When Our Story Worlds Come Alive

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For writers, there’s nothing quite as thrilling as breathing life and love into our characters and stories.

Our hearts beat for those creative moments when fact meets fiction in bold new worlds. We’re eager to get words on the page and begin our journey.

From the moment I envisioned the sleepy little town of Ruby, Missouri, ideas flowed. The Ozarks and her people are my heritage. The way of life here, unique. Modeling my fictional town after the place I grew up and loved seemed only natural.

I know these hills and hollows. Where better to glean story fodder, witticisms, and character sketches?

Where better to unearth challenges met and hope restored?

My story worlds come alive when I consider not only the story, but also how the setting makes me feel. Fictional Ruby, Missouri, my down-to-earth little niche, embodies warmth, humor, and nostalgia.

My imaginary world also strikes a poignant chord regarding faults, foibles and second chances. Toss in a little grace and mercy extended, and my stories are the ideal heartfelt, homespun fiction blend.

While writers’ story worlds aren’t without blemish, that’s what endears them to us. Perfect is boring.

Readers want to immerse themselves in worlds that take them away.

We want to believe, too, there are fallible people just like us who strive toward a higher purpose—something beyond our present, imperfect state.

Two decades ago when Jan Karon burst on the scene with her beloved Mitford stories, the world was smitten. Everyone, everywhere, talked about Mitford. The tight-knit, small-town community appealed to those who longed for a simpler way of life, devoid of the worldly chaos so easily accessible elsewhere.

We immersed ourselves in the region, the people and their tales.

From the tiniest details to the more complex matters, Mitford entranced and beckoned. We wanted to visit the fictional village whose heartwarming charm tweaked our emotions and primed our thinking.

This was a world where we could lose ourselves. The world many of us wanted to believe truly existed beyond the spine of a book.

As a reader, Karon’s novels appealed for all these reasons. As a writer, I admired her sharp wit, her down-to-earth style and her clever turn of a phrase. The fact that her work continues to draw fans, both in the general and inspirational markets, communicates a strong message.

When story worlds come alive, all bets are off.

Readers are willing to cross preconceived barriers when stories and story worlds resonate. We’re also willing to search for those stories beyond the typical go-to confines. This is one reason Christian/inspirational fiction is evolving. Readers’ desires may wax and wane, but one thing’s clear.

Bookstores’ designated sections might influence where we initially peruse, but at the end of the day, we go to those books (wherever the physical location) that spark interest and meet a need.

Yes, concerning books, categories are needed and necessary.

And yet, some genres should consider casting a wider net to reach more readers, thereby meeting twenty-first century needs.

Does that mean compromising our brand’s integrity?

Does it mean devaluing all we hold dear?

Absolutely not.

I think, though, in today’s fiction we’re remiss if we don’t incorporate threads that reflect today’s issues, concerns, and dilemmas.

Don’t misunderstand.

That doesn’t mean we use language or situations that would deflect from our message.

It means we weave realistic choices and outcomes into our storylines that make our story worlds believable, endearing, and hopefully, enduring.

In my own heartfelt, homespun story worlds, I want folks to know everyone—with baggage or not—is welcome.

I want readers to have a seat, nibble some pie, and feel a little love as we fellowship together, despite being different.

Because the thing is…

Great stories unite humanity…

Regardless of the real world or the story worlds we create.

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Original Image Credit: CCO Creative Commons/Pixabay

Tell us about your story world. What do you find most challenging? Most rewarding?

What makes a story come alive for you?

Do you think a great story has to have a happy/hopeful ending?

 

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Cynthia writes Heartfelt, Homespun Fiction from the beautiful Ozark Mountains. A hopeless romantic at heart, she enjoys penning stories about ordinary people facing extraordinary circumstances. Her debut novel, the first in a three-book series, releases with Mountain Brook Ink July 2019.

“Cindy” has a degree in psychology and a background in social work. She is a member of ACFW, ACFW MozArks, and RWA.

Besides writing, Cindy enjoys spending time with family and friends. She has a fondness for gingerbread men, miniature teapots, and all things apple. She also adores a great cup of coffee and she never met a sticky note she didn’t like.

