Friday, July 29, 2016

4 Ways to Connect to Your Reader's Heart -- by Rachel

To craft a story that resonates with your reader you need to connect with their heart. Whether it makes their heart soften with tenderness or charge with suspense is up to you. How do you connect with your reader’s heart? Simple: connect with your own.

Your Universal Experience
Ask yourself: what gets to me? What brings tears to my eyes? What worries me or makes my heart race or makes me obsess for years on end? If it gets to you, chances are, it will get to your reader too. Because we’re all human and the stories that resonate are the ones that are about the human experience. So think of experiences you’ve had with family, friends or even via the news that wouldn’t let you go. Find that universal thread and shine it until it glows.

Your Unique Experience
Now, look at it from a different angle. Readers also want to be intrigued. For that, you need something unique. Well, you’re unique. There’s no one on earth who experiences life like you do. Ask yourself: what gets to me that sets me apart? Do I have a unique passion or talent? Am I a little quirky? How so? Have I experienced something life-changing that was unusual? How did it or does it affect me personally? What about this thing is unique. Now turn up the volume on that unique angle. Twist it until a reader can't help but pick up your book.

Your Reading Experience
Of course, we don’t all write just out of our own life experience. The sci-fi and historical fiction shelves would be sparse if we did. So here’s another question: What draws me in when I’m reading? Because chances are that a novel that captivated you,  captivated others. What was it in a particular novel that got to you? Study it until you know, and see if there’s a general idea you can weave into your own story. I’m not advising riffing someone else’s story exactly, only finding the general idea.

So for example, if you loved The Martian, you’re not going to write another story about someone stranded in outer space. But you might think about how the life and death struggle made you read on, or how you admired the hero’s genius and humor. Or perhaps you liked the idea of the whole world watching and caring about what happened to the hero. One or two of those things can be woven into your story about a WWII medic, say, or a homeless mom, for a unique outcome, while keeping the reader hooked.

Your Fascinations

One last question. What fascinates you and makes you want to learn more? Because if it fascinates you, that passion will translate on to the page, and it will hook your reader. I certainly didn’t think I would want to read about growing food on Mars or how to jerry-rig a space vehicle. But Andy Weir’s passion for space won me over, along with a lot of drama. So, whatever passion is yours, follow it, especially if you’re willing to research it like crazy. Your passion, see, is what will capture the reader’s heart. 

Saturday, July 23, 2016

How to Kill Off your Favorite Characters – by Christine

My neighbors are under the misguided belief that I’m an ordinary sort of person with…generally…a kind disposition. Little do they know that in addition to romance and history, I plot nasty murders and heart-breaking death. And not just for my villains. My favorite deaths are those of my favorite characters.

Can you hear it? A maniacal laughter as I gleefully rub my hands together concocting another death scene. My neighbors may not rest as easy if they knew about my delicious macabre side.

As Rachel mentioned last week—we readers want to experience the characters’ significant loss, as long as we have a big hope to carry us along.

  • Hope in an entertaining fictional novel gives us hope to face the real losses in our life.

And there’s no greater loss than death.

Imagine yourself on a train travelling through a long, dark tunnel. Sunlight blinds you as you exit that tunnel. 

  • Life and hope feels that much brighter after the healing that comes long after the passing of a loved one.   
  • Rescue and relief feel that much more exquisite at the demise of an enemy.

Whether the death is of a hero or a villain, a good death scene needs:

Weight—build throughout your story a love for that sacrificing hero, or a deep hatred for your villain, so the reader will feel the weight of that eventual death.  


Pathos—show the variety and immensity of the emotion at the passing of this character whether it be relief at the death of a villain or loss of a hero.  


Detail—death has so many aspects; research what happens to bodies when death occurs and add those details.


Stop Time—Slow your scene way, way, way down so the reader can feel the very last breath of the dying character.

Below is one of my favorite death scenes, the first death I wrote. I can’t give you many other examples from my books as that would have too many spoilers.

