The Heavens Declare

The Heavens Declare

The heavens declare the glory of God;

The skies proclaim the work of His hands.

Day after day they pour forth speech;

Night after night they display knowledge.

There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard.

Their voice goes out to all the earth,

Their words to the ends of the World.

Psalm 19:1-5

The Heavens Declare the Glory of God

 

No event is all bad if it causes a person to look upward. Personal challenges. Financial crises. Creative silences or just difficult days. Most of those sorts of events do turn my gaze off myself and upward.

But I don’t always need a life-altering event to look up. Sometimes the sheer glory of a sunrise or sunset is enough.

Or towering thunderheads or a sky peppered with stars that look close enough to touch. The heavens declare the glory of God in so many ways to the person who is open to and aware of their surroundings.

Artists are often asked how they get or stay inspired. The answer for me lies in all of life. How can a writer enjoy her surroundings—even the less than perfect ones—and not be inspired?

Feel free to share this image. All I ask is that you keep it intact, including the watermark for my website. Thanks for your courtesy!

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How to Discover Your Story (And Character)

How to Discover Your Story (And Character)

For some of us, the first inkling of a new story is the story itself. If it doesn’t arrive fairly complete, there’s at least a strong premise. But for most of us, myself included, it’s a challenge to discover your story.

Good friend, crit partner, and brainstorming buddy, Danielle Hanna, was helped me with this process a number of times, so I’m thrilled to let her share with you some of the tips she’s shared with me over the years.

How to Discover Your Story

by Danielle Hanna

In my last guest post here on Carrie’s blog, I mentioned using a combination of list making and what I call the “gut test” to draw the story out of a character. But what should go onto that list? And how do you know if your “gut instinct” about an option is right?

How to Discover Your Story by Making Lists

Making the List

The first question is easy. What should go on your list? Everything. This is definitely where you ban the editor part of your brain. List every idea that crosses your mind, no matter how ridiculous or far-fetched.

How to Discover Your Story - Start with a Basic ChecklistYour heroine has been washed up on a desert island after a storm that wrecked her ship. What does she do next?

  • Curl up on the beach and cry.
  • Explore the island to see if it’s inhabited.
  • Expect a short stay and build a signal fire, devoting herself to tending it.
  • Expect a long stay, roll up her sleeves, gather provisions, find or create a weapon, and build a hut.
  • Build a raft to get to a nearby (hopefully inhabited) island.
  • Realize that living alone on a deserted island is a dream come true and throw a party—with herself as the only guest.
  • Hyperventilate about being eaten by cannibals and run around the island screaming.

Those last two options on my sample list embody the spirit of throwing down any—ANY—idea that crosses your mind. You just never know!

Once you have a list, pause for just a second. One option probably catches your attention more than the others—like a magnet drawing you in. That’s your gut instinct saying, “This is the right way to go.” For me, the option that drew my attention the most was the heroine throwing a party—alone at last! What a twist on the classic shipwreck story.

But is there any way to verify your gut instinct? You bet. Give it the three-tiered test.

Checking It Twice

Or in this case, three times.

How to Discover Your Story - Consider all the Possibilites

Question #1: Is this option true to the character?

In other words, would the character ever actually do something like this? You’ll notice in the list above, each option suggests something different about the heroine’s personality.

Curl up and cry—a vulnerable woman who is in no way prepared for the struggles ahead of her, alone on a desert island.

Roll up her sleeves and hunker down—a self-reliant woman already equipped with wilderness survival skills, or at least instinct and good sense.

Or my favorite option, throw a one-person party—an off-the-wall woman who marches to the beat of her own drum.

Question #2: Which option is true to the rest of the story?

How to Discover Your Story - What are the Impacts of the Options You Listed

If you’re still in the beginning stages of a book, you may not have a “rest of the story” yet. Fear not. You may have noticed in the list above that each option suggests not only something about the character, but also the story. Crybaby—soap opera. Sleeve roller—adventure. Party girl—humor.

On the other hand, you may already have a vague idea of some future events that are likely to go into the story. Maybe while you were lying in bed one night, you thought up a scene in which an adorable but mischievous monkey works its way into your heroine’s life and food stash. You love the monkey idea. You’re almost positive you’re going to keep it. Do any of the options in your list support the monkey idea?

For the party-with-myself woman, the monkey could add conflict. Miss Heroine has a whole island to herself, and she’s not about to share it with anyone—a pantry-raiding primate least of all.

How to Discover Your Story - Choosing the Right Option

Finally, we reach the last question, which should actually have been first because it’s the most important, but I saved it for last because it feels so boring.

Question #3: Is this option true to the real world?

In other words, could or would such an event ever really happen? This is the part where we ask, “Will the reader believe this?” If not, your story’s credibility may be on the rocks—along with your heroine’s ship.

Maybe you’ve previously established in your story that there are NO other islands around for hundreds of miles. Then your heroine ups and builds a raft. Is this realistic? Nope. Beware that you do not inspire book-tossing impulses in your reader.

