During several trainings and workshops I’ve been in as a writer, they’ve asked us what we want our website to be like for our readers. This question was meant to help us determine what we wanted our writing to feel like, what we wanted readers to know they could expect from us. I never quite understood it at the time, and would usually come up with some vague answer that helped me pass the training, but also never quite clicked with me.
Over the past couple weeks, I think I found it. And I’d like to say it was some beautiful moment of enlightenment, but it was more like one moment it just hit me.
I lived—and still live—in a noisy world. As a kid, I ran into people (some louder than others) that encouraged me to be quiet. Some of them probably had no idea that was the impression they left on me. Some were very aware of what they were doing.
I believed that if I asked a question, I could be punished. I believed that if I talked about the things I loved, I could be brushed aside and have the subject changed. I believed that my own words from my own mouth might often go unnoticed, but if someone else said the same thing, people might perk up and listen.
Some of those things were true, even though they shouldn’t have been. Some of them weren’t true, but my mind tried its best to convince me they were.
I lived in a noisy world, but none of that noise was supposed to be mine.
So rather than risk the “could’s” and “might’s,” I went silent.
I isolated through most of my teen years and had few friends. It was lonely, but I was convinced no one wanted to hear what I had to say.
I sought out quiet places. Corners here or there where I could curl up with a book or a notebook. Because when I was in a quiet place where no one else could hear, that was where I where I could be loud. Where I could ask questions and have opinions and love the stories I wanted to love.
Because even though outwardly I was quiet, my mind was loud.
But most important during that time were the people who did want to hear what I had to say, and stuck it out over the long run to convince me of that. I have family members and friends that may never know how much of an impact they had on me.
When people couldn’t be there, I turned to stories. I watched my favorite movies over and over again. I branched out into new authors, books, and genres as my reading tastes developed.
Through stories, I found people just like me. And no matter how quiet those characters were, someone always heard them. Which made me begin to wonder, could someone hear me?
Through stories, I discovered a whole world full of people like me, who, for one reason or another, had been silenced. Maybe because of race, or gender, or mental illness, or disability, or traumatic backgrounds.
And as I learned and understood more, I developed an overwhelming desire not only to be heard, but to hear. I wanted to learn everything I possibly could and live with my mind wide open to whatever might be waiting for me next.
To do that, I couldn’t stay hidden away in a corner.
It was a slow process, with lots of help and gentle nudges from God, some of my family members, and new friends I began to meet. But I came out of those quiet places.
I don’t think I ever truly abandoned quiet places. I simply traded them for listening places instead.
I met people who not only shared their own passions and experiences, but listened when I shared the things that I loved and that I felt deeply about.
I began developing healthy relationships for the first time. And as I did, I became more and more passionate about the overlooked and the silenced. I wanted to hear their stories, I sought them out.
In an Instagram reel a few weeks ago, I wrote this: “I want this Bookstagram account to be a place where we both listen and be heard, a place where no one interrupts or changes the subject and where we can celebrate the good stories we love.”
And that is when I knew. I’ve known all along, I just haven’t been able to put it into words.
I want my writing—whether that’s a post on my website, a Bookstagram reel, or a novel—to be a listening place.
I want to be able to speak the loud things in my mind and know that someone hears and cares. And I want to be able to listen while you do the same. I want to be a place where the silenced can come to speak and know that no one’s going to interrupt them or tell them to be quiet. Because God listens, and God hears, and God cares.
Do you have a loud mind? Have you been told to be quiet? Do you want to learn and listen, while also being heard? Then this is a place for you. Do you know someone who needs to be heard? Then this is a place for you, and for them, and for anyone. Send them this article.
Let’s create a listening place together.
A couple weeks ago, I took a “what kind of reader are you” quiz from a well-known publishing house. After answering the handful of questions, I waited a moment and received the verdict: “You read to explore.”
I had never thought of it that way before. But it seems like a good way of putting it. (And I might add, fairly true to my actual reading habits.)
But (as with anything else, maybe because I read so much to explore), it got me thinking about what that really means, and why I love reading to explore.
Explore has five definitions according to Merriam-Webster:
-to investigate, study, or analyze
-to become familiar with by testing or experimenting
-to travel over new territory for adventure or discovery
-to examine especially for diagnostic purposes
-to make or conduct a systematic search
And all of them apply to how I read books and reasons why books are so important.
Reading to investigate
If you’ve hung around my website for a while, especially the Rachel’s Reads tab, you’ll see I love giving special mention to books that made me think. Even if overall it was a meh story, even if I wouldn’t say I quite agree with every point the author implied. If it makes me think, it gets points in my book. (One notable example of this would be To Best the Boys by Mary Weber, which was a great story and made me think besides.)
I love seeking out concepts that put a new spin on old ideas, themes and ideas that I’ve never considered before, experiences that I’ve never had. I listen to as many sources as I can, gather all the evidence, and sort it into mental files.
Reading to investigate matters because it makes us think. And our thoughts are all the more solid and deep because we’ve considered multiple points of view.
Speaking of points of view . . .
Reading to familiarize
I read to understand both myself and others far better than I could have ever figured out on my own.
I love to seek out books with characters who have different life experiences than me. Maybe they’re a different race, or a different age, or a different gender, different physical or mental traits, or different cultures or backgrounds.
On the other hand, I also seek out books with characters who are like me, who can provide more insight into what I seem like from the outside.
Reading to familiarize matters because we’re all human. We all want to be seen and heard. Reading allows me to connect with people that I might never meet in real life and gives me a richer understanding of humanity. Reading binds us together.
Reading to travel
Reading to explore is a good escape, a getaway. And this seems like the most basic point on my list. You can probably find it on a million reading inspirational quotes on Pinterest.
But sometimes life is really hard and I just need a short break from it all. As much as I might like to see London, that’s not a reality in my life right now—but a book can take me there. I can experience any career, place, or culture that I wish, simply by choosing the right book.
Reading to travel matters because it’s more than just an escape. It’s a trip. It's a dozen experiences all rolled up into one that are accessible to many, many people.
