Thursday, February 28, 2013

Divine Inspiration

I'm sitting at Starbucks... supposed to be using a brief amount of kidless time I have to get some massive word-count down.

But every word I write, it's like this massive struggle. I've done all the things I've always told people to try when experiencing writers block.

I've set it aside for a time.

I've gone back and read what I've written to try and re-attain my inspiration.

I've kept writing, even if it was crap. (and believe me, IT WAS!)

I've tried a twist in plot, although I haven't killed anyone. I don't really write suspense, so it might be frowned upon... but I'm keeping it in my back pocket.

So, I'm sitting here, trying to figure out that one little magic key that I need to "unstick" me.

And it hits me.

A little whisper in my heart that hits me with the force of a load of bricks being dumped on me.

Jesus.

I've been writing this book for Jesus, but somewhere along the way, I got this crazy notion in my head that it was my job to make this book good. That it was all ME who write well and all ME who should come up with fantastic plot twists and tantilizing dialogue and intriguing characters.

ME ME ME ME ME!

But Jesus says... it's not all about us.

EVERYTHING we do should be for HIS glory. And if it is going to be for His glory, seems to me he'd want a part in it, ah?

So... I took a break to write this blog. To remind myself that my purpose is not JUST to entertain people, although I want to do that too. But in the end, I want my book to be an offering of love to my Savior, to bring him honor and glory, and to bring others closer to His throne.

I'm not saying that it's time to whip out the Bible and start preaching. (although I probably DO need to whip out my bible and start READING more.)

But.... just like I dedicated my life to Jesus so many years ago, I'm dedicating my writing, my words, to Jesus.

What he does with my gift is up to Him.

But I'm changing my focus. I'm praying for words. I'm praying for wisdom. I'm praying for HIS glory.

Discussion: What is the inspiration of YOUR books? Is it, maybe, perhaps, time for a re-dedication?

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

How Characters Can Change a World

How amazing that two people can lead nearly the same life circumstances and end up with different outcomes.

The idea struck me after hearing a move line, "There's things you can control and things you can't" from the movie, RED

Today we will look at two female characters, one from a fairy tale and one from an historical fiction to observe what caused the two characters to end up with completely different outcomes.

The two ladies are Cinderella and Scarlet Ohara

Cinderella begins her story as a daughter of a wealthy man. Her mother has passed away and so her father marries a woman with two daughters. Shortly after the marriage, Cinderella's father dies, leaving her to the mercies of her stepmother. 

Scarlet Ohara begins her story as a daughter of a wealthy man. War breaks out disrupting her routine of attending social events and entertaining hordes of men swooning after her. No longer the center of attention she marries the first man still at home, stealing him from sister.

Both plummeted from their wealthy life of ease to something less desirable. 

But what each did with the situation brings the distinct differences in their respective stories. 

We may not be able to control our circumstances, but we can control our response, which can change the outcome.

*
Here is a description of the two lady characters:

Cinderella is a shy, glass half full type of personality. She doesn't like the chores she must do, but has willingly worked with and accepted her circumstances, doing the best she can. She respects the dictatorial stepmother and even tries to please the selfish stepsisters, hoping to form a true sister relationship.

Scarlett is a determined, mostly selfish, she can-and-will-make-any-situation-better type of personality. She never does anything beneath her station unless pressed into a corner. Unfortunately, she finds herself in the corner too often and has to help birth a baby, run a business, wear morning clothes, and hide a dead soldier. The only one she ever wants to form a true relationship with is Ashley, no one else is worth her sincere efforts.

Now lets see how their personalities directed their outcomes.

*
Cinderella's days drag on until one day the king announces a ball for his son. He invites all the single young ladies of the kingdom. Remembering her days of wealth, Cinderella dreams of going to the ball. She doesn't seem to view it as an opportunity to dance with the prince, but dreams of dressing up, riding in a carriage, meeting and talking with other people, and dancing. And if she were to happen to dance with the prince, well that would be a wonderful bonus. Inspired by her stepmother's promise to allow her to go, Cinderella works hard to complete an impossible list of chores. Due to interruptions, she does not finish in time.

