10 Things You Should Know About the Writing Life

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Original Image Credit: Engin_Akyurt/Pixabay

 

Recently, a friend mentioned that she was thinking about writing—as in pursuing it as a career.

“I mean, how hard can it be, right? I like reading books and I’ve always wanted to write one. I believe I can do it.”

Should I tell her? Should I prick that golden bubble of innocence with a cold, hard dose of truth?

I knew by the stars in her eyes she envisioned something far different from the nitty-gritty, day in, day out, nuts and bolts thing we know as writing.

“And I know it’ll take work, but I don’t mind work.”

The more she talked about the written word, the more animated she grew.

As it so often goes with conversations like this, my friend went on for several minutes, espousing her lifelong wish to pen the novels of her heart.

“Sounds like the writing bug’s bit you, for sure.” I remembered those feelings.

And then I remembered others. The bittersweet ones that are tough to swallow, but necessary in the learning curve.

I tempered my thoughts with some polite niceties, but then my friend pressed.

“Okay, Cindy. Tell me. What are you not saying? What’s something I should know about the writing life?”

“It’s a unique calling…”

“But?”

“No buts. That has a negative connotation. Let’s say andAnd writing’s something that will always matter.”

Here are 10 more things I eventually told my friend about the writing life.

1.      Writing will consume you. You’ll learn to juggle your passion through trial and error. There’s no shortcut around experience.

2.      Writing will test your mettle. Emotionally. Physically. Spiritually. Professionally. Rise above pettiness. Seek wise counsel. Stay the course.

3.      Writing will challenge your comfort zones. Expect it. Accept it. You’ll write best beyond those zones.

4.      You won’t always love writing. Some days you may hate it. Don’t worry. That will pass. If it doesn’t, rethink writing.

5.      Writing with publication as your goal demands time. Sometimes lots of it. Months. Years.

6.      Writing is lonely sometimes. Align your troops—those go-to souls who get your art.

7.      Realize writing is a different medium. One size doesn’t fit all. In fact, the writing life rarely makes sense to those who don’t live it.

8.      Writing is an honorable calling. When naysayers tell you otherwise (and they will), remember who you’re writing for.

9.      Writing will shred your self-confidence. God will restore it.

10.    The writing life will change you. You won’t live with what if. You’ll write it.

Melissa Tagg once said this and I asked permission to quote her.

“It’s so true that writing is a lot of work. It takes research and dedication and so much stubbornness it’s not even funny. But man…it is also soooo fun and so filled with magical moments. And there’s a divine mystery to it. Because for all the craft books and classes and conferences that help us grow as writers, we can’t force those perfect nights when the story starts telling itself…the characters start breathing…and the plot comes alive. That’s when I know there’s something more than my own brain at work. That’s when I know I’m not doing this storytelling thing alone.”

 

*This post first appeared on my blog.

What have you discovered about the writing life?

Does your current career path align with your heart’s desire?

If not, what steps are you taking to correct that?

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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.

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

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 ~

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Bringing Characters to Life

 A story without people is not a story. I’m not sure what it is but it’s not a story.

You can have a great plot and beautiful settings, but if your characters are not alive, you just have words on a page.

There are numerous tools available to help us create characters. Meyer-Briggs, Gary writer's block 2Chapman’s Five Love Languages, character interview forms, character description sheets, family history templates, etc. They all have some value in identifying your characters.

I believe your character doesn’t come alive until he or she is in the story, interacting with other characters, striving to achieve goals. This striving creates conflict. This conflict brings both your character and your story alive.

When your character comes to life in the story, be prepared for most of the preliminary work to go out the window. And be prepared, if you’re an outliner, for your carefully-crafted story to go in new directions. The story, the conflicts, the setbacks, will change your character and reveal more of what’s beneath her surface.

Believable characters have dark secrets, hidden ambitions, fears, dreams, hopes, and desires. In my current work, I didn’t know my heroine was claustrophobic until it came out in a scene. None of my prep work revealed this. Why? Because it wasn’t important in the prep work. It wasn’t until I had her in a scene, in action, that the fear of being closed in manifested itself. Her fear of heights wasn’t revealed until she had to climb a tree to escape a hungry tiger.

