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.

How much of a Christian message is “appropriate” in Christian fiction?

By Lana Christian

This question plagues many authors.

To answer this, let’s consider two respected authors. Both were atheists who became Christians. Both eschewed denominational labels.

“Christian enough” debunked

Madelaine L’Engle, author of the Time Quintet series, caught flak from Christians for not having a “Christian enough” message in her books. Christian bookstores refused to stock her books because they dealt “too overtly” with the problem of evil. (Sidebar: The first book of that series, A Wrinkle in Time, won a Newberry award.)

C.S. Lewis was criticized for mixing mythological elements (fauns, dryads, dwarfs) with Christian principles in his books. But, to Lewis, a myth was a misguided representation or interpretation of God’s truth—an “unfocused gleam of divine truth falling on human imagination.”

Does any of that make their books less appealing?

Amazon rankings by category can answer that. Amazon categories influence how your book is searched, perceived, and positioned. (If you indie publish, software programs such as K-Lytics can help you intelligently choose categories. Traditional publishers do that work for you.)

L’Engle and Lewis’s books are still on Amazon Best Seller lists. What do their category ranks tell us?

L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time ranks

  • 2 in Children’s Time Travel Fiction
  • 26 in Children’s Classics
  • 29 in Children’s Fantasy & Magic

(Not bad for book that turned fifty a few years ago.)

Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia ranks

  • 99 in Children’s Classics
  • 166 in Epic Fantasy
  • 362 in Action & Adventure Fiction

(The first book in the Narnia series was released seventy years ago.)

Their books don’t rank high in Christian Fiction for Children. Does that preclude them from being “Christian” books? No.

There’s also nothing wrong with writing overt faith-based messages. Priscilla Shirer’s Prince Warriors series ranks 5 in Children’s Christian Action & Adventure Fiction versus 784 in Children’s [secular] Action & Adventure Books.

Write from who you are

Bottom line: If you’re a Christian, you’ll write from a Christian worldview. How overtly it shines through your story is up to you.

If you already have an agent, s/he can help you decide whether your book would sell better in a Christian or secular market. If your faith-based book is akin to L’Engle’s or Lewis’s books, it might sell well in either market.

Tessa Afshar is a very successful biblical fiction author. One might assume those books could include larger doses of Christianity. Yet, in her seminar for this year’s Northwestern Christian Writers Conference, she noted, “When I got back my first edit of Daughter of Rome, they said the last thirty pages read more like a Bible study than anything. You want to capture the readers’ hearts and minds in a STORY—not a Bible study. So we cut out those thirty pages completely … We ended the story earlier and strengthened what we already had … It wasn’t an issue of writing but an issue of storytelling—how to tell a story that’s engaging to the very last page

What would Jesus do?

Anecdotes and statistics are helpful, but north-star guidance to our question lies in the Bible and Jesus’ example.

Jesus met people where they were.

He knew how to connect effectively with each audience He encountered. Jesus spoke to commoners, academics (rabbis), outcasts, and Satan. How did He interact with each?

  • Jesus taught the multitudes in parables (Matthew 13:1-52).
  • Jesus asked questions and listened to the rabbis (Luke 2:46-47).
  • Jesus addressed outcasts’ physical and spiritual needs (Luke 5:17-26).
  • Jesus quoted Scripture to Satan (Matthew 4:4, 7, 10).

I love that Jesus taught in stories everyone could relate to. Mary DeMuth says a parable is truth wrapped in a story. L’Engle and Lewis wrapped God’s truth in stories that included time travel and fantasy. Perhaps you have other God-inspired imagery for your novel.

How should we handle evil in our stories? A character may try to overcome evil with worldly wisdom, but the truth of “God is greater” still needs to shine through. This requires show-don’t-tell acumen to convey truth without “preaching.” Similarly, a depiction of violence should exist to show how wrong it is. If a Christian writes a story that’s too violent and too different from the Bible, it likely won’t find a home in the secular or Christian market.

Jesus wasn’t preachy.

People hate to be told what to do and believe. Jesus didn’t lecture the woman caught in adultery—or the people ready to stone her. Jesus didn’t scold his disciples into seeing His point of feeding the five thousand. When you demonstrate God’s truth in your writing, adopt a a come-alongside attitude to avoid preachiness. Ask how your scene or anecdote can best benefit the reader. In earlier scenes, build a foundation upon which to introduce that truth. You can do that without shining a spotlight in your reader’s face.


I was not a Christian when I first read L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. It remains my all-time favorite book—for its extraordinary storytelling. Lewis’s Narnia tales contain more obvious Christian imagery; but again, superb storytelling. Priscilla Shirer wrote her Prince Warrior series for boys, but girls just as enthusiastically read the books.

Tell a great story. The rest will fall into place.

