Writing From Life’s Lessons

By Stephanie Jaye

We’ve all heard the phrase “write what you know”. And while some debate the legitimacy of that idea, I’ve found in writing that reaching beyond that simple concept into something a bit more heartfelt can make for a passionate work of fiction.

No one likes trials (can I get an amen?). Yet, we all know that God uses these trials in our lives to produce character and further our walk with Him (James 1:2-4). He also teaches us lessons that we probably wouldn’t have learned any other way. While it’s so valuable to pass along these lessons to our family, children, and friends, I think putting them into fiction can also be valuable in a couple ways.

For example, the book I’m querying has a core lesson of pursuing God’s best for our life. In it, my main character is forced to choose between pleasing those around her and settling for what everyone else thinks is best, or leaning into what God has to say and choosing His way, even when it’s difficult. However, as she finds out, obeying God always leads to blessings–ones we couldn’t even imagine ourselves.

This part of the plot came out of my passion to see people choosing God’s best in relationships. It also came after a season where I myself had to choose to be obedient in a situation that was really hard. Because I hadn’t seen the fruit of that decision when I was writing the book, writing the happy ending made me emotional, knowing that God is faithful to keep His word, and that I would also get my happy ending because of that, too.

Putting the lessons we’ve learned into our books can be both encouraging and healing, for us and our readers. Of course, as Christian writers, most of all of us weave themes of redemption, forgiveness, and love in our stories. And those topics are needed! But sometimes what reaches to the hearts of our readers most is the grit and heartache that can only be told from personal experience, even if put into the context of a fictional character and setting.

Writing the words the end on a story that came out of your own heartache and trials, and seeing how God worked everything out in the story, can be reassuring and healing, and the passion you’ll have put into your work will make the story shine even brighter. It’s also just one more way God can use what He’s taught you to further His Kingdom for His glory. That in itself is pretty special, too. 

Stephanie Jaye is a Christian Romance writer and blogger who loves Jesus, sweet tea, and sunshine. You can find her on Instagram @stephjayewriter, and you can find her blogs at stephjaye.com.

This post is part of the Writers’ Room, a collaborative writing advice column by Christian writers.

A Publisher’s Thoughts on Writing

Image courtesy of bigstock

By Ferrel D. Moore

I am often asked by writers, what is the one thing that they can do to improve their stories. 

Can they make more interesting plots?  Did their plots fail because they failed to exploit the character’s strengths and show their weaknesses?  Are their plots not intricate enough, should they be more complex and convoluted? 

Do the characters fail to evoke from the readers sufficient emotion?  Do I have sufficient chemistry between my main characters?  Have I made the right number of formulaic secondary characters?

Can I improve my characters by making them more interesting?  Can I make characters that are more identifiable?  Do their characters lack depth of emotion? 

Are my settings strong enough?  Do I fail at the art of description?

I have to scratch my heads at such questions, because when I get them, I have the distinct feeling that the people I am answering to will no doubt be failures at the art and craft of writing.  They will be self-published failures to boot.  They will litter the literary landscape with their self-publishing efforts, which will remain published forever in these days of the mighty Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple Books, Google Books, Kobo, and, well the never ending parade of outlets that make so many millions of books available that we scarcely have time to wade through them all.

There are only two things you can do to better your writing—read and write.  And you can do without all of those beta-readers, too.  They only make you weaker as a writer, not stronger.  If you can’t see your own mistakes by simply putting your manuscript in a drawer and coming back to it in six months, chances are you will never make it as a writer.  You have to concentrate on the two fundamentals of reading and simply writing.

Lost in the myriad books on character arcs, emotional description and so on, is the fact that simply reading is the single most powerful influence on your writing that you can have.  It is, in essence, the power of imitation at first and then, gradually, spreading your wings as a writer.  Going your own way with your own ideas.  Having those flashes of insight that only years of reading with introspection can yield.

You have to simply write, too.  Make all of the mistakes that you can make in your early years, so that you can hone your craft, so your prose will eventually soar above the rest, so that it will shine like the sun with your own brilliance.

You have to throw away all of those writing books—they won’t help you to be a good writer.  Read one or two at most, and then get down to the business of making your mistakes.  Believe me, the good will winnow them out, polish their words, make their craft sing.

Finally, get a good editor.  That will be the capstone of all your efforts, making up for all the beta readers that you ever knew—all the relatives that criticized your manuscripts, all the friends, and all the unknowns of every writing group you’ve ever joined and criticized a manuscript.

Being a good writer takes time, and being a great writer takes a lot of time and effort.  You might as well get used to it and embrace it early on, because there is no substitute for it.

Ferrel D. Moore may be reached on Linkedin.

This post is part of the Writers’ Room, a collaborative writing advice column by Christian writers.

How Much Research is Enough?

Photo by Prateek Katyal on Unsplash

By Lana Christian

Sooner or later, novelists ask, “How much research is enough?”

Good question.

That begs a more basic question: why do research?

We research so we can write plausible, realistic stories that exceed the limits of our experience.

That applies equally to historical and contemporary novels.

