Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Choosing Point of View and Verb Tense for Your Story

            Probably one of the most basic constructs of any story is point of view, yet many novice writers find the concept confusing. Do I write in first person, third person, or can I use an omniscient point of view? Do I use past or present tense?
            The answer largely has to do with the type of effect your plot requires.
First Person/Present
If you want to create a sense of immediacy, employ present tense with either first or third person. In my novel, Second Chance, I use first person, present tense since the story seemed to dictate this approach. Whenever I tried to go back and write it in third person, past tense (the most popular, by the way), the story didn’t carry the punch I desired.  Since the story line involves an empty nest mom grieving the departure of her last child from home and her process of getting on with life/investing in her marriage, first person/present puts the reader squarely into Mave’s shoes, experiencing her journey with her as the story unfolds. Notice the following sample from Second Chance.
Good grief! A silly tree on a bathmat makes me cry.
            I laugh through my tears as Jerry stumbles into the bathroom, nearly tripping over me on the way to the toilet. “What in the world are you doing on the floor, Mave?”
            “Picking lint off the mat?” I contort my face, hoping he’ll believe me, but I don’t sound very confident. Lint-picking is certainly something he could relate to. Jerry’s so particular that he lines up his shoes every night before climbing into bed. The only thing he isn’t particular about is our marriage.
            “Can’t you do it some place else?” He steps around me.
            Keeping up my fa├žade, I sweep the mat from underneath his feet and stomp to the bedroom. I hug the rug to my chest and indulge a few more tears as Jerry turns on the shower. Strains of “Singin’ in the Rain” echo from the stall. I half expect to see him hop out of the shower with umbrella in hand and dance about the room like Gene Kelly.
            Notice how the first person, present approach almost slows the reading, placing you smack dab into Mave’s predicament. You begin to feel her pain with her, perhaps in a deeper way than third person/past could achieve.
Third Person/Past
            By far, the most popular choice in current fiction writing is third person/past. This works particularly well with romance novels where the writer uses a hero and heroine, bouncing back and forth between their points of view. Notice the following sample from my novel, Laughing with Lily.
Regret barged into the bedroom and refused to leave. Like one of the boxes Celeste had carried from their trailer to their new house, a dark secret weighed heavy on her heart, especially in the last year.
She surveyed the pile of cartons beside the bed and located the one marked “Framed Pictures.” Tearing away the tissue paper, she smoothed her hand over the cool glass surface lodged inside the pewter frame, corners adorned with inlaid sapphires. A bride and groom smiled back at her. Mr. and Mrs. Joe Tatem.
In spite of her dismal mood, she was determined to enjoy her anniversary.
The heady aroma of English Leather entered the bedroom as she studied the portrait. She spun around and faced her husband. A silly grin ruffled his lips. She smiled and melted into Joe’s arms. She reached up and pressed her index finger into the dimple in his chin.
“Okay, you can come out now.” His voice teased her. “But first, put this on.” He gently turned her around and tied a bandanna over her eyes.
Counter to my experience with Second Chance, when I tried to write Laughing with Lily in first person, present, it simply didn’t work. The plot seemed to demand a third person/past approach, perhaps due to Celeste’s past pain, the regret she harbored. I wanted to accentuate the past in the reader’s mind to help her/him enter into Celeste’s grief and battle to let go.
            Many beginning writers, myself included, naturally fall into the trap of writing in the omniscient point of view in which the reader can enter into the thoughts and feelings of all the characters at once. While this used to be a popular point of view in the nineteenth century, it is not so much so today. Readers enjoy and appreciate entering the mind and experience of ONE character per scene. Only what the point of view character can see, feel, taste, touch, hear, and think is presented. This helps the reader really get to know and identify with one to three central characters in the story.
            This was difficult for me to achieve in my early years of fiction writing. Since I had written dramas, I saw my scenes as displayed on a stage, witnessing much of what an audience would, knowing what each character is doing, saying, thinking. Over time, with practice and mentoring, I learned to confine my scene to one character’s perception.

