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.

What’s YOUR Holiday Plan?

balloons-25737_150Do you know what today is?

It’s National Black Dog Day! Roll out the carpet, crank up the tunes, and open the bags of doggy treats!

In celebration, I’m doing a radio interview, guest posting on several blogs, making a couple of store appearances, and managing a schedule of entertaining tweets, updates, and posts on my own social networks. It’s not only a nationally-named observance, but it’s the perfect opportunity for promoting my very own black dog who stars in my humorous girl-meets-dog memoir, Saved by Gracie. Never mind that the book was released last April – today is the day to hit the spotlight again.cropped Jan and Gracie

In other words, I found a holiday tailor-made for my book, but without all the noise other holidays involve. I don’t have to compete with Halloween costumes or décor, Black Friday shopping madness, Santa, New Year’s Eve bashes, romantic getaways, or fireworks displays. As a black dog owner, I have the stage all to myself!

How about you? Have you found your tailor-made holiday for book promotion yet?

As every author knows, timing is one of the best assets you can find in publicity. Sure, we all wish for something of national importance or interest to pique everyone’s interest in our books when they launch, but few of us have any control over those larger scenarios. The key to keeping your book release momentum, then, is to continue to find reasons that your book is timely. Here are a few suggestions for doing just that:

  1. Re-examine your book content for additional audience appeal you may have missed during the initial book launch. For instance, when my memoir came out, my publisher focused on Christian readers, since it’s a tail (I mean tale) of spiritual healing. After that first wave of publicity, I began to expand my reach into dog-lover territory by hooking up with animal rescue groups, veterinarians, and dog boutiques. I’m now moving into a third wave of audience strategy by networking with health and wellness groups. Handling all three markets would have been too overwhelming for me to manage at first, but by adding audiences incrementally, I’m better able to market and direct what I need to do next to continue sales.
  2. Pay attention to national news and trends, and see if you can’t jump on those trains. Whenever environmental topics (like wind power vrs. natural habitat) are hot, I try to build on those conversations with my own links and commenting, because my Birder Murder Mystery series deals with the same topics. The more I engage in the conversations, the better my visibility to my readers, which translates into continued sales, even for older books in my series.
  3. seafood fettuciniFind your perfect holiday. Does your hero cook Italian food? National Fettucini Alfredo Day is Feb. 7. Does your book discuss holding onto memories? National Scrapbooking Day is the first Saturday in May. If you write about it, I bet you can find a ‘holiday’ to connect with it.

What ‘holiday’ is in your future promotional plan?

 

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

Is Multi-Genre Writing Right For You?

to do list (2)One of the ongoing debates in the writing world is about the wisdom of writing in more than one genre. The reality, I think, is that most writers want to write in several genres and, in fact, may be quite good at it. My first projects were poetry, and then I moved on to magazine articles. Think pieces followed, as did newspaper humor columns. My first published book was a small volume about practical Christian spirituality, but then I found my stride in humorous murder mysteries (#6 is out in September, with #7 currently taking shape on my laptop).

Last but not least, a few months ago, my first memoir was published.

So, for me, the big debate about writing in multiple genres is a no-brainer, because I already do.

My experience of doing so, however, has made me recast the debate from a writing perspective to a publishing perspective, and, as a writer who wants to build a career as a published author, I offer my own pluses and minuses of working in a multi-genre career.

  1. Minus: If you think it’s demanding to build one platform, try building several at once. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but in my experience, it can’t happen simultaneously (unless you have clones of yourself ready to go – and in that case, please drop me a note at my website, because I could use a couple of clones these days). To launch a book, you have to be single-minded to make the best of marketing opportunities: appearances, talks, media, book clubs, etc. Your new book/baby needs attention 24/7, and if you leave it for a day or two to nurse along another genre, you find yourself playing catch-up when you get back to the newborn. I’m guessing it’s like having twins-one person can’t really hold two babies equally well, so there’s always some juggling going on. Same thing with two genres: you end up feeling like you haven’t been as successful as you could have been with just one book. At the very least, you don’t sleep much, because you’re trying to do the work of two marketing departments in one body.
  2. Plus: Working in two genres is exhilarating! You get to double the people you meet and the interests you cultivate. Your horizons expand and life is so rich with new experiences, it takes your breath away. It’s wonderful to be a writer!
  3. Minus: Publishers are very hesitant to take a chance on you in a new genre. The more you’ve established yourself in one genre, the less a publisher wants to take the risk of launching you in a different direction. Publishing is a business, and publishers have to respect the bottom line.
  4. Plus: If your genres share something in common (mine share humor and a love of nature), your fans of one genre are more likely to follow you into new territory, giving you a base readership on which to build and a headstart on creating a new platform.

