Thursday, April 24, 2014

What's Your Genre?

As I write this, I'm sitting on the couch, preparing to record a huge stack of essays I just graded. I've been grading these essays for my poetry and literature courses for the past few days, and I think it's safe to say I passed the realm of normalcy quite a while ago. I even bought myself this to make the job a little more fun:

Can you say, "hashtag nerdy teacher?" I know. I know. But felt-tipped pens are so glorious!

So, here's the thing. Ten years ago, I thought I wanted to be an elementary school teacher. I had NO concept of what it would look like to teach college courses, and no idea that I even could. I mean, I knew I wanted to teach, and that was about it. I was planning to major in elementary education until, at a college orientation, a very quirky old man with a penchant for Canterbury Tales factoids handed out some pamphlets about all the things you could do with an English major. He would later become one of my favorite professors and my current boss.

See, you can say to someone, "I'm a teacher," and they may think they know what you do. But what they don't see is the difference between a poetry instructor and a kindergarden teacher, a remedial reading instructor and a chemistry adjunct. Those differences may seem subtle, but they're not. They make all the difference in the world.

The same is true with writing.

You may wonder why genre matters. Well, think about the previous example. If you say to someone, "I'm a writer," what comes to their mind? A romance novelist? A literary critic? A poet? A cozy mystery writer? Sure, all of these people share a passion for the written word. But writing means something SO different to each of them.

The reality is, editors, agents, and readers expect certain things from certain genres. In a love story, readers want the characters to end up together. Unless you're Nicholas Sparks, killing one of your main characters right before the grand finale is going to result in a very unhappy reaction from your readers. Same is true with women's fiction or literary fiction and the expectation of carefully-crafted prose and true-to-life characters.

Trying different genres can be very fun. But like changing majors in college, eventually, you really need to pick one (unless your name is Pepper Basham, and you can amazingly write exceedingly well in every single genre known to mankind). 

When you're first starting out and you're beginning to submit to agents and/or editors, it's important that you really know who you are as a writer. Again, don't just think of yourself as a "teacher," or "writer," but as having a particular kind of voice that's invaluable to a publishing house. No one wants to publish just another "writer." What they want is your unique voice as a writer.

So how can you find your genre? 

Try dabbling in different styles and see what feels most natural. When I first started writing, I tried to write literary fiction. While I enjoy the depth and complexity of it, let's just say, I doubt anyone is going to be reading any of my literary fiction anytime soon! I then found the southern romance genre, and writing has been immensely easier and more fun ever since. 

Also, consider what you like to read. Are you drawn to historical fiction? Contemporary romance? Romantic comedy? Take into account your interests as a reader, and you may find out something about yourself as a writer in the process.

What about you?! What genre do you write? Are you still trying to find your genre? What are you favorite genres to read?


Ashley Clark writes romance with southern grace. She's dreamed of being a writer ever since the thumbprint-cookie-days of library story hour. Ashley has an M.A. in English and enjoys teaching literature courses at her local university. She's an active member of ACFW and runs their newcomer's loop. When she's not writing, Ashley's usually busy rescuing stray animals and finding charming new towns. You can find Ashley on her personal blogFacebook, Pinterest, and Twitter. She is represented by Karen Solem.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

What should a fiction writer blog about?

In my last post, I discussed how blogging can help your writing.

The topic sparked in interesting discussion in the comments thread. The question was posed - what should a novelist blog about?

Ah. Good question.

It's a question that stumped me for a good number of years. In fact, that's why I only started blogging at the end of last year - even though I've been writing fiction much longer. It took me a long time to figure out my blogging niche.

If you're struggling with the same question, I'd like to suggest some approaches you could take... and one that perhaps you shouldn't.

1. Blog about writing
Now, this is a fairly common strategy. After all, they say we should blog our passions, and for a writer - writing is a central passion. It's a subject we "know" and are constantly learning more about.

The problem with this approach is the target audience. Who is attracted to a blog about writing? Other writers. And while it's a brilliant way to connect in with the writing community, network with other writers, and form meaningful friendships with like-minded people, it may not be the best platform for marketing your books. The writing community is, by its very nature, over-saturated with book promotion. It's chock full of authors who all constantly have new releases and soon-to-be-releases and cover reveals and e-book promotions, not to mention the backlists they'd still like to sell. It's enough to make you giddy, trying to keep up with it.

