Christian Fiction Writer


Writing4Success, Marg McAlister

Writing4Success Tipsheet #5
Building Your Skills
© Marg McAlister

Sometimes, it seems that the more you learn about writing, the more you realise how little you know. Beginning writers often look at the work of published authors and despair of ever being that good. Some even give up the idea of writing altogether - which is a great pity, because writers NEVER stop learning.

Persist! If you enjoy writing, don't give up because you pale in comparison to others! You might be giving up just before you jump up a couple of levels at one time. A number of writers have found that their writing seemed to suddenly take a leap forward - they didn't gradually improve; they dramatically improved, almost overnight.

For some, this 'quantum leap' may happen as a result of hours of study and rewriting and feedback suddenly all coming together - a light bulb goes on, and their writing blooms. Others are lucky enough to get a flash of insight from someone who has critiqued their work.
Take heart from these quotes from two successful authors.

1. Emma Darcy (author of romances and mysteries)in her book THE SECRETS OF SUCCESSFUL ROMANCE WRITING, talks about 'stepping up':

"The concept of stepping-up can best be explained by analogy to a motor car that can travel at ten km/h, or 20 km/h, or 30 km/h, but at no speed in between. The idea of stepping-up is not a fiction; it is a statistical fact... I can describe empirically how it works. In the chapter on heroines, I told how Jacqui Bianchi improved the appeal of my books by inducing me to write heroines who took greater emotional and/or physical risks than I was used to writing. This was not a small upgrading of my work. At one blow I took a large step forward in reader appeal.

"Stepping-up has to do with a large instant leap forward. Any author who learns how to go from being prosaic to emotionally gripping will make an enormous advance at a single step."

2. Leonard Bishop, in DARE TO BE A GREAT WRITER, talks about developing good writing habits:

"Developing good writing habits does more for the writer than just getting him into the habit of daily, scheduled writing. Every craft problem the writer solves brings him to a conscious understanding of how to write more effectively. The writer uses these insights from the moment they are realised. He consciously applies them to whatever he is writing. Through a constant use of these insights the writer gradually NO LONGER THINKS ABOUT THEM. It becomes his habit to use these craft insights as part of his everyday habit of writing. He is freed to concentrate on resolving more complex problems.

"His knowledge of writing becomes as automatic to the writer as his knowledge of having teeth. He does not consciously think of his teeth while eating. He does not coax his teeth, "Go on, teeth, chew. There, that's a good loyal set of teeth." The only time anyone consciously considers his teeth is when they hurt. WHEN THEY CANNOT CHEW.

"The only time a writer becomes aware of his ignorance is when what he knows about writing no longer works for him. It is not enough for what he wants to accomplish. He must know more. HE BEGINS HURTING."

Take a look at where you are now with your writing.

Have you recently arrived at a blinding flash of insight that has improved your writing dramatically?

Have you been hurting, thinking "I'll never be good enough?"

BOTH of these feelings are good for your writing. It's great when that lightbulb goes on - but it's just as good for you to realise that there's more you need to learn. Both will help you to move forward in your writing - the only thing that can stop you is giving up!

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Point of View, the Story Teller's Perspective, by Vicki McCollum

Point of View Vicki McCollum © 2008

Point-of-view (POV) is not just the character’s opinion or world view, although, characters may express strong opinions. Point-of-view is a literary term that describes the perspective of one (or more) characters from which a story is told. First-person and third-person POV are commonly used in modern fiction. Let’s look closely at first-person point-of-view.

1. First-Person Point of View: I, Me, My

First-person point-of-view stories are typically told by main characters with the most at stake. First-person POV characters invite readers to experience the story intimately and feel the emotions felt by the character. First-person POV uses the pronouns, I, Me, My.

Example of First-Person POV

I shivered behind a clump of trees in knee-deep snow, searching the white-powdered limbs for my kitten, while my twin-brother bombarded me with snowballs.

