About Rachel Phifer

As the daughter of missionaries, Rachel Phifer grew up in Malawi, South Africa and Kenya. She holds a B.A in English and psychology from Houston Baptist University, and lives in Houston with her family. Her novel, The Language of Sparrows, released July, 2013.

Six Keys to Writing a Story with Spiritual Content

 

1. Hook the reader. Every good story neceltic crosseds a hook, including the spiritual story. Set up the spiritual story with an intriguing question and a clear goal. In The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell, we are first introduced to Father Emilio as a man who narrowly missed sainthood. He now lies in a hospital bed, sullen, uncommunicative and suspected of a terrible crime. The reader is left wondering how a godly man came to be in such a place and what his future holds now.

2. Lay the foundation for the spiritual resolution. Miracles and sudden moments of salvation may happen in real life, but will feel contrived in fiction. Not only that, but they can also be hurtful to those with unanswered prayers or who have had to work through long, hard years of healing. Build the steps toward a satisfying spiritual conclusion into the structure of the novel at every turn. The story has to earn its ending, so that when it comes, the reader will feel as if it couldn’t have worked out any other way.

3. Dig for deeper themes. As important as it is to show characters accepting the gospel or to ask where God is when it hurts, those themes are common. Most likely, your novel is preaching largely to the choir, so you need to find themes that speak to the deeper struggles and goals Christians are working on as well. What does it mean to live in the light of eternity? How does prayer shape us? How do you love your enemy? How do you love your neighbor as yourself? What does a character look like who has lived out the gospel daily? And so on. When you get those rare non-Christian readers, those themes might just speak more deeply to them about the gospel than the message they’ve likely heard before.

4. Be fair and truthful. I once heard a theologian say that we needed to compare the best of Christianity with the best of other religions, and if you’re going to look at the worst of, say, Islam or atheism, you need to be willing to look at the worst of Christianity. In the movie God’s Not Dead, when the atheist professor breaks down and admits that he’s a bitter atheist because God let his mother die, it didn’t ring true. The fact is, there are many atheists who have arrived at their worldview based on careful thought, however misguided we may believe them to be. They may also happen to make decent citizens and neighbors. And we’ve all found our share of gossips and control freaks in church. Don’t be afraid to mix it up. If you dig deeply, the light of Christ will show through all the more clearly because you’ve been honest.

5. Show the Sacrifice. From A Tale of Two Cities to Titanic, audiences have always stuck by a story that involves a heartfelt sacrifice. But it’s the core of a Christian story. Whether it’s an act of utter courage such as Hadassah going willingly to the Roman arena in Voice in the Wind or something more ordinary like Will laying down his pride to admit the ways he wronged his Amish relatives in Levi’s Will, it’s the sacrifice that makes the story work.

6. Show the Beauty. Sometimes writers take for granted that the resolution is what the readers want. Don’t forget to show them why they want it. Davis Bunn shows how a prayer that has been prayed for over two thousand years comes alive when his modern character prays it in Book of Dreams, as if the leaves overhead were chanting the prayer with the character. Stephen Lawhead describes an old saint lit from the inside out with God’s love in Merlin. These little moments that show the beauty of God’s ways clarify the spiritual goal all the way through the book.

Overcoming Fear of the Blank Page

blank pagesWhy are you afraid of that page? You’re creative, right? You have a brilliant idea for a book, and you’ve loved writing since you could hold a pencil.

If you find staring down a blank page terrifying, know you’re in good company. A search on Pinterest for writing quotes shows that at least half of them have to do with braving the blank page.

Prolific writers and gifted writers alike confess to an absolute terror when sitting down with a fresh scene, but they’ve learned the tools to tame their fears. Here are a few tips to get you started.

1)      Start early in the day. Your mind is at its best after a good night’s sleep, and your book deserves that best. Even if all you can give in the morning is half an hour before getting the family up or heading off to work, getting a few paragraphs written gives you that dose of courage that makes you feel as if you can finish the scene later in the day.

