The Starting Point for your Character’s Inner Journey

I am up north at the writing cabin this week, getting ready for next week’s Deep Woods Writing Camp.

It’s gorgeous here, quiet and last night I was able to catch up on one of my television indulgences, Blue Bloods. In the season premier, wise police commish Frank Reagan sat at the dinner table and talked about the loss of one of the main characters in a freak accident (I’m not telling you who). He said, essentially, that we sit for a while at the table, sharing the journey with our fellow hungerers, and it’s during this ‘meal’ we make an impact. When we leave, our empty chair is noticed, and not easily filled.

We sit among the hungry.

The book business can be overwhelming. I do a lot of “sample downloading” before a trip, then read through the samples to find the books I’m going to relax with on the plane, or on a boat, waiting to dive, or even early in the morning, on the beach. I’m picky with my time, my content…I want a book that will entertain, help me escape and leave me feeling nourished. The books that linger with me are those that leave me strangely healed, at least for the moment.

Healed. It’s not like I walk around with gaping wounds, but like everyone, I have little lies, painful emotional nicks and scratches and when I read a book filled with truth, whether it’s a romance, or general fiction, or suspense, I feel as if I’ve been fed. Someone at the table has offered me a morsel of nourishment on the journey.

Why are we here? More importantly, why do we write?

We sit among the hungry.

I attended a women’s retreat last weekend, and the speaker pointed out Matthew 9:36. When he [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

Harassed. Helpless.


Hungry for grace. Hungry for forgiveness. Hungry for Hope. Hungry for love.

What have you hungered for? What has nourished you?

Grace? Hope? Redemption?

If you’ve hungered for grace—write a story about grace. If you ached for second chances—write a story of redemption. If you are hungry for hope…you get the picture.

Because if you hunger for it, so do others.

(and by the way, giving your character a hunger is the starting point for understanding his/her inner journey!)

Your job in this world, and especially as a novelist, is to pass the potatoes–to nourish those at your table with the nourishment you’ve been given.

Your seat at the table matters. Your story matters.

Go, write something brilliant.

Susie May

P.S. We are all about going deep in a novel, to understanding not just the plot and characters, but the life-changing themes a novelist layers into their work. If you want to learn how to write books that change lives, then you’re a good fit for our annual Deep Thinker’s Retreat in Florida, Feb 23-27. We just opened registration. Payment plans available. Click HERE for more details.

Step-by-Step: Storycrafting Process

My brother ran a ½ marathon last weekend.   For him, this is a regular occurrence – he has a wall full of finisher medals from marathons and iron man competitions around the country.  I love seeing him cross the finishing line – so much triumph in his face.

It’s exactly how I feel when I finish a novel. 

I handed him a water bottle as he met us in the finishers area.  “I’d love to run a marathon someday,” I said.

He leaned over, groaning a little, stretching out.  “You might not say that around mile 10,” he said.  “When everything starts to hurt and you think. . .why did I do this?”

Yeah, he’s right.  I amended my statement to reflect truth:  “I’d like to SAY I ran a marathon!”

We laughed, but that’s a little like the conversation I have with aspiring authors.

“I’m going to write a book.”

I love it when I hear people declare this!  I love standing at the edge of a brand new project, seeing the possibilities of the story, the twists and turns, the character growth, the amazing ending.  So much potential embodied in that statement.

And so much struggle.  Because writing a great story doesn’t just happen.  From idea to finished story, each chapter and step in the character journey is wrestled out of our brain (and hearts).   As Hemingway is reported to have said, “It is easy to write. Just sit in front of your typewriter and bleed.”

The problem with writing a great novel is that we want to rush ahead to the good stuff, to the chapters and happy ending without stopping to take the time to work through each step.  But without completing the characterization and plotting, the themematic exploration and developing the storyworld and the tension, it’s akin to me jumping off my sofa, grabbing my old running shoes and leaping into the crowd.

I’m going to die, long before mile 10!

First Scene and Synopsis ImageAnd this is why, I believe, aspiring authors give up around chapter 7. (or before). Because enthusiasm can only fuel us so far down the journey.  Without proper preparation, we’ll fizzle out when we get to the mire of Act 2.

At MBT, we have a Peptalk every Thursday night to encourage and train our members on the craft of storycrafting.  This year, one Thursday a month, we’re building a book together, working through the process step by step.

Last week, we opened up our private Peptalk to the public to take a peek at what we do.  We quickly summed up the process, then talked about how/when to craft the Inciting Incident.  We outlined our goals for Chapter 1, then Rachel Hauck and I shared some tips for getting the story on the page.

And, because we had such an overwhelming response, I thought it might help if we shared the replay.

Get the video replay of the class – Build-A-Book:  Inciting Incident and Getting the Story on the Page.  (You’ll also get the PDF Slides that are rich in the content we talk about.)
Quickly, here’s a rundown of the process we cover:

  1. Start with your Story Seed (or idea that sparked the story)
  2. Decide on your Genre
  3. Discover your Setting
  4. Create your Characters
    1. Find the Dark Moment Story
    2. Use the Story Equation (a MBT Tool) to build the plot
    3. Put your elements together in a loose plot (using our grid for story structure)
  5. Ask your Storyquestion
  6. Create a short premise
  7. Create the Act 2 elements (we use a 4 Act plotting structure)
  8. Decide on your Inciting Incident
  9. Craft your home world/Chapter 1 elements
  10. Put together your plot & Tell Yourself the Story


You can run a marathon (aka, write a brilliant novel!)  You just need to plan for success.