Desperate to lavish in wealth again, Scarlett marries Rhett, the only man who can afford to provide the wealth her heart hungers for. Scarlett's selfishness grows with each item Rhett gives while her heart resolves to one day marry Ashley. Each time Ashley comes home from the war Scarlett confesses her love to him despite how her words could hurt his wife, Melanie. Her desperation to one day marry Ashley intensifies with each meeting. Melanie dies and Ashley finally tells Scarlett he only ever truly loved Melanie.

Both situations are hopeless. Cinderella can' go to the ball, and Scarlett can't have Ashley.

* Now comes the reward for a story life of responses.

Cinderella, trapped, yet doing her best to make the best of her situation. Scarlett, trapped, yet doing her best to have what she wants no matter who it hurts.


Cinderella looks out the window and sees the carriage pulling away. She has nothing appropriate to wear, no transportation, no hope to get to the ball. Until . . . POOF her fairy godmother appears. Tah dah, the fairy godmother, who has been watching Cinderella's situation and ,  given the most beautiful gown, shoes, and carriage, but it comes with a glitch. Be home by midnight. 

Scarlett looks out the window from where she stood with Ashley and realizes she has been mistaken all along. Ashley never loved her. Rhett did. She wanted to kindle her relationship with Rhett. Yes, she must run home and confess her love to Rhett and everything will be fine. She must hurry and put all propriety aside. 

* With grace and beauty, Cinderella enters the ballroom as the flawless beauty she is both inside and out. She captures the attention of all in attendance. The prince dances with her, they fall in love, the clock strikes midnight and she must leave his embrace. 

Eager to step back on the pedestal of class, Scarlett falls from grace and beauty, sacrificing all propriety by running and calling out, as no woman from her stature should, back to her home. She desperately searches for Rhett in their empty home. No one praises her, smiles at her appearance. She finds him packing. Struck by the harsh reality of losing Rhett, too, Scarlett throws herself at the only man who could save her.  He is repulsed.

* Again all seems lost for both Cinderella and Scarlett

At this point, the two women both do something contrary to their personalities. 

The prince goes to each home in the village, searching for his true love with nothing but a glass slipper. He goes to Cinderella's house and is only shown the two step sisters. To remain shy and accepting of her situation would destroy any chances to be with her love. She boldly comes forth, asks to try on the slipper and is discovered to be the one the prince has been searching for. They live happily ever after.

Rhett walks down the grand staircase, shunning Scarlett's words. Tired of her antics and convinced he will never have her true love he ignores her pleadings. He defiantly walks out the door stopping only to say the only words which could have any affect on her. At this point Scarlett stops. She no longer goes after what she wants. She allows him to leave, saying she will think about it another day. 

*In the movie The Prince of Egypt. Moses says the following words to the Hebrew people to encourage them to fight to leave Egypt, "They may hurt our bodies, but they cannot take our souls." 

Two characters like Cinderella and Scarlett may have similar circumstances, but the end result may be totally different based on the character's heart, their true response. 

When you write your story, first take a moment and write ten emotional words to capture the personality of each significant character. Then hold true to that description throughout the story. Earlier in this post I described Cinderella and Scarlett. They both stayed true to those descriptors throughout the story.

What emotional words best describe your MC?


******************

This blog post is by Mary Vee

Mary has moved to Michigan with her husband, closer to her three college kids. She misses the mountains of Montana, but loves seeing family more often. She writes contemporary Christian fiction with a focus on the homeless population and loves to pen missionary and Bible adventure stories on her ministry blog, God Loves Kids.


Visit Mary at her website and her ministry blog to families: God Loves Kids. Or chat on Facebook or Twitter

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

What Are You Hungering For?

There are seven "I AM" statements of Jesus in the book of John. These statements are reminiscent of God's proclamation of Himself in Exodus 3:13-15, when he declares to Moses, "I AM THAT I AM". These seven statements reveal the very nature of God, embodied in His Son, Jesus.

Today I want to focus on the first of these statements.

