Capturing Beauty from Cover to Cover

A special shout-out to ‘retired’ inkster Brenda Anderson who is releasing a new contemporary romance this week. Aptly titled Capturing Beauty because, really, isn’t that cover a beauty? This eye-catching cover screams “read me now!” Which is exactly what an author wants a book cover to do.

I hesitate to admit this in public but…I’m kind of a cover snob. Yes, I know all about that old adage that says “Never judge a book by its cover,” but seriously, don’t we all? I’ve been known to place a book back on the shelf if the cover doesn’t appeal. Yes, that’s another wretched true confession and now you know how shallow I am. So I thought it would be fun to share some of my favourite book covers.

ink1

Aren’t these two historical covers striking? Guaranteed to stand out on a crowded shelf. There’s a contrast in colour and tone between both books and yet each one stands out.

ink2

I’m not always a fan of the hero being front and center. My active imagination is more than capable of filling in the blanks and I hate it when my mind clashes with the publisher’s artwork. But these two books are the perfect example of the magic that happens when, in my humble opinion, the publisher gets it right. Both covers convey much more than the hero’s image. Each picture captures the essence of the man as well. The gentle side of a tough cowboy. The steely resolve of a law enforcement officer. One look at either of these book covers and I’m smitten. There’s no way I’m not buying these!

ink3

I love these two covers for their winsome, other worldly qualities. Soft lines and alluring contours put me under a spell that won’t be broken until I reach the end.

Sigh. I love books so much that someday I’m going to make an art gallery of beautiful book covers. And it will have plenty of comfy seating so that an eager reader can curl up with a good book while enjoying all that literary artwork on the walls!

So how about you? Are you a book cover snob like me?

story with a captial S

Over the course of my writing career I’ve struggled with what it is that makes a good story. Since writing is so subjective, it’s a given that there will always be someone or groups of people who won’t like your story. I used to think that in order to have a successful book, it had to be well-written. But not all books that are well written make an impact. And not all books that are badly written will tank.

TwilightTake Stephanie Meyer and her Twilight series. It was a resounding success in both the book and movie realm. But ask any regular writer about how well the Twilight series books are written and you’d get an answer that is certainly not a ten star review.

So, how did the Twilight series get so popular? The tone of the books, a forbidden love that goes beyond the norms along with the cost this love has on each character along the way, is alluring. Every character is perfectly flawed and appealing in their own way.  Twilight had story with a capital S.

I was just discussing this with another writer the other day as we were dissecting Twilight. We came to the conclusion that Meyers had the knack for keeping the reader hooked and wanting to turn the page to find out what was going to happen next. The audience became attached each time something happened to keep those lovebirds apart. Readers were rooting for Team Edward or Team Jacob. Whether you liked or read Twilight or not, this series had an emotional investment we all want to have between our characters and story and the reader.

Andrew Stanton, a Pixar writer and producer, shared what made Pixar’s stories so good in his The Clues to a Great Story . In his TED talk, Andrew shared the points to focus on in creating a resounding story.

  1. Make Me Care. You have to care about the characters right away. What is happening that makes you identify or have empathy for this character? Is the character suffering an injustice? Is the character thrown into a new situation that is difficult or emotional and you automatically want to root for them? Is there a secret that is intriguing and needs to be figured out? All of these make us care for the character immediately.

 

  1. Take Me With You. Give the reader a promise, a problem that will make the story worth reading. Is it the promise of adventure? Is the character fighting to overcome something? Is it revenge? What is it that the reader is going to expect to find in the pages?

 

  1. Be Intentional. There has to be motivation for the character. Is the character searching for love or acceptance? Do they require vengeance against some force that wronged them? Are they working to overcome a difficult past? Each character has to have a reason for being in the story.

