About Jan Drexler

Delighted wife, mom to homeschool graduates, author - when I'm not out hiking in the hills.

The Anatomy of a Scene

Learning to craft good scenes for your novel is a foundational tool in your writing tool kit. Think of the scenes as the building blocks you use to construct your masterpiece. If they’re faulty or incomplete, what will the building look like?

SceneBut there are as many blog posts about writing a scene for your novel as there are varieties of ice cream sundaes at your favorite summer hang out.

So why am I writing one more?

Because when it comes right down to it, writing a scene isn’t as hard as it seems. You only need to break it down into four major parts:

Beginning: When the scene begins, does the reader know when and where this is taking place, and whose point of view it’s in? If not, you’re in danger of leaving your reader stranded in the land of floating heads. YOU may know exactly what your characters are seeing, feeling, etc., but does your reader?

Middle: The midsection of the scene should take up the most time. A sentence or two into the scene, after you’ve given your reader the information they need, start increasing the tension and continue to the turning point.

The turning point is the main purpose for the scene. It’s where the reader learns something new about the character, or the character learns something new about himself or someone else, or a decision is made.

There are a lot of different ways this can be played out, but the main thing is to make sure the scene contributes to the flow of the story and moves things forward.

End: Does the scene resolve itself? The character(s) involved should make a decision or take an action as a result of the turning point.

And finally: Is there a hook at the end of the scene that will make the reader continue on to the next scene? Without a hook leading your reader further into the story, there is no reason for them to turn the page.

And here’s a homework assignment: Look at a scene in your favorite book. Does it have all four of these elements in it? What exceptions did the author make, if any? Now do the same with one of your own scenes.

What did you learn?

 

Firmly Established

When I mention the book of Ecclesiastes, what goes through your mind?

 The folk-pop song hit from The Byrds in 1965?

 “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!”?

 Hopeless despair of anything one does “under the sun”?

100_1867

 Look closer…there’s more to this book than the Preacher’s laments.

 At the very end of Ecclesiastes, the writer switches his voice from the Preacher to the narrator, and writes these words:

“The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd.” Ecclesastes 12:11 ESV

 The goads mentioned in this verse are sticks used for poking and prodding sheep. Sheep are notorious for being slow-witted and stubborn. Even faced with danger, they will not obey the shepherd or sheep dogs if they think doing so would be more dangerous. At these times, the shepherd can resort to using his staff as a goad, poking the sheep to the point of pain, if necessary, to get it going to a safe place.

100_1793

 I don’t know about you, but I’m often like the slow-witted sheep, going blindly down the path toward danger. My Shepherd knows there are times when I would fall off a cliff rather than listen to His word, so He will resort to the goad. I know some of the most painful episodes in my life were used by my Shepherd to move me back to the center of His will.

 The other term used in this verse is “nails.” This same word is also used in Ezra 9:8 and Isaiah 22:23. It gives the picture of a peg or nail fixed firmly and securely into place, as in Ezra, when the Lord established the remnant of the nation of Israel in Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity. “But now for a brief moment favor has been shown by the LORD our God, to leave us a remnant and to give us a secure hold within his holy place, that our God may brighten our eyes and grant us a little reviving in our slavery.” Ezra 9:8 ESV

 What does this mean for us as writers?

 God’s Word is the goad that keeps us in line with His direction and will. He is the Shepherd who establishes us firmly in our place.

100_1773

 The next verse, Ecclesiastes 12:12, is also appropriate for us: “My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”

 Did you see the instruction? “…beware of anything beyond these…” Beyond what? The “words of the wise,” given by “one Shepherd.”

 As Christian writers, our place is putting words on paper – words that point our readers to the One Good Shepherd who seeks the lost and redeems sinners.

Give Your Characters a Life!

We’ve all been there.

You’re sitting at your desk, fingers flying across your keyboard. Your hero and heroine are in the middle of a conflict and…wait. How does he react when she turns to walk away from him?

Every action our characters make is determined by their background. Their backstory.

Let’s look at the hero in my September release from Love Inspired as an example.

Nate Colby is a Civil War veteran. He had been part of the Union Cavalry during the last couple years of the war. During one campaign, he was ordered to move a wagon load of explosives out of a burning barn. He hitched a team of mules to the wagon, but the mules balked. They refused to pull the wagon out of the barn.

The explosion nearly killed Nate, but more importantly, the experience was the beginning of a series of events that convinced him he lacks something in his makeup that other men possess. Something inside him causes him to fail every time he attempts something important.

It also caused him to hate and distrust mules.

Fast forward twelve years. During the intervening time Nate’s view of his shortcomings has been reinforced over and over. His parents died while he and his brother were in the army. His sister disappeared into the west and became a prostitute. His brother’s children were left orphans when Nate wasn’t able to save his brother and sister-in-law from the 005house fire that killed them.

And his nephew’s favorite friend is his pet mule, Loretta.

Now Nate is left with his nephew and nieces to care for, but the past still haunts him. It affects every move, every decision. And as the story progresses, the reader gets glimpses of Nate’s backstory. It unfolds when it needs to in order to give Nate’s character depth.