People have needs for relationship, significance, and security. These need to be revealed in the story.

Randy Ingermanson teaches that to create a believable character, try to give her at least two core values. And somewhere in the story, have them conflict. In my novel, Journey to Riverbend, Michael Archer is the protagonist. His core values are: One, nothing is more important than keeping his word; and, two, nothing is more important than protecting human life. At the climax, these values conflict. To keep his promise to a condemned man, Michael faces having to kill someone.

James Scott Bell, in Conflict & Suspense, suggests giving your character a yearning, something they want but don’t have, “something without which a person feels life will be incomplete.” It can be something the hero brings into the story so he already has trouble when the story opens. This yearning will give him a store of actions that are unpredictable, creating potential conflict in every scene, and creating interest in the reader from the outset.

Businessman with Cell Phone JumpingThe more we let our characters express and reveal themselves in the story, the more vibrant, complex, and fascinating they will be, and the more they will keep the reader hooked and turning pages.

7 Steps to Writing a Story in Scenes

StageYou’ll notice I didn’t include the word “easy” in the title of this post. There are not seven “easy” steps to writing a story in scenes. It takes hard work. I suspect that’s why so many writers substitute narrative summary for scenes.

Of course, when you’re not sure of the components that make up a scene, it’s harder to write one. If your writing seems flat or passive and you don’t know why, you may have omitted one or more of the following:

  1. Real Time: Even if you’re writing in third person using past-tense verbs, lay out actions in sequential order. As a rule, especially in the beginning of your novel, don’t jump backward or forward in the story. If you do, you’ll interrupt the flow of time and disconcert your reader. For an unusual perspective on time flow in fiction, read Teach Your Writing Voice to Sing.
  2. Characters: This element may seem like a “no-brainer.” (Of course a scene will have characters.) But hear me out. Let’s say you’re writing about a lynch mob ready to hang an outlaw. You could state the bald fact, or you could pick faces from the crowd. Maybe the outlaw killed Jack’s brother, robbed Otis’s store, and held a gun to Chet’s face just for fun. Having these fellows, even as minor characters, call out their grievances makes the incident personal and, therefore, more immediate. For a unique and efficient perspective on creating characters, read Dianne Christner’s Creating Characters With Personality.
  3. Showing: You experience the world through your senses. Similarly, for readers to enter your written world, you must draw them through their senses. Labeling emotions is telling. It’s also lazy writing. Instead of stating that Mary is sad, show her reasons for sadness, and then have her react physically and perhaps with introspection. Just don’t do this in a clichéd manner. Maybe she doesn’t weep but instead grows quiet or withdraws. David is angry but rather than punch a hole in the wall he exterminates every weed in his yard. For more tips, watch my video: 5 Ways to Show Rather Than Tell in Fiction Writing.
  4. Setting: New writers often neglect this element needed to ground every scene in place and time. Using too much or not enough description is a common mistake. With too few setting details the reader will feel curiously weightless, like an astronaut floating in a zero-gravity chamber. Characters will seem like “talking heads” lost somewhere in space. If you overload your readers with description, you’ll weigh them down so badly they’ll barely make progress through the scene. Finding a happy balance takes practice. It helps to have feedback from great critique partners. Sarah Baughman tackles the topic of How To Balance Dialogue and Description.
  5. Action: Something physical happens, with or without dialogue. Some writers call actions that accompany dialogue “beats.” Using beats instead of tags to identify speakers helps you bring a scene to life. For tips on writing dynamic action scenes, Bryan Thomas Schmidt has you covered. Read his Write Tip: 10 Tips For Writing Good Action Scenes.
  6. Dialogue: Too many writers neglect dialogue, which is a shame. It’s a vital tool for characterization and for imparting information (provided you don’t try to shoehorn it into your reader). You can even use dialogue to give glimpses of back story in a realistic way that doesn’t disrupt your story’s flow. For more on dialogue, read Sharon Lavy’s Do You Hear The Voices?
  7. Purpose: Every scene must further your plot. If a scene exists merely to dump information on the unsuspecting reader, it has no real purpose and will seem aimless. Cut all such scenes and work only the information your reader needs to know into the story when your reader needs to know it. Jody Hedlund offers great advice on strategically selecting scenes in How To Make Your Book Play Out Like a Movie.