What point of view/verb tense feels the most natural to you? What form do you enjoy reading?
            Share with my readers for a chance to win a print copy of Chosen Ones

A couple in crisis.
A child taken captive.
When their worlds intersect, each of them will receive a special gift, but will they find it in their hearts to accept an outcome so different from what they expected and hoped for?

Friday, September 19, 2014

Breaking Into the Magazine Market

            You’ve always dreamed of being a writer but wondered where to begin. Many aspiring writers immediately think, Book! I’ll write a book.
            However, this is not typically the best move. Better to build a consistent byline in periodicals than leap headlong into the audacious task of crafting a book. When you’ve carved out a name for yourself and learned how to query and format various types of articles, you will be in much better shape to write a book.
          So, where do you start when writing for magazines?
            First of all, you need to garner ideas. If you’ve never kept a journal, now’s the time to start. I began journaling in college as a way to process my spiritual growth. But it morphed into so much more as I chronicled thoughts/feelings on my day and significant milestones in my life, such as my wedding day and births of my daughters. How many articles I’ve crafted from these seed gems, I can’t tell you. Journaling is not only therapeutic but can provide a wealth of article and story ideas, even years after you’ve jotted down your thoughts. 
            Another helpful exercise is taking a sheet of paper then drawing several columns down the page. You might list hobbies, interests, jobs, church family, family of origin, volunteer work, pets, or any number of categories to get you started. Under each section, write down ideas that come to mind. You might enjoy dabbling around with photography which could lead to an interesting article on the subject. You may have experienced something life-changing in your local church which could be fodder for an inspirational article.
            Once you gather ideas, you will want to research the magazine market. A host of periodicals await your perusal, from Christian living and self-help to travel and home-making. Depending on the magazine, you may read adventure, seasonal, devotional, humorous, and persuasive articles. Personality profiles on famous figures may also be represented. Web copy is a huge market as all those Google searches need a writer fueling the content. And don’t forget filler material. There is a wealth of possibility when it comes to one sheets included with Sunday school curriculum, sub-departments in magazines that run short articles of 150 – 300 words, or jokes in periodicals like Reader’s Digest. One quip can bring in $300. I remember writing for Discipleship Journal, routinely drawing $150 per short piece/book review. Such work breeds easy money while building experience and a byline.
            This is also the time to purchase a copy of the Writer’s Market Guide for the mainstream market and the Christian Writers’ Guide for the Christian market. I bought a copy online for $17. Well worth the investment. Actually, this guide helped me break in. The book covers everything imaginable you’d want to know about writing for magazines, as well as books, contests, writers groups, agents, classes, and more. You learn what each editor is looking for, how many times a magazine is published, desired word count and topics, the contact info, helpful tips for breaking in, and the payment terms. The guide is updated annually.
            After you have an idea of what you want to write about and you’ve studied the market, it’s time to delve into the writing process. Start by studying the magazine(s) you’d like to target. Often, you can receive a complimentary copy or you can peruse articles online in a free database. Whichever way you go, make sure you study two or three back issues, from cover to cover. This is important for several reasons. First of all, you want to learn what readers are interested in. Secondly, you want to learn what the magazine has recently covered so you don’t duplicate topics. Thirdly, you want to learn the names of the managing or acquisitions editor. In short, you want to be knowledgeable enough about the periodical that you can effectively discuss with the editor ways you can make a valuable contribution.
            Next, you want to research your topic, if needed. The more you know about your topic, the better, even if all the info isn’t included in your article. Be sure to organize and save your research by topic either in hard copy or in a Word file or both. Based on your research, you can then jot down a simple or detailed outline according to your preference. An outline helps you organize your article into sections and will often become the subheadings when you write the piece. I often tell my writing students that organizing and developing an article requires much the same process as any type of writing. You want a gripping introduction where you pose a thought-provoking question, share a personal anecdote, or provide a startling statistic. Grab the reader what the start. Make him want to read on. Then you transition into the body of the article where you develop the points of your outline. You may include source material, so make sure you adequately annotate others’ work. In this section, you want to make sure you keep the reader hanging on to the finish line. Then you will wrap up the article with a satisfying conclusion that briefly summarizes your main points, offers a challenge, or encourages the reader, depending on the type of article you are writing.
            Often writers wonder which comes first: querying the editor about an idea or writing the full article. You can do it either way. Personally, I like writing the entire article. That way I have a solid take on what I want to present. I can always modify according to the editor’s preference if the idea is accepted. Of course, the writers’ guide will specify what the editor wants. If the entry states, “Query Only,” that means you must only submit a proposal. A proposal typically includes a brief cover letter stating who you are and what you have to offer through your topic, two to three paragraphs detailing what you will cover in your article and why you think it would be a good fit for the magazine, the word count, and your qualifications to write the article. Don’t make promises you can’t deliver. This leaves a bad taste in an editor’s mouth, and s/he may not request another article from you. Always include your full name and contact information on every page of your proposal. Address the editor by his or her name rather than “Dear Editor.” This shows you’ve done your homework and reveals professionalism from the get-go.
            Once you’ve submitted your query or full article, then comes the waiting . . . and the waiting. Don’t sit around and fume, or check your inbox every thirty minutes. Move on to another article idea and start the process over again. Publishing anything is usually a slow process. If after two months you haven’t heard from the editor, email a friendly note asking for the status on the article. Always include your name and contact info at the header of the email and the title of the article. Also, keep a file list of submitted articles/queries with posted dates of submittal/acceptance/rejection. I like to color code the various statuses so I can easily breeze through my list and see where I stand. However you choose to manage your file, it’s crucial that you keep one in order to know who you’ve submitted to and when.
            Furthermore, in your desire to break in, always maintain a professional attitude. A humble, teachable spirit will go a long way in wooing an editor to your project. My first big break into the periodical market was a lesson in this very thing. When my first attempt was rejected by a major Christian magazine, I decided to email the editor and ask what I could do to oblige his readership with the article. After two months of waiting, I heard back from him. He said, “You know, I’ve worked with this magazine for six years. Never in all the time I’ve been here have I rethought an article once I rejected it. But something made me look at yours again.” The magazine did publish my feature article titled, “Releasing Rachel: When God Calls Your Child into Fulltime Missions.” The magazine hit the stands the same month Rachel, our single daughter, left for career missions in India. Perfect timing that only God could know and orchestrate.  
Lastly, but most importantly, bathe the entire process, from garnering ideas to finding a publisher, in prayer. Without the aid of the Holy Spirit, we as aspiring or seasoned writers will not enjoy the power and impact we desire for our words.         

