“I Believe in the Power of STORY”

When I read, I want a book that makes me stop and think. That’s why I put a study guide in the back of my novels. But I agonize over what type of questions to ask.

Taking notes helps us remember what we read.

Could the questions guide readers to thinking about a character’s growth during the story? Possibly the themes the story is dealing with. How a reader might relate personally to the character’s trials. What repercussions one decision might have had on the story’s outcome had it been different.

The novels I checked for discussion questions had between 7 and 13 questions. Here are some of the likely candidates:

I believe in the power of story.
I believe in the power of story.

31 Questions for a discussion guide:

1. What is the significance of the title? Would you have given the book a different title? If yes, what is your title?

2. What were the themes of the book? Do you feel they were adequately explored? Were they brought to life in a cliché or in a unique manner?

4. What scene was the most pivotal for the book? How do you think the story would have changed had that scene not taken place?

5. What scene resonated most with you personally in either a positive or negative way? Why?

6. Has anything ever happened to you similar to what happened in the book? How did you react to it differently?

7. What surprised you the most about the book?

8. Were there any notable racial, cultural, gender, sexuality, or socioeconomic factors at play in the book? If so, what? How did it effect the characters? Do you think they were realistically portrayed?

9. How important is the setting & time period to the story? How would it have played out differently in a different setting? What about a different time period?

10. Were there any particular quotes that stood out to you? Why?

11. Did any of the characters remind you of yourself or someone you know? How?

12. What motivates the actions of the characters in the story? What do the sub-characters want from the main character and what does the main character want with them?

13. What were the dynamics of “power” between the characters? How did that play a factor in their interactions?

14. How does the way the characters see themselves differ from how others see them? How do you see the various characters?

15. How did the “roles” of the various characters influence their interactions? ie. For a woman: Mother, daughter, sister, wife, lover, professional, etc.

16. The main character’s adherence to social customs can seem controversial to us who come from a different culture. Pick a scene where you would have acted differently. 

17. If you could smack any of the characters upside the head, who would it be and why?

18. Were there any moments where you disagreed with the choices of any of the characters? What would you have done differently?

19. If you were in the main character’s position at this point, how would you respond?

20. What past influences are shaping the actions of the characters in the story?

21. Did you think the ending was appropriate? How would you have liked to have seen the ending go?

22. How have the characters changed by the end of the book?

23. Have any of YOUR views or thoughts changed after reading this book?

24. What do you think will happen next to the main characters?

25. Are there any books that you would compare this one to? How does this book hold up to them?

26. Have you read any other books by this author? Were they comparable to your level of enjoyment of this one?

27. What did you learn from, take away from, or get out of this book?

28. Did your opinion of the book change as you read it? How?

29. Do you feel as if this book changed your views on the primary subject of the story? Why?

30. If you could change something about this book, what would it be and why?

31. Would you recommend the book to a friend?

Q4U. What questions would you add to this list?

What Is a Beta Reader, and Why Do We Need Them?

bigstock-Magic-Book-5034701How exciting. Your manuscript is finished. You have edited it. Had it critiqued by writers you respect. Possibly even had it edited by a freelance editor. It’s time to shoot it off to your agent or publisher. Right?

Not so fast. Your grammar may be immaculate. Every i is dotted, every t is crossed, and you are sure you watched your ps and qs. But don’t forget the most important part of the process. The beta reader.

Beta ReaderDear Reader of my novel …,

What does an author expect/hope for from a beta reader? The story resides in my mind for so long that I reach a point when I need readers to tell me if I’ve said what I think I have. You are a very important part of the editing process. If you feel your suggestion can make the book better, easier to read, and more understandable, please elaborate.

  1. Did the prologue and/or first chapter make you want to read more?
  2. At the end of each chapter, were there unanswered questions that made you want to flip the page and keep reading?
  3. Did you relate to any of the characters? Did you see character development in the major characters? Which character needs more work?
  4. Did you stay interested until the end? Where did your interest lag?
  5. Did you find a place where you were confused? Help me find and fix that.
  6. Did the ending give closure? Do you feel it satisfied the needs of the story?
  7. Is this a book you could recommend to your reading friends?
  8. Did you recognize a spiritual thread running through the book? Too much? Not enough? Explain.
  9. Did you find any plot holes that need to be fixed? A scene that doesn’t fit with this version of the story? (This happens in editing when we delete a subplot but don’t catch all the loose threads of the no-longer-needed part of the story.)