Not convinced? Wendy Lawton of Books&Such literary management wrote an excellent post on this topic: The Trouble with Tribes. I highly recommend you check it out!

2. Blog your subject matter
If you write historical or genre fiction, you've hit the mother lode of blog material.

Historical writers love to research, but many of those details and anecdotes won't find their way into your books. Why not blog your fascinating discoveries? An example is WWII novelist Sarah Sundin's "Today in WWII history" feature, where she shares a brief anecdote for each day of the year.

If you're an author of murder mysteries, you could blog about relevant news headlines; police procedure; a layman's guide to forensics; biographical sketches of serial killers... the list goes on.

Do you write romance? Blog about romance. Tips for a first date. 10 ways to bring the sizzle back to your marriage. Best honeymoon getaways. 5 ways to date your husband for free. Conversation-starters with your spouse. Thoughts and anecdotes and inspiration regarding relationships, love, and commitment.

3. Blog your themes
Perhaps you're not a genre author. That doesn't mean you don't have something to blog about.

Take a look at the themes running through your work. You may have themes of forgiveness, redemption, trust, identity, belonging, surrender... and many others. Your blog is a chance to delve deeper into some of these ideas as you journal your ideas, thoughts and reflections on life.

Friend of the Alley, Jeanne Takenaka, does this beautifully on her blog. I love my friend Megan Sayer's tagline "Deep thoughts from an ordinary life." These women are gathering an audience of people who resonate not only with their writing style, but with the quality of their insights into everyday life - characteristics that will draw this same tribe of followers to their novels.

4. Blog your characters and settings
If you worry that you're not inspiring enough or don't have enough to say of a thematic nature, there's other blogging material to be found in your novel.

You could interview your characters; write journal entries from their POV; share photos of models or actors who look like your character as you imagine them; discuss the settings in which your novel takes place; share short excerpts or deleted scenes; and include recipes inspired by your novel. These can all be effective teasers.

One caution is that it could prove difficult to build an audience using these methods, if you're starting out with no platform and have no publishing contract yet in sight. Readers will probably not be interested in hearing endless details about characters they haven't yet "met" in a book, especially when there's no immediate chance of doing so. This approach would work best once you have an established audience and are building buzz for a newly-released book.

5. Blog short fiction
Why not give your readers a teaser of your writing style by blogging a weekly short story? If the writing you offer for free is consistently good, you'll slowly but surely build a fan base who'll be first in line to get their hands on your full-length work - simply because they like your stuff and want more of it.

Another creative approach: one of my favorite writing blogs, Novel Matters, are currently running a serial story - written collaboratively by their blog readers and posted in short instalments.

Alternately, you could write your own serial story. Bestselling action/ thriller writer Matthew Reilly did this with his story Hover Car Racer, and then released the whole as an e-book.

5. Blog about books
If you love reading and reviewing, this approach makes perfect sense for you as an author. What better way to reach a book-loving tribe than by blogging about books? Regular book reviews and meet-the-author chats are fantastic ways to connect with readers who enjoy the same type of books as you do.

Two great examples of this approach are the She Reads blog and our own Casey Herringshaw's blog, Writing for Christ.

6. Blog to your target demographic's interests
At this point, it's time for me to confess that I don't use any of the above 5 approaches. I've gone a different route altogether.

Why? Because first and foremost, you need to blog on a topic you're passionate about. If your heart's not in it, your blog will feel lacklustre, and you'll struggle to keep up your commitment for the long haul.

For various reasons, none of the above felt like quite the right fit for me. Hence why I wriggled around uncomfortably for years and put off blogging altogether.

Finally, it was Wendy Lawton's excellent post, The Trouble with Tribes (also referenced in Point One above) that gave me my lightbulb moment.

The point of a blog is to gather a tribe of readers. 

I write contemporary, inspirational women's fiction. Therefore, my ideal readership is women: particularly (but not exclusively) Christian women.

Women who enjoy picking up a novel for entertainment, but might not be drawn to a non-fiction style blog.

