To be Subtle or Not to Be Subtle

Dear Editor,

As a Christian writer, I want to make a positive spiritual impact on my readers. Specifically, I feel God wants me to be a witness to atheists and agnostics through my writing. Christian authors with far more publishing experience than I tell me, if I want to write for a non-Christian audience, I must not allow my Christian characters to make any references to our religious beliefs and only hint that they might have religious reasons for their actions. In short, I’m told, I need to hide my beliefs while trying to subtly influence the reader to believe, too.  This makes me uncomfortable, but I’m told I’ll only offend my audience if I do it any other way.

Sincerely,

Confused

As I understand the Bible, in any context, a faith that is hidden cannot touch anyone in a way that will draw them toward the faith. What can touch people is a plain-spoken, humble faith that is neither fake nor forced but rather lived out naturally. When we do that in any setting, the only non-Christians you’ll offend are folks too hardened for the Holy Spirit to draw them by any means. In my experience, aside from those guys, it’s actually Christians you most have to worry  about offending.

That said, the bible does present one subtle form of Christian story telling known as the parable, which is essentially an allegory where the hidden meaning is religious. However, parables are only for people with ears to hear. Before a parable can touch an unbeliever, they have to be able to figure out what it means. The atheists I’ve heard from feel like Christians who write subtle are trying to trick them. No one likes to be tricked.

Any time we’re wanting to persuade an atheist to become a Christian, if we don’t want to be perceived as rudely crossing the atheists’ boundaries, it’s best to be direct, natural, respectful, and to wait until they indicate interest in hearing our logical, rational case for Christ’s existence with an open mind.

In fact, most humans of all persuasions prefer it to be disclosed plainly up front what philosophical/political/religious perspective a media item is going to be taking so we can make an informed decision whether we’re interested in “being reached,” persuaded to switch to an opposing viewpoint. If we’re not interested, with a few vocal, rude exceptions, the question then becomes whether the story is good enough to merit overlooking that.

If you write an entertaining enough novel, so long as it maintains a level of your philosophical/political/religious beliefs that’s tolerable to readers committed to the opposite view, they will happily read to the end. However, they will go on with their lives with what they’ve read having made zero impact on their beliefs.

Christians well know this when we’re consumers evaluating materials advocating non-Christian beliefs, but we sometimes conveniently forget it when we’re producing materials advocating Christian beliefs. Why? Well, it pokes holes in our “evangelism” excuse for writing to please a market where we’ll get more money but not actually be able to make an impact because their minds are already made up. The only religious reason for us to want that person’s money is the hope that person will leave a positive review that encourages someone who is willing to be persuaded to give our book a try.

If God has called someone to write fiction for evangelism purposes, that fiction’s target audience is open-minded unbelievers. It’s only a bonus if it’s also enjoyed by either Christians or closed-minded unbelievers who don’t mind (can tolerate) the religious content that organically arises due to the POV characters being “seekers of truth” (like the target audience) who find Christ near the end of their book or series and convert for *believable* reasons in a natural, non-canned way. It’d be most effective to open with the POV character considering Christianity* as a possibility but having questions they feel need answered before they’ll commit. It’s also best if they have an external conflict that can be enjoyed by anyone who reads the book’s genre. Why? Well, this audience typically seeks Truth from non-fiction and reads fiction for sheer pleasure. However, everyone appreciates a hero that we can personally relate to who is doing cool stuff.

*In a Fantasy novel, the POV character would be considering the validity of the Fantasy world’s Christianity analogue.

Of course, there is another option: pre-evangelism fiction.

Effective pre-evangelism fiction would feature a non-Christian POV character with a secular problem they solve with the help of a Christian who is just quietly living his or her faith in front of them, or it’d introduce the Christian as the POV character’s adversary. Either way, due to the Christian character showing the POV character love and respect while living in a way that’s consistent with his/her own beliefs, the POV character changes from being indifferent or hostile to Christians to respecting them without actually changing his or her own beliefs.

Here, the Christian sidekick/nemesis would need introduced fairly early so there’s no “gotcha” but Christianity isn’t even on the POV character’s radar as a possibility until the end of the series or the stand-alone book. Note authors’ first instinct is to make the POV character be of the same persuasion as us, as it is easier for us, but it’s harder on our audience if our audience is of another persuasion. It’s our job to give our audience a hero/ine they can relate to, which means it’s our job to research until we can see life through their eyes.