I pray you don’t succumb to pressure about “how much” of a Christian message to put in your books. Ditto for any corollary like “Are you a Christian writer, or are you a Christian who is a writer?” Write what God puts on our heart. Pray for His guidance and leave the outcomes to Him.

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.

Research for Writing: Avoiding the Proverbial Rabbit Hole

By Claire Tucker

I’m terrible with dictionaries.

Don’t get me wrong — I love dictionaries, with all the different, wonderful and new words for me to discover. The problem is that when I grab a dictionary to look up one word, I get distracted. By other words. Ten new words later, I remind myself of which word I was looking for, start flipping through the pages, and another wonderful and strange word catches my eye …

In so many ways, this is what research feels like. A wonderland of information for me to discover. What should be a quick foray into the unknown for an answer becomes a time-sucking monster as I find so many new things that I just want to have one quick peek at.

Obviously, when writing, this is undesirable. After all, when you have time to write, that’s what you want to do. You want to get the words of the story down onto the page.

But at the same time, research is vital to your writing. Think about all the stories you’ve read that just seemed real, where the events and people lifted off the page and took vivid shape around you, drawing you into the story, making it come alive. I’m willing to bet that behind those stories and infusing life into them was research.

So how do we go about researching our stories without disappearing down the rabbit hole to wonderland?

By being specific in what we must research.

To illustrate, I was recently researching dictators. More specifically, I was researching the various processes that some dictators and tyrants used to come into power. Notice that the second sentence here is very specific. This meant that when I sat down to research, I could ignore everything that didn’t deal specifically with what I was looking for. It meant that I ignored Hitler’s career from the start of World War Two to his death. It meant that I ignored Benito Mussolini’s career from when he was first granted power in Italy. I was looking for the before, for how dictators gained power.

In researching this, there were plenty of rabbit holes I could have fallen down. One being the psychology of dictators. Here’s where being specific as to what you’re looking for helps. When these enticing options open up and try to lure you from your goal, you are more likely to spot them as the distractions they are and ignore them if you have a clearly stated goal for your research session.

Now, when researching, you are going to uncover some gems that are more than just a passing distraction. You are going to come across some little-known fact that will grab your attention and birth a story in your mind. Characters will leap into view, with conflict and action that drives what could be the next best-selling novel, if you just quickly divert and do a little research so that you can write it …

When this happens, stop. Have a notebook dedicated solely to these amazing facts that spontaneously birth stories in your mind. Grab that notebook and write that wonderful idea down. Then return to your original project and continue researching that very-specific thing that you were.

Lastly, don’t feel that you need every detail ready before you start writing. There will always be some random detail that you failed to research, and you will only realize you need it while writing the first (or second or third) draft. When you come across those missing facts, you have a choice: stop writing and quickly pop onto the Internet to find an answer (and hope that you don’t get sucked down the rabbit hole at the same time), or note down that you need that detail and carry on writing. Personally, I am in favor of the latter. I avoid the rabbit-hole of wonderful new facts, the story gets written, and I can add the details that bring a tale to life into the story when I edit.

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.

Why English is Weird—and how to Write Right Despite It

By Lana Christian

English is such a weird language.

I didn’t realize how weird until I started teaching writing classes in the mid-1990s. They were meant to be simple four-hour “enrichment” classes for employees at the hospital where I worked. I never dreamed that MDs who were non-native speakers of English would attend my class then pull me aside privately afterwards, saying, “Please, I don’t understand English. I can read it, but I can’t help my fifth-grade daughter with her English homework.”

That’s how weird English is. 

But English is hard even when it is our first language. As authors, we need to be acutely aware of that so we can write with precision and keep our readers in the story. 

Shrink cycle

For example, think about words ending in -ogue: catalogue, monologue. (Thank the French for those silent vowels on the end.)

Although other English-speaking countries still spell the word as “catalogue,” America dropped the “-ue” in favor of “catalog.” You’d think America would do the same for other words ending in “-ue.” Nope, that would be too logical.

On this side of the pond, the preferred spelling of “monologue” is still (you guessed it) “monologue.” Merriam-Webster gives a nod to the shorter version as an alternative spelling, so you can write “monolog” if you want. 

Our texting society keeps shortening words, so I’m sure “monolog” will eventually creep into common usage … whenever Merriam-Webster decides. (It actually has a committee for that.)

So what happens when you use “catalog” and “monologue” in the same story? I did, and it looked like I was being inconsistent. I sweated bullets over what an agent would think. 

“Pedagogue,” “decalogue,” and “synagogue” haven’t even stepped onto the evolutionary escalator. Given the religious significance of the latter two words, don’t hold your breath for those to change.

What to do? Short answer: what your editor tells you to do. If you don’t have an editor yet or are at the querying stage, simply be consistent. 