Monday, September 15, 2014

What Does It Take to be a Writer?

Invariably, whenever I speak somewhere, someone will come up to me afterwards and say, “I’ve always wanted to write a book.”

Typically, I respond, “What’s holding you back?”

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over my years of writing, it’s this: The dream of writing will remain a dream if you never set pen to paper.

Writers write. Period. Not all that profound, really. But the mere two-word sentence made me sit up and take notice the first time I heard it through the Christian Writers Guild.
How true it is—writers write. About everything, from the maiden blush of spring to the birth of a baby. No subject is off limits to the one obsessed with observing life and crafting words into workable essays, articles, and stories based on those observations.

So, just what does it take to be a writer? Contrary to what you may think, writing is not synonymous with being published. I believe the qualities that make a writer are deeply engrained in a person. Here are a few I’ve noted in my writing journey.

 A writer loves words.

Early in my life, my mother instilled in me a love for language. Whenever she came across a word she didn’t know, she’d run to the dictionary housed on a shelf in our hallway and frantically flip through the pages until she located the word. Her hunger created a hunger in me. An insatiable appetite not only to gather new words, but to string those words into lovely sentences. Then to patch paragraphs together like a vintage quilt—cozy, familiar, something to treasure and pass down to others.

A writer observes life.

Just like an artist who must carefully sketch what s/he sees, the writer must carefully watch life. In all its forms. A child at play. An executive in his office. A preacher in the pulpit. A bee buzzing around a flower. A man in love with his wife. Not only does s/he take mental snapshots and literal notes of what s/he sees, but s/he also makes an interpretation of the underlying motivations of people at work and play, similar to the artist who interprets what s/he sees by applying chalk, pencil, or paint to paper or canvas.

