“Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
Since my children were small, there’s been a basket in the corner of our living room filled with Christmas books. Some are children’s books, some are grownups’, some are fiction, some are non-fiction. They’ve been collected over decades, and I reread a few every year. I’ve even reviewed a few of my favorites.
I’ve always wanted to write a Christmas story of my own. About a year ago I came up with an idea of a retelling of a classic Christmas tale—and that’s all I’m going to tell you about it, because I’m working hard at finishing it, and I’d really be bummed if you took my idea and did a better and quicker job of it than me.
Writing Christmas books is much like writing any other kind of book, but with a few slight differences. The same expectations for all fiction also apply to Christmas fiction: a vivid setting, a conflict, a main character who grows through time; a beginning, middle, and end; an arc with escalating action that leads to a satisfying conclusion. Christmas fiction also needs to evoke the feelings of the holidays, awakening associations through the senses: the twinkling lights, the smell of pine, the flavor of gingerbread, the sound of jingle bells. Christmas stories can be shorter than other novels, like 50,000 to 65,000 words rather than 90,000 to 300,000.
Christmas books generally sell from October through December. New Christmas books typically appear on shelves the first Tuesday in October. If you self-publish, you’ll want to launch in early October as well. Your book will languish from January through September, but you’ll be wise to self-promote it again starting each October.
Are you thinking of writing a Christmas book of your own? These articles may help you:
- Tips for writing Christmas novels.
- Four suggestions to make your Christmas story awesome.
- Lessons from A Christmas Carol.
- Charles Dickens’ motivation.
- Melody Carlson’s experience writing Christmas fiction.
- Some more things to consider.
- How did Christmas fiction become a thing?
- Christmas-themed prompts.
- The very best Christmas books. (Click the arrow next to “View gallery.” Keep clicking.
Writers tend to be compulsive readers. Especially about writing. And the internet is full of wonderful (and not-so-wonderful) articles about writing. When I find one, I add its URL to a now 56-page file in my documents called “Blog Posts I Really Like” so that I can reread it whenever I want.
From time to time I share my wealth of resources. It’s been a couple of years since I last did this, so here are links to ten articles about writing that I found particularly interesting. Most of these articles focus on fiction writing.
I’m gonna warn you: this is meaty stuff. You can’t skim it. You’re going to need to dedicate an hour or two of your time to explore this information. You don’t have to do it today; but bookmark this post, and schedule a time for you to come back and wade through it. I promise it’ll be worth it.
- Rules for writing.
- Great storytellers talk about story.
- What novel should you read next? How about something that will help you with your own fiction?
- How to write better fiction.
- How to ramp up your description.
- How to troubleshoot a problem scene.
- To learn how to write like your favorite author, copy their books, word for word, longhand. I’m going to do this, really. I’ve even picked a book: Even If I Fall by Abigail Johnson.
- It finally happened—a publisher is interested in your book! What questions should you ask a publisher before signing a contract?
- Bad news: your publisher’s promotional budget for your book is zip. How to schedule your own book tour. (Also good for self-published authors.)
- Ways to market your book (and yourself!).
Now it’s your turn. Once you’ve read these articles, it’s easy to say, well, that was interesting, and not do anything with the knowledge you’ve gained. Hello, use it or lose it. I challenge you to choose one piece of information you’ve gleaned from these ten articles and turn it into an action item to improve your skills. Then tell us in the comments below what you’re going to do. (I’ve already told you what new thing I’m going to do—see number 7 above.)
All sorts of ideas to enhance your creativity, plus things that are just plain beautiful.
- I hate drones, but I love the photos they take.
- Variations on a Zentangle theme.
- The grandeur of yesteryear, now abandoned.
- What you mean when you say you love something.
- Ideas for paintings.
- Tips for photographing urban landscapes.
- For the novelists: not sure how to outline your novel?
- I bet you know a lot of these literary quotes.
- Quilt design stops and starts.
- How to get out of a creative rut.
- Podcasts, books, tv shows, movies, and other stuff that might interest you.
- Take time to smell the flowers.
The antagonist is a character that many readers love and many writers hate. In fact, one of my author friends told me that writing her antagonist was a painful experience. “It was a really hard book to write. I had nightmares when I was writing about this character. It was one of the best feelings in the world when I finished writing this.”
In writing my current book, The Hobo Code, I learned what she meant. The book’s main antagonist is a psychopath. To capture the essence of the character, I picked the brain of a retired forensic psychologist and her suggestions surprised me. For example, she recommended I not write chapters from that antagonist’s perspective. “You don’t want to go there,” she said vehemently. “It will give you nightmares.”
I wonder how many forensic psychologists have PTSD by the time they retire.
The Delicate Balance Between Hero and Antagonist
As in all life, there must be balance. Your protagonist needs someone or something, to push against, overcome, or to come to terms with. Some examples:
- Nature: Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm
- An institution: Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games
- Disease: Stephen King’s The Stand
- The supernatural: Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight
Note: Twilight is an interesting case as Bella’s humanity might be considered one of the story’s antagonists. Her humanity conflicts with her desire to become a vampire.
Observation and various discussions have led me to the conclusion that most people feel they are the heroes of their own life story. People in power who we believe are in the wrong likely feel that their reasons are good and just—merely not understood by the average person. Antagonists feel the same.
To read more of this article, click here.
by Ryan Lanz
Not long ago, I did a post on showing vs. telling. I’d like to continue along that same vein by talking about ways to allow the reader to think for themselves without being spoon-fed.