I consider fiction to be more suited for pre-evangelism than evangelism, but if God has called anyone to that, do it.

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What Do I Put In a Synopsis?

The contents of a synopsis should cover the major plot points of your novel. Publishers ask for a synopsis to see whether you know how to plot a novel before they read it. So a good place to start is the theory that there are only seven basic plots and identify which one(s) your story uses. That basic plot is the template for what information to put in your synopsis. Highlight both where you follow the basic plot and your personal twists.

Here are two example templates I’ve created based on two of the seven plots.

Synopsis of Voyage and Return by Archetypal Plot

Hero is restricted somehow but open to a shattering new experience. He is young and naïve, and curious and looking for wonder, and perhaps bored, drowsy, or restless. Hero is thrust out of his familiar, limited world into a strange world unlike anything he’s known before.

He explores his new world, fascinated by its puzzles and unfamiliarity. Hero’s restrictions are lifting. However, he never feels truly at home here.

Gradually, his difficulties and frustrations increase, drawing bands of a new restriction around the hero. A Dark Shadow grows and becomes increasingly alarming.

Dark Shadow dominates more and more, and begins to seriously threaten Hero’s survival. Hero is now even more restricted here than he had been at home.

Danger closes in on Hero and his suffering becomes unbearable. Just when all hope seems lost, Hero escapes from death at Dark Shadow’s hands by returning to the world he came from. Hero loses the positive relationships he’d gained in the other world, but Hero has learned from his experience and grown in character, so his life has been forever changed positively.

 

Synopsis of Rags to Riches by Archetypal Plot

Heroine is young and living in wretched conditions at home. She is lowly and unhappy. A dark shadow looms of malevolent rivals who scorn and maltreat her. A helper arrives (or an event occurs) that calls her (sends) her out into a wider world.

New ordeals crop up.  Heroine enjoys a first, limited success. Along with her improved fortunes, she gains a relationship that becomes her Precious and bests her Dark Rival(s) for now. She is not yet mature enough for her final state of glory.

Everything goes wrong. Dark Rival’s shadow returns. Heroine loses all she’s gained and is separated from her Precious. She is overwhelmed with despair in her darkest hour.

Heroine emerges from this darkness into a new light. She is still not everything she could be, but is discovering in herself a new strength. Once she matures into this, her strength is put to the final test as she must confront the dark rival, who stands in between her and her goal. At last, she successfully resolves this conflict and the dark shadow is removed from her life entirely.

Finally liberated, Heroine is reunited with her Precious. She enters fully into her own as she is now ready to receive God’s full purpose for her life and use what he gives her wisely.

If you like this technique, you can read about all seven basic plots in: Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories by Christopher Booker.

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Want to be a trusted critique partner?

Most serious writers seek to partner with other serious writers in mutually beneficial critique exchanges. What can you do to be the critique partner everyone wants?

The obvious, of course, is to know your craft and what you are doing, but being knowledgeable isn’t key, trust is. To build trust, you need to not only know what you are doing and how to spot craft errors, you also need to have good interpersonal skills. I have honestly been learning that on my feet, but in my studies of this strange people I find myself a member of, I have finally figured out a thing or two, through much trial and error.

1) We must discern between our subjective viewpoint and objective reality. To complicate matters, there are different schools of thought that offer a suggested objective reality on what good craft looks like and some of them contradict. Unless our critique partner has the same literary values and beliefs, we’re going to be hopelessly mismatched and talking right past one another. First and foremost is learning to respect differences of opinion. Our craft isn’t like either scientific or spiritual laws.

2) We have to be humble.

Outside of the objective craft techniques of the editorial schools of thought that you and your critique partner have agreed to critique according to, when it comes to our subjective experience, we have to be aware a novel will have lots of readers before and after publication. The author has to consider all of those readers  equally. Further, we cannot know for certain what any reader will think but ourselves and authors need to only be concerned about the opinions of members of their target audience and their target first line readers: agents, contest officials, acquisition editors, etc.

3) We have to be tactful and considerate.

When the apostle Paul said, “Speak the truth in love” he didn’t mean to bluntly and tactlessly tell someone our honest opinion out of a genuine love expressed by wanting to see the work improved in our eyes, but takes no consideration for how hurtful our choice of words may be. Love is, among other things, kind and gentle. Good intentions aren’t enough, we have to have love permeating how we speak and how we act, especially in sharing a negative opinion.