Research and readers’ radar

Ernest Hemingway said all great writers have a “built-in, shockproof, s**t detector.” I submit that writers need said detector because our readers already possess one. Their inborn radar starts pinging the minute they open a book. History buffs or not, readers morph into super sleuths that can detect inconsistencies in whatever you want to convey as real and accurate in your story. The minute readers sense something is out of place or unreasonable, it throws them out of the story. That’s bad news for everyone.

I was enthralled reading a book that swept me through ancient battles across Near East countries. But, in a pivotal early scene, the main character (MC) pulls a Torah out of his backpack and barters it away to a trader. A Torah scroll was huge and weighed fifty pounds. How could he fit one in his backpack, let alone haul it around as he fled bad guys? (Note: Due to a birth defect, the MC couldn’t run. And mini-Torahs didn’t exist until a few years ago.) That scene stuck in my mind like a splinter embedded in my finger.

What research details do you need?

Whatever is necessary to substantiate your story. Let your plot, characters, and setting decide how much detail you need to include.

Here’s a checklist of four common categories of research:

(1) Settings

  • Time
  • Locations
  • Cultures
  • Language(s) spoken and idioms used
  • Furniture, food

(2) Character motivations

For example, in my first-century novel, my MC dodges a temporary, contractual marriage that would have provided protection to his orphaned cousin. We don’t have any law remotely resembling that today, but it’s a key piece of my MC’s backstory.

(3) Features that uniquely identify your character

  • Clothing
  • Preferred weapon
  • A prominent scar
    (How did they get it?)
  • Inborn or acquired limitations
    (Ailments were treated differently historically vs currently; did that affect your character?)

(4) Sources of tension and conflict

Politics and religion can create both physical danger (external conflict) and emotional turmoil (internal conflict). 

Pitfalls and rewards of research

Finding resources online is absurdly easy these days—which also makes it absurdly easy to run down rabbit holes that take you off task.

Photo by Cathy Holewinski on Unsplash

Recognize when you’re delving into details just because they interest you. Learning is never wasted, but get back to writing as soon as you find the research you need.

Two universal truths exist regarding research.

  • You’ll find more than you can use.
  • You’ll still need to look for more tidbits as you write.

Regarding that second bullet: I crafted good motivations for my antagonist, but my spidey senses said they weren’t enough. Something bigger had to convince my antagonist he was doing right, regardless of what it cost or who he hurt. Moreover, the readers had to fully believe his motivations (but disagree with his actions).

Even after my full manuscript was in an agent’s hands, I trolled the web, unsure of what I still needed. But I knew I’d have an aha moment when I found it. Finally, bingo! The result was a tighter story and an entirely new Chapter 6.

When the right solution presents itself, you’ll know it. It’ll feel like finding a long-sought-for puzzle piece that falls perfectly into place.

Research is a tightrope walk. If you don’t add enough of it to your story, you’ll sound like you don’t know what you’re talking about. (Unrealistic hospital scenes are a big teeth-grinder for me.) If you infodump, you’ll sound like you’re lecturing. Both take the reader out of the story.

Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash

Treat research as seasoning—not the main course

That’s a Jerry Jenkins mantra. So, how much research is enough to add? When its details

  • Orient the reader sufficiently to your setting
  • Are essential for moving the plot forward
  • Reveal something about your main character that can’t be revealed in other ways
  • Plant the readers in the middle of what you want them to experience (sights, sounds, smells, and so on)
Photo by Tiard Schulz on Unsplash

Ground your readers but resist the urge to add nonessential research details.

Say you score a map showing London’s sewer system in the 1850s. Do you write pages of detail about a waif making his way through miles of sewers? Everyone knows they’re filthy, dark, and full of undesirable stuff. Remember:

  • Relating details can validate you as an authority—but only if the details serve your readers.
  • Readers’ needs are basic: they want a reason to keep turning the page.

Maybe the sewer scene reveals the character’s deepest wound or greatest fear. If not, you likely can shorten the scene to move the character into greater trouble. For example, briefly describe him slogging through sludge and darkness for two hours, fighting smells and fending off rats until he emerges at [location]—only to have police nab him anyway.

Two final tips

Research sources matter

Find primary sources whenever you can. (Wikipedia is not one of them.) Primary sources include firsthand visits, interviews with experts, eye-witness accounts, and original documents—or as close to them as you can get from other reliable sources. Also, compare sources. If they yield conflicting information, which one carries the greatest weight of evidence? Make your call based on facts—not long-held opinions.

Track your book’s timetable

In an early draft of my book, one of my MCs secretly wanted to study in the great libraries of Alexandria. But Chapter 1 started thirty years after the libraries burned. I didn’t realize that until I double-checked my research. Back to the drawing board I went. Did the libraries burn completely? Partially? Were they rebuilt? If so, when?

IMPORTANT: Whether you set your book in the past or present, confirm that the landmarks you describe are still there!

Say you want to write a mystery set in Rouleau, Saskatchewan—the location of the Canadian comedy Corner Gas. If you set your book in 2014 or later and talked about the iconic gas station or next-door buildings from the series, you’d commit a huge faux pas. The gas station was demolished for structural reasons, and the buildings used as a diner and a local grocery burned to the ground.