Additionally, if you’re writing for a British audience, heed all the British spellings (examples: “colour,” “encyclopaedia”). Spellzone (written by a U.K. teacher) offers simple charts that compare British with American spellings. If you’re writing historical fiction and your main character is from a British-speaking country, that’s a tougher call. See how other historical fiction writers balance historical accuracy with the mantra “reader first.”

Beyond spelling conundrums: misused words

English is replete with conundrums regardless of what genre you write. For example, when do you use “historic” versus “historical”? Does it matter? Yes. 

“Historical” means something that we know happened in the past (as opposed to myth or legend)—like historical medieval literature of the twelfth century. “Historic” means famous, important, or pivotal in history—like the historic Gettysburg address and the historic sites of the Normandy landings on D-Day.

Who can keep all of that straight? Probably only Merriam and Webster. My advice? Never assume. Always look it up. Even if you’re pretty sure of it.

It’s the only way to ensure your writing is squeaky clean and practically perfect in every way for agents, editors, and publishers.

You lavish many months on developing relatable characters and gripping plots. Think of the potential for that work to go sideways if you misspell or misuse words. Affect vs effect. Because vs since. Comprise vs compose. Eminent vs imminent. Farther vs further. (And so many more.) In each case, either word is legitimate—but maybe not for the context in which you place it. MS Word isn’t smart enough to flag such misspelled or misused words.

Bottom line

Several websites offer advice on unsnarling such word problems, but my go-to is Merriam-Webster’s Online Unabridged Dictionary. It includes thorough explanations and examples of those pesky word pairings that could submarine you if you chose poorly. It also shows primary versus alternative spellings, has a thesaurus, lists the first known usage of each word, and much more.

Einstein said, “Never memorize something that you can look up.” I’m with him when it comes to making sure I write right despite how weird English is!

Lana Christian is the author of the biblical fiction series The Magi’s Encounters. It answers the question, “What happened to the Wise Men?” She’s won several ACFW awards for the first book, which she is now querying. She’s convinced that hiking or sipping steaming chai tea can solve most problems—but she knows God can solve every problem. Find her on Chistianwriters.com and follow her blog at lanachristian.com/blog. You can also find her on Twitter @LanaCwrites.

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

To The Person Writing My Story

By Stephanie Jaye

Are you a plotter or a panster?

I feel like that’s a question every writer gets asked at least once in their writing journey, and one that we may even ask ourselves at one point. Some people are strict plotters, while others just write and see where their characters take them. Some don’t even stick to the same approach with every novel they write.

I for one, used to be a hardcore panster. I would write and see what happened. For all I knew, my characters could do anything from spontaneously up and decide to leave the state, to propose to their love five chapters too early (talk about moving too fast)!

After pansting two novels and getting stuck in the editing stages for both, I decided to start plotting. In an attempts to do a total rewrite of one of my previous novels that crashed and burned in the editing stage, I decided to switch from telling the story in first person with one POV, to third person with multiple POVs. I thought of it like this: The first draft, where it was told in first person, was like the main character telling me their story in their point of view. I was now my job to write their story, but in third person.

Coming to this realizing changed the way I plotted my subsequent novel (and current WIP). Now, to avoid getting stuck in the editing stages again, I am a hard-core plotter..and here’s a groundbreaking way of plotting I discovered.

In the development stages of plotting, where you’re trying to figure out the backstory and your character’s voice, try letting the characters write to you. As if the character was telling you their story. And just listen as they talk. In doing so, you’ll start to pick up on their voice, their attitude, their key life events, and the emotions behind their circumstances. Listen to what makes them emotional. What parts of their story is hard to tell? What makes them giddy? Did they happen to slip in their favorite color in there somewhere? All these things can bring about vibrant backstory, essential events of your novel, and key emotions that need to be unearthed to tell the story the way it needs to be told.

You can start like this:

Dear Stephanie [Insert your name here],

My name is Lauren [the character you are working on]. I am twenty-five years old and I live in Memphis, Tennessee. While it’s great here, I miss home. I miss the old oak tree in my backyard, the sound of the waves crashing on the beach when I’d take long walks, and Jackson. Always Jackson.

Woah. I didn’t know Lauren lived anywhere except Memphis. What’s the story behind the old oak tree … why does that stick in her memory? She lived near the beach? (Lucky.) And Jackson. Stop right there … WHO IS THAT?

This is such a simple exercise that can help unearth the most mute of characters. You can start as far back as the character’s childhood and go all the way through the key events of your novel, or you can just use it to understand their backstory and voice. The choice is up to you, or really, the character writing to you.

Great writers are great listeners. Let’s start listening to our characters and let them tell us their story in their words. Then let’s tell it the best we can.

Stephanie Jaye is a Christian Romance writer and blogger who loves Jesus, sweet tea, and sunshine. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @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.

