To The Aspiring Writer
If you stop listening to instruction, my child, you will turn your back on knowledge. Proverbs 19:27 NLT
So you want to be a writer? For many with the dream of being writers, the thought seems to be I can just sit down and start stringing words together. How hard can it be?
After a while, reality sets in. The words don’t string together as easily as we expected. Even after we string several thousand, no one wants to buy what we’ve written.
Recently, I began taking horseback riding lessons. And I quickly learned how little I know about horses.
When it comes to writing, like riding horses, there is a lot to learn before we swing into the desk chair and start tapping the keys.
Some of it can be overwhelming.
The best way is bit-by-bit.
We need to learn, or re-learn, the basics of composition and grammar. The principles of story-telling. How to create characters readers will be interested in. And such esoteric concepts as show-don’t-tell, point of view, the three act structure, outlining versus pantsing, conflict and tension, dialogue.
Like in the cartoons, our brain goes TILT! Springs and nuts and bolts explode out of our heads.
Hang on, dear friend. All this material can be learned. If I can learn it, you can learn it. If you have the heart’s desire and the talent to be an author, you can learn the craft. But you must be willing to make the investment in time and money.
Study books on writing. Attend workshops and conferences. Seek out writers who are better than you for mentoring and coaching. Participate in critique groups. Risk.
And practice, practice, practice. Write every day. Get up early or stay up late. Write on your lunch hour or when the kids are taking a nap. Explain your dream to your family, enlist their support.
Set realistic goals: so many hours or so many words per week. Give yourself a deadline for completing the first draft. When you achieve any goal, reward yourself for it: a movie, chocolate, dinner at a favorite restaurant.
See yourself as, and call yourself, a writer.
And never stop learning.
Are You Being Tossed About by Every Wind?
Then we will no longer be immature like children. We won’t be tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching. We will not be influenced when people try to trick us with lies so clever they sound like the truth. Ephesians 4:14 NLT
In my small group recently, we were discussing critiques. One member had submitted to the same national contest two years in a row. After the first year, she took the judges’ comments to heart and revised her manuscript. The second year, the judges’ were the exact opposite of the first year. It’s amazing sometimes how two people can read our work and give us contradictory advice.
Another of our members is an experienced writer, but new to writing fiction. A critiquer told her the first chapter had too much dialogue. Our member voiced she needed to rewrite the chapter. Turned out the critiquer didn’t write fiction or read very much fiction.
This paraphrase of Ephesians 4:14 came to mind. As writers, we will no longer be immature and insecure. We won’t be tossed and blown about by every wind of critique. We will not be influenced when people try to trick us into writing their way as the only way with rationalizations so clever they sound like rules and doctrine from on high.
We need faith in two things when we write.
One is faith in ourselves, in our writing, in knowing we are answering God’s call to write. Like spiritual faith, our writing faith is developed over time as we study the craft through attending workshops and conferences, through reading books on the craft, and through applying our faith by sitting down and writing. And rewriting. And rewriting.
The other area of faith is in discernment. We need to believe God gives wisdom and insights to judge potential critiquers and critique groups. We need to trust he will create divine appointments with the right mentors and coaches, with those who will teach, encourage, and further our growth as writers. We also need to have faith he will help us examine and weigh the critiques we receive, to separate the wheat from the chaff, to pick out what really helps our story and our craft and to cast aside the rest.
Someone once said the art of writing is putting the seat of the pants in the seat of the chair. And this is true. But before this comes another step: Putting the knees of the writer on the floor before God to ask his direction and plan. If we can’t do the physical act, we can all do the spiritual equivalent of time in meditation and prayer—quiet time with him.
How do you handle negative critiques?
Your Story World
When planning a story there are several decisions a writer must make about things like characters, plot, and theme. Two other equally important decisions are:
1. Where does the story take place? The physical locations where the action will happen.
2. When does the story take place? The when also determines the broad framework of our genre.
Building a believable story world is vital to a successful story. Whether we’re writing science fiction, fantasy, historical, or contemporary, we need to know the story world our characters will live in and interact with.
Creating this story world is a combination of imagination and research. My characters don’t live in a vacuum or in one room with blank walls and no windows. I want the world they operate in to be believable.
