Friday, January 29, 2016

Getting to Know Your Story -- by Rachel

So you have the big picture of your novel – a story hook, the main characters, perhaps a few important scenes. But how do you get from this place to a premise that will span a 300 page novel? You’ll need to spend time getting to know your story. There are countless ways to do this, but here is what works for me.

Character Sketches
One of the first things I do is set out my characters. I’ll start out by listing what I already know about them. Sometimes, I simply make a decision. At others character qualities come to me fully formed. I hear them talking. I see their abusive father. I feel their core of quiet strength.

I fill the page with everything I can think of – their academic and work background, their family background, their Meyers-Briggs personality type, information about their faith, voice, gifts, weaknesses, appearance, interests and personal goals. I also look for a single key to each character’s story, for example a drifting character who needs their artistic genius recognized or a character who’s living by the rules but needs a more colorful life.

Scene Kernels
I list all of the scenes that I already have in mind. I call these scenes “kernels,” a term I borrowed from Diana Gabaldon. They’re not fully formed scenes, but I have some vivid images, actions, snatches of dialogue, etc. When I first begin, I may only have a small handful of kernels, but as I get to know my characters and let the story simmer, my list grows.

This is inherent in the premise, but it’s important to add dimension. What causes the conflict? What makes it worse? What is surprising about it? Are there sub-conflicts?

You probably know where the story is going to happen, but adding as much detail as you can will help the story grow. And this means not just describing the place in detail, but how it affects the characters and what role it plays in the story.

Story Tenor
This is something I discover as I write, but I like to make a few notes about things like the voice, mood and style I’m aiming for before I begin.

Test Scenes
Finally, I write a few scenes. Although I typically write in order, when I’m writing test scenes, I grab the scenes I have the strongest connection to. I’m writing here to get to know the voice, the characters, the style of the story. Sometimes the scene falls flat, and that’s okay. I tend to find that if I come back to that scene a couple of weeks later that it works better than I realized at the time, and with some distance from the writing I can now see what is missing.

Ideally though, the scene takes off. The voice sings. The character walks off the page, sometimes so much so that I go back and redo an entire character sketch. I may change a quiet character into a mouthy one, or even the gender or age of a character. Because characters and events that walk off the page are usually more engaging to write.

At this point, I have a good sense for the breadth of my story premise, and with a little research, I'm now ready to get my story mapped and ready to write.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Concept to Premise--by Christine

My best ideas come to me when I’m doing laundry, vacuuming, grocery shopping. 

At first you may have a million ideas, and you could be driving to Walmart for milk, and this one scenario in your mind starts out like a bit of swirling dust and gathers into a raging tornado just beyond your windshield. And your pulse goes into overdrive. 

That heart-pounding scenario in your head is an idea, a situation, a concept. It is not the premise of your book, but concept is the first step toward your premise. 

  • Your Premise is the germ of your book.
  • Your Premise is your entire novel summed up in one single sentence (and showing the moral arc)

When I started to write Shadowed in Silk, I had the idea of a woman who is married to a philandering alcoholic, and who falls helplessly in love with an honorable Christian man. A good idea, but I needed to develop this into my premise, not only to sell my novel to an agent or acquisitions editor, but most especially to potential readers.

Besides, since my audience was CBA (Christian Booksellers Association) how was I going to write this book that dealt with the difficult subject of spousal abuse, divorce, and falling in love with another man without being called a heretic?

I believe in the sanctity of marriage so my premise had to show that.

I started out with 5 basic keys to a fiction novel. 

1.       CHARACTER

Your novel needs a protagonist that readers can care about, and your character must also care about something deeply. What does your character want, long for, need? 


What event propels your character out of their ho-hum life and into a story journey that will have them either reach their goal or destroy them?

3.      CONFLICT

Without conflict you simply do not have a story. What tension, resistance, etc. will keep your characters from attaining their goals or getting what they want?


That building disaster that takes up most of the middle of your novel, and each time your main character gets close to their goal, something pulls them back, with worsening and worsening situations until…


The characters reach a situation where the catastrophe will destroy them or they use the moral lessons they have learned throughout the story journey to overcome the dilemma and achieve their goal, need, desire, love interest, etc.)

For an object lesson, I have dissected Shadowed in Silk (my first book) step-by-step below.

1.       CHARACTER: Abby Fraser is a young but lonely married woman with a 3-year-old boy who all her life has felt invisible to those who should have loved her.

