How Many Words to Paint a Picture…?

Writers, editors, and agents like to talk about voice. That elusive thing that gets you published or doesn’t, that sets you apart from others. Much as people have tried, it’s a concept that’s difficult to boil down to a sentence or two.

One of the aspects of voice is how you write descriptions. This is one of the unique fingerprints of your writing that makes it possible for people to tell you apart from another writer. It’s part of your unique gift for storytelling.

Honestly? Descriptions are hard to get just right. If only we could attach pictures to our stories. It wouldn’t be such a bad idea, really, having a nice photo or rendering of what we pictured every hundred pages or so in order to assure ourselves that our readers got it, that the scene we so carefully tried to describe was fully absorbed by them, no room for communication errors. Unfortunately (or maybe not. Haha), the picture thing isn’t an option, so we have to keep practicing using our words to create a picture in our readers’ minds that bears some resemblance to what we were seeing when we wrote it.

Mucho Lake

How would you describe this picture? Are you a writer who would write long paragraphs about the blues and greens? Would you make an effort to explain the way the road curves around the lake, without so much as a guardrail? Would you try to capture the wilderness feeling of the picture? Write about the trees? Or would you just tell your reader that it’s a mountain lake straight out of a fairy-tale and leave them to fill in the blanks?

If everyone reading this post wrote about the scene above, even if we set strict limits on the number of words you could use, every single example would be different. Every. Single. One.

Here’s what I do think writers need to know…there are generalizations about readers’ preferences that are true. And while writing isn’t all about some set of imaginary “rules,” reader preferences are things to pay attention to if you ever want to have readers (or if you want more readers). If you’re a Hemingway-esque describer and you think less is more…readers of historicals might feel like you’ve robbed them of one of their favorite parts of the story. If you describe the interior of a house and take several pages to do so in a suspense novel…you’ve lost that target reader (you know, unless there’s blood on the furniture or something, but still…).

Use your words to help us feel part of the setting, to help us see it. But use them appropriately for your genre. Also use the words you enjoy reading. Do you skim long description paragraphs? Are they your favorite part? Or are you somewhere in between? How you answer those questions should have some bearing on how you write.

Know your reader.

Know yourself.

And make your setting come alive with your words in the unique way that is yours alone.

ACFW 2014 Wrap-Up

Speaker at Business Conference and Presentation.Fall brings not only great weather (autumn is my favorite season!) but also several big-name writers conferences. The American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW) gather every September to celebrate great inspirational fiction (in the culmination of the Carol Awards) but also to inspire and teach the craft of fiction writing.

Here are a few of the things I took away . . .

1. Indie is IN! It used to be the scourge of writing to even breathe that you might publish your own book either through a vanity press (paying a company to process your book) or indie publishing (or self-publishing) where you become your own publisher and own all aspects of book production while fronting the costs yourself. This can take several forms. Established authors indie publishing their backlist once rights revert back to them. Traditional authors using indie publishing to supplement their income. I even heard one indie author say her traditional publishing contracts offer her a “bonus” but she mostly depends on her indie books to meet living expenses. Then there are those going solely indie because they enjoy the process, the control, and/or may be using it to catch the eye of a traditional publisher if they can hit a certain number of sales. The only cautionary note was, if you have a traditional contract, to ensure that your publisher is okay with the content of the indie book and that release dates don’t compete.

2. Effective marketing campaigns may not be realized until later. Last year, my third novel Peril was a newborn. To ACFW, I brought full-size Hershey bars with a sticker attached to each one that had photos of all my books together and a link to my newsletter. I definitely got some additional newsletter subscribers but this year, several people commented to me about those chocolate bars. I think a good marketing campaign is something memorable that lasts long after the item is gone. Trust me, bookmarks get lost in a sea of other bookmarks and postcards. Take the time and maybe spend a little extra money for something unique. Honestly, this year, there weren’t a lot of interesting giveaways.

3. Networking is important. Even if you’re not pitching, you need a network of other writing peeps to help keep you sane. They understand that it’s normal to talk out loud while arguing with a character. They’ll help you in the writing valleys and celebrate those writing highs. Always go into a conversation open to the possibilities of new friendships. Sit with people you’ve never met before. Introduce yourself to those of the other gender (men might feel a little lost in a sea of mostly women they don’t know!). Make face-to-face contact with an editor who rejected you and say a sincere thanks for any feedback they offered.