The writer crafts articles, essays, and stories from what s/he observes. S/he also draws upon her own experiences, interactions with others, hobbies, jobs, volunteer activities, personality, talents, travels, spiritual life, research, family, and friends. Ideas abound, and the astute writer with a curiosity about life will pay attention to what’s around her.  

A writer loves to read.

Anything and everything. To be a good writer, one must read. A lot! My first memories of the written word revolve around my mother and a ticking clock. As a child, she read to me every day. Even when I entered school, she continued to read to me. Every day, I walked home for lunch. After we ate, she’d snuggle with me on the sofa to the sound of the Kuku clock ticking in the background and read from a Honey Bunch book (that really dates me; actually, the series was my mother’s as a young girl). How hard it was to walk back to school after that cozy encounter with Mama and Honey Bunch.
To this day, I love to read. Writing experts will tell you that writers often write in the genre in which they read. I largely agree; though I’ve known some exceptions. Reading helps a writer subconsciously pick up the nuances of language and play around with one’s own writing voice. 

A writer writes, regardless of the audience or lack thereof.

Because a writer loves words and how those words can be strung into sentences and then woven into paragraphs, s/he’s driven to set pen to paper, or fingers to keys. S/he can’t help herself. Whether s/he simply writes free-flowing prose or verse in her personal journal, a family memoir to pass down to her grandchildren, or a column for a church newsletter, she must write. For some, writing blossoms into other opportunities, such as penning articles for periodicals, stories for anthologies, or fiction for a publishing house. But regardless the platform, s/he will write. The words well up within her and spill out on the page, even if they are for her eyes only. 

The Christian writer writes first and foremost for an audience of One, to glorify the Lord. Indeed, I began journaling in college to help me process my spiritual growth. That habit stuck over the years. How many articles I’ve written based on those early journal writings, I can’t count. No writing effort is ever lost. 

A writer never gives up!

S/he can’t. S/he may decide to lay aside, for a time or indefinitely, certain aspects of her dream, but in the long run, s/he can never abandon her love completely. Her obsession with writing will follow her to the grave.

The Christian writer seeks the Lord’s guidance in all aspects of the writing life: goals, daily routine, platform, writing partners, and possible publication when the time is right. S/he seeks to develop a humble heart that values the input of others, seeks growth, and rejoices/weeps with her writer friends. I truly believe a humble heart is what keeps a writer going strong to the finish line. It’s often when s/he grapples for control, tries to force a door open, or run ahead of God that s/he gets discouraged and wants to quit. Humility takes whatever comes and thanks God for the process of learning and growth, no matter the outcome.

So, what’s it take to be a writer?

In short, a person who loves words, observes life, loves to read, puts pen to paper, and never gives up! These are the qualities that endure in a writer’s life, all the way to the finish line. 

Eileen Rife, author of Laughing with Lily, has been writing in some form or fashion ever since she could hold a pencil. She enjoys telling stories to her seven grandchildren whenever she gets a chance. www.eileenrife.com, www.eileen-rife.blogspot.com.


Monday, September 8, 2014

How Volunteering Can Round Out Your Child's Education

I drove to the zoo to drop off my oldest daughter, Rachel, on her first day of volunteering. She was assigned to the petting zoo where goats and sheep awaited the eager eyes and hands of preschoolers. Rachel would feed the animals, clean up their waste, and supervise the children as they observed the animals. As a twelve-year-old, Rachel was ready and willing to assume the responsibility of a volunteer position, one of three she would hold before graduating from high school. I was thrilled, but apprehensive about her newfound challenge. Time would reveal that my concern was unfounded, for the benefit of volunteering far outweighed any liability. I believe every parent should strongly consider offering his child the opportunity to participate in community volunteer work. Here’s why.