I started thinking - what does this readership want? What do we enjoy doing in our downtime? What inspires us? What do we watch on TV? In other words, outside of reading, what are the concerns and interests of this particular demographic?

Clearly, there's no one right answer to these questions. We're all unique, with different interests. But stand back far enough to survey the big picture, and you'll notice trends.

Women are - not always, but more often than not - the home-makers. We are the creative CEO's of our family, called upon to organize, feed, decorate, entertain and educate.

The explosion of Pinterest highlights the enormous popularity of lifestyle and DIY among women. Lifestyle TV is huge - cooking shows, decorating shows. It's a thriving niche market, and it falls smack dab in the middle of my target demographic.

As an ex-Creative Arts teacher, mum of small kids, and a part-time interior decorator, I knew I had something to offer in this field. To women, like myself, who want to mother creatively and make their house a home.

Most excitingly for me, it's something I'm actually passionate about. It's a topic thrilling enough to me that I have more blog fodder than I have hours to blog about it. So, I launched a home-making blog: a house full of sunshine.

It's an experiment, of course. Will I gather a tribe of readers who love my lifestyle and DIY posts, but have zero interest in my someday books?

My strategy is to use the posts themselves to constantly refine and focus my audience. I'm launching a monthly book-club. (Hate reading, and annoyed by those posts? You'll probably step off here.) I post openly about my faith in God. (Militant atheist? You'll no doubt unsubscribe at this point.)

I try to see those unsubscribes and un-follows as a positive thing. They're a sign that my audience is becoming more honed, more targeted, more clearly an embodiment of my ideal readership, day by day.

Most importantly, I'm building a tribe of readers who are connected with who I am as a person, and interested in what I have to say.

Do all of them start out as passionate fiction-lovers? Of course not. But it's my belief that every person can be a reader. And by looking outside the traditional avenues - writers who read writing blogs; readers intentional enough to look up book reviews - I'm tapping into a new market of people who are just women... like me.

Women who might just pick up a good book if it comes recommended by a blogger they've connected with.

How about you? What do you blog about? What is your target demographic - and how do you plan to reach them? How would you describe your ideal reader?


Help - I'm a fiction writer and I don't know what to blog about! Find inspiration here: Click to Tweet

Novelists - can you describe your ideal reader? If not, your blog may be missing the mark: Click to Tweet

Why writers shouldn't blog about writing - and a wealth of other ideas to try instead: Click To Tweet

Karen Schravemade lives in Australia, where she mothers by day and transforms into a fearless blogger by night. She's a Genesis finalist for women's fiction and is represented by Rachel Kent of Books & Such. Find her on TwitterGoogle+, Pinterest, and getting creative on her home-making blog, A house full of sunshine.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Creating Memorable Secondary Characters
Who says main characters get all the attention?

Think of Dorie in Finding Nemo. 

As a secondary character, she steals the show with her humor.

Rhino, the loveable hamster in Bolt, adds panache as he cheers for Bolt and becomes endearing to us in his own right.

How about Abu from Aladdin, the kids in Incredibles?

Who can forget the old lady with a shotgun in Ratatouille?

Or housekeeper, Minnie, from The Help?

Now, how can you create a secondary character that's loveable, despicable, memorable, hilarious, endearing, or infuriating?

Give your secondary characters a fascinating backstory.

Alley Cat Pepper suggested journaling from the perspective of my antagonist over a year ago. Since then, I've done so with a variety of other characters. Getting into their heads has definitely helped me write stronger secondary characters.

Make him/her sequel worthy.

You know you've created an in-depth secondary character when readers beg for a sequel from that character's perspective. One example would be Surrender the Dawn by Mary Lu Tyndall. I so desperately wanted to read Luke's story because he was an excellent secondary character with a lot of depth.

Give them a quirky trait, particularly as they are relating to your hero or heroine.

Any character who shows up more than once should have at least a few identifying traits. 

Maybe the car repairman has a nervous tic and always shakes when he's signing the receipts.

Perhaps the doctor who has diagnosed your heroine's cancer always smiles when giving bad news. Its a nervous habit.
If they are a more major secondary character, go even more in-depth with their personality.