4. Professionalism is key. Everything you put out there speaks about you as a writing professional. It’s probably not too far-fetched to say that you’re in one long job interview. The way you dress. The way you treat others waiting for appointments. Are you on time for your appointment? If you yell at an appointment coordinator over some perceived slight, it’s not going to come back to you in a positive way. When you submit your work for a paid critique, format it correctly with no typos. Always be helpful to someone else first; this reaps large rewards in the end.

What have you learned recently from a writers conference?

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.

To Write a Book Someday, Share Your Writing Now

8139708904_9a1d1783d4_bSome people will tell you the defining characteristic of a writer is that he or she is someone who writes. There is truth to that perspective, but it fails to offer a complete picture. It also gives many “aspiring writers” an excuse to be nothing more than journal keepers: diligently plucking away at Moleskine memoirs or first-novel manuscripts that have zero chance of getting published, ever.

The point here is not a matter of quality. It’s about privacy.

The reason why many written works-in-progress will never see the light of publishing day is that they are stowed, always and forever, in a drawer or on a hard drive where they have no risk of being evaluated by a second person. The writers of these works will never be writers because they will never have readers. They exist completely outside the writing market, and the only critical eye they allow to view their work is their own.

If you think that one day you’d like for people to read your writing, then you should begin by inviting people to read your writing now. Here are five ways readers can strengthen your writing and make it even more worth reading:

Readers help you get over yourself. It’s not uncommon for writers to feel uncertain or insecure about what they’ve written. Will this technique work here? Am I being clear? Am I using a marketable concept? Does anybody else care about the subject? Without readers to help confirm where and how a piece of writing is hitting its target (and where and how it’s missing its mark), these uncertainties and insecurities often grow and fester. But when you prioritize feedback, typically you get it. As a result you might find that your sinking suspicions will be confirmed. Some of your assumptions might be challenged. Maybe you’ll be pleasantly surprised by rave reviews. Whatever the case, you won’t be stuck wondering anymore, and that will help light a clear way forward.

Readers identify strengths in your work. Encouragement and affirmation give extra fuel when you’re trying to produce a manuscript. So ask your readers to note the places where they laugh out loud, hold their breath with anticipation, get caught by surprise, can’t stop turning pages, or are struck speechless. That paragraph you’re thinking about deleting? It might be your readers’ favorite part. Give them a chance to tell you so.

Readers identify weaknesses in your work. That poetic metaphor you’ve taken days and months to craft? It might be so complex that it’s confusing your readers. The story you’ve built a whole chapter around? Your readers might be bored out of their minds.

As the writer of a work, you will undoubtedly feel more attached to it than your readers will. Because of your heightened emotional attachment, you’ll probably miss seeing some of your writing’s flaws. You might even be blind to enormous holes in the work. Let your readers open your eyes to the problems you don’t see, so you can take the opportunity to fix them.

Readers expand your perspective. You are only one person, so your outlook on the world is limited and skewed. You have strange views about certain things, and some of your views simply haven’t been challenged in a way that forces you to clarify them well or charitably. Readers can help you identify the odd little points in a draft, the ones that either are or seem arrogant, stingy, dismissive, hyper-emotional, you name it. Points like these will jut out in unseemly ways, always subtracting and distracting from good work, unless someone will be so kind as to call your attention to them, so you can know to improve them.

Readers make the process realistic. If your writing aspirations are real, then you’re going to have to accept the reality of readers at some point. Get used to feedback now, and critiques won’t make you crazy later. Write with readers in mind now, and it won’t feel strange when they’re a part of the process later. Start learning what readers are interested in now, and then when your defining moments as a writer come, you’ll be prepared to deliver for your readers.


YOUR TURN: Respond in the comments: How have readers helped your writing? What kind of readers give the best feedback? What keeps you from pursuing readers?


Photo credit: cogdogblog cc

How to Write a Page Turner Using Movie Trailer Tips

How to Write a Page Turner Using Movie Trailer TipsAn editor once commented in a pitch session I attended that writers should learn to write better pitch sentences from analyzing how movie trailers grab viewers. The remark stayed with me. Isn’t holding a reader’s attention all through a novel what writers hope to do? While acknowledging the importance of sales and awards, I’d argue that authors measure a story’s real success in whether readers stay up past their bedtimes while flipping pages.

With an eye toward fostering more sleep deprivation, then, let’s take a look at what makes movie trailers so compelling.