Carrie thinks my writing methods are instinctual. But do you want to hear a little secret? After fifty lists and a hundred and fifty tests, it can actually feel pretty cerebral! So however you approach a story, don’t be afraid to give this method a try. You just never know what your characters may tell you.

About Danielle

Danielle Lincoln Hanna writes Hearth & Homicide Suspense. As much as you can expect shadows in the night, the echoes of gunfire, and the flashing reds-and-blues, you can also expect the porch light to be on and a warm cup of cocoa awaiting you at the fireside. When she’s not riveted to her computer, you can find her camping, hiking, and biking with her dog Molly.

About Mailboat

Mailboat Book 1 CoverBailey Johnson landed the coolest summer job ever: mail jumper on the historic Lake Geneva Mailboat. Falling into the lake is pretty much a hazard of the job. Finding a dead body underwater is pretty much not. One mistimed jump restarts a manhunt, unsolved since before she was born, and reopens old wounds that were only half healed. As if that weren’t bad enough, she’s stuck in the most epically abysmal foster home ever, since she first entered “the system” eleven years ago. Abuse at home, bullets flying in the street … and she thought prom was bad. All she wants is a family of her own. Is that so much to ask for? A forever family–provided she survives the summer.

Should You Follow Market Trends or Personal Vision?

Should You Follow Market Trends or Personal Vision?

An artist chases the market by painting whatever subject is ‘hot’ in whatever style is ‘hot’, aiming for the next big sale or top seller.

A fashion maven spends hours shopping, buying the latest fashion fad in clothing, accessories or jewelry.

A writer researches market trends and writes accordingly, planning for the day when trend and finished manuscript collide and the royalties roll in.

What do these situations have in common?

Trend chasing.

There is within each of us the tendency to see something popular and want to get on the band wagon. It certainly lies within me.

Should You Follow Market Trends or Personal Vision?

Trend Chasing: Good or Bad?

It didn’t take more than a couple years chasing trends in the art market to discover I was chasing my tail. For one thing, I simply couldn’t paint fast enough to keep up with the trends.

For another, the paintings I painted that way didn’t fit the style that was developing naturally.

What’s worse, I didn’t like them and they weren’t the best I could do.

I couldn’t market them with confidence and was actually reluctant to publicize them in any way. No one saw them, they didn’t sell.

A Hard Lesson Learned

I learned the hard way to stop following the trends and paint the types of paintings I enjoyed in the style that suited my artistic personality and working methods.

The natural next step was to learn as much as possible about my favorite subjects (horses) and styles (classical), then do the best work possible within those parameters. As skills improved and paintings accumulated, word got out and people who liked what I was doing came to me.

What Applies in the Studio Applies at the Writing Desk

The same holds true for writing. It hasn’t taken quite as long to learn the same lesson with writing that I learned with painting, but it was a lesson I had to learn. I simply cannot write the same kind of stories in the same style as my favorite authors.

For one thing, my tastes are too diverse. I’d never finish anything if I tried to be all the authors I enjoy reading.

For another thing, I’d never develop my own author voice or style. I’d never become recognizable as an author in my own right if I always mimicked others.

Nor could I ever keep up with changing reader trends, even if I wanted to. I simply cannot write fast enough and do a good enough job to meet personal standards. Forget publishing standards.

Once a Classicist, Always a Classicist

Piano and Pianist's HandI suppose you could say I’m a classicist. I like the way the Old Masters painted. Particularly artists like Johannes Vermeer, who sometimes took months to complete a single painting.

Classical music is the best there is (in my opinion). Who needs popular music when there’s Tchaikovski’s 1812 Overture or Vivaldi’s Four Seasons or even John Williams’ Summon the Heros?

I’m a classicist when it comes to writing, too. I enjoy storytelling the way it used to be done. Pictures painted with words. I suppose that should be no surprise, given my day job as a painter of horses.

What that means is that I’m no more capable of churning out complete manuscripts for every wave of popularity than I am churning out paintings.

What Does All This Mean to You?

While the trends set by current bestsellers may be interesting, they have little or no influence on my writing.

They shouldn’t influence your writing, either.

Whatever genre you write in, your primary goal should be writing the best story you can and developing your own, unique author voice. Learn everything you can about writing, about what makes a good story great, and about the elements that go into those bestsellers, but don’t copy them. Don’t even mimic them. If they happen to be similar to your style and author voice, it shouldn’t be because you are trying to sound like them.

And if your preferred style is different – if you prefer classical compositions and methods in an abstract world – don’t worry about it. Don’t let the market determine what you write or how you write it. Down that road waits mediocre writing, disappointed readers, and a disillusioned and perhaps burned out writer.

The best advice I can offer from personal experience is this:

Write the stories that move you in the method that satisfies you and don’t worry about markets, hot trends, or bestsellers.