If I set my story in Fort Worth, Texas, I need to study the city and the people, its neighborhoods and districts, its various cultures and subcultures, its government agencies and the state and federal agencies as well. My goal is to make the setting as real and alive for my reader as it is for myself. When I set a scene in the Fort Worth Stockyards, I want my reader to experience the sights and sound, the aromas of the food and the air on a hot summer night or cold winter day, the way my characters do.
If our story takes place in the future or past, we need to speculate and research what the setting of our story was back then. What if our story is a fantasy and takes place outside of our known worlds?
What was or will be the technology? What rules of science and nature govern how our world operates? Whatever we decide must make sense to the reader and be as accurate as we can get it. More research.
We make the story world come alive for the reader by showing it through the point of view character. A key here is that each character will have a different view, a different interpretation and different reactions to the story world.
Say our protagonist is married and lives in Fort Worth. He works for a defense contractor and she is a doctor in a large hospital. They live together, share the same house and neighborhood, the same church, the same children. They share the same physical, geographic setting, but their individual story worlds are different. And those of their coworkers, neighbors and family are even more different. Weave these differences in to make your story world more alive.
A great resource for creating a story world is Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Fantasy and Science Fiction. What he says about creating a story world, what to consider, works no matter what genre you write.
What are some of the things you do to bring your story world to life?
The Moral Dilemma
I’m often asked what makes a story great. We all have different definitions of greatness in fiction. But if you peel back the layers of the definitions, I think you’ll find emotion at the core.
Something in the story grabs our heart and keeps us reading. Even in thrillers and suspense, those stories that keep us up all night, turning pages, the author has to grab us. We have to care about the character and about his outcome.
Will he achieve his goal?
At what cost?
How do we make the reader care about this?
We give the hero a moral dilemma, a decision to make. A choice that requires him to give up something in order to achieve something else. Not a compromise. But a hard, black-and-white conflict to resolve.
One of the best ways to do this is to have the hero’s core values come into such strong conflict, the character has to choose between them. Give them no way out.
In my novel, Journey to Riverbend, I place my hero, Michael Archer, in just such a situation. At the beginning of the story, Michael makes a promise to reconcile a son about to be hanged with his estranged father. A prodigal son by proxy.
One of Michael’s core values is to always keep his word.
By building Michael’s character in depth through character interviews and journaling, I introduced his belief that he killed his father and, his life before coming to Jesus was filled with violence. The new Michael vows never to kill again.
At the end of the story, Michael is faced with the situation that to keep his promise to complete the reconciliation, he must kill someone.
In writing to this climatic scene, I planted enough seeds so the reader knows these values are very much at Michael’s core. I included scenes or bits of backstory showing both of these core elements in action.
But I never bring them into open conflict until the final pages. And then, I leave his decision until the last possible moment.
How have you used conflicting values to create a moral dilemma for your hero?
God has a will, or a plan for each of us. Psalm 139:16 (NLT) tells us, You saw me before I was born. Every day of my life was recorded in your book. Every moment was laid out before a single day had passed.
Each of us is on this earth for a specific reason. We may not know it completely right now. We may be in a season of preparation to enter that calling. But God has a plan for each of us.
Some are called to be pastors and teachers, some doctors, lawyers. Some to be auto mechanics, electricians, and plumbers.
Some, like myself, are called to be writers.
In Jeremiah 29:11 (NLT), God tells us “For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.”
Whatever our calling, God will not just throw us into it, like throwing a toddler into the pool so it has to learn to swim. He prepares us.
What makes the preparation fun, and at times frustrating, is that it’s uniquely different for each of us. One person may go through an entirely different set of life experiences than me, yet end up as a writer. I think this is another example of how God cares for us as individuals. He has a unique and personal relationship with each of us. We are all His favorite child.
And he equips us.
Hebrews 13:21 (NLT) may he equip you with all you need for doing his will. May he produce in you, through the power of Jesus Christ, every good thing that is pleasing to him. All glory to him forever and ever! Amen.
From childhood, I’ve had a love for words and books, for reading, for stories. In my career, each job has called for me to read more, to read better, and to write: case records, personnel reports, court documents, training curriculum, and policy and procedure.
Then the glimmer of writing fiction stirred in my heart. And the equipping continued. Books on writing, writing conferences and classes, critique groups, critique partners, mentors, coaches, developing a learning heart and a thick skin. All designed to teach me the craft and the business of writing, to humble myself before Him, to submit to His plan and will for my life.