2. First-Person POV Limitations (and ways around them)

A. Physical Appearance
Readers want to know what characters looks like. How can authors describe a first-person POV character’s looks without “slipping-out of POV” in the process?

(1) In the example below, someone (the author) describes the character’s rosy-red cheeks and cascading hair. The character can’t describe her appearance (without a mirror) and maintain first-person POV.

Example of a POV-Slip
I shivered in knee-deep snow, searching the white-powdered tree-limbs for my kitten. My cheeks were rosy-red from the brisk mountain air. My hair had escaped my cap and now cascaded in thick, brown curls down my back.
(2) Alternatively, the rewrite below allows the character to use sense words to describe how it feels for the wind to whip her hair and the cold to chafe her cheeks.

Example without a POV-Slip
I shivered in knee-deep snow, searching the white-powdered tree-limbs for my kitten. Mountain air chafed my cheeks, and a sudden gust blew my hat away. I cupped my hands over my eyes, protecting them from the stinging slaps of my long hair. Ouch! Jeffrey’s sure-sighted aim blasted me, a wet clump of snow slid down my collar. “Tabby, where are you?” I yelled.

Maintaining POV involves showing versus telling, and may require more words to portray the same information. But, readers gain an immediacy that places them inside the character’s head to hear, feel, and see what the character hears, feels, sees, and thinks.

B. Head-Hopping

First-person POV characters have a limited perspective; they can only relate what they see, think, feel, and hear. If they tell what other characters see, think, hear, or feel, that is called “head hopping.”

(1) In the following example, the first paragraph is told from Jesse’s POV. But, in the second paragraph, the author “head-hops” from Jesse’s head to Jeffrey’s. The reader sees through Jeffrey’s eyes (he saw Jesse hiding), and overhears Jeffery’s thoughts (he knew she was plotting revenge), but shouldn’t be able to do so.

Example of Head-Hopping
I jumped behind a clump of trees. Jeffrey will never find me here. Then, laughter. Jeffrey.
When Jeffrey saw Jesse hiding behind the trees, he knew she was plotting her revenge. He grinned slyly. "Want me to stack your snowballs?”

(2) In the rewrite, the reader hears Jesse’s word choices and senses her feelings about her predicament. Instead of telling Jeffrey’s thoughts directly, the author allows Jesse to use phrases like “towered over me,” and “grinned slyly,” to characterize the situation (and her feelings about Jeffrey) without “head-hopping.”

Example without Head-Hopping:
I jumped behind a clump of trees. Jeffrey will never find me here. Then, laughter. Jeffrey.
Jeffrey towered over me, and laughed. “Ah, ha! You can’t hide from me!” He grinned slyly.
"Want me to stack your snowballs?”

Now it’s your turn!

Writing Exercise Write a scene using the internal dialogue (thoughts) of one character in conflict with another character. Possible relationships: parent/child, husband/wife, teacher/student, supervisor/worker, the list is endless. Then, rewrite the scene from the other character’s first-person POV.




Create Suspense with Story Questions

Search for sparks nicholasUsing Story Questions to Create Suspense

How do you grab the readers’ attention and make them keep reading even though the phone’s ringing,
the soufflĂ©’s scorching in the oven, and hubby's boss (and wife) are pounding on the door in the pouring rain? By holding them in suspense created through your expertly-crafted story questions.

Typically, a story question isn’t presented in question form. Rather, it is a statement that causes readers to ask "who, what, when, how, and why" questions. Their interaction makes them care enough to keep reading to answer their questions. Story questions, also called hooks, can be placed at the beginning of a story or a chapter, at the chapter’s end, and just about anywhere you want to build suspense. The goal is the same—to pull the reader in and cause them to care enough about the character’s predicament that they become oblivious to the world around them.

But story questions can become "false advertising"  if used inappropriately, i.e., to "create flashy or irrelevant hooks" which lure readers in only to discover they've been tricked. “Be sure your story questions raise
legitimate questions about the characters and their situation,” writes James N. Frey in his book, How to Write a Damn Good Novel.