You may find, as I did with painting, that there are more people interested in your stories and your voice than the markets may indicate.

Even if you never write a bestseller, you will find satisfaction in having written the best you could do in honor of the one-of-a-kind blend of skills, voice and experience that only you possess.

After all, writing—like painting—requires a lot of time spent alone, working on your craft. You’d better enjoy what you’re doing and the way you’re doing it or that time will be torment.

In other words, spend that time doing what you enjoy in the manner in which it’s most enjoyable and see what happens.

You might just be surprised.

PS
Here’s a post I read after starting to put this one together. It’s The Numbing Nature of Numbers, written by Allen Arnold. Mr. Arnold is Senior Vice-President and Fiction Publisher at Thomas Nelson and his blog post appeared on the ACFW blog on May 8, 2012. He puts a very good publisher’s spin on this subject.

Click here to visit my art blog.

What’s So Important About Your Novel’s Opening Line?

What’s So Important About Your Novel’s Opening Line?

Your potential reader enters the bookstore like a kid entering a candy store. So many wonderful, mouth-watering choices. Will it be a mystery? Women’s fiction or historical? Ooo! How about a romance?

Even if she has a favorite genre, she still faces as many choices as a visitor to the M&M Candies factory. So many authors. So many books. So little time.

candy-display

This enthusiastic reader isn’t the only one awaiting her decision. If you’re a writer, you are, too, and you review sales figures with bated breath to see how often the decision went in your favor.

So Many Choices

Many factors go into the choices every reader makes every time they look for a new read. Some of those factors are out of your control. Placement on bookstore shelves. Bookstore and publisher marketing. The number of new books vying with yours for shelf space in any given time or location. Market trends.

Most of the time, cover design and title are also out of your control if you publish traditionally.

There are things you have complete control over, though. Things that heavily influence potential readers.

Things like writing the absolute best story possible every time. Consistency from the first word to the last. Lively and unique characters. Exceptional plotting. Compelling back cover blurbs.

Many times, the back cover blurb is what prompts a potential reader to open the book after attractive cover design and an interesting title convinces her to take it off the shelf.

Then comes the moment of truth.

The first words she reads have two very important responsibilities.

  1. Tell the reader whether or not she wants to read more.
  2. Issue an unspoken promise about the rest of the novel.

Two very heavy responsibilities.

Is She Left Wanting to Read More?

A bit of hard truth or tough love here. Not everyone is going to love your novel no matter how good your opening line is. It’s impossible to please everyone and efforts to do so generally end up pleasing no one.

Does that mean you can fudge on the opening line?

once-upon-time

Perish the thought! Write the best opening line you can. Pack it with zing. Make every word carry its own weight.

You still will not impress every reader who opens your book to the first page, but you have a much better chance of hooking readers with a powerful opening line than with a mediocre one.

Making a Promise

The opening line of every novel that has ever been written and every novel that will ever be written says something about the novel. Promises are made to the reader. Promises like:

  • This story will make you laugh.
  • This lead is a quirky, fun loving person.
  • This is a thoughtful story.
  • You’ll be on the edge of your seat beginning to end with this novel.
  • There’s no predicting what you’ll encounter in this novel.

The promises can be endless.

Do the best you can to craft an opening sentence that evokes a promise AND is true to the novel. The promise of the opening sentence absolutely, positively MUST be fulfilled by the novel or you end up with a dissatisfied reader and, quite possibly, one who will not give you a second chance.

Crafting Opening Lines

Let’s look at a few opening lines. These are possible opening lines for a story I’m thinking about.

  1. A dowager house – old-fashioned and out of date, but still elegant – for a dowager widow.
  2. His mouth watered at the view.
  3. The sight was lip smacking good.
  4. The widow’s smile was a key in the lock of a vast treasure house.
  5. It was all his, fruit ripe for the picking.
  6. He felt like an ant at a picnic feast.
  7. Luxury and opulence everywhere he looked; and all his for the taking.

What do each of these sentences tell you about the character? What genre is the story? Can you make a guess about the voice of the story (serious, macabre, humorous)?

Now the most important question: Did you answer differently for each of the opening sentences or was your answer the same for all of them?

Many of these opening lines hint at a specific type of story with a specific type of lead and, in some instances, a distinct voice.

The words you choose as the opening for your novel will do the same things. Choose those words carefully.

 

How to Get to Know A New Character

How to Get to Know A New Character

Carrie had a wonderful story premise in Saving Grace: The struggles of a persecuted underground church in future America. Yet she confessed to me that the story had been a problem child for her almost as long as she’d been working on it. (We all get those, don’t we?) She was worn out, but I was still fresh, hopeful, and ignorant. So we made a deal: I would write the outline, and she would bring it to life with her brilliant prose.

Carrie had brainstormed several versions of the story—all of them enticing. The dilemma was what to keep and what to put into the Story Recycle Bin. Finding the real story sounded like the perfect challenge for my personal writing methods, two techniques I call Character Dictation and Play Sessions (or “Skin Diving”). Carrie featured a pair of blog posts about them here and here. The gist is to approach a fictitious character as if he were a real person, get to know him over time, and let him tell his own story.

