The Elements of Fiction: Setting – Part 1

What goes into writing a novel? Obviously, a good story and interesting characters. As I’ve studied the craft of writing – and, yes, it is a craft to be studied, learned, practiced, and improved – I have discovered that there is more to a story than just the “story.”

As I mentioned in an earlier post, many stories begin with a “What if” question or a spark of an idea. But once the idea is formed, then what? How does a writer get from “Once upon a time…” to “The End”?

There are a number of things to consider. In the next few posts, I’d like to explore the various aspects that go into a story and how they affect how the book takes shape.

One thing that must be decided on early in the process is the setting. Where does the story take place? Sometimes the setting is important to the story, such as a political thriller set in Washington, D.C. Or a romance set in a romantic coastal town.

For my story, I chose to set it in a small Southern town. After all, a common piece of advice to writers is to “write what you know.” I grew up in a small Southern town, so that type of setting, the people who live there, the social graces, and the relationships that grow there are as familiar to me as my own home. There is something special, sentimental, and almost utopian about small towns. And Southern people have so much character and flavor to their personalities. I wanted to portray these to both people who live there and those who have never been south of the Mason-Dixon line.

However, I chose to create a fictional town as I didn’t want to set the story in an actual town – neither the one I grew up in nor any of the ones close by. The characters and the plot of the story are completely made up and not based on anyone or anything I know in “real life.” I chose to make up the town as well to keep anyone from thinking I had patterned the story after one of them.

Sometimes the setting isn’t so much about the place as it is the time. Is the story a contemporary one – meaning, is it set in “modern” times? That could mean today or a few years or even a decade ago. Or is it “futuristic,” meaning the story happens at some point in the future? Or is the story “historical”? Most publishers consider a novel historical if it takes place before the 1950s. Some may say the 1960s or 70s. It’s debatable. But it’s important to know WHEN the story happens in order to get the setting just right.

My story is “contemporary” as opposed to historical. Although I didn’t name a particular year, it is clear that the story could take place today, last year, next year, etc. Historical novels are very interesting, and I enjoy reading them on occasion. But writing one requires a lot of research into the details of the time period in order to present the story accurately. Writing a contemporary story still requires a good bit of research, too, but it’s a whole different type of research than what is needed for a historical novel.

What times of settings do you like in a story? Is there a particular place or time period that you are drawn to? Or have you ever considered the setting and how it affects a story? Leave a comment to share your thoughts.

 

Thankfulness

 

It’s Thanksgiving! I hope you and your family and friends are spending time together, eating good food, and most of all – remembering to be thankful for all our blessings.

Every year I make a mental list of the things for which I am thankful. And the list is long. This year, I especially want to make note of all the new writer friends and colleagues I have gained. Some of these people I have met through conferences and some through writers groups. My critique group is a wonderful source of encouragement and growth for me. My local ACFW group is a source of learning and fellowship. And there are numerous friends I have made at conferences that I can keep up with through social media.

In the past year, I have completed my manuscript, received a request to submit it to a publisher, had it fully critiqued, rewrote, edited, proofed, edited again, and had it read by a group of gracious beta readers. That’s a lot to accomplish in a year!

It’s been a lot of hard, but I don’t regret one minute of it. It’s a lifelong dream to have a finished book in my hand. The next part of that will be to get it published, so I have more dreams to look forward to in the coming year.

Most of all, I want to thank God for allowing me to be a part of what He’s doing in the world through fiction. I don’t take it lightly that He’s called me to write, and I count it a privilege to come alongside His work. It’s His story; He just let me write it down. I never want to forget that.

In the midst of turkey, dressing, and desserts, I hope we’ll all take a moment to reflect on what God has done in our lives this year and to give Him all the glory. I also hope that we’ll carry that attitude of gratitude with us each day of the coming year.

What are you thankful for this year? Leave a comment and let me know.

Questions I Ask Myself

I’ve been working through the beta reader feedback and the last of the critiques of the chapters from my critique group.

Now that the story is all out there on the pages, the characters are formed, the plot is set, and the message is embedded, I find myself pondering the greater questions. Here’s one that came to mind recently: Is this story compelling?

This topic was discussed in a writing article I read, and I don’t remember where or I would put a link here, but here’s the idea: A story needs to be compelling and needs to include a topic or related incidents that readers want to read about.

So I ask, is MY story compelling? Is the topic and/or related incidents something that MY readers will want to read about?

I know the answer will be different for everyone, but I hope that for the most part, people will find my story compelling. Here’s how I answered this question to myself:

What is compelling about my story? Sam searching for her father’s killer, but more than that, she is searching for a relationship with the father she never knew. Which also relates to her relationship with God as her Father. I want the readers to care about Gabriel so that they want/need Sam to find out what really happened to him.