Telling a cohesive story through scenes is an art that, once mastered, will breathe life into your writing.

What are your tips for writing scenes?

Creating Characters with Personality

My characters didn’t always have personality.

In blind date jokes, the matchmaker skirts around the topic of a candidate’s looks and plays up their wonderful personality.  It was the reverse situation for my characters.  According to an editor, they had the looks, even the quirks, but no personality.  I was mortified to discover I had cardboard characters. I didn’t understand how it could be possible when I had developed a character notebook filled with descriptions, pictures, and imaginary back story.

I might have stayed in denial if my editor hadn’t challenged me to study personality typologies.

I quickly discovered by using type theories that someone else had already done all the work. I didn’t have to dream up any more character bios or answer a hundred silly questions about what my characters would do in various situations. I dreaded those kinds of exercises.  But I loved research. In a sense, this was researching my characters. All I had to do was find a key piece, and all the other pieces fell into place. I didn’t have to force myself to do something I didn’t enjoy. I found the process fascinating.

Now all my major characters have designated personalities which drive their actions and dialogue, and create tension and plot. I use a popular personality typology called the Enneagram. If you’re interested, personality TYPE helps are as easy as Googling personality typology.

First I look at my story premise to see what will be expected of my heroine. Then I examine the Enneagram chart’s short summaries to see which type will allow her to perform what’s required for the story. After reading more about her type, it’s easy to match her personality or purposely clash her personality with other characters by setting all their personality types. Some typologies even recommend matches, especially in the love and occupation departments. Back story practically writes itself because there’s also a section devoted to childhood.

Once you set a character’s personality TYPE, the story unfolds in a more believable way. That doesn’t make it predictable. It deepens it.

During writing when things aren’t clicking like they should, we often tear into our plots. But uncooperative characters may actually be the culprits. Before they can enhance the story, they must be equipped with personalities that will move the plot forward.

A roller coaster slowly climbs to its peak. In the same way, a story builds toward its climax. Imagine what would happen if the occupants of the roller coaster jumped out, swung from the scaffolding or pushed the coaster off its track.  It might be perversely entertaining at first, but the ride would be ruined. Readers expect characters to stay on track, so the story’s climax is thrilling and fulfilling.

I use the Enneagram at the beginning, when the story gets in trouble, and before I start edits.

While personality typology works for me, it’s not the only way to get the job done. What method do you use?  Just for fun, do you know your personality type?

Perfecting Prose – What I learned from being a RITA finalist

Earlier this year, I received a thrilling phone call notifying me that my debut book, A Tailor-Made Bride, had finaled in the RITA®  category for Best First Book. Was I ever excited! Then people started asking me about why I thought my book made it to the finals. My first reaction was – How can I possibly know? Contest judging is so subjective. The more I thought about it, however, the more I realized that even though I didn’t have direct feedback from the RITA judges, I had feedback from other judges—readers. So the tips you’ll find here today, are based on what I have gleaned from the comments of readers and reviewers.

Characters impact readers more than plot.

“What amazing characters… I loved Jericho and Hannah. It was as if they were real people.”

“Her characters live and breathe, not only within the pages but long after the cover is closed.”

“Her characters were flawed in ways that made them endearing and gave you a vested interest in their individual quests for happiness and fulfillment.”

My goal in designing main characters is twofold: have every woman who reads my story fall in love with the hero, and have every female reader wish to be the heroine. In order for me to accomplish this, as an author, I need to do exactly the same—fall in love with my hero and live vicariously through my heroine. If the characters aren’t real to me, they won’t be real to the reader either. So what makes them real?