Working on Saving Grace has proven to be a learning experience for me—or perhaps a re-learning experience. I’ve been working with the characters from my own WIPs for so long that I can slip into their skin and write from their hearts at the drop of a pin. Saving Grace has given me the opportunity to brush up my skills at making the acquaintance of a new set of characters. Carrie’s center-stage cast, Anderson, Grace, and Jacob, have taught me two vital lessons so far.

The Power of a Visual

I’ll confess, for the first several months, my work with Carrie’s characters was rocky at best. Try what I might, I couldn’t seem to get through to them. They weren’t coming alive for me—and since I depend on the characters to tell me their story, this dilemma spelled death to the whole project.

The break-through came as an unexpected gift—one of those things God seems to drop into your lap when you least expect it. I was cleaning out my bookcase and ran across a document I had created some years ago—an in-depth character questionnaire. By “in-depth,” I mean thirteen pages of questions designed to bring out every angle of a character’s personality, physical appearance, belief system, speech, mannerisms, upbringing, etc. I was thrilled—and promptly scheduled interviews with the three primary characters of Carrie’s story.

man-walking-fogI tackled Anderson first—only because he had been the least resistant to working with me. By the end of the questionnaire, half the questions remained blank—stark testament to the fact that much of my knowledge of Anderson was also a blank. But I filled out one section with surprising ease, despite the fact that I hadn’t given the topic much previous thought.

It was the section on physical appearance. As I filled in one blank after another, he took shape in my mind—not only what he looked like, but how he stood, how he moved, how he communicated through body language. These vital clues enabled me to adopt his stance and to imagine my body as his—in other words, to slip into his skin.

The next thing I knew, I was out of my chair and in the middle of a play session, acting out a scene from the story. Then another. Then another. The rest of the afternoon was marked by intermittent play sessions. I existed half in my world, half in his. Hours later when Anderson finally left me, I felt like a piece of debris ejected from a cyclone. The status quo had shifted. I’d finally connected with one of the characters—and it had all started with simply building a picture of him in my mind.

The Power of Presenting Options

road-signAfter that first dramatic series of play sessions with Anderson, slipping into his skin became relatively simple and he began to develop that essential feel of reality that I rely on. Nevertheless, the story continued to stagnate. By now, I had spent months with the characters, yet they were telling me precious little about their stories.

My method of taking “dictation” from the characters revolves around what I call the “gut instinct”—a subtle but strong feeling that a certain idea is true to the character and his story. In my own WIPs, I’ve been applying the “gut test” to play sessions, as the characters seem perfectly content to walk up to me and offer ideas.

But for Saving Grace, this was not happening. I was playing the same scenes over and over, rarely with new material. This was no way to find enough events for a whole novel.

The solution to this problem arose out of good old-fashioned daily persistence. I made it my goal to work on Saving Grace every day, whether I had anything to write or not. Mostly I explored all my thoughts in my story journal, knowing that something would eventually emerge from the slush. One day, I found myself making bullet points.

Character could do A, B, C, or D.

Quick gut test. Probably C.

His motive could be W, X, Y, or Z.

Definitely W.

This event could result in A1, B2, or C3 …

Suddenly, a story was taking shape, one small step at a time, one miniature gut test at a time. Like a GPS device for fiction, the characters were leading me through the crossroads of their story.

If you think about it, a close friend—like a character you’ve been working with for a long time—would feel right at home talking to you about what’s going on in his life. But a new acquaintance—a new character—probably won’t walk up to you and start going on about personal incidents. Sometimes, you’ve got to knuckle down and ask. And since a gut instinct is equivalent to a mere “yes” or “no” … well, you’ve got a lot of asking to do.

The process of learning is an epic journey without an end, only milestones. It seems like each cast I work with has something new to teach me, and it’s a journey that thrills me every day.

About Danielle

Danielle Lincoln Hanna writes Hearth & Homicide Suspense. As much as you can expect shadows in the night, the echoes of gunfire, and the flashing reds-and-blues, you can also expect the porch light to be on and a warm cup of cocoa awaiting you at the fireside. When she’s not riveted to her computer, you can find her camping, hiking, and biking with her dog Molly.

About Mailboat

Mailboat Book 1 CoverBailey Johnson landed the coolest summer job ever: mail jumper on the historic Lake Geneva Mailboat. Falling into the lake is pretty much a hazard of the job. Finding a dead body underwater is pretty much not. One mistimed jump restarts a manhunt, unsolved since before she was born, and reopens old wounds that were only half healed. As if that weren’t bad enough, she’s stuck in the most epically abysmal foster home ever, since she first entered “the system” eleven years ago. Abuse at home, bullets flying in the street … and she thought prom was bad. All she wants is a family of her own. Is that so much to ask for? A forever family–provided she survives the summer.