Movie trailers have the advantage of being visual whereas books can only use words, so comparing them isn’t fair, right? Yes and no. It’s true that moving pictures can grab attention with ease. However, readers use their imaginations to create mental images. It might even be argued that these self-generated images have more charm for them. Storytelling is always a partnership between the writer and readers, with the writer initiating storytelling and readers carrying it through. How well the writer does her part determines how fluently readers can do theirs.

How to Write a Page Turner Using Movie Trailer Tips

To make my points, I’ll be referring to the movie trailer for The Hobbit 3.

  1. Prompt the reader. In the Hobbit 3 trailer, we are given to understand that both war and a dragon threaten, and that some characters will survive and others will not. The viewer is cued with enough information to spark the imagination but no more than is needed. Doling out the right amount of information in just the right timing is an art that leads your reader effortlessly through your story. This is an acquired skill that must be practiced. As you get the feel for this, ask for feedback from a critique group to help you gauge the results of your efforts.
  2. Involve the senses. In vivid color and with Celtic music setting the mood, the movie trailer evokes more than sight and hearing. Can’t you smell the sulphur from the fire-breathing dragon’s flames, feel rough stone beneath your bare feet, taste fear as the hobbit faces the monster?
  3. Surprise readers. The trailer starts in a meditative mood that immediately gives way to surprise as the dragon sweeps through the village. Having something unexpected happen right off the bat in each chapter will carry your reader from surprise to surprise. This must be true to the story and not manufactured to gain attention or readers will know.
  4. Pack your story with emotion. The trailer brings us into emotions of fear, tenderness, grief, watchfulness, sadness, uncertainty in leadership, and fierceness, and all in the space of a minute and a half. Emotions must evolve from the organic story, not trumped up.
  5. Minimize backstory. In the trailer, someone (Bilbo) who has come all the way through the story looks backward to tell it. Within the framework of the story, however, you will notice that the characters don’t go into backstory. They are too busy dealing with events going on around them. In your novel, if you have enough happening, you won’t have much time for much backstory either.
  6. Employ pithy dialogue. Apart from the words of the song, the trailer has only six sentences, with three at the beginning that establish the story. Dialogue that conveys a wealth of meaning in a few words helps maintain a rapid pace. Use slower dialogue at points of rest, but don’t linger.
  7. Hook the reader. The trailer’s last sentence, with Gandalf challenging the characters to follow him one last time, is a hook and invitation designed to draw viewers into theaters. In the same way, leaving readers with a question at the end of each chapter will propel them into the next. I’m not suggesting ending on a cliff hanger. That becomes melodramatic and tiring. Rather, engage readers with the intriguing story you are telling.

What other things do you think writers can take from movie trailers and/or movies to enhance their stories?

Idiosyncrasies of the English Language

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Don’t panic. I’m not going all-out academic linguistics on you, but we need to take a moment to consider the quirks of the American English language (as opposed to British). More to the point: what is said vs. what is meant.

When I say: “Wow, that garbage can is full.”

It means: “Get off your butt and lug out that Hefty bag, would ya?”

When my husband says: “Can I help with dinner?”

It means: “Have you been on Pinterest all day or what? Why isn’t the food on the table yet?”

When the sales clerk says: “Have a nice day.”

It means: “I don’t care a rat’s behind what kind of day you have as long as you fill out the survey on the bottom of the receipt and make me look good.”

When words are spoken face to face, it’s easier to decipher because of body language. But when the written word is your medium of choice, it’s all the harder to convey what a character actually means. On the up side, this can be used to an author’s advantage by choosing words that convey characterization via dialogue.

Or it can leave your reader scratching their head and relegating your book to the bottom of the stack on their nightstand.

What to do?

The best way to make each of your characters say what they really mean (and not give the reader a different expectation) is to know your character well before they speak. This requires some groundwork before you begin a new manuscript. Yes, this takes time, but in the long run it will pay off.

Know your characters. Know them well. Then use the words that flow out of their mouths to solidify who they are in your reader’s mind. Those are the kind of characters that stick with a reader long after they’ve closed the book.

But Don’t Overdo It

I love sarcasm. Give me a character who’s snappy and snippy with their dialogue and bam—instant like fest as far as I’m concerned. So it surprises me when my snarky personalities aren’t always well loved. What’s the deal?

