Sunday, May 22, 2011

Setting Cast as Character in Pirates of the Caribbean - On Stranger Tides

Lengthy passages of description are not in vogue with modern readers. HOWEVER, without a doubt, setting is still character. Case in point -- Pirates of the Caribbean - On Stranger Tides -- the movie I was excited to see on Friday night.

Where would Blackbeard and his mutinous crew be without the Queen Anne's Revenge on which to dangle from bewitched rigging? Or where would those heinously beautiful mermaids live out their revenge but in the eerie, mist-covered Whitecap Bay? And especially, how would we be lured into the unique appeal of Captain Jack Sparrow's quest without the backdrop of jeweled waters lapping against a sparkling white shore, craggy green cliffs being beaten by dark blue waves, or -- the setting that really got me thinking in terms of its character -- the deep, mysterious jungle gorge where we perch intrepidly, wondering if we are truly about to discover the long lost Fountain of Youth?

When the camera shoots the angle from the descent inside the cave to the adventurers standing in its wide mouth, I realize quite forcefully that the setting has become another character in the story, and I'm wondering what it might do to imperil the other characters I've come to care about.

That's the thing with setting. We need not belabor it in our story-telling, but we do need to offer a snapshot or, on occasion, a panoramic moment reminding our reader of the role it has to play.We need to include it to heighten peril, deliver romance, impend doom, or simply make readers feel sunny inside.

I love the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. As a sequel -- number four in the series, no less -- it suffers slightly from the "been there, done that," type of forced heroics that are typical in such a genre, especially for a series that was never intended to be more than a single, stand-alone motion picture. But it was such a frolicking, fun, escapist film, that none of that mattered.

The introduction of mermaids into the tale, and even the inclusion of real life figure Edward Teach (Black Beard) so well cast, made the story sing for me, as did a host of well-played one-liners. And the various settings made for an additional cast of intriguing characters. For a little under two hours, I was swept away on the tide.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

How to Choose an Excerpt

Time is ticking away against me as I struggle to select some scene excerpts for use in promoting my upcoming historical novel on my publisher's website.

Why is it so hard? Don't I love my story? Aren't there plenty of scenes that made my fingers rattle on the keyboard as I wrote them? Absolutely! But without context, they might not mean a great deal to the reader who is casually scanning excerpts for their next read.

To aid me in my decision, I'm enlisting some advice (written for teens, actually) from the site. They have a nice little worksheet for selecting an excerpt, but I'll just consider each of their reminders telling what I should be looking for.

To choose the best excerpt I'll give regard to:

Character - I need to find a scene that gives the audience a good clear picture of my main character. To me this means that I want to be able to draw a reader into a deep POV with that character in just a short section of the story. I want an excerpt that'll make my reader already feel invested -- at least a little.

Action -- Whether it's done in a big way or only subtly, a scene infused with action pulls the reader along. This also means that it should show conflict (because a scene without conflict is dead). I think the scene should reveal that something is definitely at stake.

Language -- I hadn't given a lot of thought to this, but you know, it's right. I can usually decide within the first few pages of a book whether I want to hang around, because the language is compelling. It might be lyrical, simple, or outrageous. It uses imagery and metaphors that help me visualize the scene without an overabundance of telling description.

Dialogue --This one wasn't part of the nanowritmo site, but I feel it needs to be included. At the least, there should be some internal dialogue. I've read some good excerpts that don't include dialogue, but I feel that if a reader is only getting a glimpse into a story, a little bit of dialogue sprinkled into the excerpt will help attach them to the characters and get a better feel for the conflict.

Length -- There are different lengths to consider depending on what the excerpt is being used for. If I was giving a reading before a room full of people, I could choose a longer excerpt, maybe as long as 5000 words (about ten pages). But for publisher's web site, it needs to be something much shorter. I personally don't like reading more than about 500 words in a clip when I'm looking at excerpts of this nature. That should be enough to makea reader long for more. You can always put a longer clip or sample chapter on your personal web site and direct curious readers there for more if they're interested.

Stand Alone -- Yes, this is a biggy. A scene is really a mini story in itself. It's got a beginning, a middle, and an end. It needs to provide a bit of its own context or readers won't really care about it. You may know what's going to happen and why the scene is important, but if readers can't get at least a taste of that, they won't buy.

So now I'm ready to hunt for an outstanding excerpt representing my novel The Red Fury. It releases from Desert Breeze Publishing in October as Book 2 in the Empire in Pine series. I hope you'll drop by later and read my little scene -- see if I chose well.

Write on!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Please Pass the Niche (Does Your Writing Ministry Have One?)