Reading to examine
Reading to explore helps me form my own conclusions. After I’ve done all that investigating we talked about earlier, I take out all the information I got from all of them and spread it out on the table of my mind. And with all the evidence, I begin forming my own thoughts, which become my own conclusions, which become my own life.
Sometimes it might match a book’s message. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it’s something entirely different.
Reading to examine matters because it forces us to go from standing on the outside looking in to being inside in a place made especially for us. Thinking makes the world our own.
Reading to search
Reading to explore is like a giant treasure hunt, pointing me to what I’m looking for. We’re all searching for love, for meaning, for life. And the best thing about reading is it’s a search. You don’t find it all at once, but you do find clues, strung across stories and beckoning you deeper. You might get turned around every so often and wander off on rabbit trails, but sooner or later, if those books do their job, they’ll lead you exactly where you’ve been searching.
For me, that’s the Author of our entire universe. The best stories I’ve explored are the ones that have directly or indirectly circled me back to Him, often in a new or fresh way that I didn’t see coming. An unexpected surprise.
I think that’s why I so often focus on books and films here. That’s why they matter to me so much, why I could talk about them for hours. Because they help me find what I’m searching for.
But I’m still searching. Still investigating, still familiarizing, still examining, and still traveling. On that note, I’ve got a book to finish.
What are you reading right now? Share your adventures in the comments below!
Welcome to the final stop (on my blog anyway) of the Springtime in Surrey blog swap! To close out our tour, today we'll hear from Erika Mathews, author of Fear Not Tomorrows, how an anonymous poem inspired her historical fiction novella. I had the privilege of helping edit this beautiful novella and am looking forward to hearing where she drew such a strong theme from.
You know that feeling of awe and aspiration when, as a child, you meet someone famous? Someone you look up to, a hero of faith, a spiritual or historical legend?
That’s how I felt at age ten when I met Elisabeth Elliot, the heroic missionary and the wife of Jim Elliot, who died at the hands of Aucas in an attempt to reach them for Jesus Christ.
Hello! I’m Erika Mathews, wife, mama, author, and editor, and I want to extend many thanks to Rachel for hosting me on her blog today. I’ve had the privilege of collaborating with her on our upcoming collection Springtime in Surrey.
As I listened to Elisabeth Elliot speak, her words were filled with a calm, quiet faith and deep trust in her God.
At that conference, she spoke the words of an anonymous poem titled Do the Next Thing that struck me then and continues to inspire me to this day. One couplet especially stood out to me:
Fear not tomorrows, child of the King.
Trust them with Jesus. Do the next thing.
I took home the pamphlet that was handed out with the words to this poem in decorative green font on the cream-colored background, and I read those words often.
There’s such a restful trust inherent in a life that can rest peacefully in its present King and claim a fearless tomorrow and a step-by-step today because of that intimate oneness with Jesus—that complete assurance that He has it handled and He loves me that much.
When I was plotting Fear Not Tomorrows as my Springtime in Surrey novella, I thought I had the main elements of the plot nailed down. I selected three inspiration images and wrote the first draft of what later became the blurb—with no substantial differences from the final product.
But attempting to turn that blurb into the outline of a novella was like banging my head against the wall. Nothing worked. It felt like the blurb told the complete story—what else could I add? How could I turn this one complete paragraph into a whole novella? And above all, what structure could I give this story?
I decided that each sentence of the blurb would be its own chapter.
And it was about that time that the poem Do the Next Thing hit me like a ton of bricks. Almost at once, each couplet or stanza of the poem began to line up with the sentences of my blurb, and each became the theme of that chapter. I realized that the spiritual truths I’d wanted to bring out in my story were perfectly expressed by this poem.
From an old English parsonage down by the sea
There came in the twilight a message for me;
Its quaint Saxon legend, deeply engraven,
Hath, as it seems to me, teaching from Heaven.
And on through the hours the quiet words ring,
Like a low inspiration: DO THE NEXT THING.
Many a questioning, many a fear,
Many a doubt hath its quieting here.
Moment by moment let down from Heaven,
Time, opportunity, guidance, are given.
Fear not tomorrows, Child of the King,
Trust them with Jesus. DO THE NEXT THING.
Do it immediately; do it with prayer;
Do it reliantly, casting all care;
Do it with reverence, tracing His hand
Who placed it before thee with earnest command.
Stayed on Omnipotence, safe ’neath His wing,
Leave all resultings. DO THE NEXT THING.
Looking to Jesus, ever serener,
(Working or suffering) be thy demeanor.
In His dear presence, the rest of His calm,
The light of His countenance be thy psalm.
Strong in His faithfulness, praise and sing!
Then, as He beckons thee, DO THE NEXT THING.
Dear readers, is this your heart state? “Ever serener” with both “the rest of His calm” and the strength of “His faithfulness” can describe your daily life. Look unto Him, whatever your circumstances; listen to His voice; and walk forward in the path that He has set before you—one step at a time.
Thank you for joining us on our blog tour! Don't forget to order your own copy of Springtime in Surrey under the "Books" tab at the header.
Welcome back to the Springtime in Surrey blog tour! Today, Katja H. Labonté, author of The Tussie-Mussie, shares the top five writing mistakes she's made, according to Strunk and White. I had the privilege of helping edit her beautiful novella and am eager to learn what has helped her develop her unique and striking writing voice.
If you know me at all, you know I am a huge follower of Basic Principles of Speech by Lew Sarrett & William Trufant Foster. It’s my top favourite book, I quote it in season and out of season, and I’m always rereading it and discovering again—or for the first time!—the amazing principles it has for life and writing. My second favourite writing resource book is The Elements of Style by E.B. White & William Strunk Jr. They are my writing guardians and I swear by them. (And I hope you’ll go look them up and read them when you’re done this blog post.)
