Feeling Discouraged?

seal on coverFeeling discouraged? Maybe these stories will give you the courage to keep going one more day.

You probably remember the movie The King’s Speech? What you might not know is the 73-year-old screenwriter, David Seidler, who won an Oscar for his screenplay, had only one other script produced–twenty years earlier.  

Kathryn Stockett’s first novel took her five years to write and was rejected by 60 agents. It went on to sell more than five million copies and became the award-winning motion picture The Help.

Bob Nelson wrote a screenplay while working on a odd late-night comedy show in Seattle called Almost Live. He was delighted when he sold his ms to a Hollywood producer, but then it sat for ten years. Occasionally he’d call and this semi-famous person would promise him he had forgotten him. Ten years is a long time to wait and I’m sure there were times when he felt discouraged. But finally that Hollywood genius put his words into film. And now Nebraska has been nominated for an Oscar as best movies of the year.  

“I pray that God, the source of hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in him. Then you will overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 15:13 NLT).

What You Can Learn from a Rejection Letter

Sept 2013 003Rejection letters hurt. But before you hit the delete button, take another look. Perhaps you can learn something from the editor’s (or agent’s) comments.

First, check to make sure it’s a rejection letter. Maybe the editor is asking for a rewrite. If an editor takes time to say the ending isn’t strong enough or story was too long, maybe if you fixed the problem, she’d take another look. This happened to me. But I didn’t take it for granted. Instead, I wrote and asked. Sure enough, the editor answered back and said, yes, he’d be willing to look at my article a second time. I did a rewrite and resubmitted and this time the magazine took my piece.

Of course, this doesn’t happen all the time. Sometimes there is a clear statement: “While I wouldn’t be interested in taking a second look, ….”

Next, read the letter carefully and treasure any specific feedback. Editors are busy people and they don’t take time to help writers unless they see promise. They are trying to help you. It means you’re really, really close.

Learn from their comments. If you don’t know what some of the words mean, here is a tutorial:

Slight: Message isn’t deep enough for readers to care about. You didn’t touch the editor emotionally.

Predictable: The reader knew from the opening what would happen next. Nothing surprised editor.

Clichéd: unoriginal story, characters, or setting.

Too wordy/too long: Check your descriptions. Are they getting in the way of the story? Some readers enjoy details, others don’t. Maybe you need to do some cutting.

Slow-paced: Oh, no. Does this mean your story is boring? Look for ways to add tension.

Sentimental: Are you overemphasizing things that mean a lot to you but might not mean much to the reader?

Quiet: Not much happens in the plot. Doesn’t mean your novel needs to be action packed, but it might mean you didn’t engage the editor in your character’s problem.

Abstract: You might receive this comment if you’re writing a novel with a quirky plot or with odd characters. Fantasy, speculative, and science fiction writers probably see this word from editors who don’t “get” their genre.

Formulaic: a pat story, stereotypical characters, an overused setting.

Familiar: Too many books in this genre.

Not compelling enough: Your novel failed to grab the editor emotionally.

Ending is a letdown: might be predictable, unsatisfying, or rushed.







Shrugs, Smiles, and Glances: Make Your Character’s Movements Meaningful

Pumpkins on Bale of Hay I’ve written a tense scene between two characters. The dialogue is strong. Emotion high. Yet, my critique group asks for more action to break it up. I’m frustrated. Silly words like he shrugged, or sipped his tea, or stroked the cat seem okay, but they break the focus and add nothing to the moment.

Finally I figured out what they wanted—meaningful action. Character movement should be combined with attitude and emotion. Here are some examples:

Before: (Lily is desperate to hire a detective. Johnny, an Iraq vet, was referred by her cousin, Cooper Davis.)

“Before we go further, there’s something I need to tell you.” Johnny placed his hands on the arms of his wheelchair. “I’m not actually a detective.”

Lily stared at him. “You’re not? Then why did Cooper send me here?”

“Full disclosure.” He raised his hand. “I’ve done a few side jobs for Coop, helped him out on a couple of cases. My expertise is computers. I’m a freelancer for Uncle Sam. I don’t want you to think I’m going to chase down bad guys for you.”

She sipped her tea. “Ah, no. I didn’t think that.”

After: “Before we go further, there’s something you need to know.” Johnny placed his hands on the arms of his wheelchair. “I’m not actually a detective.”

