Friday, January 9, 2015

Who Needs Conflict Anyway?

Who Needs More Conflict?

Today while teaching my students about writing, we discussed how conflict makes a story more interesting.


Because that’s life. Life is full of plot twists, struggles, obstacles, triumphs, and failures.


The Story Mirrors Life

An element of plot that every quality story needs to grab the reader and hold them in is strong conflict.

What is meant by “strong” conflict?

Think about life. What does strong conflict look like?

People don’t want to read stories about happy perfect people with equally perfect lives. That’s boring. That’s unrealistic. And it’s not true to life.

I asked my students to imagine no conflict in their favorite stories. No conflict means no adventure, no risk, no...story!

In writing, good writers try to mirror life even if the story is set in fantasy. The conflict should mirror life.


Because people want to read about a character who has struggles in life. That’s what makes the reader connect to the story. Readers have struggles of their own…and they want to read about someone who has overcome those struggles.


So when you write about conflict, make it STRONG conflict. Make it urgent. For example…

I love World War II history. A few years ago, my family was fortunate to visit the National Marine Corps Museum at Quantico. Inside this amazingly detailed museum, we enjoyed the section about Iwo Jima. As we were leaving that section, we ran into an actual veteran of Iwo Jima.

There he was along with his wife. The two had married before the war when they were still teenagers and there they were, still standing side-by-side, real life survivors. The fact that anyone could survive Iwo Jima is almost a miracle, but to be able to meet a veteran of Iwo and ask him questions about his experience was an absolute thrill. 

This man lived through STRONG urgent conflict. He overcame extreme obstacles. That’s a man people want to meet.

  • Holocaust survivors
  • War survivors
  • Disease survivors
  • September 11th survivors
  • Plane crash survivors
  • Survivors!

That sense of urgency is what escalates a story to that next level.

Urgency should be in your story as well. Readers want to root for your character as she confronts each obstacle. They want to see how this ordinary flawed character deals with such conflict. Will she survive? Will she save the day? Will she solve the crime? Stop the killer? Escape the danger?

Or will she fail?

These are questions people ask themselves every day. That’s the sort of conflict that a reader wants to see in your story.

Don’t disappoint them.
Life is disappointing enough. Make your story the light at the end of that tunnel. Give your readers the hope they need.

Make your story count.

That’s what readers want!

Your turn: How do you add conflict to your stories? Do you try to mirror life in your stories?


Sunday, December 28, 2014

Word of the Year

Success is not final;
Failure is not fatal;
It is the courage to continue that counts.
-Winston Churchill


A couple of years ago, I joined the “word of the year” group of bloggers and selected a word for 2013. My word for that year was Endurance and boy did I have to endure many challenges that year.  My word for 2014 was Aspire because there was so much I wanted to aspire to.

But, like most human beings, I fell short of my goal. I accomplished some, but failed to accomplish all that I had in mind for the year.

When I came across this quote by Churchill, it truly spoke to me because I know so many people who are afraid of failure. In fact, the fear of failure paralyzes them. It defines them. If they cannot succeed at something, they pretty much won’t even attempt it.


What is it? 

Webster’s defines it as nonperformance, proving unsuccessful; lack of success.

Churchill knew of what he spoke. He felt like a failure during World War I in which he made bad political decisions about Gallipoli that left him ostracized in the political community. He failed at government. He failed at leadership.

Winston Churchill was a failure.

But did that fact paralyze him? Did he never attempt anything again?


He learned that failure isn't fatal. After having served as an officer in the British army in the Second Boer War, he rejoined the military and fought alongside British soldiers in World War I and succeeded at leadership so much so that he enjoyed much favor in politics when he returned home and ultimately became Prime Minister of England during World War II.

And the rest is history.

But even then, Churchill realized that success wasn’t final. He continued on and endured much during World War II. He saw more successes and more failures in his life…but he continued and that’s what counted most of all.

For me, I set goals for myself in 2014:

I aspired to finish and publish 2 books.