2.      CIRCUMSTANCES: The First World War is over at last, and Abby and her son sail to India to be reunited with her soldier husband.

3.      CONFLICT: But Abby discovers that her husband is a philandering, abusive alcoholic. To make matters worse Abby becomes attracted to a kind Christian man who would be shocked and dismayed if he knew how she felt about him.

4.      CATACLYSM: The political situation in India worsens, and the mistress of Abby’s husband (along with an enemy of her husband) uses this opportunity to kidnap Abby’s little boy, forcing Abby to choose the Christian ideals that Geoff, her godly protector, has tried to teach her.

5.   CLIMACTIC OUTCOME: Geoff goes out to the desert to rescue Abby’s son, but so too does Abby’s husband, and in the desert, as Abby learns to lean on God for all her needs, it is there that God decides who lives and dies, and who will be Abby’s husband.

Now I take those 5 points, to condense them, and condense them again and again, into one strong moral premise that will be the backbone of my novel, and something I can recite to people in 30 seconds or less. 


A young mother in the last days of the Indian Raj with an abusive husband fights a forbidden attraction to the godly man who tries to protect her and her son, until a dangerous upheaval forces her to choose the godly ideals of her protector, ideals that will not only lead her away from him but also away from her abusive husband.

Admittedly, looking back, this premise looks very neat, but that’s because all of the major thinking was already done. In the project I am currently writing, each of the 5 story points started out with a full page.

Working on your premise first, forces you to develop your story arc before you even start typing your outline. 

The lesson regarding Premise is one that I learned the hard way, having written my entire debut novel with no clue what premise was. I could have shaved a few years off the writing of that first novel if only I’d known what I know now.  


Friday, January 15, 2016

A Premise that Sells -- by Rachel

What will make your book fly off the shelves? A good story, high quality writing or a strong voice won’t help you unless readers know your book exists.  And for that, you need such an interesting premise that readers around the country are chatting up your book. In other words, you need a hook.

As I've studied my bookshelf, I've come up with a few guidelines that illustrate what gives a novel a strong premise.

§  The novel gives beloved fairytales, historical figures, novels or paintings center or side stage. The Beekeeper’s Apprentice (Sherlock Holmes), While Beauty Slept(Sleeping Beauty), The Girl with a Pearl Earring (Vermeer’s painting), Dear Mr. Knightley (a love for all things Jane Austen) and The Constant Princess (Henry VIII’s first wife) are all examples. Readers want to spend time with favorite characters and art.

§  It ties the story together with a hobby. Ordinary hobbies such as knitting and cooking can certainly draw in readers who enjoy knitting or cooking themselves, but if you can find a twist, this will make it stand out from the crowd. For example, in The Language of Flowers, two characters with a love of gardening send each other messages not with notes, but with flowers, each delivery carrying a symbolic meaning only they understand. Unique hobbies can give your story a little flash as well – i.e., custom shoe design or wild life rescue.

§  It allows readers to do something they’ve always wanted to do (vicariously). I bought Forgotten because it was about a character who, after being stranded in Africa for several months, returns to find that her job, her romance and her apartment are all gone. She’ll have to recreate her life. Spoiler alert: I was disappointed by the book as it did not live up to its promise of the heroine of getting a life makeover, but that promise is what made me buy it. What other deep seated desires will connect you to readers?

§  It creates zinger beginnings or zinger twists. When an old man in the prologue of The Lost Wife tells a wedding guest she looks familiar, and at last figures out that she was his wife just before the Nazis invaded Prague, that certainly sent readers to Amazon’s checkout cart (me included). Burying a zinger in the middle of the book is a harder sell, since it’s not something readers will see when they browse. But I heard about Still Missing from multiple readers because of its buried zinger, and it’s exactly why I picked it up.

§  It starts with vulnerable characters at risk. The little boy locked in the cupboard in Sarah’s Key is a great example of this. But even more ordinary risks – a teen without adult love or support (Dandelion Summer) or a Puritan woman being coerced to marry a man she doesn’t trust (Love’s Pursuit) are good draws. Readers only need to hear the concept to feel they need to see the character to safety.

§  It features a character the world depends on. High stakes Tom Clancy type novels where the character must stop nuclear bombs from detonating or bring an end to a plague outbreak, or fantasy novels where the hero/heroine holds the key to the coming war (think Lord of the Rings) are examples.