Realize your critique partners may have put a lot of themselves into their novels and their characters. That plot twist, setting, or character you personally dislike? That might well be based upon an experience the author had or identifies with. If we’re not tactful and careful in how we address the issue, our attempt to help them improve their work will come across as a personal attack and criticism of the author. That is never helpful to anyone and not what an author should need a thick skin for . Since those are at best skin deep, this sort of thing can put an “inexplicable” chill on the relationship, though women tend to struggle here more often than men.

4) We must respect the author’s Vision

In my experience, giving a critique that attacks the author’s vision of their work is the supreme mistake that I suspect is behind most unpleasant encounters with an “unteachable” author who is  impossible to work with. From their vantage point, however, we’re audaciously indignant they’d dare rebel against our will for the novel we envision and brazenly expecting them to cooperate with us destroying their novel in order to create our novel. Both sides walk away from this battle of wills telling their friends a horror story about their nightmare critique partner or nightmare author/editor.

When we have our editor hats on, it is always vexing when an author wants everything their way. The complaint is sincere with student writers and some of them will make the mistake of sending us stuff before they are ready for us.  However, it is the author’s novel, not ours. We have no right to force on the author our will of how it should be written. Before you groan or protest, consider whether this will be good news to you when it is your novel.

The only exceptions to this are the publisher-author relationship, mentoring relationships, and partnerships where a co-author or ghost writer is  working in your world with your characters. Even in these cases, the author we’re working with will have voluntarily submitted to us, either to learn or for the writing credit opportunity.

Otherwise, whenever we’re critiquing someone else’s completely original work, we should respect the author’s vision of what their work should be. In that regards, an author does have a right to get their own way and can only surrender it voluntarily.  Again, only people paying the author money for their work have the right to ask them to give any of their rights up.

5) We must ask questions rather than assume we know the answers.

Readers come to a story and subjectively interpret what the text means through the lens of their life experiences and the core beliefs so important to them,  they refuse to suspend disbelief if we violate their core beliefs. If we’re not alert, we will also do this as critiquers and develop a vision in our minds of what the story is. When it turns out we were wrong, if we don’t know better, we assume our vision is accurate and that the author must fix their story so it continues to fit our vision, which we again are assuming is the author’s. Some of us, however, wouldn’t care if our understanding wasn’t the author’s intent.

When we decide we know what a text, a character, or story world should look like better than the author who created them, we’re being arrogant, prideful, and demanding.  Note, I don’t mean situations where the author clearly did poor research and all we’re doing is politely citing the research or firsthand experience we have handy–so long as we’re tactful, most will be grateful. Oh, they’ll be annoyed if an important plot point turns on it, but they can’t blame the messenger if all we’re doing is helping them with their research and we might also have the knowledge to help them untangle that, too.

So how do we critique humbly, tactfully, respectfully, and with objective discernment that doesn’t ignorantly or callously bull doze over the author’s vision, but also provides them more help than cheerleading’s moral support?

Instead of pointing out errors with a value judgment of how it must be fixed, point out potential issues and areas of concern and label whether something is an objective craft pointer or  just your opinion. If offering solutions is ever necessary, offer multiple possibilities or ask questions that will help them come up with their own answers. The important thing isn’t how it gets fixed, but that it gets fixed. If something goes seriously awry in your eyes, you can ensure you understand the author’s vision by stopping to ask them what it is.

Explanations are widely smeared, and we  shouldn’t volunteer information with a defensive posture when it’s our novel that’s being critiqued. However, we can critique far more effectively if we ask questions rather than assume we know the answers.

Respecting the author’s vision and helping them build according to that vision is key to a successful critique exchange. If we fail to do so, the best outcome we can hope for is the author politely nodding and thanking us, but quietly ignoring everything they consider our personal bias and/or an arrogant demand they rewrite their vision according to ours. If we’re lucky, they’ll figure out the “real issue” and fix it according to their vision on our own, but we may still find them unwilling to work with us again.

So what if we’ve done all we can and still don’t understand an author’s vision or don’t know how to edit a story according to the style and techniques they feel is best for it? We should pass politely and without judgment. That way, maybe someday they will have a project that we are perfect for and we might be able to partner with them then.