The Problem of Finishing What I Start

The Problem of Finishing What I Start

Why should you worry about long-term goals when you have short-term goals that are more urgent?

For the same reason riders on the Olympic Cross Country or show jumping courses look one or two jumps ahead instead of at the jump right in front of them.

show-jumping

And for the same reason water skiers look where they are going instead of where they are.

Focusing on immediate goals is good, but if there is no long term goal out there, it’s very easy to lose your way or get bogged down in the details of immediate concerns. Sure, life will jump up and hit you in the face now and again. Unforeseen obstacles will arise and block your path, forcing you to take a detour. But if you have an overall, long-term goal, a point of reference that doesn’t change, you can always get back on course once the obstacle is negotiated and that rough patch is behind you.

Without a long-term point of reference, it’s way too easy to lose your way or to spend unnecessary time wandering around until you do finally strike the right path.

That’s true in business life, personal life, everything.

I have found over three decades of painting that my most challenging time in the studio is not starting something. Starting things is easy!

The most challenging time is when something is finished. Especially a big something. If there is nothing else in the works, it is very easy to wallow around in idleness, wondering what I’m going to do next.

pig-wallowing-mud-hole

If, however, there is a drawing in progress or an under painting under way, I check the finished painting off the list and move on to the next one.

And even if I do hit a rough patch artistically, if I can remember to look up and see that my long term objective is to paint as many pictures as possible as well as possible by the time I walk off this mortal plane, then it’s easier to spot the things that are distracting me or dragging me down and get rid of them.

The same with writing. Finishing one scene or chapter is good, but it’s best when I already have an idea of where I’m going next. Knowing how the story ends is even more helpful in determining the steps I need to take to get to the end.

Short term goals completed lead to mid-term goals completed and that leads to the ultimate goal being completed.

I suppose that’s one area where American society has fallen down badly. Planning for next year is “long-term” for most of us. I’m just getting to the point at which I’m considering goals and plans five years out and that’s nothing compared to most Eastern and Middle Eastern societies.

The Japanese, for example, consider 50 to 100 years to be long-term, especially for businesses. Middle Eastern societies plan by the decade and by the century.

We Americans get bored if something isn’t done in six months or less!

I’m no better. I’m working my way through a new story. It hasn’t been any more difficult than most stories, but it has been in progress most of this year and I’m having to fight urges to start something new more and more often.

Some days I have to remind myself of my long term writing goal: Write as many stories as possible as well as possible. The only way to do that is to finish what I start.

That means putting aside that cool new certain to be a blockbuster breakout novel idea and keep after the current manuscript…

…until it’s finished!

Sigh.

If only finishing something old was a much fun as starting something new….

Take Charge of Your Ideas, Part II: Too Many Ideas

Take Charge of Your Ideas, Part II: Too Many Ideas

In Part I, we discussed an easy way to fill the gaps in your idea file by mining your own life experiences. But what about the opposite problem—too many ideas?

take-charge-of-your-story-ideas-part-ii-too-many-ideas

It’s easy to be distracted by everything that shines. Pretty soon, your whole story has run down a bunny trail and you’re not even sure anymore what it is you’re writing—or if you should be writing it at all! Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, the only tool you need to keep on track is the North Star.

Look for Your Story’s North Star

If you suffer from ADHW (Attention Deficit Hyperactive Writer disorder), the key is to find your story’s North Star. The North Star embodies the heart, soul, and spirit of your story. In all likelihood, it will be very closely tied with the inspiration that first gave birth to your story.

In practical terms, the North Star can be almost anything:

  • Your lead character’s personality
  • Your one-sentence summary
  • Your story’s theme

north-star

My North Star tends to be my character’s journey—e.g., a foster child’s struggle to trust. The important thing is that your North Star speaks to you on a very deep level. It gets you excited every time you think about it. You fill pages of your story journal with it. You wax eloquent about it to your cat.

Don’t rush this step. Sloppy coordinates will get you lost. Your North Star is the essence of your story, the one thing you should never feel tempted to compromise. Whatever else may change, the North Star will always be there.

Look for the Guiding Light

Now, next time a new idea comes along, wait just a moment before you run with it. Yes, it’s shiny, but your North Star should be brighter.

Take a hard look at that new idea. Brainstorm it for a few minutes, or write it for a paragraph or a page. See where it’s going.

Now hold it up to the North Star. Does this new starlet augment the North Star’s light, making them both shine brighter? Does it enhance that true essence of your story? Or does the starlet compete with the North Star, undercutting your story’s essence?

Only keep that which enhances the North Star. But what to do with that shiny starlet?

sunbeam-cave

Look for Other Stories

A writer with too many story ideas has a real gift—a never-ending supply of new stories. Don’t throw away that starlet that didn’t fit with the North Star. There was nothing wrong with that story idea—only that it belongs to a different story.

