Thursday, September 30, 2010

Myth Busters #5: Secondary Characters are Cardboard Cutouts

I will be completely honest with you: this post is for me today. Because I need to know it a lot more than I think you probably do!

Several months ago I made a foolish comment on Seekerville. I can't even remember just what the post was all about now, something to do with too many characters or secondary characters in a novel. They asked for our personal opinion and me, in my foolish naivete said: I prefer secondary characters that are like cardboard cutouts. A prop for the main character.

Wait a minute! Hold the phone!

Did I just say what I think I said? And tell me, I did NOT put that into print!

Yes, it was in print and I, a-hem, hope and pray that comment does not come back to bite me. 

So today I bursting my own myth (and maybe yours too) that secondary characters are cardboard cutouts.

Before we get into this, what exactly is the role of a secondary character?
~To give the hero/heroine someone to talk to or propel them forward on their journey
~A diversion from the hectic pace of the main characters
~A friend for the main character, a reason for them to be more than just talking heads
~All of these variables and the role a secondary character plays will depend on how much of a role you give him/her

Secondary characters are anything but cardboard characters or props if you really want your fiction to shine and your story to leap from the page.

While a full bio is probably unnecessary on secondary characters, understanding their role in your main character's life is. What is the dynamic in their friendship? Have they been friends since childhood? This is important to know, because if they have had a history spanning so much time, the friend is going to be more apt to speak her mind and let her friend (the main character) know what she thinks for a particular situation.

You have to think of their relationship. What role do you want this secondary character to play? A bully? A close friend? A co-worker? The pastor of the local church? Each of these characters have to have a reason to be in the story. They have to move it forward in some way.

You are naturally going to have the character that stands in front of the heroine at Starbucks and drones forever with the clerk about the rising price of her favorite latte, and this can add tension for the heroine who maybe is running late for an important job interview, but can't think straight without her morning jolt. But will this character really need any fleshing out beyond this point? Probably not if she is just a walk on/ walk off extra.

But the characters that move the hero/heroine's life forward, are the ones that need the fleshing out. They are the sidekick or the one they fall back on for advice. After the black moment has hit and they need someone to talk to, you send them to this character who will send them on their journey of faith (or not depending the relationship. This can had more conflict, but ultimately in Christian fiction something will have to send them on their faith journey. You as the author will have to decide what that is.) 

But to keep these secondary characters from becoming stale and lifeless, you have to give them a reason to live in your story. They just can't be an extra. They have to have a history with the main character. And you have to find that history out. Learning the dynamics of a relationship so you will know as an author how the two will interact makes a huge difference to the believability of  your story.

But, say, you have a co-worker that sits  in the cubicle next to you and always plays KLOVE on her computer softly, leaves encouraging notes, polite, loving and godly? Now what if your main character isn't and this person drives them batty like fingernails on a chalkboard? That is a great relationship to have. Because what if this hero/heroine is all alone in life and when they hit that black pool of despair, who are they going to turn to? How about the young woman in the cubicle over who has always shown Christ's love even in the face of your main character's persecution?

Secondary characters and their roles for the story come from every place and circumstance. The best thing that you can have happen to a story, I think, is to be writing it and the secondary characters try to take over. It is because you have fleshed them out to such a degree that they want a story of their own. They have needs, desires, trials and a story to tell, but they must wait their turn. Remind them of that, otherwise they will jump in and take over.

But if you have secondary characters that do that in your story, consider yourself blessed. You have truly created characters that will compliment your hero/heroine and breathe life into your story.

This marks the end of my Myth Buster (cue dramatic music here) series. Was it helpful? Did you enjoy the theme? I would love to hear your thoughts. And do tell about your secondary characters as well. Have you had one take over a story? Are they begging for a spot in the limelight? Don't deny them too long. :-)

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Essence of Plotting

A movie commentator once said about a particular motion picture:  "This movie had the best actors, fantastic lines, but no plot."   

What was missing? 

Plot is the essence of any story.  Essential to a substantive plot is quality characters set in a place where conflict lurks. They should reach out and yank readers into the pages of their journey from the first word to the last. 

A good plot begs readers to cheer, offer advice, weep, or complain out loud about the decision making process of the characters. 
"Why didn't you ________ . 
Couldn't you see __________ coming? 
Now look at the mess you're in!"

The result?  Readers stay up way past their bedtime turning one page ofter another.

Perhaps this will help:

This summer, my husband set piles of weathered treated wood, tools, cement mix, wheelbarrow, screws, and etc. in our backyard.  While he had everything he needed to build the deck sorted, it wasn't the final product.  Quality products and their needed tools are like great characters and their lines, the former is not a deck, and the later is not a story.

While assembling the deck, my husband had problems with pieces not coming together properly  and other hair raising issues.  Once he worked out the problems, the deck came together.  So also our characters must face difficulties presented in a logical, sequential order which build to a major climax and  calms to some resolution.