I usually reread these books every year so they stay fresh in my mind. However . . . last year I failed to read Basic Principles of Speech. *hides* And I have read neither of these books (nor my third favourite writing resource book, Joseph M. Williams’ Style) yet this year. So when writing my newest story, a novella called “The Tussie-Mussie” for the Springtime in Surrey anthology . . . I may have ignored the sage advice of my writing guardians. With disastrous results.
And so here I am, sharing my mistakes so you don’t have to make them. I present to you My Top 5 Writing Mistakes According to Strunk & White.
1. NEVER flaunt your vocabulary.
I don’t like admitting it, because I one hundred percent know better. (How many times does BPOS talk about this?) But in my prologue for “The Tussie-Mussie”, I chose to flaunt my vocabulary and use as many grandiose words as possible… merged with a very complex writing style. It read like a miserable attempt to copy about five different Victorian authors at once, with a salty spoonful of modern voice. I was thoroughly ashamed of it, and the prologue is not part of the published story, so don’t go looking for it. But anyways . . . I am cured. If a big word happens to describe exactly what I want, and it came naturally to me, I’ll use it. But I will not go “crowding in all the fine big words I could think of,” à la Anne Shirley.
“Avoid fancy words. Avoid the elaborate, the pretentious, the coy, and the cute. Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able…. If you admire fancy words, if every sky is beauteous, every blonde curvaceous, every intelligent child prodigious, if you are tickled by discombobulate, you will have a bad time with Reminder 14. What is wrong, you ask, with beauteous? No one knows, for sure. There is nothing wrong, really, with any word—all are good, but some are better than others.” (The Elements of Style, Chapter 5, reminder 14)
2. Rewriting is okay.
I’ve said that over and over to others, but it’s still hard for me to admit to myself. In this novella, I had to rewrite the beginning and large sections throughout because they just weren’t any good. It was hard to remind myself it was okay. It’s good. It’s necessary. It’s the smart/right thing to do. All the best authors did it. There is NO shame in it. It’s natural.
“Revising is part of writing. Few writers are so expert that they can produce what they are after on the first try…. [I]t is no sign of weakness or defeat that your manuscript ends up in need of major surgery.” (The Elements of Style, Chapter 5, reminder 5)
3. Don’t overwrite.
I am deeply guilty of that, and it’s the hardest thing for me to fix, because it is so natural. I have to rely on others to point out things that are unnecessary, because I just don’t register it. But it’s something I must work on. Stop cramming in all the adjectives and adverbs. All the dialogue tags. All the poorly written and useless description. Will I still use adverbs, adjectives, and dialogue tags? Yes. My favourite writing styles use them. I am allowed to copy what I love. But moderation is the key, and unless you’re a genius, it’s better to err on the side of less than more.
“Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.” (The Elements of Style, Chapter 2, Rule 17)
4. Be clear.
I thought I was good at that. After all, I’m the girl whose top writing tip is “write exactly what you mean, as briefly as you can” and who produced a whole blog post about writing clearly. But I easily fall into the trap of using words or metaphors that are muddy or too subtle. Again, it’s hard for me to catch this myself. But by dint of careful attention, I can definitely improve. I definitely need to go back to talking my time in writing and making sure I am saying exactly what I want to say, and in the best, clearest way possible.
“Clarity is not the prize in writing, nor is it always the principal mark of a good style. There are occasions when obscurity serves a literary yearning, if not a literary purpose, and there are writers whose mien is more overcast than clear. But since writing is communication, clarity can only be a virtue. And although there is no substitute for merit in writing, clarity comes closest to being one.” (The Elements of Style, Chapter 5, reminder 17)
5. My writing can always get better.
I didn’t realize how proud and complacent I was about my writing until I wrote this story. It’s so embarrassing to admit, but I was convinced I was experienced enough to be a pro and didn’t need to change anything. I thought I knew it all. LIES. I can always get better. I’m not perfect. I need to get better. But I will never get better if I don’t remember that.
At the same time, my writing is legit. I can always get better, yes. I have flaws and familiar trap holes, yes. But I am also allowed to be myself. I need to be myself. I can write the way that feels natural to me. My writing style won’t match others’ and they might not like it—and that’s okay, for both of us. We don’t have to match, we don’t have to have the same taste. There are guidelines and rules to follow, but there is also freedom be uniquely ME. And I’m good enough as me.
But there are rules for a reason.
In short, I’ve learned I know only about half as much as I thought I did, and I need to study more. I need to work more. And I discovered that humility is what makes a great author. The willingness to refine and work over and over on his story. The willingness to study and hone his craft. The willingness to realize he can always be better, and he will never get perfect or plateau. You can’t become a master if you’re a puffy head who thinks you've got it all. A real master knows how much greater he could be, because he has seen so much more perfection.
There’s no room for pride in good writing, because good writing isn’t about “I”, and prIde is just that—all about i.
“It is an old observation that the best writers sometimes disregard the rules of rhetoric. When they do so, however, the reader will usually find in the sentence some compensating merit, attained at the cost of the violation. Unless he is certain of doing as well, he will probably do best to follow the rules.” (The Elements of Style, Introduction)
So, friends, happy writing trails to you. May your pens never be inkless, nor your hands cramped; may Strunk and White watch over you; and may you never discover the pitfalls I stumbled into.
Come back next Wednesday to hear from another Springtime in Surrey author about how an anonymous poem inspired her historical fiction novella, on the last stop of our blog swap.
Welcome back to the Springtime in Surrey blog swap! Today, Andrea Renee Cox, author of The Cottage on the Hill, helps us think about compassion versus apathy. Let's get to it.
Apathy is unfeeling disinterest in others’ problems, worries, and situations. Everywhere I look these days, I see evidence of this lack of tender care for my fellow human beings. In the movie The Book of Henry*, a young character declares that apathy is the worst thing in the world. That line has stuck with me for years, because it’s the truth and I’ve seen evidence virtually every day since I first watched that film.
I have to wonder, can anything overcome such a dark and uncaring choice as apathy?
