Thursday, January 28, 2010

Mounting Tension

Computer problems kept me from posting earlier in the week as I had planned. Can anybody direct me to the nearest MAC dealer. During the second hour of tech support, the technician said, "Talking to you reminds me of why I'll never go back to a PC." I'm glad I was able to inspire someone yesterday.

But back to creating tension in a work. As I said on Monday I was disappointed that the AFC Championship game didn't contain more tension. Someone pointed out the NFC was chock full. Maybe that was the NFL's way of making it up to disappointed viewers.

Tension: 1. the act of stretching, stretched tight. 2. intense nervous anxiety. 3. stress caused by pulling or stretching.

I posted earlier about creating tension to keep your readers turning pages. It is imperative that you create tension as quickly as possible in a story. You may argue that the first thing a writer needs to worry about is the characters. After all, without characters to root for, the reader isn't going to care about whatever fantastic plot you've cooked up.

Yes, your characters are important. This is absolutely true. Give me someone to root for. But if you don't put the character in a must-win situation from the word go the reader won't hang around long enough to get to know and care about the character.

The opening character can be as basic as a dog lost on the street. I don’t need to know where the dog came from, what breed he is, or how he ended up homeless and hungry. Without knowing anything about the dog besides he is in a dangerous situation, I automatically root for him. He's a helpless animal, for crying out loud. That situation begs for sympathy.

Sympathy in a character builds tension. Imagine the following possibilites: A woman waiting for her husband to get home from work. There's an unopened letter on the table. She keeps looking from the letter to the window. Tension from the word go. What is she afraid of? The contents of the letter? How the contents will grieve him? Or is there a secret inside that puts her very life in danger?

What about: a child dreading the receipt of a test.
Someone waiting for a returned phone call.
A frustrated driver in rush hour traffic.
A man in a van near a city park, his hands wrapped around the steering wheel and his eyes glued to a lone child on the swings.

Each situation breeds tension. Fear. Compassion. Sympathy.

Does your opening contain these elements? Like I wrote earlier, it doesn't take exploding cars or gunshots in the night or squealing brakes and the thud of a body hitting pavement to create tension, though those work well. Imagine again the skinny dog flinching at the noises of the city as he maneuvers between legs and moving cars. Endless possibilites or an opening a potential editor will easily set aside.

You decide.

Monday, January 25, 2010

AFC Championship--Where's the tension?

As a huge Peyton Manning fan you can believe I was in front of the TV watching the match up between the Indianapolis Colts and the New York Jets yesterday afternoon. Part of me can’t help but root for the underdog so I almost wanted to see the Jets win the prize. The first half was a nail biter. Both teams played as if a championship was at stake. Oh, yeah, it sorta was.

But my interest soon waned as the wind went out of the Jets’ sails. Anyone could see this was the Colts’ game. As a writer it didn't take long to figure out why the AFC Championship game lost me as a viewer.

No tension.
No contest.
No surprises.
The death knell for any form of entertainment.
The Colts pulled ahead in the second half; the lead widened and the Jets began to play like a defeated team. When the Colts intercepted the ball just before the two-minute warning I was actually disappointed, even though it was the outcome I had hoped for.

In fiction, I know a few pages into a book how I want it to end. I already know my heroine is probably going to outsmart the bad guy. She’ll return the lost puppy to its master. She’ll reconcile with her mother. She’ll win the chili cook-off, save her sister’s marriage, rescue the children from the bottom of the deserted mine shaft, lose that last fifteen pounds, and of course, capture the heart of our dashing hero.

The trick for the writer is to make all those things happen---to give the reader the story they want, the outcome they expect, the champion they’re rooting for, without turning it into a runaway game that makes them turn the channel. The key to doing this is tension.

Tension: 1. the act of stretching, stretched tight. 2. intense nervous anxiety. 3. stress caused by pulling or stretching.

Readers hate this in real life, but you better give it to them in their reading material. Sol Stein in Stein on Writing says conflict is the ingredient that makes action dramatic. If you don’t quickly arouse the reader’s curiosity they will stop reading and close the book. You must arouse that curiosity and keep it aroused as long as possible.

Readers want to be taken to the edge of their seat once in a while, even though they expect a certain ending when they start reading. During the game yesterday, I got just what I expected...and it was boring. While still wanting the Colts to win, I would've preferred a little back and forth, a contest, some tense moments where it looked like the Jets might actually pull it out.