To add essence to your plot, check to make sure your story continually moves forward.  

Things to watch for:

1. Has any sub plot taken over the story?
2. Do exciting distractions prevent your character from returning to the main journey?
3. Does the climax build like a rolling thunder storm in the distance looming
       close until it crashes down?
4. Should anything be modified to enhance the plot:
                a.  first person instead of third person, etc.
                b.  story told from a different character's point of view
                c.  starting the story later or earlier.

Review your plot. 
 How could you enhance the essence of your plot to cause
an editor to want your current  manuscript?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Separating The Sin From The Sinner in Fiction

Sawyer from Lost
The lovable bad boy
We love our villains and we love it when we love to hate them.These are what we call anti-heroes, those bad guys who are so compelling, so sympathetic, and sometimes downright loveable. But what makes them so? What is that special something that creates a sympathetic bad guy--or gal?

I think it may have something to do with separating the sin from the sinner. So often we can only see the glaring sin and it clouds our view of the person. Say a man continually cheast on his wife-- we see him as s stupid, uncaring, unforgivable man. But what if we knew his wife berated and verbally abused him, making him feel inept and unattractive. Knowing the background and separating the sin from the sinner sheds a different light on the situation.

What if we have an accountant who is embezzling money from his company? Would it make a difference knowing his child has a rare disease and the hospital bills are mounting? Understanding the motivations behind the sin somehow helps to see the bigger picture.

Of course, good and honest motivations do not in anyway justify the sin, but it does help to see the sinner as a human being who has needs and is in desperate need of a Savior's love.

So in our writing, we need to think about our anti-heroes and give them motivation for their evil deeds. Make the motivation something we can relate to, something redeemable. We want to be able to root for them, in spite of their sin.

We want to love the character, yet hate their plots!

How often do you have trouble separating the sin from the sinner? Are you able to see God's perspective in those around you, even those unlovable ones He has placed in your life? Have you written anti-heroes that reader will love to hate?


Monday, September 27, 2010

A God's Eye POV of Character Development

Pepper here :-)

As many of you know, last weekend I attended the American Christian Fiction Writers Conference in Indianapolis.
Leave a comment today for a chance to win Making Waves by Lorna Seistland - she was signing books at ACFW!!!!

 Tim Downs was the keynote speaker. His presentations were fabulous – filled with humor, insight, and enough gravity to weigh your heart down to your shoes. In a very good way.

Seriously. He challenged us.

So it got me to thinking. That’s right. Me. Thinking. Are you scared yet? ;-)

One of the elements which make for a fabulous story is the ensemble of characters in a book. The mesh of various personalities.

Is your heroine memorable? Your hero?

How about the way they blend together, your whole cast, to bring about the journey you started on page one?

Characters are important, vital, the heartbeat of a novel– a masterpiece of the author’s skill, creativity, and design. Each one serves a specific purpose within the grand scheme of your novel. You shouldn’t just toss in Cousin Melville unless he has something to contribute to the overall story. He’s strategically placed.

Just like you and me from God’s POV.

Each character He’s placed in His story is specifically designed to serve a purpose. All parts of the body of His best prose.

In the writing industry we hear so much about…

What editors want for their publishing houses?

Where publishing trends are heading?

Which rules to keep and which ones to break.

How to create memorable characters, page turning plots, and meaningful conflict –

And all of those hold important places in making us better writers who write compelling stories…

But at the bottom of it all, of our writing and our lives, there is one simple truth:

We are called to glorify God.

From the words of our mouths to the ones that flow from our fingertips – we have a unique calling. We are all characters in a massive story, a saga from the beginning of time. In this compilation of dramas, comedies, tragedies, and adventures, there is the scarlet ink of God’s redemption stamped on each page – within each soul. It marks us, motivates us, and modifies our thinking.

And we can’t help but express it. Not if we understand what that red-stained hope really means.

If we view ourselves from the vantage point of God’s creation, characters developed for a specific purpose in His story, then it changes the way we live AND the way we write.

The bottom line is that the attitudes of our hearts guides the direction of our pens


Our perspectives influence the choices in our keystrokes

Who we believe God is – and how we see ourselves within His world directs everything we do.

To say it from a Biblical POV, “Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks…” (or writes).

And this overflow may come out in an overt way, splashing onto the pages of our novels through Bible verses and conversion scenes – or it may weave its way subtly through the message of our books, barely noticeable except to a reader who is ready to ‘see’ it.

We are each uniquely gifted to make an impression on the people God brings into our lives in the flesh, or vicariously through our writing.

And in God’s story, no one is a minor character. Some may end up being recognizable names like David, Peter, Mary, or Paul – and others names we may never know, but they are strategically placed in God’s story to fulfill a mighty purpose in a quiet way. Just like the characters we write.