Every time I read the Bible and spend time with Jesus, I know the answer is yes. Yes, something is more powerful than apathy. God is bigger and stronger than everything on this planet, but there’s something we humans can choose that is stronger than apathy as well, if we follow His lead.
Compassion is greater than apathy.
Compassion is seeing other people’s plight and feeling their pain with them. It’s choosing to care about people and whatever trial or tribulation they might currently be going through. Compassion is not easy, because it means being vulnerable to wounds the world might wield against us. But I’m here to tell you that choosing to be compassionate is always worth it. In fact, Jesus commanded us to “love one another” (John 13:34 NKJV). He went further to say that His followers would be recognized by their “love for one another” (John 13:25 NKJV).
Loving one another is choosing compassion over apathy.
Often, I wonder if I’m doing enough to infuse an abundant amount of hope, cheerfulness, and especially compassion—all traits of love—into my community to counteract the apathy that is so prevalent in the world around me. What I’ve learned over these years of intentionally choosing to care (and show it!) about the people in my life is that every delicate moment matters. The incredible thing is, God can use even one person’s kindness to make a humongous impact in the world. The ripple effects can spread out in waves for a longer time than we can imagine, because of God’s work behind the scenes. This, to me, makes every attempt at showing love to those around me completely worth it.
This theme of showing compassion to the people around us is spotlighted in The Cottage on the Hill, my novella in Wild Blue Wonder Press’s debut anthology, Springtime in Surrey. When Adrian sees Moira crying into her afternoon tea, he wonders why. The neat thing is, he doesn’t stop at mere curiosity. Instead, he takes up the challenge of making her smile. His creative efforts throughout the book give her chance after chance to rediscover hope and joy. Even when he doesn’t know if she’ll ever feel comfortable enough with him to divulge her troubles, Adrian goes to great lengths to let Moira know that someone cares about her, that someone sees she’s hurting and chooses to do something about it.
How many times do we see people going through hard times and rough days but keep on walking by, not giving them more than a pitying glance?
What do you think would happen if you paused to give that person a helping hand or encouraging word?
Let me tell you from experience: Both the person you help and you will be blessed in the moment you reach out to connect with another member of humanity. Whether it’s encouraging a harried mother of three rambunctious children in the grocery store or helping a tearful, lost toddler find their parents or assisting someone in picking up items that spilled from a purse or split sack—or a thousand other scenarios—I challenge you to take a few minutes out of your busy day and infuse some compassion back into your community. Beyond that, I encourage you to take Jesus’s advice and “love one another,” so that people will recognize you as one of His compassionate followers.
It takes action from each one of us to make sure that compassion remains greater than apathy.
*Some content (language, thematic elements) in The Book of Henry is not suitable to all viewers. Discretion is advised. I suggest parents preview the film before sharing with any child under 18.
Come back next Wednesday to hear another Springtime in Surrey author discuss the top five writing mistakes she's made according to Strunk and White.
Good morning! Welcome back to the Springtime in Surrey blog swap. It's me again, this time with a post from Kellyn Roth, author of Courage to Stay, sharing lessons that she has learned by writing through creative difficulties.
Hi folks! My name is Kellyn Roth, though you can call me Kell, and I’m more than honored to be sharing a blog post on Rachel Leitch’s blog today!
As you may know, Rachel recently published a story with my anthology/collection, Springtime in Surrey. It’s our first Wild Blue Wonder Press collection, and we’re so excited to hear what you think about it!
I also have a story in the collection, and that is a Regency romance novella called Courage to Stay.
The idea was to pick something easy, in a genre I’d written before, get it off, and focus on mentoring the other authors in the collection.
The idea was not, however, that I would be stuck on this one story for months, struggling to finish a first draft and then to get through the edits! For whatever reason, that just didn’t appeal to me.
However, that’s what happened.
It’s been a while since I’ve struggled much with a story, and my last three projects (a short story, a novella, and a full-length novel) have been ridiculously tough. More tough than any book I’ve worked on has been for years.
I’ll admit it: it boggled my mind.
Whatever the reason these last three projects have been so tough (probably just exhaustion), they’re all done now, and while I’m glad of it, it’s always a good idea to give some thought to how I responded and how I would respond next time.
The first that caused my trouble was the novel. Like a Ship on the Sea is releasing in September, and it took me FOREVER to get a passable draft together. So much so that I had to push back my editors to get it finished.
The problem? The plot as I had it written in the outline was not working. Yet instead of adjusting it as I went or just finishing a draft that was bad, that froze me. I had enough intuitive knowledge to know something was off, but figuring out what and figuring out how to fix it was proving impossible.
Even when I went through the rewrites, I found myself hesitating, getting stuck on getting my rewrites set up in a way that made it easy to finish them all in one fell swoop rather than just pushing through and figuring it out as I went.
Eventually, with the help of a developmental editor, I managed to get it into some kind of shape—but I can’t say I was in the best of moods after this.
And, because my deadlines had been pushed back so much, I had to drive right into Courage to Stay, my Springtime in Surrey novella.
At first, I did exactly the same thing I did with my novel—I dove in and discovered that elements of the outline needed tweaked.
And then I procrastinated, because I did not want to go through what I did with the novel again. Frozen in place, I waited …
Until I decided to give up and just write something, anything.
This left me with an unreadable draft—but at least something was written. And after giving it some thought, I dove into revisions by taking one chunk at a time and making it match the rest of the book (because by that point, it had taken on several different tones!).
After several rounds of edits, I sent it to beta-readers for feedback and hoped for the best. They gave me some tips to make a few things I knew weren’t working fit it, and that was it. It was done (at least, until the editor got to it).
With these lessons in mind, I tackled the last thing—a short story for a collection that’s coming out in 2024 or so. I knew I wanted to just get a fast, ugly draft done—revise a ton—and then have betas give me tips on how to make the silly thing work.
So I dove in—and in a week, I had a draft completed—revisions and all.
The thing is, I like to write nice first drafts. For many years, I have been able to … but though my energy and inspiration levels change, at the moment, I am tired and creatively bankrupt.
