How the 4 Reasons People Read Help You Change The World

It was a rough weekend, wasn’t it?

Hard to process the ongoing tragedy, the idea of someone again so coldly, painfully hurting, killing so many innocent people.

It just takes the wind out of us, collectively, and privately.

I was watching the news last night, trying to process and pray for all the victims in the Texas church shooting tragedy when I got a text telling me a friend I’d known since high school had passed away. She was my age and left behind a son and a husband.

My heart is breaking, for our nation. For my friend’s family.

All I know is that this is not the end of the story.

I’m not going to debate theology on the question of where was God when life turned tragic. That’s a bigger conversation. Let’s talk about writing and story and why it matters when things like this happen.

People typically read novels for three reasons: Entertainment, Escape and Enlightenment. Historically, stories (books, movies, plays) rise when life gets hard. In the Soviet Union, reading and movie going was a huge pastime during the cold war era. Why? Because stories offer a glimpse at hope, meaning, even escape in the tragedy. In stories (well, most of them), although there is loss, there is also triumph.

Redemption.

Hope.

A glimpse at a happy ending.

I strive to put all those “E’s” into my stories. Still, the recent events have reminded me that there is another “E” that people need as they read: Enrichment. I love this word. (it’s so overworked, it’s lost its meaning) Synonyms include: preparation, regeneration, nurturing, elevation.

Enrichment is diving into the heart and soul of the reader and giving them something that matters. Truth. Hope.

I was in church yesterday, chatting with a woman who was frustrated with her book club because they often read books on the national best-seller lists, but that left her feeling empty, angry and discouraged. They even read 50 Shades of Gray, saying, this was part of being a “mature” reader.

Reminded me of junior high school when someone would say, “Don’t be a pansy. A little weed won’t hurt you.” Maybe not. But maybe yes. I have one body, one brain and little time. Why would I put something in my body designed to destroy it?

Being a mature reader doesn’t mean I have to put darkness in my head.

I can handle gritty. I can handle pain. I just want to be reminded of hope in the end.

I want to be elevated. Nurtured. Maybe even a little regenerated. Enriched.

Sure, this isn’t every reader. But in a world filled with hurt and darkness and tragedy, maybe we should try to do more than entertain (nothing wrong with that, by the way—I loved Thor!) and enlighten, and even help them escape. Let’s leave them with truth, hope and a reminder that there is a different ending to the story than the world wants to tell us.

Your story matters. The world needs it.

Keep writing.

 

Susie May

P.S. Are you the kind of person who wants to dig deep into your story, find the truths and metaphors and character journeys that will make your story matter to readers? That will entertain, enlighten, help them escape and enrich their lives. Then you might want to join us for our annual Deep Thinker’s Retreat this February in Florida. (February 23-27, 2018) Learn, brainstorm, write, get feedback…create a story that matters.

Start your book right–keep them up all night!

I’m up at my writing retreat in northern Minnesota this week working hard on the final edits and proofing a book due Friday. (It’s book #5 in my Montana Rescue series. Book #3—A Matter of Trust hits the shelves in a week!)

The first thing I always do in my final pass is make sure the first chapter has done its work. Writing a first chapter is soooo challenging because it must do the work of launching your external plot, creating a connection between your reader and your character, attracting the attention of the reader, igniting the internal plot and wooing the reader with your voice. (and, you must make the reader worry enough about the problem raised in chapter one to turn to chapter two!)

That’s a TON of work for poor chapter one. But if you do it right, you’ll create a book that keeps readers up all night.

Unfortunately, we often write chapter one first—before we really know our character, our plot, and before our voice has had a chance to warm up. That’s why I always go back and rewrite it last, after the book is finished. It might end up very much the same as when I started…or I might scrap it and rewrite it knowing what I know now.

Last week, and for the next two weeks, we’re taking first scenes in our weekly Novel.Academy peptalk. We’re going through a series entitled Extreme Book Makeover, where we learn how to root out problems, and then learn tools to fix them. We then follow up with a couple weeks of feedback on submitted scenes.

What are some symptoms of weak first scenes?

  • The scene doesn’t raise interest…there’s no danger or intrigue that arrests our emotional interest or adrenaline)
  • The lead character isn’t likable—meaning he/she isn’t heroic or sympathetic
  • There is no hint at long term trouble, and therefore, no reason to keep reading (in other words; Stakes)
  • We don’t know where we are…lack of storyworld (really, this is important!)
  • Too much pipe…Meaning, we are taking WAY too long to get into the scene (this is usually a backstory dump problem).

I find it easier, as I’m editing, and rewriting, to start by asking myself big questions. I’ll dig down into the words later. Here are some of the questions I ask myself:

  • Does my first line pique a reader’s interest?
  • Do I have a mental picture of the character and what he/she does?
  • Would I want to spend time with this person, or at least learn more about them?
  • Can I relate to their current problem?
  • Do I know where I am? (and when?)
  • Do I have enough dialogue for my character to come to life for the reader?
  • Am I worried about my character when the scene ends?

Are you working on first scene today? Remember, how well our reader connects with and cares about your character determines the success of a story.

Your story matters. Go! Write something brilliant.

Susie May

www.learnhowtowriteanovel.com

P.S If you’re struggling with how to overhaul your story, you might want to check out our Extreme Book Makeover series in Novel.Academy. Along with overhauling your plot, characters and scenes, we also have classes on how to get that book published (along with over a 100 hours of classes on craft, industry, indie publishing and much much more.) Learn more at Novel.Academy.