We should keep to these standards even if they fail, but when possible, choose to work with people who will be trustworthy in kind.

Also, when seeking a critique, we’d be wise to help potential critique partners by disclosing in advance what we are trying to do with a project, our vision and the styles and techniques we’ve chosen, especially if we’re not using the most commercially in-demand ones, such as writing in past tense or deep POV. This will help us find fans of our type of writing who will know how to critique it. It’s best to avoid problems to start with by making it clear in advance what kind of help we are desiring and looking for so our critique partners don’t waste both their time and ours.

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Which is right: Plotting or Seat of the Pants?

Typically, experts who happen to be in-control plotters (NCP) will tell you their method is the right way to write, while professional seat of the pants authors swear by theirs and got published that way, too. Truth is, neither method is strictly wrong or even best for every person. Which writing method is right for you comes down to personality type; whether you’re an intuitive or a sensor, (SOP v. NCP) or Judging or Perceiving (NCP vs. SOP.)

If you don’t know those terms, basically, you are hard-wired to write a certain way. If pure SOP comes most naturally to you and produces better results than NCP produces, you’re an N and likely a P. If you couldn’t SOP to save your soul, the very thought makes you shudder, and you suspect SOP equals lazy, possibly insane,  and definitely unprofessional, you’re an SJ. If you’re somewhere in between these two extremes, you’re probably an NJ or an SP. Note these are generalities:  A sensing author’s characters may occasionally talk back to them, and an Intuitive can learn how to plot and plan and may choose to do so.

Intuitive or Sensing is usually dominant if you’re a mixed type. A Sensing Perceiving writer will plot and plan ahead, usually on paper, but will be flexible about the details and will feel the need to keep their options open to making changes as need arises.

An Intuitive Judging writer (me) will tend to plan ahead and prefers to have everything pinned down before we start, but will go fishing if we’re feeling adventuresome, i.e. if it feels right for this particular book. We also tend to keep track of everything we have carefully crafted about our plot, characters, and setting in our heads unless we discipline ourselves to do otherwise. We’re really good at keeping track of things in our heads, though.

So, to address the plotter’s favorite critiques of SoP: for you that would absolutely be true. For the intuitive SOP writer, however, due to the way their brains are wired to process data, the method’s effectiveness entirely depends upon the knowledge the SoP writer has fed themselves with in terms of plot and structure of whether it will work out or not. An intuitive who knows how to properly structure and plot a novel will actually produce similar results to a CF with an ounce of flexibility in him/her.

Yes, Plotter, that means an intuitive can go study your favorite plot structure rules and techniques, mentally jot them down, and, with practice, learn how to intuitively knock out a carefully plotted novel while seemingly having done no advanced planning at all, at least so far as a computer can detect. This seems impossible or unlikely to you because you are not wired for that.

While the intuitive writer’s sanity may fairly be in question, there can in fact be a method to our madness.

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Are quotation marks appropriate when my POV character’s head and heart argue?

Sure, if the character is indeed debating himself out loud. Internal debates, however, should be treated like normal interior monologue, but with each “on the other hand” given it’s own paragraph. In some situations, one “side” of the argument can be put in italics (especially if there is mental illness or the spiritual realm involved.) Italics aren’t too popular, either, so try the whole thing in straight narrative first.

In case an example might help, here’s an excerpt from one of my unsold manuscripts, Son of Kristos, that shows how I handled a serious internal debate my hero had where his head and his heart are duking it out. The first thought is given direct and italicized because “your” doesn’t translate well. It’s speculative fiction and out of context, so some of the references won’t make sense to you, but the technique used should still be clear enough:

The pirate sneered at Meleon. “Now, am I goin’ to get out o’ here nice and slow with your partner, or are we goin’ to have us some fun killin’ hostages?”

Remember your training. The threat has to be real or they won’t back down.

But it was Diangelina.

He’d want to be the one in this position. It was for the greater good of society.

But it was Diangelina.

The more peacekeepers followed regulations properly, the fewer wolves bothered to take hostages, and the fewer innocent civilians who died. No one would take hostages if it wasn’t effective.

But it was Diangelina.

“Well, peacekeeper, what’s it goin’ to be?”

There had to be another way.