Lots of writers keep a file or a notebook filled with story ideas. For now, that’s where your starlet belongs. Next time you’re in the mood to start a new idea, revisit the starlet. You never know—it may become a new North Star!

About Danielle

Danielle Lincoln Hanna writes Hearth & Homicide Suspense. As much as you can expect shadows in the night, the echoes of gunfire, and the flashing reds-and-blues, you can also expect the porch light to be on and a warm cup of cocoa awaiting you at the fireside. When she’s not riveted to her computer, you can find her camping, hiking, and biking with her dog Molly.

About Mailboat

Mailboat Book 1 CoverBailey Johnson landed the coolest summer job ever: mail jumper on the historic Lake Geneva Mailboat. Falling into the lake is pretty much a hazard of the job. Finding a dead body underwater is pretty much not. One mistimed jump restarts a manhunt, unsolved since before she was born, and reopens old wounds that were only half healed. As if that weren’t bad enough, she’s stuck in the most epically abysmal foster home ever, since she first entered “the system” eleven years ago. Abuse at home, bullets flying in the street … and she thought prom was bad. All she wants is a family of her own. Is that so much to ask for? A forever family–provided she survives the summer.

 

Take Charge of Your Story Ideas, Part I: Not Enough Ideas

Take Charge of Your Story Ideas, Part I: Not Enough Ideas

by Danielle Hanna

Sometimes your ideas run fast and furious.

Sometimes they slow to a crawl. But if you’re going to finish a novel—and particularly if you’re ever going to be a prolific author—learning to manage the flow of ideas is essential.

In Part I of this two-part post, we’ll talk about what to do when you’re out of story ideas.

take-charge-of-your-story-ideas-part-i_-not-enough-ideas

What to Do When You’re Out of Story Ideas

Ever wish you had a bottomless treasure trove of story ideas and plot twists? For free?

You do.

It’s called Life.

You may think your life is BORING. But look closer. Think a little more critically. Everything that happens to you is a story—and with minor adjustments, or even as-is, carries the potential for epic novel material. The beauty is that your personal experience can inject your story with noticeable authenticity.

Look for the Conflict

True story: I’ve just bought a new (okay, used) motor home, and I’m proudly driving it back to my house. I’m cruising down the Interstate, just getting the swing of handling this 23-foot road monster, when I start losing power on the up-hills. Pretty soon, the engine coughs and dies.

I did say it was used, right? As in, gas-gauge-doesn’t-work-anymore used. But no problem! I have an auxiliary tank—and I even know how to access it. I switch the little lever under the dash. The engine revs back to life … then coughs and dies again.

Conflict: not one but TWO empty gas tanks on my brand new (used) motor home.

Look for Escalating Problems

It’s rush hour. I’m in the farthest lane from the shoulder. My mirrors aren’t adjusted right. I’m half-way between an on-ramp and a bridge with no shoulder. (Yes, this is still a true story.)

In real life, it never rains but it pours. That’s the pits when you’re stuck in the middle of a problem—but it’s a bonus when turning your experiences into story material. Your reader will get bored with a challenge that stagnates. Instead, the conflict should stubbornly get more and more problematic.

So look at your real-life conflict and ask yourself how it became more problematic over time.

Look for the Climax

I crane my neck and glimpse just enough space to cross over to the shoulder. I literally coast to a stop on the itty-bitty strip of safe zone between the on-ramp and the bridge. After a brief moment of pounding head on steering wheel, I call my dad and ask if he can swing by with a gas can.

Every conflict eventually reaches a point of resolution. Sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes a little of both. How did your problem resolve?

Look for the Story Potential

Okay, so running out of gas on the Interstate isn’t exactly epic novel material—or is it? Look for a moment at all the things that could have gone wrong:

  • I could have been stranded twenty miles from the nearest town
  • I could have been stranded after dark in a questionable neighborhood
  • I could have been on my way to a vital appointment
  • I could have been “helped” by someone I’d rather not get help from
  • I could have been rear-ended

See? What may have been a minor annoyance in your life has big story potential if you know how to leverage it. What if this happened to your heroine while she was rushing to save the day? What if it resulted in a major collision? What if the guy who pulls over to help is the antagonist? Suddenly your every-day experience takes on new life.

Everything that happens to you is a story—your story. With just a dash of creativity, you can easily use your life as a never-ending reservoir of story ideas.

In Part II, we’ll talk about the opposite problem, what to do with too many story ideas.

About Danielle

Danielle Lincoln Hanna writes Hearth & Homicide Suspense. As much as you can expect shadows in the night, the echoes of gunfire, and the flashing reds-and-blues, you can also expect the porch light to be on and a warm cup of cocoa awaiting you at the fireside. When she’s not riveted to her computer, you can find her camping, hiking, and biking with her dog Molly.

