Sunday, May 27, 2012

How Writing the First Draft of a Novel is Like the Trimesters of Pregnancy

We writers tend to view our work-in-progress as our baby.

Baby Cup
 photo credit: Andrew Mason {Flickr Creative Commons}

Perhaps it's because our stories are precious to us, or perhaps it's simply because writing the first draft of a novel is indeed like the trimesters of pregnancy--exhausting work that takes time. As I anticipate the arrival of baby number three, I'm beginning to appreciate the time it takes to write a {good} novel. I'm seeing the process with a fresh perspective. Everything beautiful takes time {a luxury I have in this season of my writing life). I cannot rush the process, just as I cannot will my baby to grow his heart, lungs, eyes, and ears in one day. I need to experience the three trimesters in order to see my story to fruition.

Trimester One: A Tiny Seed

Trimester one is all about a story idea and the exhausting work that follows. It's the seed that's planted in my head during a morning walk--the one that speaks louder than all the others, and it's the one I pursue. 

The first few weeks are filled with elation. I love the characters, the setting, the growing plot, and I envision a beautiful ending. However, soon I realize the amount of research and work needed to accomplish my goal. It's tiring work, and some days, I'm crawling. But overall, the work is exhilarating. I'm writing a novel!

During these months, my story develops it's vital organs--an roughly sketched plot, characters, setting, and a moral premise.

Trimester Two: A Growing Story 

Trimester two is all about growth. It's during these months my story begins to develop and change as I type out my daily word count goal.  My characters take on new shapes and forms. I discover more about them, and they speak to me now. I'm feeling their movements, hearing their heartbeat, and witnessing them hijack my pages. My manuscript looks much different from when I started.

Soon my plot takes on a different twist than I expected {it's a boy, not a girl}, and I'm taking the turn. However, my manuscript is now far from neat and tidy. In fact, it looks much different from when I started, and now that it has changed direction, there's more work to do.  

Overall, during this time, I'm feeling great. The story has some major holes, but it's moving forward, and I'm getting closer to finishing the first draft.

Trimester Three: The Birth of a Novel

Trimester three is the completion of the first draft. These months are grueling, and those last few thousand words seem impossible. Nothing fits right. Questions fill my mind. What was this story about again? And why is it taking so long to finish? Why did I think this was a good idea?

Since it's my first draft, I press forward, following all the twists and turns, listening to the characters, pounding keys in the moonlight. And soon it's the moment I've dreamed about.  I type a writer's two most glorious words in the English language--the end. Though the labor is difficult, I give birth to a novel, and it's exquisite. It's my baby, after all. 

And now the real {editing} work begins. 

Do you refer to your work as your baby? Can you relate to any of these trimesters?

Melanie N. Brasher is a full time mama of two boys and wife to an incredible husband who understands her bicultural background. She moonlights as a fiction and freelance writer, crafting stories and articles toward justice and change. She's a member of American Christian Fiction writers and a contributing blogger for Ungrind. Though she's an aspiring author, she'll never quit her day job.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Interview with Cynthia Simmons, Author of Struggles and Triumphs

This month, I'm honored to interview fellow ACFW member Cynthia L Simmons, author of Struggles and Triumphs (2008). She also is active in the Christian Authors Guild (CAG), in which she conducts writing workshops and has served as president, vice president, and conference director. She received a nomination for 2008 Georgia Author of the Year and has contributions published in CAG publications, NATHHAN NEWS, Chattanooga Regional Historical Magazine, Georgia Right to Life Newsletter, Chattanooga Times Free Press (my wife's favorite newspaper), Catholic Exchange, and Christian along with interviews on radio and TV across the nation. As if that wasn't enough, she also conducts monthly podcasts called CAG Spotlight in which she interviews authors and VIPs in the writing industry. She recently completed a twelve week Bible study using the stories in Struggles and Triumphs.

 JR: Welcome, Cynthia. Hope you have a blessed day. Your bio says, while you live in Atlanta,  you're originally from Chattanooga. As a person who visits that area once or twice a year, what would you say is a must-see in that area?

CS: Point Park and Chickamauga Battlefield is a must for Civil War buffs. The Chattanooga Aquarium is awesome too. Be sure and visit the English Rose Tea Room on Market Street. They have authentic British tea and scones.