He illustrates his warning with this passage: “A writer has to discriminate wisely between the attention-getting device that soon becomes irrelevant to the story and the beginning that genuinely gathers the reader into the arms of the story.”

The best way to learn to write effective story questions is by studying other writers’ work. Let’s consider a couple of examples taken from different genres.

“It would later be called one of the most violent storms in North Carolina history.” (The Rescue, Nicholas Sparks)
This story question asks, What terrible violence has the storm caused? Most readers are interested in natural disasters, and they like to read about survivors and heroes.

“Why had this happened? Why, of all the children, was Kyle the one?” (The Rescue, Sparks)

The story question is obvious. The reader knows that something stressful has happened to a child and will read further to find out what happened and to discover how the child fares.

I chose two story questions from The Rescue because the novel has two beginnings: a prologue, which sets the tone for the overall story, and a question from the first chapter, which introduces a main character.
Interestingly, Sparks, a nine-year bestselling author, breaks a couple of so-called rules for fiction writers in this, his first novel on the New York Times list: (1) Never write prologues, editors hate them, and (2) Story questions are statements, not usually presented in question form. Rules, then, are merely suggestions.

October—Iraq: “‘Ragheads dragged the driver out of the vehicle and took him away,’ the sergeant told the lieutenant, who was sitting in a Humvee.” (Stephen Coonts, political suspense)

Another prologue. The story question is something like, Who are the "ragheads,"  have they killed the driver, and will they kill the sergeant and the lieutenant?

“On the day of her eighteenth birthday, Laura was in love.” (Nora Roberts, romance)

This novel also begins with a prologue. The story questions are Will Laura remain in love? Is Laura’s love returned? Who is Laura's love interest?

Each of these story questions not only hook the reader’s attention, but offer substantive markers that hint at what’s to come. In Sparks’ example, a violent storm is making history in North Carolina. That’s probably enough to hook me to keep a reader reading, but he complicates matters by adding a woman driving a car in that dangerous storm, a young mom preoccupied with worry over her son who sleeps trustingly in the backseat. The other two examples are attention grabbers that present setting and background information in which the author roots for the characters.

Now practice writing your own story questions. Begin by searching your favorite novels for “hooks.” I recommend Reader’s Digest for both fiction and non-fiction writers; uou’ll find excellent examples of opening hooks. Ask questions as you read: How does the writer structure opening sentences and paragraphs?
What about ending paragraphs? Restate them in actual question format. Identify themes that touch on the human condition—themes that affect everyone, not just a few. How deeply into the chapter does the novel advance before answering story questions? Does the writer weave in additional story questions? Now it’s time to re-read your own manuscript, whether it be a novel, short story, article or memoir, and highlight those story questions. Remember that the bulk of writing is revising.



Writing Tips From Around the Net

What Color is Your Pig's Lipstick?Danielle wrote to ask, "In 100 words or less, what is the best writing advice you ever received?" Chip

That's easy... On page 71 of Strunk & White's Elements of Style (3rd Edition), they give this advice: "Write with nouns and verbs, not adjectives and adverbs." In the words of E.B. White, nouns and verbs "give to good writing its toughness and color." Similarly, in his insightful work, On Writing, novelist Stephen King goes into great detail on this advice, pointing out that any reader can understand the combination of a noun and a verb: "Mary sighs." "Computers crash." "Book illuminate." In my experience, authors (particularly novelists, but ALL authors) tend to use adjectives and adverbs to dress things up when they can't find the right word. But that's nothing more than lipstick on a pig. The right word is what good writing is all about. If you want punch and strength in your writing, write with nouns and verbs.



Writing Mechanics

Comma Splices, Fuses, and FANBOYS!
Vicki McCollum (c)
Just when I think, “I’ve got it!” I punctuate it incorrectly. Usually, it’s because of that dreaded, sneaky, and misleading piece of punctuation—the comma. How can anything so miniscule be so problematic?