We often have characters discovering things. It’s a lot of fun to experience them learning new things on their own and being in new environments.
The habit authors often get wrapped up in is to announce all of the character’s thoughts. Not all of this is bad. I would be a bear with a sore tooth if I suddenly couldn’t share the character’s thoughts (often directly) with the reader.
However, like in many aspects of writing, there are times when the author takes the easy route, often without even realizing it. I will be the first to say that I catch myself being guilty of this, and this post is as much of a reminder to myself as it is to everyone reading.
Using “thought” verbs is certainly an easy route. They include words like suspects, remembers, believes, understands, thinks, imagines, wants, realizes, knows, etc. It’s so easy to say Colton thought that Tiffany liked him. It’s quick and to the point. Which is good, right? Sometimes. But most often, there is a much better way to go.
Instead of spoon feeding your readers that conclusion, instead I encourage you to paint the canvas in a way that shows the reader the situation clearly enough to where the reader discovers that conclusion on their own. In a weird way, using “thought” verbs is kind of like rewriting a classic mystery novel to put the who-did-it person in the first paragraph. That would steal all the joy of discovery for the reader. A good mystery writer doesn’t come right out and say who did it but presents all the clues for that final “aha” moment where the readers discover it for themselves (or at least have the opportunity to).
Let’s continue with the mystery analogy and ask ourselves how instead of spoon feeding the reader, we can present clues to allow the reader to discover things on their own. For that, I have a few examples.
Instead of “Colton thought that Tiffany liked him”:
Colton felt something brush his hand. He looked up and saw Tiffany leaning against his desk. She wore a tiny half-smile, as if she held a secret that nobody knew. She ruined her introduction with a small giggle that she hid behind her hand. Spots of red blossomed on her cheeks. Colton leaned back in his chair and shared her smile.
To continue reading this article, click here.
Thank you to Becca Puglisi and to Writers in the Storm for these strategies for grabbing your readers in the first few pages. Puglisi is one of the founders of Writers Helping Writers and One Stop for Writers.
As authors, we all know the importance of engaging our audience within a book’s first few pages. It’s called grabbing the reader: captivating them in a way that makes them want to stick with the story to its end.
Michael Hauge prefers the term seducing:
“Everybody likes to be seduced; it’s a gradual, enjoyable, and emotionally involving experience that thoroughly captures our attention.” (Writing Screenplays That Sell)
Whatever your terminology, drawing in readers is a vitally important process that needs to happen at the beginning of your story. Also called the set-up, it’s everything that occurs before the all-important catalyst that propels your character out of his regular world into a new one. According to Blake Snyder (Save the Cat), the set-up should consist of roughly the first 12% of your story. This is a guideline that you can set in stone or take with a grain of salt, depending on your plotting/pantsing style. But 12% is a good rule of thumb because it’s enough real estate to set the stage and draw readers in without it dragging on and putting them to sleep.
Unfortunately, we can get the length of the set-up right and still not achieve the goal of pulling readers in. To do this, we have to tap into their emotions. If we don’t make them feel, they won’t be invested in the character; if they’re not invested in the character, they won’t care what happens to him and won’t keep reading to see if he succeeds. So it’s incredibly important that the set-up elicit emotion from the reader. There are a few things you can include in your opening pages that will help accomplish this.
Readers start reading a book for a variety of reasons: they liked the premise, it was a recommended by a friend, they’re a fan of the author. Readers keep reading because they connect with the characters. We have a very small window—that first 12%—to achieve the reader-character connection, and eliciting empathy is a great way to make it happen. Here are a few ways to encourage that special something between the reader and your protagonist.
- Universal Needs. Readers like characters they can relate to in some way. One way to bond your audience of unique individuals to the protagonist is to remove one of her basic human needs, such as belonging or surviving. Because everyone understands these needs, taking one of them away from your hero can endear readers to her. This is one reason Katniss Everdeen was such a successful protagonist. Most readers couldn’t relate to her circumstances of having to kill others to survive, but they could understand needing to protect a vulnerable loved one or providing for one’s family. If you want to increase your reader’s empathy for the hero, try taking away a universal need, and the reader will stay tuned to see if she can get it back.
- Admirability. People are drawn to those they admire, so it’s a good idea to give your hero some qualities that readers will appreciate or aspire to themselves. Intelligence, a sense of humor, kindness, generosity, honor—these are attributes people long for. Seeing them personified in the hero opens us up to them, making us want them to do well. Notice that I didn’t say a protagonist must be likable (though that works, too). As a selfish and manipulative character, Scarlett O’Hara isn’t exactly a glowing role model, but people relate to her because of her shrewdness, tenacity, and confidence. It’s her admirable qualities that win readers over.
- Uniqueness. Readers, along with editors, agents, and publishers, are tired of seeing new versions of the same old characters. We want someone who surprises us with something new. A janitor who anonymously and effortlessly solves impossible math theorems at M.I.T. (Good Will Hunting). An art student in Prague who collects teeth for the demons who raised her (Daughter of Smoke and Bone). When you’re creating your protagonist, see what you can do to make him or her stand out from the crowd and be remembered.
- Remarkability. Few people truly excel in any area, but most would like to. Characters who are remarkable in some way speak to our need for esteem and recognition, whether it’s because they’re intelligent, incredibly talented, or have an unusual ability. Make your character extraordinary and readers will often respond.