2)      Outline or jot down a few notes beforehand. Having the skeleton of what you’ll write gives you a good start, even if you veer off in different directions once you begin writing. I’m no outliner, but writing down a few key points for the scene ahead gives me the feeling that I’m not staring into an abyss when I look at the blank page.

3)      Remember the first draft is just the clay. It’s rough. It’s flawed. And that’s okay. Later you’ll mold it into something beautiful, once you’ve got something written down to work with. As the popular Nora Roberts quote goes, “I can fix a bad page, but I can’t fix a blank one.”

4)      End your day’s writing in mid-stream. This was Hemingway’s technique. By leaving his day’s work where he still had something to write, he guaranteed that he would have the words to begin the next day’s work.

5)      Prime the pump. Write anything at all, even if it’s not your story. John Steinbeck wrote East of Eden in a notebook. Each day, he wrote a letter on the left-hand page to his editor and friend, sometimes about the work, but often about family, politics. and whatever interested him. Once he finished his letter, he was ready to fill the right-hand page with the next scene in his novel.

6)      Write quickly. Too much thought might be what holds you back. Writing fast allows your subconscious to take over, and you might be surprised with what it brings up to the surface.

7)      Jot down random words. Ray Bradbury typed up lists of nouns and adjectives, reviving old childhood fears and fascinations, and remembering recent beauties and horrors. When he was stuck, he always found something in the list to get him writing.

8)      Focus on the page, not the novel. A page per day makes for a 365-page novel in a year, but breaking the task down makes it less frightening.

9)      Remember the joy. Writer’s block, obstacles in the writing, marketing, the difficulty in getting published, or finding time to write can all make writing a burden. Remember what brought you here in the first place – the love of words, dreaming up stories, bringing healing to the world, or whatever it is. Stick with that and forget the rest.

10)   Read and read some more. “One must be drenched in words, literally soaked in them, to have the right ones form themselves into the proper pattern at the right moment,” Hart Crane said. Read poetry. Read fiction. Read non-fiction. And you’ll be so saturated with words and ideas, you’ll have the material to work with. Even better, start your writing day by reading a page of someone else’s breathtaking writing.

There are probably dozens of other ideas where those came from. Ask other writers. But most importantly, ask yourself. What gives you the courage to write?

 

Six Subtle Ways to Increase Tension in Your Writing

If tug of waryou’ve studied the craft of writing for long, you know about tension. I’m assuming you’ve got adequate conflict in your story, that your characters have inner and outer stakes that are deeply personal, and that your story keeps the resolution out of reach until the last chapter.

But there are more subtle ways to keep tension in your work as well. Sometimes all it takes is an added word or a deleted sentence.  

What to Put into Your Story:

1) Increase the volume. This is a term from agent and writer Donald Maass. With a single motion, word, or metaphor, you can make your scene more dramatic. Even a mundane task like packing becomes more important when the character does it with a slow hand or a furtive glance out the window. The reader experiences the character’s conflict over leaving right along with her. Linda Nichols in At the Scent of Water describes her character’s old grief as a wild animal prowling in its cage. That one metaphor revises ordinary grief into perilous grief.

2) Break a victory into several steps. Suzanne Collins is a master at this. Katniss in The Hunger Games doesn’t destroy the careers’ food stash in one quick movement. She works out that it must be done, she distracts the guards from the food, she puzzles out how to destroy it, and then does it not with one arrow, but with three separate shots. The reader is left breathless as she tries to solve the dilemma with Katniss and as the dangerous action is drawn out, page by page, step by step.

3) Write a scene that underscores the character’s arc. After you’ve written your first draft and have done some editing, you now have a richer understanding of what drives your character and what holds him back. Write a fresh scene that encapsulates this as no other scene has. It may just be one of your most powerful scenes, because it will demonstrate your deeper understanding of the tension between your stakes and your conflict.

