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by Shirley E. Gould

Christmas is upon us! It happens every year…the food, the search for gifts, company parties, Christmas programs and family gatherings crowd our schedules, devour our finances and sap our strength. We can get overwhelmed in the twinkle lights and tinsel. The lines get blurred.

Today, the grinch teams up with Scrooge to divert us from the holy meaning that deserves celebrating. So many want to think of Christ as being Away in a Manger…keeping Jesus at a distance instead of up close and personal. By doing this we’re saying there’s no room for Him…no room in the Inn.

Hearing the miraculous story of His virgin birth reminds us He’s the reason for the season. We, as Christians focus on the true meaning behind the hub-bub—but are we doing enough? In the Christmas carol ‘Joy to the World’ there is a phrase that says…let every heart prepare Him room…

John 3:16 says…For God so loved the world that he gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.

God gave us the very best He had. Then He added the promise of eternal life if we believe in Him. In this season of gift giving…what gift do you have for Jesus?

In 1993, an eight-year-old boy listened intently to every word of J.R.’s (my husband’s) mission message. At the end of the service the boy checked every pocket—but he had no money to give in the mission’s offering. J.R. watched him as the offering plate drew near. When he held it in his hands, he slipped off the wooden pew and stepped into the center aisle of the sanctuary. He put the round wooden offering plate on the floor and stepped into it—giving himself to the Lord.

We should follow his example by making a renewed commitment to Jesus this Christmas. As writers of Christian fiction, we must weave this Christmas message into our prose in an effort to make a difference with our words. Christmas novellas are a perfect venue for such an effort.

At a time when hearts are open—when people are lonely—struggling to make ends meet—to make everyone happy—we can point them to the Savior, the healer, the provider. Like a student raising his hand to answer a question in a classroom—we need to be writing this truth for the world to read…that they might find their answers in our stories.

When our characters make room for Christ in their lives it instills a vibrant example for our readers to do the same. We have readers who need this message. So, as writers, make that renewed commitment this Christmas season then write on my friends—sharing its importance with the masses.

Shirley E. Gould is an inspirational speaker, an African missionary and a freelance journalist. She’s founder of Kenya’s Kids Home for Street Children in Kenya, East Africa. Shirley has written articles and newsletters for twenty years and is presently writing Christian Fiction novels. She lives in the Nashville, Tennessee area.

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By Jean Kavich Bloom

As a fiction editor, I find novelists can encounter a couple of challenges when it comes to character descriptions: (1) keeping track of them so they don’t accidently give their heroine, for instance, blue eyes in chapter 1 and brown eyes in chapter 12, and (2) conveying them to readers more creatively than what can seem like mere “reporting.”

Keeping Track

This first challenge can be the easier of the two to conquer. (The conquering might not be as fun as writing, but it can be done simply.) Record all characteristic decisions such as eye and hair color, any scars, straight or curly hair, build, complexion, and so on—even traits and name spellings. You don’t have to stifle creative flow for this documentation; you can manage it in a self-editing pass.

Excellent software is available to help you track characters (and much more), and if you’re creating a whole new world, for instance, using one of those tools might be crucial. But if the people and setting of your novel are relatively uncomplicated, I suggest using a simple spreadsheet. Still, any tracking method will do if it makes your decisions clear and readily accessible. This task is especially important if the same characters appear throughout a series. A reader with a gift for memory could pick up on a character’s height discrepancy between book 1 and book 3. Why put that possibility to the test?

Last, passing on this documentation to your editors will be a blessing!

Conveying Creatively

When I say an author sometimes “reports” a character’s description, I don’t mean the reader is merely told “He stared into Elizabeth’s amber eyes.” I’m referring to any description devoid of creativity other than fancier adjectives, such as to describe color. Even a touch more creativity can go a long way: “He stared into Elizabeth’s eyes, trying to determine their color. Brown? No. They were amber.”