Rainy Days and Mondays

It is 56 degrees in Minneapolis today. And raining.

Here’s a glimpse of my gloomy backyard.

But…all is well because I’m leaving in two days for sunny Destin, Florida, for our annual Deep Thinker’s Retreat. This year, again, we have a full house, and about half of our retreaters are repeaters (say that fast five times!) Why? Because although we change up the retreat classes every year, we always offer the same essential content: Encouragement. Brainstorming. Fellowship. And, most of all, a clear path to plotting your novel.

We watch and dissect movies. We read passages from books and discuss why they work (or don’t) and we brainstorm everyone’s story from the inside-out, putting their plots on giant pieces of paper (like these).

Our goal is to give people tools to help them build brilliant books.

Our biggest tool is The Story Equation. It’s a cool technique that I developed, with the help of my writing partner, New York Times bestselling author Rachel Hauck to help get the story on the page.

Randy Ingermanson, author of the Snowflake Method and Fiction for Dummies called it pure genius. And my writing heroine, Francine Rivers said she wished she’d learned this method years ago.

Yes, I’m flattered, but mostly I’m just super happy that it works. That it takes the complicated process of storycrafting and drills it down to the bones, makes the process logical and organic.

And did I mention, fun?

Frankly, although storycrafting is hard work, my favorite part about the Deep Thinker’s Retreat is the fun we have together as we bring a story to life, watch it emerge from the dark corners of our brains and onto the page.

I remember, years ago, when I was starting this writing gig, I said to myself, “Suz, if you want to make a career out of this, you need to figure out a way to write a brilliant book, every time, on deadline. A system, a plan, a technique, a process.” Now 54 books later, I use the SEQ for every single book. Meet every single deadline. And write stories that readers enjoy.

What is your process? Your method? How do you get the story on the page, meet your deadline and build a career even when life feels gloomy? Whether you use something like the SEQ, or a combination of many great techniques (e.g Randy’s Snowflake Method, which is a super way to get started!) (or James Scott Bell’s LOCK method) you need to develop something to help you write consistently excellent books.

(And it helps to get away with friends who understand this method brainstorm, too!)

So, my encouragement for you today is figure out YOUR method. Your process. Develop it, hone it, master it. Make it work for you even when the muse is tucked under a blanket, refusing to emerge.

Your story matters. Go, write something brilliant!

Susie May

P.S. If you’d like to check out the SEQ method, you can pick up the book here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01LWXKLZV/

And, by the way we have a mini-course that teaches the SEQwith 2 free lessons to get you started! http://novel.academy/p/theseq

Fanning the Spark of Your Story Idea

Every story – be it a mystery or a YA or woman’s fiction – begins with a spark, an idea that ignites an author’s imagination. Fanning that spark into a full-blown novel requires the patience to pursue the idea to see if it flames into something vibrant. Or will your initial idea be smothered under the full weight of a story – theme, plot, character development, spiritual thread?

Mulling over concepts for my novels always begins with two key elements: a familiar topic and the question “What if?” For me, it’s the mental equivalent of rubbing two sticks together to create literary fire.

For my 2014 novel, Somebody Like You, I started off by focusing on a subject I’ve long wanted to write about: twins. I have a fraternal twin sister. Growing up, we looked nothing alike – she had dark hair and dark eyes and I was a tow-headed blond with hazel eyes. Identical or not, I do understand the dynamics of twins.

Next, I tossed the topic of twins up against the question “What if?” and that led to several days of mulling. My author internal dialogue went something like this:

What if I wrote a book about twins?

A lot of novels about twins are historical romances – and I write contemporary romance.

A lot of historical romance novels about twins have to do with twin sisters … and somehow one of the sisters changes places with the other sister.

Okay, so besides being set in contemporary times, I’ll mix it up and write about twin brothers.

What other topics or issues am I familiar with?

The military. (My husband was in the military for 24 years. I always identified myself as the civilian along for the ride.)

The military is a good topic – one that interests a wide range of readers. Okay. I could weave in a military angle.

 What if … what if … what if …

 What if a woman’s husband is a soldier killed in Afghanistan?

What if after he dies, his identical twin brother shows up – a brother she knows nothing about?

 And after mulling and praying and rubbing those two mental sticks together, I developed this pitch for my editors: Can a young widow fall in love with her husband’s reflection?

That single sentence reflected the sparks for my story: twins and the military. But it wasn’t the complete story. I had to fan the question so that it grew into an entire contemporary romance novel, including a young woman who was widowed when her army medic husband was killed in Afghanistan and twin brothers who were estranged for twelve years. Just as you carefully build a fire so you don’t bury the beginnings of the flames you’ve kindled, I had to structure my novel so it allowed the story to expand in a natural, real way – instead of smothering it.

Igniting a story spark is more of a controlled burn than a raging wildfire. As a writer, I’m wise to work within the boundaries of good storytelling. I want to discover a spark – a compelling idea – and then craft a book that will engage readers’ minds and hearts. Doing so takes time, careful effort, and attention to detail. I have to keep my focus on the fire – control it, without suffocating the heat, the passion – and convey all of power on the page.

What idea — personal interest or life experience — can you use to spark a story?