"I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty."  John 6:35

I don't know about you, but I love bread. Soft yeasty bread. Crusty bread. Wheat. White. Rye. I just love it all. So when Jesus says he is the bread of life, my mouth goes to watering.

So what's so important about bread? Well, it has nutrients the body needs. It provides fiber. It fills the stomach and satisfies. And we will die without food. Our body needs some kind of sustenance for life. The same is true for water. A human body can only go about 3 days without water, then the kidneys begin to shut down. We must have water.

Now Jesus is not claiming to give us living bread and water. He claims he IS the bread of life. He IS the living water. He is the way of salvation. Jesus is the path to real living and to living real.

While Jesus tells us we will never go hungry if we come to him, he means we will never starve to death...we will never die in our sin. Once we believe in Jesus and follow Him...taste Him...we will hunger for the real bread that gives life. That hunger is a GOOD thing, because we will always run to Him for the sustenance that only He gives.

But sometimes we let life get in the way. Times get tough. Life gets hard. Our focus slips and we lose our way. Our spirit begins to atrophy without the bread of life, Jesus. We hunger for relief from our pain instead of the presence of Jesus. So let me ask you...

What are you hungry for?

A Note to Writers:  So often writers who are seeking publication tend to focus on that one thing: Publication...that elusive goal of getting your work on bookshelves across the nation. You hunger for it, don't you? 

Well, let me tell you. If your focus is not on God and His mission in this world, then you are missing the mark. It could be that writing that book really is His mission for you in this world, but if you are solely focused on finding the right agent, finding the right editor, finding the right publishing house, you are hungry for the wrong things.

Hunger for God. Hunger for Jesus' words of life. All else will come into play in His time.

What are you hungry for?


Monday, February 25, 2013

Heroes According to Jane Austen - Part 2


Last time I introduced the 6 Austen-hero-types, but only expounded on the first two. As a refresher, here are the 6 categories:

The Reluctant Hero

The Subtle Servant

The Good Guy

The Best Friend

The Reformed Rogue

The Anti-Hero

Though the last two hero types seem to cause greater swoon-power, I am equally impressed (and enamored) by the next two Austen heroes.

The Good Guy

This hero is good for goodness sake. The heroine meets him within the first chapter or two, and there is an immediate kinship because this hero has the ability to create instant camaraderie. He doesn’t brood, is honest, hopeful, encouraging, and usually has a fantastic sense of humor. Though – I’d have to say most of Austen’s heroes have solid senses of humor, this one may have of the best.

Henry Tilney

Austen describes our first glance at Henry as this: "rather tall, had a pleasing countenance, a very intelligent and lively eye, and, if not quite handsome, was very near it."

Henry Tilney, a second born son and one of the few ‘good’ clergyman in Austen’s novels, stands in contrast to many of her other heroes. He’s open, friendly, honest, has a fine income, quick wit, and teases the conventions of society. Much like Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, he takes the poor, inexperienced heroine, Catherine, under his wing to guide her in ‘polite’ society – most of the time tongue-in-cheek style. Unlike Henry Higgins, he does not carry the same arrogance or self-importance, but seems genuinely kindhearted and goodnatured. Plus, he’s good to his sister and likes to read novels ;-)

In all honesty, how can you not like a guy who says stuff like this:

Miss Morland, no one can think more highly of the understanding of women than I do. In my opinion, nature has given them so much that they never find it necessary to use more than half.” -Ch 14 of Northanger Abbey

Austen's Mr. Bingley and perhaps Colonel Fitzwilliam might fit in here too.

Justin Wells from Margaret Brownley’s A Lady Like Sarah

Red Dawson from Mary Connealy’s book Montana Rose (FAVORITE Connealy classic)

Harry DeVries from Siri Mitchell’s She Walks in Beauty (FAVORITE Siri historical)

George Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life

Captain America, Superman

And Jack from While You Were Sleeping

The Best Friend

This is the man who not only provides a solid friendship, but is a confidante for the heroine. The difference between him and the Good Guy type is the depth of relationship he already possesses with the heroine. His closeness, many times, fogs up the feelings of love growing between the two, and may become entangled with conflict, irrational behavior, withdrawal, and conflict before the pair realizes what revelation is taking place in their hearts. In my opinion, solid friendship is a prerequisite to true love, and there is rare beauty in a gentle transition of platonic relationship deepening with romance.