Yet I’m a writer—and sometimes working on deadline is a thing, whether you like it or not. Next time I’ll probably be a little quicker to adjust my methods to whatever suits me at the time, rather than clinging to the way I “usually do things.”
The truth is, it doesn’t matter how you do it as long as it gets done when it comes to writing novels. Get the words out—and worry about editing them later. Keep testing different processes until you find one that works for you, and then don’t get too worried about needing to adjust if you need to adjust.
And whatever you do, just keep writing!
About Kellyn Roth
Kellyn Roth is a historical romance & women’s fiction author who writes about the empty places where hope has the most room to grow. Her novels include the inspirational Victorian family saga, The Chronicles of Alice and Ivy. When not building her author career or her indie-author-helping business, Wild Blue Wonder Press, Kell is likely getting lost somewhere in the Pacific Northwest with her friends, watching period dramas and facetious comedies, or spending time with her husband.
You can find her online at https://kellynrothauthor.com/
Return next Wednesday to hear from another Springtime in Surrey author about compassion versus apathy.
In February of this year, I was accepted by Wild Blue Wonder Press to participate in their first ever anthology, making this my first ever traditional publication. It was something I’ve been working towards for years, and it’s still hard to believe it’s finally here. Now, here we are, launching the book and sending my story out into the world.
You’ve already gotten to hear from a lot of my fellow authors over the past weeks, and you’ll continue to hear from them for a couple weeks more. So today, I thought I’d briefly go over some lessons and observations I’ve had while achieving the milestone of publishing my first story.
God does so much more than we expect.
I didn’t expect to get into the anthology. I saw the submission call and gave it a try with a story I had thought up on a whim to have something to send in. Of course, I hoped that it would make the cut, but realistically I knew there were a lot of other authors who had sent in. God surprised me by choosing me for it.
Then came the process of drafting and editing, all on deadlines, and there wasn’t a single one of those that I didn’t think I was going to miss. While I had practiced writing on deadlines and knew I had the head knowledge to do it, these were some of the tightest turn around times I’d ever experienced, with a legible draft needed at the end of them.
And yet, I made every single one.
God is able to do so much more than we expect or even dream to ask for. And not only is He able, but He chooses to share it with us.
That’s a hard truth for me to accept, because I can think of other impossible things that I really wanted, that I still want even today, expectations that He has not shattered. And honestly, I don’t know what to do with that gap. Maybe this is the process of Him reshaping the expectations I have into something far greater. But many days it doesn’t feel like it.
Many days, I have to grip on tight to the things He’s done before, things like this, to know that He will see me through.
Not everything has to be perfect, and you can make mistakes.
When I’m writing a draft just to pitch sometime, I have all the time that I want to tweak it and make it whatever vision I have of perfection.
When writing this story on a deadline, I didn’t have that. I simply had to turn in a strong draft by the date specified. That meant, especially in the early stages, that I had to turn in a story that I knew needed work. That’s the whole point of a draft, but I forget that a lot. Do you?
Sometimes in writing those drafts or turning in those edits, I would make a mistake. It’s easy for me to be too hard on myself when I’m in the safety of my own world making those edits, but as I worked with the rest of the WBWP team, I realized that this was a safe space to make mistakes and to fix them together.
Sometimes in that process, I had to go with a suggestion that didn’t feel right at the time, but that I knew would make it a better story. Sometimes the cool shiny things I added to the story didn’t make sense and I had to delete them.
It doesn’t just apply to book editing. Sometimes we do the very best we can, and it’s not quite perfect. Sometimes we make mistakes. That's okay. (That’s different than a deliberate choice to sin, which God can still work with if we repent, but it looks a little different and for the purposes of this lesson is not what I’m addressing.) The idea of life is being able to work to fix them together and to discover better ways to do it next time.
Everyone’s different and has their own amazing story to tell.
Finally, this anthology has served as a lovely reminder of everyone’s uniqueness. I look across the eight stories in this collection, and they couldn’t be more different. They represent eight different people, eight different lives, eight different backgrounds.
Each of us has something to bring to this world that is uniquely us. It may not be doing anything big or flashy. It may just be living our lives the best that we can. But that’s still something only you can do, because there is only one you.
That story, that life is important. It may not seem like it, but the whole world is actually listening for it, and if it doesn’t go on, we will all miss out on something beautiful.
This anthology is part of my story right now. And God can do so much more than I expect with the rest of my story, and with the rest of yours, too.
If you love stories featuring diverse casts of characters, strong female friendships, and of course, tea and literature, then this is the story for you.
Jessamy Aubertine is too much for her university classmates, too little for her overstressed mum, and nothing in between. In an attempt to make herself useful, she takes on a spring holiday at her childhood home in Box Hill to sell the family's fading tea shop and somehow tell her mum that she intends to switch study plans.
When mysterious letters signed by famous authors show up, can Jessamy and a pair of unlikely comrades find the writer behind them--and perhaps discover themselves as well? Or will their friendship fade with The Muses at the end of spring holiday?
Good morning! I'm kicking off the first stop on my blog for the Springtime in Surrey blog swap today. (For more details on where to find other articles by all the authors in the anthology, check out this schedule: https://andreareneecox.com/2023/07/01/blog-swap-information-and-schedule/) Today we start out with Grace A. Johnson, author of Her Heart's Home, who will get us thinking about what Hallmark can teach us about character interactions. Let's get to it!
When someone says Hallmark, the first thing that comes to mind is what not to do. Don’t be cheesy. Don’t be cliché. Don’t be unrealistically happy all the time. Hallmark is rarely—if ever--the gold standard (heck, it ain’t even the bronze standard) for good storytelling. Not even for romance. (Some of their older, circa the 20th century, films, yes. Their newer stuff? Nope.)
But if there’s one thing Hallmark has actually managed to do decently in a lot of their productions is create engaging, meaningful character interactions.