Have a great writing week and Go! Write Something Brilliant!

smw sig without background




Susie May


The What and Why of Writing: Spiritual Journey

When my agent and I sat down to discuss my debut novel, Wish You Were Here, she gave me a lot of specific feedback to improve the manuscript. One thing she said surprised me:

The spiritual aspect of the novel is weak. You either need to strengthen it or remove it completely and we’ll pitch the book to the general market.

Wish You Were Here was an inspirational contemporary romance – and yet the spiritual thread was almost non-existent. Why? I was:

  1. a novice novelist.
  2. so nervous about writing a heavy-handed “we now interrupt your regularly scheduled reading” spiritual message I skimmed over the spiritual truths.

What: As the author, you decide what kind of spiritual journey your main character is on. A character’s spiritual journey involves what they believe about God when the story begins – and how their belief changes as the story progresses. In My Book Therapy, we recommend discovering a specific event – a Dark Moment in your character’s past – that shapes who your main character is and, consequently, affects their relationships with others and with God.

Why: Every author, whether they are writing for the general market or the Christian Booksellers Association (CBA) market, weaves the truths they believe into their novels. As a Christian, I present a biblical worldview in my contemporary romance novels – and I try to do that in a natural way that flows with the story, instead of slowing it down.

Here are a few tips to help you develop your main character’s spiritual journey:

  1. Know the Lie your character believes. To do this, you need to know the Dark Moment of their past that shaped who they are and how they interact with others and with God.
  2. Write a scene early in your book that confirms this Lie in your character’s life. Your character thinks she’s the one who’s never been picked all her life? Prove it. Have her younger sister get engaged. (I did this in my novel Catch a Falling Star.)
  3. Bring Voices of Truth into your character’s life. They believe a Lie about themselves and/or God, so create someone who knows the Truth – and tells them. Maybe a neighbor or a co-worker.
  4. Throughout the rest of the book you must:
    1. Allow your character to realize the Lie they believe
    2. Give them a chance to try to overcome the Lie
    3. Face their Black Moment – where once again the Lie seems true
    4. Achieve their Happily Ever After where they embrace the Truth about who they really are and about who God is


Consider the manuscript you’re working on: Have you developed the spiritual journey for your hero and heroine?

[Tweet “The What and Why of Writing: Spiritual Journey #writer @bethvogt “]

Conversations with an aspiring author: Building the Triumphant Ending!

“You might be able to write a book in a month, but I’m only on chapter five. I have four kids, you know.”  Sally wasn’t wearing makeup today, her blond hair tied back in a ponytail. She looked like she’d lost some weight, her blue eyes a bit tired.  “I spent all weekend spring cleaning my house.  I haven’t touched my book in a week. My ending is so far out of site, I’ve forgotten what I’m writing about.”

“It’s all right, Sally,” I said and nudged my uneaten bran muffin over to her. “You’ve just forgotten what you’re aiming for. See, if you set out on a journey without a destination, you might get lost or even…discouraged.”

She tore off a chunk of the muffin.  “So, you’re saying that crafting the ending of my novel helps me with my beginning, and helps me stay motivated?”

“Exactly.  Think of your novel like the before and after pictures of a weight loss journey.  The before picture is Act 1, where your character is starting their journey.  The After Picture is the ending, after the Black Moment, Epiphany and the Finale where they overcome all the things they couldn’t at the beginning.   The reader needs to see the change, and there is an easy question to help them see it:  What can your character do at the end of the book they can’t at the beginning?  The answer to this is how you construct your triumphant ending.

“It works like this:  You start your character on a journey, and they have to want something, but be unable to attain it.  During the course of the journey, the external plot points affect the internal character journey so that the character begins to want to change, and gets tools toward change, and even opportunities to change.  When they reach the Black Moment, they realize their need to change, and their Epiphany causes this to happen. But in order for us to believe they’ve changed, they have to be tested.  This is called the Final Battle.

“In the Final Battle, they do that thing they can’t do at the beginning of the book.  During the Final Battle, they are again tempted to give up, but they are reminded of the truth (the Epiphany) and finally press on to the Triumphant Ending.  This is when we take the “after” picture.  And this is where your reader says…wow, if they can do it, I can too. Or maybe they simply walk away with some element of truth they ponder.

In order to build this triumphant ending you need a few tools: 

  • You need to ask: What is the takeaway from this book?
  • Another way to put this is to ask: What is the storyquestion…and what is the answer?
  • From that, Ask: How will my character find the answer?
  • Finally, Ask:  What is that thing they can do at the end that they can’t at the beginning?

Armed with these questions, you can build into the beginning of your story the following: A glimpse of what they want, and why they can’t get it. A Story Question, subtly woven into the first chapter (and dealt with throughout the book). An attempt at the beginning to “do what they can’t do,” and a failure.”

Sally had finished off the muffin as we talked.  She nodded.  “So, you’re saying, knowing where I’m going will save me from getting lost along the way.”

“Yes.  It allows you, as the author, to weave in the theme all the way through the story, instead of suddenly inserting it in Act 3.  And, it allows the author to show the complete character change.  Finally, it helps you to build a truly triumphant moment into the story by showing that indeed, your character is changed…forever.  Love, faith, hope, courage, strength…whatever really WILL win the day!  The truth is, without a triumphant ending, the story isn’t finished. We just don’t know if the character is truly changed.  If you want your reader to shout, hurrah! you need to build in the Final Battle and the Triumphant Ending.”

“So my homework is to plot the triumphant ending?”  She wiped the bran crumbs off the table. “And that will keep me moving forward?”

“Yes,” I said, smiling into Sally’s eyes. “And remember, you will win the day, too.  Just keep writing. I promise, you will get to the end.  One bite, one scene at a time.”

Truth:  A Novel needs a Triumphant Ending to complete the character’s journey.

Dare:  Build your Triumphant Ending before you start writing to keep you motivated on your journey.

Susie May


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