Limbo: The Mood Killer

by Cindy Woodsmall, @cindywoodsmall

To clarify “limbo” for the purpose of this article, I went to Dictionary.com. What I found there seemed quite befitting.

The first definition is: “a region on the border of hell or heaven.”

The fourth definition is: “a place or state of imprisonment or confinement.”

When reading an opening of a chapter, any chapter, I’m definitely in a vexed state of imprisonment if the author has me in limbo concerning the setting the character is in. Readers need to know what the character can see, hear, touch, smell, or taste. If that’s missing, the reader is in limbo.

Most writers incorporate some of that in their stories, especially in the beginning. But beyond the first few chapters, many new writers tend to drop the visual aspect, not realizing that one element causes the book to go from engaging to frustrating.

Because writers see the character and the setting in their imagination, they can forget to write the details into each new scene. When I point out the missing information, new writers often say, “It’s there.”

My response is, “It’s there for you because you’re seeing it in your mind. It’s not there for the readers.” If they still seem adamant, I’ll ask them to find and highlight the words that give readers a visual picture of where the character is. That task is eye opening to them.

Sometimes writers will wait several paragraphs before sharing the setting of a scene. With rare exceptions, that is too late to give the reader a visual.

Books should play out in a person’s head much like a movie plays out on a screen. Almost every new scene in all movies start by showing things we need to know to fully immerge into that world. Anything less puts readers in state of limbo.

A character may be confused and unsure as to where she is. But she is somewhere, taking in information through at least a few of the five main senses—seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling, and tasting.

Once past the first few chapters, writers are often tempted to open a scene by rushing into some type of emotional or action payoff. And while immediate intrigue is important, readers still need a visual of where the character is.

Our writing goal shouldn’t be to mimic a movie. However, research has shown that over 90 percent of the USpopulation are movie watchers—whether at home or in a theater. That’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 250 million people, ranging from young children to seniors. That statistic tells us that a story playing out through visualization is satisfying. As writers, we have the power to give that kind of satisfaction to our readers.

Around 63 percent of all movie watchers also enjoy reading fiction, and avid movie buffs are more likely to be readers than non-moviegoers.

Starting a scene with several lines or paragraphs that leave readers in a state of limbo as to the location is like a movie screen going black for several minutes, and we can only hear voices. We’re in limbo until the visuals return.

Pause for a moment and think about where you are physically right now. What can you see? feel? smell? hear? taste?

What would it do to your mind and emotions if you could not decipher where youare—even if for less than five minutes? That’s what happens to readers when we don’t give them enough information to immediately see the character and his or her surroundings. They become confused and bewildered.

Go to the start of each new scene in your current manuscript and read the first paragraph. Can the reader see where your character is? Do you share two or more details of what the character can see, feel, taste, hear, and smell? Do you give at least a hint of the time of day and the season? Have you given an approximation of how much time has passed since the last scene (e.g., “mere hours ago” or “it’d been three weeks since” or “Thanksgiving was right around the corner”)?

Help your readers visualize the events as if they were playing on the screen of their minds. Then readers won’t enter into the mood killer of limbo.

When I’m mulling overaspects of writing, I always appreciate an example, so I grabbed the opening lines of three random books and chapters.

Morning light filtered through the bedroom windows as Hannah made her and Sarah’s bed. Careful not to wake her two youngest sisters, Hannah slipped into her day clothes. — When the Heart Cries,first lines of chapter ten

The aroma of fresh-baked bread, shepherd’s pie, and steamed vegetables filled Lizzy’s house, mingling with the sweet smell of baked desserts. In the hearth a bank of embers kept a small fire burning, removing the nip that clung to the early-April air. —The Sound of Sleigh Bells,first lines of chapter one

Music vibrated the crisp fall air as Ariana sat on the grassy seats of the amphitheater and watched the stage. Nicholas’s hands moved effortlessly across the piano keys as he accompanied a singer. —Fraying at the Edge, first lines of chapter nineteen


Gathering the Threads

Finally back in the Old Order Amish world she loves, will Ariana’s new perspectives draw her family closer together—or completely rip them apart?
After months away in the Englisch world, Ariana Brenneman is overjoyed to be in the Old Order Amish home where she was raised. Yet her excitement is mixed with an unexpected apprehension as she reconciles all she’s learned from her biological parents with the uncompromising teachings of her Plain community. Although her childhood friend, ex-Amish Quill Schlabach, hopes to help her navigate her new role amongst her people, Ariana’s Daed doesn’t understand why his sweet daughter is suddenly questioning his authority. What will happen if she sows seeds of unrest and rebellion in the entire family?
Meanwhile, Skylar Nash has finally found her place among the large Brenneman family, but Ariana’s arrival threatens to unravel Skylar’s new identity—and her sobriety. Both Ariana and Skylar must discover the true cords that bind a family and community together and grasp tight the One who holds their authentic identities close to His heart.