For good or for questionable, we live out our World View. What we enjoy doing, how we live our lives, raise our children, treat our spouse, and attend our jobs, ventures, or dreams all point to what we believe and hold to as our center.

For those of us who are Christian writers seeking to walk with God and asking Him, "What do You want me to do today", it means that we, like Christian plumbers, Christian musicians, or Christian businessmen view our work as both an occupation and a ministry.

So what's yours about?

Last week, the editor, publisher, and publisher's assistant of Living Stones News, a Midwestern Christian newspaper, made the trek to Chicago for the Evangelical Press Association's annual convention. MaryBeth Frost, LSN's publisher's assistant said, "We thought we were going to be the mutts at the dog show." But, contrary to her and the rest of the staff's modest opinion of their upstart paper, LSN took home some pretty prestigious awards (listed at the end of the post).

I'm honored to serve as a staff writer for this entirely volunteer-run paper. LSN is published out of Duluth Minnesota, reaching Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, South Dakota, and worldwide on the web.

Not only have I been privileged to minister through writing for the paper, but God has blessed me by stretching my journalistic skills in about a gazillion directions. And somehow, in the process of me trying to write to minister to readers, He turns it around to minister to me!

According to Rick Lubbers, senior editor for LSN, bumping shoulders with other media professionals at the convention impressed him with just how wide a range of ministry is represented by writing.

It is eye-opening to think about. Writers find ministry in a host of styles and venues:

  • Broadcasting
  • Journalism
  • Devotional
  • Fiction
  • Non-fiction
  • Bible Study
  • How-To
  • Sunday School Curriculum
  • Speaking material
  • Poetry
  • Movies & Screenplays
  • Niches in many of the above categories that further reach specific audiences including pastors, teachers, women's groups, parents, homeschoolers, business groups, men's groups, outdoor enthusiasts, support groups, children, teens, young adults, married, unmarried, and the list goes on.

The LSN staff were able to have a look at many other well-published Christian newspapers from around the country, but in our board meeting following the event, we were happy to realize that we'd stuck true to our own niche -- telling the life-changing stories of everyday people who'd come to know Jesus Christ, and are now living to demonstrate His presence in their lives.

Congratulations, Living Stones News! Job well-done.

Let's continue to raise the bar.

"I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus."

Philippians 3:14


  • Overall Excellence: Living Stones News (Second Place[tie])
  • Best General Article (long) “Faithlessons learned while captive in a closet” - Corinne Scott, December 2010 (First Place )
  • Best Personality Feature: “’Blank Check’ yields Heavenly returns” - Kent Wigg, March 2010 (First Place)
  • General Article (short):“Make a joyful noise - Rick Lubbers (Third Place )
  • Best Column: Holy Goose Bumps - Corinne Scott (First Place [tie])
  • Best Candid Photo: Pirate Jack Sparrow impersonator visits young boy with leukemia in hospital - Paul Walsh (First Place)
All the above are available for reading & viewing online at Living Stones News (dot) com.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Tips for Saving Your Cyber-Sanity

I occasionally become cyber-flooded. You can probably relate. Maybe you've had to get off the internet all together for a few days just to gather your wits and complete a project. But even if that's not the case, it's easy to drown in information overload.

Especially with blogs.

I love the blogosphere. There is virtually an expert out there in just about everything, who is willing to share their knowledge. However, if you follow even a few blogs, it can be hard to keep up with them.

So here are some tips for sand-bagging in cyberspace.

1. Use a reader that will pool all your follows or subscriptions into one place like Google Reader or Networked Blogs to be able to quickly sort through the mass of material coming in.

2. As much as you love certain blogs, don't feel like you have to comment on all of them. As a blogger myself, I thrive on comments. (Please, leave me one if you aren't too inundated.) But I can't take the time to comment on everything I read. I comment in certain instances. These are:

  • When I believe the writer needs encouragement, and my interest was truly piqued
  • I want to thank the author for providing timely, sought-after information
  • I want to help bring attention to this particular blog, piece, or writer
  • To enter a contest

3. Don't follow blogs unless you've really looked them over and are sure that they frequently contain content that will interest you. I follow one blog right now that I'm considering deleting because since my initial follow, very little has come along in way of content I find enriching.

4. Take a few minutes each day to whip through your reader, marking as "read" or "delete" the posts that you don't have time or inclination for, and giving a quick read to those you do. If you get too far behind, it'll feel like the waters have crested and deluged you. You can't keep up. If that does happen, unless you plan to spend 5 or 6 hours in a waiting room anytime soon, I'd just hit "delete" or "read" and start fresh. It's really just like keeping up with email. Sort - toss - sort - toss.

