Christian ghostwriter · storytelling · writing tips

Questions Writers Ask, Part 2

Who is my audience?

This is a very important question for all writers to ask, because it can make a big difference in what you write and how you write it. Obviously, you need to approach adult, young adult, and children’s books quite differently, but there are other things to think about as well as you sit down to write.

  • Who do I want to read/buy my book/story? A general audience? Women? Men? Teens? People who follow a specific issue or cause?
  • Are there publication/contest submission guidelines to follow?
  • Am I writing a romance or a love story? Will the story start with a wedding or end with one? Will it be a match made by parental decree or a love match? Will the story end in happily ever after or do I want to leave the reader wondering?
  • How knowledgeable about my topic is my audience likely to be? Do I need to do thorough research for a professional publication, or am I only writing to inform the general public?

These are only some of the questions you might ask yourself, and only you can answer them. How important they are depends on what you plan to do with your story. As I mentioned last week, I did some ghost writing of Amish stories. The only direction I received at the beginning was that they had to take place in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and I had to get the details of the religion right. Before I started, I asked my client specifically who my audience would be, and I was told that my stories would be published in a magazine intended for Old Order Amish people! It took a lot of time-consuming research on my part, but I had to get it right, because my audience would see each and every mistake, and it would reflect badly on the publisher. 

Who should I ask to read my work?

I recommend you find one or two people you really trust to read your work before you attempt to publish it, and those you choose should be among your target audience. (For example, you might ask a man to read a general audience novel, but you’d want to ask a woman to read your love story.) Whatever the audience, you need fresh eyes to read what you write, not only to check for grammatical errors but to also check to make certain your content works for a reader. As writers, we are simply too close to our own work to know for sure whether or not it makes sense to someone else. And it is important that you listen to what people have to say about your work. Don’t take constructive criticism personally. Always remember your first draft is not your final draft, and no one publishes without numerous rewrites, so don’t become too attached to your words. You don’t have to follow anyone’s advice once offered, but you should at least listen and consider it, because any thoughtful critique can only help make your writing better.

New writers, especially, can find it difficult to show their work to others. It’s understandable, of course. No one wants to be criticized when they’ve poured their own heart into the words on the page. But if you’ll look at books published by your favorite authors, many of them will include a note somewhere in the front of the book where they thank those who have helped make their book what it is: friends, family, a writers’ group, beta readers, an editor, an agent, or someone else who read, edited, critiqued or made some other contribution to the final product. As writers, we can be very protective of our words, but we have to remember that a book is not our baby, and any criticism from well-meaning individuals should not be taken personally. The goal is, always, to improve the writing.

Do find at least one reader specifically who knows their grammar and syntax. While I don’t think I’ve ever read a commercially published book in which I didn’t find at least one grammatical error, we do need to make the effort to rid our manuscripts of as many of them as possible. Pay someone to proofread your work, if you must, but get it done. It is especially important if you plan to submit your story to an agent, publisher, or contest.

Publishing company staff flying toward an open book and working in it.
Christian Editing Services

Christian Editing Services is one such professional company offering everything from coaching, editing, and proofreading to page formatting and cover design. All these types of services are crucial for all writers at all levels because we all need help getting our books out there.

“But isn’t that what publishers do?” you may ask. Unfortunately, not anymore, unless you’re already a best-selling author or a very famous person, who’s written a book. For the rest of us mortals, we need to depend on a variety of professionals to get our work ready for either submission or self-publishing.

Next week, in Questions writers ask, Part 3, we’ll look at the world of agents, publishers, and self-publishing.


Please visit our websites: Christian Editing Services and Find Christian Links

 

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Christian ghostwriter · storytelling · writing tips

Questions Writers Ask, Part 1

Writers, especially new writers, have a few common questions, which are actually questions all writers probably should ask from time to time. I don’t have all the answers, and if you decide to attend writers’ conferences, you will probably get different answers from every “expert” you ask, but for what it’s worth, here’s my take on things.

Must I write only what I know?

We’ve all heard from various writing instructors that you should write only what you know, but if that’s all anyone ever wrote about, then there would be nothing in our libraries but autobiographies. What this question always ignores is the other, to my mind more important, half of the question: How do I know what I know?

The thing is, “write what you know” should never mean “write only what you know at the time you sit down to write.” As a former librarian, with over a quarter-century of research under my belt, I can tell you that you can write about literally anything, if you do the research first.

That being said, when you write fiction, it certainly helps if you stick to places or activities or animals or lifestyles with which you are personally familiar. That doesn’t mean you can’t set your story someplace new to you, but if you do, you’re going to have to do a whole lot of research to make sure you get the details right, because if you don’t, some reader is going to point out to you that your character was driving the wrong way down a one-way street!

