Sharing Insights Through Stories

I first learned the value of stories in sharing insights through public speaking. A fascinating story can captivate an audience, build rapport, illustrate an important point, and make the speaker’s message memorable. In writing, an appropriate story can keep a nonfiction book from becoming dull, and teach truths about life in a work of fiction. So, what makes a good story?

Opened magic book with magic light

1. Vivid and Sufficient Details

In reading along with my daughters several children’s books awarded the Newbery Medal, I found myself transported to a different time and place by the skillful writing of the authors. In these books, the authors provided enough details to help the reader enter into the world described in the book. In describing a food foreign to most American readers, one author provided such vivid descriptions of the taste and smell that I felt as though I, too, was sitting down for dinner next to the characters in the story. In any story, too many extraneous details can cause the impatient reader to start skimming the page to the next section. These award-winning books had the proper balance of information and brevity.

2. Relevance

For a nonfiction writer seeking to illustrate a certain point with a story, relevance is vital. To illustrate the author’s message, the characters and plot must be relevant to the theme of the book, the intended audience, and the point to be made. In writing my nonfiction book, Questioning Your Doubts: A Harvard PhD Explores Challenges to Faith, I learned to edit out parts of a story that slowed down the reading of a passage without further elucidating the concept I was illustrating. In fiction, story lines that do not further the plot may be interesting, but they may also confuse the reader and become a distraction that takes away from the flow of the book.

3. A Story Arc

All stories, even short illustrations contained within one paragraph, need to have a story arc. We need to meet the character or characters in their everyday setting. Next, we learn of an event that brings a challenge to these characters and starts off the story. Then we must see the character(s) grow, learn something new, overcome a hardship, resolve a conflict, or make a difficult decision. Finally, we need a sense of closure as the changed character(s) resume everyday life in a new set of circumstances, perhaps a bit wiser for the experience.

Knowing what elements to include within each section of the story arc is an art. Timing makes the difference between a forgettable story and one that drives home the author’s message. Sometimes I find that reading a passage aloud can help me identify which words can be deleted and what sentences should be smoothed. Feedback from beta readers also can be useful for determining if a story succeeds in illustrating your point.

As a reader, I remember the insights I glean from stories more than those presented through statistics, lists of information, and persuasive language. When writing, I include stories for my readers to make it easier for them to process the insights I hope to share with them.

What do you think makes a good story?

Seven Key Members of a Writer’s Team

Coxed four from aboveIt’s not any one person. It’s not any one coach. It’s the team. Brian McBride

What is true in sports is also true in writing. Becoming a published writer involves assembling a team of talented individuals who will help you write the best book possible for your readers. Here are seven key members of a writer’s team and the roles they play to help a book succeed:

1. Beta Readers – A beta reader is someone who will read and critique the three chapters of your book that you will include in your book proposal if you are writing nonfiction or the entire manuscript if you are writing fiction. You will use this feedback to improve your manuscript before sending it to an literary agent. Choose a person who loves books, belongs to your target audience, and understands how to give feedback on the big picture of your writing instead of bogging down circling typos.

Give your beta readers a time frame for completing their critique and clarify that your manuscript is confidential and should not be shared with others. A beta reader who is also a writer or who understands the publishing industry is ideal. Send your manuscript to multiple beta readers and pay close attention to feedback that is echoed by more than one beta reader.

2. Agent – Your literary agent presents your book to publishers and negotiates the sale. However, your literary agent often provides guidance and editorial suggestions before your book proposal is submitted. He or she knows the industry, so take the advice. After your book is published, your literary agent can provide marketing advice and help you develop your writing career.

3. Editor – Your editor helps you polish your manuscript to its final form, while also guiding you through the entire publication process – title selection, cover art, book design, copy editing, and choice of reviewers.

4. Reviewers – You will encounter three types of reviewers in the traditional book publishing process. The first set of reviewers, selected by your editor, provide feedback on your manuscript. You can take or disregard their suggestions when writing your final draft. However, their insights help you see your book with fresh eyes and learn how your readers might respond to certain passages. The second set of reviewers read the final manuscript and write short reviews for inclusion on the back cover of your book. You select these reviewers with input from your editor. The last set of reviewers are the readers who bought your book and decided to review it on Goodreads, Amazon, a bookstore website, or their blog. All reviewers are essential for the success of the book and the development of your writing career.

