What Are You Reading? March 22nd Edition

I had fun with my last “What are you reading?” post, so let’s do it again.

This week, I read a novella. In case you aren’t sure about the terminology, a “novella” is like a novel, but shorter. Novels are usually defined as being between 50,000-100,000 words. A novella is usually between 20,000-50,000 words. Novellas shouldn’t be confused with short stories, which are usually around 8,000 words. So, a novella is considerably longer than a short story and more just like a short novel.

The novella I read this week is “Six Little Sunflowers,” by author Gina Welborn (ironically, no relation, as far as I know!). I’d heard Gina’s name in my writing circles, and even last year at the ACFW national conference, a couple of people saw my name tag and asked me if I was Gina or related to her.

I’d recently become friends with her on Facebook, and one day, one of her posts caught my attention. It said, “A chambermaid’s Leap Year Day proposal takes a turn for the worse when the heroic fireman she asks says yes.”

My curiosity was piqued; I was intrigued. So I clicked on her link and checked it out. The descriptive paragraphs further explained the story, and it sounded really interesting, so I bought the book. And I went back to Facebook and let Gina know why I bought it – because of her marketing.

Nowadays, authors are required to do most of their own marketing, even if they are published by a large, traditional publishing house. And most of that marketing takes place on their social media outlets. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest – these are the billboards, flyers, and print ads of today.

Since I’ve worked in web/digital marketing as my “day job” for a number of years (let’s not count how many, okay?), I understand and appreciate the value of a well-placed piece of marketing copy. And that was it.

So, did the story live up to the tag line? Yes. Did I enjoy it? Absolutely! It was a quick read – I finished it in a couple of evenings. The characters were great, well-developed and well-rounded, even in the short amount of time I had to “meet” them. Their backstories were also well-developed, and Gina gave just enough of them to ground the characters and help the reader to understand them and the motivations for their behaviors. The hero/heroine had great give-and-take, and their dialogue had me laughing out loud.

The story was well-plotted and kept me guessing, surprising me with twists and turns. I loved the two main characters and rooted for them. They had great chemistry, and their romance was both believable and enjoyable.

The supporting characters were also well done, and I especially loved the scenes with the “little ol’ church ladies.” I could just picture them, and the whole tone reminded me of something from Little House on the Prairie or Anne of Green Gables (two of my all-time favorites).

Something really cool is that the author opened each chapter with a quote from an historical book – either from one about firefighting or one about social manners/etiquette. Each quote set the tone for the chapter and added a little something extra to the book. She also explains at the end of the book about the Leap Year Day proposal tradition and where it came from. I’d never heard of that, but what a neat idea to base a story around!

I’m not usually a huge fan of historical romances, but I thoroughly enjoyed this one. I saw on her Facebook page that she’s planning a sequel for this summer, so I’ll have to be sure to check that out.

Okay, your turn: what are you reading this week? What are the genres you are usually drawn to? What makes you pick up a story outside of that genre? Regarding marketing, what makes you pick up a story in the first place? Leave a comment below to join the discussion!

 

What are you reading?

I’d like to start something new today. How about a recurring feature called “What are you reading?” I know many of you are avid readers, and I’d like to start a discussion around that.

There are so many great books out there (and so little time to read them all, right?). How about we share them with others?

I’ll start.

I just finished reading a great book by author K.M. Weiland called Dreamlander. I’ve actually had this book on my Kindle for a couple of years now. It was one of the first books I ever bought in electronic form.

I started reading it a while back and then never finished. Now, that has nothing to do with the quality of the book. I’ll get to that in a minute. But, it’s taken me a while to get used to reading a book on my tablet.

You just can’t beat REAL books. I love the feel of an actual book in my hands. The smell of it, the texture of the pages.

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Some of the books on my bookshelf

Reading in electronic format is different. You can bookmark a page in an e-book, but it’s not the same as putting my little bookmark in a real book. I can’t hold it up and see how much I’ve read and how much is left. There is a “page counter” thing at the bottom of the screen, but somehow it’s not the same.

And I can’t flip back over to an earlier section to check something I may have missed or forgotten in the e-book format. (Or skip ahead to make sure the hero/heroine makes it through the latest crisis!)

So, yeah, I prefer to read an actual book, but once I got into this story, I didn’t mind as much.