Cindy loves to connect with friends at: http://www.authorcynthiaherron.com/

She also hangs out here:

http://www.twitter.com/C_Herronauthor

http://www.facebook.com/authorcynthiaherron

http://www.pinterest.com/cynthia_herron/

For love, fun, and encouragement ~

Sign up for Cindy’s monthly e-NEWSLETTERS

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How to kill off your characters without even trying

One of the things I enjoyed most about writing my cozy Birder Murder mysteries was coming up with inventive scenarios in which my protagonist found dead bodies. Since this happened in the first chapter, the rest of the novel was a twisting path to solve the ‘why?’ and the ‘who done it?’ behind the dead body. I found that rather than making a book easy to write, starting with a victim really puts a writer under the gun…so to speak.

When it comes to developing your non-dead characters, however, there are plenty of easy ways to kill them off, even if you don’t mean to. Let’s take a look at the quickest ways to inadvertently make your characters lifeless, dull, unrealistic, and totally unengaging:

  1. Don’t let them speak. Dialogue is one of the best ways to develop your character’s character. Without dialogue, your reader gets descriptions upon descriptions of what a character thinks and does, but never an insight into actual verbal interaction with another character. Spoken language reveals nuances that make a character come alive. Does a character speak a regional dialect, peppering the conversation with unique turns of speech, or does he stutter in frustration? If your reader doesn’t ‘hear’ your character, you’re not making use of one of the five senses. Shortchange your reader of ‘listening’ and that character loses a dimension of personality, along with sympathy.
  2. Let them talk too much. We all know people who don’t let you get a word into the conversation; those are the people we try to avoid! A fictional character who does this is beyond insufferable, becoming a ‘talking head’ who drives the pace of the story to a dead stop. It’s also a classic case of telling, instead of showing. Balance action with dialogue to create a rounded character.
  3. Make them perfect! This may be the fastest route to killing a character before the story even gets started. Who cares about someone who has no faults, no misgivings, no dark sides, no shortcomings? Readers aren’t reading to learn about someone’s perfect life. Readers want to see their own failings, confusions, regrets, and wounds in a character, so they can relate and find the possibility of healing and hope in their own lives. A perfect character is flat. No one needs them…especially an author.
  4. Make them predictable. If your heroine always falls for the wrong guy, your reader will give up on her. If your hero always wins, how boring is that? If your reader knows how the book will end after reading Chapter One, why bother reading the rest? The best characters make mistakes, eventually learn from them, and become better people. (Not perfect people, per #3 above.) Great characters are works in progress, even after the last page. If your reader doesn’t imagine what happens to a character after the end of the story, that’s a sure sign the character never really ‘lived’ for the reader.

Are you creating characters that live? What are your best tips?

Before You Release Your Words Into the World…

If you’re writing a book you hope to see published, your words must serve the reader.

  • Maybe it’s a memoir.
  • Maybe it’s self-help book.
  • Maybe it’s the story of a remarkable relationship.
  • Maybe it’s tips about gardening.

No matter what you are writing, it has to have value for the reader.

So before you send your proposal or manuscript to an agent or editor (or before you send it to me to review!) imagine that the agent/editor/publisher will be reading your words with one question in her heart: What’s in it for the reader?

Questions I want you to ask, of your proposal/manuscript, before you release your words into the wild…

  • What is the value, for the reader, in this book?
  • When she finishes the first chapter, does she want to keep reading?
  • When she’s really tired, is there a reason for her to keep turning pages?
  • Does every sentence, every page, every chapter serve the reader?
  • When she finishes, can she articulate the single important takeaway of the book?
  • When the reader sets this book down, has she gained something from it that she wants to share with a friend over coffee?
  • Does she want to buy a copy for her sister because the book had so much value?
  • ls she able to apply what she’s learned to her own life?

If the answer to some of these questions is either “no” or “I don’t know,” I want you to return to your word-baby and review it one more time through the spectacles of an agent or editor. Name the value–write it out–that the reader gleans from each chapter.

If you can’t identify the takeaway value for the reader–the “payoff” for purchasing your book–then work at it until you can.

Ultimately, “your” book is not about you. It’s about the reader.

Serve the reader.

This post first appeared on Margot’s blog, Wordmelon

A Writing Lesson from Clark Griswold

I am Griswold.