Research can make your book sparkle! The amount you need is as individual as your book’s story. Err on the generous side in finding research; err on the conservative side in using it.

Lana Christian writes biblical and historical fiction. The first book in her biblical fiction series has garnered several ACFW awards. She in the throes of querying books in both genres. She’s convinced that hiking or chai tea can solve most problems—but she knows God can solve every problem. Find her on Chistianwriters.com; follow her on Twitter (@LanaCwrites) and at lanachristian.com/blog.

This post is part of the Writers’ Room, a collaborative writing advice column by Christian writers.

Writer’s Block: Fact or Fiction? … And What to do About It

By Elizabeth Jacobson

If you go to a search engine and type in something along the lines of “tips for beating writer’s block,” you are going to find something you may not have expected.

Mainly, you will find a lot of people saying that writer’s block is a myth. Or, even more inflammatorily, that writer’s block is an excuse not to write.

Ooh! Them’s fighting words!

However, you will also see people calmly giving tips about what to do about writer’s block, as if having it is the most normal and acceptable thing in the world.

After having heard or read many pundits’ opinions on the subject and having lived in the writing trenches for a few years now, I am here to throw my hat in the ring and tell you all what I think.

I think it depends.

And yes, I am aware that this answer sounds wishy-washy to start, but hear me out. Writing is not a one-size-fits-all thing. Stories are not a one-size-fits-all thing. People are not a one-size-fits-all thing.

So why would writer’s block, which sits squarely at the confluence of all of the above, be a one-size-fits-all thing?

Now, if you came to this page looking for advice and now you’re feeling like you’re off the hook and can safely declare that you just can’t write right now, you have writer’s block, hold up.

I have some bad news.

No matter what your writer’s block ends up being – the “real” kind or the “fake” kind – getting out of it is going to stink. It is not going to be easy. But if you want to be a writer, if you want to have books finished, books published, books sold, you have to get through it.

So. Let’s discuss how to differentiate between the two types of writer’s block, and some strategies for dealing with each.

Scenario One: “Fake” Writer’s Block

Honestly, if I had to pick one, I would want to have “fake” writer’s block every time. I know that sounds weird, since fake writer’s block has been accused of being an excuse not to write, but hear me out.

You can do something about fake writer’s block immediately, and get back to writing relatively soon after.

Imagine you’re writing, and the words are flowing, the scene is coming along beautifully, and then it ends. And then bam. You have no clue what happens next.

“Ahh! Writer’s Block!” is the typical reaction.

And yes, I mean, you’re a writer, and the easy flow of your thoughts has been blocked. That’s true.

But here’s the key. I have heard it said many times, and I will say it here: If you only write when the words are flowing and pouring out of you, if you only write “when inspiration hits” then you will never, ever finish a book. There is absolutely no way. Every book has parts that the author had to slog through to get the scene done. Every book has parts that the author had to revise ten times because the scene would never play right. None of that was done under inspiration. It was done under grit. And that’s the thing. Writing takes grit. Sometimes, maybe a lot of the time, you have to buckle down and force the words to come, so that those moments where the scene is pouring out of you can have a chance to exist in the first place.

This is why fake writer’s block can become an excuse to not write. Because writing under these circumstances is admittedly not fun. But, you have to imagine, if you find yourself hit with fake writer’s block, that you’ve fallen into a hole with a few handholds just out of reach. The only way to go is up. And the first bits of climbing will be the hardest.

So, how do you climb? Here’s some options, and what works for you will not work for everyone else. Everyone is different.

Check your planning and outlining. Do you need to back up and rewrite?

Look at your notes. Why are you stuck? Is there an unexpected plothole? Do you need to back up and fix that? Are you realizing that the motivations of the characters are not driving them strongly enough? Do you need to back up and fix that? Are your story and world too blank? Do you need to back up and add a subplot that will converge on your main plot, driving it forward?

Look at your story as a whole. Where are the holes? What is causing the writer’s block? What would need to happen to get your characters from point A, where you’re stuck, to point B, where you know you need to end up?

The brain is weird. You may just need to “do something different.”

I’m a teacher by profession, and I know that the human brain is a very interesting place. If you find that you’re stuck, try doing something else for a while. Walk. Listen to music. Walk while listening to music, especially if the songs are inspirational for you! Put the story down for a day. Go visit nature. Paint. Hang out with friends. Read. Sometimes, the brain just needs a little bit of something else.

Make a wordcount goal and stick to it, every day.

This is the hardest one. This is that slog I was talking about. And unfortunately, I can almost guarantee that you will have to use this strategy at some point. Set a wordcount goal that is not overly crazy, and get it out. Just do it. Every day that is a planned writing day. No matter what (caveat in Scenario Two).

The writing you produce may not be great, but it is writing, and you have moved your story forward. No matter how much you have to edit later, you have moved your story forward. You have continued. Remember, if you only write when inspiration hits, you will never finish.

Scenario Two: “Real” Writer’s Block

When I said that I would rather have Scenario One every time, I meant it. Because here’s the deal with Scenario Two – it’s rough. It’s really rough. And it means you’ll have to have a real heart-to-heart with yourself.

Is the story just really … nothing … after all?