JR: You've written Struggles and Triumphs, a collection of stories of historical women. I think it's been labeled as historical fiction. What is the line between writing history and fiction, especially involving real people?

CS: It’s much harder to research ladies from the past. Most stayed in the shadows supporting their husbands rather than taking center stage. Some women, like Katie Luther, left behind little material. My stories reflect a pretty accurate picture of each lady. I imagine the details and step inside their minds, to reveal what I’d be thinking in that situation.

JR: What was it like doing research for the book? Was it done more on-line, or did you do any traveling to the settings for the stories?

CS: I did a lot of internet research, but I didn’t stop there. My goal was to find material written by each lady so I can hear her voice. In several cases, I also visited the setting. In writing about Katie Luther, I visited Wittenberg, Germany and saw where she and her husband lived. I also had the privilege of attending the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London where C.H. Spurgeon preached. It’s incredible to visit in person. I always gain valuable information.

JR: You've now released a study guide for Struggles and Triumphs. What was that like? How did you prepare for that? (Maybe I ought to write a study guide for my murder mystery set at an apologetics conference.)

CS: For starters, my husband and I co-lead a Sunday school class, so I’m very comfortable teaching Scripture. The stories in the book present numerous issues I felt I needed to address. So writing the study guide completed the project for me. Plus, people told me they wanted to know more about the women, so the study guide gave me a chance to fill out the history a bit more.

JR: You have homeschooled your children, including one with special needs. How has that experience impacted your writing?

CS: I’m a lover of words, and I had the privilege of teaching all five of my children to read. My youngest presented the biggest challenge. He’s a clever fellow with an array of disabilities. In order to address his needs, I had to research and take classes in special education. On several occasions his special needs presented some pretty tough problems. The Lord used stories from history to encourage me and keep me going. I chose to write so I could share that encouragement with others.

JR: You have the privilege of speaking as well as writing. Your webpage mentions topics aimed for women and those for writers. One of the former subjects, "Trusting God In The Hard Times" seems appropriate for authors as well. What advice would you give to authors who are currently struggling? 

CS: I have several books that I’m very grateful for. One of them is A Grief Observed, by C.S. Lewis. Right after he lost his wife, he put his thoughts on paper and later published anonymously. (After his death, the publisher listed Lewis as author.) That book blessed many people and continues to be used. I also have a set of books by Susannah Spurgeon. As he instructed, she took material her husband wrote and compiled a biography of his life. She includes diaries, letters, and firsthand accounts. What a treasure! Peeking inside his life to see his struggles and choices gives such encouragement. Yes, writing is quite hard, but you never know who might benefit from your words. Someday in heaven you may meet someone who thanks you. Maybe your work will help a believer facing blinding grief or give another person the information he needs to fully trust God. We can’t measure our impact here and now. That will come in eternity. Keep writing!

JR: I forgot who said, "Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it." From your studies, is there anything you've learned from church history that we need to learn today?

CS: A multitude of Christian writers use fiction to tell the truth, and I like that too. I also enjoy telling real stories. It thrills me to find a beautiful story of faith where God guided a believer though tough times. History confirms the truths of Scripture, and it also demonstrates how God ministers through his church. Over and over he raises up a leader who calls the church back to himself. The stories are there, waiting to be unearthed and told. I love doing it.

JR: Before I let you go, what are you currently working on as far as writing?
CS: I’m working on a novel based in Chattanooga during the Civil War. My story surrounds a family owned bank. Someone is counterfeiting money, and the owners fear it could cause the bank to fail.

JR: Thank you very much for your time, and may the Lord Jesus Christ richly bless you.

CS: Thanks for hosting me. 

Below are links to her webpage and to a video interview of hers. 

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Much Ado About Nothing

Are you wagging your finger at me and saying, "Shakespeare used that title, so you can't"? If so, you are wrong.

For two reasons.

First, I'm not sure they had copyrights in Shakespeare's day. Even if they did, his copyright would have expired by now.

Second, you can't copyright titles, names, short phrases, and slogans. You can trademark them, but that's a different post.

The reason is simple. The fewer words you use, the greater the chances that people have used the exact same word or word combination in the past. Copyright only protects that which is original.

Names are a good example.

When Bernard Clare discovered that his name was the title of a book, he sued.* The author had never heard of him, so Clare lost. Mark Twain used the name "Eschol Sellers" in the first printing of The Gilded Age, and an Eschol Sellers who Twain knew nothing about appeared and threatened to file a lawsuit.** Because Twain had bad luck with lawyers, he changed the name for subsequent printings rather than risk a court battle that he should have won.