What to Leave out of Your Story:

1) Don’t use inner dialogue that hints at what your character will do next. My critique partner, Christine Lindsay, in her upcoming novel Veiled at Midnight, wrote a scene in which her character realizes that what happens next is up to her and God alone, so when she changes course it’s no surprise to the reader. When Christine rewrote it, she dropped the inner dialogue. The character without any preamble looks at the man pointing a rifle at the stranger, places her hand on the gun, and lowers it. Because all of the drama is concentrated in the action, it’s startling to the reader and the scene has more impact.

2) Don’t repeat yourself. It’s so tempting. You want the reader to understand your character’s predicament, so you put clues into their dialogue, their actions, their inner thoughts, maybe even in other characters’ thoughts about them. Don’t do it. It slows the story down and reduces the tension. Trust your reader to get it the first time.  

3) Don’t always have characters say what they mean. Have your characters intentionally misdirect dialogue, respond to an unspoken question rather than the spoken one, or let physical cues do the talking for them. It’s called subtexting. When the reader sees that the character has something to hide or that something deeper is going on than the actual words convey, their attention perks up.

The Curse And Gift of Being Called to Write

giftThere are days you totally get Jeremiah. He decides not to speak anymore, but the words burn like a fire shut up in his bones (Jeremiah 20:9). Even when you can’t write, the words burn inside, don’t they?

How often have you wished you were just normal? On those days where you’re trying to fit it all in: a full day of work, a kid’s basketball game, dinner and laundry, and somehow you’re supposed to find writing time too? There’s the agony of staring at a blank page and watching your book drop in Amazon rankings.

You’ve even decided to quit. Often. Finally, a friend or spouse tells you to stop tormenting yourself. “You’re a writer,” they say. “You know you’re not really going to quit writing. You always come back to it.”

So, if you can’t walk away from writing, isn’t it time to look at it from another perspective? “I suggest you learn to write not with blood and fear,” Jane Yolen writes, “but with joy. It’s a personal choice.”

And there is joy, lots of it.

First, you were chosen. Like Jeremiah, before you were in the womb, God chose you. Whether you started writing as soon as you could hold a pencil or didn’t begin writing until some life event pulled you to it later on, whether writing holds financial success for you or not, being a writer is a role you were personally designed for by your Creator. If that isn’t joy, I don’t know what is.

And then there’s what drew you to writing in the first place: the thrill of a coherent story coming together at last with characters who walk off the page; that zone, where reality falls away and you’re virtually swimming in your story world; and words become so sharp and real, you’d swear you could taste them.

You were the one blessed with heightened senses and the words to go with them. So while your walking partner says, “Oh, isn’t that pretty?” you see how the thick tree cover on the forest trail washes the sunlight green, and how the Spanish moss drapes from the tree limbs like ornaments. You have words to describe the warm breeze rippling across your face and how the coos of a mourning dove bring the summer evening alive.

You have the privilege of exploring and enfleshing ideas (ideas, by the way, you almost certainly would never have come to unless you’d spent day in and day out with your fingers on the keyboard). Writing brings the joy of discovering new worlds.

And when you’re done, and the book is published, you receive emails saying things like, “I read your book and was so moved by it, I turned back to page one and read it again.” Wow, you think, did I actually create something that could do that?

You did, because you were blessed. In spite of the tortuous days of staring at a blank page, and wondering how a person can be pulled in so many directions without being ripped apart, you were given a beautiful and multilayered gift by God when He called you to write. It’s a gift you love to give back to Him, and when you’re having a thorny writing day or month, you need to remind yourself of that.

Marketing Like Your Favorite Authors

I’d studied the writing blogs, so I knew when my novel released it was time to get busy. I lined up guest blogs, interviews and book reviews. I advertised on every social media site I could think of. My new website was up and running and I’d had a personal blog going for a few years. I spoke of the book to everyone I came across. I even hawked my book at a nearby fair. You want platform, I’d give you platform.

