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.

The World of Our Story

View of Earth From SpaceIn his book, The Writer’s Journey(third edition), Christopher Vogler writes, “The Ordinary World in one sense is the place you came from last. In life we pass through a succession of Special Worlds which slowly become ordinary as we get used to them.”

As writers, we often talk about creating story worlds. In reality, we create two. There is our hero’s ordinary story world, the world she lives in before the inciting incident launches her into her story. Once launched, she enters the Special World of the story we are writing.

Interestingly, in many novels, the worlds may be exactly the same in terms of geography, time, economics, politics, and a myriad of other details. The world moves from Ordinary to England 1Special when our hero decides to embark on the journey to solve the story problem or answer the story question.

Then, even if she continues to live in the same house, work the same job, go to the same church, her world becomes Special. She is now on an adventure to resolve the story problem. And that story problem transforms her world from Ordinary to Special, whether it’s solving a murder, dealing with an unwanted pregnancy, or losing her spouse.

town 4Think of the world of our lives. Everything is going along fine and then something happens. We lose a job or we get a promotion to a more challenging position, a loved one dies or a prodigal returns home, a car accident, a medical problem, a windfall. We win the lottery or we spend all our pay on lottery tickets and miss by one number.

Whatever it is, our Ordinary world becomes Special while we live through the changes until the Special World becomes Ordinary once again.

Can you think of a time when your own Ordinary World became Special? How can you use that experience to write a Special World for your characters?

Creating Plots

I recently attended an intensive writing retreat given by Steven James and Robert Dugoni.

Happy PeopleHere are some of the highlights from the session on creating plots.

One way to look at plot is to ask: What’s a story? It’s the protagonist’s journey. There has to be movement on some level—we don’t want to confine the character. The journey can be physical, emotional, or spiritual. Or all three. As long as we keep the protagonist moving.

What motivates the character to start the journey? The motivation can be simple: love, justice, hate, revenge, power, greed, fear, or adventure.

Here’s a five-question exercise for brainstorming a story, given by Robert Dugoni:

  • Who is my protagonist?
  • What is my protagonist? (accountant, police detective, stayquestion marks man in circle-at-home mom, lawyer, etc.)
  • Where is my protagonist? The setting for the story.
  • What does my protagonist want?
  • What stands in the way of achieving it?

Also, when you’ve answered all these questions, you have the basics of your elevator pitch.

The basic elements of plot are the beginning, the middle, and the end.

In the beginning we establish the tone and the genre. And we introduce who we are going to be traveling with on the story journey—the protagonist.

Also, at the start of the story, we want to create empathy for our hero. One way we can do this is to give the character a wound we all share and a goal we can identify with.

We also want to hook the reader by asking a question or introducing a problem that launches the protagonist into the story.

In the middle, the story continues to develop as we take the protagonist deeper into the story question or problem. And we add twists and surprises.

StrivingWe also add escalating obstacles that make the situation worse. These obstacles must serve one of two purposes: they must move the story forward by raising the tension, or they must further develop a character trait, or both. If they do neither, they need to be cut. Otherwise, the dreaded sagging middle will occur.

The obstacles lead us to the climax where the protagonist either achieves his quest or doesn’t.

The end of the story answers the story questions. It must be satisfying to the reader and it needs to show the protagonist changed by what he experienced in the story.

Here are two excellent resources for plotting. There are many others but I find these very helpful:

  • Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell
  • Plot versus Character by Jeff Gerke.

Making Dialogue Work

Dialogue is one of the hardest working tools we have because we ask it to do so much. It has to convey information, develop and move the plot, increase tension and conflict all while sounding natural.

Perhaps most importantly, dialogue must engage the reader through revealing our characters. It brings them to life and shows their personalities, their quirks, their goals, and their fears.

The most effective and real dialogue comes when we know our characters as intimately as possible. Whether our story is plot-driven or character-driven, we have to invest the time in writing biographies, character analyses, Meyers-Briggs assessment, journals, interviewing them, and experimenting with how they speak, act, think, and feel. And they’ll still surprise us.

In my first novel, Journey to Riverbend, I had a problem with the story arc of my female protagonist, Rachel. She was a former prostitute who received Jesus. She was also striving to open a dress-making business in a town where many were hostile to her because of her past. It wasn’t until I interviewed her that I learned Rachel was a feisty, determined young woman with numerous questions about her new-found faith, anxieties about her future, and wondering if love could ever be part of her life.

And I discovered her voice changed depending on her situation. She had a business voice she used with customers and an almost child-like awe when she talked about her faith. At times her prostitute “don’t mess with me” voice came into play. When the mayor attempted to get too familiar, Rachel stopped him cold with the whispered line, “I’m making dresses for your wife. I can make her look like a laughing stock while convincing her she looks like Queen Victoria.”

With these new insights, Rachel’s dialogue became stronger, more connected to her emotions at the moment, more realistic. It revealed more of her personality, her dreams, her fears.