If you realize the story you’re working on is destined to go nowhere, that’s okay. Every writer encounters this. It’s a tough realization to come to the conclusion that what you’ve been working on may have been ultimately fruitless, but you have to be able to move on regardless. Put it aside. Move on to something else.

A word of warning – don’t make this decision lightly. Try everything in Scenario One first – multiple times!

Am I not skilled enough to write this story?

This is tough one and requires you to be honest with yourself. Is the story too “big” for you? Have you not researched enough? Are you not a skilled enough writer?

The good news is that, if you can have this honest conversation with yourself, and accept that this is the issue, there is hope. You can learn and grow as a writer. In time, you may be able to come back to the story.

Am I burned out?

You cannot be creative if you are exhausted. This includes mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion. If you need to give yourself a break, give yourself a break. Take that time that you need to reenergize so that you can get back to being your best creative self. Be gentle with yourself, and know that your story will be waiting for you when you return.

Writer’s block is difficult. There is a reason why it is so commonly talked about, why everyone, even non-writers, knows what it is. It is a hill to climb, but is not a hill to die on. There are solutions and ways to move on. Don’t lose hope, and don’t give up. Write, chase down those words – so that you can experience those moments of incredible inspiration.

This post is part of the Writers’ Room, a collaborative writing advice column by Christian writers.

Why Selecting the Right Beta Readers is Important

By Elizabeth Jacobson

When I first started writing, it seemed like every person in the online-universe-of-writing was saying that your beta readers should not be friends or family members.

Now, off the bat, this seems strange. So you’re saying I need strangers to critique my writing?

And honestly, this is what it sounded like to me. And I was definitely not prepared to throw my manuscript to the wind and just let any old person from the internet look at it.

After a time, however, I did end up assesmbling a great beta team, and I’d like to share what I learned about the above wisdom in the process.

But first, to briefly review what we talked about last time: beta readers read your manuscript after you have edited your draft into a state you wouldn’t mind sharing. They can critique everything from characters to plot to sentence construction. You’ll find that each beta tends to have their own personal “style” as to what and how they critique. (I find that when I do it, I tend to focus most on character motivation and grammar/word choice.) Also, anyone can beta, as long as they want to. However, this does not mean that everyone should beta, or at least should beta for you. Which brings us back to the piece of internet wisdom I mentioned at the beginning.

After having now spent much more time in the writing process, as a general rule, I agree with the idea of being leery of having family and friends as beta readers. But, like most things in the world, this comes with a caveat.

The reason why most people say not to choose friends or family is because most writers’ experiences involving friends or family coming into contact with their writing world tend to either end up intensely negative or inordinately positive. Most writers find that friends and family either do not believe in them as a writer at all, regardless of their skill, or they are so supportive that they either overlook problems or shy away from any form of critique.

To sum up, as a general rule, there is less likely to be impartiality involved.

But, notice I have been saying “most writers”. Your mileage may vary. You know your friends and family and the internet sure doesn’t.

Your beta reading team, by the time they are done, should be able to accomplish three things for you. They are:

  1. point out sentences that need editing
  2. examine the story as a whole and pinpoint issues with plot/characters
  3. tell you if it’s any good

Before you consider friends or family as beta readers, you need to ask yourself if they can do these things and do them well. Will they be impartial? Do they have the skills to properly critique like this? This does not mean that they have to be writers, but they have to be people with good writing skills and an an understanding of character and story structure.

Now, I will be frank. I am blessed in that my friends and family are good at these things. However, I did not ask all of them to be beta readers, because, firstly, they have their own lives, and secondly, I wanted them to have a more polished taste of my writing, since for 99.9% of them, my manuscript would be the first piece of my writing they would ever read.

Even if it is easier for you to ask friends and family, you have to ask yourself these questions. Will they be good at it? Would they enjoy beta reading? What state do you want them to see your writing in?

Which will naturally lead us to the next question. Who do I ask to beta for me if not friends and family?

The answer is – you must seek out a specific type of friend. The Writer Friend!

Maybe you have some of these already. Maybe you met them in “real life” or maybe you met them online, in a forum for writers or by using the same writing hashtag on Instagram or Twitter. (Yes, I am saying that to find Writer Friends, you may have to venture into the Wild West of social media.)

Writer Friends, being fellow writers, will often have a leg up on other possible betas, because they live and breathe story structure and characters and word choice, just like you. They will likely also need a beta at some point or another, leading to a reciprocal relationship where you can both help each other out. If your “regular” friends and family are not a good choice to be your beta readers, these are the people you need to find.

Now, before you believe that I am trying to dissuade you from having your “regular” friends and family as betas, let me tell you who was on my beta team.

Two Writer Friends and one family member.

What works best for you is what works for you. Just remember not to blindly jump into having “regular” family and friends beta you because it is the simplest choice.

Before I go, I want to leave you with a great list from The Writing Cooperative. After reading this, you may be wondering about a few people you had been considering for betas – maybe they’re not writers, or they haven’t written in a long time. Now, it’s true, as I mentioned, that fellow writers will often be more able to answer your direct stylistic and narrative questions, but, with a bit of guidance, a non-writer can still give you great information. The Writing Cooperative has a great list of beta questions here that works great for non-writer betas. And, if your writer betas finish and still haven’t answered these questions, be sure to ask them!

