5 Ways to Spark Connections with Your Story

by Michèle Phoenix

1. Find a significant point of connection
As an English teacher, I was constantly telling my students to “write what you know.” By that, I didn’t mean that each one of their short stories, poems and screenplays needed to be autobiographical. What I was suggesting is something I’ve found to be true: if there’s a place, a character or an element of the plot line that links me to the story—so much so that I can write it out of intimate knowledge and personal identification—it will infuse the rest of the book with a sense of authority.
That’s exactly what I did in Of Stillness and Storm. My parents were missionaries to France for forty years, and I lived surrounded by devoted Christians whose hearts were in the right place, but whose priorities were sometimes obscured by their zeal to reach the unbelieving. Lauren and Sam—with their laudable strengths and deplorable flaws—are composites of the family friends who populated my childhood.
Did I have to do research into locations, lifestyles and medical details? Of course, I did. But ministry flows through my veins, and anchoring the book to that real-life knowledge helped me to write confidently and ultimately galvanized the creative process.
2. Look for “the spark” in unexpected places
To be honest, I’d wanted to write a story set on the mission field for some time, but lacked that illusive but crucial spark that becomes the impetus to sit down and start typing. I had bits and pieces floating around my mind—hints of personalities and shades of conflict—but it wasn’t until 2012, when I traveled to Kathmandu for the first time, the novel began to crystallize. I was struck by the beauty and brokenness of Nepal, and I saw in its desolate landscape and difficult living conditions a metaphor for the toll an honorable but reckless ministry can take on good people.
A story centered on a missionary couple’s personal journey from their first encounter to their moment of reckoning emerged from the geographical symbol I’d found while traveling for other reasons.
3. Let your characters teach you who they are
I’ve never been someone who carefully crafts characters before the writing begins, so for me much of the initial process is just waiting for them to reveal themselves. When Lauren first spirited her way into my mind, she carried with her the weight of a past I couldn’t wait to explore. Learning who she was and why she was became a powerful incentive to keep digging deeper.
Loving one’s characters, flawed and fallible as they may be, is also imperative. It empowers the writer to be courageous in exposing their struggles. Because I felt so devoted to Lauren, the evolution of her marriage to Sam was a story I strove to treat with unflinching honesty. The degradation of her bonds with a son she loved so fiercely was an aching exercise in resisting the urge to settle for happy endings. Aidan’s reappearance in her life was a complete surprise, even to me. But once he emerged with those four simple words—is it really you—he became someone I wanted to write boldly, a galvanizing presence in Lauren’s grappling with purpose and identity.
4. Step away, but don’t give up
Of the books I’ve had published so far (there’s one more coming in September 2017!), this is the one that was the hardest to write. Though the first drafts of other novels took me just three or four weeks to pour out, this one took me months. And here I’d thought familiarity with the context would simplify the process! There were times when I wanted to scratch it all and find another story to tell, but there was an intensity to Lauren’s “occupation” of my creative spaces that I couldn’t quell. So I powered through.
Once I found the courage to share what I’d written with select friends and critics, early feedback wasn’t all encouraging—though it was exactly right. When my college writing professor, who had volunteered to read an early draft, sent a rather bluntly-worded email to me, I realized my best intentions and efforts were not paying off. “I’m past chapter eight,” she wrote. “What will keep me reading? Is it coming soon?”
Oh, the temptation to throw in the towel—or throw out the Macbook! I set the manuscript aside for several weeks, perhaps hoping that leaving it unattended would cause a sort of literary fermentation to happen that would miraculously elevate the novel from boring to readable. Still, it tugged at my consciousness, the unfinished story crescendoing from a dull hum to an attention-grabbing screech. So when my period of pouting was over, I set to work deconstructing and reconstructing what I already had, shifting some scenes and deleting others, and generally distilling the book to its most basic, focused form.
Of Stillness and Storm was born.
5. Live around your writing
Writing is something I do. It is not the measure of my worth. Over the years, I’ve taught a handful of students who boldly declared, as Aidan does in the novel, that they—are—their—art. They were willing to rest their self-assessment and sense of value on an occupation that offers absolutely no guaranteed outcomes. How dangerous to base one’s identity on something as subjective and unpredictable as writing.
Though I’ve always loved the written word and fancied myself an author, I was fortunate enough to discover in my early adulthood that I have other strengths too—skills that have brought me a sense of purpose and productivity beyond the Russian Roulette of traditional publishing. Would my life still have meaning if Tyndale and Thomas Nelson had passed on my books? Absolutely—because there are other areas in it that motivate and fulfill me too.
Writing is important. It can be life-shaping and world-altering. So can kindness, investment in others and finding novel ways of using all one’s strengths for the betterment of self and others.