As an author, I need to know more of the story than I put on the page. This helps me know the characters and why they act as they do. But it might not belong in this story.

As a beta reader, try to look at the big picture. If you see typos, feel free to note them, but don’t worry if you miss them at this stage of the game. Thank you. You are valuable and I appreciate you.

What type of person makes the best beta reader? The answer to that question is: “It depends.” Common wisdom says not to ask your relatives. Common wisdom says to ask a reader of the genre you write. Each author will learn by trial and error.

bigstock-Businessman-Reading-Book-4821928Who was the first beta reader I asked to read my latest manuscript? My brother-in-love. A man who doesn’t read fiction. Why? Because he read my first book, read every word. Pointed out important plot holes, and recommends my book to others.

By the way, he still doesn’t read fiction. He prefers “real” books. But he offers to read mine because he has so much fun finding the plot holes.

Q4U: What is your experience with beta readers?

Traveling Light

I used to take a small suitcase full of books when we traveled. If you are a reader like I am, you’ll know that it’s difficult now days because the airlines want to cut down on the amount of luggage they accept on flights. And now husband likes to fly Charley on cross country trips and then I really have to pack light.

Traveling with Charley
Traveling with our small plane “Charley”

So what would you do to pass the time on a long flight? 

Husband began to notice people using e-readers. He investigated them and told me to purchase a kindle2 for Mother’s day one year.

Now my Kindle is old, and the on/off button is wobbly. I don’t know how much longer it will last. Should I replace my Kindle with a Kindlefire? Or one of the many other e-readers available?

I downloaded the kindle app on Husband’s iPad2. But honestly? I still preferred the screen of the kindle2. It was easier on my eyes. But I used his iPad2 for other things. And when the new iPad came out, we ordered it. Let me tell you, the new retina display is wonderful. On the kindle app, I was able to choose an ivory screen. Reading on the iPad is wonderful.

In fact I now download non-fiction books to study the craft of writing, marketing, social networking, and many other interests. It was hard for me to actually study on the kindle2 and I rarely use it anymore.

So naturally, when brother-in-love wanted to know what kind of an e-reader to buy his wife to take to Florida, I knew just what to recommend. Husband and I raved about the virtues of the iPad and how we used ours for many things. And, we said, it makes a wonderful e-reader. Problem solved. What’s not to like?

It turns out sister-in-love is not interested in all the bells and whistles. She doesn’t want to learn to use email. She doesn’t want to learn to surf the internet. She never uses the computer at home.

There is no one size fits all solution to any problem. And an iPad makes a pretty expensive e-reader if you know you will never use it for anything else.

Instead of extolling the virtues of the iPad, I should have investigated the actual need. It’s the only way to give truly helpful advice. And we finally recommended the basic kindle.

Brother-in-love took his wife shopping. She could purchase any e-reader she wanted. And guess what she picked out? You got it, the basic kindle.

You can be sure the next time someone asks my advice, I will ask more questions, to help find the best solution for them. Which might not be the best solution for us.

Do you have an e-reader? How did you choose?

Are Reader Questions Helpful?

Freedigitalphoto.net Reading Club

After my first avid reading friend told me she had made a vow not to read fiction until the end of the year and hoped by then her desire to read fiction would be gone for good, my thought was, I would never try to convince my friend she should read fiction if she has a conviction against it. I know my life would be very dull without fiction.

Because I could see a reason to relieve any guilt other Christians might have about reading fiction, I became interested in the discussion questions in the back of some of my Christian friends’ novels. They always seemed to reveal the author’s motives in writing that particular story. The questions bring out the growth in the characters as they lived through the events of the story, and as they became better people.

In asking around about lessons on writing reader questions … what type of questions to ask, I learned some of my author friends are required to write the questions but admit they never read them and don’t know why they are asked to provide them.

I never found those lessons. So, I’m not sure how I did it, but I came up with 9 questions for the back of my book.

Last week a writing friend stopped in. I had one proof copy of my book left. A few years back she was writing fiction and it was awesome. Her words take on a lyrical quality. In fact she wrote the most awesome story I have ever read about the murderer Barabbas who was spared crucifixion at the time our Lord was sacrificed for our sins. So I know at one time she understood the place of Christian fiction in our lives.

She took the book knowing it was fiction, but thinking she could read it—for me. And she did give me some points and suggestions for three different changes, which I appreciated. But she couldn’t get past chapter eight because to her it read like a romance. And she had decided a few years ago that reading romance stories were not good for her mind. In fact she has not read fiction at all for several years. So of course she never made it to the discussion questions. I did not know my friend had quit reading fiction when I asked her to read it. And I did not try to convince her to finish it.

