In the Beginning…

Sometimes the beginning of a story is hard to find, like trying to locate the beginning – or end – of a rainbow. I have a story like that. I have written and rewritten the beginning by moving it backward and forward along the timeline of my characters’ lives.

The first time, I tried starting with some exciting action and used an unprecedented number of flashbacks (I’m not kidding) to do character development. I also did a bit of info-dumping. This was before I really knew anything about writing fiction, and before I attended my first writers workshop. I’ve learned a few things since then.

Next, I tried moving backward in time so most of those flashbacks would be in the present. The result was that I ended up skipping vast spans of time to get to the meat of the story. It kind of worked, but not really.

Then, because of all that writing I did to fill in the earlier stuff in the timeline, I thought I could split that whole thing into two novels. The problem with that was the lack of an actual story in that earlier content. Yes, there were character-building moments that made my main character’s connections to other characters strong. We care when the character cares. Stuff happened to my character that pretty much sucked for her to go through but, while they were compelling events, those things weren’t the real story that I wanted to tell.

While every good main character (probably any character) should have a solid back story, not every event of their lives needs to be laid out, fully, as part of the novel. My character has experienced a lot of pain in a short period of time and, while that pain fuels her thoughts, actions, and reactions, I don’t need to start the story deep in the past just so I can include those events. The relevant parts will become known as the story unfolds. Those are the things that can be drizzled into the story like syrup on a pancake but, at the time I wrote it, that’s something I hadn’t yet learned.

Over the past few months, I’ve started the story in two other places. The first one didn’t work (I found out after four days of writing #facepalm) but, with the second one, I think I’ve found the sweet spot. This new beginning is a place where the world, character, and action come together in one moment. It’s a place – a beginning – I had to find through a lot of trial and error. I had to imagine and reimagine how to get the story started, but the time it’s taken (all the frustration included) will pay off.

I’m working through the scenes in my composition notebook, and things are looking good. Once I get the scene notes hammered out, I’ll start writing a fresh draft of the manuscript. This is my story, and it’s worth the hard work it’s taking to get it right. I believe every story we write is worth that kind of patient persistence.


Satisfaction and Sorrow

A deep sense of satisfaction comes with finishing a novel. Yet, tempering that euphoria, a sense of sorrow demands to be felt as well. I oscillate between this: “I’m done! Holy smokes, I’m done!” and this: “Crumbs. I’m going to miss this character. I can’t believe I’m done.”

It actually makes the conclusion of a story hard for me to write. I simply don’t want this character out of my head. I don’t want to say goodbye. I don’t want the time I’ve spent with this now-intimate friend to be over.

Today, I finished my YA Historical Fantasy, The Sign of Psyche. It clocks in at 85,500 words. For now, I have to say goodbye to Eupeithis and Orthios. The good news is, I’ll be back to check on them soon. A revision must happen. Revision is a kind of reunion. But for now, my friends have left me in a state of melancholy joy.

I think I’ll go read a good book.


A Million Words

I know, I know, it’s been a long time since my last post. But things have been busy! Sheesh! You’d think life would slow down in the summer. Clearly not.

Before summer set in I was reading a book by Paula Munier called Writing With Quiet Hands. I’ve enjoyed the read. One of the things that stuck out to me was when she mentions that someone she respected in the writing industry once told her that it takes about a million words written in order to make a writer good. A MILLION words! That’s a lot!

So me being me, I started adding up my written words over the course of my 2 1/2 years of serious writing. With my current 6 completed drafts (4 novels, 1 picture book, 1 confirmation manual) my numbers are right at half a million words. All of these works have been through multiple hack-and-slash revisions, so the actual number of words written is higher. I tend to write a 110,000 word novel, cut 30k-40k words, and write another 20k-30k words in the revision. So yeah, it’s a lot of words. But even including the revision work in the final number wouldn’t get me to a million words written.

I also write a lot of story as a major part of my work as a pastor. Sermons are stories reinterpreted in ways that relate to people and our world. I connect my story and people’s stories to the stories of the Scriptures. In fact, my fiction writing – especially learning about the craft of writing – has helped my preaching. With roughly 425 sermons written at a conservative average of 1,800 words each, that’s in the neighborhood of 765,000 words written.

So, Yay! I’ve clearly passed the million word mark. Does that mean I’m a good writer now? I think not. It’s not quite that automatic.

My goal of becoming a good writer has taken intentional effort on my part. I’ve put a lot of hard work into it and sought to learn whatever I could about craft, style, voice, plot, character, tension, world-building, etc. The thing is, becoming a good writer is still a goal, not something I’ve necessarily achieved by hitting a certain word count (and that’s what I think Paula Munier was getting at in her book). Like anything else, it’s a process of continued growth that, so long as I am still breathing, is never truly complete.

