“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?

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?

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?

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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?

Will Reading Fiction Turn Men Into Sissies?

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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.

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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?

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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

Does Reading Fiction Affect Your Brain?

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Annie Murphy Paul raised the question earlier this year with her article: Your Brain on Fiction posted in the New York Times Sunday Review. As readers and writers, we need to know the answers to the questions raised by her article.

In this day of instant gratification, with our children and grands fixated on computer games and other digital distractions, is reading dead?

According to Neuroscience’s findings on how reading affects the brain, perhaps we should encourage the old-fashioned virtue of reading stories.

Or should we?

For further research, I ordered first one book and then another.

Keith Oatley’s Such Stuff as DreamsBrian Boyd’s On the Origin of Story Tilottama Rajan’s The Supplement of ReadingLisa Zunshine’s Why We Read Fiction Lewis Mehl-Madrona, D.D., Ph.D.’s Healing the Mind Through the Power of Story

To read Keith Oatley’s blog go here.

While waiting for the books to arrive, I printed out 50 pages of web articles on the subject. I searched the brain’s known language regions, like Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area. Fascinating stuff for me, it brought back memories of pouring over Dad’s medical books as a child.

It was worth it. Now to compress all this information into a 500-word blog post.

Can you say brain overload?
#1. Does reading fiction affect the brain differently than reading non-fiction?

#2. If so, is reading fiction . . . safe?

#3. Will reading fiction turn men into sissies?

Neuroscience shows the Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area of our brain affect how the mind interprets written words. Other parts of our brains are involved as well.

No wonder the experience of reading can feel so alive. (At least for those of us who love novels.)

While words describing smells like “apple pie” or “vanilla” or “vomit,” cause a response from Broca and Wernike, the language-processing areas of our brains, these words also affect the parts that process smells and scents.

Anne describes using brain scans to reveal how stories stimulate the brain and can even change how we act in life. I’ve condensed and paraphrased her content.

Volunteers read while scientists scanned their brains with a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine. As the readers looked at the words cologne, bacon, and eggs, their primary olfactory cortex lit up. The words describing objects such as car, or building, left this part of the brain dark.

Motion words activated sections of the brain other than those for language processing. Participants read sentences like “Gritting his teeth, he ran after her” and “He grabbed her forearm.” Interestingly enough, these scans showed stimulation in the part of the brain which coordinates body movements. When the action described was arm-related, the stimulation was concentrated in one part of the motor cortex and in another part when the action concerned the leg.

Fiction, in the form of a novel, examines the social and emotional world of mankind through created characters. We have documented how the brain responds to words of smells and textures and movements as if they were the real thing.

While we read, our brains treat the interactions among fictional characters the same as if we, or someone in our real life, has experienced them.

Which leads us to the next question, “Is reading fiction . . . safe?” What are your thoughts? I will discuss the answers in my next post.

Find Your Writing Passion


Some writers try their wings to see if they can make it as writers. They give it a year, five years, maybe even ten, thinking if they aren’t published by this time they will give it up. Why waste your time, energy, and money on such a hard and often thankless occupation? If you can quit writing, DO IT NOW now, and put yourself out of your misery.

Others write because we must. Writing helps us think and remember information. Writing helps us generate ideas and organize our thoughts. We write to make sense of the world.

What is your passion?

What is something you alone can share?

A lesson from page 210 of Stein on Writing, used with permission from Sol Stein:

“I ask you to imagine yourself on a rooftop, the townspeople assembled below. You are allowed to shout down one last sentence. It is the sentence that the world will remember you by forever. If you say it loud enough, everyone in the world will hear you, no matter where they are. What one thing are you going to say?”

Is your sentence one that could have been said by any person you know? If so, revise it until you are convinced no one else could have said that sentence.

When you have reworked your original sentence, consider these additional questions:

Is your sentence outrageous? Could it be? Is your sentence a question? Would it be stronger as a question?

Would the crowd below cheer your sentence? Can you revise it to give them something they’d want to cheer?

Suppose the person you most love in all the world were to strongly disagree with your sentence. Can you answer his or her disagreement in a second sentence?

Has your second sentence weakened your first? It usually does. If so, make it stronger than the first.

You now have the option of choosing one of the other sentences. There may be value in combining and condensing them.

You look down and see only one person, your greatest enemy, who says, “I didn’t hear you. Would you repeat that?”

Can you alter your sentence so that your statement will be enemy-proof?

Suppose you found out that the only way to get your message across would be if you whispered your sentence. How would you revise it so that it would be suitable for whispering?

Look at all the versions of your sentence. Is there a prior version that is actually stronger than the last? Can the virtues of one be embodied in another? And most important, which sentence now strikes you as the most original, the one least likely to have been written by someone else?

This exercise will direct you to a theme or expression of a theme that is uniquely yours.

Q4U: Most writers are introverts. If this is true for you, what subject will prompt you to talk or write?

Having Confidence in My Own Voice

I took writing classes, read and applied hundreds of writing craft books, and hired freelance editors. So ten years later, why did one freelance editor say I had no voice?

“It’s time,” she said, “to write a mission statement for your story. And stick to it.”

Then I read one more book, Finding Your Voice by Les Edgerton. I’d mistaken craft for voice, he said. And, as I honed my writing skills I’d lost my voice in the process.

Yet there was hope. On page 73 Les gave me a signed permission slip to write in my own natural voice.

My unique voice reveals my take on life, including my beliefs, fears, hopes, and dreams, memories of childhood celebration and disappointment, the embarrassing teenage years, followed by adult accomplishments and failures.

Some have said that writer’s block comes from editing out your natural voice before it reaches the page. Yet when you’re in the zone, words pour out freely, words that are in your natural voice.

When I use my natural voice, I have an original story. One that no one else can tell. I must simply accept that not everyone will like my writing and not everyone is my target audience.

Have you ever wondered why movies are so different from the books that inspired them? The fact is the filmmaker destroys the novel writer’s voice. If you prefer the book over the movie, what you loved about it was that voice.

In my own writing, I like to read the printed pages of my draft while walking around the house. The body mind connection kicks in and I realize when the dialogue is off. Ooops, I think, he wouldn’t talk like that. Layer by layer the character voice emerges.

“When you sit down to write, allow God to flow through you to use you. Let His words inspire you to write the things He lays on your heart. You are unique, and therefore your voice is unique in speech and in writing. Your voice is a gift straight from God’s hands, speak and write for His glory, and your matchless qualities will touch lives that no one else can touch”. ~~Lisa Buffaloe

Q4U: How did you find the secret to unlock the personality in your writing voice?

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