This scene is Miriam’s point of view (the older Miriam, an Indian woman) from Shadowed in Silk. In the following scene Miriam watches as a true-life event unfolds in 1919 in the city of Amritsar, Northern India, when under the instructions of a British soldier, General Rex Dye, his Indian troops fire into a crowd of thousands in a garden called the Jallianwala Bagh:


Bullets made an odd kissing noise as they sped past Miriam, slamming into the mud walls. Buffalo that had been lying in the sun brayed when bullets tore into their flesh. The sound of a thousand human voices screamed. Miriam crouched low and ran toward Zakir.

He came alive at the sight of her and ran to her. She caught him, and whirled to run with him back to the ladder when searing pain knifed into her back.

She fell, dropping the child. “Go, go!”

Zakir got up from his knees. He made it to the ladder that would take him out of the sunken grounds, and Eshana pulled him up the rest of the way. Others from the bagh climbed the ladder, over the wall and into Eshana’s waiting arms. At last Eshana retreated into the mission. Good, good, my daughter. Go inside to safety. Protect the children.  

Miriam’s breath came in spurts. Blood covered the front of her sari, and she gave a little moan. A bullet must have passed through her. Ignoring her pain, she looked across the grounds and froze. People shrieked, jumping into the well to evade the hail of bullets. With nothing to hold onto they slipped beneath the water.

Her blood turned to ice when over the din another voice reached her. Eshana came down the ladder and dropped to the ground.

“Go . . . go back," Miriam croaked.

The rifle fire stopped. The cries of the people seemed to cease, as if they held their breath. But fresh magazines clicked into place as the rifles were reloaded. Father. Father God.

Soldiers aimed toward the area beneath the peepul tree where Zakir had taken shelter. Her vision had not clouded, yet all color had gone. She could see well enough when the rope ladder broke under the weight of too many people trying to clamber up. There was no way for Eshana to climb to safety.

Eshana dashed behind a pile of bodies.

Dear God, make the dead a shield for her.

It seemed hours passed, but it must have been only seconds when her beloved daughter took her in her arms and touched the spreading constellation of blood on her sari. Miriam’s chest burned like fire.

The firing stopped. Barked orders echoed across the bagh, and the soldiers marched out. Moans of the dying replaced the sound of gunshot.

She compelled Eshana to look at her. “Light of my eyes, forgive . . . they do not know . . . what they have done. Forgive.” She sank into Eshana’s arms, and her gaze was drawn somewhere beyond the tree above them. A bubbling noise came from the back of her throat, and she tried to speak. “Bring healing, Eshana . . .”

She felt Eshana’s tears drop onto her face and tried to lift her head in the direction of the mission, but it landed in the dust. Her sight dimmed and died as the stench of burnt gun powder lay like a cloud over all.

Brightness penetrated her closed eyelids. The pain in her chest began to lessen and leave. Scents of blossoms infused the air, orange, almond, roses, jasmine. She no longer felt Eshana’s arms around her.

Miriam opened her eyes. A man walked toward her from the far side of the bagh. A soldier? He was not dressed in khaki or like a British civilian, but robed like any man of the east in clean, flowing white, the sun flashing behind his head. He walked among the bodies and those clinging to life. He touched many with his hands, his face heavy with sorrow.

He stopped, and his searching gaze found her. He smiled, and she understood that sense of love and joy she had felt earlier. A cooling breeze entered the grounds, and rose petals danced a wild, joyful dervish upon it.

He beckoned to her with his open hands—hands that bore scars of their own.


Friday, July 15, 2016

Stories with Big Hearts: Loss, Sacrifice & Redemption -- by Rachel

Think about your favorite novels. I’m guessing that the stories involved a significant loss for the character. As writers we love our characters like friends and family, so despite throwing some obstacles in their way, we tend to coddle them – at least a little. But in real life, people deepen and grow when life veers off in the opposite direction of their dreams, and so will our characters. It’s when they start to struggle and mature that our readers empathize with them and begin to think of the characters as their friends and family too.