While these two situations involved defamation rather than copyright infringement, they show how hard it is to find a unique name. The same is true of titles, short phrases, and slogans. This is why copyright does not protect them.

So if someone complains that you have "stolen" the title of his book, just tell him that he is making much ado about nothing.

Kathryn Page Camp

* Clare v. Ferrell, 70 F.Supp. 276 (D.Minn. 1947).

** Twain, Mark, Autobiography of Mark Twain, ed. Harriet Elinor Smith, Vol. 1 (Berkley: University of California Press, 2010), 207.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Juggling Life

Photo credit: stock.xchng
The definition of juggling reads "to keep several objects in continuous motion; to hold, catch carry, or balance precariously; almost drop and then hold on again".

Many days in my life feel just like that definition--a precarious balancing act trying to keep the spheres of home, work, and ministry all in the air, spinning continuously. I have a feeling you're like that too.

One day this week I felt pretty spectacular about everything I'd accomplished. Until I heard about a man who just completed a triathlon. In under two hours. Juggling.

He juggled while swimming on his back for a quarter mile, biking 16.2 miles (he juggled one handed!), and running four miles. I'm sure I could do that. Well, maybe not the juggling part. Or the triathlon part either.

As a teacher, mother, farmer's wife, and volunteer youth sponsor, summer brings the end of lots of things that keep me juggling: school, sports practices and games, piano lessons, planting season, weekly youth meetings. It also brings a new kind of busy: professional development,  play dates, sleepovers, bonfires, art classes, cooking classes, camping trips, camp, youth trips, re-planting and fieldwork, graduations, and weddings.

I'm hoping in the midst of all this summer busyness that I'll find some quiet moments to read and to write. But I know it won't happen unless I'm intentional about scheduling it in or looking for opportunities. I think I will set a reading goal and a writing goal for myself.

So, I'm curious about you? Do you have a summer reading goal or a writing goal? What do you do to keep yourself motivated to write when the long days and the great outdoors call to you? What books will you be reading by the pool or at the lake?

And while we're talking goals, anyone competing in a triathlon this summer or learning to juggle?

Nikki Studebaker Barcus

Monday, May 14, 2012

What I've Learned As A Writing Contest Judge

Sometimes it’s hard to fathom that I was sought out this year to be a judge in a writing contest. It was a case where I received a personal invitation by e-mail (as opposed to when I volunteered in the past). I was flattered and accepted with deep gratitude. The way I look at it, judging a contest is an honor and privilege. In some ways, I don’t like the term “judge” and it’s not something I take lightly. While we were told we only needed to make one or two sentence comments in each of the categories, I took my time and wrote what needed to be said, trying to balance the good with the perhaps not-so-good. I’ve been on both sides of the contest circuit now, and I know the blessings and the pitfalls. You may have personally experienced what I did the one year I entered the same story in three contests: it finaled in one contest, in another, it earned 100% from one judge, a middling score and a third lukewarm score. In another contest, it didn’t make it to the second round of judging because one judge scored it very low with comments such as, “I needed to know more about what the conference room looked like.” That one made me rant a bit since the conference room description really had nothing whatsoever to do with moving the story forward. So, I’ve been on the receiving end and know what it’s like to receive scores and can certainly empathize. On the flip side are reviews when you’re a published writer, sometimes from not-so-understanding or sympathetic “judges."

Below are my overall impressions as a writing contest judge:

1      The level of talent is outstanding. I was encouraged and uplifted by the level of talent. With some of the entries, the spiritual influence or emphasis was quite pronounced, and in others, it was not in evidence at all. But that’s indicative of the widespread spectrum of Christian fiction these days—something for everyone, and that’s a very good thing. Just as we’re all at different points in our own spiritual walk, so are our readers.
2      The difference is in the mechanics as well as the details. Out of the six entries I judged, about half were near publication level. With a little polishing, others were close. As is usually the case, there was one entry that stood out among the rest. Here are some of the primary things that made this one so good:
A.    The first sentence hooked me. I heard Liz Curtis Higgs speak once and she said if the first sentence (or paragraph at most) doesn’t hook her, she moves on.
B.     The story flowed with no awkward sentences.
C.    No typos or grammatical errors. Proof, edit, proof, edit. Then do it again.
D.    The use of strong, active verbs and varying sentence structure.
E.     Descriptive, almost lyrical passages. This can be difficult for some authors (me included), but work on it and read it out loud (one of the best suggestions I ever heard and I employ this one all the time).
F.     Good use of alternating dialog and narrative. Keeps it from being boring, and imparts just enough backstory to fill in the holes or blanks.
G.    I identified with the main character and felt her anxiety of what was about to happen in her world. If the reader can’t identify, he or she won’t care and you’ll possibly lose them.
H.    Well-drawn secondary characters. Don’t treat them like second best. Make them interesting but not to the point of overshadowing your main characters. If you’re writing a series (like me), these secondary characters will take a turn in the spotlight and given their time to shine.
I.       A touch of humor interspersed with the drama. Making the reader smile is always a good thing and lightens the tension and the drama.

3      Every story has value. The writer has spent a lot of time and effort, prayers and maybe even a few tears, on his or her story. It’s the product of their imagination, the Lord’s guidance and perhaps input from critique partners. It’s my responsibility as someone evaluating the story to make comments and try to see what the author was trying to accomplish. What is the purpose? What is the spiritual takeaway from it?

As a published writer, I personally do not enter contests. Why? (1) My books don’t follow the tried-and-true formula for contemporary romance; (2) Contests take up precious time I’d rather devote to actual writing; (3) Contests cost quite a bit of money in terms of donated books and entry fees; and (4) I’m more focused on writing to plant seeds and maybe win souls, not awards. Sure, if I’d enter and actually win something, I’d be thrilled, but—at this point in my career, it’s not my goal. I’ve seen authors with pages upon pages on their websites of awards earned, and deservedly so, but I have to wonder at what cost? I work a full-time job and simply don’t have enough writing time. What time I do have is spent indulging in that passion. The reward is receiving an e-mail or message from a reader telling me how much one of my characters, or one of my books has touched, impacted or even changed her life in some way. That’s heady stuff, but it’s not praise for me, it’s a gift. The Lord is the only "judge" I need, and I want to always write stories that make people think and impart a message of His hope and overwhelming love. I give all the “credit” to the Lord from whom all good and perfect things come indeed.

Blessings, my friends. Matthew 5:16

Sunday, May 13, 2012

שׁוּב, to return, to restore

Returning is life changing. In Ruth, Loved Redefined, author Paul Miller points out that the biblical author of Ruth uses the word shuwb, translated return, turn back, go back, and brought back twelve times in his opening scenes. (Its uses are easy to spot via

When judges ruled Israel a Hebrew man and woman and their two sons left Bethlehem to go to Moab. The two sons married Moabite women. Tragedy struck: all three men died, leaving all three women widows.

Naomi, the mother-in-law, hears that the LORD has visited His people by giving them bread and decides to return home. Her two Moabite daughters-in-law begin the return with her. Along the way Naomi urges them to go back to their mother’s houses. Ruth and Orpah refuse, determined to return with Naomi to her people. Naomi entreats them twice more to go back to find husbands. Orpah does turn back to her people and her gods and Naomi urges Ruth to follow her. Instead, Ruth vows to bind herself to Naomi. When they arrive in Bethlehem, and the village women wonder at the sight of her, Naomi declares that she had gone out full and the LORD had brought her back empty. She no longer wants to be called “Pleasant” but “Bitter.” The scene closes with a double underscore of Naomi and Ruth’s return together. They had arrived, just as the barley was ready for harvest.

After Ruth has married Boaz, an honorable man of Bethlehem, and they have borne a son, the village women announce to Naomi that this child would be the restorer of her life. The Hebrew word for “life” is nephesh, also meaning “soul.” The word for “restorer” is again shuwb. Obed would return Naomi’s life. He would turn her life back to God. He would restore her soul.

The language reverberates decades later. Obed’s grandson David writes that the LORD, his shepherd, “restores my soul,” good reason to “return to house of the LORD forever” (Psalm 23:3,6).

Returning change writers’ lives, too. We might do well to question ourselves today.

Do I need to return?
What has captured my attention and trust? Projects, contracts, sales, connections, talent? Blogs even?
Is it worthy to be trusted?
If I turned from it, what would I return to?
Is returning appropriate for me now?