Stories are the same way. Some will SCREAM of God’s redemption – shouting for the sinner to find hope in Jesus, but others will woo with words and paint pictures through stories, without one overt mention of the salvation plan.

And God will use them both – for His glory.

God’s characters are all paged together for the perfect story, all moving the story forward to its climactic and glorious ending ;-)

At the ACFW banquet, author Janette Oke called our books “paper missionaries”. I like that, because missionaries know, as the rest of us should understand, the call to change someone’s character isn’t up to us – but the AUTHOR of that character’s life. Only the creator of that character can truly change him/her.

In the grand story of life –

We may write the words

but God writes the heart.

What's some of the best writing advice that's ever reprioritized your writing?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

What's Up the Street for Next Week?

A bend in the road. We often don't see it coming. Especially in life. An unexpected event, whether good or bad can take us on a dive in a completely new direction.

What would happen if we didn't follow that bend? If we decided that we were just fine and content to stay in the normal, familiar. I wonder how much we would miss out on. What surprises God might have in store just around the corner. And in writing nothing could be a more curvy journey.

So while you traverse the twists and turns to publication, or to the next WIP or even just to the computer to write, take a quick pit stop and check out what is around the corner here at the Alley.

Monday: A Heavenly Perspective to Character Development. With the ACFW fueling her inspiration, stop by to see what Pepper has to share with us today.

Tuesday: Sharing her thoughts and wisdom in the only way she can, Sherrinda entertains while inspiring.

Wednesday: The Essence of Plot will inspire your morning writing session. And if you have missed the first two "essence" posts, visit them here: Part 1 and Part 2 

Thursday: The last installment in Casey's Myth Buster series is up with Secondary Characters are Cardboard Cutouts. Hmm, does she really know what she is talking about? We shall see, won't we?

Friday: *drum roll please* KRISTA IS BACK! Launching into her new series with Romancing the Blog. It will be so good to have her back, so don't pass up this post!

Saturday: Pinch me, I must be dreaming... Laura Frantz is visiting the blog ladies and gentlemen, and doing a giveaway of both of her books! Don't miss this event, it will be tremendous fun!

SideWalk Talk
With a spectacular line up coming to the Alley in the next few weeks, I have to keep pinching myself about how blessed we are to secure these interview spots. How thrilling can it be to have these wonderful, accomplished authors here with us. Almost as good as going to ACFW!

10/9: Jack Cavanaugh on writing a series in order
10/16: Susan Meissner interview
10/23: Siri Mitchell interview
10/30: Camy Tang on acquiring an agent


October brings with it lovely fall colors and a new romance series to Pepper's blog! Seasons of Change: Falling Into Love with Mary Connealy, Julie Lessman, Margaret Brownley and more!

Be sure and check out Shannon Vannatter's blog, The Inkslinger Blog on October 1st when she hosts an interview she had with Casey on her "love story"

October 7th holds another interview date for Casey with Julia Reffner from Dark Glass Ponderings as she talks about the ministry of her blogging.

And now for your viewing pleasure, check out this links for photos of this past 2010 ACFW Conference. Enjoy!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Special Guest Saturday: Joseph Bentz

Voices in Your Head: When Characters Won’t Leave You Alone
by Joseph Bentz

Do characters take on a life of their own beyond the page? As a writer, do you find yourself taking on their worries, their pain, their triumphs? Recently a friend who is writing her first novel emailed me to say that she had been feeling sad at the end of her writing time because she’s writing a portion of the novel in which her characters are sad. Was that normal, she wondered?

My response is yes, it is not only normal, but it was probably a sign that her story is working. If her characters were so flat that she never thought about them or identified with them at any time other than when she was writing, I would be far more worried. One of the joys of writing fiction is the creation of an alternate reality filled with people and places and events that become almost as real to us as the everyday reality in which we live.

At the university where I teach, some of my colleagues invite me to speak to their classes when they teach my novel, A Son Comes Home. The students talk to me about the people in the story as if they’re real. We probe their motives and their actions. Some students demand to know what happens to the characters after the novel ends, as if the characters are real people whose history I must have kept track of. When I say that I have no idea what happens to any of these people beyond the pages of the novel, some students look at me skeptically, as if I’m deliberately concealing information from them.

As a literature teacher, I also experience this same sense of “reality” of my favorite novels that I teach year after year. Huckleberrry Finn is not a real person? To me he is. Atticus Finish is made up? Hard to believe. Hamlet is not a flesh-and-blood person? He is only words that Shakespeare wrote on the page? You’ve got to be kidding.

I have worlds of people and dramatic moments swirling in my brain, some created by writers hundreds of years ago who could scarcely have imagined me experiencing their vision here in the twenty-first century. Now, as a novelist, I have the opportunity to create a few people and dramas of my own, and those visions now float around in the heads of readers I’ve never met. What a joy! That thought alone makes all the hassles and rejections and insecurities involved in writing fiction worth every minute.