Not everyone will relate to the fact that Sam is estranged from her father. I know that her relationship with Gabriel, or lack thereof, is the very opposite of my relationship with my own dad. We are very close, and I’ve always been a “Daddy’s girl.”

But, I think that’s part of what made me want to explore this story and how Sam was affected by growing up without her father. I can’t relate to that, so I wanted to discover Sam’s story and try to understand how that situation felt to her.

I think the idea of dads and daughters is a universal one, as is the way we relate to God as our Father. I’m hoping that the character of Sam and her journey is a compelling idea that will resonate with readers long after they turn the last page.

Tell me what makes a story compelling to you? What about a story do you relate to most? The characters? The setting? The plot? What do you look for in a great read? Leave a comment below and let me know.

 

Beta Reader Feedback

I’ve received the feedback from each of my Beta Readers! I picked 5 people that I know love to read, some who read romantic suspense and some who don’t. Some of these people have known me for a while, some know me well, and some don’t know me well at all. Their ages range from early 20s to mid 60s. I wanted to get a small but diverse group that would represent the readers who will eventually be the audience for my book.

Sending your story out to beta readers isn’t easy on the emotions, nor is the anticipation of getting their feedback. Putting your work out there is a terrifying thing. You’ve worked hard, lost sleep, shed sweat and tears over this story. You love your characters as if they were your best friends. And now, you have to turn them over to others who may not love them as much as you do.

Opening yourself up for critiques leaves you feeling raw. It’s like that nightmare where you find yourself naked in front of a room full of people. But, it is all part of the process. A necessary evil in order to make your book the best it can be. Because you don’t want to send your child out into the world with tangles in her hair and clothes that don’t fit or match. No, you want her polished and looking her best.

Thankfully, the feedback overall has been positive. There were some great suggestions on ways I could improve the story, and I will be following up on those in the coming months. That’s why I asked for feedback in the first place. As much as I love having my ego inflated, flattery will not make my story better.

The Bible likens it to iron sharpening iron (Proverbs 27:17). Think of a knife. It doesn’t get sharper by slicing through something soft, like cheese. The only thing to make it sharper is a hard, gritty surface that grinds away the dullness of the blade. And so it is with critique. It may not feel comfortable while it’s happening, but the end result will be so much better.

I owe many thanks to my beta readers, which I promise to deliver in a tangible way. And now, on to the next step – editing, re-writing, rinse and repeat.

What about you? Has there been a time in your life when you received some feedback that wasn’t easy to hear? How did you handle it? How did it change you for the better? Leave a comment to join in the conversation.

The What If Question

One of the most asked questions writers get is “How do you come up with your ideas for your stories?”

I can’t speak for everyone, but I can say that in general, story ideas begin at a certain starting point: asking “What if…”

The “What if” question can come from any small point of inspiration, and it can take a story in countless directions. Think of your favorite story. I bet you can come up with a “What if” question that goes with it.

For example, “What if a girl fell down a rabbit hole and found herself in a whole other world?” That would be Alice in Wonderland. How about this one? “What if a teenager was forced to compete in a fight to the death with other young people, for the entertainment value of a corrupted society?” That would be Hunger Games.

How about this one? “What if the man you thought you hated turned out to be the very man you were in love with?” This one is a bit more general, on purpose. It could probably go with many different stories. I’m thinking specifically of Pride and Prejudice, but do you see how a simple question could lead a writer in a thousand different directions?

The value of a “What if” question is that it can open up a world of ideas, and by asking and answering the question over and over again, you can eventually build a plot idea that turns into an entire book.

For me, the first “What if” question that I had for my first book was, “What if a woman grew up without a father? How would she relate to God as her Heavenly Father?” That question and the subsequent ones became the plot for Relentless Pursuit.

For Book 2, I started with this question: “What if Jake’s sister and Sam don’t get along?” Starting from that idea, I’ve been working through my “What if” questions for Book 2, and so far, I have over 2 pages of “What if” questions, each building from the answer to the one before it.

Some of them may never make it into the story, and some may lead down a useless “rabbit hole,” (haha), but in essence, all of them are important because they help to shape the idea into the story that it will become.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Did you think of a “What if” question for your favorite story? Leave a comment below to join in the conversation.

A Little Background

The book is out to the beta readers. My critique group is two chapters away from finishing the book. And I find myself in an odd place – NOT working on the book for a change!

After more than two years of slaving away on this book night after night, it feels weird to be taking a break.