Like I said in my last post, your beta readers are your crack team. They’re handpicked by you to give you the best critique and information possible. Take time to figure out who will be the best betas for you. You won’t regret it.

This post is part of the Writers’ Room, a collaborative writing advice column by Christian writers.

Warning: Even Your Umpteenth Draft May Stink (i.e. Why you need beta readers)

By Elizabeth Jacobson

Warning: You might stink.

No, not you the author. I’m talking to your draft.

“What?!” you shriek. Perhaps you’re clutching your pearls. “My draft?? My baby?!

Yes, your draft. Your third, fourth, nineteenth draft. Yes, your baby that you have worked on for approximately 1,528,996 hours.

To be fair, it’s not your draft’s fault, or your fault, but in this moment, it might stink all the same. And if you’ve never had a beta reader, you have gone “noseblind” to your draft, and you will never know that it stinks. You will never suspect a thing.

Here’s why it might stink:

It might stink because you are completely and utterly blind to the fact that the word “suddenly” appeared in your last paragraph three times within the span of two sentences. You are blind to this because you wrote it and you’ve read it forty times, and the “suddenlys” have become white noise.

It might stink because you are blind to how someone else will see your story. You know your characters and their motivations and the world you’ve created like the back of your hand. You cannot see whether or not your words translate this for the real world.

See? Totally not your fault. But your draft – and you – still need help.

If you don’t know, let me fill you in on what a beta reader is. A beta reader is not an editor. Nor are they a “rah-rah cheerleader” who will only tell you that your work is amazing and inspirational and life-changing and the next great novel. A beta reader is a book-lover or writer, someone who appreciates the written word and characterization and can speak logically about the strengths and flaws of your writing.

When I started my first draft of my now-complete manuscript, finding beta readers seemed like too much trouble. And besides, I said to myself, I know where a comma goes and I can use a thesaurus. No big. I’ll self-edit and send it off to an agent.


I don’t care how great your story is. Us authors tend to be pretty myopic when it comes to the weird non-grammatically-correct-quirks and habitual errors and character problems of our own writing styles. You NEED other people to point them out to you, before you query an agent or self-publish and try to promote it yourself. Otherwise, your manuscript goes out into the wide world, quirks and errors and problems blazing proudly, and you’ve shot your chance (and possibly even reputation as a writer) big time.

Thank God I learned quickly while writing that my “no betas” plan would be about as effective as collecting water with a sieve.

So, I know it might seem like a lot of work to you (your mileage may vary; maybe you are super stoked at the idea of finding people to read and critique your work), but you need to find betas.

Notice that I have continually used plurals when discussing beta readers throughout the above paragraphs.

This is the second, but still very important thing I want to note today:

One beta is eh. Two betas is fine. Three betas or more is great.

There’s mathematics behind this. You have one person’s opinion, that’s great, but it’s only one person. More is better, to get a spread of thoughts on the same story.

There’s a catch there, though. If you get another beta, you have two people who are bound, at some point, to have different opinions about the same bit of your writing.

Now, if you have a third beta (or more, but don’t take on more than you can handle), suddenly you have a tiebreaker.

Trust me when I say that getting a good group of betas together is the absolute best thing you can do for your writing before you query or self-publish. Betas are your crack team, your own personal think tank. They are people who are invested in your writing and your story and you as an author. Their insights are invaluable.

Next time, we’ll take a look at the next next step of this process – how to choose the right beta readers!

This post is part of the Writers’ Room, a collaborative writing advice column by Christian writers.

Give Your Audience What They Want

There’s a reason why every standard cake as certain basic ingredients.
PHOTO CREDIT: DepositPhotos

By Milla Holt

Somewhere in the world there may be people who would love to eat a peanut butter, egg salad and jellied eel sandwich. Perhaps this is your favorite lunch, and you know you can make the best peanut butter, egg salad, and jellied eel sandwich ever. Let’s say you want to share your creation with the world and maybe even earn some money off of it. Finding people who will eat your sandwich is possible, but it will be hard. You will fight an even more difficult uphill battle if you want supermarket chains to sell your special signature sandwich on their shelves.

In the same way, if you want to write experimental fiction that bucks every trend, you may struggle to locate your fans and have an even harder time selling your work to an agent or traditional publisher.

I’m going to pause for a minute here and acknowledge that not every writer wants to sell a lot of books. Many writers put pen to paper for the sheer joy of creative expression and don’t care about being published or earning an income from their writing. That’s a completely legitimate type of author, and more power to you if this is who you are. This piece isn’t for such writers, though. I’m writing to authors who want to sell their work either to an agent or publisher, or direct to a paying audience. I’m also writing mainly to writers of fiction.

If you want to sell, you need to present something that people want to buy. “Writing to market” is a phrase that you’ll hear a lot if you hang out in online writing groups. It stems from Chris Fox’s book of the same name, although the concept has existed for decades, if not longer. It means, simply, writing a book that fits the expectations of a defined audience of readers. The principle ties very closely with the idea of writing in a specific genre.

