A Newbie’s Takeaway From American Christian Fiction Writers Conference 2016

Today I’m recovering from five days of an action packed conference in Nashville, Tennessee. The American Christian Fiction Writers Conference has always been an amazing event and this year was no exception. Thank you, My Book Therapy for encouraging me to step out in faith and attend. It was five days of rich and encouraging classes aimed at raising your writing up a level or three. Here’s what I learned at this year’s conference, maybe it will help you too.

  • Praise & Worship. Surprise you? Not me. The praise and worship was amazing. The words of those songs reached in and grabbed me where I stood. Rachel Hauck and the praise team did a magnificent job. With a day full of classes and a pitch session, the praise quieted this writers heart and soul. The worship reminded me to turn my heart to who really holds my future, my Creator. Two of the songs stuck with me, so much so, they are now on my playlist. If you haven’t heard them before or if you haven’t paid attention to the lyrics, I encourage you to do so. They were Good, Good Father By Chris Tomlin and It is Well By Bethel.
  • Friendship. I’ve been blessed to have amazing friends that encourage me on this writing journey. But most encouraging of all was time spent with friends and mentors. Not all of it was about writing, many conversations were heart-to-hearts about life’s struggle. The friendship and prayers offered up on my behalf were amazing. Just one side benefit of God’s blessing, once I decided to take a leap of faith into writing.
Alena Tauriainen, Kariss Lynch, Lindsay Harrel and Gabrielle Meyer at The Gala Event.
Alena Tauriainen, Kariss Lynch, Lindsay Harrel and Gabrielle Meyer at The ACFW Awards.
  • Transparency. So many of the winners at the award ceremony shared their struggles during their acceptance speech. Several shared about battles with cancer while writing. I appreciate their honesty at a time when they didn’t have to be. It reminded me that we must keep going, to persevere. God is with us every step of the way.
  • Community. There were over 100 first time attendees at this year’s conference. One of the first things I learned from My Book Therapy wasn’t about writing. It was about extending friendship to those along the journey. ACFW makes this easy because each first timer had a brown ribbon on their name tag. A simple smile and hello opened the door to conversations and new friends. I loved listening to the stories of others pursuing their dream.
Alena Tauriainen and Rachelle Gardner at the Books & Such Event
Alena Tauriainen and Rachelle Gardner at the Books & Such Event
  • Nuts and Bolts. Between appointments and meetings I was able to slip in several classes.
    • Jaime Wright taught about using social media as an extension of who you are. To be real. Example: If you like dogs, talk about dogs.
    • Susan May Warren and Rachel Hauck taught about the different types of series and how to approach writing one. Very, very valuable for those of us interested in writing series.
    • Dani Pettrey taught about staying true to the story God called you to write. That while it may seem like a stretch, follow God and He will make it happen.
    • Hallee Bridgeman taught the in’s and outs of publishing indie. While it may seem a daunting task, she provided key steps and insight into the process.

If you attended, what were some nuggets you took away from the conference?

 

Three Steps to Being a Voice, Not an Echo

Writing in the Christian market pushes us to go beyond the realm of this life to find meaning and purpose for our characters. While we are not writing sermons and devotionals set in fictional places with fictional characters, we are imitating life.

For the Christian author, Jesus is very much a part of our every day life. We want to express Him in some way in our stories, through the lives of our characters. But often our stories sound hokey, canned, full of Christianese. How we talk in the foyer at church, or in Sunday school class does not translate into fiction.

Remember, our goal is to write great stories about great characters. Our goal is not agenda fiction where we pound the pulpit so to speak about some error of ways.

So how do we develop a convincing, authentic spiritual thread? A lot of prayer and pondering. Digging deep the translate those standard words like, “Is he a believer?” to something every one can understand. Like, “Does he believe in Jesus?” Here are three simple, straight forward steps to help non-Christians get it.

  1. Avoid soap boxes. Don’t preach to the reader out of your own wounds or doctrinal passions. One, it’s obvious. Two, it’s boring. Find one truth that you’ve learned and weave it into your character’s being then let the words flow naturally. May in one or two scenes.
  2. It’s not a Bible study. Don’t write and discuss long passages of scripture or quote noted Bible teachers. Have you characters quote a verse in a natural way, using his or her own words.
  3. Express God in creative ways. In one of my books, God got the heroine’s attention with feathers appearing out of nowhere. In another, the heroine senses a strong fragrance.

But you can’t write about what you don’t have in yourself. The spiritual journey of a character is often the fragrance of God in and on the author. If you aren’t going deep in God, spending time at His feet, praying, worhshipping, fellowshipping with others, your spiritual message will be flat. Always. Your message will feel forces and tacked on.

But as you spend time in His presence, meditating on His Word, the spiritual thread becomes a part of you, a part of the character, a part of the whole book. And you may only have to mention Jesus once. But He’s everywhere unseen.