My brain is still working, though, and lately I’ve been churning up a lot of ideas for Book # 2. I have a trilogy planned, and now that Book # 1 is at a resting stage, I find myself thinking ahead, daydreaming about what will happen in the next book.

I’m starting to sit down and get some of these ideas on paper, using my outlining class material and workbook to organize my thoughts.

The first time I set out to write a book, I wandered blindly through a few chapters, writing and re-writing and editing over and over, but never really making any progress past the first few chapters. Once I took the outlining class and got myself organized, the book flowed much quicker.

This time, I plan to do it differently. Start with the outline, flesh out the ideas, and then begin writing the first draft.

I thought you might like a peek into the process of what it takes to write a book, or at least MY process. Every writer is different, and each one has a unique process that brings him or her from idea to finished product.

Here are the steps that worked for me – beginning with a “map.”

This wasn’t actually part of the outlining class, but it came from a book I read called “The Writer’s Compass” by Nancy Ellen Dodd. I’m a visual learner and thinker, so the idea of “mapping” out your story made sense to me.

Here is a picture of my “story map,” which is still hanging on the closet door of my home office.

story-map

You probably can’t see it very well, and even if you could, it probably wouldn’t make a lot of sense. The point is that it divides your story into sections, and in each section, certain things need to happen to take the characters — and thereby the reader — through the story.

This is what got me started, but in my next post, I’ll talk more about what I learned in the outlining class.

As always, I covet your prayers for the book, that God will take it wherever He chooses, and that it will touch the lives He intends for it to impact. And pray for me, that I would continue to be faithful and obedient to do what He’s called me to do.

Still plugging away

So, it’s the end of August. How did that happen? Days turn into nights, which turn into weeks, which turn into months. Spring is gone. Summer is gone. It’s almost September.

I love Fall. It’s my favorite season, especially in Georgia, where we get to enjoy the beautiful leaves in brilliant yellows, oranges, and reds. It’s been a long, hot summer, and I’m ready for cooler temps, crisp air, and cute sweaters.

I’m still plugging away at getting the manuscript ready to submit to the publisher. Yes, it takes that long. Even longer sometimes.

My critique group is only 4 chapters away from the end of the book, so they should be completely through it in about a month or so. I’m editing, proofreading, re-writing, and editing some more, and starting to think about beta readers.

What is a beta reader, you ask? Well, according to the wonderful “Wikipedia,” a beta reader is: “a non-professional reader who reads a written work, generally fiction, with the intent of looking over the material to find and improve elements such as grammar and spelling, as well as suggestions to improve the story, its characters, or its setting.”

This does not necessarily include your mother and your best friend – who, by the way, were my “alpha” readers.

Choosing the right beta readers is important, and I have a select few people that the Lord has laid on my heart that I’m going to reach out to in the next few weeks.

In addition to editing and re-writing, I’ve been contemplating a few writers conferences to attend in the coming year and even praying about sending the manuscript to a freelance editor before I submit to the publisher.

Through it all, I’m praying and asking the Lord for guidance and wisdom. This is His work, and I’m just blessed enough to get to come along for the ride and see what He will do with my tiny offering.

As always, I appreciate your prayers and support. Happy Fall, y’all!

 

Taking the Next Step

Who can believe it’s almost April? We’re three months in to this new year and past the cold, icy winter. Spring is officially here, and the birds are chirping and the sun is shining again.

It’s a new season for me, too, as I have some exciting news to share. A couple of weeks ago, I finally sent my submission to the publisher. This was made up of the first three chapters and the last chapter, along with a cover letter, a marketing plan, a couple of short blurbs about the book, and a brief bio of yours truly.

Last Wednesday (a week ago today), I received an email back from that publisher – and said she was interested in reading the full manuscript! I was thoroughly floored and over-the-moon with excitement.

What does this mean? It means that now I send her the entire book. She could love it, hate it, or fall somewhere in between. If she likes it enough, we will talk about publishing. No matter what, I’m hoping for feedback that will help me grow and improve.

But we’ll cross that bridge when we get there. In the meantime, I’m working furiously to edit the rest of the book. I had only about a third of it done when I sent the submission, so there’s still a lot of work to do. My critique team is working over time with me, and I’ll be pulling in a few others for reading and editing before I send it to the publisher.

Keep me in your prayers as I try to work quickly but wisely to get the manuscript ready to send her.

Good-bye 2014

This year has gone by so quickly. I know we always say that at the end of every year, but it becomes truer with each passing day. Time flies (whether you’re having fun or not).

