When Our Story Worlds Come Alive

canada-2707557_640

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

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

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

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

Where better to unearth challenges met and hope restored?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When story worlds come alive, all bets are off.

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

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

Yes, concerning books, categories are needed and necessary.

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

Does that mean compromising our brand’s integrity?

Does it mean devaluing all we hold dear?

Absolutely not.

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

Don’t misunderstand.

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

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

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

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

Because the thing is…

Great stories unite humanity…

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

***

Original Image Credit: CCO Creative Commons/Pixabay

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

What makes a story come alive for you?

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

 

CH-7888 copy

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

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

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

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

She also hangs out here:

http://www.twitter.com/C_Herronauthor

http://www.facebook.com/authorcynthiaherron

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

For love, fun, and encouragement ~

Sign up for Cindy’s monthly e-NEWSLETTERS

Advertisements

How to kill off your characters without even trying

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

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

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

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

Got a Problem? Here’s the Solution!

office-991306_640

Many years ago, our then five-year-old son trudged into the kitchen.

“I don’t wanna go back to school.” He dropped his Ninja Turtle backpack on the floor and crossed his tiny arms to emphasize the point. “Mrs. C doesn’t like questions and she doesn’t like teaching kids either.”

Surely, he’d misjudged Mrs. C. The teacher we’d just met at Open House a week earlier seemed warm, welcoming, and open to creative little spirits and their quandaries.

I knelt and met my child at eye level. “What makes you say that, honey?”

“’Cause if we wanna know something, she says ‘Not Now’ or ‘Go back to your seat.’ And…if we have a problem, she tells us to go write it on the problem board.”

Hmm.

“Problem board? What’s that?”

“It’s that big board on wheels with lots of white paper.”

Ah…yes. The one at the front of the classroom. I remembered seeing it at Open House.

“Well, did you need help with a question?”

“No. I had a problem.” My son’s face clouded. “Tommy took all my pencils and snapped them in two. When I tried to tell Mrs. C she said, ‘Go write it down on the problem board and then your problem will go away.’”

Really? What kind of nonsense was that?

“And so, what did you do?”

“I wrote my name on the problem board. And then Mrs. C laughed at me and said ‘You have a problem with yourself?’”

I cringed.

Even today, I still frown at the memory.

What I eventually deduced:

  • Most five-year-olds might be able to write their name, but very few write in complete sentences yet. Therefore, blank space on Mrs. C’s problem board equaled—well—no problem! Ever.
  • Mrs. C’s methodology for handling her classroom on a day-to-day basis was far different from what my husband and I observed at Open House. “I try to make things as easy for the students and myself as I can. The less complicated, the better,” she told a group of parents one day.
  • By easy and less complicated she meant unencumbered by demands, decisions, and anything else that required more than marginal effort.

I found that mindset disturbing, and to this day, Mrs. C’s words and attitude still resonate. It was and is so heartbreaking.

God doesn’t grant us creativity to waste, but He does set the bar high. He expects us to use good judgment when using our talents.

For writers and many other professionals, words like easy and uncomplicated rarely mesh with success.

Most of us know by now that with anything worth having (a long-held dream, goal, or career), there’s going to be work involved.

Ignoring “problems,” neglecting the obvious, and expending little energy aren’t endearing qualities. They invite complacency and undermine God’s plan for our lives.

It’s a tough climate for writers just now, but heaven help us if we come to think of our craft as not worth the effort!

If you’re new to the writing journey or if you’ve been at the process a while, I hope you’ve decided to dig in your heels and not settle for the uncomplicated.

I hope you’ll think through, rise above, and go beyond the “problem boards” of life, yet be confident enough to realize, too, sometimes, that’s where the real stories are.

Now

Go tackle some white space.

Don’t be afraid to write on it!

*This post first appeared on my blog.

Original Image Credit: MiraGregorCosic/Pixabay

 

Can you think of a time when you felt ignored or that your problem didn’t matter?

How did you handle it?

Writers, anything you’re tackling on your “problem board” today?

***

CH-7888 copy

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 ~

Sign up for Cindy’s monthly e-NEWSLETTERS

 

Why you should write backstory you won’t use

cross-out-wordsA few years ago, I got the oddest suggestion I’d ever heard from an editor: write a few scenes between my novel’s characters that I wasn’t going to include in my final manuscript.

Say what?

I should deliberately spend time crafting scenes I was NOT going to use? How was that going to improve my book, writing scenes I wasn’t going to include in the final version?