Don’t lead with doctrine. Lead with the Spirit. Don’t just repeat what others are saying. Get your own revelation and then back it up with the truth of the Word. Pray for a way to weave it into your character’s journey.

Be a Voice not an Echo.

Rachel Hauck is the best-selling, award winning author of over 15 novels. Her latest, The Wedding Dress appears in bookstores in April. Rachel serves My Book Therapy as the lead MBT Therapist and excels in assisting aspiring authors to find their story and voice via her one-on-one book coaching.

The Power of Voice

At the recent Academy of Country Music awards, Carrie Underwood sang a “Walk This Way” duet with Aerosmith’s Steve Tyler.

What a contrast, you know? Young, blonde, beautiful, seemingly innocent Carrie Underwood jamming with long time, hard core rocker from the ‘70s, known for his drug abuse, partying and sexual exploits.

They sang Aerosmith’s most famous song, “Walk This Way?” Pardon me while I post the lyrics.

backstroke lover always hidin’ ‘neath the covers

till I talked to your daddy, he say

he said “you ain’t seen nothin’ till you’re down on a muffin

then you’re sure to be a-changin’ your ways”

I met a cheerleader, was a real young bleeder

oh, the times I could reminisce

’cause the best things of lovin’ with her sister and her cousin

only started with a little kiss

like this!

seesaw swingin’ with the boys in the school

and your feet flyin’ up in the air

singin’ “hey diddle diddle”

with your kitty in the middle of the swing

like you didn’t care

so I took a big chance at the high school dance

with a missy who was ready to play

wasn’t me she was foolin’

’cause she knew what she was doin’

and I knowed love was here to stay

when she told me to

walk this way, walk this way

walk this way, walk this way

walk this way, walk this way

walk this way, walk this way

just gimme a kiss

like this!

schoolgirl sweetie with a classy kinda sassy

little skirt’s climbin’ way up the knee

there was three young ladies in the school gym locker

when I noticed they was lookin’ at me

I was a high school loser, never made it with a lady

till the boys told me somethin’ I missed

then my next door neighbor with a daughter had a favor

so I gave her just a little kiss

like this!

seesaw swingin’ with the boys in the school

and your feet flyin’ up in the air

singin’ “hey diddle diddle”

with your kitty in the middle of the swing

like you didn’t care

so I took a big chance at the high school dance

with a missy who was ready to play

wasn’t me she was foolin’

’cause she knew what she was doin’

when she told me how to walk this way, she told me to

END

I know! Shocking. Yet we sang this cloaked sexual song as high schoolers. We kinda knew, didn’t we, it was about sex? But not really…

It was just about a “little kiss, like this.” Right?

Back to Carrie and Steve on stage in Las Vegas for the country music awards. The moment the bass riff started for “Walk This Way,” ba-da-da-da-da-dum-dump, the auditorium of music stars and fans were on their feet.

Carrie and Steve rocked the house. Carrie was having a blast, dancing and singing. Steve was in his prime. I mean, I wanted to be on stage singing the song. It looked that fun.

But the lyrics. The intonation. The theme. Several thousand people singing and celebrating teen masturbation and three-way sexual encounters.

Huh?

Yet we go to church each week and freak out of someone raises their hands or waves a flag… sorry, pet peeve of mine… but that’s for another blog.

So what made this song a hit? What lit up the crowd that night at the ACMs? What made it look so fun? What drew me into this perverted song so much I wished I could’ve been hopping on stage with them?

The music. The opening bass riff. The way the melody plays. When we hear it on a radio, we reach to turn it up. We lift our voices and tip back our heads and sing at the top of our lungs, “…walk this way… walk this way.”

We don’t even think about it. We sing. We dance.

The music is the “voice” of the song. The music impacts our hearts, takes us back to our younger years. Memories float to the surface. Smiles pop as we remember.

We may not appreciate Steve Tyler’s life style but we like his gravely voice and delivery of the lyrics as we mumble along because we don’t really know what we are singing.

Then the chorus. “Walk this way… walk this way.” We belt it!

For a writer, our voice is the music of our stories. It’s powerful. In a song it’s the combination of music, lyrics and vocals. In books, it’s a combination of plot, writing and YOUR MUSIC. Your voice. How YOU tell a story!

“Voice” makes good Christian people sing about teen debauchery.

Voice will make an editor or agent, and readers love your story. Even if – gasp – it has a Christian theme!

What is the “bass riff” of your story that will draw in the reader, get their hearts dancing, take them down memory lane or draw them into the protagonist?

I’ve read a lot of stories for book therapy and in contests, and the thing I see lacking the most is voice.

I often feel like I’m reading an “echo.” The author is just emulating authors and books they’ve read. They like the writing, they like the story and think, “Hey, I can do this.” But their own voice is not developed.

Lots of musicians probably tried to emulate “Walk This Way,” but only when they developed their own sound did they have a chance of succeeding.

How do you say things? How do you string words together? What is the melody you want to create with your writing. What’s the feel of the scene? The characters? How do you put “notes” to the page?