5. Marketing Director – Your marketing director will help your book find its way to readers. He or she will coordinate ad placement, mailing copies of your book to key influencers, and the work of a team of publicists. Touch base with your marketing director if you see a valuable opportunity for getting the word out about your book. Coordinate your author efforts with the marketing plan your publisher develops for your book.

6. Publicists – Publicists may specialize in broadcast, publications or online publicity. If you are fortunate to have a publisher that has a team of publicists working to promote your book, they will arrange radio and podcast interviews and connect you with print and online opportunities to introduce readers to your book.

7. Key Influencers – Key influencers are the individuals who will receive an early copy of your book from your publisher. These individuals should connect with segments of your target audience and be able to create positive buzz about your book. Choose influencers across a wide geographical area and with characteristics that represent the breadth of your likely readers.

Other individuals may join the team to help you create a valuable book for your readers, but these seven key team members make up the core of your team as a writer. Appreciate the expertise that each team member brings, and build a good working relationship with all of them.

How has working with a team enhanced your writing career?

Easter: From Doubt to Joy

“So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples” (Mt 28:8, NIV).

ResurrectionToday is Easter – a wonderful time to celebrate new beginnings, God’s grace and the hope of eternal life. While the colorful eggs and the chocolate bunnies may only last a day, the message of Easter can sustain us everyday.

Do Not Be Afraid

The women who came to visit Jesus on Easter morning came in sorrow and grief. They were prepared to anoint Jesus’ body with spices. Instead, they became the first witnesses to the Resurrection.

God is still in the resurrection business. Stalled dreams, broken relationships, frustrations and doubts – all the losses of life are no match for the hope found in the Easter message. The angel told the women, “Do not be afraid.” These words remain relevant for everyone ready to embrace the surprise of joy after a season of waiting in despair.

Come and See

The angel’s next instruction to the women was to “come and see”. God understands our desire for evidence even as we try to live by faith. The women had the chance to examine the empty tomb to bolster their belief in the resurrection. They took advantage of this opportunity and then left the tomb in a rush to share the good news with others. Of course, if their fears had overruled their faith, they might have ran for home without ever stopping to consider the possibility that the good news was true.

The promise of eternal life and forgiveness was waiting just a few steps away, but the women had to take those steps in faith. In any journey from discouragement to hope, from defeat to victory, from promise to fulfillment, we always have to take some steps in faith.

Go and Tell

When the women hurried away from the tomb to share the good news with the disciples, they were “afraid yet filled with joy”. Sometimes something is just so wonderful that it inspires awe bordering on fear. Finding life after death, wholeness after brokenness and direction after confusion can be so fabulous that we become overwhelmed. However, now we are overcome with joy instead of doubt. We have made a discovery worth sharing with the world.

In my book, Questioning Your Doubts: A Harvard PhD Explores Challenges to Faith, I explore how I found the Easter message relevant for everyday life. As a trained scientist, I appreciate the quest for evidence – the call to “come and see”. As a minister and an author, I have answered the call to “go and tell”.

I draw inspiration from the Easter message in the small challenges of life as well as the big decisions. While waiting for a response from an editor or news about the status of a project, Easter reminds me that good things can come after a season of waiting or an experience of loss and closed doors. Life prevails over death as surely as spring comes after a long, barren winter.

How does the Easter message encourage you?

Writing With Style

All writers want to write with style. However, your publisher thinks of style less in terms of crafting words with fashion and flair and more in terms of communicating with good grammar and consistency. iStock_000003403361MediumHere are a few resources you will need as you polish your prose for publication:

1. Manual of Style:
A manual of style (MOS or MoS) is a comprehensive guide to editorial style and publishing practices. These thick books cover industry-wide or profession-wide guidelines for writing. If you are writing a book for general readership, you probably need to follow The Chicago Manual of Style. For both UK and US usage, you can turn to the New Oxford Style Manual.