 

  1. Let Me Like You. Your characters have to be likable. This is the part I struggle with because I tend to be black and white, especially when it comes to my villains. But every evil character thinks they are the hero in their own story. Let us like them for some reason, to at least understand what motivates them to do what they do. An evil queen must have been a sweet girl once. Let’s see what makes them vulnerable so we understand their despicable actions.

 

  1. Delight Me. Charm your audience. Get them on your character’s side. Make them cheer for the hero who counters the death spell and turns the rabid wizard into a slug, who’s then swallowed by the shark they’ve been mind-controlling. Let’s sigh with relief when the protagonist finds the decree that saves hundreds of innocent lives in the kingdom. Let’s feel it when the hero kisses the heroine when the town is saved from a gun-slinging bad guy.

 

We may not read or love vampires like in the Twilight books, but we can learn how to create beloved characters who are placed in a dire situation that the readers stick with until the resonating end.

It’s all about story with a capital S.

Who said that? POV and Head Hopping in fiction

My friends who are just beginning this writing journey must be very confused about some of the things we authors say.  “I think the POV is a little off in this scene.” “Oh no! Now I’m head hopping.” What????

Yes, we tend to get caught up in catch phrases at times. But the concepts are simple-and very important to how our stories will be received by our readers.

POV- Point of view- means the perspective from which the story is told. Each character in a good story has a different outlook about what is happening. Their own past experiences and expectations come into play. Besides, the way the story is unfolding has a lot to do with  what they know about what is happening, and how they learn those details. Each person involved sees, hears and experiences different parts of the event in different ways. Point of View varies according to who is telling the story.

In many old manuscripts, a real narrator is used. This is called “omniscient” Point of View.  You, as the reader, are privy to everything that is going on. You can see and hear and experience all of what is happening at once.

First Person  means that the narrator-the main character- is only telling us her side of the story. Most sentences begin with “I”,   because she can only tell us what she did, what she heard, what she felt about what was happening.

Third Person point of view takes the “I” out and refers to the main character as “she” or by name. We still get only one viewpoint, but it’s as if we are watching the story unfold. A popular variation on this Third Person point of view takes us deeper. We really get inside our heroine’s head, and she may have some internal thoughts that bleed over to First person. Most often, the writer uses italics to make this clear.  Many stories switch from one Third Person point of view to another, in order to fill in some blanks, and experience the “other side” of an event.

Head hopping? No, I am not talking about flying body parts here (another catch phrase, sorry). Head hopping is when we are safely hearing the story from inside one person’s head, and suddenly, another view point intrudes. It’s like hearing a voice coming from somewhere that we can’t identify. These “who said that?” moments take the reader out of the story, causing them to stop and re-read, or maybe just giving up all together. Not what we want as writers!

Okay- to illustrate this- to “Show and not Tell”- let’s have an example. Here’s the same short scene told with different types of point of view.

Example One:

“Inside a rustic pavilion in one of Arkansas’ premiere State Parks, four generations of a family gathered for their annual reunion. Happy chatter erupted and echoed from the log walls. As each group arrived with their hands full of covered dishes and ice chests, they were shown the best place to deposit those items.” – POV??? Omniscient

Example Two:

“I pushed up the window covering, bracing it to keep it from falling back down. There were lots of my husband’s relatives here. That was a good thing, they always had a good time together.”  POV??? First person

Example Three:

“Jenny stood next to the long serving bar, rearranging to make room for the third bowl of potato salad. She smiled at her husband, who was standing nearer the door, glancing out toward the parking lot.”  POV??? Third person

Example Four:

“It was a little hard for Jenny to keep her mind focused. She should feel happy at the turn-out for this reunion. But she couldn’t help noticing that their own branch of the family tree stopped abruptly. None of the next generation had been able to fit this gathering into their schedules. Heavenly Father, help me to enjoy this day without feeling sorry for myself. 

Chris noticed that his mom’s back was turned, and prompted little Austin forward.