I know that sounds crazy, but I’m serious! I’ll be using their two most popular series--Signed, Sealed, Delivered and When Calls the Heart--for examples, just to prove it to you! (Speaking of, beware of spoilers for these two shows! If you’ve already seen them or don’t care to ever watch them, you may proceed. Otherwise, caution is advised.)
Even though Hallmark is visual, you can still learn a lot from their methods and apply it to your writing, from utilizing nonverbal communication to enhance dialogue and creating unique character voices to tailoring your dialogue to the story and being intentional with every moment!
There’s not much about Hallmark actors that set them apart from the crowd...but you gotta admit, they have the most expressive faces! With just the bat of their eyes, they can convey a million emotions, and it’s mesmerizing!
Even though books don’t have the capability of showing you the characters’ faces, you can still use changes in facial expressions and small gestures to enrich or even replace dialogue!
To enrich dialogue: Include action tags or breaks in the character’s dialogue to show their actions or expressions. Sometimes, just a gesture or a blink can reveal more about your character’s thoughts and emotions than their words can! Let’s take a look at a few examples...
Her eyes widened. “Are you sure?” The line of dialogue is so simple that it could be anything from sarcastic to angry; adding the change in her facial expression indicates that she’s surprised.
“Did Joey mention when he was coming?” he asked, his foot tapping on the floor. Again, the dialogue is vague, and we could easily add an adverb after “he asked” to clarify that he’s impatient, but adverbs don’t give the readers an image or add any motion to the scene. So having his foot tap adds movement and clarification without telling!
To replace dialogue: Substitute a line of dialogue or any small talk with an action. Actions speak louder than words, after all, so in tense or active moments or with quiet characters, consider trading most of your dialogue for actions. In fact, in any dialogue-rich moment, try cutting out a few lines and turning them into nods or sighs and see how her scene comes to life! For example…
She held up the missing necklace, and he lifted his eyebrows at the sight of them. A simple gesture or two can convey what clunky dialogue like this would: “Oh, look, I found the necklace,” she said as she held it up. “Where did you find it?” he asked.
He glared at her. Even an entire argument or rant could be summed up in an expression, which makes characters seem more alive and genuine, as well as making your scenes flow smoother and faster instead of dragging them down!
How Hallmark did it: They used every facial feature and body movement to convey a thought or emotion. They kept the character’s personality in mind too, making both their dialogue and action authentic and their interactions natural.
One of my favorite moments is in When Calls the Heart, where the typically-bubbly Rosemary Coulter just looks for a minute, her expression solemn and her dialogue limited to just an “oh,” after Dr. Carter tells her she’s probably pregnant. Seeing this happy, peppy character reduced to such a sober state is so poignant, and it’s all done through nonverbal communication.
My other favorite moment is Shane and Oliver’s (Shane’s the heroine and Oliver is the very dashing hero *winks*) first on-screen kiss in Signed, Sealed, Delivered...or, actually, the interactions between them leading up to it! Shane’s motions and expressions are so powerful and emotional, enhancing her dialogue, which would’ve been dull and mundane without her amazing performance! And even though Oliver isn’t very expressive, the smallest movement on his face can say a lot, sometimes even more than his words!
How you can do it: Practice by imagining your characters as actors. You can use clips from your favorite movies, task your friends with acting out their interactions, or just studying your expressions in the mirror to find the right ways to communicate different words, thoughts, and emotions non-verbally! I also recommend paying attention to how other people react in real life, and how you see or understand others based on their nonverbal communication. After all, 93% of communication is nonverbal, and 55% of first impressions are based on what we see—whether that’s their expression, their clothing, or the way they walk or shake hands!
Unique Character Voices
One of my favorite parts of reading and writing are the unique character voices. (This is apparent due to the fact that I will spend three months developing their voices and no time plotting or actually writing.) Some authors simply excel at making their characters come to life through their distinct narratives and dialogue, and so does Hallmark.
Even though their voices are real, verbal voices, they all begin as dialogue in a script, and I’ve noticed Hallmark has actually done as pretty good job making them unique and distinguishable—especially in Signed, Sealed, Delivered.
All four of the main characters—Shane, Oliver, Rita, and Norman—as well as the secondary characters like Ramon and Ardis, have voices, tones, speech patterns, and preferred phrases so original and them, that I could easily tell them apart just by reading their lines!
The fun fact is that the stark contrast in how everyone talks is even addressed in the show, when Shane starts making comments that sound eerily like what Oliver would say! Even without making mention of it, the audience could easily pick up on the change in Shane’s lines when she began talking like Oliver, as well as just how different the entire cast is according to what they say.
How Hallmark did it: They stayed attuned to the characters’ personalities and background while writing their lines, making their dialogue sound natural and authentic to the characters, as well as unique. They also stayed consistent with specific speech patterns and preferences, like Oliver’s tendency to quote Shakespeare and the Bible, or Shane’s blunt, no-nonsense attitude.
How you can do it: Think of your narrative (especially if it’s first-person) and dialogue as lines in a script. How would your characters say the words? Would they sound natural or forced? Would they repeat themselves because they’re shy or ramble because they’re hyperactive?
Ask yourself if your characters have any specific speech or thought patterns, impediments, or preferences. Keep a list of any phrases or quotes they might use continually, or any accents or hindrances they have. Remember that their culture, how they were raised, what time period they live in, and their current lifestyle have an impact on how and what they say.
For example, I’ve been raised in the South by godly parents, and I live in a rural area with lots of farmland, poor whites, and African-Americans. Because of my specific culture, I have a Southern accent, I use a lot of slang, I talk fast (no, Southerns do not drawl around here, believe it or not), and I’m often quoting Scripture, making idle threats, or using sayings that make absolutely no sense. (Y’all ever seen a chicken run around without a head? No? Yeah, me neither.)
So, some of my nonsensical sayings would be interspersed throughout my narrative; my dialogue might be phonetically spelled with a lot of missing consonants; and my internal monologue might just be a bunch of run-on sentences. And just like that, you can incorporate different aspects of your characters’ personalities, lifestyles, and cultures into every aspect of your writing to make them stand out!