Whether fiction or nonfiction, look at your project this week. Determine that you are giving readers what they expect, but not it the way they expect. Try something new. Turn everything upside down and shake it out. Ask yourself: Is this going to deliver the right results, but in a new and unexpected way?

While you want to write a runaway bestseller, you don't want to turn it into a runaway ballgame that has everyone leaving early to beat traffic.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Lessons from the Garden--Mary DeMuth

My guest blogger today is Mary DeMuth, author of Thin Places: A Memoir. If you've met Mary or read any of her books, you know what an uplifting, inspiring person and prolific writer she is. I am honored to have her hear today to offer us words of encouragement.

For those of you discouraged about the writing journey, I hope my story helps a little. Or at least gives you an idea of how important tenacity is in the writing journey.

I read in Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent book called Outliers about the irony of genius. Most of those highly proficient in a career or endeavor spent 10,000 hours before they “broke out.” As I thought about my writing career, it all suddenly made sense. I spent the decade of the 90s (plus two more years) writing in obscurity, hour upon hour until I’m sure I surpassed the 10,000 hour mark. After that decade, I attended Mount Hermon with a novel in hand, landed an agent, and sold two books in that first year. Folks often want to hear that part of the story, but it’s hard for them to hear about all the underlying work that went into that dramatic year.

I don’t at all see those 10,000 hours as wasted time. It’s what I needed to apprentice myself to the writing craft. I found my voice. I learned to write fast. I exceeded deadlines. I curried discipline. All those traits serve me well now.

So now I’m in my twentieth year of this journey. I’m not a bestselling author. I’ve achieved some critical success, but I’m not fully making a living at it. I see this last decade as a building one. Recently the Lord showed me something profound while I gardened in my small vegetable patch (readying it for winter). My garden is small, though I long for a larger one someday. The Lord said, “I gave you a small plot so you’d learn to bloom there. If I gave you a field, you’d have been overwhelmed.”

True, true, true. Had I been granted instant success, it would’ve been like trying to garden on ten acres when I hadn’t mastered a 3x30 plot. All these ten years have been training ground for me to learn everything belongs to Jesus. Had I become successful out of the gate, I shudder to think of the Me Monster I might’ve become. I’m at that place where I’m keenly aware that everything is a gift. Success. Rejection. Waiting. Accolades. It’s all from His hand. And it’s not about me.

I’ve had an inkling that my next book could be the breakout one. But I’m also grounded enough to know that it could flop around like a dying fish. It’s okay. God, through ten years of 10,000 words and ten years of small plot gardening, has taught me the beauty of His sovereignty in it all.

So if you’re on your journey discouraged that publishing isn’t happening fast enough, that you’re “good enough” to be published but aren’t getting nibbles, stop and wait and consider.

Have you put in your hours?
How’s your small garden plot? Any weeds?
Have you rested in the fact that God has us all on vastly different journeys, and that yours will differ from everyone else’s?
Are you learning contentment, tenacity, patience?
Are you better craftwise than you were last year at this time?
Have you passed on what you've learned to others, being generous in what others have taught you?

Just some thoughts to consider as you journey forward.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Awesome Bond of Sisters

Virginia Smith is the author of a dozen Christian novels including the Sister-to-Sister Series, which is based in large part on her relationship with her own sisters. Stuck in the Middle was a finalist for the 2009 ACFW Book of the Year award. Her newest book, Third Time’s a Charm, the third and final book in the series, is now available wherever books are sold. Learn more about Ginny and her books, and enter a Prize Bonanza Giveaway, at

My middle sister and I fought like wildcats when we were growing up. One of my most vivid childhood memories is of being forcibly separated during an argument and banished to sit together on the living room couch with orders not to get up until we could get along. I huddled against one arm and resigned myself to living on that two-foot square cushion for the next eleven years, when I would turn eighteen and could get my own apartment. After an eternity, Mom entered the room to mediate. “Girls,” she said, “you are sisters. There will never be another person in the world more closely related to you than your sister. So you’d better learn to get along, because someday one of you might need a kidney.” Not, perhaps, the most convincing argument for reconciliation ever presented, but it worked. For the moment, anyway.