Turning back may prove painful as emptying. The women of Bethlehem marveled at the negative change in Naomi. But as Naomi remained in Bethlehem, the “house of bread,” her soul was restored. The nearness of God was her good. And His nearness is the writer’s good, too.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Where Do You Write Right?

Where do you do your writing? This is my space--at the top of the stairs in the hallway. Yes, this is a roll top desk, but I would have to swoop all that junk off in order to close it.

 I'm always curious as to where everyone does their writing. I have to ask for forgiveness for my envy (especially when I see Deb Raney's studio. It's so beautiful.) My environment is really important to me and it can mean the difference from getting a lot done to a complete standstill. 

Over the years I've had my "perfect office" to where I am now--a crowded desk at the top of the stairs next to my bedroom (where, because my husband worked all night, he's snoring and I have to be quiet. My laptop sound is muted.)

This latest office area is what I call Organized Central Chaotic Control. My chair is crippling me, but I tried the exercise ball to sit on, and while it's great for my back, let's just say--not too smart for a klutz like me--at the top of the stairs. (Yikes.) I have to have a small, skinny chair so we can pass by. I'm looking into getting a different chair. 

Our house is open concept so with four grown sons at home at the moment, plus, two dogs, I can hear all noise from every single room, including the garage. I'm the kind of person who works best in an organized, quiet area and right now this isn't cutting it. (That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.)

Here's the top of my desk. I love my owl painting print, but I really don't look at it when I have my nose in my computer.

This is my view behind my chair. Yes, that's the front door. Ding-dong and the dog alarms go off, too. 
This is one dog alarm. Her name is Lizzie and she is a West Highland, Terrier. This is the view from my desk over the railing.
This is Bear, my other Dog Alarm, but he's pretty sweet (he's a Scotty.)
What is important to you when you're writing? What are your absolute "must haves?" I have found over the years that my list is simple, but not simple to achieve. 

1. I must have quiet. People talking to me, noise from a TV or radio, music, dogs barking--these all interrupt my thoughts and distract me from being in my writing world. 
2. A good, working laptop. I really do not like working on a desk top computer. I like reading on my computer and have edited many manuscripts on the computer.
3. A comfortable chair. 
4. Breaks to get up and go outside.
5. My materials/research close by my laptop. 
6. Something to sip, like water or coffee or iced tea.

 Whatever your list, it is important to find what works. You could be working in your chair in your living room, like Colleen Coble does. You could be at your kitchen table, like Debbie Macomber started off doing. Or you could have a lovely office like Deb Raney, who started off at her kitchen table with four kids. But finding the time is most important. 

I complain about this set up right now, but eventually I'll find what works better. And it might be right here, because I just need a good chair, some headphones and to clean up my desk, don't you think?

Writing isn't really just a place--it is an action. You can find what works best for you, but it's really about making the time. And that, my writing friends, is the important takeaway from this blog. Plus, I just really want to know:

Where do you write? 

And if you're curious as to where some published authors write, here's a link to Author Donita K. Paul's pages showing a big list of authors' writing spaces. Enjoy! And dream on, just keep writing!


Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Trust and Open Doors

An actor friend of mine talked recently about how God was opening doors for her, how things were moving fast in her career as she stepped out in faith. What an uplifting testimony.

However, she's not the only one. God is actively opening doors for you, too.Are you stepping through them in faith, trusting that what God has said, He will bring to pass? Perhaps you are standing on the threshold trying to discern what the future will hold before you take a step.

Do you have a chance at a writing opportunity or the thought that you should participate in a blog or go to ACFW conference when you don't see how it will happen? Perhaps you have a storyline to develop or keep thinking you should contact a particular agent about a particular project.

Not every opportunity will be God's choice, therefore there is a need for prayer and discernment, but if you've been praying for God's leading and a door opens, chances are God opened it. Pray, of course, and listen for confirmation, but don't let fear or logic talk you out of taking that step.

God said he would be a light to our path. Do you see it as a road extending into the unknown with streetlamps like a double strand of glittering beads brightly lighting the way? Even when God reveals the end result, the path to that final place is most often revealed more like a flashlight lighting step by single step.

It takes trust and courage to walk that hidden path, to step through the open door. For each of you authors and authors-to-be in this position today, I pray that you will have the courage to boldly go where the God of Open Doors wants to lead.