Earlier, my sister read a PDF copy of this story, and her words to me were: “Thank you for letting me read your book. At first I thought, ‘Oh dear, this is a Harlequin Romance’—but as the story progressed I realized it wasn’t. I cried when [unnamed character] died. I was on the edge of my seat while Birdie was running through the tunnel. I could picture it all. You have several subplots that make it interesting, but more important, you have several messages about Christian living.”

I’m still trying to come up with a basic template for discovering how to write the best discussion questions for any given book. Do you have any suggestions?

What’s In A Name?

A novel often goes through several working titles

Writing is re-writing, and that includes book titles, the name of a book.

It’s been said that the title is the number one element of a book. If potential readers are grabbed by the title, they turn to the back cover, then open the book and read the first page.

Since ancient times, fathers have been careful about the names they give their children, knowing that it becomes their identity and will affect each child their whole life through.

So also do our titles reflect the perception others will have of our stories. Many books go through several title changes during the creation of the story. My current manuscript certainly did.

Because I thought the book was about false accusation (it is part of the story), and since the character, Danni Wagoner, was victimized, I began with the working title of Danni’s Story

Danni was deceived by someone she thought was a friend, so the title changed to Deception.

Then a brainstorming session with an editor brought out that all my stories seemed to have a theme running through them of a woman’s dream. Hence the change to Violated Dreams.

Then as the story progressed we had a final title change to Through Fiery Trails, or so I thought.

Yes, I realize a publisher will likely change a title, but I expected this to be my last change while it was a working title.

While the story never changed, my understanding of it did. More brainstorming revealed I was focusing on the wrong character for lead. I must have known this at a deeper level, because my elevator pitch was not about Danni at all, but rather her Old Order German Baptist friend. This character had to choose between following the expectations for women born and raised in this group and the pull of her heart strings, knowing she was in a position to help her friend get to the bottom of . . . who-dun-it.

So that made the story Evalena’s Dilemma, or as we are now calling it, Through The Deep Waters.

I still like the earlier titles (except for the generic ones with the women’s names). But all is not lost, for they can be used on future books.

Q4U: How have you chosen the titles for your book(s)? Are they just an afterthought? Are you emotionally attached to the first one you gave the book, back when you first dreamed of the story?

Report from ACFW’s Silent Auction

T-Shirts were a popular item this year.

I’ve had the privilege of coordinating the Silent Auction for the ACFW conference for the past several years. All proceeds from 2012 go to the scholarship fund for the conference in 2013.

Awesome Handmade Desktop Secretary

The wooden pieces above and below were handcrafted by Gary Harders of South Dakota.

Handcrafted Duck Call

Gift Certificates were offered for Kim Sawyer’s B&B, other vacation spots, critiques, E-book formatting, book trailer, private coaching, and much, much more.

Service Certificates were snapped up by savvy writers.

Specially designed and hand crafted items poured into the bookstore. (I realized too late that the picture of the lovely hand crafted jewelry did not turn out.)

One of a kind afghans show our ACFW Members talent.

Over 50 items were offered by our generous ACFW members.

Assorted baskets of goodies.

Big baskets, little baskets.

Something for everyone


"Emma Grace"I still can’t get over this one. Janna Franklin, the lady in the middle created this lovely lifelike baby. Kim Sawyer out bid all of us with her first bid. I just mentioned that if I felt I could justify it to Husband (after bidding on several other items) I would out bid her.

After the banquet Kim came and paid for her purchase and placed “Emma Grace” in my arms. I call that SHARING THE LOVE.

Christian Fiction ~ Oxymoron?

Image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/

We were on our way to The Duck Pond restaurant in Warsaw, Indiana. Our husbands visited in the front, and we ladies sat together on the bucket seats of our friend’s new Honda mini-van. And that’s another story. . .

But on this day, my friend turned to me and said, “I promised I wouldn’t read anything that wasn’t true for the rest of the year.”

She shook her head and looked down at the boot on her foot. “And then my ankle gave out.” She grinned then. “I could just see God looking down with a chuckle wondering what I was going to do now. But I’ve used this time to really get into the Word.”

I shared with her how I’d learned to get more out the Scriptures in my own daily devotions. I was sure the things I had learned were nothing new to her. And I was ashamed that I had to be this old before I learned.