Dreamlander would be categorized as a fantasy novel. Think along the lines of Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia, with strange creatures, glorious castles, and epic battles.

The tag line for this book is something like, “What if our dreams are real?” Basically, the story is about Chris, who goes to sleep in our world, and wakes up in a different world, the land of Lael, where he is a chosen one called The Gifted.

Chris thinks he has completely lost his mind, but he soon finds himself caught up in a battle of good versus evil, where he may be the only one who can save both the dream world and his own world.

The plot is well done, with plenty of twists and turns that kept me turning pages (or clicking the little “next page” button, as if were). The characters are well-developed, interesting, and relatable. I found myself wondering about them during my day and itching to get back home and into their world to find out what was going to happen next.

I don’t know about you, but when a character comes to mind when I’m not reading the book, I think of that as great writing. The character has gotten under my skin, into my soul – and that is a very good thing.

I certainly feel that way about the characters I write, and I hope that my readers will feel that connection with them as well.

I really enjoyed this book and plan to read more by this author. Now … to figure out what to read next!

What about you? What are YOU reading? Are there certain genres you like reading more than others? What do you love best about your favorite books? What things really pull you into a story? Join the discussion by leaving a comment below.

A New Season

Ah… Fall. My favorite time of year! I love the colors of the leaves, the crispness in the air! It’s the time to take long walks down leaf-strewn country roads. The time to wander through a corn maze or go to a Fall Festival. The time for apple cider and hot chocolate and all things “pumpkin spice.”

It’s the beginning of a new season. The heat of the summer is past, and as we look forward to cooler weather, we put away our tank tops, shorts, and sandals. I’m ready to break out my jackets, sweaters, and cute boots. How about you?

It’s a new season for my writing, as well.

I’m working on Book 2 in my series, and I’m finding that it’s a very different experience the second time around.

When I started working on Book 1, no one knew about it. Just me and the Lord. It was our little secret. I could work at my own pace. I could make mistakes. I could start, stop, and then start again. I had the freedom to create this little world of my imagination however I wanted.

After a little while, I let a few people in on my secret – those I trusted with my little dream. I even let a few of them read my work! It was thrilling and terrifying at the same time.

As time went on, more people entered my writing world, as I joined a writers group, then a critique group. I met more writers at conferences and made new friends.

But for the most part, my writing world was still “quiet.”

As I begin work on Book 2, it’s so very different. My writing world is crowded. There are more people involved. More who know about my little dream. More who ask me, “How’s it going?”

I’m trying to get published. Which means going to conferences, meeting agents and editors. Sending proposals. And waiting. Lots of waiting.

But there is still much to do during the waiting periods. I have social media to worry about. Did I tweet today? What should I share on Facebook? I need to update my blog. What will I write about? Am I “engaging” my audience? Am I building my “brand” and “platform”?

For, you see, that is what agents, editors, and publishing houses look at. It’s what they expect me to do – to market myself and my writing. But also, to write. All while holding down a day job. And cooking. And doing the laundry. And oh yeah, trying to have a life somewhere in between.

And I’m finding that it’s just much “louder” this time around. I’m not sitting in my writing room, just me and the Lord, playing with words, creating characters and worlds from my imagination.

There are expectations, people to please, audiences to find, pressures to excel.

And while all of this can be a good thing, it does a number on one’s creativity.

I’m finding that I must try even harder to shut out the “noise.” I have to be mindful to close myself off to the outside world and immerse myself into the writing world. Consciously. Forcefully, even.

The desire to write is still there. Maybe even more so, since I am re-visiting characters I have come to love. Like visiting with old friends. And I can’t wait to see what the future holds for them.

It’s still fun. It’s still thrilling and terrifying. But it’s just different. A new season. But just as I look forward to sweater weather and bonfires, I can look forward to this new season – with all its possibilities and unexplored paths and new discoveries that are just waiting for me. And soon the new will become as familiar and comfortable as my favorite pair of boots!

What about you? What is YOUR favorite thing about Fall? What have you discovered through the different “seasons” of life? Please join the conversation by leaving a comment below.

Happy News!

I’m back from the ACFW conference in Nashville, TN. What a whirlwind! I’m not sure if my head has stopped spinning yet. I’ll write more about my experiences there later, but first, I need to let you in on a secret. I couldn’t say anything about it until now.