Within the uniqueness of this romance is the need the hero might have to 'set the heroine straight'.  Their close relationships encourages the hero to feel a particular need to keep the heroine on the right track and perhaps even reprimand her if she sways off.

Mr. George Knightley – George Knightley seems to possess all the makings of a perfect hero and without the brooding of Mr. Darcy or bitterness of Captain Wentworth (though both of those heroes are fantastic). He is prone to ‘right wrongs’ to the point of being a bit bossy sometimes, but his intentions are to bring Emma back to the woman he knows she truly is on the inside. Their friendship gives him the intimacy of knowledge about her which a shorter acquaintance might not provide. Controlled, even-tempered, and logical, Mr. Knightley only loses ‘his cool’ when he becomes aware of his deepening feelings for Emma, to which he then responds with foreign internal feelings such as jealousy and impulsivity. He is the epitome of kindness, and is quick to assist the needs of the women of his acquaintance. And though he sees clearly Emma’s flaws, he loves her still, perhaps his love even deepens because of the solid foundation of their friendship.

 John Brady in Julie Lessman’s novel A Passion Denied

Gilbert Blythe from the Anne of Green Gables series

Harry from When Harry Met Sally

Adrien from Siri Mitchell’s novel Kissing Adrien

What do YOU think of these two Austen hero-types? Have you ever written a Good Guy or a Best Friend? In my current historical romance I have a 'Best Friend' hero. In the third book of that same series, I have a Good Guy.

Please share!

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Wha'ts up the Street Next Week?

Monday - Pepper has Part 2 of her Austen Heroes series. If nothing else, you should stop by for the cute pictures.

Tuesday - Sherrinda brings a focus on Jesus' "I Am" statements. Come see what she has in store to feed our souls.

Wednesday - Mary gets back into 'character' with How Characters Can Change the World

Thursday - Come be inspired...or be reminded about where to find the Source of Your Inspiration.

Friday - Casey ends our week with her usual style. Make sure to stop by!

Plus - The Writers Alley has its own Facebook Page. Come be our 'friend' :-)

What's Up the Street Next Week?

There are LOADS of new books out to tempt your fancy.
Have you noticed?

Right now, our dear Casey is leading a fabulous discussion on the ACFW bookclub using Dani Pettrey's novel, Submerged. Fantastic story.

Mary Connealy's newest, Swept Away, is getting ready to hit the shelves.

Siri Mitchell's next wonderful historical, Unrivaled, is waiting to be read.

Ruth Axtell's magnificent 'next', Moonlight Masquerade is up for review. WOW!!!

Are you looking forward to any new books for your wishlist?

Why are you excited about it?


Stop by this week for some fun, entertainment, and teaching with The Alley Cats. It's a week of surprises....only good ones :-)

Friday, February 22, 2013

Snip Skimming in the Bud: How to be Eloquent and Snappy



Skimming. A writer’s nightmare. Here we are pouring intense thought and meticulous planning into each layer and fold of our story, and yet, the reader is getting antsy. Missing the sheer genius of those carefully prepared words.

I hate to admit that I do this sometimes. I know that someday (God willing) when my books are sold and charming people worldwide (delusions of grandeur—you can pray for me!) some poor misguided reader will glaze over those precious details I slaved over to get to the meat. It’s bound to happen at some point but mercifully I will remain ignorant of their slight.

I write suspense so I tend to be driven by action, pacing, and cliff hangers. But interestingly enough, I am equally wooed by the details, the little nuances of romance that tease and excite until we are chomping at the bit for more.
 
The point here is that there is a balance.

We’ve all been schooled with rulers to “show don’t tell,” because well, a plainly told story would bore us all to tears. We want to touch, taste, smell, see, and hear everything the characters are feeling because therein lies the magic of story. It’s power to transport us outside of ourselves into another dimension.