5. If a blog piece looks interesting, scan. In my opinion, the most worthy blog pieces are brief and concise. But if a long one comes along with a title that's a real grabber, scan it before you decide to devote a long read time to it.

Like any file in your cabinet or on your computer, your blog file needs occasional clean-up. I hope these little tips help keep your cyber-sanity on high and dry ground.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Finish the WIP, Edit the WIP, then Dance

Have you seen that You Tube video going around which takes a comic look at the emotional stages of writing a novel? It's called Writing a Novel, posted by author James Andrew Wilson.

I just revisited it for another laugh. It's a creative, hilarious, yet painfully realistic insight into the glorious as well as the overwhelming moments involved in finishing a manuscript.

I'm deep in the ending stages. I just finished the pre-submission edit of The Red Fury, Book 2 of my Wisconsin historical series Empire in Pine. In essence, I've re-typed "The End". After some extraneous paperwork, it'll be ready to zip to my editor.

Not to mention -- drum roll -- I'm ahead of deadline!

REJOICE! Lalalalala!

I used to be like that guy in the video who got a little ahead of himself. H eprevailed against the odds and climbed to the top of the mountain, experiencing stage four -- Triumph! -- only to discover his joy short lived as he smacked up against the dark forest of editing. VINK! VINK! VINK!

Now, while I do relish the pleasure of a completed WIP, I revel less in the finished first draft, and save most of my exultant revelry for the part after editing, the part I accomplished tonight. Because experience tells me that editing is coming, no matter what.

So tonight is a brilliant setting sun and ice cream. It's dancing and a little blog hopping. It's the right time for those things.

Alas, I know there'll be more edits to come. Once my book is gone over with a fine tooth comb by the lovely staff at Desert Breeze Publishing, there'll be further things to address, I'm sure. Something I missed, though I've done my best to make my story error-free and sparkling, and I've sunk deep into character and plot to keep my readers turning pages into the night. I think they'll find The Red Fury gripping and possibly my best work yet.

But until then, I'll have to give it another round. Like Mr. Wilson says in his author video blog (also on You Tube) "Much of a writer's life is spent editing. It's a sad truth. We'd like to say that it's spent writing, but that would be a lie."

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Speaking with Spirit (Thoughts on an Excellent Book, and a Heavenly Prodding)

I haven't done a whole lot of public speaking, but neither have I shied away from occasions to stand in front of a group and discuss topics I'm passionate about. I admit to thinking I would enjoy more opportunities for public speaking, even though I'm not an unflinchingly brave extrovert. I quiver with as much self-consciousness in the limelight as the next gal who'd just as soon be sitting before a computer screen letting her characters do all the talking.

But neither am I shy.

I bring this up because I feel God compelling me to learn more about effective public speaking. And I don't take His still, small nudge lightly. It may be I'll never have to do more than speak in front of a local community group. It may be only for my personal growth. But the last time God started leading me to "investigate an idea" it changed my life. I ended up homeschooling four children from kindergarten through high school graduation. (The fifth and final will graduate in 2012.)

With His prompting in mind, the most delightful book I've read on the subject thus far has been Speaking with Spirit - A Guide for Christian Public Speakers by Dr. Wanda Vassallo. I discovered it through American Christian Writers, a small but very worthy national organization devoted to the development of Christian writers in both fiction and non-fiction. I won't go into all the details, but Ms. Vassallo has a list of speech writing and speaking credentials a mile long, and she's one of the only writers out there to have written an entire book on this subject from a Christian world view. The opening of the book not only draws on Jesus' example as we consider audience, anecdotes, and personalization, but Ms. Vassallo addresses the issue of impact, and what it really means to speak before an audience as a Christian.

Topically, she addressed everything -- stage fright, vocal warm-ups, stage presence, mechanics, audience connection, humor, Q&A sessions, visual aids, technique, speech-writing, 16 types of speeches, length, meetings, evaluations, television, organization, and speaking the Scriptures -- not to mention a myriad of sub-categories within each of these.

As a writer, I was especially drawn to her material because of the way she stressed the importance of developing our connection to our audience. In that, there's no real difference between the written and the spoken word, and yet it's done at an entirely different level.

Do you feel as if God might be calling you to speak? Do you teach Sunday school? Preach? Lead meetings? Host Bible studies? Act as a club member or leader? Work as any kind of liaison, in your job or otherwise?

There are hordes of ways we are called to speak or teach, even if it is not our primary calling or ambition. I recommend Dr. Vassallo's book whole-heartedly.