Being the people-pleaser/non-confrontational  soul that I am, I didn’t question the editor’s wisdom, even though I thought it was nuts and a clear waste of time.  She was the editor, after all. She had to know what she was doing. So I sighed a great sigh of resignation and set to work writing scenes I wasn’t going to use in my book.

And lo! Before I even finished writing the first ‘unnecessary’ scene, I understood the point of the exercise: by creating more interactions between my characters, I was getting deeper into their heads and personalities. I was basically giving them a more complete personal history and backstory that would more accurately inform and motivate their actions on the pages of my novel. In other words, I was giving them life beyond the book, which would, in turn, make them very real within the book.

Crazy, huh?

Let me give you an example.

“This late-night conversation between Rafe and his mother doesn’t sound natural,” the editor said about a scene in my book. “Try writing another conversation between them that focuses on a different aspect of their relationship. Something from their past.”

So I did. I wrote a scene from Rafe’s high school football years, some 20 years prior to my book’s time frame. As I wrote, I imagined what this man might have been like before he matured, and how his relationship with his mother evolved. He was a headstrong teen then, and while he dutifully respected his mother, he couldn’t appreciate her wisdom at the time; that insight alone helped me revise the dialogue my editor had questioned in my book. It also changed the way I described the interaction between those two characters, and it influenced how I then changed Rafe’s interactions with his female colleague to better reflect his attitude towards women as learned from his mother.

Writing that little piece of personal history for Rafe was like shading in another part of a portrait or adding important information to a personality profile; because I knew his backstory better, I was then able to strengthen another scene in which he confronts a female assassin with conflicted respect, rather than brute force. My ‘unnecessary’ scene that I knew I wasn’t going to use actually helped me produce a more realistic hero.

What can I say? If ‘crazy’ works, I’ll take it. Especially when it improves my writing.

How about you? Have you found some crazy ways to improve what you write?

How to survive the book review blues

roses I have a love-hate relationship with book reviews.

Every time I get a good review, I’m happy. When I get a stellar review, I’m ecstatic. I feel like I’ve done what I hoped to do: I’ve connected with a reader and given them a journey they wouldn’t have experienced otherwise. When dog-lovers tell me they laughed, cried, and were inspired by my memoir Saved by Gracie: How a rough-and-tumble rescue dog dragged me back to health, happiness, and God, I feel blessed that my story reached and touched them. When reviewers rave that my supernatural thriller Heaven’s Gate: Archangels Book I made them want to stand up and cheer, I get goosebumps of joy.

All those multi-starred reviews on my books’ pages at amazon.com, Goodreads, or barnesandnoble.com reassure me that the hours I pour into my writing are worth it: my books entertain, educate, and illuminate, and, gosh darn, people like them.

wilted-roseAnd then there is the flip side of my love-hate relationship with book reviews.

When I get a review that says “this book wasn’t what I thought it would be about, so I stopped reading it after the first two chapters,” and therefore receives the lowest rating possible, I want to bang my head against a wall. “Then why did you bother to post a review?” I want to ask the disappointed reader, and then explain that because she mistook the book for something it wasn’t, my overall rating has plummeted, which will dissuade some readers from even reading the synopsis, let alone buying and reading the whole book.

I’ve also seen reviews that rate books poorly because the author’s basic premise contradicts what a particular reader-reviewer believes. Again, those low ratings may prevent the book from reaching the hands of readers who would appreciate and greatly benefit from it; because many people (and I’m one of them!) choose books based on others’ reviews, authors are at the mercy of those published reviews, even when they make no sense at all, or are based on the personal bias of the reviewer.

So what’s an author to do about that oh-so-necessary-but-can-be-disastrous need for reviews?

My answer can be summed up in one word: relax.

Then remind yourself of these three things:

  1. You wrote a book! So many people say they want to write a book, but you actually did it! AND it got published. Congratulations! Celebrate your accomplishment!
  2. You can’t please all the people all the time, and that’s especially true of readers. Some people just won’t ‘get’ it; others won’t like your writing style or your treatment of plot or subject. Some readers might be experiencing difficult life situations while they were reading your book and some of that negativity gets transferred to their reviewing. Bottom line: reviews are subjective, even when they intend to be objective.
  3. Your words will reach at least some of the people who need to read them, and they will bless you for it, whether or not you ever know it.

What do you do when you get the review blues?

How to write REAL dialogue? Listen up!

listenI have a secret weapon when it comes to developing authentic, convincingly real dialogue in my novels: my ear.