After a few months, I was exhausted. My introverted self felt raw after all of the exposure. And despite some great reviews of the book and a ton of five star comments on Amazon, the book hadn’t soared to the bestseller list. Actually, while it definitely had some fans, it hadn’t picked up a lot of notice at all.

I wondered why I’d signed up for a writing career in the first place. I had a busy life with a full time job and a family. Who had time for all of this marketing, which by the way, was definitely not my forte? Marketing had taken so much of my time, I’d forgotten about the joy of writing fiction. Because of course, I wasn’t writing fiction. I didn’t have the time.

I began to study some of my favorite novelists and surveyed what they’d done as far as platform, and the answer was surprising. Almost nothing.

They all had websites of course. Lisa Samson started a blog, but stopped, saying the blog was stealing the creativity and time she needed to write. Dale Cramer and Athol Dickson blogged, but were invariably inconsistent, sometimes going a ctypewriterouple of months without a post. Davis Bunn’s blog posts were regular, but were strictly announcements about his book events and reader praise. Penelope Wilcock writes hers like a diary, simply telling about searching for a lost cat or going to the dentist.

Sure, most writers did interviews and some guest pieces when a book came out. They did a few bookstore signings around the release and perhaps a speaking engagement or two in between. But they focused their time on what they were best at: writing amazing novels.

Because they were single-minded and purposeful about their fiction, they had output. They improved their craft. They built a readership.

No press in the world will help you if you’re not writing new material, right? And yes, getting noticed is a bit random. Fantastic writers sometimes stay near the bottom of the midlist while so-so writers are household names.

But I’ve decided to follow my writer role models, best sellers or midlist. Yes, I’ll do occasional blogging and other marketing. I’ve got my social media set up and will make some posts and connect to readers who contact me.

But in the end, I’m not a social media expert or a blogger or a speaker. I create story worlds and characters. I play with words. I edit what I’ve written until it’s the book I’d want to read. It’s what I’m good at and it’s what I love. It’s also what makes me a writer.

So this is the best marketing advice I’ve got, as backwards as it might seem: write more, write better.

Twelve Qualities of a Big Story

I love big books. I’m not talking about page count here, but Bibliothek_St__Florianstories that are so big in scope that the novels live on with me long after I finish reading. I’m even drawn to reread the story.

That’s the kind of book I want to write, so before I begin writing, I analyze the bones of my story to see if it has some of those big-book qualities.

Twelve Big Book Qualities

1. A Hero or Heroes: Characters who take big risks and stand up for what’s right. They may be deeply flawed, and yet, they’re saints, magnetic leaders, or they show massive courage of some kind. They’re true to life and still larger than life.

2. An Impossibly Large Role to Fill: Characters step into a role that at first seems much too large for them. It may be leading a dangerous military mission, stopping a plague from spreading, or rescuing one child who is falling through an emotional black hole. In the beginning, the characters aren’t equipped, but as the story progresses, they learn to fill that big role.

3. Injustice:  It can be a large scale injustice (the Nazis) or small scale (a tyrannical parent), but at all costs, it must have high stakes and the barriers to justice must seem huge to the characters.

4. Complex Relationships: The story provides relationships that are full of great love and yet are greatly troubled. If there are complex relationships that intersect other complex relationships, that’s even better.

5. A Larger than Life Setting: The setting should carry the reader away – a family vineyard, an estate house perched on a craggy coastline, a frenzied metropolis, a bustling medieval village, or a dangerous forest. If your story calls for an ordinary town or city, make sure to find its personality and drama.

6. Time Scope: There are big books that take place in a year, even in days. But there’s something dramatic about watching lives take shape over a lifetime. Even a small story within the story or significant backstory can make the story feel larger.