Think of your secondary character who has the most major role in the story. Consider taking a few minutes to take an MBTI assessment on your most important secondary character. Interview your secondary character as if your his or her therapist.

The Book Buddy is a resource that has helped me increase the depth of my minor characters.

Think about motivations of this secondary character. Why do they do what they do? What are their needs? Do they have a "lie" they believe that affects the main character? 

For instance, although we are each responsible for our own journeys perhaps mom believed a lie that she then "taught" to the main character during childhood. Main character has to unlearn this lie throughout her journey.

You don't have to include all these details in the story (in fact you probably shouldn't) but it can help you to understand their journey and to write more compelling scenes.

Don't forget the most compelling secondary characters don't need to be human.

Think of Dorie. Abu. The dog in The Accidental Tourist. 

Pets can be believable and loveable companions to your character and have their own quirky traits.

Remember opposites attract isn't just true in romantic scenarios.

Sidekicks are often compelling and interesting because they have opposite personality traits to the main character. Think of movies with a "funny" sidekick. Danny DeVito has often played this role in the movies. These characters make us laugh. Even in the most serious books (I enjoy writing what my hubby likes to call women with issues fiction...though who among us doesn't have issues) we need a break for laughter.

A good secondary character is an emotion trigger.

Our main character typically isn't neutral toward a well-drawn secondary character. She helps draw out emotion from the main character. 

For a great example of this, check out this post by Susan May Warren.

Do you have a favorite secondary character from the movies or books? Why is he or she your favorite? Or who is the most compelling secondary character in your story and why?

 Julia enjoys writing women's fiction whenever she can find a chair free of smushed peanut butter sandwiches and lego blocks. She is a wife and homeschooling mama of two littles. She also enjoys reading and reviewing books for The Title Trakk and Christian Library Journal.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Writing Imagery

Easter time has always intrigued me, not only because of my faith, but because of my love for the  beautiful symbolism and creative plan of God's story.

We attended a Christian Passover Sedar this year, and remembered a time when the blood of a lamb saved the firstborn children of the Israelites in Exodus. Then, we remembered a time when the blood of a begotten Son of God, the final sacrificed lamb, was shed to save ALL the children of God.

How amazingly intricate God used foreshadows, symbolism, and imagery to carve His path of redemption over centuries!

Truly the Perfect Author of a remarkable story!

I feel my creative juices bubbling as I ponder God's Word. I love His Word, and it makes me realize why I love crafting words to reveal Him through my writing. He is my greatest example of imagery and symbolism of story.

After a full weekend with family and friends, I decided to dig up an old post on similar lines... one on some of my favorite literary tools: metaphors and similes.

Have a great Monday.

Christ is Risen!

Now-a-days, readers want excellent writing, but it needs to be straightforward. This makes it all the more important to place your metaphors and similes in appropriate places throughout your novel. If you have one metaphor after a simile after another metaphor...then you will slow down the reader and your story will sag with the weight of a word picture frenzy in the reader's overloaded mind.

Using well-placed metaphors and similes can 1) Anchor the reader to the setting and have them  connect to your character's situation, and 2) Emphasize high emotional intensity, as implied by James Scott Bell in his book, Revision & Self Editing.

Just as a poem begs to be memorized, a metaphor or simile create a memorable experience for the reader, and etches your story into their mind. I can think back on certain books and remember their well-placed metaphors and similes out of the entire 90,000 words. These tools grip a reader's thoughts and leave a “book”print in their mind long after the book is closed and put away.

Here are some examples from books that have printed on my mind:

Anchoring to the setting:

"If Broadway was Manhattan's artery, Five Points was its abscess: swollen with people, infected with pestilence, inflamed with vice and crime. Groggeries, brothels, and dance halls put private sin on public display. Although the neighborhood seemed fairly self-contained, more fortunate New Yorkers were terrified of Five Points erupting, spreading its contagion to the rest of them.” Wedded to War, Jocelyn Green.

Jocelyn uses the metaphor of the condition of the human body to not only emphasize the point of view of her heroine, an aspiring nurse, but she also gives such a vivid understanding of the setting that a reader could hardly dismiss this and move on without allowing the imagery to paint itself in their mind.