Readers come to a work of fiction looking for a particular experience. If they’re into romance, they want to share the emotional journey of a couple falling in love and fighting through challenges to be together. Mystery readers get into a book to enjoy plot twists, red herrings, and tantalizing clues as a sleuth tries to unmask a criminal. Thriller readers are after edge-of-the-seat suspense with desperately high stakes. Writing to market means delivering those experiences to readers.

For example, the couple in a romance has to end up together and live happily ever after. If they break up or one of them dies (a la Nicholas Sparks), you’ve written a love story, not a romance. In a mystery, there had better be a crime committed and a group of potential suspects, any of who could have done the deed. If you buck these expectations, you risk leaving your readers unsatisfied. They will punish you with poor reviews or, more likely, just never buy anything else you write.

If you want to sell books, it’s important to know your audience and study what they want so that you can give it to them. If you master the art of fulfilling reader expectations, you’ll have a much easier time building a fanbase who will keep coming back for more.

Writing to market gets a lot of flak, and you may be rolling your eyes. Some authors feel that it will make their writing formulaic, predictable, and not special enough. But a formula doesn’t have to be a bad thing. There’s a reason why every standard cake has certain basic ingredients: flour, sugar, eggs, fat, and a raising agent. But beyond that fundamental formula there is a world of variety and a hungry audience.

Never has a carrot cake fan eaten a slice of their favorite dessert and complained that it followed the recipe too closely. Can you imagine it? “This carrot cake is waaaay too formulaic. I was hoping for a dash of anchovy paste and crayfish in there. What a disappointment.” No. People who want carrot cake want carrot cake. That’s why they picked yours up.

Oh, and one more thing. Writing to market means being aware that your book won’t please everyone. Some people just don’t like carrot cake. Others are allergic to gluten, eggs, or dairy. That’s okay: they can get their dessert from someone else who’s making things they like, or which they can eat without getting ill. Wish them well, but don’t worry about them: just focus on pleasing your carrot cake afficionados.

As an author who wants to sell books, I embrace genre. I aim to give readers the emotional experience they are looking for when they come across my books. I study genre expectations closely, and work hard to hit all the main beats. At the same time, I do my best to make each story fresh and unique. It can be done, and it’s part of the creative challenge.

Sometimes, I add walnuts to my carrot cake. On other occasions, I’ll leave out the nuts and include dried apricots instead. One day I’ll use cream cheese frosting, but on another day I’ll do a vanilla buttercream. People who love carrot cake still get the sweet treat they want, but it’ll be different enough to be enticing.

Milla Holt loves carrot cake and contemporary Christian romance. Look her up on https://millaholt.com, or follow her on Instagram @millaholt, or www.facebook.com/millaholt

This post is part of the Writers’ Room, a collaborative writing advice column by Christian writers.

When You Doubt Your Calling as a Writer

By Claire Tucker

“Is it right for a Christian to write fiction?”

“Well, yes,” I would answer. “But …”

But maybe it isn’t right for me. Maybe that isn’t what God wants me to do with my life. It’s right for other people, like C. S. Lewis and Francine Rivers and every other really great Christian author out there, but that’s them. I’m me.

Doubt. It’s one of a writer’s near-constant companions. Sometimes it can be good. That niggling thought that this story just isn’t working can drive us to seek outside help. That worry that something is off with this character sends us deeper into characterization. The concern that this theme is just not fitting into the story causes us to take a closer look at it.

But not all doubts are equal. And, as a Christian who wishes to write stories that honor and glorify the One Who is writing our story, there are some doubts that can’t be ignored. One of them being whether or not it’s actually right to create and write fictitious stories when you’re a Christian. I mean, if I have the ability of writing clearly, then wouldn’t it be better to use that skill to write persuasive non-fiction that builds the faith of those who read it, instead of creating characters that don’t exist, putting them in situations that didn’t happen and then making the whole thing sound pretty and calling it story?

This doubt can’t be ignored because it will hamper your story writing and give a megaphone to every other doubt that whispers in your ear.

So, what’s the answer? Is it right for a Christian to dream of being published and to work toward that? Is it right for us to spend years honing our craft, trying to create tales that are worthy of being seen in print?

Not surprisingly, there isn’t one answer to this question. Just like there isn’t only one way of telling a tale. But I believe that the heart of the issue is the same.

The question isn’t whether or not fiction is acceptable in the Kingdom of God but whether or not it is acceptable for me to be writing it. The question isn’t about the purpose of story and if God can use a story to change a life but whether or not I am the instrument He wants to use to write that story. This particular doubt targets the individual Christian who wants to be a writer. But it also targets the Creator of that individual.

You see, as Christians, we have been taught that we are all uniquely created by God. We are taught that He put thought and care into making us (Psalm 139:13, anyone?) and that He gave us the gifts and talents that we have.

In short, we are taught that we are created by God and that all we have and all we are comes from God.

This doubt directly challenges those beliefs. Do you really believe that God gave you this skill? Do you really believe that God planted the desire to create stories within you? Don’t rush over answering these questions. At the core of your being, do you believe that God created you the way you are? Because if He did, then He has a purpose for you in writing stories because He gave that skill to you. And it’s a purpose that only you can fill because God has intentionally positioned each one of us in life.