Toward the middle of May, I had a new story idea that wouldn’t go away. I wrote an outline and some potential scene ideas. I told my wife about the idea, and she got excited. I wrote chapter 1 and sent the first few paragraphs to my critique group for feedback. I made revisions of the chapter, completed the full outline, and set it aside.

I had something else I wanted to do first. Before writing my new novel, I intended to go back to those older stories and rewrite them using the tools I have learned since writing them. I got busy with outlines and brainstorming. I started the rewrite of my first novel. But something about the new story wouldn’t leave me alone. I needed to write this one first.

So, in mid-June, I put everything else aside. I sat down and started writing The Sign of Psyche. The thing is, while I recognize my other books really aren’t written well, I don’t have the same thoughts about this one. I think it probably is actually good. The writing is of a higher quality than anything else I’ve written. (But I’m only cautiously optimistic because I have thought similar things before).

My earlier novels were written more or less in a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants manner. Since then, I have learned the value of an outline. And I have learned that every scene must matter. I wrote out a very full outline for The Sign of Psyche, which makes writing easier. Due to the outline, I’m less concerned about what to write, which allows me to focus entirely on how to write it.

When I look at the drafts of my four completed novels, I have to chuckle at the fact that I thought they were amazing when I finished them – even after revising them fifty times! I still think the ideas for those stories are great concepts. But it will take complete rewrites to rescue those concepts from the cage of bad writing in which they’re currently imprisoned.

My million-plus words written hasn’t automatically made me a good writer. But the pursuit of excellence over the course of those million or more words has given me the tools to write well, and the will to keep working at it every day.


SCBWI Wild, Wild, Midwest Conference

Hi Everyone!

I got to spend an amazing weekend in Naperville, IL at the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators Midwest Region’s Wild, Wild, Midwest conference. I got to see my Noodle Friends (minus Victor who writes for adults, so not a member of SCBWI, but I’ll see him in July at the Midwest Writers Workshop). It was so great to be with them again.

On a really cool note, the 500 or so authors and illustrators present at the Wild, Wild, Midwest conference donated something like $3,815.00 for We Need Diverse Books. We raised enough to support a Walter Dean Myers grant plus some mentoring to writers, which is totally awesome! Our conference has challenged other SCBWI conferences to beat us in giving.

All in all, I have come away from this conference inspired and reinvigorated about my writing. I think some big takeaways for me were the lessons on craft. That’s really what I hoped to learn.

But I also feel a lot more patient about things. I want to make my stories the best I possibly can because I believe the stories are worth it. I think I had grown impatient about publishing over the past year, and now I’m not worried about it. I need to get the story right. I write because I love to write, not because I need to get published. So I’ll breathe, drink my coffee, and write.

One of the grander realizations I had is my need to split my first novel, The Lesser Betrayal, into two books. I think I’m trying to accomplish way too much in a single book, and it really does feel like two separate story arcs that I’ve essentially forced together. I’ve thought about this for a while, but (honestly) I didn’t want to do the work to make it two books. I thought I could live with it as is. But now, I know differently.

As a way to examine this, I wrote query letters for each of the books. Query letters can act as a guide for the story before it’s written. A query answers four important questions:

(1) Who is the main character?

(2) What does she want?

(3) Who/What is blocking her?

(4) What does she sacrifice?

These are all essential parts of story, which is how your character struggles to overcome conflict in order to achieve (or fail to achieve) her want or need. So, writing a query letter BEFORE you write your manuscript can help you sort through the mess of ideas in your brain about your story and help you focus on what’s important for your story.

Here’s the query draft for what will be Book 1. Possible title: For The Order (still cogitating on that one).

Long ago, Ashura’s ancestors were betrayed and cursed with mortality. Now, Tellia is a world divided between mortals and immortals. But divisions among the mortals also run deep.

Like all women in the Queendom of Hoqra, Ashura has trained since childhood to be a warrior. She will protect her home from the kingdoms that want to destroy the only land where women rule. After another invasion full of devastating loss, Ashura’s one desire is to protect her family.

But Ashura is torn away from her family when she is claimed by the powerful Order of Shifqu and forced to leave Hoqra. Ashura hates the master who claimed her, even as he teaches her another way to meet her goals. If she can help the Order regain her people’s immortality, she’ll do more than protect her family: she’ll save them from death.

But her master reveals that the Order has lost sight of its true purpose, and he believes only Ashura’s talent can put it back on the path to saving their people. But many of the Order’s members are men from the kingdom that killed her sister. To save her family, Ashura must sacrifice her identity as a warrior of Hoqra and embrace her place in the Order of Shifqu alongside those she hates.