“It’s good to take a break from reading other writing,” I said. “But you’ve made a big commitment to go for half a year.” I half-way admired her for it.

“Oh, I hope by the end of the year I can make it permanent. My mother always told me fiction is just a bunch of lies.” My friend looked at me expectantly. We belong to the same denomination and she knew I was a writer. “Reading got me through the hard times when my children were growing up,” she continued. “But I’ve leaned on fiction too much.”

“I know you need to keep your promise, but what about the stories Jesus taught?”

“And you think those weren’t real stories?”

“I know the parables were based on true principles,” I told her. “That’s what novel writers are taught. Any properly written novel will be based on a true principle.”

We changed the subject after that. But I can’t quit thinking about it.

Is Christian fiction an oxymoron?

By definition, Christian fiction is a story that illustrates a Christian world view in its plot, its characters, or both, or which deals with Christian themes in a positive way.

The novels of Francine Rivers have touched hearts and changed lives. Christian fiction is not written to replace the Bible, but to turn hurting, seeking people to the Word, to Jesus, and to God.

The combined efforts of many Christian writers have enriched our world. For some of us, it is our mission field. Our way of blooming where we are planted.

The Apostle Paul used the whole chapter of I Corinthians 14 to show that worship should not just be for my own benefit. That I should desire gifts that benefit the whole church. #1 In ways that they can understand. And #2 in ways that build up the church. Then, the apostle tells us, God will bring the sinners and they will also be convinced.

Sharing the Scriptures

God may use me to touch just one soul. He may use you to touch another. And he is reaching out to my friend in a different manner.

What are your thoughts?

Learning From Attending Writers Conferences

The first writers conferences I attended were at locations near SW Ohio. Pleased by the way I was received and welcomed by fellow writers, I learned a lot.

I figured the agents I met at those first conferences would not be interested in my genre but I approached them anyway. When I went into the three-minute speed dating room, the first words I said were, “I have never pitched before, so I am here to practice.”

This never failed to get a positive response. And for a deep introvert like me, that was encouraging.

Now several years later, have I learned everything I need to know? Have I learned enough? Can I forget about going to writers conferences? I don’t know about you, but that would never work for me. The networking alone is invaluable.

I’ve bought into the saying that a picture is worth a thousand words, and in this post I want to focus on benefits of the annual trip my friends and I take to the Blue Ridge mountains and the conference held in May.

We spend time with forever friends. (I didn’t get enough pictures this year.)

Fellow writer Hope Daugherty
Writers Conference Benefits
Ohio friends meet at the banquet.

We re-connect with established writers.

Yvonne Lehman
Instructor Eva Marie Everson
Eva Marie Everson

And we get acquainted with new ones.

Torry Martin
Torry Martin

Some of us meet with our agents.

Diana Flegal

Mary Ellis shared the banquet meal with her editor at Harvest House.

Kim Moore

We rejoice when friends win awards.

Linda Rondeau

We enjoy the beauty of this place.

Steeped in peace and beauty
A rose by any other name would be as sweet.

We are refreshed by the people, the classes, the meals . . .

Banquet table setting
Main course at the banquet
Sweet white coffee.

Q4U: Have you ever attended a writers conference? If so, what is your favorite memory? What was the take home value for you?

If not, I encourage you to find one near you and go for it.

Will Reading Fiction Turn Men Into Sissies?

Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net 

Upon learning I’m a novelist, many brethren (opposite of sisters) tell me they don’t have time to read, especially fiction. My brother-in-love, bless his heart, wants to write “real books.” My friend Torry Martin, who works for Adventures in Odyssey, doesn’t have time to read fiction.

Hey, my grands listen to Adventures in Odyssey. I’ve listened to the books on tape when traveling with them. Okay, okay, that’s not reading. But, it is fiction. It is story. And, we get totally immersed in them.

So, this brings up a question. Is fiction reading something only for women and children?

Not according to the Art of Manliness.

“Whatever the reason, cognitive studies are beginning to show men might be short-shifting themselves by avoiding the fiction section in the bookstore and library.  Today we make the case for why you need to put down those business books every once in a while and pick up a copy of Hemingway.”

Scientists have discovered fiction stimulates and improves the functions that allow us to survive in society. Unfortunately, men received the short end of the stick when it comes to the ability to socialize.