In my novel Words To Love By, Kate is the director of a small town public library, and Michael teaches at a small liberal arts college. As I mentioned, I was a librarian, and while I didn’t work at a small public library, I did intern at one, so I had a pretty good idea of how things worked there. I did work at a small Christian liberal arts college for a time, so I know that environment pretty well, too. And when I had a young professor who was engaged to a football coach come into the story, I had her volunteering on the chain gang for home football games—which I actually did for my five years at my last college and loved every minute of it.

If I had not been a librarian, I would have given Kate another profession, because placing her in my old job, meant I could describe her daily activities very easily. My own experience made it possible to create a realistic setting and day-to-day action much more easily than it would have had I not lived it myself.

My own experience is also why my Christian characters end up either Anglo-Catholic or Roman Catholic. I have been an Anglican all my life, so I know the continuing church better than any other—I understand a priest’s relationship with his vestry, with his wardens, with his bishop, and I’ve spent enough time in a church office to know how the day-to-day operations work. I have attended other churches over the years but not long enough to learn the day-to-day operations.

So, it just makes sense to use what you know when you write contemporary stories. I have, however, ghost-written a number of Amish and Oregon Trail stories, both of which required a great deal of research, but they turned out just fine, because I did the thorough research before and during the writing process.

Christian ghostwriter · storytelling · writing tips

Where to Begin?

So you’re ready to write a story that will make your point, one that will help your readers to get whatever it is you’re trying to say. Now what?

There are probably as many answers to this question as there are writers—maybe even more, because some writers, like me, write different stories from different starting points. Should your story start with the characters? The setting? The plot? Or from something else altogether? Anything—and I mean anything—can trigger a story in a writer, so don’t be afraid to respond to something that inspires you.

I have at times awakened in the morning with the entire cast, setting, and plot in my mind (as I did for my novel, A Chance for Life), and I have spoken to other writers who, like me, tend to dream quite vividly and wake up with story after story just waiting to be written. (This is a good reason to keep a notepad and pen on your night table!) At any given time, I might have the cast of three or four different novels or stories running around in my head, all trying to get my attention. Sometimes it is just a character, waiting for me to find the right setting, the right plot, in which he/she will find a home. Sometimes I see something on the news to which I simply have to respond with a story.

The truth is, as a writer, I can find ideas and inspiration anywhere—and so can you. You simply need to open your imagination to the possibilities. Some of my own examples include:

  • My sci-fi short story, “Memorandum,” was inspired by the Walt Disney film, The Three Lives of Thomasina (from 1963).
  • My so-far unfinished novel, Unconditional Love, was inspired by the image of a starving dog on one of Animal Planet’s Animal Cops
  • My novella, Voices in the Night, was inspired by a scene in a seriously strange dream I had one night.
  • My novel, The Stars of Home, was inspired by a Star Trek novel I read years ago.

So if you want to write a story, and need ideas or inspiration, just look around you. Images, in particular, can provide a good jumping-off point. Flip through a magazine and find a photograph that strikes you. Ignore the caption, and make up one of your own. The starving dog in that Animal Cops episode I saw that night didn’t survive in real life, so I started to write a novel in which the dog not only survives, but she helps the emotionally troubled main character who rescues her to heal and find love.

If you’re serious about writing, do try to write at least a little every day, even if it’s only a new caption for a picture you have sitting on your desk. You might try some fan fiction—pick a favorite TV show or movie and write a scene with a new character. No, you’ll never be able to publish it, since the rights belong to the show, but it is good practice and can be fun. (I actually submitted a Star Trek: The Next Generation script once, which was a terrific waste of time, business-wise, but it was sure fun to play in the ST universe for awhile!)

Some say start with short stories and work your way up to longer pieces, but since my first fiction was a three-act play and my second was a full-length novel, that doesn’t really work for me. It was years later before I started writing short stuff for quick ghostwriting jobs.

Whatever you do, if you want to write, just start writing, and see where it takes you. Don’t expect a best-seller right out of the gate, but do keep practicing your craft. Don’t be afraid of exploring any tiny creative nugget of an idea. Let go, and let your imagination take you wherever it wants to go.  Writing can be as much of an adventure as a cross-country trip—and can take your imagination a lot farther than your car in both space and time.