But Nate’s backstory is so much more important than to make his character interesting to the reader.

Without knowing his backstory, I would be at a loss whenever he appears in a scene or when there is a plot twist.

For example, the heroine, Sarah, is a crusader, seeking to save the poor lost prostitutes in Deadwood. She is extremely naïve and idealistic at the beginning of the story, and enthusiastically recruits Nate to help her.

How does he respond? We – as readers – already know this part of Nate’s backstory. Remember the sister who disappeared twelve years ago? Nate’s experience with his sister gives him an insight into the life of a saloon girl that Sarah doesn’t have. He not only keeps her enthusiasm grounded in reality, but he agrees to help her, even though he’s afraid the plan is doomed if he has any part in it.

001Nate’s backstory drives his decision to help Sarah and his feelings about that decision. It affects all of his actions as they carry out Sarah’s plans to help one of the soiled doves in the mining camp. And it provides the starting point for the change his character goes through in the course of the story.

 

Writing my character’s backstory is a major part of getting to know my characters before I ever start writing my stories. It gives them life!

What about you? How far into your characters’ back stories to you go when you’re developing your next book?

Facebook: Friend or Enemy?

Facebook. So what IS it about marketing on Facebook that makes us all cringe? I know I’m not the only one who wants to forget about it and get to work writing my next book!

But after a couple of valuable appointments with marketing gurus at the ACFW conference in September, and after reading last month’s post by Casey Herringshaw, I started looking at Facebook a little differently. It is part of our lives, and it can be a valuable asset to our writing careers.

Here are some things I’ve learned:

  • Treat both your author page and your personal page the same. Both of them are seen by your readers and potential readers. Once you’re a published author, you don’t have a private life on the internet. If you aren’t published yet, act as if you are!
  • Stick to your brand. I write historical romance books. Most of them are Amish, with a foray into a western being published by Love Inspired next year. On my sepia horse and buggyFacebook author page, I share Amish tidbits plus a fun picture of cowboys once in a while. That’s what my readers expect, and I try not to disappoint them! And yes, when I have news about one of my books, I’ll post about that, too. But that kind of post is rare.
  • Post regularly. Some authors use a service like Hootsuite to schedule their Facebook posts, but I’ve found that I like to fly by the seat of my pants when posting on my author page. I try to post at least once a day, only because that drives up traffic. Regularity is a key to reaching larger numbers of my readers.
  • Understand that even if you aren’t a public figure now, you will be. (At least 040that’s the goal, right?) As you’re sharing all about your dogs, grandchildren or passion for hang-gliding, don’t forget to insert a layer of protection between you and your reading public. Certain things need to be kept private. You can give your readers quite a bit of information about your life – and let them feel like they know you – without divulging every detail.
  • Be friendly. Whether on your personal Facebook page or your professional one, the personal distance you need to maintain shouldn’t keep you from giving your readers9780373282777_p0_v1_s260x420 a genuine smile of welcome when they drop by. Let your voice shine through. Be inviting. Make them want to spend time with you in your books.
  • Be professional. Facebook is not the place to air dirty laundry, complain about or celebrate political events, or argue theological differences. Never, ever complain about your spouse, children, in-laws, bosses, or co-workers. And never, never, never (can’t say enough nevers!) complain about or divulge information about editors, agents, or anyone else in the writing business. What appears on the internet has a horribly tenacious way of sticking around.
  • Be a good neighbor. Don’t you love when your peers share your latest status with all of their friends? Especially when you’re trying to pull readers to your latest blog post or publicize the sale price on one of your books? Do the same for them.

Sometimes I think of Facebook as a necessary evil, one of the many things we need to negotiate in order to be successful in this modern life. It won’t last forever, but as long as it’s around, we should use it to our advantage. And meanwhile, enjoy it!

A Story of God’s Faithfulness

Today would have been my mother’s eighty-fifth birthday if she hadn’t succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease last March. She passed away peacefully, in the company of her husband of sixty-three years, and in the arms of Jesus.

Alzheimer’s is a terrible disease, because it steals its victim’s story. In the ten years Mom suffered from the disease, it wormed the story of her life away bit by bit.

DSC05674

It started with forgetting little things, like how to make cookies, and progressed to forgetting people, places, and events.

Early on, it stole her words. She lost the ability to read, to follow conversations, to construct sentences, and then to form words.

Because she couldn’t follow conversations, she closed in on herself. She couldn’t anticipate events, so lived in a constant state of agitation. Anything out of place in the house was a cause of worry. Visits from friends and family were tiring and short.

Veva Crumrine, c. 1947

When she started having seizures, Dad made the very difficult decision to move her to full-time care in an institution. The adjustment was hard.

Alzheimer’s stole her ability to walk, to move herself in her wheel chair, to sit without the aid of supports and straps, and finally to sit at all. Her muscles grew rigid and unyielding. She lost the ability to make facial expressions.