That’s not to say that I am an eavesdropper. I do not lurk around others at cocktail parties (Cocktail parties? Do those even exist anymore in our online-saturated world?), nor do I silently sidle up to people talking on their cell phones. The fact is, when I am involved in a conversation, I try to listen very consciously and pay attention to how ideas are expressed, how a dialogue moves from beginning to end, and what it actually sounds like.

And when I hear a particularly memorable line, I steal it.

The result?

My characters say the same things that living, breathing, people actually say.

I know this is one of the keys to my success in creating characters because I always have readers enthuse to me about how “real” my characters are.

“I swear I know your characters,” a reader tells me. “They talk just like my friends do. If I didn’t know better, I’d think that you’d been secretly recording our conversations!”

Confession: I actually considered carrying around a small recorder early in my writing career to capture great lines of conversation, but decided that was too creepy. Instead, I developed the habit of repeating a line in my head until I had it memorized to copy down later. Almost miraculously, the rest of the conversation comes back to me for use in scene development, and that’s when I apply artistic license and my own imagination to craft it into my plot.

Until recently, I thought that was the way every writer developed dialogue: relying on your own ear. But then my daughter shared with me an experience she’d just had with readers of her fan fiction.

“I had so many readers comment on how much they loved this one line from a character,” she happily told me, “and it was verbatim what a friend said to me when he tasted some brownies I made. Seriously, all the best lines come straight from someone’s mouth! Forget struggling to come up with zingers – all you have to do is listen to the people around you.”

That simply confirms what I tell my audiences when I speak about my writing. I can’t take credit for some of the best dialogue in my books, because I didn’t make it up. I just recorded what I heard someone else say. In so many cases, the real world provides much better, more authentic material than I could ever dream up. Not only that, but listening carefully to conversation helps you develop pacing and timing that mimics real people, which is a huge benefit when you’re working with fictional characters.

The next time you’re stumped for dialogue, give your keyboard a rest, and instead, go talk to someone and put your ear to work. It really is surprising what people might say, and what you can do with it.

 

 

 

Planning for Pansters: Writing a Novel without an Outline

I envy those writers who outline their whole novel before they even begin chapter one. They sit down at their computer, begin typing and already know what they’re going to type. A little expansion here, a little fleshing out there. There’s no fretting as they try to pick out their story’s path one step at a time.

O boy, do I wish ….

But no, I’m a panster (as in I write by the seat of my pants). I’ve tried outlining, but except for a handful of scenes, I simply cannot tell what needs to happen in a story until I start writing in my characters’ voices. One scene leads to the next.

But as J.R.R. Tolkien famously said, “All those who wander are not lost.” If you’re a panster, trust yourself to discover your novel’s path as you write it. A little wandering is likely to give the story a few surprise twists. There are, however, a few tips that will shine a light on your path though, so you don’t get so far off the track that you have a mess on your hands when you’re done.

Tolkien

Keep your premise firmly in mind as you write each scene. It may take you a hundred pages to truly discover where your story is going, but you should have a strong premise from page one, and each scene should build and deepen that premise in some way. Follow tangents as you wish, as long as you keep this in mind, and you’ll still have a coherent story in the end.

Before you write, choose two or three comparable novels to the one you intend to write as loose guides. That is, select novels you’ve read that have the type of structure and audience you’re aiming for. The goal isn’t to copy other plots, but to give you solid ideas for your story’s structure as you go.

Know what your characters’ goals are and put obstacles in their way. In every scene. Don’t be shy. Stir up the waters and create lots of trouble for your characters. Ultimately, if you write most scenes to make your reader worry, you’ll end up with a story that stays on track.

End each scene with a hook. This may simply mean that you’ve moved your character and his or her goal further apart. But anything that makes your reader want to read on will do (i.e., a mystery that is laid out in the last paragraph). Incidentally, ending on a hook may make it easier for you to know where to start when you come back to the computer as well.

Aim for the finale. Although I don’t outline, I generally have a fairly strong image of the catastrophe at the end, that great battle that makes it seem all is lost, but ultimately brings the character to his or her reward. If you know the finale, you’ll faithfully build to it.

compassIf you follow these guidelines, you don’t need an outline to make sure your story stays on route. But what about coming up with the story itself when you have no outline to refer to?  

Last but not least, leave time for your story to stew. If you’re not following an outline, you must give your muse time to dream up new scenes. For me, that means taking long walks or doing mindless activities (dishes or laundry) alone, while my mind drifts. When I let my unconscious mind free, I usually find images or snatches of dialogue that will take me through the next scene or two.