7. Sacrifices and Crushed Dreams: A character may voluntarily give up something precious for the sake of loved ones, or their dreams may be grasped from their clenched fists. The story is bigger as they struggle to redeem the loss.

8. A Goal with Long Odds: The character – actually all of the characters – need specific goals, and they should be hard to achieve, with plenty of obstacles in the way.

9. Characters with Special Talents or Gifts: Readers love to watch gifted people work – artists, geniuses, prophets, clever detectives, explorers, brilliant doctors, even farmers if they have a special way with the land. If a character has a special calling, all the better. Starting off with only rudimentary knowledge or none, and bringing the reader along as the character learns is compelling too.

10. Souls that Don’t Belong: Whether it’s because of a special gift, an unusual heritage, a greater determination, their life has set them apart somehow, and they find themselves alone in their community. Of course as the story continues, they’ll find a mentor, a lover or friend, but there will be some bumpy roads before they understand that they fit together.

11.  A Long Mystery or Unusual Twist: Nothing keeps readers turning the page like dropped clues along the pages as they try to solve the mystery. Also great is a dramatic mystery, which the reader understands perfectly but the characters don’t. Waiting for everything to be made clear makes for great tension. Of course, any mystery or twist in a big book should have lots of personality and be critical to the character’s inner life.

12. Resonating Voice: I put this last, but really it’s a first. An original voice that carries the reader into the sensory and emotional experience of the novel will lure the reader in at page one and hold them until the last sentence. Voice, more than any other quality, brings me back for a second read.

Help me out. What is missing from my list? What qualities make a “Big Story” for you?

The As-If Principle: Conquering Burnout

Holiday_lazinessWhen it’s time to write, I look at my laptop with dread. It’s been a long day at work, and I’ve taken care of a lot of loose ends since I got home. Not to mention a couple of kids’ squabbles to referee.

By the time the family heads for bed, I’m tired, I’m burnt out. There’s no creativity left in me. Nope, not one spark. The recliner’s looking awfully inviting. And the remote’s not far away.

The thing is, I’ve had too many of those nights lately. It’s not just writing. I edge past my closed Bible, sure that if God has anything to say to me, my foggy mind won’t be able to hear it. Instead of taking my evening walk, I handle some bit of trivia that could wait.

So this time I make myself sit down. I stare at the blank screen. I manage to type out a painfully bad sentence and another. I delete a word, edit a phrase. And a strange thing starts to happen. The words start coming to me, slowly at first, but then a little faster. By the time I’ve knocked out a scene, I feel like a different person. I’m a writer. I’m energized. I can handle this writing gig.

It’s the as-if principle. If you want to get to the other side of burnout, you have to act as if you already have.

Too tired to write? Write anyway. The creativity will come.

Too tired to pray? Pray anyway. God will show up, and eventually so will you.

Too tired to exercise? Do it anyway. The endorphins will pump in, the oxygen will get where it needs to go, and you’ll feel far better than if you’d unwound in front of the TV.

Depressed? Smile more. We think we’re supposed to smile because we’re already happy, but smiling increases your happiness all by itself. Try it and see.

What else would you do if you weren’t burnt out?

Instinct tells me that when I’m tired I should rest. And sometimes that’s the right choice. If you’ve put in a lot of hours or life has just thrown more at you than any reasonable person can handle, a nap or an evening on the couch with your family and a good DVD might be just what you need.

But more often, moving past the exhaustion is the better option. It’s as if nature rewards those who are contributing in some way – building something, creating something, helping someone even if that someone happens to be yours truly.

Once in a while, taking the night off is great, but I’ve found that if burnout persists, the cure isn’t sleep or a vacation. It’s to live as if I were fresh and full of life. And it’s to fill my time with the things that count even when I’m tired.

I’m a writer, so writing is what counts. It invigorates me, even more than eight hours of sleep. That’s why, full of energy or exhausted, motivated or cranky, once the kids go to bed, you’ll find me at the laptop.