What’s the purpose of punctuation, anyway?
Perhaps like me, you have questioned the purpose of punctuation when deep in the process of revising your work in progress (WIP). You may have even asked, “Outside of an occasional comma or period to alert readers to slow down and catch their breath, what’s the point?” It’s a good question really, and one we will tackle in this column.

For a moment, imagine that visitors from a foreign country will stay in your home for the weekend. Naturally, you will be sure to place clean towels, soap, and perhaps new toothbrushes in the bathroom. To avoid confusion, you’ll likely advise them of planned activities and meal times, and even alert them to the alarm system—just in case they decide to take a late night stroll. In the end, you’ll do your best to ensure that your guests enjoy their visit to your home.

Punctuation also helps avoid confusion. Think of punctuation as using “company manners.” With punctuation, your goal is to guide your readers through your literary world; thereby avoiding confusion and misunderstanding.

What are some mistaken beliefs about comma usage?
1. “Pause for breath, use a comma”

Over punctuation typically occurs by the writer taught, “pause for breath, use a comma”. But, writers soon realize that pausing for breath won’t help them meet the challenges they face when developing their writing skills.

Here’s an example of overuse of the comma:

Wrong: Recently, my ninth-grade daughter, shared her English teacher’s advice, about comma placement, “Don’t sweat it, Mom. Just place a comma, where you need to pause, for breath, or break up a long, sentence.”

Right: Recently, my ninth-grade daughter shared her English teacher’s advice about comma placement, “Don’t sweat it, Mom. Just place a comma where you need to pause for breath or break up a long sentence.”

Correct over-punctuation by becoming familiar with some simple punctuation rules, rather than relying on inadequate methods.

2. Run-on (fused) sentences

Run-on sentences occur when two or more complete sentences are fused together without punctuation. Correct run-on sentences using semi-colons, periods, or a comma with FANBOYS.

Wrong: “Old habit of mind is one of the toughest things to get away from in the world it transmits itself like physical form and feature...”

Right: “Old habit of mind is one of the toughest things to get away from in the world. It transmits itself like physical form and feature...” (Mark Twain)

3. Comma splices

Comma splices occur when two complete sentences are linked together, inadequately, with only a comma.

Wrong: “Old habit of mind is one of the toughest things to get away from in the world, it transmits itself like physical form and feature...”

Right: “Old habit of mind is one of the toughest things to get away from in the world; it transmits itself like physical form and feature. . .” (Mark Twain)

Can these common mistakes be easily fixed?
Yes, definitely. There are three ways to correct comma splices and run-on sentences: semi-colons, periods, or by placing a comma before FANBOYS.

FANBOYS is a mnemonic device that stands for the following coordinating conjunctions:


When using commas with FANBOYS, keep these tips in mind:

1. Use commas before coordinating conjunctions that join two complete thoughts (complete thoughts have a subject and verb).

2. Don’t use a comma before FANBOYS if the second phrase is not a complete thought with a subject and verb.

More tips for using commas

1. Use commas with introductory words or phrases:

“When I’m playful, I use the meridians of longitude and parallels of latitude for a seine, and drag the Atlantic Ocean for whales...” (Mark Twain)

2. Use commas with clauses that begin with although, if, as, in order to, when.

“As I was just telling you, if there was a horse race, you’d find him flush or you’d find him busted at the end of it.” (Twain)

3. Use commas in a series of items or actions:

“He never smiled, he never frowned, he never changed his voice from the quiet, gently-flowing key to which he turned the initial sentence.” (Twain)

4. Use commas in the place of “and” when linking coordinate adjectives:

“ experienced, industrious, ambitious, and often quite picturesque liar.” (Mark Twain)

For more on the use of commas and other punctuation, pick up a copy of Working with Words, Brooks, et al; Woe Is I, by Patricia T. O’Conner; Handbook for Writers , by Simon & Schuster; The Grammar Bible , by Michael Strumpf; or any good grammar book.

Woe is I, Updated and Expanded Third Edition