I look for typos, adverbs, passive tense, glaring POV issues, and grammar. This also helps me get back into the flow of the story.

On Saturday, I print out the pages for that week and do a deep edit of the week’s writing, polishing and refining, cutting scenes, re-working dialogue, correcting inconsistencies from the plot or character.

I use critique partners and group as I’m working on the story, incorporating their input as I Writinggo along.

Once the first draft is finished, I put it away. For a minimum of three weeks. If any thoughts come to me about the book, I put them in a folder until later. I send the story out to beta readers. At this point, I find I need at least two people to read the entire book and give me feedback to specific questions.

After three weeks, I pull out the manuscript and have my computer read it to me. And then I rewrite the story, incorporating input from the beta readers.

The second draft goes through almost the same process as the first, generally more quickly. And then it gets rewritten.

Editing is kind of like washing your hair—lather, rinse, repeat. Over and over.

There are two books I think are immensely helpful in this process: Self-editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. And, Write Great Fiction: Revision and Self-Editing by James Scott Bell.

What techniques have worked best for you in your editing? What resources would you recommend?

Bringing Characters to Life

 A story without people is not a story. I’m not sure what it is but it’s not a story.

You can have a great plot and beautiful settings, but if your characters are not alive, you just have words on a page.

There are numerous tools available to help us create characters. Meyer-Briggs, Gary writer's block 2Chapman’s Five Love Languages, character interview forms, character description sheets, family history templates, etc. They all have some value in identifying your characters.

I believe your character doesn’t come alive until he or she is in the story, interacting with other characters, striving to achieve goals. This striving creates conflict. This conflict brings both your character and your story alive.

When your character comes to life in the story, be prepared for most of the preliminary work to go out the window. And be prepared, if you’re an outliner, for your carefully-crafted story to go in new directions. The story, the conflicts, the setbacks, will change your character and reveal more of what’s beneath her surface.

Believable characters have dark secrets, hidden ambitions, fears, dreams, hopes, and desires. In my current work, I didn’t know my heroine was claustrophobic until it came out in a scene. None of my prep work revealed this. Why? Because it wasn’t important in the prep work. It wasn’t until I had her in a scene, in action, that the fear of being closed in manifested itself. Her fear of heights wasn’t revealed until she had to climb a tree to escape a hungry tiger.

People have needs for relationship, significance, and security. These need to be revealed in the story.

Randy Ingermanson teaches that to create a believable character, try to give her at least two core values. And somewhere in the story, have them conflict. In my novel, Journey to Riverbend, Michael Archer is the protagonist. His core values are: One, nothing is more important than keeping his word; and, two, nothing is more important than protecting human life. At the climax, these values conflict. To keep his promise to a condemned man, Michael faces having to kill someone.

James Scott Bell, in Conflict & Suspense, suggests giving your character a yearning, something they want but don’t have, “something without which a person feels life will be incomplete.” It can be something the hero brings into the story so he already has trouble when the story opens. This yearning will give him a store of actions that are unpredictable, creating potential conflict in every scene, and creating interest in the reader from the outset.

Businessman with Cell Phone JumpingThe more we let our characters express and reveal themselves in the story, the more vibrant, complex, and fascinating they will be, and the more they will keep the reader hooked and turning pages.

Being Equipped

God has a will, or a plan for each of us. Psalm 139:16 (NLT) tells us You saw me before I was born. Every day of my life was recorded in your book. Every moment was laid out before a single day had passed.

Each of us is on this earth for a specific reason. We may not know it completely right now. We may be in a season of preparation to enter that calling. But God has a plan for each of us.

Some are called to be pastors and teachers, some doctors, lawyers. Some to be auto mechanics, electricians, and plumbers.

Some, like myself, are called to be writers.

In Jeremiah 29:11 (NLT), God tells us “For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. Writing“They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.”

Whatever our calling, God will not just throw us into it, like throwing a toddler into the pool so it has to learn to swim. He prepares us.

What makes the preparation fun, and at times frustrating, is that it’s uniquely different for each of us. One person may go through an entirely different set of life experiences than me, yet end up as a writer. I think this is another example of how God cares for us as individuals. He has a unique and personal relationship with each of us. We are all His favorite child.

And he equips us.

Hebrews 13:21 (NLT) may he equip you with all you need for doing his will. May he produce in you, through the power of Jesus Christ, every good thing that is pleasing to him. All glory to him forever and ever! Amen.

From childhood, I’ve had a love for words and books, for reading, for stories. In my career, each job has called for me to read more, to read better, and to write: case records, personnel reports, court documents, training curriculum, and policy and procedure.

?????????????Then the glimmer of writing fiction stirred in my heart. And the equipping continued. Books on writing, writing conferences and classes, critique groups, critique partners, mentors, coaches, developing a learning heart and a thick skin. All designed to teach me the craft and the business of writing, to humble myself before Him, to submit to His plan and will for my life.

And it’s been worth every step. It goes beyond being published. I’ve become a better person and a better Christian. My relationship with Him is closer than ever. He’s rewarded me with insights into myself and with precious friendships I would never have experienced if I had not made the choice to follow what He called me to do.

Everybody’s Talking at Me

While preparing a class on dialogue recently, I came across a concept I hadn’t noticed or considered before: our character’s voice may change based on the situation they’re in.

Consider our own daily lives and the various situations we find ourselves in. If we have a day job, we speak in a different manner to our boss than we do our co-workers. If we’re in customer service, we often react differently with different customers. Some we can be playful and joke with. Others are strictly business and we maintain the professional decorum they demand, even if only non-verbally.

We take our cues from the situation and the person we’re talking to. Notice how polite and differential we are when a police officer pulls us over for speeding. And then how we complain to our friend about how unfair the cop was to give us a ticket.

Our attitude when speaking with our pastor is different from our attitude when working on an outreach with fellow church members.

If you’re a parent, your voice changes depending on the situation and the child. If we have several children and they span age groups from pre-school to adolescent, our kids start thinking we must have multiple personalities. We go from the loving parent taking care of bumps and scrapes to the red-faced tyrant wanting the bedroom cleaned to the strict disciplinarian who dares expect our teens adhere to a curfew. If the kids get into a dispute, they quickly learn that, as Bill Cosby said, “We don’t want justice, we want quiet!” And we frequently don’t care how we get it.

In my first novel, Journey to Riverbend, my female lead, Rachel, used different voices depending on her situation. I didn’t discover this until I was struggling to develop a stronger character arc for her and she revealed her voices to me during an interview I had with her. This sweet (I thought) young lady told me, in no uncertain terms, to go back and read the story. Rachel is a former prostitute trying to establish a dressmaking business while seeking to put her past behind her. At the same time, she’s finding her way as a new Christian and struggling with whether to let a man into her life.

As a businesswoman, her voice is polite and deferential, even as she steers customers away from choices that make her cringe inside. But her old way of speaking comes out when the mayor tries to get too friendly and take advantage of her. She whispers to him, “Remember, I’m making dresses for your wife. I can make her look like a clown and convince her she looks like Queen Victoria.” It’s the voice of a woman who won’t be messed with.

How do your characters speak when you put them in different conversations, especially with someone in a higher social status?