Finally, she lost the ability to communicate with others, except in the most primitive ways. The last phrase she used regularly was “I love you,” and was always said to her caregivers.

John and Veva Tomlonson, Jacob, Carrie, Benjamin and Michael Drexler. York, PA 1994

Mom’s story was buried in the ravages of the disease.

But the one thing the disease couldn’t snatch away was God’s story. Because we don’t hold onto God with our own abilities and will, God holds on to us.

The last time I visited Mom was just over a year ago. She was bedridden and spent most of her day in a semi-conscious state. But Dad would play a CD of hymns for her during his visits. As I sang the hymns to her, she “sang” along in the only voice she had left – a tuneless hum. But she knew the messages in the hymns.

As we reached the last verse of one hymn, Mom looked into my eyes for the first time that visit and clutched my hand.

I said, “It’s true, Mom. It’s all true.”Visiting with Mom, Nov. 28, 2009

She smiled, as well as she could, and her eyes closed once more.

God kept His story alive in her heart. And because He did, I know we need not fear for anything that might unfold in our own stories.

All the way my Savior leads me –

O the fullness of his love!

Perfect rest to me is promised

in my Father’s house above:

When my spirit, clothed, immortal,

wings its flight to realms  of day,

This my song through endless ages:

Jesus led me all the way!

Oh, blessed assurance!

Stitching Your Story

We were almost ready to begin our ladies’ Bible study the other night when Sandi asked about my writing. I told her about the revisions I’m working on, and how they’ll make my story better.

Then she leaned back in her chair, shook her head, and said, “I don’t know how you do it. I don’t know how you write books like you do!”

I knew I had the perfect analogy for her. Sandi is a quilter, and she’d understand: Writing a book is like making a quilt. 

First you select a design, the “big picture” of your finished quilt.

For a book, the “big picture” is the genre and basic plot.

As you make the design of your quilt your own, you choose colors and patterns. You spend hours selecting just the right fabrics to fit your design.

As you plot your book, you develop characters with goals, motivations, and conflicts. You choose a setting that will complement the plot. And you work on your story structure, plotting or outlining the way it works best for you.

Elliza Mummert Sherck's quilt

When you start constructing your quilt, you work on one block at a time, stitching each piece into place.

When you start writing your novel, you work on one scene at a time – beginning, middle and end – stitching with words rather than thread.

Finally, you lay all your quilt blocks out on the floor to see how the finished project will look – and then you revise the design by moving blocks around and creating different color combinations.

And your novel? Revisions are part of the process! Switch that scene to a different character’s point of view. Rearrange the chapters to bring your antagonist into the picture earlier. Ramp up that happily-ever-after ending!

And last of all, when everything else is done, you finish your quilt by stitching the layers together and binding the edges, sealing the work you’ve done.

With your novel, it’s the work of editing and polishing that puts the final stamp on the story.

006

But the thing quilting and writing have most in common? The finished product is a work of your heart that you share with others.

 Mark and Karen's Quilt

Your First Writers Conference? Things to Know Before You Go!

This is conference season for writers! Not just the national conferences like RWA and ACFW, but smaller, regional conferences. There’s probably a writing conference or retreat somewhere in your area this summer or fall.

Speaker at Business Conference and Presentation.I’m planning to attend the ACFW conference in St. Louis in September, and it will be my second. As I’ve been signing up for classes and preparing my wardrobe (comfortable shoes are a must!), I’ve been thinking back to my first ACFW conference two years ago. I hope what I learned will benefit you.

  • Don’t be afraid to go. You won’t be the only newbie. Not only will you find other first-timers (at ACFW you learn to look for the tell-tale ribbon on other attendees’ name badges), but the veterans will welcome you as a new member of the family.
  • Don’t retreat to your room. Writers are prone to enjoy our solitary existence. We like to be alone. But conference isn’t the place for it. You paid a lot of money to meet other people who speak your language, so make sure you meet them. Introduce yourself. Sit next to strangers. Join someone who is standing alone. Strike up a conversation. You never know who you might meet. Two years ago, I ended up eating lunch with the most charming veteran author who writes in the same genre I do. What a treat to talk with her in that non-threatening environment!
  • Don’t sweat it if you can’t attend all of the classes and workshops you signed up for. Buy the sessions on the MP3 download or CDs and listen to them when your mind isn’t filled with the busyness of conference.
  • On the other hand, try not to skip the sessions you signed up for. There’s nothing like the immediate, in-person teaching by an industry professional to spark your enthusiasm.
  • Enjoy your appointments with editors and agents. Be confident, relaxed, and friendly. And if they ask you to submit something, do it. Since they really want to see it, email it to them as soon after conference as possible.
  • Exchange business cards with the new friends you meet. It’s helpful to have your picture on your card, if at all possible. You’ll be meeting so many people, it will be hard to connect names with faces a week later.
  • Most of all, have fun! Enjoy the meetings, the down times, the after-hours sessions with your new friends. Meet new people, become inspired, and get fired up!

Are you planning to attend a conference soon? Will you be in St. Louis in September for ACFW? If so, be sure to look me up!