But sometimes, more isn’t really better for the reader. The excess becomes clutter, it bogs our pace, dwindles our excitement and your beautiful message, your long labor of love becomes the casualty of overwriting.

To sound medical I am going to coin this affliction Hyperwriteosis. Please consult your physician if symptoms worsen.


Prescription to keep you snappy (Use in moderation):

-Insert action tags to break up heavy introspection.
If we can see what is happening outside of the mind, how the person responds physically, we are more inserted into the moment and the scene has movement. Your page will have a pulse. It’s ALIVE!

         -Sprinkle in your senses.
            Susan May Warren does a great job teaching about utilizing the five senses in every scene. If they are all present, they almost disappear and the scene is alive all around you. But don’t plop them all in at once because it becomes an information dump. Warning: SKIM-CITY. You don’t want your scene to read like a checklist. Yep, she’s smells the dank air of the alley. The brisk wind shivers through her coat. It’s umm… dark, and the casts of shadows warn that she’s not alone. She can taste her own fear as nervous bile creeps up and spills onto the back of her tongue. And well, despite the cold, her fingers are slick with sweat. These are all great things to know, and each detail is a new smear of paint on your canvas, but I doubt your character notices them all at once so why paint like a three year old?



-Write with purpose.
            Everything you plant on that page needs to be a seed. Some thoughts are seedlings—little sprouts of insight into your characters personality, their uniqueness, their setting, what makes them tick. Other thoughts have roots that run deep under the foundation of your story. They peel away motivations and fears; they raise the stakes and bring the house down when we get hit with the black moment. Bam! My point is, don’t waste your words of things that aren’t important to your story. The reader is smarter than you think and not always patient with your tangents. They will skip over your nonsense, or simply become annoyed by the delay and forgo the rest of your fabulous book.

-Create compelling characters.
            Yes, this is fiction so we get to play, sculpt some super fine hero with rock-hard abs and a smile dangerous enough to be illegal in all 50 states. But we also want these people to seem real. Be beautifully flawed. We want to fight through their struggles alongside them, believe in them. Creating characters with honest vulnerability can be a challenge. Sometimes it’s easier to write the uber-confident-smokin’-hot-bad-boy/nice-guy that any woman would trade her left ovary to ride off with into the sunset on his black stallion. But we don’t fall in love with cardboard cutouts. We fall in love with wonderfully broken pieces of humanity that somehow fit with our own. Make these people and their problems real and relatable. Your reader will swoon and will most definitely stay tuned.

-Write a chasing pace.
            It doesn’t have to have an actual chase scene with explosions and tumbling cars to have a fast pace. It can be an achingly slow and tender kiss scene that reads like a pedal to the metal ride on the Autobahn. Keep your sentences short. Stay away from large blocks of script or dialogue. And for me, puh-lease avoid reader uncertainty. Be clear about what is happening. Okay, so what, they are kissing. Not all kisses are created equal. If I am bored during a kiss scene you are missing the boat! Utilize those senses; draw me in so I can see it play out like a scene from a movie. If I don’t know where anyone’s hands are, what they are thinking, feeling, or even if they are still kissing after an unspecified time elapses, am I to assume it was a crusty peck kiss? Oh, that will win her over! You can be specific without being graphic. Your reader will thank you! They will sigh and remember exactly what it is like to be kissed senseless. Ow ow!


When do you feel you usually start skimming? And do you have anything other remedies to add to my prescription?

*********************************************************************************
Amy Leigh Simpson writes Romantic Suspense that is heavy on the romance, unapologetically honest, laced with sass and humor, and full of the unfathomable Grace of God. She is the completely sleep deprived mama to two little mischief makers and would challenge anyone to a cutest family contest. Represented by Chip MacGregor of MacGregor Literary Inc.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Fiction Fossils: Uncovering The Deeper Story in Your WIP



Fossils.

What's the big deal about a bunch of dried of bones? Why do they matter, anyway?

Well, because when it comes to archeology, they're the very things that tell the story.

Fossils, when given enough study and when put in the proper order, come alive. They tell us untold stories about a version of the world we never knew.

Today I want to talk about the fossils of novels: how we can discover, develop, and breathe into them to find the larger story we're writing.