“Through the makeshift curtain that gave her some semblance of privacy, she could make out Captain Click's sturdy shadow like a locked gate barring harm's way.” Courting Morrow Little, Laura Frantz

This book is set in a time of unease and discord between the settlers and the Native Americans. This metaphor of Captain Click being a locked gate is appropriate to the point-of-view of the heroine who is a young woman traveling into hostile territory. This anchors the reader to the setting not only through the heroine's perspective, but gives the overall emotional climate of the setting—one of possible danger at every turn.

Emotional Intensity:

“The man who stared back was not a man he knew. The careful control bred into him since birth was gone. In its place he saw a fire-breathing dragon capable of murder.” The Duchess and The Dragon, Jamie Carie

The image of a fire-breathing dragon is placed at a time when the hero's emotions are high and his actions have culminated to a dreaded circumstance. Jamie Carie imbeds this metaphor in such a way that it maintains the momentum of the story but shows intensity of the hero's emotion.

“In the domestic cloud of dust and family, I too can forget the One who sees me, but in eucharisteo, I remember, I cup hands and all the world is water.
The well, it is still there.
There is always a well—All is well.
I choke out my son's name. His skin is And he stares long, brims...quavers...falls. And I cradle him, the Boy-Man, flood over shoulders.” One Thousand Gifts, Ann Voskamp.

Ann's moment with her son is filled with word pictures that emphasize the build to an emotional outpour. This book takes the use of metaphor to such a deep level, my heart stirs at every turn of the page.

Metaphors and similes can also unveil a writer's voice. Ann Voskamp does this amazingly well, not only in the example above, but consistently throughout the book. Depending on a writer's voice, these descriptive tools can be well-placed mirrors to the under-lying tone of the story.

Do you have examples of well-placed metaphors and similes in some of your favorite books? How about in your own? Please share!

Angie Dicken first began writing fiction as a creative outlet during the monotonous days of diapers and temper tantrums. She is passionate to impress God's love on women regardless of their background or belief. This desire serves as a catalyst for Angie's fiction, which weaves salvation and grace themes across cultures. She is an ACFW member and is represented by Tamela Hancock Murray of the Steve Laube Agency.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

What's Up the Street for Next Week?

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Our Lord and Savior, the Author and Perfecter of our faith is RISEN!

As we go into this weekend, signing the songs of praise during this heart wrenching and glorious time, may we never lose sight of the fact that yes, we are novelists, we do create. But may we always remember that He is the ultimate Author and everything important penned started on that cross for you and me.

What's up the street here at the Alley for next week?

Angie shares about the story of ultimate foreshadowing and the lessons we can learn from it on Monday.

Tuesday, Julia will be continuing her creativity series and give us plenty of story prompt ideas.

What do you blog about when you're a fiction writer? Karen has ideas on Wednesday.

Ashley (recently contracted for a SECOND Guideposts novella!!) is your hostess on Thursday!

Rita-nominated author Carla Laureano is our guest to close out our week on Friday. Make sure you don't miss her post!

Have a wonderful, worshipful weekend!

Friday, April 18, 2014

How Well Do You Accept Criticism?

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Criticism is, unfortunately, part of the game when you put your words on a page and then submit them to a critique partner or a contest or a first reader or your mother (well, maybe not your mother… ;-)). It seems to be a dangerous business, writing. I don’t know why it has to be such a land-mine pursuit, but it seems the more we put ourselves out there and write more from our heart and fall harder for our stories, the more criticism we can get. And the harder it gets.

Being told you stink at something is never easy, don’t get me wrong. I’m not a huge fan of it myself. ;-) When you look at how hard you work and how many hours you spend alone pounding the keyboard, only to be told by a judge that your POV is a mess and your characters are flat and unlikeable, it’s enough to plant one’s head squarely in the middle of the keyboard/screen/desk/wall, etc, etc.

But criticism does not have to be all bad. Yes, I know. You’re scowling at me fiercely right now because I’m telling you to actually like being corrected. Well…maybe not like, because who likes that?? But there is much more to be learned from criticism than there is to be learned from praise. While all correction should be taken with a grain of salt, it might be an opportunity to see the big picture flaws we miss when we’re zoomed in too close in our stories.