Success! I completed my first self-published book, "The Children Under the Ice", and released it to much acclaim. My readership truly enjoyed it and immediately requested more. The last book of "The Dragon Forest" trilogy was completed and is with my publisher today. 

It’s always a tremendous feeling to complete a goal.

I aspired to be a better teacher this year so I took a professional development course in teaching writing. I aced the course and saw my teaching improve. To meet that professional goal was a sweet victory after my horrible first year of teaching.  

I aspired to participate in and finish the Marine Corps Marathon in October. I trained all year and even endured an injury over the summer, but my husband and I made it to Washington DC so that I could meet my goal. Even after a car accident the night before the race, I was able to run and finish that marathon…the hardest race I have participated in yet.

Having my husband of 26 yrs there with me as I accomplished that goal truly was a blessing.

But did I accomplish every goal I aspired to this year? No.

I aspired to gossip less this year…and I failed.
I aspired to be more zealous for God this year…and I failed.
I aspired to study God’s word more fervently this year…and I failed.

So, like many people of the world (including Churchill…) I am a failure by my own standards.

I am a failure.

But not to God.

You see,  although I did fail to gossip less this year, I did succeed at spending more time in prayer everyday than ever before. I knew I needed the Lord’s help with this particular weakness and He met me at my desk in my classroom every day for prayer.

I did fail to be more zealous for God this year, but I did succeed in providing a Christian witness in my classroom each day without uttering one word about the Lord. At the end of the school year, one of my former students told me she saw Christ in me and knew He was there with me all year.

I did fail to study God’s word more this year, but I did write a Bible study based on one chapter of the Bible I studied over and over again all year.

So I was successful after all!

But, as Churchill said, success isn’t FINAL.

 I will not stop here. 

I will have the courage to continue on with setting more goals and committing to more efforts to improve this year.

And that’s my word for this year: Commitment.

I will commit to be a better witness for Christ, a better teacher overall, a better runner, and better writer than ever before.

I will commit to trying new things I have never tried before: a sprint triathlon and a 52mi ultra marathon.

With the Lord’s help, I will commit to serving Him with my gifts and talents this year. I know I cannot do it alone, but I am excited to see how He will do these things through me for HIS GLORY and not mine.

That’s what it’s all about: watching God move through us for His glory.

As I look back over 2014, that’s what I see. I see how the Lord worked through me and used me in and out of the classroom, with my writing, and with my running to inspire others to keep going no matter what.

As Churchill said, "It is the courage to continue that counts."

Commit your way to the Lord;

Trust in Him and He will act. 
Psalm 37:5


Monday, October 6, 2014

Guest Blogger: Author, Jenny Milchman

"I struggled for eleven years before landing a book deal. During that time,
 I worked with three agents, who received fifteen almost-offers on my books...
My first published novel was the eighth one I wrote."
-Jenny Milchman

The World's Longest Book Tour

I am thrilled to welcome author Jenny Milchman to my blog! She is the author of two best-selling suspense thrillers: the Mary Higgins Clark award winning Cover of Snow and her latest release, Ruin Falls.  I have enjoyed her first book and look forward to reading her latest release. Her writing is very "smooth" and undemanding with very real characters that capture your interest immediately.   

Now that she is home from the world's longest book tour, she has written a very inspirational post about her writing journey, book tour, and her commitment to writing. 

Her story gives us writers HOPE. Come by and leave a comment!

4 Months, 20,000 Miles, & Back Where I Began

I just got back from what Shelf Awareness called the world’s longest book tour. I left home on April 22nd and returned September 4th.  And that was not even the long one actually—last year, when my first novel came out, I went out on tour for seven months.

But my road to publication took even longer...

I struggled for eleven years before landing a book deal. During that time, I worked with three agents, who received fifteen almost-offers on my books. (An almost-offer happens when an editor wants to buy your book but can’t get permission at the acquisitions meeting). My first published novel was the eighth one I wrote.