Write stories with big losses.
Every story contains some risk and probably at least a little loss. But truly, the ones that will resonate are the ones where the character doesn’t just risk something, they actually lose it, and lose it big. Think of Scarlett in Gone with the Wind, losing her daughter and then both Rhett and Ashley. Why else would such a superficial character win the hearts of readers? We become her as we think of the profound loss. Or think of The Kite Runner where Amir's father goes from one of the most respected men in Afghanistan to a gas station attendant in California. The profound loss is what makes it a compelling read.

Write stories with big sacrifices.
And then there is another kind of loss that reaches even deeper. It’s the sacrifice, or the loss the hero/heroine makes willingly for a cause. Katniss takes her sister’s place in the hunger games, or Sydney Carton goes to the guillotine in Darnay’s place in A Tale of Two Cities.  

Even as readers pick out books for entertainment, they’re looking for something else too. They’re looking for answers. Why am I here? Who am I capable of becoming in this oh-so imperfect world? How do I make the most of a life that squirms out of my control and bites right where it hurts? Stories that answer those questions with a little bit of realism get our attention and stay with us. And what reality doesn't include loss and sacrifice?

Write stories with big redemption.
It’s popular, especially in more literary writing, to show an ending where everything is lost in the end. After a war, the character is permanently scarred (All the Light We Cannot See). After childhood abuse, we find the characters decades later still centered on their grief (The Poisonwood Bible).

I guess I have a different take. 1) We read for hope, and a book that gives hope will stay with the reader in their own times of hopelessness. 2) It’s human nature to find redemption. While emotional scars may be somewhat permanent, I believe we’re wired to go on with life, to form meaningful relationships and find personal happiness in spite of those scars. It’s not unrealistic to show that with some clear thinking, some determination and profound love, we can end up in a positive place.

So Amir after sacrificing his self-respect in The Kite Runner is told by his father’s friend, “You can be good again.” And he risks his life to find that goodness. 

One of my favorite redemptive novels is The Sparrow. By the end of Book 2, decades have passed and Emilio is able to see that the suffering he unwittingly unleashed, both on himself and an entire planet, has brought some incredibly good things too. Those good things would never have happened had he not made the decisions he did. That’s my favorite kind of redemption – not just healing or making things right, but creating goodness out of the suffering itself. And no doubt, that’s why The Sparrow and its sequel are still selling well twenty years after they were first published.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Find your Heroes and Your Villains Within Yourself by Christine

Joan of Arc is considered a medieval Christian heroine of France 

I used to think that writing my hero was easier than writing my villain. That was until my critique partner Rachel got her wonderful hands on my first drafts and left comments that my villain was coming across as a mustache-twirling bad buy, who with maniacal laughter was tying the heroine to the railway tracks. 

And my heroes were just too perfect. Something suited for a pedestal.

Boring!!!!!    Not realistic.

But we don’t want realism in fiction…do we?

Yes, yes, yes, oh yes,

Your fiction—no matter how out of this world the plot may soar, no matter how much it leaps out of ordinary life, even if you’re writing super hero comic books—your heroes and villains must have their feet firmly planted in reality.

Your readers must relate to your HERO even if he is Superman.

Superman in his Clarke Kent role showed his vulnerability. This hero wanted what all the rest of us want:

·        Acceptance
·        Friendship
·        a place in this world
·        …love.

And your readers must also be able to relate to your VILLAIN.  

Think about Darth Vadar when he slips away from the bridge of his Destroyer Ship to his private quarters and removes his helmet. Beneath his mask we find a broken man who—just like our hero—is also seeking his place in the world.

·     But our villain’s desire for acceptance has been twisted to a desire to control others.
·     His need for friendship has been warped to a desire to dominate.
·     His need for love has been poisoned to—not hate—but something more frightening, a cold lack of empathy.


You’ve heard the old phrase—“There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

This phrase was coined by mid-sixteenth-century English Reformer John Bradford  in reference to a group of prisoners being led to execution. I too firmly believe that left to our own devices we humans are all capable of totally destroying our lives and worlds.

Therefore, I don’t have to look far to find my villains. I take out those sad memories of when I have “blown it” and push that offense to its farthest extreme to create my villains.

I also don’t have to look far to find my heroes. By using those values in me that the Lord has developed I push that to its farthest to create heroes I can only aspire to become.