So what, then, are we supposed to do with this skill? Especially if we’re just starting out on our writing journey and don’t even have a clue as to why God gave us this skill.

Take a moment to think about the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30 and Luke 19:11-27). In the parable, a man went on a journey and entrusted his wealth to his servants. When he returned, he asked them what they had done with the things he had entrusted to them.

Now, as Christians, we know that Jesus was speaking of Himself. He has journeyed to His Father, leaving us, His servants, here on earth. But He will return (or we will be called home) and He will ask us for an account of how we stewarded what He entrusted to us.

We all know the story. Two of the servants worked and labored to increase what had been left in their care. One buried it away.

Writing and creating stories is a gift that has been entrusted to you by God. It’s going to take effort to grow it. But leaving it tucked away, unacknowledged and ignored, is not going to produce a return that can be given back to God. Because that is what stewardship is: the faithful oversight of something that is not yours to keep.

At the end of the day, God will ask us how we used the gifts He entrusted to us. I, for one, wish to be able to present the gift of writing back to Him and say, “By Your grace and for Your glory, it has increased.”

May you be encouraged to view writing as a stewardship of a gift from our Creator.

Claire Tucker is a Christian fantasy writer who enjoys creating stories that tackle questions of life and faith. She lives in South Africa, and enjoys spending time outdoors, reading books of any genre, and doing a variety of crafts and needlework. You can find her on Instagram @clairetucker_writer.

This post is part of the Writers’ Room, a collaborative writing advice column by Christian writers.

I’ve written a book. Now what?

By Tim Riordan

I remember that thought going through my mind like it was yesterday. I dreamed of writing books since I was a teenager, but I never considered that there was more to do as an author than just write—a lot more. I have had the privilege of working with authors in a consulting role in writing, publishing, and marketing, and I always ask them about their marketing plans for the book once it’s published. Often times, I get a loaded pause or glassy-eyed stare. Marketing plans are usually not on a writer’s mind. We are writers after all, not marketers. Right?

When I began writing, I didn’t like marketing. As a matter of fact, I hated it. I couldn’t stand the thought of posting “Buy My Book” on Facebook and Twitter. I soon learned that I should probably never say, “Buy My Book,” and that if I didn’t learn how to market effectively, no one would know my books exist.

I learned the hard way that if you’re going to be a successful writer, you must be an effective marketer. I’d like to share with you a few key principles that can help put you on the road to marketing and writing success.

Marketing is more about relationships than sales. It seems like the bottom line must include sales numbers, quotas, and royalties, but ultimately, it must be about something more important. As a Christian writer, I’ve learned that the bottom line is always people. When I embraced marketing as relationship building and focused more on people than sales, I found that I not only endured marketing but also enjoyed it. People don’t join social media platforms to read advertisements. It is called social for a reason. Selling books through social media or any other means should be a product of relational interaction.

The time to begin marketing is before you write your book. You may be thinking that it’s too late because you’ve already written your book. It’s never too late to start marketing, but sooner is always better. A solid book launch and healthy first quarter of sales will come in response to the marketing groundwork we lay weeks if not months before we release our books. We can do this by chatting online in places where our readers hang out, writing blogs about the topic of our books, and interacting with readers through regular emails. Prerelease marketing can build the buzz that leads to your book becoming a bestseller during launch week.

Don’t just learn how to write better; learn how to market effectively. After writing my first book, I realized I was in deep water when it came to letting the world know I had a message they needed to read. I spent many hours, maybe years, working on the craft of writing, and as writers, we know that becoming a better writer is an important pursuit. I discovered, however, the art and science of marketing wouldn’t just happen unless I focused on becoming an expert marketer. I don’t see myself as an expert, but I read many books, experimented on a number of platforms, attended conferences, and learned from the best marketers I could find. Focus on the importance of sharing your message or accomplishing the goals that led you to write in the first place. Your goal was not just to write a book. Ultimately, your goal is for people to read your book and be impacted by what they read. This focus will turn marketing into an essential part of your weekly activities that can be fulfilling as you see the fruit of your toil through increased book sales and reader interaction. 

If you self-published, it doesn’t mean that you publish (or market) by yourself. Self-publishing has become a legitimate option for authors. When I was talking with traditional publishers about my first book, a couple of successful authors encouraged me to try navigating the waters on my own before signing a contract. I’ve taken their advice, and now, I don’t think I would publish any other way. I’ve learned, however, that you had better build a team to help you be a success. In writing, this team will include editors, beta readers, graphic artists, and critique groups. Even if you publish through a traditional publisher, it’s best to have a team of people helping you with the writing process before you submit your manuscript. Marketing is the same.

Why market alone? Imagine the power of a twenty-five person launch team helping you to announce your book to the world. Your marketing team can include launch team members, social media friends who comment on your posts, reviewers (whether you know them or not), website designers, graphic artists who help with marketing design, peers who allow you to post on their sites, and fellow authors with whom you may collaborate in the future.

Do you want to be an effective marketer? Do you want to sell your books and impact people? Consider these application questions or ideas you can implement this week:

-Make a list of five books you can read on marketing that will help you improve your skills.