If you are writing articles for newspapers or magazines, you may need The Associated Press Stylebook. If you are writing for a scientific or medical audience, you will need to use the AMA Manual of Style. Other academic fields and professions have specific manuals of style. I keep several manuals of style handy on a bookshelf near my writing desk. All of these reference books provide guidelines for grammar, citing sources and use of terms specific to that writing style. They also help you better understand the publishing process and the final layout you can expect for the piece you are writing.

2. Publisher’s Style Guide

The publishing house for your book may have its own style guide that serves as a supplement to an industry-wide manual of style. InterVarsity Press, the publisher of my book, Questioning Your Doubts: A Harvard PhD Explores Challenges to Faith, provided me with an editorial style guide that addressed how they format parts of a book and answered specific questions about grammar, punctuation, word usage and appropriate choice of abbreviations. Remember that your publisher’s style guide can overrule a more general manual of style, so always follow your publisher’s editorial direction.

3. Style Sheet

While writing a book or an article, you might find that certain words or phrases could be spelled, capitalized, punctuated, abbreviated or used in more than one way. To keep your writing consistent, create a style sheet that tracks your own or your editor’s rules for these words and phrases. This style sheet will take precedence over the more general publisher’s style guide and the industry-wide manual of style. Make a simple template with two columns: one that lists each word or rule and one that defines the style. Fill in the template as you write or receive comments from your editor.

A style sheet also can help you achieve consistency across a series of articles for the same magazine or for each book in a trilogy. It can save you time when editing your final draft by eliminating the need to look up a given rule in a larger reference work or trying to locate a particular email from your editor. With style sheets, guides and manuals helping you handle the mechanics of writing, you will have creative energy left over for the fun part of writing, such as choosing great literary devices and playing with the rhythm of a sentence. Within the constraints of proper style, your own writing voice will emerge.

Which resources have you found most helpful for keeping your writing in style?

Conquering the Blank Page

For most professional writers, the incessantly blinking cursor on the computer screen functions like the blank sheet of paper reminiscent of unfinished homework. This nagging reminder of the writing task awaiting completion dares the writer to rise to the challenge. On days when the needed word count looms large and inspiration falls short, I have learned to pull out my writing bag of tricks to make progress. In this bag, I keep different elements of writing. Selecting the right elements helps me conquer the blank page.

iStock_000027717935Medium

Here are the elements I keep handy in my writing bag of tricks.

Factual Information

When I am not sure how to begin writing a particular passage, I start by listing the factual information relevant to what I will be writing. Often when creating this list, I discover that I need to check a source or gather additional information. Once I have the information entered onto the page, I create an outline and sort the information into its proper place.

Dialogue

While the importance of dialogue in creative writing goes without question, nonfiction writers also should consider the place of dialogue in their passages. Dialogue between two characters adds action and excitement to a scene, drawing the reader into the story more effectively than descriptive language alone. Dialogue also forces shorter paragraphs, helping the reader move forward rapidly and read with greater ease.

When you need to illustrate a point, consider using dialogue, even if the dialogue simply conveys the thoughts going through one person’s mind. A few sentences of dialogue can serve as an ice-breaker for a section of nonfiction writing explaining a concept or offering instruction. Pepper sections of factual information with a few tidbits of dialogue and the blank page will begin to fill!

Sensory Language

Long sentences filled with too many adjectives and adverbs can bog down a reader, but a few well-chosen words that appeal to a reader’s senses can make a paragraph come alive. In everyday life, we form memories that encode the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures we experience. Help your readers enter into the world of your book by supplying them with information that appeals to more than one sense. Instead of appearing dull, your factual information will sizzle with delectable style.

Transitional Phrases and Structuring Elements

By now, your blank page is nearly full. To polish what you have written, make sure that the connections between the various elements of writing are clear and smooth. Use words that convey a sense of order such as first, second, and finally. In addition, weave your thoughts together by picking up a key phrase from one paragraph and carrying it into the first sentence of the subsequent paragraph.

Each project and style of writing requires a different combination of writing elements, but if you think in terms of adding these elements one by one and then stitching them together, you will be well on your way to completing the writing task of the day.

What approaches work for you when you need to conquer the blank page?