Christian ghostwriter · storytelling · writing tips

How to Make Your Point, Part 2

Actions Do Speak Louder than Words

This is an obvious statement, but it is no less true in fiction than it is in real life. You shouldn’t want your characters to preach any more than your narrator. We get plenty of the do-as-I-say-and-not-as-I-do-crowd in real life. Why would we expect readers to want to deal with that kind of hypocrisy in a book? If you have created a character who believes strongly in something, then let them act on it even before they talk about it. A character who speaks out about animal cruelty in a story should definitely have pet of some kind. Let your character who is pro-life or adamantly against child abuse volunteer at a place that provides pregnancy support services or as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA). Christian characters should behave in a Christian manner toward their neighbors—and if they have to work really hard to be nice to a nasty old man who lives next door, so much the better, because your readers will be able to relate to such a challenging but probable scenario.

Of course, if you have an antagonist who is thwarting your protagonist at every turn, let him be the hypocrite, by all means. It will give your readers even more reason to support your protagonist. It will also provide a nice contrast to your protagonist, who is practicing what she preaches.

 Present Both Sides for Realism

If you really want to make a point, be certain there is an antagonist and that he is as reasonable-sounding as possible. After all, not all of your readers will be on the same side of your issue as you are, and your point will be that much more effective, if your antagonist appears just as reasonable as your protagonist—even though he is wrong, of course. And the more emotionally-charged the issue you’re confronting, the more important it is to have your protagonist behaving and speaking in a logical, well-informed, rational way. But be sure and do her research for her, so she gets the facts right when the confrontation with her antagonist occurs!

The good news is that in fiction, you control the scene and how all your characters respond to what’s happening. You can have a violent confrontation or a quiet, one-on-one meeting or any combination thereof. It’s completely up to you! That’s the beauty of being the writer! Just remember: Let your protagonist do all the talking. Let her words and actions make your point for you.

Christian ghostwriter · storytelling · writing tips

How to Make Your Point, Part 1

So, you have something important to say, but you don’t want to get on a soap box to say it. That’s where storytelling comes in. Aesop didn’t write about the importance of being kind to those smaller and weaker than ourselves, because some day we might need their help. He let a lion spare a mouse, then let the mouse repay him for his kindness in a most unmouse-like way. And though children may not remember a story about a bully on the playground, they’ll remember that mouse, chewing away at the ropes that bound the lion, for a very long time.

Let Your Characters Do the Talking

The really important thing to remember is to let your characters do the talking. The point you’re trying to make will sound preachy if the narrator is the one to bring it up, but if you’ve developed your characters into interesting people who are the type of people who would say such a thing, and you give them the right setting and opportunity in which to say it, it will seem natural for them to say it within the context of your story.

This is why you have to create strong, well-developed characters. Cardboard, stereotypical caricatures cannot say what you want them to say with any impact. Your readers must get to know the complete, complex person in your story, understand her so well, that when she finally says what you want to say, the reader will think, “Oh. Of course. She couldn’t have responded in any other way.”

Give your characters time to develop, before you have them take a stand—or let that stand be a part of the character you’re developing. Give your readers a chance to both get to know them and to like them. And whatever you do, don’t let what they’re saying be out of character for them, for if you do, the illusion of your fictional character will shatter.

It was Aristotle who, back in c. 350 BC, wrote, “A likely impossibility is always preferable to an unconvincing possibility. The story should never be made up of improbable incidents” (Aristotle, Poetics). And isn’t that the key? Fiction should be made up of believable characters behaving and speaking within a story that is made up of probable incidents. As storytellers, we depend on our audience’s ability to willingly suspend disbelief in order to buy into our stories. Once that happens, our characters can speak for us wholeheartedly, and no one will realize the voice is ours.

 

Christian ghostwriter · storytelling · writing tips

What Makes a Good Story: Part 3

Meaningful (Extraordinary) Plot Elements

If you want readers to pick up your story, you need something special to make it stand out from all those other stories out there. That something might be found in your characters or your setting, but if you want them to read all the way to the end, you need something extraordinary in the plot to keep your readers turning the page, because however well-developed your characters are, however exotic your setting, without an eye-catching, special something in the plot to keep the pages turning, readers won’t finish the story.

Whether you’re writing an epic like Homer or a short story like Aesop, you still need all the pieces. And whether your final copy is long or short, if something’s missing, a reader won’t last until “The End.” So what does a writer do?

The plot is most closely connected to the “why?” and “how?” of a story, so this is where things get interesting. For example, a man walking into a convenience store isn’t very interesting. A man walking into a convenience store to buy the cigarettes he promised his wife he’d quit smoking adds to the tension. A man walking into a convenience store to buy the cigarettes he promised his wife he’d quite smoking only to confront an armed robber who shoots him in the head? Now that is an extraordinary scenario with so many possibilities there’s not a reader in America who’s going to want to put it down. (This plot is from the motion picture, Regarding Henry, Paramount Pictures, 1991. J. J. Abrams, Screenwriter.)