Trust in the LORD with your entire heart despite fear and don't depend on your understanding or prejudices that God will do something in a particular way; trust him completely despite the circumstances and he will take care of the obstacles. Proverbs 3:5-6 MAPS (Mary's Amplified and Paraphrased Scriptures)

Mary Allen lives in the Midwest with her husband and a German Short Hair Pointer. She loves God's Word which never changes and also enjoys playing with words which can be endlessly changed. She writes women's fiction and was La Porte County Poet Laureate from 2010-2011.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Four Things Every Writer Should/Must Do

Source: Wikimedia Commons

So it's not a perfect world, and you're probably not always going to get to all these things every single day. But in a perfect world,(and keeping in mind that I certainly haven't arrived at writing perfection myself) a Christian writer would be wise to do the following:

1. Pray. Profusely. 
You should pray as much as you write. Adore Him. Let Him know you’re glad He’s Who He is. Praise Him for the struggles because that makes you a better person, a better writer. Praise Him for the grace to handle rejection, for the peace to trust Him with your career. Confess your weaknesses and sins. Thank Him for His mercy that endures forever. Then ask Him to enlarge your territory, to give you words that will reach those He longs to reach. Just pray.

2. Read. Profusely.
You should read as much as you write. Read what’s popular. Read the classics. Read awful stuff. (You can learn from awful stuff.) Set time aside each day to read even if it’s for 15 minutes. Don’t have time to read a lot of books? Then read a smattering from a lot of  them. Just read.

3. Live life. Fully.
You should live life more than you write. I have a Boston Terrier with an extra dose of crazy. This dog has no clue that there’s a life outside of his ball. He even sucks on the ball as he falls asleep. He is one with the ball. We can get that way about our work if we’re not careful. Yes, writing must be a priority, but it shouldn’t be everything. Life will pass us by and we will miss out on some really good stuff if we ignore the simple everyday pleasures and are too task oriented. It’s the daily stuff with loved ones that matter. Your books will not attend your funeral. People will. Live life. Fully.

4. Write. Profusely.
Okay, I know of a Newberry Award-winning author who limits herself to two pages a day. I suppose if you’re an author who has sold millions of copies and has had two movies made of your books, you don’t need to write more than two pages a day. But if you’re just starting out, you must write every single day and you must write a lot because you’re going to write a lot of lousy stuff before you arrive at something worthy to sell.

Trust me. I know.

Just. Write.

 Karla Akins is a pastor's wife, mother of five, grandma to five beautiful little girls and author of O Canada! Her Story. She lives in North Manchester with her husband, twin teenage boys with autism, and three rambunctious dogs. Her favorite color is purple, favorite hobby is book-hoarding, and favorite food group is cupcakes.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Don't Let Facts Get in the Way

Being a history buff, I am naturally drawn to historical fiction. It gives me a perfect excuse to spend hours loitering in museums, interviewing local historians, and snapping photos of deserted old buildings. (I love to do those things anyway, but now I can tell my exasperated family that I'm researching for my next novel!)

But when I started writing my first novel, one of those carefully authenticated facts soon dropped a roadblock across my way. I'd set my story in a real place, at a time that many locals still remember. Some pivotal scenes occurred at the town's train depot, which has now been moved to the county seat. But at the time of my story (1929), it stood on its original site -- about a mile west of where I needed it to be.

What to do?

I could relocate the entire story to another town with a train depot that stood next to its mercantile, as required by my plot, but what other obstacles might I find there? I could move the story to an imaginary town, but then I would lose potential marketing tie-ins to the real place. I could redesign the plot. (In fact, I actually tried that. But plot problems multiplied, due to the extra time required for characters to run back and forth between the store and the depot.)

Then it dawned on me: This is fiction. My readers know it's a story based on fact, not a journalistic record of the facts. If the county historical society could move that depot to another town, why couldn't I put it exactly where I wanted it?

As a history buff, I want to know exactly where the factual lines are. But as a storyteller, readers give me permission to color outside the lines.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Character Sheets: Fun or Intimidating?

I have a love/hate relationship with character sheets. I love getting to know my characters, and I know the predetermined details come in extremely handy during the writing process. But, they are so, so ... well, the phrase 'Just the Facts, Ma'am,' keeps coming to mind. Once I sit down – and force myself to fill in every minute detail about my character, from their date of birth to their favorite food - I love my character sheets! I keep them in a handy spot, and refer to them often - making sure I'm staying true to my character's nature. (So much so, that I've considered laminating them to make them last longer!)