I told my friend to be grateful that her characters keep invading her mind even when she’s not writing about them. She should do nothing to squelch them. Let them grieve and worry and conspire all they want to. That’s where their depth comes from. The more they show up when they’re not supposed to, the better she’ll get to know them. She may need to keep pads of paper around the house to record these characters’ ideas and moods and words. Before long, they’ll begin to seem just as real as her husband or her children. She won’t be making them up. She’ll be listening to what they have to say. She’ll look forward to their next surprise. They’ll become increasingly complex and multi-dimensional, just like the real people in her life. She’ll want to spend more and more time with them. Even better, her readers will want to spend time with them too.

Joseph Bentz is the author of four novels and three non-fiction Christian living books. His most recent book is God in Pursuit: The Tipping Points from Doubt to Faith (Beacon Hill Press, 2010). Among his novels are A Son Comes Home (Randall House, 2007), contemporary novels published by Bethany House, and a fantasy novel, Song of Fire, published by Thomas Nelson. Bentz is a professor of English at Azusa Pacific University in Southern California, where he teaches courses in American literature and writing. More information about his books and speaking is available at his website,

Friday, September 24, 2010

Three Country Dream Vacation!

To continue our Vacation Friday Theme, I am going to share my trip of a lifetime that I went on five years ago. My husband was asked to teach a class in Mbale, Uganda in Africa, and our church decided I needed to go with him. Yep. For two and a half weeks, I left my 4 children in the hands of my sweet mother and traipsed across the globe, eyes wide with wonder and jaw slack with amazement.
Village Church in Mbale, Uganda
First we went to Mbale, Uganda. After a total of 18 hours in a plane, we arrived and were in awe of the landscape so different from the U.S. It was surreal. We were able to visit a village church where the roof was made of grass and the floor of hard, dry manure. Yes, I am really large one in the picture.

Source of the Nile
 We got to see the source of the Nile River.A little farther down, you can ride the rapids. I, being the non-water-type, nixed that particular fun.

Top of Mt. Wanale
The top of Mt. Wanale was beautiful. An interesting thing about Uganda was that people are constantly burning their fields, which adds a continual smoky look to the area. After crops are grown, the people burn them, thinking that it is good for the soil. The people there grow crops everywhere and line the mountains with them. How they work them on that incline, I'll never know.
Market in Mbale
There was some good shopping to be had and I found out that Goodwill sends clothes for the people to purchase. It was interesting to see the name brand clothes on the people there.

After my husband taught his week long course, we headed back and took a three day layover in London. Oh my goodness! For a lover of history, this city was  a piece of heaven. I will say, thought, that after seeing the poverty in Africa, it was difficult to walk through the palace and see the crown jewels. All those beautiful gems under glass, just sitting there looking pretty while they could be feeding so many hungry children in Africa. I know, I's all a part of history and we have plenty of wealth here in the States, but it just struck home at that particular time and place.

Kensington Palace
We walked all over London, rode the subway quite a bit...MIND THE GAP...and saw some impressive architecture. We were able to see Trafalgar Square, where Mary Poppins sang about feeding birds. We walked across the London Bridge, and we toured the Tower of London.

London Bridge
One of my favorite things was seeing Westminster Abby. Oh my...the history there. I walked around the place, running my fingers across the walls, wondering what kings and queens placed their hands on the very walls I was touching. It was mind boggling.
Side View of Westminster Abby...with my husband.
We had a neighbor who insisted we hop over to Paris for a day and gave us the money to do so. We got up early and rode a train to Paris and we went fast and furious through the city, trying to get as much sightseeing as we could in the little time that we had. We visited Notre Dame and I was completely astounded at the beautiful craftsmanship. The stained glass, the painted carvings, the high carved ceilings. It was breathtaking.
Notre Dame
Stained Glass in Notre Dame
We did a really, really fast run through at the Louvre. Someday I am going back to Paris to spend several days perusing the sights and take my timethere. This museum is magnificent and is truly one of the most fascinating and lovely places I've ever been in. History from all over the world just wraps my brain in warm fuzzies.
After the Louvre, we went to Eiffel Tower. We wanted to go up to the top, but the line was so long, we went to sidewalk cafe instead and had coffee and some delicious creme brule. Oooo-la-la...scrumptious. 
Eiffel Tower
We came home from this trip tired and hungry to see our children, but still reflect longingly on our trip, hoping one day to return and spend more time really getting into the history and life of these great cities. (Paris in particular).

I was not writing at the time, and wonder what kind of stories I would have spun while experiencing history with fresh eyes. Sure, I can reminisce and weave some fun tales of ...something...but I bet traveling to a new country while on the prowl for a new story would produce some fun tales. 