Lily’s hand jerked and she sloshed her tea on her pant leg. “You’re not? Then why did Cooper send me here?” She grabbed a napkin wiping at the drops of water. What a colossal waste of her time. What had she been thinking?

He put up his hand. “Full disclosure. I’ve done a few side jobs for Coop, helped him out on a couple of cases. My expertise is computers. I’m a freelancer for Uncle Sam. I don’t want you to think I’m going to chase down bad guys for you.”

She glanced at his absent legs. “Ah, no. I didn’t think that.” Her gaze met his. Her face flamed. A smile played at his lips. Maybe he wasn’t as sensitive about being handicapped as she thought.

The dialogue is the same. Only the action has changed. It was the improved movement that made the reader feel more involved in the moment—more engaged in the emotional meaning of the moment.

Here’s another example:

Before: Larry entered the conference room and took a seat next to Amar. “I hear they’re going to announce layoffs today.”

“And I heard that’s a nasty rumor. Our profits are up. No way would they do that to us.”

“I hope you’re right. I just bought a house. My son loves his new school. I don’t want to relocate again.”

“Relax, man. Your job is safe. Everyone knows you’re the boss’s main guy.”

“Me? Who told you that?”

Amar rolled his eyes.

After: Larry entered the conference room, seeking a friendly face. Ah, Amar. He had stopped by his cubicle a couple of times. Maybe he knew what was going on. He settled in next to him and when Amar looked up, Larry said in a low voice, “I hear they’re going to announce layoffs today.”

Amar’s eyed widened and he leaned away from Larry. “And I heard that’s a nasty rumor. Our profits are up. No way would they do that to us.”

Larry laid his leather bound notepad on the oak table and straightened his tie. “I hope you’re right. I just bought a house. My son loves his new school. I don’t want to relocate again.”

“Relax, man.” Amar drew a circle on his yellow pad. “Your job is safe. Everyone knows you’re the boss’s main guy.”

“Me? Who told you that?”

Amar rolled his eyes.




7 Ways to Increase Tension in Your Writing (Goal Setting)

Pumpkins on Bale of HayGive you main character a goal and raise the tension. This will keep your reader engaged in your story. The harder the goal is to achieve, the higher the suspense. The more personal the goal, the more the reader cares. For instance, if your detective is solving a murder of an unknown person in a large city who he doesn’t know, then we care less than if he’s solving the murder of his son. We care more if the hero is saving someone he loves, than if he is saving an unknown “them.” Continuously raise the stakes. If the character fails to reach the goal, what will happen? Will they go back to life as normal, or will they face death? The closer to death and ruin you can make their failure, the better.

Outer story goal: Every novel has a goal. Maria finds her true love. Our hero reaches the Fifth Dimension and saves the Kingdom from destruction. The detective figures out who killed the old lady who lived in the shoe. A daughter reconciles with her family after years of infighting.

Inner story goal: Our characters also need a personal goal whether it’s stated clearly or not. Maria overcomes her fear of becoming involved in another relationship and falls in love again. Our hero learns brave means facing his fears and acting in spite of them. The detective must restore his faith in himself. The daughter who never felt loved discovers Christ’s unconditional love and healing.

Scene goal: Every scene must also have a goal. If you can’t write it out in a simple sentence then you either don’t have one, or are trying to do too much.


Goal: All the character wants to do is mail a letter without running into anyone she knows.

Complication: As soon as this goal is stated, the reader fears/suspects what is going to happen.  String this out as long as you can. Let her even mail the letter, think she’s home safe, and then have a nosey neighbor pop up.

Goal: Detective goes to a home to face the antagonist.

Complication: Suspect is at home and he has a big gun. Suspect is at home, but detective learns he couldn’t possibly have done the dirty deed. Suspect isn’t at home, thus leaving the detective to make another stop.

Goal: MC needs a raise so he can ask his girl (the boss’s daughter) to marry him. He goes into office and asks the boss for a raise.

Complication: Boss can say yes, but this would take away the tension. The boss could say no, thus throwing MC into tailspin—this is good. But what is even better is if the boss says, “Yes, but . . .” Yes, but he’ll have to take the dirtiest job in the company. Yes, but he’ll have to transfer to a small town in Idaho. Yes, but he can’t have anything to do with his daughter.