After that kind of time, the thing I most wanted to do was get out there and meet all the people who had supported me over a decade-plus of trying. Readers, booksellers, librarians, bloggers, and reviewers. But really, they were friends.

I am a big believer in the face-to-face. The virtual world has expanded all our lives, and many of the people I met on the road, I knew because of social media. But seeing them for real—getting to trade a handshake or a hug—made all the difference in the world. Not the world wide web…the real world.

What was going on tour for all that time like? How did we do it? And perhaps more importantly—why? I’m going to answer those questions so that everyone out there whose dream has yet to come true will know that it can still happen…you can even help make it happen yourself.

The first thing you should know is that everyone thought I was nuts. My publisher, editor, even my agent who had seen this dream grow over years of rejection, all encouraged me to stay home and write my next book. My parents posed gentle questions about how exactly all this would work, while my ever-practical brother asked me how money earned would compare to money spent (answer: don’t even start to compute it). You get the idea.

About the only person who did not seem to think a straight jacket would suit me better than a car was the one responsible for putting all the nuts and bolts into place—my husband. Maybe it was not that he had any more confidence that this was a great idea, though, and just knew I was crazy already.

Here’s what we had to do to get ready to live on the road. We rented out our house to help cover expenses; traded in two cars for a SUV that could handle Denver in February; withdrew the kids from first and third grades to “car-school” them. We joined forces with an independent publicity firm that has a strong and passionate bookstore presence. And we set out.

We stayed in hotels, motels, and Airbnb’s, crossing the country, dealing with blizzards that threatened to shut down the interstate—yes, THE interstate—as well as homework (I mean, carwork), and Skype meetings for my husband when the cell signal was thready. And, of course, doing book events. Talking to booksellers, readers, librarians, patrons, book clubs, schools, and writers groups in every state except Alaska and Hawaii (for obvious reasons), and Kentucky (haven’t found a venue in the Bluegrass State yet, but I’m looking).

I can’t tell you that every single event made me feel like a star; in fact there were plenty of days when instead of walking into a crowded room, I found a crowd of one. This happened in Goshen, Indiana, for instance. But that one person and I spoke for two hours—a magical conversation that consisted of sharing all that we loved about books. Finally he told me that he’d better leave because he had a three hour drive home.

I didn’t sell a lot of books that night, of course. And I do wish it had been a more robust event for the bookseller’s sake—booksellers put their hearts and souls into events, not to mention the bookstore’s resources. But hearing that one reader thought I was worth driving six hours to meet? It’s something I’ll never forget.

You don’t often get to hear, “You were right.” I was not expecting to hear it. I loved the world’s longest book tour—getting to meet people and share in their stories was a gift. So was getting to see this country of ours, book by book. And getting to be with my family, and not miss a single second. (One late night driving, my son piped up from the backseat, “Mommy, sometimes I wish I could Google my future so I can see how it all turns out.”)

But the first book tour contained a few features that offered tangible evidence that perhaps I was not completely crazy. For example, thanks to booksellers’ hand-selling, my novel wound up appearing on regional and bookstore bestseller lists every place we went to for the first three months. I met a friend of a reviewer at one event…and she liked my book so much that she passed it on, resulting in a review on the front page of the arts section of a major paper. My book went into six printings—not enormous print runs, of course, but still, they indicated that the book had done better than had been anticipated.

All of that resulted in my publisher setting up the first 1500 miles of the next tour when my second book came out. So I guess the real proof of the pudding is in that trip…that after such a long time on the road, what we wanted to do eight months later was set out again.

You can’t Google your future, I said to my son during that late night drive. You just have to live it and see what it’s like when you get there.

Jenny Milchman is the author of the Mary Higgins Clark award-winning debut novel, Cover of Snow, and the follow-up, Ruin Falls. Jenny is the founder of Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day, which is celebrated in all 50 states by over 700 bookstores annually. And she’s the informal founder of a new approach to touring: one reader, one bookstore, one stretch of road at a time.

