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.

Christmas Writing Group

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!

Santa Strong

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

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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.

 

***

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.

What Writers Want

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Photo Credit: YesMovies

In December 2000, Mel Gibson and Helen Hunt starred in the movie What Women Want. Like many women, I appreciated the sensitivity displayed by Gibson’s character, Nick Marshall, when he finally connected with the  female lead’s innermost desires. Reflecting on this chick flick, I think we writers share similar longings — in our relationships with readers.

For instance, most of the non-fiction writers I know want the following:Henry Van Dyke

  • To be heard. Non-fiction writers want to know readers are not only listening to what we are saying through the written word, but are finding our content valuable enough to actually apply to their lives.
  • To be accepted and understood. Non-fiction writers want to gather readers who are unified in their search for answers, support, and encouragement.
  • To be desired. Non-fiction writers want readers to want our books, our messages, and the unique way we express ourselves.
  • To make a difference. Non-fiction writers want to know readers are influenced to spread their words so that more people are impacted in positive ways.

But fiction authors want these same things in their own right: A Reader Finishes Books

  • To be heard. Fiction writers want to know readers are drawn into our worlds, where conflict, setting, dialogue, intrigue, and resolution come from the depth of our imaginations and transform into a tale we tell.
  • To be accepted and understood. Fiction writers want to gather readers who are unified in their search for escape, entertainment, and thought-provoking plots.
  • To be desired. Fiction writers want readers who fall in love with our characters, our creative environments, and our page-turning stories.
  • To make a difference. Fiction writers want to know readers are influenced by the nuances of our novels, allowing educational tidbits to seep organically into their brains as they devour each page of our prose.

But regardless of our preferred writing genre, we writers must guard ourselves against wanting so much that we allow the joy of our chosen craft to be stolen away. In a single word, we must protect ourselves against dissatisfaction.

Any of us can fall into the trap of feeling dissatisfied, no matter what we’ve achieved.

  • There are authors who make bestseller lists who feel disappointed and frustrated because they don’t receive literary prizes.
  • Some achieve great commercial success, only to pine over a lack of respect from professional critics and other publishing insiders.
  • While others are appreciated all around the country, but not in their own home communities.
  • Most feel as if what they’ve written is never quite good enough.

Forget All the RulesNo matter what we accomplish, many in the writing profession cannot help hoping for more. And there’s nothing wrong with wanting more — within reason. But if we aren’t careful, we will miss out on the best of our own experiences if we focus solely on what we don’t have, versus celebrating what we do.

I imagine any writer would agree that our ultimate desire is not only to achieve, but as we walk the writing path, to milk every ounce of pleasure from the journey. If we allow ourselves, we might even dance in celebration. That’s what I want.

How do you exercise intentional appreciation for your writing successes?

 

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Seven Steps to Guaranteed Success as a Writer

Every author seems to have a different idea of what “success” in their field means to him or her. For some, selling at least five thousand (in Canada) or ten thousand (in the States) books, thereby qualifying them to claim the lofty title of “Bestselling Author” is the goal on which they set their sights. For others, maybe it’s a hundred thousand copies, or a million.

For some, it isn’t about the numbers, but about awards. But which award is the one that will make them feel as though they have finally arrived? Is it the Carol? The Christie? The Pulitzer? I’ve noticed several big-name authors who have won awards in the past entering the contests again, so maybe one award isn’t enough. What, then, is the magic number?

Or maybe it’s a certain amount of positive feedback, a sufficient number of glowing reviews on Amazon or Goodreads, recognition at conferences or even on the streets, enough followers on social media.

You see the problem. Success is a wildly ambiguous and deeply personal concept. Chasing that elusive label can be and, I suspect, is in most cases, a discouraging, disheartening, and depressing endeavor. The intended audience for our work can be mind-numbingly uncooperative when it comes to providing us with the accolades, reviews, purchases, and general awestruck-ness in our presence that would finally push us up to that mountain peak we are continually scrambling to reach. So too, for that matter, can agents, publishers, editors, and judges of contests.

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A month ago I posted on this site about my love-hate relationship with Christian writing awards. I have to admit I am coming down a little harder on the side of love these days as my books are currently finalists for five awards. Am I encouraged? Definitely. Am I grateful, honored, and excited? Absolutely. Am I able to bring myself to claim that I am now a successful author as a result of these affirmations? Not even close.