  • Use Deep POV  Spend time in the character’s head. Express his thoughts directly using language that matches his personality. Show his reactions and emotions instead of explaining them to the reader. Give him a distinct narrative voice.
  • Use Contrast – My hero is a grouchy, set-in-his-ways livery owner, but that crusty exterior hides a soft heart that leads him to perform acts of kindness when no one is looking. His words might sound arrogant, but his actions show his inner goodness.
  • Give them flaws to make them real. Give them quirks to make them unique. Give them noble motivations to make them likeable – Hannah was living her dream of opening her own dress shop, but she struggled with her lack of business savvy when customers were scarce. Her quirk – she’s a 19th century fitness maven with a daily exercise regimen that most folks scoffed at. As for motivation, she wanted to have a successful shop, but not at the cost of being a stumbling block to others. Her ultimate aim was to use the gifts God had given her to serve her community, not simply to support herself by making a good living. Giving her a more noble motivation increased her likeability even when her stubbornness and pride led her into trouble.
  • Have well-developed secondary characters – Many readers have asked me about turning A Tailor-Made Bride into a series because they found themselves so attached to the town and its characters that they wanted more. What a fabulous compliment! Even though secondary characters don’t have their own POVs, make them memorable and real to the reader. Make them quirky and fun, or have them tug on the reader’s heartstrings. Use them to open the eyes of your main character when he/she is struggling to come to grips with a specific truth. But remember, their purpose is to enhance the story of the hero and heroine, not to steal the show.
  • Use dialog as a romance tool – Witty dialog is something I greatly admire in novels and strive to incorporate in my own. My favorite way to use it is between the hero and heroine as they fight against their attraction. Let them tease, flirt, and spar with each other as a way to build romantic tension. Sometimes having a character be audaciously honest can be a delightful surprise. One of my favorite scenes from A Tailor-Made Bride uses this technique. Hannah has learned Jericho’s true name and is teasing him about it.

He prowled forward, jaw clenched so hard, his facial muscles ticked. “The name’s J.T.”

“No,” she said, tapping her chin as if pondering some great mystery. “Those are initials. Your name is Jericho.”

Wiggling his fingers to keep them from curling into fists, J.T. reminded himself that she was a woman.

“Are you purposely trying to rile me?” His voice rumbled with menace, warning her against such a dangerous path.

An all-too-innocent smile stretched across her face. “Why, yes. Yes, I am. Is it working?”

Deepen Your Spiritual Theme with Layers

“Besides a beautiful romance, this story has take-home value in it that made me stop and reflect…The characters grew not only as individual people, and as a couple, but as children of God as well.”

“…you will also find the Lord’s “thumbprint” on every page. Her words ministered to my spirit in such a deep, penetrating way.”

“…while the book is highly readable and enjoyable, it is also thought-provoking. I found myself pausing time and again to reflect on my own life, particularly as it relates to God’s purpose for me.”

  • More than skin deep – On the surface, the key spiritual message of A Tailor-Made Bride seems to entail the issue of beauty vs. vanity. However, if you look deeper, you’ll see that the true message is about balance, unity, and opening yourself to God’s truth even when it goes against long-held beliefs based on personal experience.
  • Complicate things – Another aspect that I believe made my theme unique was that I allowed both characters to be right. Both had a biblical foundation to back up their position, and as I wrote their story, I found myself agreeing with both sides. The true issue is not who is right and who is wrong. The true issue is how can we treat each other with love, even when we disagree? And can we set our dogmatism aside long enough to see if there is any truth to be gained by pondering the opposite perspective?
  • Sprinkle other spiritual truths throughout the story in addition to the main theme – In real life, we rarely deal with one issue at a time. So in addition to the beauty-vanity theme, I also sprinkled in thoughts about running a business as a person of faith, using gifts to serve others even when the service goes unnoticed, and reaching out to the outcasts among us. Remember, however, that story rules. Never incorporate a spiritual thread simply to teach your readers a truth. Everything has to spring naturally from the characters and the plot, otherwise it will come across as preachy.

Question for you: So when you think about your favorite books, the ones that linger in your mind long after the last page is turned, what is it about them that impacted you most? If you were a contest judge, what would you be looking for?