Recently I read a paragraph that went something like this:

She wanted to win the contest more than anything. More than getting an expensive car or wearing expensive clothes.

Okay, that’s good. We get it. But there’s no voice to it.

How about this:

“I have to win, Sissy. I’ll die otherwise.” Riley tossed her Ralph Lauren dress to bed and ran her fingers through her hair.

“It’s a beauty contest, Riley. It’s not like you can out race or out play your opponents.” Sissy picked up the dress. “Is this new?”

“Yes, but who cares what I wear if I don’t win? This contest is my chance to prove to my parents I can do something besides spend their money.” Riley picked through her shoes. A pair of glossy patent leather Louboutin’s had once been her “dream.” But now, all of her treasured designer clothes paled in comparison to winning. “You talked me into this contest, Sissy, so help me.”

“Because I thought it’d be fun. I didn’t think you’d turn into a green-eyed monster.”

Riley laughed, glancing at her reflection. “Blue-eyed, Sis, blue-eyed.”

Details makes the difference. Voice is about adding a lyrical element to your story that comes from the details of your scene.

You and I might be looking at the exact same couple arguing at an airport and see completely different elements. What you see and how you tell it comprises your voice.

Work on your voice. Work on adding spark to your story. Hit those high notes. Work for those low, bass sounds.

Here are a few tips to work on voice:

Start a journal. Write about an event in your day. Don’t just say, “The kids were really funny during dinner.” Pick a specific event and describe it, in detail. How did it make you feel? Did it remind you of your childhood? Or was it completely opposite of your younger years?

Write your emotions. How did you feel when you heard your friend received an award, or publishing contract? What about an argument with spouse or kids, or a friend? What about a really good day?

When I wrote The Sweet By and By, I was emotionally exhausted at the end because I poured a lot into Jade’s fear and panic moments. I was trying to show how she felt from the inside out.

Don’t short cut. If you write: She was mad. Step back. Show how she was mad. How do YOU describe and show mad?

What life experiences do you have that will add to your voice? What are your passions?

Stop. Pause. Think. Then rewrite. When you’re reading other books, notice how an author describes the protagonists looks, or actions. How would YOU describe him or her.

Do you own a smart phone or iPad device that uses apps? I just down loaded an app called Day One to help capture ideas and thoughts when I’m out and about. It’s a great way to use my iPad without having to be online.

Voice. It’s the “sound” you make with your words that resonates with the heart of the reader.

Walk this way. 😉

 

Quick Skills: A tip to discovering your Voice

The concept of author Voice is so elusive, it’s can feel like a loose football, bouncing around the field (she says as she watches the Giants and 49er’s chase the ball). Just when we think we have a grip on it, it wiggles out of our hands.

Voice, easily expressed, is your storytelling style. Words and plot and character – and how you weave these together. Much like an actor dons a role, bringing their own style to a script.

Although we can work to recognize Voice and even analyze it by finding great style in other works, we don’t really discover our Voice until we put the pen to page. Until we write words that make our own hearts sing.

Here’s a trick I’ve used to develop my voice: Try writing the story in first person – but as if you were the character. Lock yourself inside the constraints of your character’s knowledge and personality – only allowing yourself to see, think feel and know what your character would know. And only allow dialogue that your character would say. Donned with that persona, write the story in your character’s pov but in first person – the way you might speak. And here’s the key:  for this exercise…write without the rules, even grammar.  You’re just setting them aside for this exercise – not forever. But the writing “rules” only serve to choke out your voice.  Fear not, it’s just an exercise…you’ll rewrite it with all the fundamental grammar rules later.  For now, just enjoy the freedom of writing without turning on the internal editor.

I’ve done this exercise with a number of clients – and they’re always surprised at how intimate and empowered their writing becomes.

When you’re finished, look for the words, the sentence rhythms and constructions, characterization elements that you love. This is your voice — your style — expressed through your character and story, onto the page.

Of course the key to weaving that into a novel is to make sure that, although you are writing it in your voice, you’re staying within the persona of each particular character.

Once you try it in first person, rewrite it in third and you may be surprised at how your voice is retained.

Note:  Sometimes when I’m working on a new genre, or even am stuck in a story where I feel my writing is tired, I try this exercise and my voice seems to gain a new breath, come alive in the story as we rewrite.

Fear not, Voice can be caught…you just have to scramble after it, land on it, and hold on. (okay, sorry, but you’ll have to put up with football analogies for a least two more weeks).

Quick Skill:  Find your voice by writing with your internal editor turned off, in first person, in the persona of your character. 

Happy Writing!
Susie May

P.S.  As you might already know, MBT is now offering an advanced membership!  And, the month of January is preview month.  Go to:  http://teammemberpreview.mybooktherapy.com to find out more and sign up for your free trial membership.  No obligation, you get to join in the fun, and you’ll get an invite at the end of the month to join at our reduced rate! Hope to see you on the team!