‘Aaahh!!!’ Jenny took a side-step to keep from falling over the smiling munchkin standing so close by here side. They did make it! Thank you Lord.”   POV??? Deep Third Person with an intrusive bit of Head Hopping. Did you catch it?

So, POV is not so hard to understand after all. It is just a tool to help us get those stories told. Each genre- type of story- has varying norms for the point of view that is used. It’s all about what your reader expects, and what makes them want to keep reading. Because, as a writer- that is definitely what we want!!

What’s in a name?

When Marilla Cuthbert first meets Anne Shirley, she asks the 11-year-old orphan girl what her name is.

“Will you call me Cordelia?” she asks.

Anne goes on to explain that she despises her “plain, sensible” name, but thinks it would be perfectly lovely to be called what she considers such an elegant name. Marilla declines, and Anne reluctantly accepts being called by her real name, although with the caveat that it always includes the “e” on the end.

Thus, Anne “with an e,” though plainly named, cements herself as one of the most beloved of literary characters.

One of my favorite parts of writing is naming my characters. I have always loved the history of names. I read my first baby name book cover to cover when I was 8, loving the discovery of their origins and meanings. So when it comes time to naming my own characters, I have a lot of fun! But just as one poorly conceived plot device ruin a good book, so can an ill-named character take the reader out of the story.

Here’s a few of my rules when naming characters:

ShakespeareChoose a name you like. 

Seems kind of silly, doesn’t it? But just like naming your children, this is a name that is going to stick with you with for a long time, depending on how fast you write, or how successful the story has been. Make sure it’s something you’re going to like for the long haul.

Choose a name that suits the character. 

In early draft of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, her spoiled Southern belle was named “Pansy O’Hara.” Can you imagine “Pansy” vowing to never go hungry again, or helping Melanie have a baby while a battle raged on around them? Thank goodness someone made her change the name to the now iconic “Scarlett!” When I started writing my murder mystery, the protagonist’s male co-sleuth was named “Reed Spencer.” But after writing just a few pages of “Reed,” I just couldn’t stand him. He wasn’t a Reed! Today, “Drew Spencer” is helping Mira solve murders!

Choose a name that works with your story’s genre and time period.

Seems simple, but I hate, hate, HATE it when I read a story that features a protagonist named something that utterly doesn’t fit with that time period or genre. Think of a cowboy romance with a heroine named “Tiffany” or “Arwen.” Or maybe a futuristic sci-fi adventure with characters named “Herman” and “Mabel.” Just doesn’t seem to work, right? It goes the same way with modern fiction: if your character was born in the 1980s, most likely her name would be something like “Jennifer” or “Jessica,” two of the most popular names of that decade, rather than something funky, like “Legend” or “Naveah.” And if you want a funky name, make sure there’s a reason for it, other than “I’m a writer and I can do what I want.” (Good reason, but probably won’t hold up with your publisher.) A great resource is the Social Security website, which lists the most popular names by decade going back to 1880.

AnneChoose a name that your readers or target audience can pronounce. 

This one’s a personal pet peeve of mine. Don’t spell your character’s name in such a way that your reader doesn’t know how to pronounce it. Unless they are listening to an audio book, it’s hard to know how an oddly-spelled name is pronounced. The exception: fantasy stories often have unusual names, but there is usually a hint from others on how to pronounce it (“rhymes with BLANK,” etc.).

Of course, sometimes we can’t control our character’s names any more than we as writers can control them. L.M. Montgomery stated in her autobiography, The Alpine Path, that the character of Anne Shirley just came to her, fully fleshed out and named, down the all-important “e.”

So, how do you decide what to name your characters? Are they named after someone in particular? Or do they just come to you?

When the Story Just Isn’t There

A writer sits down at her keyboard and stares at the blank screen. She prays. Her fingers hover over the letters, but the story just isn’t there.

It’s been that way for days. A sense of panic sets in. What if she can never find the words again? What if all the stories are gone?