Another day, another story, another vacation.

So what is the best vacation you have ever taken?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Myth Busters #4: Ing, Ly, and Was KILL!

Myth Buster #4


I repeat.



Let the words ending in:



or the three letter death word: WAS

enter your writing.

It is a mantra that is sung from the rooftops and proclaimed in the valleys, to never let three of these little "death" words enter your work of fiction, because it will KILL it! Decimate it. Stomp it into the ground. Murder. Death. Destruction.

I think you get the point.....

But why else would I be calling it a myth if not to burst it's pretentious bubble?

Because it is impossible to write fiction without breaking a few rules and without using these three little words or this case, one little word, two little generalizations.

Imagine the world of fiction with no use of the word "was". For example:

It was the same and a terrible sinking in the pit of my stomach settled down deep. Like rocks to the bottom of a rushing river, I was powerless to move, immobile in the face of my situation. It rushed by me like a mighty river, but I was at the bottom. Unrescueable.

Now without the "w" word

It the same and a terrible sinking in the pit of my stomach settled down deep. Like rocks to the bottom of a rushing river, I powerless to move, immobile in the face of my situation. It rushed by me like a mighty river, but I at the bottom. Unrescueable.

Was has been deemed a word that kills fiction and I will agree it is a lazy shortcut and borders on telling, but like you saw in the example above, you cannot go completely without. It is helpful though to go through your document and mark how many times you said the word "was", were they are and which ones can be eliminated, because you don't need all of them.

Instead of writing "I was tired" how about, "I yawned"? The first one told and included a "was". The second one was action and you saw and knew I was tired without telling you. There has to be a balance.

"LY" and "ING" get the same bad rap as "WAS" gets and for the exact same reasons. And like with the use of the word "was" you cannot completely do away with all "ly" and "ing" words. When I was editing my very first story, I went through and eagerly marked all my "ly" and "ing" words. Eager to do away with them with my sharp and at the ready, red pen. But as I went through I quickly learned that no matter how many times you try to rearrange a sentence, it doesn't always work out to your advantage to kill the "ly" and "ing" words.

This led to a great deal of frustration on my part and much hair being yanked at its roots. Until I learned that, like with everything else in the fiction writing world, there has to be a balance.

That is my point of today's post. You can't go from one extreme to the other. Killing "wases" and annihilating all "ly" and "ing". Because when you do, you will degrade your fiction into a pile of alphabet soup. But you can't keep all of them either. Too may "ly" words weaken your writing. Make it stronger with dropping the past tense "wases" and making it active. Make it real for the reader. "Ing" is harder to drop in my humble opinion, but still too much of one thing isn't good for you!

By all means go through your manuscript and highlight those killing words, but before you put them on the chopping block, look at more than just that one sentence. Does it make sense with the rest of the work surrounding it? Is it okay to leave it this time because it is needed, or does it need to go because it weakens your writing? Are you being passive or active? That is the operative word here: active. You have to be active in your fiction to make it jump from the page.

All things in moderation. Moderation being the key. Because in the end your fiction will be stronger for it.

What is your opinion on the "ly", "ing" and "was" curse? Do tell. :-)

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Essence of Setting

Would you pick this rocky carved area in the Middle East as the setting for the climatic ending of an adventure story?  Spielburg and Lucas did for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Is the choice of a setting really that important?

I took a photography class in high school to avoid chemistry.  I loved taking pictures, developing them in a dark room (whoops, gave away some age info there), and watching the images come to life on a submerged sheet of photo paper. 

One day my teacher showed us a movie (not dvd or was a 16 mm).  He told us to watch for the one component that made the movie come alive. We made our wild guesses not knowing what he really wanted.  He showed a second version of the same movie. It had something missing.  We couldn't put our fingers on what was missing, but the second version was terrible. We later learned the music had been cut from the second version.

The music of a movie holds a commanding role.  Movie music told me that Mr. and Mrs. Smith was a comedy long before anything else did.  Movie music tells the viewer when to cry, cheer, scream, laugh, or when to hold their breath. 

Music for a movie plays the same role as setting does for a book.  Both are seemingly invisible (when done right), but communicate volumes. 

Take, for example, the following scenerio:

Jane runs out of the house to meet her fiancee, Ken,
and heads off to his parents to celebrate Christmas.

Perhaps you have the scene in your mind already.  What do you see? 

Did Jane dash out the rickety farm door, hop into a mud splattered Jeep, and Baja through the bayous to his parents?

Did Jane lock her brownstone door, slip into the backseat of a taxi, and drive out to the suburbs of Boston?

Did Jane step off her junk, stroll down the dock to the rickshaw and allow Ken to help her climb up?

Did Jane stoop to crawl out her igloo, wade through snow drifts, then mount Ken's snomobile?