Volunteering Matures a Child

As I watched Rachel tend to her four-hour a week summer zoo position, I noticed she was developing more maturity. No longer was she merely looking out for herself or her little sisters, but she was also looking out for a host of preschool children who were left in her charge. Furthermore, the discipline of caring for the goats and sheep caused her to care for her room at home more efficiently. Once she proved herself in the petting area, the zookeepers awarded her more responsibility by placing her in the gift shop for two hours a week.

Volunteering Builds on Academic Skills

Not only does volunteering mature a child, but it also builds on her academic skills. Rachel’s gift shop service afforded her experience using a cash register and counting out change, which enhanced her math skills. Others have reported volunteer experiences where their child read to younger children in the library, thus enhancing reading and verbal skills. Still others have participated in peer tutoring through the refugee department, as Rachel did for two years. This experience gave opportunity to actually tutor a foreign student in reading, grammar, and math.

Volunteering Develops Social Skills

Equally important as academic skills are social skills. While most children are immersed in peer relationships for the majority of the day, the child who volunteers is exposed to people of all ages. He learns to relate well, not only to his peer group, but also to multiple personalities of varying ages and backgrounds. When Rachel volunteered with the SPCA, she bumped shoulders with moms, teens, the elderly, and younger children. She would “check out” a puppy or kitten from the SPCA and take the animal to the veteran’s center or hospital to make rounds. In this way she aided both the animal’s and the patient’s emotional health, as well as learned to communicate with people from all walks of life by answering questions about the animal. In addition, work with peer tutoring exposed her to the culture and customs of Vietnamese people. As she tutored the twelve-year-old girl once a week, she got to know the entire family. None of them spoke English very well, so she was stretched to discover ways to communicate with them. They invited us over to their modest home for a generous spread of spicy Vietnamese food and we invited them over to our house for pizza and cookouts. Later, we invited them to a Christmas program at our church.

Volunteering Can Clarify Future Goals

While volunteering can breed responsibility, build academic and social skills, it can also help clarify future goals. Rachel enjoyed the zoo and pet therapy programs because she was used to pets of her own. Three cats, a dog, hamster, and a variety of fish kept her busy as pet caretaker and offered her a glimpse of what it might be like to be a veterinarian, which was her goal for several years. However, during her peer tutoring experience she committed her life to career missions in India. Her tutoring opportunity, more than any other, led to more open doors to teach English as a second language. The summer after her junior year of college, she attended community classes to observe English being taught to a mix of foreign families from Croatia, Peru, Vietnam, and Brazil. Later that summer, she spent six weeks in China teaching teens English. Her experience overseas came in handy when she finally left for India in 2004.

Make Room for Volunteer Work

So, volunteer work can supplement a child’s education, but how do you find time for one more activity? Building volunteer work into your child’s already packed schedule can be a daunting task, but well worth the effort. Sit down with your child and make a list of all the activities and responsibilities your child already has. Pray over the list, then begin to number each item according to its importance in the child’s life. When deciding which activities to add or delete, encourage your child to think about what he wants to accomplish this year in his life and to also consider future goals. Point out how volunteering might clarify goals for him. You and your child may find that one or several items no longer play a significant role and can be dropped. Call or visit your local library and request a pamphlet on volunteer opportunities in your area. We were surprised to discover that our city offered over thirty different volunteer activities for young teens and teenagers. Always allow your child to choose which position he would like to try. That is how he will learn what best suits his interests and personality.

Once you and your child have sampled some volunteer options, you, too, will discover that community work is a vital part of your child’s education. He will mature in his ability to handle responsibility, grow in his academic and social skills, and experiment with options for fulfilling future goals. Volunteering is a great way to round out your child’s education.

Volunteer activities can include:

Hospital candy striper
Pet therapy with the SPCA
Peer tutoring
Zoo work
Museum helper
Teacher’s assistant
Library page
Clerical assistant at medical facilities
Rescue mission work—sorting clothing, stuffing envelopes, serving in the soup kitchen
Crisis pregnancy organizations

For a complete listing of opportunities in your area, call or visit your local library.

The End of One Story, the Beginning of Another

I flip through the calendar, a gift from my missionary daughter. Family face after family face jump off the pages. Grandkids roasting mar...