I remember a very similar experience to this when I sat down to begin my second book A Great Catch. I called my friend and mentor Judy Miller and told her about the blank screen looming before me. “I’m afraid I can’t do it again.”

She laughed and said,”Yep, and it will only get worse.” Then she added, “Self-doubt is part of being a writer. It’s time for you to remember the stories are never yours. They belong to God. He’ll give you the story.”

I typed the words, “HELP ME. HELP ME. HELP ME.” I wrote a  whole paragraph of help me’s, before I felt a flicker of creativity. I captured the thought and quickly transferred it to my screen.

I don’t remember if I kept what I wrote that day–I sort of think I did–but I do remember the story God gave me flowing through me.

Faithful to complete it

So what can we do when the stories just don’t seem to come?

  1. Pray.  As in all things, turn the dry spell over to the Lord.
  2. Self-Care. Are you taking good care of yourself? Are you getting enough rest? Are you writing during your best time of the day?
  3. Feed your story craving. Read a book or binge on a Netflix show. Good stories feed the muse.
  4. Plot. Now, no booing. Honestly, if you know where a story is going, it’s much harder to hit a dry spell.
  5. Do something else creative. Whether it’s coloring a page in an adult coloring book, scrapbooking, or crafting, doing something creative engages the creative side of your brain. This could be the wake-up your mind needs.
  6. Breathe. The stories are still there. Phil. 1:6 says, “He who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it.” Trust God, not yourself, to finish the story He put on your heart.

Now, it’s your turn. Have you hit any dry spells in your creativity? What did you do to get going again?

 

Be Still and Know . . .

38 Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. 39 And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. Luke 10:38-39 ESV

Mary and Martha. Just reading those names evoke images of a bustling Martha making her home perfect and welcoming for her Lord, Jesus, as Mary sits at his feet drinking in the teaching of her Savior.

40 But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” Luke 10:40 ESV

Bless her heart.

She meant well.

She had all the best intentions of the world.

She was doing what she had been taught was “the right thing to do,” and she was doing it with all her might. It was the way she could show Jesus that she loved Him, right?

But the love she meant to show soon became tempered with self-righteousness and pride. She couldn’t figure out how Mary, raised in the same household as she, was just sitting there, doing nothing, while she, the good daughter and sister, acted as servant. Their mama taught them better than that, didn’t she?

What did Jesus say to Martha?

41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, 42 but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” Luke 10:41-42

Mary was learning that the only way to truly be in tune with Jesus was to be still.

Martha, ever the pragmatic sister, had to be reminded to stop, and to open her heart and her mind to Jesus. She had to be still in order to hear Him, and to let Him into her heart.

Be-still-520x245I have always struggled with the “should” and “ought to” tasks in life. If I do good things in my own power, who gets the glory? If I’m constantly trying to take care of the messes before I have to admit them to God, what am I gaining? He knows the number of hairs on my head. Knowing what is on my mind isn’t much of a stretch.

If I experience a form of success, I learn to depend on my own brand of “goodness.” If I fail, I wonder why God wasn’t listening. Bitterness seeps in. Oh, but I kind of forgot to consult You, didn’t I? Hmmmm . . .

When I reach this point – and I do, often – I have to remind myself to BE STILL. God is there. He hasn’t moved. I have.

Psalm 46 takes my eyes off of myself, and puts them squarely where they need to be – on God.

God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.[c]

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy place where the Most High dwells.
God is within her, she will not fall;
God will help her at break of day.

Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall;
    he lifts his voice, the earth melts.

The Lord Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.

Come and see what the Lord has done,
the desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease

to the ends of the earth.
He breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
    he burns the shields[d] with fire.
10 He says, “Be still, and know that I am God;
    I will be exalted among the nations,
    I will be exalted in the earth.”

11 The Lord Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.

Psalm 46

I found the following video, and I hope you enjoy it. It’s an acoustic version of “Be Still” by Steven Curtis Chapman that is on the album “Deep Roots,” in which he is accompanied by his father, brother, sons, and other instrumentalists. It’s a blessing to me, and I hope to you, as you strive, along with me, to BE STILL.