The variations are endless.  Think of how the dialogue would vary in each setting. Think of how the historical events might influence Jane and Ken's lives. While the characters could come away with the same basic theme and the plot could be basically the same, the one component which would change the entire store would be the setting. 

Here are some tips to bring out the essence of your setting:

1.  Plant your setting in fertile soil:  Chose the setting that will offer your characters varied conflicts and unusual resolutions. Who would have thought that the exciting final shoot out scene would take place in a "Costco" (Mr. and Mrs. Smith)?

2.  Minute details: Know the finest details, down to the type of soil, buildings, traffic flow, etc. for your setting.  If you plant carrots in rocky, clay soil, they won't grow well.  Cowboys like the west. Cars are not allowed on Mackinac Island.  These details will keep your characters from driving on the wrong side of the road and holding the Traverse City Strawberry Bazarre in August.

3.  Keep real places, real.  I want to set my story in Rapid City, Michigan where I use to live.  Perhaps buildings, roads, or vegetation have changed. I could put my setting as I remember, but I need to match events with the time frame. I could also use the Internet to see what the area looks like at this time.

4.  Perfect match:   The setting transports the reader to the one perfect location enabling your characters to experience their story. What would happen if you moved your characters to a different location? Would it add spice, thrill, or complexities?

5.  Melt into the pages: Setting clues should be sprinkled throughout the text instead of clumping paragraphs of descriptions.  In so doing you will familiarize your readers with their whereabouts in real time. For example:  I cannot have a cake instantly appear on my kitchen counter unless I buy it at a store.  To craft this dessert, ingredients must be added in a certain order, one at a time, and occasionally stirred, beaten, or folded. Once in the oven, the ingredients bond, forming a cake.  Melt the ingredients of your setting into the lives of your characters on each page.

Now that you think about your setting, is there anything you can do to enhance this crucial component of your WIP?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Layering VS Subplots

I don't know about you, but the writing jargon sometimes throws me for a loop. Show not tell, plot, panster, characterization, allegory, structure, tension, the black moment, you name it -  it was, and still is, confusing. For a long time I had trouble differentiating between layering and subplot. I don't claim to completely understand them and I struggle with really explaining subplots, but today I hope to break it down for you.


Subplots are rather easy, once you understand how they work. You have your main plot (A), and then have 2 or 3 subplots (B,C,D) Plot A is the main focus of the story.Subplots connect to the main plot, but is a story within itself. It is used to flesh out and deepen a story. They impact the main plot indirectly, bringing about change and contrast to deepen a character and their journey.

Here is an example taken from a blog post by Mary Lynn Mercer. (The whole post is an excellent resource on subplots.

In My Fair Lady, the main plot involves Henry Higgins' passing off Eliza, a cockney flower girl, as a duchess. The "B" story is the secondary plot, or subplot, involving Freddy's courting Eliza. The "C" story, or tertiary subplot, involves Eliza's father becoming respectable.

Subplots are vital in making a story rich and complex, and keeping the reader's interest. It makes the story three dimensional.


 When you move into a home, the house is bare. You have floors and walls. You add furniture to make it comfortable and you add decor to make it feel welcoming. Layering is like the soft touch of decor, making a house a home.

You are layering when you add more descriptive passages to your setting. You layer when you deepen a character, allowing them to share their deepest fears and hurts. Laying involves spicing up dialogue, voicing your character's thoughts, adding more tension, adding a foreshadowing element.

Layering is the icing on the cake, the sprinkles on the cupcake. It's the ketchup to your fries and the ice cream to your cobbler. (I'm hungry, can you tell?) Adding layers gives your story a three dimensional flare.

What are your thoughts on subplots and layering? Have you mastered them? Find them difficult?


Monday, September 20, 2010


Well, here I am - sitting at the computer at 12:21am on Monday, just in from visiting with the Seeker gals after the BIG night.
It's been a fabulous experience and I really hope those of you who've never had the opportunity can go soon (Sherrinda, Casey, Mary).
So - here's a bit of a recap from the Sunday Night's Award Ceremony where Seekerville and Cowboy Writer, Mary Connealy, won the Carol Award for Long Historical Romance with her novel, Cowboy Christmas.
Here's a pic.

And here are some more pics.
To the right is a pic with author, Cathy Marie Hake - a wonderful encourager and overcomer. Her personal story is fascinating and her novels are a delightful journey.

Here's a pic of some of the Seekers - Audra Harders, Janet Dean,
Debbie Guisti, and Cara Lynn James.
They were all so nice and encouraging. Audra took extra time with me to pray for my writing. I loved spending time with her - with all of them. They truly are as sweet and genuine as they appear on Seekerville.