However, I find that I still dread filling them out - only slightly less than those dreaded forms the dentist makes you fill out before you can proceed with a simple cleaning. Yeah, it's that bad.

So that's now got me thinking ... what could I do to make the process seem less like filling out something boring like a medical form? Well, here's another factoid - I also hate filing paperwork. You are so shocked, I'm sure . . .

The solution I found to cure my issues with filing, was to use the money I get back from my favorite office supply store's ink cartridge recycling program to buy folders, binder clips, binders and other colorfully designed supplies that appealed to me. Now I actually enjoy filing! And, by using my recycling money, I don't have any guilt for spending extra money on something attractive, instead of the standard blah supplies. (And yes, they make folder designs that appeal to a guy's personal style too - in case this is sounding all too girlie.)

Yeah, a few of you are now thinking I'm a little wacko. But because I know many writers are also visually stimulated, like the crazy graphic designer/writer that I am, I'm betting a lot of you also 'get it'. So I am considering spending some design time on creating visually appealing blank character sheets that I could share with my writer friends on my web site.

My idea so far, is to create a pair of sheets for each writing genre; either a male and a female sheet, or a protagonist and an antagonist sheet. Each pair would be designed to match a particular writing genre. So a mystery sheet might have fingerprints, evidence bags ... shoe prints or something of that nature surrounding the information area. Fonts would also be grungy and colored to match.

I also want to include a space for an example photo if someone has found one for inspiration, and I'm also hoping to make it so that it can either be printed and filled out by hand, or it can be opened and filled out on screen if people prefer to keep everything on their computer. We'll see on that one - I know it can be done in Acrobat Pro, but I have to figure out if it can be opened and altered in the free Acrobat Reader or another free Mac/PC application, so that more people could use it.

I'm hoping to make them interesting enough that if I wanted to keep them posted on my wall while I write they would be somewhat decorative. Which is why I'm thinking other writer's might find them inspiring too? I'll likely post them on my site for free or for a small amount like 25 cents each. Would anyone even be interested except me? Or am I really more of an oddball than I think I am?

Feel free to tell me if I am. I can take it.

(I'm trying to determine if it's worth spending the time on more than the genre I am personally working on - for my own use. Any input would be extremely helpful!)

Thursday, May 3, 2012

What's My (First) Line?

The first sentence of a manuscript. Sometimes that first line just sits there, bland and uninteresting as oatmeal. But other first lines practically reach up from the page and grab your eyeballs and compel you to keep reading to find out what's happening.

A visit to your local bookstore provides a wealth of inspiration in successful first lines. These novel openings survived the rejections of agents and editors and made it (along with the rest of the novel) into print. I find it fascinating simply to pull novel after novel off shelves to read those first lines that successful authors used to capture readers' interest and lure them into a new story. Sound fun? Then check out these sample first lines from various authors, and then consider your own opening sentences.

"Three men watched intently as peculiar events occurred, one after the other, on opposite sides of the globe." (Safely Home, by Randy Alcorn)

"The sultry breeze carried not a single hint that the summer afternoon would give birth to the worst aviation disaster in American history." (The Note, by Angela Hunt)

"Well, now, ain't that a purty sight?" (Opal, by Lauraine Snelling)

"The swastika medallion dangled from the limb of the Christmas tree." (While Mortal Sleep, by Jack Cavanaugh)

"Down to the last day, even the last hour now." (The Testament, by John Grisham)

"He first thought of his feet." (Enoch, by Alton Gansky)

"When the tiny dart hit Pierre Sirois behind his right ear, his right hand reached up as though to swat an insect." (Mission Compromised, by Oliver North)

"Ryan was nearly killed twice in half an hour." (Patriot Games, by Tom Clancey)

"The first wave of pain seized his chest like a vice grip so that his hand flew to his heart and he gasped for breath." (Where Yesterday Lives, by Karen Kingsbury)

Each of these lines begins novels representing a variety of genres. In each case, though, the author has carefully crafted that beginning. Even before you know what's happening or exactly who is involved, these writers tease us into wondering what will follow.

Chances are, if you've read this far, you just might be a writer, too. Want to share the first line of a favorite novel? Or, is anyone brave enough to share a first line from your own work in progress?