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To Adverb or Not to Adverb

Dear Andrea,

How do you find a good balance in using adverbs and adjectives? Too many sound amateurish, and too few sound Spartan.

Signed,

Between an Adverb and a Hard Place

Dear Between,

I hear adjectives knocked on less frequently, but adverbs especially do get a bad rap. They’re actually important and sometimes necessary parts of speech and stripping every adverb from your work would indeed be misguided at best.  Instead, I recommend you examine them to see if they are being used correctly. What should you look for?

First, let’s rehearse what these babies are in the first place.

According to Merriam-Webster, an adjective is, “a word belonging to one of the major form classes in any of numerous languages and typically serving as a modifier of a noun to denote a quality of the thing named, to indicate its quantity or extent, or to specify a thing as distinct from something else.”

Generally, unless it follows was, in my experience, an adjective won’t be a problem. And if it’s following was, you have a bigger problem with the choice of the weakest and most common verb in the English language, as the most common reason, aside from poor grammar, that an adjective would come after a verb is that you’re telling, as in, “the coat was blue” or “Jenny was sad.”

The problem with both sentences isn’t the adjective, but that they’re telling rather than showing. If you’re being told to eliminate adjectives, it’s probably telling that the editor is gunning for.  And by the way, an adjective that follows a verb is either functioning as a noun, or is being misused as an adverb. In most cases, rewrite it this way, “Jenny wore a blue coat” or better yet, “Jenny fingered the top button of her blue coat.” We’ll get back to “Jenny was sad” once we’ve discussed adverbs.

According to Merriam-Webster, an adverb is, “a word belonging to one of the major form classes in any of numerous languages, typically serving as a modifier of a verb, an adjective, another adverb, a preposition, a phrase, a clause, or a sentence, expressing some relation of manner or quality, place, time, degree, number, cause, opposition, affirmation, or denial.”

For those of you who still don’t know what an adverb is, they usually end in -ly and usually modify a verb.

The number one issue with adverbs lies in the modifying a verb part. When this is the issue, the problem isn’t the adverb, but the verb itself. When we write a first draft, we often will go with the first verb to come to mind. The easiest verb to write will often times be the weakest. Since it doesn’t say precisely what we want to say we will then add an adverb. So every adverbial clause should be examined with the question, “Is there a plain old verb that would communicate in one word what I am saying in two?”

For instance, instead of “walked quickly” (or briskly) try “jogged”  or another verb that describes the pace you’re looking for. If none come to mind and you’re describing something the english language is likely to have a verb for, check a thesaurus.

A similar issue is the old Tom Swifty, but while this looks the same as the above, finding a verb that means “said gently” isn’t going to fix it even if you actually find one.  These usually signal one of two things, that your dialogue isn’t being phrased gently at all and you added a crutch rather than fix the line, or a lack of confidence on your part.

The other major issue goes back to “Jenny was sad.” Whether Jenny is sad or feeling badly, the problem isn’t that adverbs or adjectives are innately evil, but that here you’re using one to tell us rather than showing us.  Any time an adverb or adjective references someone’s emotional state, unless it’s a line of dialogue, cut it and describe the “symptoms” of sadness and let your readers make that diagnosis. It’s much more powerful and much more believable.

It’s the association with telling in general that gives adverbs especially their bad rep. Adverbs that aren’t being used to tell, and aren’t propping up a weak verb choice, or weak dialogue, should be perfectly fine. While it will far less frequently be an issue, adjectives that aren’t propping up a weak noun choice, aren’t being used incorrectly to modify a verb, and aren’t telling are also fine.

In Christ’s Service,

Andrea Graham

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How do I get free editing?

One way is to find a copy editing error anywhere on this website. That’ll get you the introductory offer for free (or $5 off a longer edit if you’ve already purchased the introductory offer.) But if you have a website, now there’s an even better way.

First, download the following image by right clicking and choosing save as:

camo1

Next, upload the image to your own server. Place it in the sidebar or any prominent but unobtrusive location on your site and link it to www.povbootcamp.com.