About Mailboat

Mailboat Book 1 CoverBailey Johnson landed the coolest summer job ever: mail jumper on the historic Lake Geneva Mailboat. Falling into the lake is pretty much a hazard of the job. Finding a dead body underwater is pretty much not. One mistimed jump restarts a manhunt, unsolved since before she was born, and reopens old wounds that were only half healed. As if that weren’t bad enough, she’s stuck in the most epically abysmal foster home ever, since she first entered “the system” eleven years ago. Abuse at home, bullets flying in the street … and she thought prom was bad. All she wants is a family of her own. Is that so much to ask for? A forever family–provided she survives the summer.

 

Looking for a Hero

Looking for a Hero

I’ve been thinking about characters a lot lately. I suppose part of that is because of the time spent with two recent blog posts authored or co-authored with Danielle Hanna, my brain storming partner (see Skin Diving with Characters and 6 Steps to Discovering Characters).

free-divingPart of it is due to personal attempts to utilize Danielle’s skin diving technique and comparing it to my usual method, which includes interviews with characters and putting them into stressful or high-tension situations and letting them react.

The biggest reason for character contemplation, though, is current events and a personal desire for characters who face the challenges I face personally and who make the right decisions regardless of the pressure to do otherwise. I think, deep down, what I’m looking for is a role model. Someone to look up to and emulate. Someone who personifies the Christ-like life.

On an even broader scale, you could say I’m looking for someone who upholds the right and good in the face of a society that elevates the bizarre and titillating. Someone who can reach out and touch me in ways that cause me to be a better person.

looking-for-hero

The thought is that such a person—such a character—could also speak to others and lead them to a closer walk with God. Could make them a better person, too, by showing what living for Christ looks like.

In other words, a hero.

But, Carrie, don’t you have people like that in your personal life?

Yes, I do. My husband exemplifies a Christian walk better than almost anyone else I know personally. He is, at any rate, the first one who comes to mind.

He’s also the one to whom I go when I have a question about anything spiritual and most other things, too. He doesn’t always have the answer, but he always has information and he’s always eager to share it. He influences most of my hardcore Christian characters to one degree or another. In some fashion, he also influences most other characters because of his influence on me.

sword-in-handBut there seems to be precious few others, especially in public life. People who stand up for Good in the face of impossible odds and face down Evil. I know they’re there. They’re just not talked about. Or seen or heard.

So I look at world events and think about the fictional characters who might face the same things. How would such larger than life heroes react?

How would a governor who fears God and serves his state in righteousness and faithfulness respond when told by courts and federal government to stop protecting his citizens?

How would a conscientious doctor react when told to limit or stop treating some patients because they’re a drain on society?

How would a pastor answer a political call to stop preaching the Bible because it’s ancient, irrelevant, and offensive?

How would a police officer who walks with God respond when ordered to evict a homeowner for no reason beyond the city’s desire to have the property for a shopping center?

How would a God fearing diplomat respond when ordered by superiors to do everything possible to win the favor of a foreign government publicly engaged in genocide?

How would a corporate CEO who is also a believer react when forced to choose between providing insurance for employees or standing by his beliefs?

Big questions, many without hard and fast answers.

Yet, those questions are only high-end representations of the decisions each of us face on a daily basis. It’s a hard world and too many people have no basis from which to form coherent decisions. Could characters such as those described above help readers develop a moral foundation?

Or at least introduce them to the One who can?

I know who my true Hero is. He set aside His position as Creator to become equal with His created. He submitted to 33 years of earthly life, then He died a hideous death. Then He rose again and He will return.

three-crosses

But I do still yearn for those exemplary, larger than life, heroes who point the way to the one true Hero.

The kind of characters who show me how to talk the talk AND walk the walk no matter the challenge or the consequences.

That’s who I want to read about.

That’s also who I want to write about.

Skin Diving With Characters

Skin Diving With Characters

Last week, I wrote about 6 Steps to Discovering Characters. The method I described was given to me by Danielle Hanna, published author, good friend, and brainstorming partner.

Today, I’ll continue discussing character development with Danielle by talking about her method of character discovery, which she calls skin diving.

skin-diving-with-characters

Carrie: Danielle, welcome to Writing Well. Thank you for taking the time to talk about skin diving.

Danielle: Thanks for having me.

Carrie: Give us an overview of your method for getting to know new characters.

Danielle: One of the things I do is “slip into their skin.” I imagine myself in my character’s body, seeing the world through his eyes. It’s actually one of the most effective ways I’ve found of really getting to know my character—of understanding how he sees himself as the main character in his own story.

Carrie: How do you do that?

Person and Dog Walking in FogDanielle: The easiest way I’ve found is to start stationary—either sitting or standing. You have to be listening to gut instincts. Ask the character, “How do you typically sit?” For instance, one of my characters, an older man, has an old leg injury. He often sits with that leg stretched out in front of him, rubbing the sore muscles. It’s become a habit he’s not even aware of.

I have another character who’s very vivacious and outgoing. When I stand “in his skin,” I find my hands on my hips and my head tilted back, a smile on my face—because he finds reason to smile at everything.