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Chapter Meeting - A Snack Between Banquets

Last Saturday I had the privilege of traveling with Ann Shrock, (author of Crossroads in The Quakers of New Garden collection) to gather with other writers, some familiar, some new to hear multi-published Travis Thrasher speak. (If you weren't there, I'm sorry.) Afterward, Ann and I spent another hour and a half discussing what we heard, how writing impacts our lives, and encouraging one another as we returned home. That is a superior and affordable way to spend a Saturday. The kind of day you sit back and say, "Now that was delicious."

There is nothing quite like interaction with others who actually "get" you and who struggle with the same challenges you do. ACFW offers wonderful online help that makes it possible to become a good writer from home. However, I would encourage you to participate in your chapter or regional ACFW group.Our Indiana ACFW president, Rick Barry, and his board work hard to move the meeting site around the state so authors can conveniently attend at least once in a year. I'm sure other officers do the same. This is a gift.

Have you ever visited a team blog such as Girls Write Out? Such sites are fun, supportive, and share the burden of blogging while drawing in others to participate. If you ask such group bloggers, they often say they attended a meeting where the love of writing and a common desire to improve was the fire that forged their friendships.With shorter agendas and less pressure, local meetings present a place to build writing relationships.

It takes effort, but in blogs, interviews, and conversations with writers one theme that has stood out to me repeatedly in the past eight months is that the road to publication involves sacrifice. It's a sacrifice of time, money, family, or leisure to attend a small writers meeting, but there are rewards, too. A local or regional  may not be the big enchilada of meetings, but it is a sustaining and satisfying meal. Think about it.

Have you attended a chapter or regional ACFW meeting in the last year? What was the take-away value?

Mary Allen lives in the Midwest with her husband and a German Short Hair Pointer. She loves God's Word which never changes and also enjoys playing with words which can be endlessly changed. She writes about God's Truth, Women's Fiction and was the La Porte County Poet Laureate from 2010-2011.


Tuesday, May 1, 2012


This spring has been a whirlwind of book marketing. With novellas in January and May and a trade in April, it’s taken a lot of time. A friend recently called me a networking superstar, and I almost spewed my sweet tea across my computer monitor. When it’s time to call for help marketing a book, I still would rather do just about anything except maybe walk across hot coals. So what’s an author to do? Especially in this environment that necessitates an author taking an active part in marketing?

  1.    Consider the people you know across many different parts of your life. I bet you know more people that you think who would love to read your book and possibly write a review on Amazon or another online site. However, unless you ask, the idea won’t cross their mind. So spend half an hour and think of the different areas in your life. Church. Homeschool groups. Work. Neighbors. Then write down at least two names from each group and ask if they’d help. I bet you’ll be surprised.
  2. Now look at your writing circles. This is where we often start, and it is important. I belong to several marketing oriented groups. Pre-write a few tweets and Facebook posts for the release of your novel and ask them to post for you. When you prewrite, it makes it so easy for them to help. Here are a couple examples of tweets to get you started:
  • Lovers & Lawbreakers collide under the cherry trees in Cherry Blossom Capers from @Cara_Putman. Read excerpt here:
  • Mackinac Island: perfect refuge til love/murder collide. Excerpt @Cara_Putman’s A Wedding Transpires on Mackinac Island
     3.  Schedule blog stops and giveaways. But be sure to spread the word through your networks and others. Then take notes of what happens at those stops. Track who gets a book and how many comments they get. Was it a valuable stop? For example, Sarah Forgrave hosted me last week and did a great job tying the topic of the interview to the setting of my book A Wedding Transpires on Mackinac Island. Then she does a fantastic job interacting with her commenters. They were also new to me, so it was a valuable stop. You can see how she made it such a great stop here.

One final tip. Don’t be afraid to hire help. I knew I wanted to reach new circles with A Wedding Transpires on Mackinac Island, but didn’t have a lot of new ideas or the time to figure out how to do the new things like podcasts. So I hired Jeane Wynn. There are so many people out there who are skilled in these areas. Talk to them and don’t be afraid to spend money if that will help you reach new audiences.

Cara C. Putman lives in Indiana with her husband and four children. She’s an attorney and a teacher at her church as well as lecturer at Purdue. She has loved reading and writing from a young age and now realizes it was all training for writing books. She loves bringing history and romance to life.