Adventures into the Unknown through Writing

Writers are dreamers. We capture daydreams in paragraphs on pages. We are also planners. We sacrifice hours now for hopes of communicating to future readers. We work in the present and have faith for the future.

winter happy girl 3

Dreaming, hoping, and planning are good activities. Yet, as a Christian who writes, my dreams belong to Someone greater than I am. The wise and practical words of James give me the perspective to keep my feet on the ground and remember my human limits, even as my hopes soar in faith.

“Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this city or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that'” (James 4:13-15).

Even with our best plans and the wisest advisers, we do not know what the future holds. Businesses can come and go, altering the landscape of opportunities for us. The publishing industry is constantly changing. Our favorite bookstore may go out of business before our next book ships from the warehouse. Future events may change how people view our writing. We may become the voice that speaks to current needs, or our relevance may fade.

Such thoughts should not put a damper on our joy as writers. Whatever the dimensions of our window of opportunity, writing is a tremendous privilege. Our books can travel to places we have never visited. We can instruct, entertain, and comfort people who may remain unknown to us. They will know us through our words. As a Christian who writes, my words reflect God’s love for people and His message of hope. The chance to become a vehicle to carry that message, however imperfectly, is a priceless gift.

And so, on any given day, I plan. I keep writing. I dream of reaching more people. I stack books on bookshelves in far-flung bookstores in my faith-filled imagination. I bundle up and head outside into the unknown for an adventure. I do my best and expect the best of everyone working alongside me. But I know the outcome belongs to God. His will and His plans will prevail. And that’s good news for me and for everyone else!

What helps you face the unknowns of life as a writer?

Balancing Clarity and Detail in Writing

Image of scales

You want your readers to enter into the world of your book and experience in their imagination the places and events you describe as if they were there themselves in the midst of the action. Yet if your writing becomes ornate, your readers may get lost in the details and miss the point of the passage. Even worse, they may skim over the descriptive sentences, seeking the next main point. Why write words that will go unread?

Capture the Essentials

To maintain the readability of your writing while also creating vivid descriptions of people, places, and events, capture the essentials and make every word count. Choose verbs packed with meaning instead of tacking on adverbs. When describing a place, consider what senses are important to setting the scene for the passage. Is the sound of classical music playing softly in the background more essential than the color of the paint on the ballroom walls? If you are trying to set the mood for dialogue that follows, use just enough details to accomplish your goal. Create a sketch and let the reader’s imagination paint in the rest of the picture.

As a reader, I find myself jumping over passages where too many clauses and adjectives abound. As a writer, I have had to remind myself that my readers will do the same.

Edit the Extraneous

After you have written a descriptive passage, edit for clarity. Cross out your favorite phrase if it detracts from the paragraph. Provide sufficient description of the attributes of an object for the reader to understand its significance. You do not need to include all the colors of the sky that make for your perfect sunset. Let the most important two or three colors set the stage.

In dialogue, the word “said” may be better than “shouted,” “whispered,” or “intoned.” While those other words convey a richer meaning, they may break up the continuity of the conversation. Let the words of the speakers carry the content. Remove nonessential dialogue that does not carry the plot or illustration forward. Jump into the action without providing too many trivial details. In short, get to the point and remove material that will confuse the reader.

Check for Flow

Your paragraphs of writing describing a majestic waterfall at the edge of the forest may be poetic and beautiful, but if they interrupt the flow of the chapter, prepare to edit. While writing my first book, Questioning Your Doubts: A Harvard PhD Explores Challenges to Faith, I wrote illustrations to enhance the point I was making. I learned from reader feedback that the illustrations worked best when they were entertaining but concise. If I spent too many sentences telling a story, the reader’s train of thought might be broken, defeating the purpose of the illustration.

On the other hand, writing that sparkles with clarity can seem too clinical without enough descriptive material. Coming from a scientific background, I am used to conveying challenging topics in clear and precise sentences. When I first started writing my book, I had to give myself permission to tap into my creative writing side and add poetic elements to my prose. Too much clarity can lead to short, choppy sentences that need more descriptive elements to weave them together into the tapestry of the chapter.

How have you learned to balance clarity and details in your writing?