Year for Change

I was pleasantly surprised with how many times God was mentioned in the inauguration today (Friday January 20, 2017). The amount of prayer and scripture allowed into the event is encouraging, even if you didn’t vote for Donald Trump. Can this be a year where the religious persecution that has been building in the United States finds a low tide? I certainly hope so. It feels like it will be a year for change. Maybe one that holds some unity. I’m thankful to God for that.

This year is going to bring some change for me as well. I’m still working on getting my first book, Knee High Lies, published. I have joined a women’s ministry group called Wholly Loved, whose mission is to embrace women and show them they are loved, unique, and have purpose in Christ. It’s very exciting.

FaithPersonally I’ve been studying deeper on faith. Faith that can spur the Spirit to do things in my life that I couldn’t even begin to imagine. I felt the Spirit begin to move last year with a simple act by Allen Arnold at the ACFW conference. For information on this check out my blog article I Got This God.

Since then it has seemed that Satan was working hard against me. I had some issues in my marriage. There were some personal issues I’ve had to deal with. And each time I took a step, something would happen to make me take two or three steps back. It’s been very frustrating. I’m sure many of you have been in the same position where no matter what you do everything around you continues to trip you up.

Gah!

But, I am confident after all I’ve been through that God is going to finish this good work in my life, both in my ministry and in my writing life. I’m not making any new year’s resolutions, but am opening myself up to whatever changes this year brings. May my faith grow deeper as the year rolls by. I wish the same for you all as well.

Coming Clean

In this year of refocusing, the scripture that won’t leave my head begins with a request that would be impossible for anyone but God. Psalm 51:10.  “Create in me a clean heart, O God.” To be truthful, this verse rattles around in my head in a musical fashion, because it was part of the weekly liturgy in the Lutheran church of my childhood. When I sang these words, I thought they probably applied to someone else, someone with a lot of issues. With a very filthy heart.

But, if I am focusing on changes that need to be made in my life, I will first have to recognize what needs to be changed. I have never enjoyed having my failings pointed out. I am very good at rationalizing, at justifying.  You see, it isn’t my fault. I always mean well. It’s me, not someone else. I am really a good person.

From past experience, though, I know that when there is a problem in my life, coming clean hurts, but it feels so good when it is over.  The best thing is, I know that once the sin or shortcoming is recognized and confessed, my heavenly Father forgives me. There will still be earthly consequences. And God expects me to work hard at correcting the problem. His advice to the woman at the well in John 8:11? “Go and Sin no more.”

So, I am in a period of evaluation. What things need to be purged from my life so that I can make room for this new, clean heart? My list will include being more honest about my faults, my bad habits, my sins. This will allow the rest of verse 10 to happen, as he will “Renew a right spirit within me.”

What better way to refocus. With a clean heart and a right spirit. Amen, and amen.

 

 

Year of promise

Anyone remember the children’s book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day? In the book, everything seems to go wrong for Alexander, from the petty to the annoying to the plain not good: he wakes up with chewing gum in his hair, there is no dessert in his lunch bag, he gets a cavity, he gets soap in his eyes during bath time, he fights with his siblings. He laments that he just wants to move to Australia, sure that no one has bad days in the land Down Under.

At the end of the book, his mother reassures him that everyone has bad days, even those who live in Australia.

Sometimes I feel like 2016 was just one terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year.

AlexanderLike all new years, it started out with promise: fresh dreams, reaffirming goals to accomplish in the next 12 months, plans to travel, make lifestyle changes, etc. And for a while, it seemed like everything was going well. But, as they say, LIFE happened.

It seemed like every day seemed to bring new frustrations, things that hampered the accomplishment of goals, old enemies that didn’t want to stay down. Doubts of my future as a mother. As a writer. Loss. It sometimes felt like nothing was going right.