Back in March, I entered an ACFW contest called “Genesis.” It’s for unpublished writers. I had to send in a brief synopsis and the first 15 pages of my manuscript. There were 10 categories, and my category was Romantic Suspense.

Why enter contests? There are a couple of reasons. One, you get great feedback. Your entry is judged by published authors. The judging is “blind,” meaning, you don’t know who the judges are, and they don’t know who you are. The advantage is that you get honest, unbiased responses to your writing.

Another reason is that if you make it to the latter rounds, you can get judged by editors and agents. This is a great way to get industry feedback. Is your story “marketable”? Would someone be interested enough to publish it?

Plus, being listed as a finalist gets your name out there. You get noticed by those in the industry.

And finally, it’s good practice. It gives you a reason to look at your work objectively and to polish it as best you can. To put in the effort to “put your best foot forward.”

So, I entered, hoping for some good feedback. And then I forgot about it. Went on about my business. Focused on getting ready for the Blue Ridge conference in May.

The week before I went to Blue Ridge, I got a phone call. It was on a Wednesday night. I was settled on the couch, eating supper and watching TV. I didn’t recognize the number but the caller left a message. So I listened. It was a lady from ACFW who was calling to tell me that I had made it past the first round of judging and was now a “semi-finalist!” Wow! I was blown away.

Honestly, I had forgotten about the contest. As I said, I was hoping for some good feedback, and that was pretty much it. I never thought I would be a semi-finalist. In fact, I had to go back to the contest website to understand what being a semi-finalist actually meant.

I was in the top 7 of the entrants in my category! I was instructed not to say anything on social media since the judging was “blind,” as I explained earlier. But I did call and text a few close friends, and my mom, of course. J

Our entries now went on to the next round of judges. If we made it past that round, they would let us know before June 15th, when they would announce the 3 finalists on their website. That was about 6 weeks away.

I put it out of my mind, concentrated on the Blue Ridge conference, went, and had a great time. But as June 15th got closer, my mind drifted back to the contest. I was sure I wouldn’t go any farther. After all, I was up against 6 other authors who had risen above the hundreds who had entered the contest. It was probably some strange fluke that I had even made it that far.

On June 14th, I hadn’t heard anything yet. So, I didn’t make it. No worries. I mean, I never even thought I would make it to the semi-finals. Even that was totally cool and unexpected. I left work that evening and went home, taught piano like usual, and then settled down in front of the TV to eat supper.

And then the phone rang.

With a shaking hand, I answered. The sweet voice of my coordinator came on to tell me that I was a finalist! Top 3 in my category! She instructed me that I would receive an email that night with my feedback from the first 2 rounds of judging, and that I would have 48 hours to make any changes to my entry and send it back to them.

I couldn’t believe it. I actually wished I hadn’t answered the phone so she would’ve left a message so that I could play it back again and again to make sure it was real. And that I really had heard her right.

I got my feedback, went through it, and decided what changes I needed to make. I updated my entry and sent it back in.

After that, there was nothing left to do. This round would go to 3 judges who were editors and/or agents. I wouldn’t hear anything else until they announced the winners at the Awards Gala during the conference in August.

This blog post is already getting so long, so I’m going to continue the story later as I recap each day of the conference. Tune in soon to hear the rest of the story!

Happy Blog-iversary!

I just realized that this month marks 3 years that I’ve been doing this blog. Wow! How did that happen?

Time certainly marches on, and day by day, week by week, the years roll on. And here we are, 3 years into this whole “blogging” thing, and I still have much to learn.

I started this blog because of reading the book, “The Circle Maker,” by Mark Batterson. In it, Mark explains how he had a “circle” of people praying for him as he wrote his first book. And it inspired me to create my own circle of friends and family to hold me up in prayer as I wrote my first book.

The blog became a way for me to communicate with you all as I progressed through the process. And then something incredible happened.

I gained a little confidence. I got serious. I read books about the “craft” of writing. I took an outlining class. I spent nights and weekends holed up in my writing room, pounding away at the keyboard until I had finished the first draft. A whole completed novel! I really did it! And you prayed me through it!

Then, I joined a writers group – my local chapter of American Christian Fiction Writers. I started going to monthly meetings. I talked “shop” with other writers. I learned. And learned. And learned.