A woman has many relationships in her life, but the bond between sisters is unique. There is the biological link, but the connection goes beyond that. Sisters enjoy a shared past. They experienced many of the same events that molded their personalities, and therefore they understand one another in a way no one else can. They speak the same shorthand. If one of my sisters says, “I know! Let’s put on a show!” we all laugh, because we remember the first time one of us said that, and the resulting spectacle that has become family legend.

Sisters “get” each other without having to go into all the background. When I’ve had an argument with my husband, I can call my sisters and say, “He doesn’t want a puppy. I think I may divorce him.” My sisters understand my reaction immediately, because they remember witnessing our parents’ argument over the same subject. They can talk me down from the ledge, and away from the divorce attorneys. And they will do this even if I call them at three o’clock in the morning, with only a minimum amount of grumbling about the loss of sleep.

Psychologist Marcia Millman, author of The Perfect Sister, said during an interview, “I think sisters can help repair the injuries of childhood.” That’s certainly been true in my family. Whenever we get together, our husbands cover yawns and eventually slip away to the other room to watch a ballgame while we rehash events of our childhood, and discuss how they have impacted us as adults. Often I come away with a new perspective and a better attitude, so gatherings with my sisters are sort of like group therapy sessions. Only less expensive.

While it’s true that we share a common past, even sisters experience different events while growing up in the same household. I like to remind both of my sisters that, being the oldest, I blazed the trail for them. They both got their ears pierced sooner than I did, and wore lipstick, and shaved their legs. They were both allowed to date at an earlier age than I was, and stay out later. There are ten years between my youngest sister and me, so by the time she became a teenager, I had successfully driven our parents into a state of exhausted stupor, and she got to do pretty much whatever she wanted. (Which I still think is totally unfair, but that’s the way it is in most families, I’ve learned.) I think she owes me big-time.

My sisters and I do still have the occasional conflict. Author Linda Sunshine said, “If you don’t understand how a woman could both love her sister dearly and want to wring her neck at the same time, then you were probably an only child.” Our arguments don’t become physical anymore (we all understand the importance of good hair now, so we are no longer tempted to grab a handful), but these days, being at odds with one of my sisters is far more painful than our childhood brawls.
Several years ago, my middle sister and I had a disagreement and didn’t speak to each other for a few days. I was miserable without her, but we both stubbornly refused to back down. While cooking dinner one evening, I dropped a glass measuring cup she had given me, and it shattered. When it did, my stubbornness broke into a million pieces. My husband brought the phone to me where I sat sobbing on the floor, surrounded by shards of glass, and said sternly, “Call your sister.” Never has a reunion been so sweet.

Someone once said that relationships between siblings are the most long-lasting and influential of all. My sisters have been a part of my life longer than my husband or my children, and they will be part of my life even after our parents are gone. They know me, and understand me, and they like me anyway. They’re one of the best blessings God has given me. And as Mom said, if I ever do need a kidney, I know who to call.


8 Tips for Maintaining a Relationship with your Sister
In today’s busy world, it’s easy to let a relationship slide. That’s true regardless of whether you live nearby or far apart. Here are some tips for maintaining a strong relationship with your sister.

Scheduled Phone Calls – Communication is the key to any relationship, so don’t leave it to chance. Select a specific day each week for an uninterrupted phone call. Put your sister on your cell phone “Favorites” so you can talk free.

Text Messages – Texting is the preferred method of communication for one of my sisters. Be sure you have unlimited texts on your cell phone plan.

Utilize the Internet – Email and social networking sites like Facebook are wonderful ways to stay connected. On Goodreads and LibraryThing you can keep track of what your sister is reading, too.

Skype – If you both have a computer with a camera, this software allows you see each other while you talk – and it’s free.

Letters – Email is wonderful, but there’s nothing like reading your sister’s words in her own handwriting.

Cards – Next time you browse the card shelves, pick up several funny ones and tuck them away in a drawer. Send one every so often to surprise your sister with a laugh.

Sister Sleepovers – Even if you live near one another, there’s nothing like getting away from it all with your sister. Schedule an annual sleepover at a lodge, or hotel, or even at someone’s house. Leave the kids at home, and focus on having fun with each other.

Start a Tradition – Create a tradition you share only with your sister. For instance, my sister and I exchange ugly ornaments at Christmas every year. We spend months shopping for the ugliest ornament we can find, and love the competition of seeing who “wins” that year.