Have you had any experience in multi-genre writing? Any insights to share?

Sing it, Lamb Chop!

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This is the song that doesn’t end. Yes, it goes on and on, my friend.”

If you never watched the fabulous Shari Lewis perform with her puppet Lamb Chop, you might not know this delightful ditty from her Emmy-winning show that ran on PBS from 1992-1997. My youngest daughter enjoyed watching it as a toddler, and since I got to join her in front of the television, this song found its way into my permanent recall bank.

For better or worse, the tune takes over my head every time I have a task that seems never-ending.

Which is my way of introducing my topic today: platform building.

You see, platform building for a writer doesn’t end when your book is published. Instead of thinking of platform building as the first step toward publication, I now see it as the task that underlies the entire creative, marketing, and career development process. As long as you write, it doesn’t end.

But instead of looking at that task as an overwhelming, time-consuming responsibility, I’ve chosen to see it as the lifeblood of what I do.

My platform is my path to accomplishing the work that gives my life meaning. In my case, I want to bring people into closer communion with God’s creation, and I do that through the written word, telling entertaining stories about nature, and in particular, about birding and dogs.

Using this perspective motivates me to continue, and expand, my platform-building. Here’s a quick snapshot of what that looks like for me.

My first book – a small treatise about finding meaning in life – led me to discover my own passion: writing about engagement with nature. To market that first book, I gave retreats and workshops about identifying what you love and what God calls you to; as a result, I added speaking opportunities to my platform. Then I began writing my Birder Murder Mysteries, a light-hearted series about a birder who finds bodies (incorporating my own passion for birding and mystery). To sell books, I began reaching out to birders around the country (and the world!), connecting with them online, attending birding events, sharing information and becoming interested in conservation issues. That influenced additional books in the series, and led to more interaction with like-minded nature-lovers, which has both enriched my writing and my life with speaking/marketing opportunities and new friends. Six years after my first Birder Murder was published, I now have plenty of ideas for future books and venues to market them, as well as a list of birding hotspots to add to my bucket list of personal adventure.

My memoir about my dog is building a new addition to my original platform, giving me more places to talk about nature and to sell all of my books. I’ve begun volunteering with my local Humane Society because of it, and I now see all my writing as advocacy work for improving the human-nature connection. Yes, I know that my platform building doesn’t end, but neither do the rewards I’m finding when it comes to new experiences, learning interesting things, and contributing to my world.

What joys are you finding in the never-ending task of platform building?

The Story of My Life

whisperingOne of my favorite parts of speaking to audiences is telling them the true stories behind the stories.

When I talk about my murder mysteries, I talk about the incidents in my own life that inspire plot lines and settings. While I haven’t personally murdered anyone (nor do I plan to), my fictional characters’ motives and subterfuges stem from simple human traits we all share. Who hasn’t experienced confusion, envy, jealousy, greed, the desire for revenge? Just because the extent of my envy might be a girlfriend’s new hair cut doesn’t mean I can’t extrapolate that feeling into the murderous intent of a killer, right?

Okay, that might be quite a bit of extrapolation, but you get my drift.

Where the real fun comes in, however, is sharing with readers the snippets of my experience that I insert right into my novels. For instance, in my third Birder Murder Mystery, my protagonist goes on a weekend birding trip to Fillmore County in Minnesota, which is based on an actual birding trip I took to that county many years ago. Spending time with other birders not only gave me a chance to add to my own life list of birds, but it provided some snappy, funny conversation that I then used in my book. I’ve found more than once that real life makes for the best fiction.