And it’s been worth every step. It goes beyond being published. I’ve become a better person and a better Christian. My relationship with Him is closer than ever. He’s rewarded me with insights into myself and with precious friendships I would never have experienced had I not made the choice to follow what He called me to do.
What is He calling you to do? How is He equipping you?
Say It with Feeling
Because above all else, readers pick up a book to have an emotional experience. They read to connect with characters who provide entertainment and whose trials may add meaning to their own life journeys.~Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi, The Emotion Thesaurus
Surveys have discovered that people read for three basic reasons: to be entertained, to be educated, and to escape.
As writers, we’re competing with other forms of entertainment—television, movies, video games, family time and so forth. Generally, reading requires more work than some of these. The reader must actively choose to do it and isolate himself from the more passive, undemanding forms of leisure.
Can a novel educate? Certainly. But not always in the classical way we think of education. Through a novel, the reader can gain insight into themselves through the characters.
I think we can all relate to reading to escape. At times, it’s into the lives of the characters who seem more exciting or more in control. Or maybe even less in control, and we feel a little better about ourselves. Sometimes, we look to escape into the future where our present day problems are things of the past. Or, we look to the past, to simpler times.
The common factor in all these reasons is emotion. We give our characters emotion in how they react to the plot, to the setting, to the other characters, to the dilemma they face in the story. The reader connects on this emotional level. This connection allows the reader to experience all three reasons for reading: entertainment, education, and escape.
As Robert Frost said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”
Without emotion, our stories are just sentences on a page.
As a writer, what are some ways you bring emotion alive for your readers?
As a reader, how does emotion draw you into the story?
Write to the Call
Sometimes, I’ll read a blog and it will hit me in an unusual way. It will make me think about who I am as a writer. It will challenge me to examine myself and why I do what I do. There are some that I revisit and ponder again. And some that finally stir me to put my own thoughts on paper—or computer screen.
Karen Ball of the Steve Laube agency posted such a blog a few months back. It was entitled Embrace Abandon. http://stevelaube.com/?s=embrace+abandon
How often do we let what other people say affect our writing? Things like: write what sells, that’s what agents and publishers are looking for; or, you don’t have what it takes to write romance (or whatever genre we like); or, there’s no market for your kind of book; or, the market is saturated with it.
God has called me to write. Sometimes what I write doesn’t fit the market. And I’ve tried to rewrite or formulate ideas that “fit” the market. And found myself frustrated.
A breakthrough for me came when a prospective agent told me she couldn’t sell one of my novels because my protagonist wasn’t female. I looked at rewriting it with a female lead. And couldn’t.
God waited patiently as I stubbornly beat my head against the wall (computer screen, actually) trying “fix” the story. Eventually, I sensed his gentle tap on my shoulder. “That’s not the story I told you write,” he said in his still, small voice.
His words freed me to write what he planted in my heart, in my spirit. And I could write with passion again, with everything that was in me.
And he reminded me of something else he told me. “I called you to write,” he said. “I’ll take care of the publishing. You take care of the writing.”
As Karen Ball said in her blog, “Don’t write to the market. Write to the call.”
And do it with passion.
How to Write Right
This question seems to have been around since God carved the commandments in stone. I’m sure some Israelites argued about why he wrote in second person with the implied “you” at the beginning of each one.
I know I’ve searched for the right way to write since I began this journey almost twelve years ago. And I’ve discussed it with writing partners and critique groups along the way.
One thing I’ve learned: There is no one way to write right. There are numerous ways to write better but writing right is an individual choice dictated by personality and temperament. And right writing is also dictated by the story.
Some questions naturally flow from wanting to know what is the right way to write.
What genre should I write in?
Should I write first person or third? How many point of view characters should I have?
Should I write present tense or past tense? If I’m writing science fiction, should it be in future tense?
Should I outline or write organically?
Should I write fiction or non-fiction?
There’s a trend in these questions. And the answer: it depends.
It depends on the story we want to tell. We have to make decisions about the best way to tell it. Some ways may work better than others but that depends on what the story is about, how controversial it might be.
Sometimes, fiction is a better way to explore tough subjects. We have more freedom in using our characters rather than real people to explore topics that might be a difficult read in non-fiction.
So be careful about jumping on the latest bandwagon or writing fad. Our story may not fit, like trying to put the proverbial round peg in a square hole. Hello frustration!