So what is the solution? To continue to blindly stumble along, attempting to achieve some random number of readers or books sold or reviews in order to feel that I am now a success? Or is it possible that I, as a Christian author, need to look at the whole success thing from an entirely different perspective? If so, the perspective that is inevitably the best one to try to view things from is that of Jesus. During his time on earth, Jesus said some radical, countercultural things about success. He suggested that “making it to the top” in the eyes of the world was not only a poor measure of success, but could, in fact, be considered spiritually detrimental because it is those who are the least in the eyes of the world who are the greatest in the Kingdom of God.

Not that we should refuse to work hard or strive for excellence. Quite the contrary. Working diligently and doing our best honors God. The difference is in the motivation. The Bible teachers that everything we do should be done as to the Lord, and not unto man. By that standard, our success cannot truly be measured by sales, awards, or accolades bestowed on us by other human beings.

For an author who believes, then, success can only be defined by whether or not our work accomplishes the purpose God has for it. So here, in my humble opinion, are seven steps to follow in order to be guaranteed success in your writing:

1)      Listen for and receive the words God has for you to write

2)      Study the craft so that you can write those words in a way that honors the one who gave them to you

3)      Humbly accept feedback and editing that makes the work better and stronger

4)      Pray about the best platform for your work to appear on

5)      When the story or teaching God has given you does come out in written form and become available to others, seek His guidance as to the best way to use the resources of time, money, and connections he has gifted you with in order to market and promote that work

6)      Pray that God’s will may be done through the words you have written

7)      Leave the results to him

If I follow the above steps and don’t find success in the eyes of the world—however I or other people may define that—I can still trust that the plans God has for my work have been or will be fulfilled, whether or not he ever reveals those plans to me. And I can let go of all my strivings, and rest in the sure and certain knowledge that my work is a resounding success.

Is it time for a marketing tune-up?

Remember all those things you were going to do this year to update and enhance your online presence, like upload recent photos, add new publication credits, revise your bio? With 2017 approaching the half-way point, here’s a checklist to remind you to take the time now to tackle that list and mark off the tasks. Not only will it make you look active and engaged, but many social media platforms automatically post to your networks the changes you make to your profile, which means you get a boost in exposure. And that’s always a score for a writer…as long as it’s good exposure, that is!

Do the following for every site you use. And if you don’t already use a particular platform, maybe it’s time to try it: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, Pinterest, Goodreads Author (https://www.goodreads.com/author/program), amazon author (https://authorcentral.amazon.com/), various genre sites (I’m listed on mystery sites like http://www.stopyourekillingme.com/ and https://www.cozy-mystery.com/ ). As the graphic above demonstrates, there are lots more than my short list, but I’m only human, so I’ve tried to focus on just a few. All I can say is “choose wisely.” And don’t forget your own website…but you already routinely update that, right? (If you haven’t, I bet you will now…)

  • Upload new profile picture. If you don’t have a professional head shot, you need to get one. Nothing builds credibility like a polished photo on your profiles. (And yes, you need something more current than your high school graduation photo.)
  • Update bio. Have you changed your state of residence? Become a grandparent? Won awards for your work? All of these items are important, as they can attract new readers who now feel you have more in common with them, or are geographically closer (which means they could reach out to you for an event!)
  • Add publication credits (books, articles, online blogs).
  • Upload the covers of new books.
  • Update events schedule: add new, delete old. If your last event was a year ago, don’t keep it there as a placeholder. If you have to have some copy, say ‘New events coming soon!’ and then get to work planning those new activities!
  • Switch out banner backgrounds for a fresh and/or seasonal look.
  • Upload new videos.
  • Make a video to say hi to your fans. It can be super simple. Make it fun and your fans will love it.
  • Make a series of photo posts using quotes from your books for fresh content you can use and re-use. (My go-to site for this is https://www.picmonkey.com/.)
  • Enter your name in the search engine of your choice and see where it pops up. You may be listed on sites you don’t know about; until I did this search, I didn’t know my books had been entered on several mystery listing sites, which prompted me to be sure to contact those site administrators to keep my publications current. Do you write romance? Self-help? Enter your name with those keywords and see what results. You might discover a whole new audience for your work, and with a timely tune-up, you’ll be ready to roll!