Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Write the End First? You Have Got to be Kidding!

I taught as a professor of teacher education at Cincinnati Christian University for many years. Instructing future teachers in how to plan meaningful lessons and how to assess student learning was a big part of my job. I would tell my students to think about the outcome they wanted to see in the end. “What do you want your pupils to know or be able to do after you teach the lesson?” I would ask. I told them they wouldn’t know how to get there if they didn’t know where they were going.

Think about going on a vacation. Let’s say you live in San Diego. You could just get in the car and drive, but most of us pick a vacation destination. For this illustration, let’s send you on a trip to Door County, Wisconsin. (You read a book about the area and a great little coffee shop and now you want to see the place for yourself.) Knowing where you are going helps you plan the trip, the stops you will need to make on the way, and when you have arrived.

Although I may tweak it later, I have been thinking about the end of my story ever since I started writing. I have actually drafted an ending. It’s my story. I can always change it if I like and arrive somewhere else, but having an end in sight helps me plan the trip and what I will see, feel, and hear along the way.

We have all read books that had a great story line going then fizzled out at the end. Maybe the author just didn’t know where he or she was going so there was no end in sight. I don’t want to be that author.

When I was working on my first book, Breathing on Her Own, I created a story map with an ending in mind. Whenever I felt I was getting too far off of my intended course, I would, like the GPS in my car, recalculate. Sometimes that meant starting a section over but sometimes it meant just moving my characters in the direction of my destination. Knowing where you are going helps you keep the story moving.

If you have joined me on this journey by drafting your own novel, then I encourage you to stop right where you are and think through the possible outcome. Where do you want your protagonist to be at the end of the story? What do you want to happen to the antagonist? What issues do you need to resolve? What issues might you want to leave unresolved and why? (If you are planning a series, for example, you may want to leave a few questions out there for your readers of the next book.)

Now draft an ending to your story. It can be brief. It may be the ending line or two you see as delivering the punch for your book. It may be a paragraph or an entire chapter. Perhaps it will be the epilogue. Whatever it is, print it out or draw a picture of it and hang it above your workspace or on your refrigerator. This is your target destination.

I have been traveling this week so I adjusted my own
target to be more realistic. My target word count for this week was to reach 63,000 words. I just finished typing word number 63,218.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

What is my Platform?

In discussions with other writers I have been asked about my platform. Sometimes they are using the word platform to talk about the launching pad I have in place to publicize my work. Others are asking about my message. Both are legitimate questions in the field of writing.

To address the first question I can talk about my Facebook presence or my blog. I can relate information about my sphere of influence as I see it, but I am more interested in the second question. What is my message? What is it I believe and want to share? What is it I feel God has equipped me to do?

I believe Christian fiction can positively change the lives of readers. Books I have read have influenced my thinking or offered me insight into the why a person may be acting in a certain way. My characters are flawed. Like me. And the message in the books I write tends to be one of faith, forgiveness, and restoration. Curious…my very favorite book in the world is all about faith, forgiveness and restoration. So how do I address these issues in my stories?

In Breathing on Her Own, my first novel, my main character begins to question her faith in God when her daughter is involved in a horrendous accident. In the story I am currently composing, Sonja discovers her belief system was shallow and was what some would call “borrowed faith”—she never made it her own. She feels she is in some way betraying her parents if she questions what they believe. I think both of these “faith issues” are real for my readers.

And forgiveness? In my current work, the main character knows she has turned away from doing what is right. God has already forgiven her, but she is so ashamed she can’t see it. How could God want anything to do with her again? Haven’t we all experienced that? God has already forgiven us. I think the biggest problem we often face is accepting that truth and being able to forgive ourselves.

Restoration. Hey I like happy endings. God must like them, too. I’ve read the end of His book. He wins and so do we! There is nothing to compare with realizing your relationship with the one who created you is restored. I am looking forward to my character learning that tidbit of truth for herself.

Now to the word count. I actually had to look this up. Usually, I write the total on my calendar each day, but I have been writing so much and at odd hours of the day, I realized that for the past several days I have not recorded the words written toward the completion of this book. To date? 60,442 words.

On a side note: I recently learned that one of my stories has been accepted by Chicken Soup for the Soul’s 20th Anniversary edition coming out in June. The book is called Reader's Choice. My story in it is called “Hugging Day.” Hope you like it!

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Lessons Learned From Making Kringle or...I better stick to writing.

Kringle is a Danish pastry popular in Wisconsin. In fact, Racine, Wisconsin is home to dozens of bakeries specializing in the layered Danish treat. Traditional Kringle takes three days to make and requires the careful rolling out of the dough and butter to create thin, light layers of pastry. The filling is an almond paste or nut filling, although some versions offer a fruit filling.

Kringle is delicious. In creating the character, Melissa, the young woman Sonja hired for the summer, I gave her roots in Racine. Her grandmother taught her how to make Kringle and it is now becoming a favorite at Shirley’s Cuppa Joe. So far, so good.

If you have read other posts on my blog, you know I can’t let Melissa make Kringle or let Sonja serve it unless I try it out myself. So that is exactly what I did. I attempted to make Kringle. Here are a few lessons I learned along the way:

1.     If the recipe says “high level proficiency required,” believe it. The same is true in life. It’s okay to try and stretch yourself, but in the end, trust the experts.
2.     If you find a recipe that promises to be a shortcut, don’t believe it. The good things in life require us to invest time.
3.     Stick with what you know. Melissa learned from her grandmother how to make Kringle. My grandmother taught me how to make biscuits.