§  It begins the story with profound emotion readers can connect with. Remember, readers don’t know the story or the characters yet, so it must be something they can easily connect with. In Coldwater Revival, the heroine is apparently stillborn at birth, but begins to breathe with the loving attention she receives from her father who won’t give up on her. Who can't connect with a stillborn baby and a father's love? 

Think about what made you pick up your last book, or even better, what had you chatting up the book to every reader you knew? Once you’ve found the quality that made it so compelling, you’ve probably found the hook. Now it’s your turn. Find a hook for your own work.

Friday, January 8, 2016

So…You Want to Write a Novel by Christine

Johannes Vermeer

  • You’ve been journaling since you were a kid. 
  • You’ve been writing stories since you were old enough to hold a pencil.

    But write a novel? Write your memoirs?

    • You’ve had this desire deep inside, yammering to get out for years, but that's what it's remained--a dream. 
    • Or you've got a manuscript lining your bedside drawer, a manuscript no one but you has ever seen. 

    So where do you start? Or restart? Does the word "Revision" fill you with dread?

    Rachel and I invite you to join us on our weekly blog Novel Renaissance. We hope that by sharing what we have learned on our writing journey, we can help your dream of becoming a writer a reality.

    Renaissance--"a movement or period of vigorous artistic and intellectual activity." 

    In other words, 

    • Rebirth
    • Revision
    • Resurrection
    • It's time to pull that manuscript out of the drawer, time to open up your laptop and begin. 

    We've planned our topics for the entirety of 2016, topics that---I for one---learned by trial and error. For the month of January we will be talking about PREMISE

    • But here's lesson # 1, that goes even before Premise. The nitty gritty of being a writer, Baring Your Soul.

    When I first started writing back in 1999 I understood any non-fiction I hoped to write, especially the account of my birth mother experience would be autobiographical. But later when it seemed that particular true-life account might never be published, I felt the Lord urge me to put the spiritual and emotional truths I’d learned into Christian Fiction.

    Whew! I thought. This means I don’t have to bare my soul. I can hide behind my “untrue” historical epics that God-willing might help readers think about the Lord while they’re being entertained.

    Here’s the true scoop.

    When I wrote my debut novel Shadowed in Silk I don’t think readers had a clue that I was plastering my heart and soul into my heroine Abby Fraser, even into my bad-guy Russian spy, and especially into Abby’s enemy the Muslim woman, Tikah, who kidnaps Abby’s child.

    Those three characters all feel invisible for their own reasons. The two women especially "feel" that no one sees their heartaches or hears their cries in the night.

    • Note the word "feel", you'll be hearing a lot about that too in the topics to come.

    The reason I could write my debut novel was because I knew what if felt like to be invisible, as a woman hurting over the relinquishment of my firstborn to adoption. I was the invisible one in that particular adoption triad. This enabled me to feel like invisible Abby. 

    But I also felt like my Russian spy who chooses to be invisible on purpose. 

    I also felt like Tikah, Abby's personal enemy, because part of my heart longed to turn the clock back so that I’d never relinquished my baby in the first place. I took the bare truth of my soul and painted that longing into my character Tikah as she does the reprehensible by stealing another woman's child.

    Shocking, I know. I’m not saying my emotions were right or honorable. Emotions are emotions, but that’s what books are, a baring of the soul. Of course I didn’t take back my true-life child, and the Lord helped me through my heartache. But because of that there is: 

    • "Me" in my heroine
    • "Me" in my villain (very important if you don't want a stereotypical mustache twirling bad guy).
    • "Me" in a complex secondary character

    The ideas and premise for your book must come right from the corners of your soul. Every memory you’ve had, sensory, intellectual, emotional, affects how you see the world. That’s what a book is, sharing your world view in one story at a time.

    That’s where you start, be willing to unveil your soul

    Here are some questions to ask yourself, to start the mental juices flowing.

    • What matters to you?
    • What broke your heart?
    • What mended your heart?
    • What deep memories, emotions have shaped your soul?
    • Don’t always think of sad stuff, what joys have sent your heart skyrocketing?
    • Now, lastly, what kind of books do you enjoy reading?

    If you enjoy crime thrillers, then you may not want to start writing a romantic novel that’s based on your grandparents’ courtship. But you can take the emotions you retain regarding your grandparents’ love affair and weave that into your crime thriller.

    For this week’s lesson, think about what you’re passionate about, and what kinds of literature you enjoy.


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