5 Ways to Spark Connections with Your Story by Michèle Phoenix (Click to Tweet)

Step away, but don’t give up~ Michèle Phoenix (Click to Tweet)

Born in France to a Canadian father and an American mother, Michèle Phoenix is a consultant, writer and speaker with a heart for Third Culture Kids. She taught for 20 years at Black Forest Academy (Germany) before launching her own advocacy venture under Global Outreach Mission. Michèle travels globally to consult and teach on topics related to this unique people group. She loves good conversations, mischievous students, Marvel movies and paths to healing. Learn more at michelephoenix.com Twitter: @frenchphoenix
Book Blurb:
“I felt torn between two worlds. Each with its own mystery. One more captivating than the other, but the other more real and breathing.”
It took Lauren and her husband ten years to achieve their dream—reaching primitive tribes in remote regions of Nepal. But while Sam treks into the Himalayas for weeks at a time, finding passion and purpose in his work among the needy, Lauren and Ryan stay behind, their daily reality more taxing than inspiring. For them, what started as a calling begins to feel like the family’s undoing. 
At the peak of her isolation and disillusion, a friend from Lauren’s past enters her life again. But as her communication with Aidan intensifies, so does the tension of coping with the present while reengaging with the past. It’s thirteen-year-old Ryan who most keenly bears the brunt of her distraction.
Intimate and bold, Of Stillness and Storm weaves profound dilemmas into a tale of troubled love and honorable intentions gone awry.

Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad …

Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Reviews
Deborah Raney

One of the hard things a published writer must learn is to toughen up where reviews are concerned. I hate bad reviews, whether from professional critics or ordinary readers on Amazon.com. I especially hate them when they aren’t as much about the book as they are about demeaning an author’s beliefs, religion, ethnicity, or personality. But bad reviews are a fact of the writing life, and there aren’t many multi-published authors who haven’t had at least one or two.

I’ll never forget my first scathing reader review (for Beneath a Southern Sky) and it’s still up on Amazon, along with several others, if you want to weep along with me! That review nearly paralyzed me for a few days. It didn’t hurt so much that someone didn’t like my book (okay, they HATED my book). I’m well aware that the type of book I write isn’t for everyone, and there are many different tastes in genre and style. What hurt was that it sounded like the reviewer didn’t much like ME!

When I go back and read that review now, I can be much more objective. I realize now that the reviewer probably has never met me. I don’t think he/she meant the words as a personal affront. But I can also still, after more than a dozen years, remember the deep pain I experienced when I first discovered that review. I actually broke out in a sweat and started shaking—and I’m not usually an excitable person. I shed some tears over that person’s words, and I have a feeling he/she would be surprised to know that.

However, I did something else after receiving that review. I removed an Amazon.com review that I had written months earlier for a book that made me angry. No, it wasn’t wrong of me to post a review respectfully outlining why I disliked this book. But I had made the same mistake I think my reviewer made—I made my review personal, commenting on the author’s personality, not just his writing. I didn’t even know the man, but like my reviewer, I failed to acknowledge that this author was human and had feelings.

My terrible-horrible-no-good-very-bad review (and there have been plenty of others since) gave me two important things: a thicker skin for the inevitable bad reviews to come in my future; and a softer heart for other writers, who are real, imperfect people, just like me.


Deborah Raney’s first novel, A Vow to Cherish, inspired the World Wide Pictures film of the same title and launched her writing career. Since then, her books have won the RITA Award, National Readers Choice Award, HOLT Medallion, the Carol Award, and have twice been Christy Award finalists. Deb is currently working on a five-book series for Abingdon Press Fiction. Deb enjoys teaching at writers’ conferences across the country. She and her husband, Ken Raney, recently traded small-town life in Kansas––the setting of many of Deb’s novels––for life in the (relatively) big city of Wichita where they enjoy gardening, antiquing, movies, and traveling to visit four children and a growing brood of grandchildren who all live much too far away.

Raney’s newest novel, Home to Chicory Lane, releases in August as the first book in the Chicory Inn Novels series for Abingdon Press Fiction. 

Posted by: Kelly Klepfer

Salting the Oats ~ Writing a Series that Keeps Readers Wanting More ~ by Sarah Sundln

The Continuing Story—Writing a Series that Grips Readers
By Sarah Sundin

Nothing makes an author happier than to hear, “I can’t wait for your next book!” One way to build anticipation is with a book series. Readers enjoy series for a sense of community and familiarity. Also, many publishers prefer series, especially in certain genres. Although sales for the second and third book will always be lower—after all, how many series do you start reading and not finish?—each book release bumps up sales for earlier titles, leading to an overall longer shelf-life.

As a writer, a series allows you to develop a rich cast of characters and to get more mileage out of your research. For example, I had to do a lot of research on B-17 bombers for my Wings of Glory series, but I used it for three novels.

When planning a series, the author must decide what will tie the stories together and how closely to connect the novels. Note: I use a three-book series for an example, but series can run shorter or longer.