Cindy Woodsmall is an award-winning New York Times and CBA best-selling author who has written 20 works of fiction, including her most recent series, Amish of Summer Grove. Her connection with the Amish community has been widely featured in national media outlets, including ABC’s Nightline. The Wall Street Journal listed Woodsmall as one of the top three most popular authors of Amish fiction. RT Book Reviews recently presented her with a Career Achievement Award and gave her latest release, Gathering the Threads,a Top Pick review. Woodsmall and her husband reside near the foothills of the North Georgia Mountains. Learn more about Woodsmall and her books at www.cindywoodsmall.com. She is also active on Facebook (@authorcindywoodsmall).

It’s All About Character

by Katherine Reay, @Katherine_Reay

Our ability to engage our readers, surprise, delight, antagonize, or even offend them when we want, all comes down to our characters. Compelling characters make a compelling story — and keep readers wanting more. Even if you write fast-paced, plot-driven fiction, no one wants to head down that road unless the character is worthy of the chase.

So what do we do to create such characters? Ones who “jump off the page” and keep the reader glued to their ups and downs late into the night?

I offer these suggestions:

  1. We feel multiple emotions simultaneously – so they must too! When writing Lizzy & Jane, I realized you could look at your sister and feel (off the top of my head) five emotions instantly: fierce love, equally fierce dislike, jealousy, loyalty and adoration – especially if you’re the younger sister. Use that! Layer the emotions for your character just as you feel them layered within yourself. And the more those emotions conflict, the better! They’ll bring depth to the reader’s experience and the character’s substance.
  2. Look at all those emotions (even list them) then choose any but the most obvious. The reader will feel that one instinctively. Again, in Lizzy & Jane, Lizzy was angry with her sister. She felt betrayed. And, while those two emotions came through often, it was more interesting and in many ways more realistic when I explored Lizzy’s adoration, hero-worship, and yearning for Jane’s acceptance and love. Anger was the lens through which the reader found those softer and more vulnerable feelings. By bringing those emotions out, through and beneath the anger, I also increased the micro-tension between the sisters – that’s the push and pull beneath what’s written on the page.
  3. Make sure what your characters do is an extension of who they are. I use profession, dress, reading preferences, food tastes, decorating, season, quirks, hobbies, and more… Everything is planned to express an aspect of character, either to the positive, the negative or the unexpected. When writing, you have tons of descriptive detail to lay out, don’t let a single size, color, shape or nuance go to waste.
  4. Take a blank page occasionally and “talk” to your character. You don’t need to make it formal, but do write it down. As a writer, that’s how you think and how you communicate – so make sure you don’t just chat, make sure you write down that chat. By doing this, you’ll learn more about your character’s cadence of speech, inner thoughts, and expressions. It’s an interesting exercise and can reveal things that surprise you… Only by doing this, late in the manuscript process, did I learn how truly angry Sam Moore (Dear Mr. Knightly) was by all that happened in her childhood. This changed later scenes and made the story more authentic to her voice.
  5. Have fun! I end every post with this because it’s so important. Enjoy your characters – even the “bad” ones. The more you enjoy them and explore them, the more real and expressive – and unexpected – they become. And that’s more fun for you and for the reader.

Thanks for spending time here with me today. Please find me and connect on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or my website at www.katherinereay.com. I’m always out and about…

Katherine


The Austen Escape

Mary Davies finds safety in her ordered and productive life. Working as an engineer, she genuinely enjoys her job and her colleagues – particularly a certain adorable and intelligent consultant. But something is missing. When Mary’s estranged childhood friend, Isabel Dwyer offers her a two-week stay in a gorgeous manor house in England, she reluctantly agrees in hopes that the holiday will shake up her quiet life in just the right ways.
But Mary gets more than she bargained for when Isabel loses her memory and fully believes she lives in Jane Austen’s Bath. While Isabel rests and delights in the leisure of a Regency lady, attended by other costume-clad guests, Mary uncovers startling truths about their shared past, who Isabel was, who she seems to be, and the man who now stands between them.
Outings are undertaken, misunderstandings play out, and dancing ensues as this company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation, work out their lives and hearts.