In the following examples I show you where I used myself to create a few of my heroes and villains.


Major Geoff Richards in Shadowed in Silk would have been a complete bore had I allowed him to be perfect. He needed a flaw—something in his soul that the Lord was in the midst of working on. Geoff represents what many of us Christians become after a number of years of faithfully following our Savior’s example.

I had learned to be good. I went to church faithfully, knew my Bible well, but because of that I’d become somewhat judgemental of others who continued to have difficulty in obeying the Lord.

I love Geoff’s character arc in Shadowed in Silk. As the author, Geoff’s growth was as important to me as that of the more “seemingly” flawed Abby. I hope that as readers finish the story they will realize that Geoff’s slightly puffed up pride as a Godly man was the thing in his soul that offended the Lord. In God’s eyes, Geoff’s difficulty in accepting Abby’s flaws was distasteful to God.

On the other hand, Eshana in the entire Raj Trilogy is the most saintly character I’ve ever written. She has suffered so much as a Christian in India that her spiritual journey is much further along and one I can only aspire to. But…Eshana had a flaw too. And one I pulled out of my own life.

Eshana loved the work that the Lord gave her. She didn’t realize until God took that work away how much she loved her labor, and discovered that in a small way she had made that work an idol before the one true God.


Eshana’s cousin in Captured by Moonlight is an ordinary woman, but through lack of understanding, lack of a larger world view, inflicts physical pain on Eshana who she is one of her jailers. All this simple woman knows is that Eshana’s words and actions are shaking her world and this frightens her and creates a villain of her.

Charles in Sofi’s Bridge was a nice ordinary man many years before the novel begins. In fact, Charles used to be Sofi’s father’s best friend and business partner. But life hasn’t gone as well for Charles as it had for Sofi’s father. It is ordinary life disappointments that create this villain who steps out of his life and considers doing the reprehensible. In fact Charles does exactly what John Bradford said, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

One of my favorite villain excerpts is from Sofi’s Bridge:

The end of the bridge felt too far away. Nothing but air beneath the gaps in the ties. Nothing to guard Sofi from the emptiness over the river. But why should she fear Charles? It was only Charles. Only Charles who had allowed men to drop, perhaps to their deaths. Charles who’d altered her bridge so that it was unsafe. Charles who refused to let her look at the books. And he knew she knew. But he wasn’t a criminal. He was her parents’ colleague. All the same, she tried to pull her arm from his hold.

“What are you up, my girl?”

She forced a light tone. “This is a ridiculous place for a conversation.”

“Also a ridiculous place for a young lady to come at night.”

In the dark she couldn’t make out his expression. But felt his fingers constrict above her elbow. Her pulse hammered in her ears.

Odin’s bark shattered the air.

Charles jolted, but kept his hold on her.

The dog stood at the edge of the decking. His gangly shape, hardly visible in the dark, pawed the ground before the first gap in the ties. Men around the campfires came running, their voices stabbing the night air.

Charles laughed, but she heard the nervousness beneath it. “Your dog frightened me out of my skin, Sofi. We could have fallen.” He called out that all was well, and walked her to the abutment. Flickering light from cooking fires lit the hard line of his mouth.

Her pulse started to slow, but Odin crouched, baring his teeth at Charles.

“Call your dog off. The stupid animal thinks I mean you harm.”

She grasped Odin by the collar, but after snuffling his nose into her skirt, he growled again at Charles. 

With her feet on solid ground and men not far away, she wrenched her arm from Charles’s grip. “I want you to cancel the inaugural run. The structure isn’t strong enough. A few more months—”

“My dear girl the bridge is complete. If you want your precious accident compensations paid, then the opening must occur. We all need this.”

“We do not need a bridge that isn’t safe. This steel is not the thickness I—and my father—specified when we designed it. This bridge needs to be strengthened, and I’m going to see that gets done.”

“My dear Sofi, you’re acting like a spoiled child.” Charles’s normally jovial tone returned, and she doubted he’d meant her any harm on the bridge. She’d been a fool to imagine that.