But before I even try to slip into my character’s skin, I attempt to transform the elements of the world around me into the elements of the character’s world. The skin dive becomes more vivid if my world closely matches the story world. If a scene takes place on a back porch, I’ll go sit on my back porch. If my world is too dissimilar, I have to work harder at using my imagination. I’ll still try to pick out one or two things in my world that would be the same or very similar in the story world.

Once I’m in the character’s skin, and I have at least a little bit of touch with the story world, I try to play a scene. I don’t direct what happens. I let the character carry me away.

Foggy Landscape with PersonCarrie: Can you give us an example?

Danielle: I was taking my dog outside before bed. It was pitch black, a little windy, but warm. One of my characters, Tommy, approached and told me we were going skin diving. I’d been in his skin a few times before, so I found it easy to stand the way he would .

Then I looked out on my world—the darkness; the shadows; the warm, troubled air. Tommy told me this was exactly the way his world looked right now.

Then I waited for another character to show up. (They usually do during these sessions.)

To my surprise, it was Tommy’s son. Thing was, I had thought he was dead. But no, there he was. Meeting with his dad in the dark of night . The dark of night part didn’t confuse me, because I knew the son had been in trouble with the law.

They began a vivid conversation, boiling into an argument. As usual, I spoke my character’s part out loud. I learned volumes about both of them. The upshot of the session was a strong gut instinct that I had been wrong about the son; he really is still alive; and his dad is really mad at him. In fact, that whole session might make it into the novel.

Carrie: There has to be a starting point. You said you’d been in this character’s skin several times before. Where did it start? What was the first thing?

sunbeamsDanielle: I started skin diving when I was still practically a kid and transitioning between playing with dolls and playing with story characters. It was all the same to me.

I can’t recall how or when I first started skin-diving with Tommy. The memory has been swallowed up in the murky past.

More recently, I was struggling with a character named Al. I felt he had so much more to tell me, and if I could only slip into his skin … if I could become him like I “became” the toys I had played with when I was a kid …

So I went out on my back porch.

It was spring, warm, sunny.

I picked a chair and sat in it.

And I started by simply asking myself, “How does Al sit?”

That first day, I let my gut instincts lead me into Al’s typical sitting-in-chair posture. He’s tall, and I envisioned his legs stretched out in front of him, crossed at the ankles.

And then I felt he had his arms on the armrests.

And then I felt he had his chin resting in his hand, his fingers covering his mouth.

And I saw him looking out at the world with veiled but perceptive eyes.

And that was my first skin-diving session with Al.

On that last part, about the eyes–you can see how simply assuming his posture led to learning something about his personality: Veiled but perceptive eyes. He doesn’t like other people seeing in, but he observes everything around him.

Carrie: Fascinating and it doesn’t sound that difficult.

But you said you’d been having trouble with him, which implies that you’d been trying to sort him out for some time. Is that correct?

Danielle: Yeah. I had his whole story wrong. So I cleaned the slate and asked him if he’d like to give me a second chance. That day on the back porch was the beginning of starting over. I’m so glad he agreed. He’s one of my best characters.

In fact, I’d say that learning to slip into his skin saved our relationship.

Carrie: Thanks for explaining your methods, Danielle.

Sun Streaming Through a TreeThe first time Danielle described her skin diving technique, I couldn’t imagine how to begin and the idea locked up my brain.

But I had a character from some time ago that I knew enough about to have a starting point. Under Danielle’s tutelage, I gave skin diving a try. The results were remarkable. Not only did I meet the Professor again, but I learned a few things, too.

Danielle’s method of skin diving is a learning experience and may feel awkward in the beginning. She assures me that it gets easier each time. The important things is to have no preconceived notions about the character or about who else might show up. Patience is also necessary.

As is a bit of boldness.

Just be aware that things will naturally begin foggy and so vague you may not know where you are, but that they will clear up and you’ll begin to see and understand your character.

About Danielle

Danielle Lincoln Hanna writes Hearth & Homicide Suspense. As much as you can expect shadows in the night, the echoes of gunfire, and the flashing reds-and-blues, you can also expect the porch light to be on and a warm cup of cocoa awaiting you at the fireside. When she’s not riveted to her computer, you can find her camping, hiking, and biking with her dog Molly.

About Mailboat

Mailboat Book 1 CoverBailey Johnson landed the coolest summer job ever: mail jumper on the historic Lake Geneva Mailboat. Falling into the lake is pretty much a hazard of the job. Finding a dead body underwater is pretty much not. One mistimed jump restarts a manhunt, unsolved since before she was born, and reopens old wounds that were only half healed. As if that weren’t bad enough, she’s stuck in the most epically abysmal foster home ever, since she first entered “the system” eleven years ago. Abuse at home, bullets flying in the street … and she thought prom was bad. All she wants is a family of her own. Is that so much to ask for? A forever family–provided she survives the summer.