Clark Griswold and I both love Christmas, but we can sometimes go too far. This year I actually had our writer’s Christmas party at the beginning of November, and the festivities haven’t stopped.

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So when my writer’s group read the book The Emotional Craft of Fiction by literary agent Donald Maass, and I was struck by the lesson on catalyst and catharsis, I looked to Clark Griswold in the movie Christmas Vacation to be my example.

Here’s Donald’s definition of the idea: Catharsis is a storm followed by a release of something inside.  It is preceded by a catalyst, an event that causes the storm to break.

Here’s Clark in the midst of the storm: Hey! If any of you are looking for any last-minute gift ideas for me, I have one. I’d like Frank Shirley, my boss, right here tonight. I want him brought from his happy holiday slumber over there on Melody Lane with all the other rich people and I want him brought right here, with a big ribbon on his head, and I want to look him straight in the eye and I want to tell him what a cheap, lying, no-good, rotten, four-flushing, low-life, snake-licking, dirt-eating, inbred, overstuffed, ignorant, blood-sucking, dog-kissing, brainless…

You get the idea.

Now when I was explaining this term to a writer’s group recently, one woman raised her hand and said, “I don’t buy it.” She doesn’t think we should encourage readers to lose their tempers.

Donald, Clark, and I are not encouraging such an explosion. Clark didn’t want to lose his temper. He tried to keep it all in. But his catalysts did not relent. The one thing that held him together was the belief that all of the hardships of the season would be made up for with the pool he’d planned to buy using his Christmas bonus. When he found out there would be no Christmas bonus, he lost it.

I’ve been there too. It’s not fun. But it’s real.

And that’s what Donald is encouraging. Writing real. In real life, our pent up emotions have to release sometime. I know mine do. In fact, I once bought China dishes from a thrift store just so I could throw them. It was going to be messy, so I went to a recycling station and smashed them into the glass bin. Then my best friend and I laughed like maniacs because it felt soo good to let out the anger.

That’s where we want to take our characters. To a feel good ending. But so often we are afraid of how messy their catharsis will be.

Eureka CoverAfter reading Donald’s book, I went back to my manuscript for Finding Love in Eureka–to the part where life was pressing in on my character from both sides. I’d originally had her sidestep the pressure. But life is never that easy, is it? So I rewrote the scene.

Genevieve stayed. She lost her sanity a little bit. She made a poor choice. But when the smoke cleared, she was able to see things from an objective perspective. Which created a feel-good ending that was more relatable. More genuine. More powerful.

One other tip from Donald: Make the explosion public.

Not only did Clark to blow up, but his cousin kidnapped his boss as a Christmas gift then the S.W.A.T. team swung through the windows of his house. Could Christmas get any messier?

But here’s the thing. Clark’s explosion also changed his boss’s perspective. Because Clark was honest about his feelings, and life was as messy as it could get, this made it safe for others to be honest too. There was nothing left for them to lose at this point.

If you haven’t ever experienced a holiday like this, that’s great. Either way, I’m going to encourage you to look for other examples of catalyst and catharsis in your life as well as your favorite movies. Use them to take your own stories deeper.

In the words of Cousin Eddie: That’s the gift that keeps on giving!

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Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good rewrite!

Critique Partners: 7 Things to Consider

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Original Image Credit: CCO Creative Commons/Pixabay

Many years ago, I joined one of my first writers’ groups.

In this group were writers of various ages and professional backgrounds. Some were stay-at-home moms. Others were teachers, nurses, social workers, and office managers. We also had a company president or two and a smattering of business owners. Some were published authors.

While we were all at different stages in our writing careers, we shared a common interest and a mutual goal: our love for the creative arts and the desire to grow in our craft.

Our monthly meetings were a great time of fellowship and learning. It was a “safe” environment where we let down our hair and talked about our works-in-progress. We discussed writing mechanics, industry changes, and anything else related to our craft.

As our group grew in number, new friendships formed. Some of us clicked with those who would become our critique partners.

In fact, that’s how I found my first critique partner. Though she eventually moved out of the area and away from writing, I enjoyed our time together and my writing improved. Our working relationship stretched me and nudged me beyond my comfort zone.