Caution: If you set a goal, you need to have the character reach it at some point during the novel. You can put it off for a few chapters—searching for a new pet, a new place to live, the perfect cup of coffee, a lost dog, but readers will notice (and complain) if you don’t bring this goal to a close.

7 Ways to Increase Tension in Your Writings (Foreshadowing)

Another way to increase tension is to foreshadow coming events. This is more subtle but when used effectively can raise the hairs on the back of the reader’s neck.

Early in your book, foreshadow a scene that might not take place until the end. For instance:

Warnings: In first chapter, a child is playing near a dangerous well and is warned to stay away. Later, he falls in and must be rescued.

May and June 2013 077The sheriff tells protagonist to stay away from a certain character.

A father says, “That John Doe. He’s no good.”

Dangerous weapons: The antagonist in an early chapter is described playing with a knife. He uses it later to kill his victim.

An arms collectors shows off his antique collection. Later, one is missing.

Weather: A storm threatens in the early scenes and then hits the characters in the latter chapters.

Drought worsens as book moves into final scenes.

Subtle dialogue: Today was going to be the best day of her life.

Mysterious events: A chair out of place, the smell of smoke in an abandoned house

7 Ways to Increase Tension in Your Writing (Man vs. Himself)

Aidan's First B'day 012Increase tension by pitting your character against himself. Give her an inner struggle like depression, fears of all kinds, alcoholism, self-esteem issues, forgetfulness, or some other quirky trait. These can add depth to personality but also tension as we watch the character struggle to overcome her flaws in order to solve the mystery, get her man, or reach her goal.

Consider giving your MC a physical limitation. Our world is populated with handicapped people, yet, we often have novels that never touch that topic. In my current novel, one of my characters is a double amputee. Yes, it takes research, but it has added a dimension to my writing and tension to the final scene. Check out Dick Francis, who wrote about the world of horse racing. He was a master at this.

Have a dull scene and want to spice it up? Have your character make a simple decision. Tuna salad or clam chowder for lunch? Slacks or a skirt to work? Or have her hunting for the keys, or a file, or cell phone.

Stretch a decision out. Will she quit her job? Will she buy that expensive purse she saw on the Internet? Why have it happen quickly. Let the answer linger for a couple of chapters.

If this has triggered idea, share them here.

7 Ways to Increase Tension in Your Writing (Man vs. Nature)

Man vs. Nature

I’m reading Lisa Wingate’sDawn's visit 2010 004 The Sea Glass Sisters. In it, a young girl is nabbed out of a car and the main character blames herself. If this doesn’t cause enough nail biting, the author ups the tension by adding the possibility of a hurricane hitting the coast of North Carolina—the exact place where the MC and her mother are headed. Will it hit, will it miss? The question keeps the reader guessing AND turning the pages to find out if the characters will stay and face the storm, or leave the Outer Banks for the safety of the inland.

You can add the element of mother nature to your novel too. In my first novel, The House with the Red Door (unpublished), I hint at an unusual snowfall and sure enough toward the end, my main character is caught in a blizzard—an important turning point in the novel.

Nature is a worthy opponent. She is mighty and unpredictable: floods, tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, volcanoes, and earthquakes. Mountains that need to be climbed, prairies that need to be crossed, crops than can fail are other elements that can add suspense to an otherwise dull manuscript.

What if your story is set in a city? Add a rainstorm, an extra hot summer, a tree the city wants to remove (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn), an electrical storm that cuts power (happens all the time in the Pacific Northwest), or a disease that strikes your character.

As Christians, remember God created nature. Be sure to bring the struggle of why he allows bad things to happen to good people into your story. This question keeps many from following him. You might help someone settle that question. “He gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike,” (Matt 5:45 NLT).

7 Ways to Increase Tension in Your Writing (Man vs. Man)

The fifth way to add tension to your writing is to add an element of conflict. Oh, you say, you hate conflict. Then you’re thinking of it the wrong way. Conflict doesn’t only mean two people quarreling, although it can be that. It means two different entities in opposition to one another. Here are some examples:th3

Man vs. Man

Conflict can be between two people: children arguing over a toy, two adults wanting the same parking space, or a wife feeling neglected by her husband. But it can also be two people with opposite personalities placed in close proximity. Remember Oscar and Felix? One was a slob and the other a neatnik? How about two roommates at college, one is sophisticated, glamorous, the other overweight and athletic? Children who populate the family who have their own unique set of personality traits that naturally clash. Sitcoms do this all the time to great effect.