Katherine Reay is the award-winning author of Dear Mr. Knightley, Lizzy& Jane and The Bronte Plot, an ALA Notable Book Award Finalist. Her latest novel, A Portrait of Emily Price, released in November 2016 and received Starred Reviews from Publishers Weekly, Library Journal and a Romantic Times TOP PICK!All Katherine’s novels are contemporary stories with a bit of classical flair. Sheholds a BA and MS from Northwestern University and isa wife, mother, rehabbing runner, former marketer, and avid chocolate consumer. After living all across the country and a few stops in Europe, Katherine now happily resides outside Chicago, IL.

I’ve Gotta Be Me, She Said

by Dan Walsh, @DanWalshAuthor

Believe it or not, my column this month is about the Characters in our novels. In short, the idea of making them seem and even feel like real people to our readers. This is a major priority for me. I think with good reason.

Last month, I quoted one of my favorite writing quotes: “The secret to great fiction writing is to create characters readers care about, then do terrible things to them.” That article mainly focused on the second part. Today, I want to focus on the first, creating characters readers care about.

At present, my 18 novels on Amazon have received a total of 5,900 reviews (avg 4.6 Stars). I know this because my wife is doing my marketing now, and she just figured this out. One of the most consistent positive comments I get is: “Your characters are so real.” Or, “I feel like I really know these people.”

A few years ago, I did a survey sent out to 3,000 fiction readers, asking them to name the 3 most important things they look for in a novel (out of a list of 7 items). Know what the #1 answer was (it got the most #1 votes and was in everyone’s Top 3)? Characters you really care about.

I don’t have time here to give a lengthy set of instructions, so I’ll share one thing I do that, to me, may be the most important. That is, I let my characters react to what’s happening in the story the way they would if they were real people. Even if what they say or do changes or rearranges the plot. When I’m writing, much of the time I feel more like an invisible scribe, spying on my characters and jotting down the things they say and do.

It’s fair to say, as much as half the things that go on in my novels were not in my mind when I first created the synopsis for the story. One of the things I hate most when watching a TV show or movie, or reading a novel, is when a main character says or does something that seems totally forced, not at all in keeping with their personality (as revealed in the story so far).

I think what some writers do is start with the plot, then create 2D characters to populate their story. As the plot unfolds, they force their characters to say and do what’s needed for the scene to keep the plot intact and moving forward according to plan. I do have a main plot in my story and several key plot points in mind, but my goal is different. I want to create 3D characters then let them dictate all the details. And, if necessary, I will let them even change what I had in mind for the plot.

Because to me, once a main character becomes real (usually happens for me within the first 50-60 pages), I have to let them be who they are. Let them do and say exactly what they would if they were real people. Once they do become real to me, I go back and make any needed changes in those first 50-60 pages, so they seem like the same person throughout the book.

You might think this process must play havoc with the novel’s plot. But it doesn’t. I see these plot-changes-made-by-the-character as temporary setbacks. A tradeoff, so to speak to get the kind of characters readers really care about. I know where I need the story to go, and we’ll get there eventually. But not with 2D characters who say and do forced things real people would never say or do.

Well, that’s the idea. I’d love to hear how some of you handle the challenge of “Creating Characters Readers Really Care About.”

TWEETABLES

I’ve Gotta Be Me, She Said by @DanWalshAuthor on @NovelRocket #writing http://bit.ly/2x9KIku

Let your characters react to what’s happening in the story the way real people would.~ @DanWalshAuthor on @NovelRocket #writing http://bit.ly/2x9KIku

I’m like an invisible scribe, spying on my characters, jotting down what they say and do.~ @DanWalshAuthor on @NovelRocket #writing http://bit.ly/2x9KIku

____________________

Unintended Consequences:
Jack and Rachel leave Culpepper for their long-awaited honeymoon trip, a driving tour through New England. On day three, they stop at a little bayside town in Cape Cod to visit Jack’s grandmother. After he gets called away to handle an emergency, Rachel stays and listens as Jack’s grandmother shares a remarkable story about how she and Jack’s grandfather met in the early days of World War 2. It’s a story filled with danger, decades-old family secrets, daring rescues and romance. Jack is named after his grandfather, and this story set the course and direction for Jack’s life to the present day. After hearing it, Rachel is amazed that anyone survived.