She swung to face him. “This bridge is my design.”

“Oh come now. You’re letting your father’s overindulgence make you think more of your artistic aptitudes than you ought.”

They walked past the workers’ sleeping cars and stood in the light from the switching yard. Odin’s hackles were still raised.

She grabbed hold of Charles’s sleeve. “Think what you like, Charles. I’m going to stop you.”

His wide-eyed glare reflected his cowardice. He was all bluff and bluster like Trina had said. No true power.

“What’s making you do such outrageous things, Sofi? First you run away, taking your sister with you instead of leaving her to medical professionals. Now you’re telling me how to run the business. Is the grief over losing your father driving you to do the unthinkable?”

What a strange thing to say. He may be a meddling fool . . . but fools could be dangerous. “Is that the case with you, Charles? What anxiety in your life made you act the traitor to my father? You are not the man you used to be.” 


Friday, July 1, 2016

12 Qualities of a Big-Hearted Novel -- by Rachel

I love big books. I’m not talking about page count here, but stories that are so big in scope that the novels live on with me long after I finish reading. I’m even drawn to reread the story.

That’s the kind of book I want to write, so before I begin writing, I analyze the bones of my story to see if it has some of those big-book qualities.

Twelve Big Book Qualities

1. A Hero or HeroesCharacters who take big risks and stand up for what’s right. They may be deeply flawed, and yet, they’re saints, magnetic leaders, or they show massive courage of some kind. They’re true to life and still larger than life.

2. An Impossibly Large Role to Fill: Characters step into a role that at first seems much too large for them. It may be leading a dangerous military mission, stopping a plague from spreading, or rescuing one child who is falling through an emotional black hole. In the beginning, the characters aren’t equipped, but as the story progresses, they learn to fill that big role.

3Injustice:  It can be a large scale injustice (the Nazis) or small scale (an overbearing parent), but at all costs, it must have high stakes and the barriers to justice must seem huge to the characters.

4. Complex Relationships: The story provides relationships that are full of great love and yet are greatly troubled. If there are complex relationships that intersect other complex relationships, that’s even better.

5A Larger than Life Setting: The setting should carry the reader away – a family vineyard, an estate house perched on a craggy coastline, a frenzied metropolis, a bustling medieval village, or a dangerous forest. If your story calls for an ordinary town or city, make sure to find its personality and drama.

6Time Scope: There are big books that take place in a year, even in days. But there’s something dramatic about watching lives take shape over a lifetime. Even a historical subplot within a contemporary story or significant backstory can make the story feel larger.

7Sacrifices and Crushed Dreams: A character may voluntarily give up something precious for the sake of loved ones, or their dreams may be grasped from their clenched fists. The story is bigger as they struggle to redeem the loss.

8A Goal with Long Odds: The character – actually all of the characters – need specific goals, and they should be hard to achieve, with plenty of obstacles in the way.

9Characters with Special Talents or Gifts: Readers love to watch gifted people work – whether artists, geniuses, prophets, clever detectives, explorers, brilliant doctors or farmers . If a character has a special calling or talent, all the better. But starting off with only rudimentary knowledge or none, and bringing the reader along as the character learns is compelling too.

10. Souls that Don’t Belong: Whether it’s because of a special gift, an unusual heritage, a greater determination, their life has set them apart somehow, and they find themselves alone in their community. Of course as the story continues, they’ll find a mentor, a lover or friend, but there will be some bumpy roads before they understand that they fit together.

11.  A Long Mystery or Unusual Twist: Nothing keeps readers turning the page like dropped clues along the pages as they try to solve the mystery. Also great is a dramatic mystery, which the reader understands perfectly but the characters don’t. Waiting for everything to be made clear to the protagonist makes for great tension. Of course, any mystery or twist in a big book should have lots of personality and be critical to the character’s inner life.

12Resonating Voice: I put this last, but really it’s a first. An original voice that carries the reader into the sensory and emotional experience of the novel will lure the reader in at page one and hold them until the last sentence. Voice, more than any other quality, brings me back for a second read.
Help me out. What is missing from my list? What qualities make a “Big Story” for you?

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