Focus on the story that’s burning in our hearts, that’s consuming our thoughts. Write it in the way that is most comfortable. Increase our knowledge of the craft and rewrite it.
It’s our story. Only we can tell it the way it needs to be told. Our obligation is to become the best writer we can.
That’s the way to write right.
Discipline Can Be Painful
One of the scriptures I pray and meditate on every morning is Hebrews 13:21(NLT). May he equip you with all you need?for doing his will. May he produce in you, through the power of Jesus Christ,?every good thing that is pleasing to him.?All glory to him forever and ever! Amen.
He equips me with all I need for doing his will. As a novelist, this means he provides me with ideas for stories, for characters and settings, for plot twists and tweaks, for endings that will resonate with the reader and that will, in some way, bring her closer to God.
But I can’t simply sit at my computer and wait for the screen to fill up with words. He’s not going to dictate through my fingers.
He will equip me. He will give me the tools. My part is pick up those tools and learn to use them.
I have to work. There’s that nasty four-letter word again.
Not only do I have to apply my butt to the seat of the chair, I need to apply my brain to the process of writing, of applying all the craft tools and techniques I’ve learned to write the story he will use to change people’s lives.
It’s a discipline. Writing is a job that requires the same discipline as my non-writing job did.
And He reminds: No discipline is enjoyable while it is happening—it’s painful! But afterward there will be a peaceful harvest of right living for those who are trained in this way. Hebrews 12:11 (NLT)
There are some days when writing is a joy. The words flow and flow. It’s like riding a wave and watching it crest at 3,000 or 4,000 or even more words for a day’s work.
And there are others where it’s a slog, when 500 words feel like they’ve been pulled out by pincers. And lately, I’ve had more of these than the others.
I’m on a commitment to finish my current project by January 1st, 2014. And it’s not a secret either. I’ve told my writing partners and my wife. I’ve made myself accountable to others.
And I’ve sat at my computer everyday and watch the words dribble onto the screen like a dripping faucet. Many days, I have not met my target.
But the calling is there. The commitment is there. The discipline is there. And it’s painful.
The temptation is strong to walk away, go to the movies, to the bookstore, anywhere but to the computer.
Each day, I sit at my writing table and I exercise the discipline He has called me to do.
And the manuscript is coming together. I see the pieces of the story unfolding as the characters lead me on the adventure of this story.
I’m meeting my daily target more frequently. And I’m still committed to the January 1 due date.
And, by His grace and power, it will get done.
Being True with My Characters
How do we avoid making our characters stereotypes?
Begin by making them real people in their own right. Make them unique, not copies of me, not copies of characters I see in movies, television or other books.
Give them different belief systems and values from mine, different outlooks on life, different perspectives, different personality types.
The more different I can make them from me and from each other, the more likely I’ll create the potential for tension and conflict.
Especially, if they are attracted to each other on one level but conflict on another. In my historical novel, Journey to Riverbend, the protagonists, Michael and Rachel were attracted to each other physically and also shared spiritual beliefs.
But Rachel fiercely holds on to her independence. She will be dependent on or beholding to no one, especially a man. She came out of a life of sexual abuse and prostitution and won’t let anyone control her like that again.
Michael struggles on two levels. Because of his background, he doesn’t see himself worthy of someone like Rachel. At the same time, her independence frustrates him because he expects her to be a typical woman of the 1870s—a good Christian and obedient to her husband.
In my current WIP, a speculative novel, the female protagonist, Lia, and the male protagonist, Fallon, share a physical attraction and mutual respect but he can’t accept her devotion to the One and she can’t accept his rejection of the One or his refusal to see religion being important.
As Randy Ingermanson says, I must tell the whole truth about my characters.
Good fiction is truth about people.
To get there, I have to dive deep into my characters.
Randy says it’s my job to become my character, even when he’s wrong. I must understand my character, to see the world through her eyes, not mine.
When people ask what I do, I say I’m a novelist and jokingly add that I get to lie for a living.
In reality, every novelist deals with truth. We simply make up stories to convey that truth.
And that truth is played out through our characters.
When I’m crafting my stories, I need to let my characters have their own ideas about the story world, the plot, the other characters. They need their own views about politics, religion, and other issues. The truth of my story comes out as my characters strive to achieve their story goals, overcome obstacles, and deal with external and internal conflicts. Conflicts that force them to choose between foundational values and in which they face some form of death: physical, professional, emotional or spiritual.