The story of the Good Samaritan was so effective because it was so unexpected that it would be a detested Samaritan who actually stopped to help the injured Jew. The Lion and the Mouse is so riveting, because it’s a tiny little mouse that rescues the great big fierce lion in the end. C. S. Lewis had his school children find adventure inside what appeared to be an ordinary wardrobe, through which they walked into the magical world of Narnia. And the thought of a Cinderella continues to charm audiences, because, really, don’t we all wish for a fairy godmother at times?

Even if your stories are set in the here and now, they need that spark, that touch of the extraordinary to get your readers’ attention. You wrote a scary, crusty elderly woman into your story? Somewhere along the line, let one of her irritated neighbors accidentally get a glimpse of the number tattooed on her arm. You’ve created the quintessential mean junior high school teacher? Let your readers see how shy he actually is when he unbends enough to help a shy student fit in. The tough street kid who gets caught returning a book he “borrowed” from the mall book store. An uppity, controlling socialite? What if she is actually an emotionally abused wife at home? Much like the ancient Greek writers, we have our contemporary stereotypical characters—the crusty old neighbor, the mean teacher, the street tough, the upper class snob—but to leave them as stereotypes is to miss a great opportunity to add something truly interesting to your story line which gives your readers a reason to keep turning the page in order to answer the question, “What happens next?”

So, what extraordinary things will your characters do—or have done to them—to keep your readers turning the page? What twist of the ordinary, what special spark, will light up your next story?

 

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What Makes a Good Story: Part 2

Believable (not necessarily realistic) settings

As a one-time technical theatre major, I probably have a heightened sense of setting, but it is important to make your settings believable, whether you set your story in a contemporary city, a farm that’s nowhere in particular, or a star kingdom far, far away. So how do we as writers do that?

Two things to keep in mind: Wherever or whenever your story is set, (1) the place and time have to make sense to the reader; and (2) everything must remain consistent.

Even the most far-fetched science fiction setting has to make sense to the reader. David Weber’s Honor Harrington series (Honor Harington: On Basilisk Station, Baen Publishing, 1993) is a great example of what it takes to get it right—and in a big way. The stories take place 1,800 years afterthe Diaspora of the human race into space. There are two main political entities: The Kingdom of Manticore and the Peoples Republic of Haven. These books take place light years from old Earth, but they make sense in every way to today’s reader, first because the two opposing political entities so closely match the free British Empire (Manticore) and communist USSR and China (Haven) that readers recognize the language, emotions, and behaviors connected to these two great cultures, and second, because Weber has created realistic interstellar space flight, with all the technical details and jargon needed to make it seem as though it could actually work.

Even stories set in the here and now, however, need these same rules. Whether your town or city is real or not, it has to make sense. Mary Beth Magee has written a series of stories that take place in the small fictional town of Cypress Point, Mississippi (BOTR Press, LLC. http://www.LOL4.net). Her town is as fictitious as the characters in her stories, but it is so much like a real southern Mississippi town, the reader is tempted to look at a highway map to see where it is.

However extreme your settings, you need to remain consistent. Nora Roberts’ book Northern Lights (Jove Books, 2004) is set in the fictitious village of Lunacy, Alaska. It is the story of a cop from Baltimore who is hired by the town as their new chief of police. What makes this story so effective is the setting, and it works, because Roberts is consistent in her storytelling. Nate arrives north of the Arctic Circle just after Christmas, and it is cold. Seriously cold. And it is dark, almost all the time. I’ve never been that far north, myself, but I know what it’s like, now, because I’ve read Northern Lights. Believe me, no one in the story ever forgets to put on their layers of outer wear before walking outside or forgets to plug in the heater on their car engine when it’s left for any length of time. Roberts’ consistency makes it completely real to the reader.

Fantasy has its own challenges in terms of setting, and like science fiction, it requires special attention to detail. Magic only works for readers if the rules stay the same throughout the story. Elves are not dwarfs and dwarfs are not gnomes, and they will all behave in certain ways. How, you ask? It depends upon you, the storyteller, of course! But you need to set up your rules about your various creatures—their physical, emotional, and magical strengths and weaknesses—early on, and be sure to stick with those rules as you write, or your readers will, at the very least, be left confused and, at the worst, put down your book without finishing it.

One tool many writers use to keep their story setting straight is a map, and though whether or not you decide to print your map for your readers is up to you, it is still an extremely useful tool for you as you write. J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Anne McCaffrey, and Elizabeth Moon—to name just a few—all provide maps for their readers, which help both the author and the reader clearly picture what’s going on where—and keeps characters from turning in a different direction every time they head to the same place.