I joined a local critique group of 4 other women. I read their chapters and gave feedback. I shared my chapters and got feedback. And I got better.

And I kept writing. I wrote and edited and re-wrote and proofread and re-wrote again. I polished (and in some cases, wrestled) that little story into something else – a “manuscript” (which is what the publishing world calls it).

I began to see myself as a “real writer.” And then I did something truly scary – I attempted to get published.

I entered contests, sharing my writing with faceless, nameless “judges” who held my little dream in their hands. I went to writing conferences, meeting more writers and making new friends. I learned about “pitching” and what “one sheets” are. I sat down across from Agents and Editors and pretended to know what I was doing as I told them about my manuscript.

In a couple of weeks, I’ll be attending the ACFW’s annual conference. This year, it’s being held in Nashville, TN. It’s my first time attending this large, national conference. I’ll write more about the conference later, but it’s hard to believe the path I’ve traveled in just 3 years. Going from a total newbie who knew next to nothing about writing to sort of feeling like I’m starting to get a handle on what it is to be a writer.

Most importantly, what I’ve learned in that time is that being a writer is truly what God has designed me to be. It is not just what I do, but who I am. And when I write, I feel like the best version of myself.

I’m so thankful for your continued support, encouragement, and prayers. Without them, I wouldn’t be here, still plugging away in 2016. My little “circle” has grown bigger, but it’s still as special to me. Thank you for continuing on this journey with me.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please share by leaving a comment!

The Elements of Fiction: Character

My last post on the Elements of Fiction dealt with plot, and it was hard to lock that topic down without morphing into this topic – characters. The two go hand-in-hand, just like peanut butter and jelly (I’m not a big fan of peas and carrots).

I said before that the plot IS the story, and without plot, you don’t have a story. Well, without characters, you don’t have a story either. Plot tells what happens, and the characters are the people to whom the plot happens.

I also stated before that the seed for my first novel began with a character. Once I discovered WHO this character was, the answers to the questions I had began to take shape.

A story usually has a “protagonist,” or main character, who wants or needs something and an “antagonist,” or the person or thing which opposes the protagonist from achieving his or her goal. Sounds simple enough. But of course, it’s not really that simple.

The protagonist must be special, someone the reader can immediately relate to, engage with, and root for. He or she must be both strong and fallible, real and flawed but also admirable and heroic.

Some novels may have a cast of characters that collectively represent a protagonist. Think Justice League of America. Or if you’re not a comic book nerd like me, think of the cast of movies such as The Breakfast Club or The Dirty Dozen. Each character has his or her own “story within the story.” Each has a personal demon to fight or circumstance to overcome. But their stories intertwine to form a whole entity that must prevail against a common antagonist.

Most books on writing will tell you, though, that this is hard to accomplish within a novel. Because a reader needs someone to latch on to, your story would be best suited by pulling out one strong protagonist for the reader to follow throughout the journey that is the novel. Otherwise, the reader might feel pulled in too many directions and can’t really focus on one particular character to identify with. They won’t have the same loyalty to a wide cast of characters that they will to one main character.

Now, this idea can shift according to genre. For romance and romantic suspense novels, there should be two main characters – the hero and heroine. Obviously, since the main point of a romance is for two people to fall in love, you must have two main characters who are both striving toward a common goal – to be in love. These novels will still have an antagonist – something that keeps them from reaching their goal. For a romance, it could be a person or persons. Perhaps a rival love interest, an angry ex, or even society that keeps them apart.

For romantic suspense, the antagonist usually takes the form of some kind of danger – a deadly threat to either the hero or heroine or both. Because of the suspense element, the two main characters are usually somehow involved in a criminal investigation, murder mystery, or a threat to the safety of others. Many of these characters have jobs in law enforcement, the military, or other public safety agency.

In the next few posts, I’d like to introduce you to a few of my characters (without revealing too much about the plot of the story!).

What kind of characters do you relate to the most? Are there certain traits that draw you to a character? Name a character who made a strong impression on you (for good or bad). Share in the comments.

The Elements of Fiction: Plot

The “plot” of a story is one of the most important things about it, if not THE most important. Because the plot IS the story. It’s the answer to “What is your story about?” Without a plot, you would just have characters sitting around somewhere doing nothing. And no one wants to read that, no matter how interesting, exotic, or eccentric the characters are.

