How to Write
At the last count there were over 800 members of the Association of Christian Writers who use their gift of writing for God. We may not always write about our faith, but if we are Christians, our faith will shine through everything we do.
Some of us are called to write letters to friends; chatty letters to give the news, letters of sympathy, letters to console. Perhaps this is the most important thing we can do for God in our lives. Nowadays many people use email instead of pen and paper. Perhaps there are some here who write letters for God, but could with some encouragement to keep on keeping on?
There are other writers – equally important – who express their care for the community by writing letters to the papers.
Sometimes people say to me, ‘I thought such and such on the telly was horrible’. I say, ‘Well, write to them about it.’ They say, ‘They wouldn’t take any notice of my letter’. But they would, you know. They keep track of the letters and emails of complaint, and when they reach a certain number, they take them seriously. So if you feel like a member of the ‘Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells brigade’, write…and be sure your voice will be heard.
There are a lot of non-commercial writers for God in our association, but others write for publication. Some get the occasional short story or article published. You think that doesn’t reach many people? Remember that every copy of every magazine has at least four people reading it. Who knows what sore spot you may help to heal with a story or an article? God knows.
Many people think you can’t do any good for God by writing, unless you’re getting books published. I disagree, but let’s look at that, too. Some people feel called to write purely for the Christian market. It is a limited market in terms of sales, but a worthwhile one. For years I wrote nothing but children’s stories for Christian publishers and I’m told that my tales helped amuse and encourage a generation.
Now I – along with others – aim to take Christianity to the mainstream, to have my fiction in the secular bookshops and in the libraries. Sometimes I write for an overtly Christian publishing house, and sometimes for a secular one.
The Association of Christian Writers is there for all of us who write for God. Through fellowship we encourage, through workshops and talks – nationally and in many groups around the country – we aim to improve our skills. Through our contacts we arrange meetings with editors and publishers. If you would like to know more about us, log on to christianwriters.co.uk
THEME is the heart or message in a book of fiction, a plot is how you make it happen.
Which is more important, theme or plot? Theme should be woven into the plot, so that one is integral to the other. Combining the two, you create an emotional hook to capture and retain the reader’s interest, and leave them thinking about your book long after they’ve finished reading it.
Can you have a book which is all plot, without any theme? Some all-action spy or crime dramas might seem at first sight to have no message. Overall they usually evince two strands; one is that a hunter is never satisfied until he’s brought down his quarry, and the other is that crime/spying fails to provide the protagonist with a satisfying lifestyle.
Can you can tie some examples of themes to well-known books and writers? Here are a few examples to get you thinking.
Romance, prejudice, social comment…….Jane Austen, Barbara Cartland
Destruction, reconstruction…….Tolstoy/War & Peace, Nevil Shute/A Town like Alice
Rites of passage, sins of the fathers, redemption…….Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner
Triumph of good over evil…….crime stories, JRR Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
Nurturing talent, taking control of one’s life…….Tracy Chevalier/The Pearl Earring
Catharsis through suffering…….Catherine Cookson
You may decide to highlight politically correct themes, or current affairs. Charles Dickens’ books, for instance, contained strong themes: indignation over workers’ rights, Insolvency, bankruptcy. Damaging pride in various forms. The redeeming power of love and friendship. Self-improvement. The corruption of power. Self-delusion.
People and the way they react to circumstances don’t change – but ethics do.
What do you see as possible themes of relevance to society today? Social equality through education, equal pay, pension rights? Or perhaps animal activism, drugs or care in the community?
What theme would you like to explore in your writing? Here are a few powerful ones.
Loss of love, loneliness. Grief and death. Coming to terms with widowhood.
Improving one’s lot through education, learning from life.
Dealing with a lack of self-worth, with evil and with selfishness in others.
A new baby as a symbol of hope. Learning how to forgive wrongs.
Dealing sensibly or otherwise with money. Stewardship. Revenge. Ambition.
A series of books will probably contain more than one theme. I use several themes in the Eden Hall series, such as lack of self-worth, and forgiveness, but I also write about how a community can be affected by economic factors. In the Ellie Quicke series, my theme is how a fiftyish woman learns to cope with her new life as a widow, and becomes a stronger person in doing so…with side-swipes at the greed and ambition which rule her daughter’s life.
Theme and character: What theme or themes you include will shape how your characters develop – and therefore influence the plot. For instance, if you wish to write about revenge, the type of character you choose would influence how he or she might go about exacting vengeance. A weak woman might choose a non-confrontational method, a strong man go for physical assault. The theme is the same, but the way it is worked out would be different because the characters are different.
Whatever theme or character or plot you choose, it is generally true that a successful book, a book that lingers in the mind, will provide some kind of closure at the end…not only of the plot, but also of the theme. Except in a series where the basic set-up is reproduced time and again, there can be some movement – however slight – to show development of character. This can happen even in a series, though once you’ve settled on a winning formula, it’s hard to improve on it!
When I teach, I’m often asked how to keep the tension going in a crime book.
With over fifty books published, I suppose I must get this suspense thing right now and again. I spend hours agonising about it, I copy tricks of the trade used by other writers, and I obey my editor when she says Do It This Way! (Well, sometimes she’s right).
First, I’ve learned that you must have a cracklingly good blurb. Don’t leave this to your editor; struggle with it until you get it right.
Your first sentence should raise questions in the reader’s mind. ‘She was being watched.’ That’s the start of the first book in the Eden Hall series. Yes, the reader soon discovers who was watching the heroine, but the why isn’t revealed until the end of the book.
‘It was a bad decision.’ That’s another teaser, which starts off book three The Secret of the Hall. The reader assumes it was a bad decision, which makes her fearful for the heroine…but doesn’t find out till the end whether she is right or not.
Many suspense books concern a conflict of some sort – perhaps between good and evil, perhaps over moral choices – so to keep up the suspense the protagonists should be evenly matched, and the outcome in doubt right to the end.
The police procedural works differently, because here the reader is joining in a hunt for the wrong-doer. And a hunt – however much we try to pretend we are too civilised for such pastimes – is exciting. Two steps forward and one back is usually how these work.
How can you generate suspense if your story starts quietly? One way is to take a section from the end of the book where the hero or heroine is in danger of losing everything, and pop it in as a preface. That way the reader knows that the protagonist is going to be in trouble, even if the book starts with the heroine worrying about housework. I use this trick in the Ellie Quicke series, because my heroine is a middle-aged woman who is as concerned about baby-sitting her grandson as she is about solving crimes in the community.
Make your protagonist sympathetic, so that the reader will want to find out what happens to him or her. In Murder of Identity I introduce Ellie Quicke, heroine of eight crime stories like this: ‘Ellie Quicke, a fiftyish widow with a comfortable figure, did not consider herself to be a brave woman. She’d never learned to drive, and her efforts to fend off a bullying daughter had met with only partial success. On the other hand, she had managed to bring various wrongdoers to justice without having to spend time in hospital. Until, that is, she undertook an errand for a neighbour…’
Get the reader to identify with the protagonist, start with a bang and ensure that the dilemma he or she faces is a very real one.
In short, set up a problem on page one, and solve it on the last page.