I’m not quite certain how to describe this, because I don’t believe I’ve ever heard someone talk about it in specific terms. But one of my favorite things in books/movies is dialogue that is meaningful and actually tailored to the story. And I don’t just mean dialogue that goes beyond the realms of small talk—I also mean things like inside jokes, catchphrases, pertinent questions, etc.!
Like what I mentioned above about the continuity in the characters’ voices and how they were tailored to their personalities, Hallmark has done a fabulous job at tailoring the actual words to the story! Characters from past episodes/movies are brought up, specific quotes are repeated, nicknames are reused. Sure, it takes a bit to keep track of everything, but it’s worth it in the end when your dialogue flows as smoothly and naturally as a real-life conversation!
How Hallmark did it: They stayed continuous. From the episodes of When Calls the Heart, which are literally back-to-back and always include a recap, to the movies of Signed, Sealed, Delivered, which sometimes have two-to-three years between installments, Hallmark is always continuous. They kept track of characters—even the minor ones from only an episode or two—and made sure to bring them up in conversations. They were aware of the themes and stuck with them. They allowed the storyline to impact the characters’ discussions, emotions, and actions.
For an unrelated example, Hallmark’s A Perfect Bride film duology stuck with the theme of perfection. In the first film, the hero Nick’s fiancee wanted her everything about wedding to be, well, perfect—including the groom. Naturally, those expectations were entirely too far-fetched, and the wedding fell through. But when the second movie came around, Hallmark stayed true to the characters and their situation and let the Nick’s ex-fiancee’s decisions influence how he and his new fiancee, Molly, moved forward. They were constantly quipping about how their wedding could be good, but not perfect, and they avoided even saying the word! This theme played out even more, and it was so fun from a writer’s perspective to see how the screenwriters made that unfold so effortlessly, especially just through their dialogue!
Another moment I love is when Oliver and Shane have a bit of a spat . . . but they use the context of their current case at the Dead Letter Office in reference to themselves!
How you can do it: Keep track of your characters, scenes, and previous conversations—even if that means making a list or two! (Can never have too many lists, in my opinion. *winks*) Be aware of what your themes are and how they will continue to unfold throughout the story. Focus on how the plot/premise affects the characters and influences what they say, do, think, and feel.
I highly recommend reading over the last scene or two you wrote before you move on to the next one. Consider it your “Previously On…” moment, and let the story linger on your mind as you write it. Remember important aspects of previous books, too, and how characters could still be joking—or arguing—about them months later!
For some quick examples, whenever my characters do something impulsive or stupid, they say they “did an Elliot” or “Ellioted” the situation, in reference to my notoriously impulsive character—you guessed it—Elliot. And my heroine Rina always brings up her quartermaster Keaton’s role in an attempted mutiny whenever she’s miffed with him or feels like teasing him. (Even though he was only pretending to go along with it, there’s still a few hard feelings, of course.)
There’s something about being specific and intentional in your dialogue that makes the story so much more authentic!
Speaking of intentionality (which my writing software says is not a word) . . . Hallmark has learned the hard way to make every moment count. Their movies and TV series are often short, compacting an entire romance into 90 minutes, let alone countless conversations and character interactions.
But there’s never a dull moment in a Hallmark movie; there’s always something going on or being said that moves the characters’ relationship forward! Just as their growth is never stagnant, their conversations are purposeful and intentional. No time for small talk here!
And as important as small talk and fluff can be in fiction (they really aid character development), intentionality is key. Every interaction should do something, whether that’s twist the plot, spur the character on, or provide key insight to your characters, world, etc.
How Hallmark did it: They kept their focus on the task at hand. With time constraints, there simply isn’t time to get caught up in random conversations or monotonous scenes, so they—and their characters—stayed on track and kept the story progressing in some way at all times!
Try watching any episode of When Calls the Heart, and you’ll find characters constantly asking questions or bringing up subjects that are pertinent to the plot. Same goes for Signed, Sealed, Delivered, in which every scene is either focused on their dead letter case, developing the characters’ relationships, or one of the few side plots! Even a standalone movie is a great example of how every moment has a purpose and contributes to the story (most of the time, the romance) in some way!
How you can do it: The first and last step to being intentional with every scene or interaction is actually the same—edit. If you write a line of dialogue that has nothing to do with what’s going on, delete it and try again. If you read back over a scene that’s just fluff and no substance, cut it. If you have a few paragraphs of unnecessary rambling, shorten it and make your point in a sentence or two instead.
Of course, staying focused while you write makes editing a lot easier. Keep an outline of your scenes or, if you’re a pantser like me, brainstorm what should happen and how important it is to your story before you get started on the next scene!
And don’t forget to stay balanced. You’ll need a few more moments of fluff than a Hallmark movie, and those moments can be very beneficial for character/plot development and overall reader experience. Just keep in mind that it has to contribute to your story, so balance anything extra with moments that really move the plot along!
So, the next time your mom forces you to sit through a Hallmark movie with her, pay attention to how the character interactions play out! Watch how the actors’ expressions and movements bring their dialogue to life; focus on how each character’s voice stands out; listen to their inside jokes and references to past movies/episodes; and take note of the purpose behind each scene!
You’ll find that your character interactions are stronger, more meaningful, and easier to write when you utilize nonverbal communication, craft unique character voices, tailor the dialogue to your story, and are intentional about every moment!
Come back next Wednesday to hear another Springtime in Surrey author share lessons learned from writing through creative difficulties.
Did you go see Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 last month?
Before going to see it, I wouldn’t have said I was a huge fan of the Guardians. They were definitely fun, enjoyable watches. But when all was said and done, that was it. Fun.
But Vol. 3 was in theaters, and my sisters and I wanted to go see a Marvel movie in theaters for the first time. By all the trailers, this one looked like it was going to be a great one (which, when it comes to Marvel, are getting more and more rare). So we took our chance and off we went, and it was worth it. I could go on and on about how great a movie this was, but that’s not what you’re here for.