If you need it, here is the code:

<a href=”http://www.povbootcamp.com”><img title=”POV Boot Camp: helping you whip flabby novels into shape with free writing tips, free writing exercises, and the first ten pages of your manuscript edited for only $5″ src=”http://www.yourdomain.here/camo1.jpg” alt=”POV Boot Camp: whip that flabby novel into shape” width=”150″ height=”200″ /></a>

If just one person finds me through the ad on your site, and it shows in my traffic stats widgets, you’ll get my introductory offer for free, or a $5 discount off your full manuscript edit if you’ve already purchased it. Thereafter, every visitor to click through is worth an extra page of free editing, with a minimum of 20 to collect. Every referral known to lead to a full manuscript edit will get you a ten percent discount off your own editing bill should you choose to work with me.

This offer also applies to text links in articles discussing the contents of this website or my editorial services and word of mouth referrals (you will have to notify me of those, however.) Please do let me know if you put the graphic ad up or text links in case I miss them.

Your own traffic stats tracking system should show you the number of visitors who followed a link from your site to mine also, if you’d like to keep track yourself to make sure I don’t miss any referrals you made. I’m afraid you will have to take my word for it on referrals leading to a purchase, since I’ll have to simply ask where you heard of me.

Otherwise, check around, as some editors offer to do free sample edits, and many will if  you just ask them. Also join critique groups and professional writing organizations. Networking and developing relationships with other writers can build you a stable of associates willing to check over your manuscript for you and this is a good thing to have. Don’t expect a full edit for free from any professional editor you might happen to have a relationship with, however. Be respectful of the amount of time that goes into going through a full length novel and return favors in kind as often as possible.

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Can I use actual places and brand names?

Trademarks only protect businesses in the same category as you from using the same name or slogan. That means there is no legal protections prohibiting an author from using the name of a real company or product in their novel. In normal situations, you are only required to use trademarks appropriately.

The big deal to most companies is that you spell and capitalize their name properly (e-Bay), that you don’t use it in a way that implies an endorsement, and that you don’t use it in a way that makes them look bad. You show a name is trademarked generally by capitalizing it (e.g. “Kelly tugged on her Reeboks.”

You can use real locales, however if you’re using a real place, you need to research to make sure you have things located where they actually are in the city, whereas for a fictional location you can make things up, which is not necessarily easier as mapping out a fictional city to make it feel authentic can be a lot of work, also. So, in most cases, using a real city versus a fictional one is entirely author preference.

However, there is one consideration when using real places and brand names in your work: slander and libel suits. Any setting or item used in a negative context is best left generic. For instance, if your plot requires health code violations in a restaurant, don’t name the restaurant Burger King. Likewise, if your character is locked in a battle with their local  government or the story otherwise reflects negatively on the locale,  you’ll want to use a fictional city.

Otherwise,  it comes down to POV and characterization. What products would your character use? What terms would they use for them? What places would they visit or frequent? Whether your character takes a Kleenex out of her purse at the Olive Garden or a tissue at the Pasta King, whether your character buys Kirkland’s Signature toaster pastries at Cost-co or Kellogg’s Pop-tarts from Kroger’s says quite a bit about them. So don’t make those decisions lightly. If it arises in your plot, think through the situation carefully and decide what is best for your character and whether the usage would cast a negative light on the product or place, as again, that could potentially lead to a lawsuit. Otherwise, it’ll be up to your editor at your publishing house.

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A tale of two questions: it was the best of orphans, and the worst of prologues

Dear Andrea,

Two questions for you.

1-I am having trouble formatting on the new computer system I have.  I thought I set it up for regular ms formatting, but it looks like that isn’t the case yet. I am not familiar with the term:  widow/orphan control? Can you explain a little further?

2-What do you think of  prologues? Some love them, other editors, a real no no and put off?

Signed,

New Computer Owner

Dear New,

1) Just be sure to go under format–paragraph–line and paragraph breaks and uncheck the widows/orphans box before you start a manuscript. For existing manuscripts, highlight the text first and pretty much uncheck all the boxes on that tab. It’ll save you space/pages and make any publishers/agents you send it to happy. Checking that box causes paragraphs that run over the edge of a page to all go on the next page and it wastes paper and space.
2) I take prologues on a case by case basis. The general argument against them is they’re often done poorly/incorrectly, that readers skip them, and they force you to hook your readers twice. Done wrong, they can confuse the reader about what the central conflict is, and are often actually chapter one mislabeled (rule of thumb: if it’s longer than six pages, it’s not a prologue.)
In one case I’ve seen, the author combined the prologue with a chapter one technique that can be useful in some projects, if needed to hook your readers, starting the novel with a scene from the climax or end of the novel and then backing up to the beginning. The problem was her story began with the birth of the wife of the man in the opening scene, making it look as if the author had a rambling, out of control plot. However unfair that impression may be, it could well hurt her publication chances nonetheless. In addition, the actual chapter one had a far more intriguing hook.
So, not all books need a prologue, and if your book doesn’t need one, then your book shouldn’t have one.
Done right, however, a prologue shows a scene from the often-distant past that represents a defining  moment in the life of the main character, or which otherwise sets the stage for the events of the present, and in a way that intrigues the reader and hooks their interest.