2014 has been an amazing year! First of all, I finished the first draft of my novel in June! I attended a writer’s conference and gained the interest of a publisher based on a quick query I composed during her class.

I joined the American Christian Fiction Writers group and started attending the local chapter meetings once a month. Through that group, I have met new fellow writers and received great support and advice. This group also introduced me to a small group of ladies who meet together a couple of times a month to critique each others’ work. I am blessed to have been invited to join this group, and I can tell already that just being a part of this critique group is making me a better writer.

These talented women have read my first three EDITED chapters and have given me a lot of suggestions and insights in making them even better. These are chapters I will be submitting to the publisher in January, and I feel like they are ten times better because of my group.

I emphasized the word EDITED above because these chapters have been poured over, contemplated, written, re-written, formatted and re-formatted, proofed, re-written again, dreamed about, and re-written again. That’s the process of editing your work to get it ready for submission.

I am now working on chapter 4 to submit to my critique group in January. The holidays have been busy, but on a “normal” month, I should be able to EDIT at least 2 chapters to submit to my group. The first draft of the book contained 34 chapters, so that should give you an idea as to how long it will be before my second draft is done! Yes, writing is a loooooooong process.

But looking back on where I was at this time last year and where I am now, I have made great strides. For fun, I went back and read over a draft of the book from January of 2014. (I date my document for the day I’m working on it and save it as a new document so that if I need to go back to an earlier draft, I can.) It is crazy to see how much the book has changed in a year’s time.

I was about 20,000 words into the book then (the final word count on the finished novel was around 74,000) – however, the first few chapters of the book have been completely scrapped. That’s around 7,000 words gone. I plan to incorporate a few of these things from this first beginning into the book later, but much of it will never make it into the final book. That’s okay. Another thing I’ve learned is that nothing is ever wasted. Even if the readers never see these words, I needed to write them so that I could understand the characters and the story better.

Overall, I’m much happier with where the book is now and I think it makes for a better read. At least, my critique group has been enjoying the chapters so far! In fact, they are usually begging for more at the end of each chapter. That’s so awesome!

One final thing about what I’ve done in 2014 is something you may have already noticed if you are reading this blog post – my website is updated! I started this blog as a way to share prayer requests with my core group of supporters as I wrote the book, but now I’m starting to branch out with it and use it as more of a “platform” for me and my writing. So, I re-designed it with a new look and gave it a new URL (web address, for the non-techies out there). You can now access this site by going to http://www.hopewelborn.com or from the old address as before. I really like it, and I hope you like it, too!

As for what’s to come in the next year, only God knows, but as I know His plans for me are good (see Jeremiah 29:11), I’m so encouraged and excited about the writing that lays ahead of me in 2015!

Updates and a Prayer Request

The last post I made was just after I had finished the first draft of the book. I then printed it out and went back through, reading it to myself for the first time since actually writing it. I made notations of things that needed fixing (typos, etc.), scenes that I wanted to expand, and other ideas that came to my mind as I read it.

I finished my read through just in time to attend the writer’s conference in Marietta. I was still suffering from the effects of a summer cold or allergy and wasn’t even sure that I could attend. But I went anyway and I’m so glad that I did.

I learned so much and got to meet some great people as well as see people I had met at last year’s conference. It was truly a blessing to be among all of those writers who have the same goal as I do – to share through writing the things God has placed in our hearts.

To my surprise, I was actually able to meet with a publisher who had led a class on pitching. In case you aren’t up on the “lingo,” a pitch is how you describe your story to a potential agent, editor, or publisher.

During the class, the teacher let us practice pitching our stories and gave us critiques and tips on improvement. After I gave my improved pitch, she asked me to come see her later, so I made an appointment to meet with her.

I polished up my pitch between classes and read her the latest version. She liked it enough to ask me to send her a few of my chapters to review! I was very surprised and excited.

Now I am getting my chapters refined and ready to submit. This is called a submission, and it requires a cover letter plus whatever the publisher asks for. In this case, she asked for the first three chapters and the last chapter of the novel.

All that to say – I need your prayers! I need to make sure that what I submit is my very best work. Not only that, but everything has to be formatted to certain standards. This is a big deal. So please pray for me as I work on this.

The publisher didn’t give me a deadline but I need to get it to her sooner rather than later.

Even if she reads my chapters and decides not to pursue any further, I feel privileged that she even asked to read anything. And if she gives me any feedback, that can only serve to help me continue to improve.

God granted me a divine appointment which I certainly don’t want to squander. Pray that I’ll follow His lead and make the most of this opportunity.

I’ll let you know when I’m ready to submit the chapters. Thank you for your prayers and support!