After that, I went back and watched the original Guardians of the Galaxy, seeing it in a new light after Vol. 3.
One of the things that struck me the most in a rewatch, was just how unlikeable most of the Guardians truly were. (Well, with the exception of Groot.) By Vol. 3, they had quite a bit of character development under their belts.
But in the original, all of them were criminals, whether that was for murder, theft, or whatever Peter Quill was up to. They’d stab anyone in the back to get what they want—it’s pretty much how they all wound up in jail together. And even when forced to work together to escape, they spent most of the time fighting and shouting at each other.
But then they discovered that orb they were all squabbling over had the power to wipe out entire cities. And then, thanks to one of their members, that orb fell into the hands of a very wrong person. And the only people that could get it back were the most unlikeable.
As Peter put it, a bit less eloquently, the universe was asking them to care for once.
That particular chance that was handed them may have been just that—chance. Or maybe it was a nod to something deeper. Sprinkled within all that fighting and shouting and galaxy-saving, I spotted grace.
Grace is defined as “free and unmerited favor.” You get something good just because. Not because you did anything for it—in fact, usually because you didn’t do anything for it—but just because the giver chose you.
Gamora attempted to kill him, but Peter still risked his own life to save Gamora in a prison fight.
Drax called the villain on them and caused them to lose the power stone, but the Guardians still took him back.
Groot sacrificed himself to save the rest of the Guardians, even though none of them had done anything that would make anyone care.
Rocket cruelly mocked Drax’s grief for his family, but Drax still chose to comfort Rocket when he lost his friend.
Nebula was an active villain throughout the first film and much of the second, but the Guardians (Gamora especially) still chose to reach out to her and give her the love she so desperately wanted.
A lot of days, I don’t feel very likeable. I know I do things that are wrong. Some days I hate it, some days I just don’t care. Even at my best, I’m bound to do something that might annoy someone somewhere. I don’t like making mistakes. I don’t like being unlikeable. I’ve been known to fight and shout in my own ways.
“For while we were still helpless, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly. For rarely will someone die for a just person—though for a good person perhaps someone might even dare to die. But God proves His own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:6-8, CSB)
The Guardians didn’t come together when they were a family largely healing and learning to treat others with grace. They came together and held each other up when they were in prison for trying to kill, kidnap, or at the very least steal from each other.
Jesus didn’t come for the version of me that I will be someday. He came for the mean version of me. He came for the version of me that makes mistakes. He came for the version of me who gave Him no reason to care. The version that tried to kill Him. But He cares anyway.
The Guardians didn't just accept the grace given to them and go on with business as usual. Grace changed them. The Guardians at the end of Vol. 3 are wildly different than the ones at the beginning of Vol. 1. They care more about each other. They trade in crime for protecting the galaxy. They give more grace themselves.
Jesus didn’t come and save me and then leave me to my own devices, He sticks with me, even though I make wrong choices over and over again and I’m just not quite there yet. But we will get there one day.
Grace is free, unmerited favor. I didn’t expect to find grace in Guardians of the Galaxy. Then again, I wouldn’t have expected to find grace towards me. But it’s still there.
If you’re feeling unlikeable today, maybe this is the time to remember that Someone still loves you no matter what you do or say, and that He has placed people around you who will extend you the same grace. And hey, maybe it’s time to rewatch Guardians of the Galaxy while you’re at it. You know, if that’s your thing.
*Who's your favorite Guardian? What did you think of the movies? Share your adventures in the comments below!*
Have you ever read a book that your friends hated and liked it? Have you ever read a book review that bashed anyone who read the book if they dared say they liked it? Have you ever held back on sharing about a movie you love with your friends because you’re afraid they’ll think you’re stupid?
You’ve been here long enough to know—I always love swapping story opinions with others on books or films, whether or not we agree. I love discovering which stories captivate them, which ones failed, and why.
I have enjoyed a number of flawed stories. I can watch The Last Jedi and acknowledge a lot of plot decisions just don’t make sense, while still enjoying the ones that do. I can watch a Disney remake that didn’t meet people’s expectations and appreciate the something different.
But I can also tear apart something that didn’t resonate with me or that didn’t do well. I can be too hard on my own stories when I spot flaws or people point them out to me.
I wonder if we’ve forgotten how to love something flawed. I wonder if we’ve forgotten to just love the stories we love.
It’s okay to love flawed stories.
Of course, sometimes a flaw isn’t just a poor plot point or an overall bad reception. Sometimes it’s something really wrong. That’s not what I’m talking about here. If there’s something truly wrong with a story or an event or a project or whatever, we’d do well to stay away from it.
I’m talking about the mess. The work needed. The lack of resolution.
My opinions are just that—opinions. They may have strong influential power, but they can’t make anyone do anything. That is ultimately up to the person themselves.
We have this idea that everything needs to be perfect. Maybe it stems from the Garden of Eden. Maybe we know that everything isn’t right here on earth, and we want to fix it.
But the things that really matter have already been fixed. God knew we could never put it back together again on our own, so He sent His only Son to take the horrible consequences for us. Our eternity started then. But in the meantime, we still have to deal with the brokenness here.
It’s okay if you love your own story when you know it needs work.
It’s okay if you love your life even if it’s messy and unresolved.
It’s okay to love yourself even if you make mistakes or don’t look the way you think you ought to look.
I think when we love the things that captivate us, even when they’re flawed, it points a little bit to a Creator who loved us even though we broke our perfection. He loves you every single day no matter what comes. He chose you when you were flawed.
In fact, what seems to be a flaw to you might just be the perfection He designed. What throws someone off of a particular story might be what captivates me. It’s the same with us.
We’re almost halfway through 2023. How did that happen? Maybe it didn’t look the way you expected. Maybe there are a lot of bumps along the road. But it’s okay to love those things. Because those flaws are the things that brought you here and will continue to nudge you forward.
In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether you liked a certain story or not. But it does matter how you felt about your flaws.
Hi, I'm Rachel! I'm the author of the posts here at ProseWorthy. Thanks for stopping by!