In Christ’s Service,

Andrea Graham

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Where oh where has my little muse gone?

Dear Andrea,

Since I started writing fiction, there have been a few times when the words really flowed. I was bit by the writer’s “bug”, blessed by the “muse”. These exciting times have lasted months at a spell. It’s very much like obsession. Under the influence of this passion, I can hardly think about anything else. If I’m not actually writing (like because I have to make dinner or do laundry or whatever) then I’m thinking about what I will be writing the next time I get a chance or I’m thinking about how to arrange said writing opportunity.

When my first obsessive period ended, I had a few theories why. My best guess was that it had to do with the failure of the product of those muse-assisted labors (a novel) to find an audience. I tried for several years to figure out why my muse left and how to get it back. Without the passion, I can’t get far. I tried, but my fiction is not only painful to produce, but stinks without it. I prayed about this. I wrote nonfiction and I did proofreading, editing, and critiquing. I also read how-to books and well-written fiction which could serve as inspiration.

My muse had abandoned me and left no forwarding address. Until about a week ago. I was watching a defunct TV series on DVD and one particular episode just jumped out at me as being “unfinished”. Yes, the series had been canceled a decade ago and I knew anything I wrote was doomed as unpublishable fan-fic because I didn’t own the characters or the setting, but I couldn’t help myself. I knew no one would ever read it, but, shockingly, my muse didn’t care. I *had* to write a resolution of that episode. Five years without a muse and I had maybe 5000 (bad) words of fiction to show for it. One week with a muse and I have 8000 words and no sign of abatement.

I love this condition and I love the way it makes my fingers flow, but now I want to know WHY it happens so I can induce it at will (during NaNo would be a prime example of a good time). What can I do to lure the writing “bug”, capture it and get it to be my friend and not an elusive visitor?

Signed,
Museless in California

Dear Museless,

Honestly, we’d all love to know that, but you’ve stumbled onto one solution already. Take ownership of the plot. Remove from the novel anything under copyright: change the character’s names, and any too-unique identifiable character traits, or otherwise tweak them until they’re all yours.  The same principle applies to setting. Change all place names and unique landmarks and make the place your own. It’ll take work and care to keep the plot intact, but it can be done. Ideas can’t be copyrighted, so, as long as you’re careful to remove in your rewrites the actual, specific characters and settings from the show, you should have a salable manuscript at the end.

Sounds like you’ve needed a writer’s spiritual retreat, to take time to pray and reflect, and rededicate your pen to the Lord. And lick your wounds, of course, to lament. I know it’s hard when things don’t turn out the way we hoped. I certainly have a hard time remembering myself that God isn’t looking for results, but obedience. So let’s repeat it together: “God wants obedience, not results. God wants obedience, not results . . . .”

We need to be faithful to write what the Lord calls us to write, no matter what the numbers tell us. We never know what He can accomplish, what lives He can touch, through our foolishness.

This idea might come as strange, but the best solution I’ve found for writer’s block is to surrender our pens to the Lord and see what He does with it. He might surprise you. I started my WIP, Daughter of Eve, with the roughest of outlines for character and setting, a borrowed plot, and a wing and a prayer I might make it to 50,000. It’s now 75,000 with a totally different plot drawn from fleshed-out characters with minds of their own and a world rich enough to tempt my writer husband to play in it. I literally did not know what was coming next until I wrote it for most of the novel. That’s not me; that’s the Lord. (Obviously, the mistakes are mine. We do still need to edit and revise.)

On a practical note, you can write your way out of writer’s block, and badly written sitcoms begging for rewrites is one possible starting place.  It might well be garbage, but keep it up until you find your story. You can always delete what doesn’t work and change the copyrighted elements later.

In Christ’s Service,

Andrea Graham

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