Some authors began writing their stories with the plot already in mind, and fill in the characters as they develop the story idea. Others may begin with a character, and then decide what that character’s journey will be, which develops into the plot.

The seed for my first novel began years ago with a character. I could picture it, like a scene from a movie playing out in my head. A female, strong, independent, put into a situation where she felt insecure and lost. Out of her element, in other words. She was in a small Southern town, but she was from somewhere else – a big city. And she had to learn to navigate her new surroundings.

My first question was, “Who is she?” And the next question was, “How did she get there?” Followed by, “Why was she there? And what was she doing there?” As I began pondering those questions, the ideas for the story and the characters began to form in my imagination.

I had to figure out who she was and then I had to give her a reason to be there. And once I figured that out, the other ideas began to fall into place. Now, it took years for those first ideas to formulate into something that resembled a plot. Well, a good plot anyway. Because a story has to be good, of course.

A plot is like the vine that my co-worker had growing out of its pot and up around his floor lamp in his office – it grows, and it changes as it grows. It starts from a small seed of an idea and morphs into something that takes on a life of itself. A plot idea must be many things: interesting, fresh and new, believable, but also engaging to the reader, unexpected, twisty and surprising, and solid enough to carry an entire novel.

But it begins with just one idea.

What kind of plots do you enjoy? Murder, mystery, suspense, thriller, romance, drama? Do you prefer character-driven plots or action-driven plots?

The Elements of Fiction: Setting – Part 2

In the last post, I mentioned the various aspects that go into creating a story. One of them is the setting. As in, time period and location in which a story takes place.

Today, I’d like discuss another facet of setting: the season in which the story takes place.

For my first novel, the story occurs during Springtime in Georgia. Southern Springs can be volatile times, with thunderstorms and tornadoes mixed in with days that range from warm and humid to cool and breezy. For this particular story, storms play a big role in the action that takes place. So I set the story in April. It’s one of the stormiest months in Georgia.

The next story in this series will happen during the long, hot days of summer. And the final story in this trilogy will happen during the winter as the protagonist will face an ice storm, another common weather occurrence in northern Georgia.

Each of these seasons affects the story in specific ways. So it was important for me to get the timeline just right so that nature itself becomes a sort of “character” in the story.

What do I mean by that? When you place your main character (the protagonist, or the “hero” or “heroine”) into a story, he or she will face many things. I’ll discuss plotting and character “goals” in a later post, but for now, we know that this character will go through some sort of struggle, trial, adventure, or journey from the beginning of the story to the end. Along the way, he or she will interact with other characters in the story, whether they are secondary characters or the antagonist (also known as the “villain” or the person or thing who opposes the main character).

A writer can use setting as an additional “character,” meaning the setting itself has a bearing on the story and the characters in ways that alter the character or thwart his or her ability to reach the goal.

Think of a character being stranded on an isolated island. If his goal is to get off the island and return to his normal life, the island’s location itself will work against the character to keep him from getting home. The weather, the plant life or animal life on the island (or the lack of life on the island),the dangers lurking in the jungles – all of these can create obstacles and threats to the character.

I think of the actor and martial arts expert, Jackie Chan. In an interview, I heard him say that the way he comes up with his martial arts choreography for a movie scene is to just put himself on the set where the scene will take place. He looks around at the things the set designers have put there as set decoration. He picks things up, plays with them, moves them around, and comes up with ways he can use these things in a fight scene. And then he creates the fight choreography from that.

I think a writer does much the same thing, whether consciously or not. Each scene has a location, and that location has a “set design.” And you can use the set decorations of the setting to add life and flavor, conflict and obstacles for your characters.

When my main character, Samantha, finds herself on a farm in Georgia, she finds herself out of her element and in strange, unfamiliar surroundings since she grew up in Chicago. The readers get to see parts of her personality in the way she tries to adapt to her new surroundings. And even more than that, the farm is a reflection of her father, a man she never knew.

Through the farm, she learns about her father. It represents her internal struggle of forgiving him, and her internal struggle of finding herself. It is both a place of discomfort, raw emotion, and even danger to her, but also is a place of peace and healing.

Have you ever thought about how a setting can work either for or against the characters in a story? Think of a scene from your favorite story. What pieces of the setting did the author use to work for or against the characters? Share your thoughts in a comment.

 

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.