The Fight Against Weasel Words: The Struggle is Real

By Elizabeth Jacobson

I had written for years as teen and (very) young adult before I went on kind of a “forced hiatus.” I stopped having the time to write – at least that’s what I told myself. What really happened was that I stopped making the time, but that’s a different story.

One of the results of this was that, for a long time, I didn’t outgrow some writing habits that I had made as a teen. Another result was that I never had a true beta reader who could point out those bad habits until I was much older.

Now, let’s be clear. I am by no means saying that high schoolers and college kids are bad writers. Quite the contrary. Some of them are stellar.

I am saying that, at that age, I was not stellar. So, when I started writing in earnest again a few years ago, I had some weird habits that I had to break. Some of them I could see immediately. Simplistic explanations of why plot points happened were no longer acceptable. Character interaction needed to be more nuanced. Good stuff.

What flew under my radar were the “little things.” The problem with this is that a little thing can become a big thing when it happens over and over.

Such as weasel words.

Boy, do they happen over and over.

And over.

A weasel word is a word that sneaks into your writing, over and over again. It’s similar to when we say “like” and “um” over and over as filler when we talk. We don’t even register that we said those words – they just pop out. Weasel words “just pop out” when you’re writing.

My two weasel words are “suddenly” and “seemed,” and it took beta readers to point this out to me. I was reading my drafts over and over, completely blind to their existence as they sat in my sentences, quietly and patiently undermining my prose.

Now, you might think that once someone has pointed your weasel words out to you (I promise, you have at least one, so get someone to look at your writing!), you’re golden. You know what to look for. Awesome. You just won’t put that word in.

Here’s the thing. That probably won’t work.

Here’s why.

A weasel word is often a symptom of a larger problem. You can’t just back up and not put that word in, because often there is a subconscious reason why it’s there to begin with. Even if it is a weasel word, it is serving some kind of purpose in your prose. Otherwise, you would have noticed it yourself when you read through your draft.

To illustrate this, let me walk you through the reason why my one of my weasel words was, well, what it was.

Suddenly is a very common weasel word. Writers place it in a sentence to indicate swift action, or that a character is surprised by something. And, on the surface, it seems that it does that. When I went to delete all my “suddenlys” from my draft, I was left with a very large problem. Now, nothing felt immediate.

But neither could I have a final draft that included tens if not hundreds of instances of the word “suddenly,” utilized every time there was action.

There was something I hadn’t yet realized about writing, the reason why I was using “suddenly” over and over: action and immediacy do not only flow from word choice. They also flow from sentence structure. Good writing allows for a balance of those. I’ll give you an example of the sort of thing I was doing, and I’ll overuse “suddenly,” and words like it, for effect:

She instantly staggered back, and her opponent’s laugh rang in her ears as she wiped sweat from her brow. Suddenly, determined, she stepped forward and picked up the ping-pong ball. She stood there, waiting for an opening, before, in a swift motion, she threw the ball into the air and served.

My sentences here are draggy. By this, I mean that they are uniformly long. This gives prose a “slow” feeling. But, I’m trying to write a tense moment. So, I’m relying on words like “suddenly,” “instantly,” and “in a swift motion” to convey the intensity.

It doesn’t really work, especially not when you use this tactic over and over for your entire novel. So, let’s try it again, keeping in mind that sentence structure has a large effect on intensity and action.

She staggered back, wiping sweat from her brow. Her opponent’s laugh rang in her ears. Determined now, she stepped forward and picked up the ping-pong ball. Waiting for an opening, it was only another moment before she threw the ball into the air and served.

This flows more quickly. Many of the sentences are shorter, creating a snappy rhythm. Note that you may read that all sentences in an intense or action scene should be short. I disagree. Just maintain the rhythm. If a longer sentence can fit in there and not disrupt the rhythm, use it.

Now, there’s actually one other thing that we can fix. Remember when I said that good writing flows from a balance of sentence structure and word choice? Let’s add a few more choice words to this scene that focus on emotion. Emotion can add both immediacy and depth to a scene.

She staggered back, wiping sweat from her brow. Her opponent’s laugh rang in her ears. A hot flush burned in her cheeks, and she grit her teeth as she stepped forward and picked up the ping-pong ball. Waiting for an opening, it was only another moment before she threw the ball into the air and served.

I changed one thing, and it did lengthen the middle sentence. But, I bet you feel like you understand or relate to this girl a little more now. I bet you can visualize and “feel” the scene better. Instead of telling you that she was determined, I told you how she felt determined. She flushed with embarrassment and grit her teeth in anger – this girl does not want this to happen again.

When you find your weasel words, you need to determine why you are using them. They are, more often than not, a poor substitute for deeper or more gripping writing. “Unlearning” to use your weasel words can be a difficult habit to break, as many habits are. But, I promise your writing will be much better for it.

Do you have any weasel words in your writing? Do you know the reasons why you use them? I’d love to hear your stories in the comments below!

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