This is the query draft for Book 2, what will become the new The Lesser Betrayal.

Long ago, Ashura’s ancestors were betrayed and cursed with mortality. Now, Tellia is a world divided between mortals and immortals. But divisions among the mortals also run deep.

After successfully moving the Order of Shifqu on a path to unite the Children of Daedin, Ashura is given a mission that no member of the Order has ever accomplished. Following the Order’s tradition for those voted Arc-assassin, Ashura is sent to kill the latest-born princess of the Elder Line.

But when Ashura reaches the enemy lands, she can’t reconcile what she sees of the Children of Ainariel with what she has been told about them. She wrestles with killing an enemy who doesn’t seem evil. But killing the princess is the only way she can return home.

When Ashura is captured while attacking the princess, she expects execution. Instead, she is shown kindness and care. Her definition of what makes an enemy is further challenged when she discovers a long-lost hero living among the people her Order wants to destroy.

Now, Ashura must choose between her family and her heart. One must be sacrificed to keep the other. When every choice she has is treachery, Ashura must choose the lesser betrayal.

I think two books simply works better than one. I won’t have to span huge amounts of time with little recaps of what happened. Instead, I can just tell the story. And that feels like a relief.

Anyway, I wanted to share how I’m re-imagining this stuff. It feels exciting and intimidating, but it should be so much fun to do! I can’t wait to get writing.

Comments welcome, as always.

Keep writing and keep reading!


I Write Because I Am A Writer

I have given each of my four current novels a revision. One was major. The other three were less so, but it still took quite a bit of work.

I researched a whole list of literary agents and sent query letters to six more in regard to my first novel. I now have seven active queries out there.

I even sent off a query to the Query Shark, Janet Reid, as a shot in the dark. If she happens to feature my query letter on her blog, then it will come with some great feedback. I got to meet her at the Midwest Writers Workshop, and she has become one of my favorite people in the writer world.

When I finished all of this, I sat down and wondered what to do next. There’s little to do but wait and see if any agents respond to my queries. The problem with waiting is I’ve never been very good at sitting idle.

The answer to my self-imposed question, “What should I do next?” hit me.

“Um… I should probably write something.

So I picked up my notes for the fourth book in my fantasy series and spent a few days putting them in order. I gave it a tentative title: Against the Order.

I realized that, as a writer, I simply need to write. If I’m not writing, I feel restless. Even if I’m not in the act of sitting at my keyboard, I am typically working on notes, scenes, plot ideas, character development, and other writing stuff in my head.

I remember taking a class called Icon Theology while working on my Master of Divinity degree from Duke University, The Divinity School (Go Duke!). A guy in our class had a friend who painted this huge, amazing icon of a crucified Christ, and he brought it in so our class could see it.

We were amazed at his talent. It was seriously beautiful. One of my classmates asked him what he had painted recently. The artist replied that he hadn’t painted anything for a while because he didn’t know what to paint.

She responded, “I’m a painter too. As a painter, you have to paint. Even if you don’t feel like it, you have to paint. Even when you don’t feel inspired, you have to keep painting, because that’s what you are. You’re an artist. You’re a painter. So paint.”

That was during my last year at Duke (’02-’03), but I still remember it vividly. What my classmate said was one of those truths that inadvertently hits a chord in your soul and never stops vibrating because it describes you even if you don’t yet know it.

I didn’t know I was a writer back then. But now I do know it. I know it profoundly.

I have to write like my 6 year-old daughter has to sing. She has music in her soul that absolutely must get out. That kid seriously can’t shut up. If she did, she might explode.

That’s how I feel about writing.

I have to write! It’s in my head. It’s in my soul. It’s in my heart. It’s in everything that I am. I have to write or I might explode (a messy possibility I would like to avoid).

So I am.

I’m writing.

I have four unpublished novels sitting on my hard drive, and I’m writing my fifth because there’s no stopping or satisfying this need to write except by writing.

I write because I am a writer.

I write because I am an author.

Writing is what we do.

Now, back to my novel…


From Revision to Querying

This evening, I finished revising my fourth novel this month. In my last post, I talked about how I revised and reduced the word count of my first novel, The Lesser Betrayal to under 100,000 words. Well, after that feat I went ahead and revised The Betrayal of Hoqra, Incursions, and Rifted. It seems like revising never ends. I find things to fix every time I read one of my manuscripts, whether its reworking a sentence or restructuring whole paragraphs.

All four novels feel pretty solid to me right now. But, in the past, I’ve felt that way about my novels before revising the heck out of them. If I don’t stop, I’ll revise forever.

It’s probably time to set the revision process aside for a while and query like mad. I’ve done some agent research, and have several candidates who might be interested in The Lesser Betrayal.

Time to write some emails and hit send.