Third Time's a Charm by Virginia Smith
Paperback: 336 pages
Publisher: Revell
Release: January 1, 2010
ISBN-10: 0800732340
ISBN-13: 978-0800732349
Retail: $14.99

Kathy Carlton Willis Communications
1324 S. 10th Street Raymondville, TX 78580 | | 956-642-6319 |

Friday, January 15, 2010

Crafting Unforgettable Characters--Free E-book

My friend and fellow author K. M. Weiland has graciously allowed me to bring this info and offer to you.

As those of you follow me on Facebook and Twitter may already know, I’ve been hard at work for the last month, putting together an e-book as a gift to my readers. Today, I’m excited to announce that you can now claim your copy of Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

Featuring some of my most popular tips on character crafting, this pdf offers a good starting place for understanding the basics of character building, as well as some tips for troubleshooting. You’ll also discover inspiring quotes from successful authors, writing prompts, and creativity exercises. Of course, the discussion of character is far too vast a subject to be covered in a 50-page e-book, but this information will give you the tools you need to tackle your latest batch of characters.

Click here to follow the link.

Thanks, K.M. for letting me share this on Joy in the Journey.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

The Country House Courtship

Available now from Harvest House Publishers, readers will love the third volume in Linore Rose Burkard's wildly popular regency series, The Country House Courtship. In this installation, a young regency miss runs into conflict when her heart's desires concerning a husband run counter to what her mind says is best.

It is 1818 and Miss Beatrice Forsythe is determined to marry well. After all, her sister married the Paragon, Mr. Phillip Mornay, five years earlier--which all but guarantees that she, Beatrice, can also make a famous match to a wealthy man.

But her sister and husband have disappeared from high society as they raise a family at their country estate.
Can Beatrice persuade them to chaperone her in London?

Meanwhile an old acquaintance, Mr. Peter O'Brien shows up at the house as the candidate for a vicarage to which Mr. Mornay holds the rights. Will old passions and jealousies be revived? Or can Mr. O'Brien and the Mornays ever live near each other as friends? And what about Beatrice's rash promise to marry the curate, made years earlier? At seventeen now, she has no wish to marry a mere clergyman--despite his agreeable countenance and winsome gentle ways.

When Mr. Tristan Barton comes on the scene as the tenant of the Manor House, Beatrice's hopes seem to have found their object. But when Ariana falls gravely ill, secrets come to light, motives are revealed, and the pretences that are easy to keep up in the sunlight begin to crumble. Hearts are bared, truths uncovered, and when all is said and done, a country house courtship like no other has occurred!

Fans of Linore's first two books, Before the Season Ends,and The House in Grosvenor Square, will love this exciting conclusion to the Regency Series, as will all readers of historical romance.

Linore Rose Burkard creates Inspirational Romance for the Jane Austen Soul. Her characters take you back in time to experience life and love during the Regency England era (circa 1800 - 1830). Ms. Burkard's novels include Before the Seasons Ends and The House in Grosvenor Square (coming April, 2009). Her stories blend Christian faith and romance with well-researched details from the Regency period. Experience a romantic age, where timeless lessons still apply to modern life. And, enjoy a romance that reminds you happy endings are possible for everyone.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Just Write--What not to do when you should be writing.

The average writer encounters at least a thousand distractions during the writing day that takes us away from our masterpiece. While working on a workshop presentation for an upcoming writers' conference, I came across this list of things to avoid to keep from writing.

Always fun and inspiring, I thought I would share it here with you.

Do not check your email. Do not log in to your favorite writers’ group to see what everyone’s up to. Do not turn on the TV and tell yourself its research. Do not wash the dishes. Do not reorganize your computer files. Do not take out the trash. Do not Google your exes. Do not Google yourself. Do not take a nap—I fight this temptation every afternoon. Do not change the cat litter. Do not hang out the laundry. Do not file your nails. Do not answer the phone. Do not pay your bills. Do not balance your checkbook. Do not yell at your husband because he didn’t record the last five transactions. Do not start to think you don’t actually have what it takes to write a book. Do not edit your ideas before you even write them down. Do not start a to-do list. Do not start wondering if that mole is bigger than the last time you looked at it. Do not start thinking of all the loose ends you need to fix before you finish your book. Do not start perusing your own bookshelves for inspiration. Do not organize all the magazines you subscribe to but never read. Do not start thinking about what to fix for dinner. Do not look up the number for the local delivery place because you probably won’t have time to cook dinner since you’re having such an awesome writing day. Do not start worrying about all the time you’ve already wasted. Do not come up with 20 more Do-Not’s to add to this list.