4.     Try again.
     5.     Learn from your mistakes.
6.     Never give up.
7.     Although presentation is important, be careful to not judge the taste by how something looks. Just like life. My mother always said, “Pretty   is as pretty does” ….and finally,
8.     Cherry pie filling and a good cup of coffee can fix almost anything.

My Kringle tasted pretty good and I was able to enjoy it after I cleaned up the flour everywhere, the sticky dough from everything, and got over the idea that it didn’t exactly look like Kringle.

As for my word count? I just finished 53,229 including this excerpt where Sonja is trying to get a local author to come to the coffee shop for a special event:

            “But folks can’t get my book anymore,” Mavis shared.

“Yes, I know, but we would advertise it as you sharing a bit of Door County history,” Sonja explained. “You could share a few good stories. We think the tourists would love it and we’ll try to get locals there as well.”

“So how long are you thinking?” Mavis asked.

“Well, we thought you could share a bit and answer some questions and then we could have a small reception. Maybe an hour or so for the whole thing. Some people might stay behind and want to talk with you more if you would want to do that.” Sonja studied Mrs. Harmon’s face for a clue as to what the woman was thinking. “Of course, we’re flexible,” she added. “What do you think?”

“I could probably do that,” Mavis answered. “Jack could bring me over and help me get set up and all. But I can’t manage climbing stairs, you know. A few steps like up to the porch is okay, though. Jack will help me.”

This put a new wrinkle in the plan. The whole idea was to make use of the upper room. She couldn’t plan it for Sunday morning since she had just agreed to let Melissa’s church group use the coffee shop then. They could possibly do it one evening or on a Wednesday afternoon like today when business was typically slow. Maybe she could take reservations to assure a good turnout.

“Don’t worry. We’ll work it out. And my assistant had a great idea for the reception,” Sonja told her. “Her name is Melissa. She makes Kringle, so she thought she would make the traditional Kringle you wrote about in your book for the reception. What do you think?”

Mavis Harmon clapped her hands together in delight. “Kringle! Oh, it has been years since I tasted a home baked Kringle.”

“We thought we could give everyone a copy of the recipe and maybe a brief synopsis of the story you had in the book about the woman who moved to Baileys’ Harbor when she married and then taught you how to make Kringle,” Sonja added.

So there you have it. Go to Shirely’s Cuppa Joe for some delicious Kringle. But if you want a biscuit….

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Word Count Wednesday: How I Must Fight the Sitcom Mentality

I have what I call a sitcom mentality. Consider the situation comedy. A group of people who share their lives in some way come into our homes via television each week. We watch and we get to know them. Week in and week out we watch as they are presented with a problem. We laugh because they handle the situation in comedic ways. We laugh because we see ourselves in the exaggerated situation. And we laugh because the characters say the outlandish but clever things we wish we had the nerve to say.

The television show’s problem grows until one person sits down with the offending character and with just the right words, puts things back in a proper perspective. (This usually happens in the last three minutes of the program.) The offender looks up and says, “I never thought of it that way,” or changes his or her behavior so that we can turn off the television feeling good about the outcome. Presentation of the problem and having it satisfactorily solved all takes place in thirty minutes. Including commercials.

 I struggle with a sitcom mentality. I see a problem and I am sure if I could just sit down with the offender and say the right words, everything would be okay. I don’t know why I think my words are that powerful. They aren’t. I’ve tried.

So how does this apply to writing a novel? I have to fight trying to draft that one paragraph solution.  Lasting, life changing experiences are rarely lightning bolts. They are more like rain. A long, soaking rain that permeates our being. Lightning bolts are great tools for sitcoms, but it is the steady downpour that softens our hearts and turns our thinking in real life. Novels are reflections of real life.

My character, Sonja, faces challenges in the book, but her biggest challenge is her relationship with God. It is my job as an author to make sure I bring the message of hope and forgiveness and restoration to Sonja through several characters…in many ways….over time.

To do that I need to examine my characters carefully. Sonja’s parents are church going folk, but Sonja has never made their faith her own. Sonja has a few friends who are Christians. Nothing much has really happened there. I think they see Sonja as a nice person with a good heart. They know she grew up in the church so they assume she already knows the message. I make those assumptions sometimes.

Enter Melissa. Melissa is Sonja’s soaking rain. Sonja hires her to help out over the busy summer season. Melissa is an experienced coffee barista, having worked in the coffeehouse on her college campus. Melissa is a believer. A follower of Jesus. A quiet strength. Melissa is Sonja’s soaking rain. She is not in Sonja’s face. Instead, she builds a lasting relationship with the young shopkeeper.

I like Melissa. She is very down to earth and has qualities I only hope to acquire. She is quiet but strong. She is young but is well grounded in her faith. Yep, she’s a keeper. It is going to be fun to see what happens next.

As for my word count? As I type, I have written 52,100 words toward the completion of this novel. I feel pretty good about that, but must admit, I have a lot to put into the last quarter of this book. Now if I can just build and reveal it piece by piece and avoid that sitcom mentality…I don’t want to have to rush to try to pull it all together in the last three paragraphs of my book.