And that’s just on the personal side. Worldwide,  it seemed like 2016  was the beginning of the End Times: every other day the news was full of violence and death, hate and prejudice, cruelty and evil. The US election cycle was particularly vitriolic, and the outcome remains so.

I’m an eternal optimist, and try to see the good in every situation. But by the end of 2016, I was ready to throw in the towel. It didn’t help that my husband got sick over Christmas, I got sick shortly after, and my beloved dog Bazinga suffered some burns in a cooking accident. It felt like 2016 was just kicking me while I was down, and I felt myself crying out to God, “What did I do wrong? Why is all of this bad stuff happening?”

As Anne Shirley says, I was having a “Jonah Day,” only it felt like a Jonah year.

I’m sure Jonah thought he was having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day when he was swallowed by the whale. He hung out in a fish’s belly for three whole days. In Jonah’s case, he suffered because he didn’t heed God’s commands. But in the case of Job, he didn’t do anything wrong. He suffered because God knew that no matter what Satan threw at his trusted servant, he would withstand it. And after losing everything and still not cursing Him, God doubly blessed Job for being a good and faithful servant.

Good momentsI’m not like Job. I definitely haven’t lost everything, and my 2016 was certainly not as bad as it could have been. But even if it had, that’s no excuse for me to whine and complain and give up. The Bible promises us that “In all things God works together for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28) I might not be able to see the big picture of what God is doing in my life, and I might not EVER be able to, but I cling to the promise that something good is happening all along.

And you know what? When I think about it, there were some pretty great moments in 2016: wonderful times hanging out with my family, hearing some pretty incredible music from my symphony, some breakthroughs in my writing, brainstorming with a wonderful group of writers and friends, joining the church choir and rediscovering my love of singing. Gaining a niece. Making new friends. Renewing old friendships.  Learning to lean on God in the hard times as well as the good.

So, instead of making a new year’s resolution or choosing my “one word” for the year, I’ve decided to do something even simpler: focus on the good that I CAN see. For every week this year, I’m going to write down at least one thing good that happened in my life that week in my journal. The first week of January, it was praying in the new year together with my husband. Last week, it was the sense of accomplishment on a video I produced for work. This week, I’ve already included the very long phone call I had with one of my best friends on Sunday night.

No matter what 2017 holds, good or bad, I’d rather focus on the good and make it a year of promise.

 

Why I love Friday the Thirteenth

Happy Friday the Thirteenth!

When did Friday the thirteenth become an “unlucky” day? According to WikiPedia, it didn’t become a widespread superstition until the 19th century, although some trace it back to the Middle Ages, when someone linked it to Jesus’ Last Supper, in which there were 13 attendees on Maundy Thursday before Good Friday.

lastsupper The fear of Friday the thirteenth is called paraskevidekatriaphobia, from the Greek words Paraskeví (meaning “Friday”), and dekatreís (meaning “thirteen”).

I never really thought about being fearful of a particular day or number – I mean, God made each day, and He tells us to “Fear not” more than anything in the Bible!

ellen-gina1995-001There came a day, though, that I learned to love Friday the 13th. It was 1994, and I was expecting my second child, Ellen. They calculated the due date, and guess what? The estimated date of birth was to be Friday, January 13, 1995. We laughed about it the whole time.

But guess what? She was right on time. On Friday, January 13, 1995–exactly 22 years ago, today–Ellen Priscilla Merrick was born.

ellen2-001On that blessed date God blessed us with a healthy, beautiful, compact bundle of energy with a head-full of dark hair and the ability to sleep anywhere but her car seat. Really.

dreamy-ellen

Ellen will be graduating from college this May, with a degree in vocal performance. She’s all grown up, but still my little girl in whom I am exceedingly proud.

2016-11-11-21-09-23-hdrHappy Birthday to my Friday the thirteenth blessing!

3 John 1:4 I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.