Enough distractions. Get back to work. And if you happen to be in the Middletown/Dayton, Ohio area on February 27th, I'd love to see you at my workshop. Times and details will follow.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Undoing Negative Habits

They say old habits die hard. For me that is especially true. Have you ever moved a clock from one wall to another? How many times did you look at the blank wall to check the time only to remember the clock had been moved?

This week on American Christian Fiction Writers, they are discussing habits, both good and bad, that either rob us of our time or make us more productive. I examined my writing habits to see which ones should be eradicated and which ones I need to adopt?

One habit that I start every day with is logging into Spark People—an online community for those looking to adopt a healthier lifestyle—and logging my fitness minutes. You get Spark Points for time spent working out. Once I’m there, I check out the challenges for the day, see how my Spark Buddies are doing on my teams, and posting encouragement to newcomers.

Nothing wrong with that, but if I’m not careful, in no time at all an entire hour has slipped away. I do the same thing when looking for blog ideas. Other blogs are so darn interesting I have to stop and read. I convince myself it’s for research. After all, I need to see what they’re doing to attract so many visitors. The same goes for Facebook and Twitter. Before I know it, it’s almost eleven and I haven’t written a word.

The afternoon brings its own challenges. I usually eat my lunch around one. I look forward to that hour all day. I nuke something and plop down in front of the TV for some downtime. One episode of The King of Queens turns into two and then I watch an episode of The Office that I recorded last night. Or worse I doze off on the couch and don’t accomplish a thing.

What about my good habits? Hmmm. There has to be something. First thing every morning I watch Joyce Meyer, work out, and then watch another preacher from Singapore while I cool down before taking a shower. It’s after I get out of the shower that my routine breaks down.

I need to learn to apply the same dedication to writing as I do my workout routine. I worked out on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day because I didn’t want to gain over the holidays. Achieving my writing goals should be more important, or at least as much as keeping off the weight I had lost. While my health is important, my career should have the same priority.

Habits I need to incorporate:
1. Keep the TV off, especially during the day when I am home alone. What better time is there to write?
2. Prioritize. Each day is a gift. Don’t waste a moment of it.
3. Don’t answer the phone every time it rings. Not every call needs to be taken when it is convenient for the caller.
4. Write at the same time every day. Begin early and finish early so if something comes up I’m not behind in my work.

What about your writing habits? Are they productive or ineffective? What do you need to incorporate into your routine and what should you eradicate? It’s a new year—an opportunity to begin anew. Don’t lament the time wasted or what didn’t work last year. Move on, and move up.

Happy Writing

Monday, January 04, 2010

Two years ago my friend joined a group called Celebrate Recovery created by The Purpose Driven Life’s Rick Warren. She has grown immeasurably since joining. One thing she told me about the other day was taking inventory of her life, especially of how she has grown from last year to this.

Unlike resolutions, an inventory is simply a way of making sure you are on track to reach your goals you have already set and evaluating where you are on your journey, whether spiritually, physically, in relationships, career, or any other goal a person might have made.

Unfortunately after writing my inventory for 2009 this morning, it was so depressing I cannot bear to post it here. Suffice it to say, I did not get a book contract. I’m not sure if that means I went way off track in reaching that goal or if I can blame the economy and other factors. Maybe a little of both. I did procure an agent last year. That was a step in the right direction. I wrote another book though it is far from a publishable form. Maybe it will be my breakout bestseller.

Since today is Roll up your Sleeves Day here at Joy in the Journey, I challenge you to take an inventory of your goals and how far you’ve gone in reaching them. Are you still on track? Do you recognize where you are headed? Is what you’re doing today drawing you closer to those goals, or are your time and energies better off spent elsewhere?

I believe nothing easy will come to any of us this year. If you want something you’re going to need to roll up your sleeves and go after it.

I will continue in 2010 to hone my skills and grow in the craft. If something doesn’t change soon, I will be forced out of the house and back to the nine-to-five grind. Since I would rather eat barbed wire, I trust this sense of urgency will propel me to take drastic measures, like actually fastening my rear to the chair and focusing on my writing.

What about you? Are you on the right path to end up where you want to go? What resistance do you regularly face? What can you do today that will put you on the fast track to your goals?