Thank you, Jenny, for your guest post. Your story is inspirational to us all and so is your commitment to writing. 


Thursday, July 24, 2014

Writing- One Helluva Process

All Aboard The Writing Process

I don't know about you, but I have attended many writing conferences that are put together by writing associations, clubs, and societies. These conferences include many guest speakers like agents, authors, publishers, and editors.

After attending these conferences, it seems a message is coming through loud and clear:

There are many "Dos" and "Don'ts" in writing that can help you get published or hinder your chances. So, being a writer, of course I take these Dos and Don'ts seriously while I write. I take them seriously because I am a serious writer.

But now I am simply a frustrated writer stuck in this process that feels like a road trip through hell at times.


Hyperbole?  Yes.

For emphasis.

...and because it's true!

First Stop: The Dos and Don'ts

Among these famous Dos and Don'ts of writing are:

  • Do use descriptive language
  • Do consider your audience when writing
  • Do read in the genre that you write
  • Do use exciting first sentences to start each chapter
  • Do write in active voice
  • Do use imagery, metaphors, and other devices

  • Don't have a prologue
  • Don't have too many scenes in one chapter
  • Don't use adverbs
  • Don't use tags like "said" "asked" "laughed" throughout
  • Don't use passive voice

These are just some of the rules I have heard from experts over the years and they are embedded in my brain as I write, haunting me...tormenting me...and sucking all the creativity out of me as I write.

More hyperbole?  Yes, of course.

Because it's true!

This summer, a popular writers magazine released a summer reading list of the top twenty most successful books out there for my target audience. I, being a writer and a reader, borrowed three of these books off the prestigious list to read over the summer.

One June evening, I snuggled up in bed, anxious to read an award winning book in my genre written by a successful author. I hoped to glean much from the writer's grasp of the writing process and craft. I couldn't wait to learn by reading a great book!

After I read through the title page, list of other books this author had published, and the acknowledgement page, I came to the start of the book. Yay!


What?? Wait a minute. Isn't "prologue" listed as one of the "Don'ts" of writing??

Why, yes it is.

Aren't we told by the experts at these conferences NOT to include a prologue? Don't they tell us new writers that a prologue is a kiss-of-death and will end your chances of landing an agent for your book?

Why, yes that is what we are told.


After I quickly read through the forbidden prologue, I began chapter one.

Passive voice.

What??!! The first chapter is written mostly in passive voice!

How can this be? Aren't we told by the experts at these very expensive writing conferences NOT to use passive voice but active voice?

Why, yes that is what we are told.


And yet, there I was, reading a very successful book published by a big publishing house, written by an author who has a literary agent, and the book had broken many rules before chapter 2.

The writer also used...gasp...adverbs!

Oh the humanity!

Next Stop? The Editing Process

I completed the book and wasn't that impressed with the story. It was a cute mystery for middle grade readers, but not literature. But I could see why it sold so many copies. It was short (about 60,000 words), and each chapter contained only 2 scenes.

So, I went back to my manuscript and continued on, keeping in mind all the rules listed above. And as I wrote, I omitted the adverbs (going against my intentions) and used very few "said", "asked", and other tags. When finished, I gave the manuscript to beta readers and my editors.

A funny thing happened on the way to the insane asylum...

My editor insisted that I use "said" because the lack of tags was distracting.

My beta reader, however, suggested that I not use "said" but use other tags like "asked" or "laughed" or "whispered" and she even suggested that I use more...gasp...ADVERBS.

Wait a minute! Aren't we writers told by the experts at these writers conferences NOT to rely on tags and not to use adverbs?

Why, yes we are.


Ever wonder why writers twitch? Now you know why.

Last Stop: Never Give Up

After screaming out all my frustrations today, I sat before my manuscript, that's draft #4 of my manuscript, and watched the cursor blip on the screen.

What rules should I follow? What about what my beta reader suggested? What about adverbs?

What should I do?