Even romance is a considered conflict. Two people who are attracted to one another, yet fearful of rejection, trying to get to know one another with everything at stake, their heart, their future. Will this work out, or won’t it? One of the reasons romances are so widely read is because of the “conflict” of romance. You might be writing a murder mystery or general fiction, but consider an element of romance to heighten the tension.

Conflict is also violent: murder, robbery, and even war. These topics populate modern literature, and even the Bible, for good reason. Readers pick sides. They have an inborn sense of justice and they want the good guys to win and the bad guys brought to justice. Don’t think you’d ever write anything like this? How about a third party stealing the beau in your romance novel, or your main character being accused unjustly of a misdeed in your mainstream novel?

(Next week I’ll talk about Man vs. Nature)

7 Ways to Increase Tension in Your Writing (Part Two)

I read a review recently that said, “I couldn’t finish this novel.” Ouch. It was obvious from the rest of reviewer’s comments she set the book aside because the storyline had become boring. All the author’s hard work, writing, rewriting, finding a publisher, marketing and now this worst nightmare.
Here are more things to consider to keep this from happening to you.
Make the story personal.
What do I mean by this? If it’s a murder mystery, make the victim someone the detective cares about, mother, father, or even more poignant, his child. Then have the murderer go after the hero. Put the heroine in danger.
Whatever you write, don’t be afraid to bring out the reader’s emotions. Touch on subjects that tear at the heart, child abduction, child abuse, sexual addiction, the evils that make the headlines. Later, millions tune in to watch the trials of those convicted of these horrendous deeds.  
In a romance or women’s fiction, don’t forget every day struggles: father/daughter relationships, mother/daughter relationships, marital problems, rebellious teens, single parenting, cancer, death of loved a one. Your readers, or their friends and relatives, are struggling with these issues. Yes, it’s hard to write about those topics, but you can bring compassion, understanding, and the grace of God into a situation where it looks like only darkness lives.
In every scene ask yourself—What is my main character’s core emotion? Is it strong enough? Can I raise it?

7 Ways to Increase Tension in Your Writing (Part One)

After a strong opening, stories can bog down: readers become bored, and they might put our novels aside. Here are some things we can do to add tension in our writing so this doesn’t happen.

Ask a question that demands an answer.

Mysteries do a good job of this. Who killed John Doe? A romance does the same thing. Will Mary find Mr. Right? General fiction often asks what’s going on here. This can work as long as you do it well and don’t confuse the reader.

You can boost a scene that seems to drag by giving your MC (main character) a question that she must answer by the end of it. Example: Elizabeth has need of a babysitter so she can go for an important job interview. The scene opens with her calling her next door neighbor to ask if she will do her a favor. You can fill in the scene with all kinds of delays, but by the end, Elizabeth gets her answer: yes, no, or my favorite, yes, but. The “but” comes with a complication. The neighbor can sit with little Sally, butfor only two hours. Elizabeth MUST be home by 4:00 p.m. (Can’t you just feel the tension mounting?)

Increase the stakes

Are you too soft on your characters? By this I mean, what happens if they fail? What if Elizabeth doesn’t get her job? What if she doesn’t make it home by 4:00 to pick up her daughter? Maybe you need to raise the stakes.

Make failure:

Life and death

Happiness and despair

Bankruptcy or plenty

Disaster, ruin, end of the world

If the secret is discovered? Divorce; children taken away; lose the family home, the family fortune, good reputation, love of a lifetime, highly valued career. Perhaps the MC will be forced to live on the streets, etc.

World (or a loved one) will be destroyed if character doesn’t achieve goal.

Create a deadline

Deadlines are effective in raising the tension and can be set for the overall novel or for scenes.


Example:         Must make it to town by 6:00 a.m.
                        Waiting for an important phone call and battery is running low on cell phone.


Example:         MC has three camels and the first one just died.
                        MC has to find three jewels in order to open the door to the hidden treasure.
                        MC has two candy bars and three children who want them.


Example:         MC has $6.00 to buy a pair of shoes for his dying mother and they cost $12.00

MC needs $10,000 to save his ranch from foreclosure.

                        MC’s credit card is maxed out.


Example:         MC has six miles to go and the gas tank is on empty.
                        MC is running out of food, water, or fuel.
                        MC is making pancakes and doesn’t have enough flour.


(Cont’d. next week)