Another example: in my fourth Birder Murder, my characters are in Flagstaff, Arizona on the campus of Northern Arizona University. The setting was inspired by a trip I took with my middle daughter to tour the NAU campus when she was making college plans; the hair-raising flight into the city, the conversation with an old hippie cab driver, and the fact that NAU is surrounded on three sides by graveyards, all come directly from my trip. As a mystery writer, how could I NOT set a murder mystery where everyone KNOWS where the bodies are buried?

The most transparent example of how my writing chronicles my own life is, of course, my new memoir about how my dog helped me overcome anxiety, including a fear of dogs. Yet even since the book was published in April, I continue to find nuggets of meaning in my own story that I didn’t recognize while I was writing it: we adopted Gracie on the day before Easter – the eve of Resurrection. So now I tell audiences that my dog not only helped me experience my own spiritual and physical renewal, but the book about her is also changing my career in unimagined ways. Too bad I didn’t know that part already, because it would have been a nice epilogue…gee, maybe that’s the next book.

When I share my real stories with groups, I realize that the writing advice I first heard as a child is true: write what you know. I just didn’t understand how I could make my own experiences book-worthy…until I threw in the imagination to make my own stories part of someone else’s.

In what ways does your writing chronicle your life?

 

How To Create An Author Press Kit

ImageOne of the most effective strategies for book marketing is to create a press kit. This costs no money, but it’s a worthwhile investment of time because the kit will be used from pre-launch throughout the full life of the book.

WHAT IS AN AUTHOR PRESS KIT?

A well-designed author press kit serves as an easy-to-read source of information about a particular book. The goal is to convince folks to read this book and to share it with others.

Of course, the author’s unique skills should be highlighted as well, because media outlets need a reason to interview an author OTHER THAN the fact that their book is for sale. In other words, what makes THIS particular author worthy of air time/ink/review/shelf space?

WHO READS THE PRESS KIT?

The kit should be designed to reach:

  • Bookclubs
  • Booksellers
  • Print and online editors (magazines, newspapers, review sites, etc.)
  • Media outlets and journalists (print, radio, web, podcast, etc.)
  • Librarians
  • Readers (as far reaching as possible but target specific readership)
  • Reviewers (both professional and arm chair)
  • And anyone interested in the work

With millions of books on shelves/cybershelves, the kit must convince people to choose THIS ONE.

HOW TO CREATE AN AUTHOR PRESS KIT:

An author press kit consists of five components.

  • Cover Art: A high resolution jpg of the book’s cover.
  • Sell Sheet: A quick list of the book’s publishing information. Include back-cover copy, the specific editions of the book and availability; date of publication; name of publisher; and a general scope of the marketing/promotion plan (regional vs. national tour, blog tour, media interviews, advertising campaign, publicist, etc.). Give folks an idea of how much effort is being put into this campaign and be sure to include contact information for author and/or publicist.
  • Press Release: This serves as the official press release for the book. Follow the traditional format and exhibit professional know-how.
  • Interview Q&A: Provide a sample interview. Let this show the author’s personality, interesting background, or special skills. Offer something unique that would engage listeners/readers.
  • Sample Chapters: Link to a free chapter or two on Scribd. Offer a sneak peek that showcases the author’s talent and the tone of the book.

HOW TO SHARE THE PRESS KIT?

Once the kit is complete, convert it to PDFs and organize a PRESS KIT folder.

  •  Upload pdfs to an author website for easy download.
  • Before launch, research bloggers, media outlets, libraries, booksellers, bookclubs, etc. and create spreadsheets for each. Send email or postcards to these targets inviting them to download a free author presskit with sample chapters of the soon-to-be-released book.
  • Also share links via social media and other sites geared toward reaching readers.

With a little effort, a proper press kit can impress and intrigue. If done right, the kit will lead folks to a new book before it ever hits shelves.

Julie Cantrell is the New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author of Into the Free and its sequel, When Mountains Move. Learn more: www.juliecantrell.com