There are, of course, some authors who prefer to go it alone, though, I just don’t know of many. The creative process is challenging enough without wondering if our stories are connecting. Even seasoned authors use critique partners to peruse their work.

Does the plot intrigue? Are our characters realistic? Are there any timeline discrepancies? And oh, my gravy, what about grammatical issues?

These are things critique partners can spot easier than we can. When we’ve looked at our own work a thousand times we’re no longer objective, and often, we’re too bleary-eyed from the process to completely care. Well, we care, but the truth is we may tire of our own words. (There. I said it!) Too, we may recognize there are holes and issues within our stories, but we just don’t know how to fix them.

That’s where our awesome, stupendous critique partners help.

It may take time to gel with the right individuals, but once we discover each other, it’s a beautiful thing. These are the folks who become our coaches, cheerleaders, mentors, and friends.

Now that we’ve talked about critique partners and their importance, what criteria should we look for in those connections?

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Original Image Credit: fancycrave1/Pixabay

Let’s consider these seven things:

 

  1. Are they like-minded? Are they believers? Doctrinal issues aside, do our life philosophies mesh? In other words, I love Jesus, sticky notes, and Starbucks. Those last two are negotiable. Now, casting stones and holier-than-thou mindsets? Sorry. Those don’t work for me. They make me break out in hives.

 

  1. Do they write in similar genres? Our critique partners may write in different sub-genres, but underneath the inspirational fiction umbrella. They’re aware of the vast differences between CBA and ABA guidelines. Likewise, if we write for the secular market, we best choose those who have a knowledgeable grasp on the industry.

 

  1. Are they well-read? Our critique partners might write to a specific audience, but they enjoy reading a variety of stories. In other words, they’re experienced readers.

 

  1. Do our personalities mesh? I’m a see-the-glass-half-full, Pollyanna kind of gal. I love to laugh and have fun. I’m an encourager. I’m candid (but tactful), down-to-earth, and unpretentious. I recognize I’m not perfect. While our critique partners have their own special traits, it’s important we share common ground.

 

  1. Are they aware of the changing market? Do they stay abreast of industry news? This is a must because as times change, so does the publishing world. Our crit partners help us discern what changes might affect our work and what could influence editors’ decisions regarding it. They understand the importance of staying on top of market demands because they’re writers, too.

 

  1. Will it be a mutually beneficial relationship? While friendship is often a prerequisite, our relationship with our critique partners should be a give-and-take scenario. In the ideal partnership, strengths and weaknesses are addressed, shared, and dealt with professionally (and lovingly).

 

  1. Do we feel safe? Do our partners understand the importance of trust and confidentiality?  The best working relationships are fueled by those two factors.

 

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What things do you look for in a productive partnership?

How have you benefited from critique partners?

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Cynthia writes Heartfelt, Homespun Fiction from the beautiful Ozark Mountains. She loves to connect with friends at her online home. “Cindy” also hangs out on Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest. For love, fun, and encouragement, sign up for her monthly newsletters.

 

Have We Met? Creating Characters Your Readers Will Feel They Know

Last semester at school, my daughter made friends with quite a few international students, including several from Mexico. So when one of them invited her to visit Mexico this past summer, my daughter was ecstatic. She had the time of her life, deepened her relationships with the friends she’d made here, and returned home already talking about her next trip.

A few days ago, an earthquake struck Mexico City, where her friends live. They texted her that day as they stood outside their school watching the walls crack and nearby buildings collapse.

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She and I watched the news together, glued to scenes of rescue efforts. My daughter studied faces, searching through the throngs of people stumbling over debris as they searched for the missing. Had she passed by some of those collapsed buildings when she’d been in that city just a few weeks earlier? Quite possibly. Did she know any of the people walking by, streaked with dirt, hands scratched from digging through rubble, or shouting with joy when they were reunited with a loved one? She might. People she knew well, friends she loved, were impacted by this disaster. They were afraid, traumatized, comforting friends and strangers, tired, homeless, helping others. So she couldn’t tear her eyes from the screen. And because I knew their names, had heard their stories, had witnessed the love and friendship they shared with my daughter, neither could I.

I watch the news every night. I want to be informed about what is going on in the world. I sometimes see, through the lens of the Bible, end time prophesies unfolding before my eyes. And it helps me to know how to pray.