 -What can you do this week to focus on relationship building through social media and online activities?

 -Write out a marketing strategy for your book. Begin with prelaunch ideas, two months’ worth of launch activities, and twelve months of follow through once your book is released.

 -Who can you put on your team? Make a list of people you will contact this week to begin developing your marketing team.

Writing is fun, but it’s also hard work. In the end, it’s quite rewarding. So, happy writing and happy marketing.

Dr. Tim Riordan is the author of The Next Bestseller: Book Marketing for Success and a bestselling author of eleven books including Wisdom Speaks: Life Lessons from Proverbs, which received the 2019 Christian Indie Award. He is a pastor in Newnan, Georgia, and works with various authors through speaking at conferences, consulting, and publishing. You can learn more about Tim or follow his blogs on his website at timriordan.com.

This post is part of the Writers’ Room, a collaborative writing advice column by Christian writers.

Bringing Your World to Life – Avoiding the Dreaded Storytelling Infodump

By Elizabeth Jacobson


in-foh-duhmp ]

noun. The part of the story where the author plops all the backstory on the page at once. Often found in an otherwise extraneous prologue or first chapter.

verb. The act of providing the reader with an overly detailed backstory behind a narrative, in one fell swoop.

Here’s the thing. Authors have a world in their head. Often, more than one world, if their stories are not interconnected.

And, in all honesty, if friendly aliens were to somehow materialize on Earth, we probably would, pretty quickly, end up sitting them down and telling them everything they needed to know to at least have a cursory understanding of Earth and humans. It would probably involve the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the Encyclopedia Britannica, and would spiral from there to YouTube and memes. It would probably take several hours.

Then, after they finished Humanity 101, the aliens would, in theory, have to do the same thing for us.

This is because we would come from completely different worlds. It’s very difficult to empathize with one another if we have no understanding of one another.

Now that I’ve extended the metaphor far too long, let’s get back to authors.

Authors have worlds in their heads. Authors who write science fiction and fantasy, and even sometimes historical fiction, often have extremely different worlds from ours in their heads. And the problem is that an author cannot start their story with pages and pages of “My Fictional World 101” to get their readers up to speed. In writing slang, this is called the “infodump.”

You know the famous yellow-lettered opening crawl of the Star Wars movies? This is an example of an infodump, but it gets a pass because it’s short and it’s a movie (movies, which have visuals, get a slight infodumping pass). Infodumps in books, if done wrong, can be pages and pages in length, especially if the backstories of the world, politics, characters, etc. are complex and the reader needs to understand them in order to understand the story the author is telling.

Particularly at the beginning of a book, pages and pages of backstory that your reader has no reference for, emotional connection to, or understanding of are, at best, useless, and, at worst, a reason for your reader to put the book down and never come back to it. Why should they care? You haven’t given them a reason to, other than: “This is important! I promise!”

So, the question becomes – how do you do it? How do you tell the reader a story without bringing them up to speed on the story as it’s progressed so far?

The answer comes from your characters. Think about the person (or people) whose point of view (POV) you are inhabiting as the author.

A real person is not going to dwell on the minutiae of the history of their country and the politics behind the current civil war as soon as they wake up in the morning. And they’re especially not going to dwell on it for pages and pages worth of time. They’re also not going to walk over to their friend at lunchtime and say: “Well, as you know, Bob, we’ve been fighting the Blue Bandits for four years now, and did you know that they’re winning and that we’re all freaked out about it?”

What a real person is going to do is go about their day. But, they might hear a newscast in the background as they wait for their coffee in a cafe. “The Blue Bandits made several new incursions into Yellow Jacket territory today,” the woman on the screen might say. “This is yet another loss of territory for our military in this long and drawn-out conflict.” Maybe a hush falls over the cafe for an moment.

Do you see how much more natural and immersive this is?

It’s also worth mentioning that it’s important to decide what is actually important for the reader to know about “the story as it’s progressed so far.” Do they really need to know all the nuances of this civil war right away, in the first pages?

This can actually be made into a technique to further engage reader interest.

“The Blue Bandits can’t break through the lines,” exclaims Bob at work later that day during a meeting. “Imagine if we had a repeat of Fifteen-Mile Beach? We’d never recover!”

“I know,” says another character. “It would be the end of us all.”

Then the air-raid sirens start.

“But what happened at Fifteen-Mile Beach??” your reader is left wondering as your characters all scramble towards the cellar.

The answer, of course, you will bring up later. It could come up in another natural bit of conversation in the cellar, or perhaps your main character could ponder Bob’s words as they lay in bed that night, stiff as a board and hoping against hope that the the air-raid sirens do not wail for a second time that day.

Using these types of strategies, you can build your world a few moments at a time rather than all at once. You can lead your reader along, dropping hints and breadcrumbs and leading them deeper and deeper into your story, into your world.

Tie your world to your characters, to the way they live their lives and the conversations and interactions that they have each day. Connect your reader to your characters’ lives – let them experience what life is like for them, and you will do two things at once: you will build empathy for your characters, and you will bring your world to life before your readers’ eyes.

This post is part of the Writers’ Room, a collaborative writing advice column by Christian writers.