Okay - so here's a bonus picture. ONe of the highlights of yesterday. Janette Oake came!!! And here she is. What a fabulous lady. It's hard to believe her book, Love Comes Softly, came out in 1979 and was one of the catalysts for the growth of Christian fiction.

I'll be posting more of the lessons and information I've learned over on my personal blog at , but let me just leave you with a few nuggets to chew on:
1. God's timing is perfect to fufill the Call He has on your heart
2. Fellowship is just as rewarding (if not more) as good teaching. I cannot tell you how encouraged I've been just by spending time with some of these wonderful pubbed and pre-pubbed authors this weekend.
3. Some of the 'rules' you've heard about on this site are still enforced - strongly- Show Don't Tell being one of the big ones :-)
4. The main purpose of what you write is to glorify God the way He's called YOU to do it. For each author it will look different, and I want to make a longer post about that point later.

Hope you enjoy the pics. There are more to come :-)

Sunday, September 19, 2010

What's Up the Street for Next Week?

ACFW Conference: Special Edition

Pepper with Mary Connealy
Were you left behind this year from all the conference excitement? Pining away that you have missed all the new knowledge and chance to converse with people that actually "get" you? Well fear no more! While we are home slaving over WIPS, conference recordings, books on the craft and prepping our blogs for a much needed dose of good old fashioned writing advice, the patrons of the ACFW conference have been stuffing knowledge within themselves like a student cramming for an exam. Not to mention all the calories from the Awards Banquet without the benefit of a treadmill.

Audra Harders, Pepper, Angie Dickens
Just dwell on all the things you are getting done that wouldn't have happened if you had attended. That's right, think positive and for a list of what to do during conference season, click here

But, I won't speak too loudly, because our own dear PEPPER is at the conference *quelling jealous envy* and she is going to check in and deck our weekend edition out with plenty of photos from the events! So you won't have to feel too left out. Just photoshop yourself in. Makes you feel like you were there. ;-)

Pepper and Linore Rose Burkard
So while Pepper is doing that, I am going to fill you in on what you have to look forward to on the Alley in our post conference edition. Who says you need to attend ACFW? You have us! Okay, maybe I shouldn't make that comparison.....

Monday: Pepper is blogging LIVE from the conference! Don't miss it.

Tuesday: Sherrinda is your hostess today and grab a pencile and pad, because Layers and Subplots is headed your way!
Wednesday: Expanding Setting, taking your setting onto a deeper level and make it a living character in your story.

Thursday: Ly. Was. Ing. Three little letters that can kill a manuscript... or can they? Myth Busters Installment #4 is headed your way today!

Friday: Sherrinda rounds out our month long series on Vacation Fridays, with a spectacular look at her past travels!

Saturday: Do you live with your characters? Does the thought scare you? Author Joseph Bentz (and speaker at ACFW, Pep did you go see him??) will be joining us to discuss this very topic.

The winner of Jody Hedlund's The Preachers Bride is... Carol N. Wong!!! Congratulations and thanks to Jody for visiting the Alley!

Take a deep breath. The conference and hubbub is almost over and you are returning with a fresh burst of new enthusiasm. Just what those suffering (or not so suffering) manuscripts need! But be sure and check out these author visits to the Alley for the month of October, they are sure to be loaded with wisdom!

10/2: Laura Frantz joins us (with a giveaway!)
10/9: Jack Cavanaugh is on the Alley
10/16: Susan Meissner is interviewed
10/23: Siri Mitchell is here! (pinch me! I can't wait!)
10/30: Camy Tang rounds out our month and shares much wisdom

SideWalk Talk
The ACFW banquet is tonight at 7:30 EDT and there is going to be a LIVEBLOG of the event! Check it out here, don't miss it! (I don't plan too :-)

Now sit back and enjoy the photos that Pepper has so graciously shared. Don't forget the captions if you have the time Pep! Have a great rest of the weekend everyone. :-)
Pepper and James Scott Bell

Melanie Dickerson and Pepper

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Interview with Author James Scott Bell

Pepper here, and I'm tickled all the way down to my funny bone to welcome famous author, speaker, and teacher, James Scott Bell.
(To the left is a picture of me and Jim yesterday at ACFW in Indianapolis).

I met him three years ago at my very first Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference and took his ficiton writing course. WOW! I realized then, for sure, that I was a writer. Sitting through that class confirmed all my weirdness in three short days. Oh, what a feeling!!! Two years ago, he was back at BRMCWC - and it was a pleasure to see him again. This weekend, he's up in Indy with loads of other authors, and aspiring authors, at the American Christian Fiction Writers annual conference.

So, I'm so happy to have him as our guest today on The Writers Alley.

Thanks so much for being with us today.

You are an author of both fiction and nonfiction, an adjunct professor, and a fabulous presenter. What parts do you enjoy most about those various hats you wear?