Discovering Fossils

If you're anything like me, you love a book with beautifully written layers. Rachel Hauck's The Wedding Dress is a great example of this for me. (By the way, if you haven't read The Wedding Dress, you need to stop what you're doing right now and buy it. Rachel's racking up all kinds of awards for it, and I can tell you that personally it's made my favorite books of all time list.) She does an incredible job of combining a catching plot, colorful characters, and beautifully written, lyrical prose with the depth of a metaphor.

Usually, when I read a book and finish the story feeling unsatisfied, it's because that book has failed to register with me on a deeper, emotional level. I may have liked the characters and been interested in the plot, but my heart just didn't connect with it. Have you ever had this experience? It's unfulfilling at best and frustrating at worst. 

So let's talk about finding the bones of our stories. First of all, fossils are not easy to find. They aren't just lying around on the sidewalk. They are buried beneath layers and layers of soil, and they take a lot of toil and effort, time and energy, to unearth. The same is true of fiction. Many writers skip past the digging it takes to create a truly amazing, layered story because doing so is both tiring and overwhelming. Sometimes we feel like giving up. Sometimes the dust of the soil burns our eyes, and our arms grow tired from all the digging. 

If that's you, keep on keeping on. The deeper structure--the heart of your story--is worth the effort it takes to find.

Developing Fossils

I don't know much about archeology, but I do know that dinosaur bones don't look the way they do in museums when they're first found. Some of the bones might be broken from time. Some may not seem to fit. They are fragile and in need of preservation before being displayed.

The same holds true for your novel. Once you start to find the deeper pieces of your characters' struggles and the deeper motifs you want to work with, it's easy to get excited by your discoveries. But before long, you start to get frustrated. The bones seem to be falling apart. You may have a hard time fitting them together. Yet in the end, this is all part of the process.

So how can you develop the bones of your story? Well, for starters, look for moments that shine and sparkle. Do you use figurative imagery--maybe even accidentally-- that can be expanded and developed throughout? Perhaps even as a metaphor? Does the character have a deeper flaw or secret you've yet to reveal (or maybe even admit to yourself)? It all starts with recognition.

Once you find a gem buried in your story, spend time investing in it. Think through how you might be able to challenge your characters with that image or idea. Think of all the possibilities it offers for your plot. How might you expand that metaphor or deeper character arc by developing it further throughout the entire story? Could other characters get involved in the same issue or usher your main characters along?

Breathing into Fossils


Ezekiel 37:1-10:


The hand of the Lord came upon me and brought me out in the Spirit of the Lord, and set me down in the midst of the valley; and it was full of bones.  Then He caused me to pass by them all around, and behold, there were very many in the open valley; and indeed they were very dry. And He said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”
So I answered, “O Lord God, You know.”
Again He said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them, ‘O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! Thus says the Lord God to these bones: “Surely I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live. I will put sinews on you and bring flesh upon you, cover you with skin and put breath in you; and you shall live. Then you shall know that I am the Lord.”’”
So I prophesied as I was commanded; and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and suddenly a rattling; and the bones came together, bone to bone. Indeed, as I looked, the sinews and the flesh came upon them, and the skin covered them over; but there was no breath in them.
Also He said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, ‘Thus says the Lord God: “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.”’” So I prophesied as He commanded me, and breath came into them, and they lived, and stood upon their feet, an exceedingly great army.


Some days, it's tempting to believe all my ideas and stories are nothing more than a pile of dry bones lying in a valley. Can you relate? At best, God has commanded me to prophesy to the bones, and I have, and miraculously, they've come together: bones, sinews, flesh. This makes me excited. But then I realize something's still missing. Something very important. 

Breath.

Ultimately, only God can breathe life. This passage, however, demonstrates a beautiful concept: sometimes He uses us to do that very thing.

Maybe you have a story. Maybe you've even found the deeper bones of it. Maybe you've done the work to dig them up and polish them, and maybe you've carefully pieced them together.

Maybe, like me, you're looking at your novel and asking, "What's missing? I've found the bones. I've prophesied to them. They've come together. Why aren't they standing? Why aren't they going anywhere?"