Rachel came to life through her dialogue.

Make the time to know your characters. They’ll reward you with stronger personalities and become people that readers will keep turning pages for.

How has dialogue allowed you to develop your characters even further? What have you learned about your characters through dialogue that surprised you?

Nuke the Slush Pile

Photo Credit: 02-11-04 © Maartje van Caspel / istockphoto.com

What is a slush pile?

Have you ever read a market listing for a book publisher that reads something like, “Receives 2,000 submissions a year; publishes 20?”

The 1,980 manuscripts that didn’t get published are the slush pile. They are the mountain of unsolicited—and largely unpublishable—manuscripts that land on editors’ desks every day.

The slush pile also represents your competition.

I’ve spoken to more than a few writers who became discouraged at the sheer numbers of manuscripts out there and gave up on ever getting published. That’s unfortunate because it’s possible to move that slush pile out of the way.

Here are three simple practices that will help you stand out from the competition.

1. Learn Your Craft.

Believe it or not, most wannabe writers never take the time to learn how to write well. If you will take the time to study, learn, and develop your craft, you will stand head and shoulders over 90% of the people out there who say they want to be writers. Thus, when you submit a query or manuscript, your writing will stand out as superior.

Trust me. Good writing gets noticed.

2. Be Professional.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re trying to make a living at writing or if you just see writing as something to do on the side. If you want to be taken seriously, then you have to approach your craft as a professional. That means properly formatting your manuscript, proofreading it carefully, and following the publisher’s guidelines to the letter. It also means being courteous, not missing deadlines, accepting editing and critique. It means committing yourself to turning out the best product you can–every time you sit down at the keyboard.

If you adopt a professional approach, you will distinguish yourself from many writers who do not take the time to learn (or practice) the etiquette of the publishing industry.

Do this and you will move more of that slush pile out of the way.

3. Network, Network, Network!

Over the years, I’ve learned that personal networking with editors, agents, and other writers can greatly accelerate your journey to publication (assuming you’ve learned your craft and are acting like a professional). And the best place to network is at a writers conference.  Consider this: If you had the choice between sending a query to an agent or editor (who will probably have a stack of them piled on her desk) or sitting down with her for fifteen minutes and pitching your idea in person, which would you prefer? At a writers conference you can meet that agent or editor face to face. You might not be able to attend a conference every year, but try to make at least one. It’s an investment, but it’s one you won’t regret making.

Learn your craft. Adopt a professional approach. And network, network, network. Keep these three principles in focus—and persevere—and sooner or later you’ll find yourself in print.

Because you’ll not only move the slush pile out of the way, you’ll nuke it.

7 Tips for Self-Editing Your Novel

Before I signed with my awesome agent, Barbara Scott, I knew my novel needed another round of edits. I looked at several freelance editors, but I just couldn’t afford the cost. So, I rolled up my shirt sleeves, prayed, and decided to do it myself. Again.

At this point, I’d already gone through my book for grammatical errors, typos, etc. I’d had a published writer and several beta readers go through it. Three other agents expressed interest if I could go back and make my novel stronger.

Here are the tips I learned that pushed my book from a maybe to yes.

1. Print it out. I fought this (don’t ask me why, my frugalness I suppose, sounds better than stubbornness), but it truly makes a huge difference. Your eye will catch things on the printed page you won’t see on the computer screen.

2. Only edit one thing at a time. Go through your manuscript focusing on one thing at a time. Do a sweep for dialogue. Is there useless chatter? Talking that doesn’t move the story forward? Do you have too many tags? Then go back for description. And so forth.

3. Examine every character. Don’t waste time with cardboard characters or the stereotypical bad guy. I highly recommend Deb Dixon’s Goal Motivation and Conflict.

4. Setting. Regardless if you write historical or contemporary, you need to research your setting. Find some of the not so common places to set your characters in. For example, lots of scenes are in restaurants, change it up and put them on a picnic at some fantastic landmark.

5. Hooks and cliff-hangers. Check out the beginning of every chapter and the ending. What can you do to make it stronger? What could happen that would ensure the reader couldn’t put your book down because they have to know what happens next? Is your heroine being chased by a wolf? Then make it a pack of wolves and have her twist her ankle. Take it a step further and do this to every scene. I recommend James Scott Bell’s Revision and Self-Editing.

6. Description. Remember to include things beyond sight. Let us know how it smells, tastes, feels, and sounds. Is the rain splattering or pounding? Are the hero’s hands calloused or warm? See Frontierinternetservices.com.

7. Wrapping up all the ends. Make sure all the sub-plots and story lines are resolved. You can set things up for a sequel, but you can’t leave things undone. Readers will feel cheated if they have to buy the next book to find out what happens to the main storyline in book one.

What are some of your favorite non-fiction writing books? Do you have any tips or tricks you use when editing?