What is the universal appeal of your hero and heroine? Did the judges or first readers find them fun and entertaining or flat and apathetic?

Look at what you’re aiming for and then see if what and where the criticism is coming from matches up or is moving in the same direction. If you’re aiming for a funny and light-hearted heroine, but you’re being told she’s moody and discouraging, maybe it’s time for an edit—or maybe a change of genre. ;-)
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Is the topic of your “voice” coming up in more discussions or disturbingly absent? Read the comments as one would who has no emotional attachment to your story. If this was your friend’s story or a random book off the shelf would you agree or disagree with the comments?

It’s easy to immediately disagree with everything the critique had to say, but stop for just a minute. Separate yourself from the heart-wounded part and pull up those muck boots to go in for another stomp around and discovery.

While it’s never easy to volunteer for criticism or correction for anyone even when the criticisms are so far out in left field that’s it’s not even worth putting the time into reading! Novel crafting is one of the most subjective businesses out there—it’s not even funny how subjective it is. And yes, it’s a near constant lesson in the art of accepting criticism gracefully.

But it gets a little bit easier if you think in these terms: we’re in the place we love. God put us here. This is part of His hands forming our clay. Put’s a little bit different perspective on it, doesn’t it? J  

Casey Herringshaw is a homeschool graduate and has been writing since high school. She lives in rural Eastern Oregon in a town more densely populated with cows than people. 


Thursday, April 17, 2014

Whose agenda are you writing anyway??

What our fiction shouldn't do....
Pick a "big" social item that has varying opinions...

Pre-marital Sex...
Gun Control...
Same-Sex Marriage...
Global Warming (or newly called, climate change)...

The list is a long one.

And occasionally, there is a particular issue you feel passionate about and want to incorporate into your fiction to spread your heart-felt opinion.

But how do you do it? And SHOULD you do it?

There is no right or wrong answer. In fact, the idea of "agenda" driven fiction is another one of those items that have various opinions. Strong opponents say you annoy readers by writing only with your own agenda in mind. Strong proponents say that important issues shouldn't be ignored in fiction.

So what do you do?

The below is MY opinion, so you can officially call this an "agenda" driven blog today, I guess.

The purpose of an "agenda" is to sway people to your opinion.

The purpose of "fiction" is to tell a story.

So the definition of "agenda fiction" is to tell a story with the goal of swaying people's opinion.

The problem with this is chances are, the majority if not all of your readers will end up being people who agree with you. And the people who don't are likely strong in their belief in the opposite, which won't encourage them to read more of your books or tell others to read them.

And still others will be annoyed that you've used your story to beat them over the head with your agenda.

So you've written a book few will read, many will hate and your goal will remain unaccomplished.

Not really productive, if you ask me.

So what's the answer?

What our stories should do.... well... kinda
or me, as a follower of Christ, I've chosen to write what I call "Missional" fiction. No clue if this is a true definition, because I just made it up and liked it. :-)

The definition of "mission" is a task or job you've been given. For me, I take my direction from Jesus Christ.

So my missional fiction is accomplishing the job or task God has given me through story.

This is broad. And I like that.

Basically, I want to spread GOD'S agenda, not mine. And I want to do it in a way that's natural.

When a missionary goes to a foreign country, they don't go and stand on a soap box and yell their message to the locals. No, they get their hands dirty. They provide food and water and supplies. They build schools, orphanages, churches. They learn the language and live life with those they are trying to show God's love to.

Our stories should show God's agenda in a similar way.

As authors we use our characters to invite our readers into their life. Through fiction, they live life together. Experience highs and lows, fears and failures, successes and triumphs. They struggle with sins together, with forgiveness, with grace.

Jesus used the power of story heavily in his ministry.

I think we absolutely can follow in His footsteps... if we do it in a way that is wise and helpful, not reckless and arrogant.

Discussion: How do you weave a spiritual theme in your books? Do you struggle with wanting to put an "agenda" in them or do you avoid at all costs? 

(pictures courtesy of

Krista is a follower of Jesus, a wife, a mother, and author of Sandwich, With a Side of Romance . She blogs about finding JOY in the journey of LIFE at She is represented by Rachelle Gardner.