As a novelist, my greatest pleasure is in making up stories. I love the creation aspect, the idea phase, coming up with plot and character and then seeing how I get there on the page. This is my foundation. I consider myself a novelist first, and everything else follows.

When I'm in a classroom situation, I love seeing lights go on in the students' eyes. When they "get it." In fact, I've lost count of the number of people who've come through workshops of mine and have gone on to be published or have improved their craft and have been kind enough to credit me with part of that. That is enormously satisfying.

I really appreciate how approachable you are. Every time I’ve had an opportunity to meet you, you’ve been tremendously encouraging. Who are/were some of the people in your life who took time to encourage you in this crazy writing journey?

The first influence was my mom, who encouraged my reading and who was herself an aspiring writer. She helped me to be creative and write stories when I was in elementary school. I got into sports pretty heavily, but in high school I had a wonderful English teacher, Mrs. Marjorie Bruce, who saw something in me and helped to bring it out. I stayed in touch with her over the years, and in fact we were very close until her death at the age of 90. She was probably my biggest influence.

And then there are all the writers who spoke to me through their fiction. The ones who spring to mind immediately are Hemingway, Steinbeck, Saroyan, Raymond Chandler, John D. MacDonald and the ghost writers of The Hardy Boys series.

Your nonfiction book, Plot & Structure, was one of the first writing craft books I ever read. Do you still use the three-point plot structure for your novels, and how might you modify it a bit?

I use everything in Plot & Structure. That's why I wrote it. I put in there all of the things I had to learn by trial and error, so they are hard won techniques that actually work. I don't modify structure, just as I wouldn't try to modify the Golden Gate Bridge. The originality in stories comes from character and concept, spiced up with great dialogue and surprising scenes, but poured into a solid structure that I have found works the best for telling stories.

Are you a pantster? Plotter? Plantster? Whatever you want to call it – how do you write your books in a nutshell?

I learned how to write screenplays first. I used the index card technique to lay out a structured story, and I still do that for every novel. How heavily I outline has varied, sometimes depending on how much of the story is in my head. I do outline Act 1 fairly extensively, because that is where all of the story elements need to be strong or the book will sag in the middle. I like to have a pretty clear idea of how the book will end, though that is subject to change as the book goes along. You have to have some breathing room so the book can be organic. I remember once having a wife character who I planned on having leave the family home to be safe. But when I got to that scene she refused to go. I argued with her. She stood her ground. It was the right decision. It changed the direction I had planned on, but I wasn't so wedded to an outline that I couldn't go there. I don't take too hard a stand on this issue. But people who are purely seat-of-the-pants writers will benefit from a little more forward thinking. And those who like ironclad outlines, though they work for many writers, need to be open to the needs of the story as it develops.

I really appreciate the fact that your books are set in your hometown. Los Angeles. I know that stories happen everywhere, but what do you find most helpful and intriguing about placing your novels in a very familiar city. Any challenges to that?

Los Angeles is the greatest noir city ever. Because of its diversity there are an infinite number of settings, plot points, crazy characters and so on. It's just so rich, and I love going to places in the city I'm not that familiar with and getting to know it, taking pictures, walking around. If I was smart, though, I would set my books in Hawaii.
What makes writing a thriller so…well…thrilling? You must like it, since your books span both Inspirational Fiction and Mainstream fiction. What are some reasons you enjoy writing thrillers over, shall we say, romance?

I think thrillers where the original stories. Of the Caveman sitting around a fire making himself look good by telling the rest of the tribe how a mastodon came after him and he bravely fought it off. Thrillers bring a sense of order to a chaotic world. A sense of justice in the heart of darkness. People need to believe that. That's why romances are popular, because people want to believe in love. In thrillers, people want to believe that good can triumph over evil. Plus it's just plain fun to keep people up at night, turning pages, as you take them on a roller coaster ride.

What writing advice would you give to those of us who are either learning the craft or spreading our proverbial wings out toward publication?

Work under a quota system. That was some of the earliest and still maybe the best advice I got. I do a weekly quota, because there may be days that I miss for some reason. But I do my 6000 words a week, taking one day off to rest.

You have to finish what you write. You have to get to the end of that novel you're writing. You learn the most by just working through, pushing through, and then stepping back and trying to learn what works and what doesn't. That's why I write my writing books, to help writers work through those issues. But the most important thing is to write and finish what you write, and keep on doing it.

If you could be any of your characters, who would you be and why?

I think for just one day I would like to be Sister Mary Veritas, the basketball playing nun from my series, Try Dying, Try Darkness and Try Fear. I have never been a basketball playing nun and probably never will be, so it would be an experience. But then I would want to return to my real life where I don't have to wear a nun's habit, where I can still wear a Hawaiian shirt, shorts and flip-flops to Starbucks and do some writing.

Thanks so much for being with us today.
For anyone who wants to learn more about James Scott Bell's books, check out his website at