If that's you, it's time to heed the word of the Lord. It's time to prophesy to those bones again. It's time to declare words of life over your ministry and calling. It's time 
to believe, to really believe, that these bones will live-- and not only live, but produce a great army, taking back what the enemy has stolen, for the fulfillment and enrichment of the hearts and souls of the children of God. 





It's time to declare an army of beautifully written stories to arise from the very dust where they were left behind.




I want to challenge you today to not only dig deeper into your story, but to also dig deeper into yourself. Have you given up on the life of your story, counting its bones forever dry? Have you lost sight and faith in the life-giving power of the spoken word of God in your heart, your ministry, your life? You don't have to settle for lifeless work any longer. I believe God is saying He wants to do something fresh in our lives and writing, but we must rise up and speak His words of life into these valleys. 




How can we put these principles into action in our everyday writing routines and lives so that we keep from growing dry?








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Ashley Clark writes romance with southern grace. She's dreamed of being a writer ever since the thumbprint-cookie-days of library story hour. Ashley has an M.A. in English and enjoys teaching literature courses at her local university. She's an active member of ACFW and runs their newcomer's loop. When she's not writing, Ashley's usually busy rescuing stray animals and finding charming new towns. You can find Ashley on her personal blogFacebook, Pinterest, and Twitter. She is represented by Karen Solem.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Reading outside your comfort zone


Author David Hewson says, “There are an astonishing number of people who think they can write books without reading books. Everything you need to know about writing can be found in books – and I don’t mean how-to-write books either.”

The best way to improve your writing is by reading. If you want to create words of beauty, you first need to foster the ability to recognise and appreciate beauty in the writing of others. It’s almost a process of osmosis. The word choices, the patterns of expression, the flavor of artful writing will get under your skin, and you’ll find it becomes less of a reach to create the same effects in your own prose.

The problem here is that many people resist reading outside “their” genre. It’s a safe-zone. You write romantic comedy, so you only read romantic comedy. You write Amish zombie thrillers, so you won’t read anything that doesn’t contain dead people in bonnets.

It’s important to stretch yourself if you genuinely wish to grow.

I love the story Gina Holmes shares, about how reading outside her comfort zone led to her first book contract. In an article for Christian Fiction Online Magazine, she explains:

“I grew up reading Stephen King, and so naturally when I decided to write a novel, I figured suspense was what I liked to read so it was what I should write. My first four novels were suspense. But then something happened . . . I started reading books like The Kite Runner, Memoirs of a Geisha, To Kill a Mockingbird, Watership Down, and authors like Charles Martin and Lisa Samson. I couldn’t get enough.”

You’ll notice these aren’t “genre” books. They’re either classics, or what we’d describe as “commercial literary” novels and authors.

Holmes describes this process of discovery as one of falling in love with words all over again. After four unpublished suspense novels, her newly expanding reading horizons inspired her to try her hand at something different. The result was “Crossing Oceans”, a quieter, more character-driven work of women’s fiction. The book was snatched up by Tyndale House and went on to win awards and become a CBA and ECPA bestseller.

Reading more widely is the best way I know to break out of a writing rut, stimulate new ideas and ways of looking at the world, and birth fresh inspiration.

Here’s my top three tips for reading outside your comfort zone:

1. Read commercial literary books, both CBA and ABA.

I’ve used this term once already – but what do I mean by “commercial literary”? I’m talking about books that hit the sweet spot between saleability – which, let’s face it, is usually driven by plot, or an engaging premise – and aesthetic/ emotional value, in which character development, emotional complexity, and the beauty of the words themselves are all supremely important.

If you haven’t read much commercial literary fiction, and don’t know exactly where to begin, let me suggest a “starter” list of books to check out. Here are some personal favourites, in no particular order:

ABA:
1. The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak
2. Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
3. Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
4. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
5. The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards
6. March by Geraldine Brooks
7. The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
8. The Language of Flowers, by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

CBA:
  1. The Passion of Mary-Margaret by Lisa Samson
  2. Blue Hole back Home by Joy Jordan-Lake
  3. Feeling for Bones by Bethany Pierce
  4. The Dead don’t Dance by Charles Martin
  5. The Queen of Sleepy Eye by Patti Hill
  6. Chasing Lilacs by Carla Stewart
  7. The Moment Between by Nicole Baart
  8. Daisy Chain by Mary deMuth


I could go on and on and on. (Can you tell these are the sort of books I love to read?)