“Most of your success as a man,” says Dr. Keith Oatley, “whether in love or work, depends on your ability to socialize adroitly. We’ve all heard the phrase, ‘Success depends not on what you know, but who you know.’ As much as you’d like to think that’s not true, it is. You can be the most skilled and talented whatever in the world, but you’ll likely labor away in obscurity if you don’t know how to reach out and share those talents with others.”

The brains of boys and girls are the same in the womb, but a male brain changes at birth. (I learned this from Dr. Gary Smalley. Didn’t everyone?) In order to deal properly in our world, and in our respective roles, most male brains are good at dealing with stuff, while female brains are typically better at dealing with people.

While this might explain why women often prefer fiction over non-fiction, men probably have the most to gain from reading fiction.

Instead of seeing fiction as a bunch of made-up, waste-of-time baloney, looking at it as a simulator allows both men and women to exercise and strengthen the ability to socialize. Men, every time you pick up and read a novel, you’re molding yourself into a better, more socially adept man.

Mystery novels particularly exercise the mind. Whenever you read a Dashiell Hammett novel, you’re guessing right along with Sam Spade about what the subtle gestures or the words really mean. Is the suspect or witness just saying something to throw you and Spade off the trail? Reading fiction is wrestling with reading the minds of the characters and taxing and fun at the same time. Literary critic, Lisa Zunshine, says the mental workout you get from reading a detective story does for the brain what lifting weights at the gym will do for your physical body.

When asked if there is a special type of fiction that men should read, Dr. Oatley’s response was to read whatever interests you. The result is the same when reading highbrow Russian novels or lowbrow dime paperbacks.

“Our studies show that the effect fiction has on the mind is independent of literary quality,” says Dr. Oatley.

Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net 

He recommends reading a wide variety of fiction, which allows us to get to know more people in more circumstances.

“Read those Louis  L’Amour and Michael Crichton novels without any guilt. You’re helping yourself become a charismatic social-dynamo.”

So, men (or women :)), what novels have you read lately?


Is Reading Fiction . . . Safe?

Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net 

Stories have always stimulated our minds. Thousands of years before computers were dreamed of, people told stories and passed them down from generation to generation.

Our earliest record of fiction comes from the morality plays of the eleventh century. Typically, these allegorical dramas followed a story line where the antagonist tempts the protagonist to sin. And, much like our inspirational fiction of today, the protagonist finds peace, salvation, or hope, through the grace of God.

The belief in metamorphose is old. Today’s writers call this the character arc of the protagonist. The writer asks the reader to think and feel. With the suspension of disbelief, our minds reach out. As readers of well-written fiction, we think it could happen. Psychologically, the story becomes part of us. We realize we too can change.

With the origin of fiction, people thought literature could change and improve our actions. Today we turn the assertion into a question. If reading can change us, is reading fiction . . . safe?

As we learned last week, our brain doesn’t make a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life. Just as in dreams and memories, the same neurological regions are stimulated. (Have you ever had a child tell you about something horrible that happened last week and start crying as if it had just happened?)

In his book, Such Stuff as Dreams, Keith Oatley proposed that reading produces a vivid simulation of reality, one that “runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.”

And just as my grandsons’ piloting skills improve when they spend time in a flight simulator, so people’s skills of understanding themselves and others should improve when they spend time reading fiction.

Fiction gives readers an experience found only on the page. As we read, we can enter fully into the thoughts and feelings of fictional characters which simulates the feelings of other people.

Dr. Oatley notes, “I liken fiction to a simulation that runs on the software of our minds. Just as computer simulations can help us get to grips with complex problems such as flying a plane or forecasting the weather, so novels, stories and dramas can help us understand the complexities of social life.”

So what exactly is fiction? Contrary to popular opinion, the word doesn’t mean untrue. The Latin word, fingere means to make. The Greek word, poesis also means to make. Both fiction and poetry come from the imagination, on the part of both the author and the reader.

Novelist Henry James said fiction is a direct impression of life. Robert Louis Stevenson didn’t agree with that statement. A novel, he said, is a work of art.

Oatley researched the effects of fiction on readers. He tested for empathy and understanding of others’ minds.

Participants looked at photographs of people, showing only the eyes. For each image, they chose the most appropriate of four words, “joking, flustered, desire, or convinced,” to describe what they thought the person was feeling at the time the photo was taken.

Regardless of personality type, people who preferred fiction had greater empathy than those who read mainly non-fiction. The more fiction people read, the better they were at having empathy for others.

Which leads us to our third question: Will reading fiction turn men into . . . sissys? Thoughts?

Until next time, . . . Sharon A. Lavy

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