But I have never watched with the intense interest, concern, and compassion with which I have watched the last few days, with my daughter. What has made the difference? People I have met, people who matter to my family, are involved. And so I am involved. I care deeply about what happens to them, so I am mesmerized. I am emotionally connected to her friends; I know their names and their faces; my chest literally aches for them. And their faith and trust in God in the midst of tragedy humbles and inspires me.

And it strikes me – this is how we, as Christian authors, need to write our characters. When we create the people in our stories, we do so in imitation of the creation of the first man and woman, and our words breathe life into them. We have been charged with the task of taking the dust and mud of an empty page and forming it with our fingers into characters with such depth that they become real to our readers, as though they know them personally.

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When that happens, everything changes. Readers become emotionally connected to the people in our stories—relatable because of their strengths and weaknesses, their flaws and their capacity for greatness, their ordinariness and their uniqueness—and intensely interested in what is happening in their lives. They will ache with them when they experience hardship and tragedy, and rejoice with them when they triumph over their circumstances.

And when some of those characters live out their faith on our pages, whether they are stumbling around, scratched and streaked with dirt, or shouting and dancing with joy, our readers too may be humbled and inspired to live out their faith in their own lives.

So this week I pray for Mexico and I pray for all the suffering and the lost in the world, that they may experience God’s mercy, comfort, and love. And I pray that God will, in some small way, use the words, the actions, the faith of the characters we create, to impart that mercy, comfort, and love to those who read their stories and come to know and care deeply about them.

How about you – have you ever connected so deeply with a character you felt as though you knew him or her personally? What was it that drew you in so deeply?

The God We Draw Our Readers To

“Your book really helped draw me closer to God.”

Are there any more thrilling words for a Christian author to hear? That is, after all, our ultimate goal, isn’t it? To point our readers to God?

That is certainly the reason I write. Because God gives me the stories and I want to be obedient in writing them down to the best of my ability and to do what I can to get them into the hands of readers. Not for my glory, so they can know me better, but for His glory, so they can know Him better.

So yes, that feedback thrills me like no other. And it also terrifies me like no other. Because it compels me to ask myself: Is the God my story has just drawn someone closer to the one true God? Or have I allowed my incomplete, in-a-mirror-darkly comprehension of who God truly is, as well as my preferences, my biases, and all cultural influences, to shape my understanding of God and therefore cause me to present an inaccurate picture of who He is?

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“The book I just read might be controversial, but it drew me closer to God, so it must be all right.”

I can’t tell you how often I have heard this from fellow believers. And it tears at my heart every time because it brings me back to another question that haunts me: If the words I write draw my reader closer to a god that is not the one true God of the Bible, haven’t I done more harm than good? And, even more frighteningly, will I now be held responsible for leading this reader—who trusted my words, my theology—astray even a little?

Matthew 12:36-37 says, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”

As one who has been appointed a steward of words, these verses challenge, convict, and sober me. If the feedback I have received has been honest, my writing does have the ability to influence and shape the ideas and beliefs of others. According to these verses then, will God not hold me accountable for the words I use while claiming, by virtue of the fact that I call myself a Christian author, to represent and portray Him through my stories?

Consciously or unconsciously, readers turn to Christian writing to help them with three things: to begin to comprehend who God is, to understand who they are in relation to Him, and to decide how that relationship, once rightly established, should inform their actions and reactions, as well as their words and thoughts, in the midst of whatever situation comes along in life. And all of this happens (ideally) as they read our stories and witness how these truths are lived out by the characters on the pages of our books.

Which brings me to another soul-searching question: Am I even capable of depicting this God—whose thoughts and ways are so much higher than mine—accurately, when the voices of the culture I am immersed in, of special interest groups, government leaders, the media, and countless other influences are so strong?

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The answer is no. Not without the help of the Holy Spirit. Not without a solid knowledge of Scripture. Not without prayer. A lot of prayer. Prayer for guidance, for the words to write, for the ability to block out the relentless noise of the world around me pounding in my ears every moment of every day so that I can hear the still small voice. The voice of love. The voice of truth. The voice of the one true God of the Bible.

May that God be the one our words draw others to every time they read them.