2. Read prize-winning books.
Start with CBA prize-winning books, particularly Christy award-winners. You can find a list here.

But don’t discount secular prize-winning books, either. Exercise discernment – secular content can be gritty – but don’t let that stop you from dipping your toes into the remarkable pool of global talent. Try titles that have won or been short-listed for the Man Booker prize, the Orange prize, the National Book Award, and of course the Pulitzer.

Set the bar so high it makes you dizzy. If you always read books written at your level, you’ll never grow beyond that level.

3. Read classics.
There’s a reason some books stand the test of time. I’m first to admit that there are many classics I “should” have read, but haven’t. The good news is, most of these books are now in the public domain, so I’ve been collecting classics on my Kindle for free. No excuses now!

And lastly, just for fun…


How well-read are you?

The BBC released this list of 100 influential novels. They state that the average person will have only read 6 books out of the 100. How do you stack up?

The rules: it only counts if you’ve read it all the way through. (Sigh… my score would be quite a bit higher if I could only count the ones I’ve abandoned before the end!) And no, watching the movie does NOT qualify. (Darn it!)

1 Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
2 The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien
3 Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
4 Harry Potter series – JK Rowling
5 To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
6 The Bible
7 Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
8 Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell
9 His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman
10 Great Expectations – Charles Dickens
11 Little Women – Louisa M Alcott
12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy
13 Catch 22 – Joseph Heller
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare
15 Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier
16 The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien
17 Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks
18 Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger
19 The Time Traveler’s Wife
20 Middlemarch – George Eliot
21 Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell
22 The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald
23 Bleak House – Charles Dickens
24 War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
26 Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh
27 Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
28 Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
29 Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
30 The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame
31 Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
32 David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
33 Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis
35 Persuasion – Jane Austen
36 The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho
37 The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Bernieres
39 Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden
40 Winnie the Pooh – AA Milne
41 Animal Farm – George Orwell
42 The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney – John Irving
45 The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins
46 Anne of Green Gables – LM Montgomery
47 Far From The Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy
48 The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
49 Lord of the Flies – William Golding
50 Atonement – Ian McEwan
51 Life of Pi – Yann Martel
52 Dune – Frank Herbert
53 Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
54 Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen
55 A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth
56 The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon
57 A Tale Of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
58 Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night – Mark Haddon
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61 Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck
62 Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
63 The Secret History – Donna Tartt
64 The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold
65 Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas
66 On The Road – Jack Kerouac
67 Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy
68 Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding
69 Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie
70 Moby Dick – Herman Melville
71 Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens
72 Dracula – Bram Stoker
73 The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett
74 Notes From A Small Island – Bill Bryson
75 Ulysses – James Joyce
76 The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
77 Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome
78 Germinal – Emile Zola
79 Vanity Fair – Thackeray
80 Possession – AS Byatt
81 A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens
82 Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
83 The Color Purple – Alice Walker
84 The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro
85 Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert
86 A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte’s Web – EB White
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven – Mitch Alborn
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
90 The Faraway Tree Collection – Enid Blyton
91 Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
92 The Little Prince – Antoine De Saint-Exupery
93 The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks
94 Watership Down – Richard Adam
95 A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole
96 A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute
97 The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas
98 A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl
100 Les Miserables – Victor Hugo


So, what’s your score? Let us know in the comments! (Mine is 37. Hmmmm. Better than average, but well below halfway. I need to get reading! Who'll join me?)

Images courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net



Karen Schravemade lives Downunder and likes to confuse her American friends by using weird Australian figures of speech. When she's not chasing after two small boys or cuddling her baby girl, she spends her spare minutes daydreaming about the intricate lives of characters who don't actually exist. Find her on her website and Twitter.