Ties That Bind

The device that binds your series must be grand enough to carry three complete novels. The most commonly used devices include family, friends, a profession, a location, an event—or a combination. My Wings of the Nightingale series follows three friends who serve as WWII flight nurses (profession) in the Mediterranean (location).

How Closely Connected?

Series run the spectrum from strongly connected to loosely connected. The far end of the extreme includes sequels, when the series tells one long story divided into several novels (Lord of the Rings).

There isn’t a right or a wrong way to construct a series. As a writer, consider what your stories require, but be aware of the pros and cons.

  1. Strongly Connected Series

  • Readers feel a sense of community or family.
  • Readers feel compelled to read the next book to find out what happens.
  • Writers can develop the characters, setting, or situation more intensely.

  • Readers can feel “conned” into reading another book and resent it, especially if the first novel ends in a cliffhanger.
  • Readers who inadvertently enter the series in book 2 or book 3 can feel lost—and cheated.
  • If the writer doesn’t rehash earlier books, the reader can feel disoriented, especially if time has passed between release dates.
  • If the writer rehashes too much, readers can feel bored or annoyed, especially if they read the books within a short period of time.

  1. Loosely Connected Series

  • Readers can jump into the series at any point and not feel lost.
  • Easier to plot for the writer. Each book completely stands alone.

  • If characters from one book don’t interact with characters from the other books, no sense of community develops.
  • Reading book 1 may not drive the reader to read book 2.
  • Readers don’t have a sense of anticipation to find out what happens to their favorite characters.

  1. Middle-of-the-Road Series

What I’ve chosen (it isn’t right or wrong, it just works for me) is for each novel to tell a complete story, including the heroes/heroines of the earlier/later novels as side characters. When done carefully, the middle-of-the-road approach can reap many of the benefits of both closely and loosely connected series. The reader can experience a sense of community and feel compelled to read the entire series, but not feel lost if they start in the “wrong” place.


  • Give each book an emotionally satisfying ending for the characters. Unfinished storylines should be related to the series set-up. For example, the Wings of the Nightingale series runs from 1942-45, so the story of World War II and the role of the flight nurses isn’t concluded until the last book.
  • In book 1, include scenes with the characters from books 2 and 3—or at least talk about them. Drop enough hints so the reader says, “I want to know what makes her tick.” But leave some mystery.
  • In books 2 and 3, revisit earlier characters. Readers love to see the story continue. In romances, this allows you to show weddings and babies!
  • However, resist the urge to reminisce. Use snippets to remind the returning reader—and maybe hook the new reader. In In Perfect Time (Book 3 of Wings of the Nightingale), Kay Jobson attends the wedding of the main characters from Book 1, With Every Letter. Kay thinks, “Who would have thought when Kay had transferred anonymous letters between Mellie and Tom that they’d end up married?” No long rehash of the plot—just a snippet.
  • In books 2 and 3, include enough background about the situation or setting to orient the new reader, but not so much as to annoy the returning reader. Since the Nightingale series follows flight nurses, each book needed to describe how air evacuation was conducted. This balance can be tricky.
  • Ration your material. When plotting the Nightingale series, I made sure I didn’t use all my best flight nursing story ideas in the first book and run up dry in the third.
  • If possible when writing books 2 and 3, find some critique partners who have read the first book—and some who haven’t.
With planning and consideration for the reader, you can create a series that grips your readers and won’t let them go!

What do you like or dislike about series? What tips would you include?

About Sarah’s latest, In Perfect Time:

World War II flight nurse Lt. Kay Jobson collects hearts wherever she flies, but C-47 pilot Lt. Roger Cooper seems immune to her charms. Still, as they cross the skies between Italy and southern France, evacuating the wounded and delivering paratroopers and supplies, every beat of their hearts draws them closer.

Sarah Sundin is the author of The Wings of the Nightingale series and Wings of Glory series. In 2011, A Memory Between Us was a finalist in the Inspirational Reader’s Choice Awards, and Sundin received the Writer of the Year Award at the Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference. On Distant Shores was a finalist for the Golden Scroll Award from both the Advanced Writers and Speakers Association (AWSA) and the Christian Authors Network (CAN). She belongs to American Christian Fiction Writers, CAN and AWSA. Sundin plans to continue to focus on World War II for her upcoming Waves of Freedom series about three naval officers based in Boston.

A graduate of UC San Francisco School of Pharmacy, Sundin works on-call as a hospital pharmacist. During WWII, her grandfather served as a pharmacist’s mate (medic) in the Navy, and her great-uncle flew with the US Eighth Air Force in England.

Sundin lives in northern California with her husband and three children. When she isn’t ferrying kids to tennis and karate, she teaches Sunday school and women’s Bible studies.

To keep up with Sarah Sundin, visit www.sarahsundin.com, become a fan on Facebook (SarahSundinAuthor) or follow her on Twitter (@sarahsundin) and Pinterest (sarahsundin).