I know what the experts will say: Do you want an agent someday? Do you want your book to get published? Well, then, follow our rules because we are the experts. We know what we're talking about.

I know what my editor will say: Proust used tags and so should you!

And my beta readers? I know what they will say:  Most middle grade readers don't read Proust.


Yes I want an agent some day to assist me with my writing career. Yes, I want my beta readers to enjoy my books. Yes, I want my editor to enjoy reading my prose without having to mark up my manuscript so much.

But I also need to be who I am and write as I want to write. And if that means a prologue...then a prologue it is. If it means using adverbs, then adverbs it is! If it means not having so many "said" tags in the dialogue, then that's how it is going to be.

The writing process is an arduous journey. But it is the journey that matters most, not the destination. Anyway, that's what I have learned over the years.

Rant over.

What about you? Do you insist on following all the "Dos" and "Don'ts" of writing? How have you developed your writing style? 


Monday, July 14, 2014

The Woman at the Well- The Water

John 4:10-

"Jesus answered and said to her, 'If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, 'Give Me a drink,' you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.'"

The Water

Many years ago, during a subbing job for Nathan's history teacher, we went over the history of Egypt. And one thing that stood out to me was how the Nile has always been a predictable river for the Egyptians. They know when it will flood every much so that they are able to plan when to harvest their crops according to the river.

Contrast that with the Tigris and Euphrates. These two rivers are very unpredictable. The Iraqis who reside near these rivers know not when it will flood or recede.

I thought it was interesting how the Lord allows one river to nourish and care for its people and yet other rivers to be so harsh in a dry and thirsty land.

Water is seen in so many ways in Scripture. We are about to see how Jesus views water...


So far we have looked at John 4 piece by piece:

The Wanderer- Jesus was God in the flesh but still a human being with physical needs. He stops to rest and drink water. 

The Well- we learn that the well where Jesus stops to rest is a very significant well in Scripture. We learn that culturally, the women came to draw water from the well in the evening time.

The Woman- we have learned that this woman was Samaritan and understood that Jews have no dealings with Samaritans. We can see that she recognized Jesus to be a 1st century Jewish man and nothing else. But she did think it odd that He would speak to her, a Samaritan woman and ask to use her water pot to draw water since Jews had no dealings with Samaritans. 

Today we will look at The Water.

The Living Water

John 4:10-

"Jesus answered and said to her, 'If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, 'Give Me a drink,' you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.'"

"If you knew the gift of God...."

Jesus emphasized here that salvation is not earned, but it is a gift given by God.

Eph 2:8-For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God...

Titus 3:5-6   he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior...

And that He, Jesus, is that gift of God:

John 3:16-For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

Rom 5:15-But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man's trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many.

Gal 2:20-I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

"He would have given you living water."

In the Old Testament times, running water was considered "living" water. The act of finding water in the desert lands was seen as a divine activity. (Commentary, New Geneva Study Bible, 1995)

Jer 2:13-for my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters,
and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.

Zech 14:8- On that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem, half of them to the eastern sea and half of them to the western sea. It shall continue in summer as in winter.

A symbol for salvation:

Is 12:3-With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.

A symbol for the forgiveness of sins:

Zech 13:1-On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness.

And for Jesus giving the Holy Spirit:

John 7:38-39-Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.

Remember, for those of us who live in the desert, water is most precious. When it rains in the desert, we feel anew! Imagine living in the desert during the times of Christ. The thought of "living water" was glorious indeed. Soon we will see that the Samaritan woman desires to have this living water.

"And who it is who says to you..."

Jesus hints that He is about to reveal to this woman who He is. How wonderful that God has removed the veil from our eyes so that we can see a part of Him in His word. He has revealed Himself to us today! Yet, like the Samaritan woman, one day we shall see Him as He really is...

Until then...

"For I will pour water on him who is thirsty,
And floods on the dry ground;
I will pour My Spirit on your descendants,
And My blessings on your offspring.."
Isaiah 44:3