Apparently I’m in the minority. Surprisingly, sarcasm doesn’t head the list of likeable traits, which can work against an author while crafting characters. It is your job as a writer to make your reader fall in love with your characters . . . or at least want to have coffee with them.

What authors do you know who have mastered the art of dialogue?

The Summer of Success: Michael Ehret

Facing a crossroads at the moment—what step to take next and all that. I’m not all angsty over it, but I have been thinking a lot about the late Donna Summer, as a result.

DonnaSummerDonna Summer? The Queen of Disco?

First of all, thinking about Donna Summer is not new for me. I’ve had a long time interest in her career and in the singer, herself. I’ve even been known to be a defender of Summer (she’s so much more than disco), because I think her talent was far overshadowed by her persona and by the Super Storm known as Disco that came in and tried, unsuccessfully, to obliterate the Rock and Roll shoreline.

Variety defined her career

Still, I’m more interested in Summer’s genre-hopping than in her music, per se. For instance, did you know she was nominated for 17 Grammy Awards in eight different categories (sort of like fiction genres)? Further, did you know she won five times in four different categories—twice in Inspirational? That’s right, Inspirational. The singer of 1975’s 17-minute+ disco moan-fest, “Love To Love You, Baby,” won two Grammy Awards for Best Inspirational song (1984 and 1985).

Conventional wisdom is to not genre hop in the publishing world. There’s greater freedom in music (Linda Ronstadt also played the field, musically). But in publishing, writers are often advised that if they start in romance (or speculative or historical or suspense) then they should stay in romance (or speculative or historical or suspense).

But, I must have a little Donna Summer in me because I don’t want to be constrained in that way. Before we get all crazy, let’s remember that no one is knocking down my door for my next book—or, for that matter, my first book.

But—again—we can look to the diva for guidance. Because “conventional wisdom” isn’t called “conventional-sort-of-good-advice,” you know?

Summer made her mark in one genre—disco. It was the red-hot genre of the time and she rode that horse for all it was worth.

But when the horse started to get hobbled, she made the smart move of wrapping up that era with a Greatest Hits collection, changing record labels, and then came roaring back in 1980 with a rock-pop disc without even a whiff of disco, The Wanderer. And a song from that project earned her one of her Grammy nominations.

DiscoBallWhat are the lessons for a writer?

  1. Do your homework. Summer worked in Germany and Europe in various touring companies of shows like “Hair” and “Godspell” before connecting with Giorgio Moroder for her first major album, Love To Love You Baby.
  2. Establish yourself as an excellent writer of (choose one: romance, historical, suspense, other) and then, like Summer, work your butt off to make your mark. She released seven disco albums from 1975 to 1979—that’s four years. Three of them in a row were blockbuster double albums.
  3. Keep your nose to the ground and your face forward. If you pay attention to the market and publishing trends, you’ll know when it’s time to change genres. If you’re a big enough success, you’ll get your opportunity. When you do, show the same quality, perseverance, and dedication to craft that got you where you are.

That’s the way to build a Hall of Fame career (Summer was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013) and do all the things you want to do.

Summer died May 17, 2012, at age 63. At her death (from cancer) she was working on two albums simultaneously—a collection of standards and a new dance music collection.

For the record, Summer’s Grammy wins were for:

  1. Best R&B Female Performance, 1979, for “Last Dance.”
  2. Best Rock Female Performance, 1980, for “Hot Stuff.”
  3. Best Inspirational Performance, 1984, for “He’s A Rebel.”
  4. Best Inspirational Performance, 1985, for “Forgive Me.”
  5. Best Dance Music Performance, 1998, for “Carry On.”

Additionally, she was nominated four times for Best Pop Vocal, twice for Best R&B Vocal, twice for best Rock Vocal, once for Album of the Year, once for Best Disco Vocal, once for Best Inspirational, and once for Best Dance Music.

Not a bad career.

Your turn: So, do you have a little Donna Summer in you?
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MichaelMichael Ehret loves to play with words and as the editor of CHEFS Mix Blog for CHEFS Catalog he is enjoying his playground. Previous playgrounds include being the Managing Editor of the former ACFW Journal Magazine and the ezine Afictionado for seven years. He also plays with words as a freelance editor and has edited several nonfiction books, proofedited for Abingdon Press, worked in corporate communications, and reported for The Indianapolis Star. You can connect with Michael via his website, Facebook and Twitter.