Dan Walsh is the bestselling author of 17 novels including The Unfinished Gift, The Discovery and When Night Comes. He has won 3 Carol Awards (finalist 6 times), 3 Selah Awards and 3 of his books have been finalists for RT Review’s Inspirational Book of the Year. A member of American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW) and Word Weavers International, Dan writes fulltime in the Daytona Beach area. He and his wife Cindi have been married 40 years. You can find out more about his books or follow him on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads or Pinterest from his website at http://www.danwalshbooks.com.

The Importance of Asking Why

by Lisa Jordan, @lisajordan

Until last month, I’d spent the last nineteen years of my life working as an early childhood educator. While working with young children, one of the questions I’d heard most often in my career was, “Why?”

Children ask this question constantly because they are sponges, soaking up all kinds of information. If they’re given one answer, chances are they’ll continue asking why to find another. Sure, it can be annoying, but it’s how they learn. Many times I’d ask them why and they’d usually tell me “because.”

One of the best bits of writing advice came from a workshop I attended years ago at an ACFW conference taught by Susan May Warren and Rachel Hauck. Each attendant had been given an envelope with a cutout letter Y inside to remind us of the importance of asking “Why?”

Asking our characters “Why?” is one of the best ways to get to the core of their identities, dark moment stories, and motivations for their actions and behaviors. Learning their responses enables us to understand how to craft their stories.

Think about characters from your favorite books and movies. Why do they act in a certain way? Usually, their motivation stems from a specific event in their past, which is what Susie May Warren calls a “dark moment story.”

Recently, I rewatched Leap Year and The Proposal on Netflix. I’ve seen both movies half a dozen times. What can I say? I love Matthew Goode’s accent and Ryan Reynolds’ sense of humor.

In Leap Year, Anna, the heroine, likes to have a plan in place and know where she is going through life.

Why?

While she was growing up, her father was a fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants kind of guy who was always on the lookout for the next big idea. His lack of structure and gainful employment had Anna working after school in order to keep their house, which ended up being repossessed on Christmas Eve. That trauma affected the decisions she made as an adult.

In The Proposal, the heroine Margaret works hard, demands much, and has very little fun.

Why?

She’d lost her parents when she was a teenager and had forgotten what it was like to have a family to love. Her work became her purpose in life, so she demanded the same from her staff.

As you continue to get to know your characters, keep asking ‘why’ to learn their story goals and figure out their motivations for wanting them. That will allow you to put believable obstacles in place to keep them from achieving their goals.

In Leap Year, why does Anna want to go to Ireland?

To propose to her boyfriend who seems to be dragging his feet. After all, it worked for her grandparents. But her trip wasn’t easy peasy. She dealt with all kinds of challenges, including meeting the insufferable (to her) Declan, who added another layer of obstacles.

In The Proposal, why does Margaret want to marry Andrew?

To keep from being deported and losing her job, which is everything to her. But then her feelings change and she risks hurting Andrew and his family.

So, before you begin your next book, take the time to ask your characters “why.” This exercise will enable you to get to know them, create strong goals and motivations, build in realistic obstacles, help maintain consistency with their character, and help them to change and grow in order to do something at the end they hadn’t been able to do at the beginning. And hopefully, you will have crafted a solid story that keeps your reader turning pages.

TWEETABLES

The Importance of Asking Why by Lisa Jordan (Click to Tweet)

One of the best ways to get to the core of our Character’s identity.~ Lisa Jordan (Click to Tweet)

Asking why will allow you to put believable obstacles in place.~ Lisa Jordan (Click to Tweet)

Heart, home, and faith have always been important to Lisa Jordan, so writing stories with those elements come naturally. Represented by Rachelle Gardner, Lisa is an award-winning author for Love Inspired, writing contemporary Christian romances that promise hope and happily ever after. She is the Operations Manager for Novel.Academy, powered by My Book Therapy. Happily married to her own real-life hero for almost thirty years, Lisa and her husband have two grown sons. When she isn’t writing, Lisa enjoys family time, kayaking, good books, and playing in her craft room with friends. Visit her at lisajordanbooks.com.