Also consider where a character description is placed. Appearing in the middle of an otherwise intriguing scene, in a We interrupt this story to tell you the heroine is blond and has blue eyes fashion, can be more distracting than helpful. Nor is telling the reader what the hero looks like in the very first sentence of the first paragraph of chapter 1 usually necessary, as if the task of character description is item number one on a list and must be checked off as soon as possible: “Justin sank onto the park bench, his brown eyes darting left and right, his burly frame tense. Then as he ran both hands through his thick, auburn hair…” More creative placement, as long as the reader isn’t left without a portrait too long, can make for more interesting reading.

Here are three examples I worked out to show authors how they might take a more creative approach to character description, with placement entirely dependent on the story:

Show relative height when specific height isn’t important. “The couple of inches she had on the shorter man in front of her didn’t matter. What mattered was how she felt when his gray eyes tilted up to stare into hers, making her want to kick off her high heels and dive into new romantic territory.”

Have one character note another character’s description in thought or in dialogue. “Date her? Her profile says she’s six feet tall, and I’m barely five ten. Those green eyes would forever be looking down on me. No way!” 

Compare one character’s description to another character’s in a way that’s relevant to the set up or scene. “Jason noticed his date had turned her full attention to the man now beside her—his stepbrother. When Jason was alone, women seemed attracted to his blond hair, blue eyes, and six-foot-one height. But when Paul was with him, despite his more common dark coloring and slightly shorter stature, Jason lost them. Paul was the brother who intrigued women apart from his good looks—and they both knew it.”

No matter how you fashion and manage character descriptions in your writing, know this: we readers thank you for painting character portraits for us with your words. What would fiction be without them?

Two challenges with Character Description @BloominWords #ACFWBlogs #amwriting #writingcharacters www.acfw.com/blog
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With three decades of experience in Christian book publishing, Jean Kavich Bloom is a freelance editor and writer for Christian publishers and ministries (Bloom in Words Editorial Services). An aspiring novelist herself, she contributes to the ACFW Indiana Chapter’s Hoosier Ink blog, as well as to The Glorious Table, a community blog for women.

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By Beth K. Vogt

“I never dreamed about success, I worked for it.” — Estee Lauder (1908-2004), American businesswoman

I came across the quote by businesswoman Estee Lauder while working on several different blog posts. Her words encompasses a truth I believe: Living the dream – any dream – means doing the work.

If you’re reading this blog post, odds are we share the dream of being a writer. The only difference is how we would answer some basic questions like:

  • Where are you along the writing road?
  • What are you writing?

No matter our answers, at some point we have to stop dreaming and do the work to succeed.

You may be thinking, “That’s your big tip for writing success, Beth? Stop dreaming and start working?”

Don’t abandon this blog post yet!

Let me get more specific:

To End 2018 with Success:

  • Finish Something.
    • Being even more specific: If there’s something you started in 2018 and it is sitting on your desk or in a file in your laptop or iPad unfinished, finish it. Or tomorrow. But definitely finish it before January 1, 2019.

That witty blog post you started that’s languishing, half-written?

Finish it.

That synopsis for a new book idea that’s incomplete because, well, writing a synopsis is hard work?

Finish it.

That request from an editor or agent when you were at the ACFW conference a few months ago for sample chapters or even a full manuscript?

Finish it.

That – GASP! – list of thank-you notes you forgot to write after the conference?

Finish it.

Sometimes success isn’t about the size of the mountain we scale, but about finishing the climb. Getting to the top and standing there, saying, “We did it,” even if we’re not standing atop Mount Kilimanjaro.

Yes, we’re writers. Creatives. Dreamers.

But let’s do the work that comes with the dreams we’re pursuing. Let’s finish what we’ve started – one specific thing we’ve left undone this year. And then, let’s count the finishing a success.

How can you end 2018 with writing success? @bethvogt #ACFWBlogs #writetip #writerslife www.acfw.com/blog
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Beth K. Vogt believes God’s best often waits behind the doors marked “Never.” A Christy Award winner, as well as an ACFW Carol Award winner, Beth is the author of nine contemporary romance novels and novellas. Her first women’s fiction novel, Things I Never Told You, released May 2018 from Tyndale House Publishers.

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By Lenora Livingston

In my lifetime, I have spent a lot of time, money, and effort trying to improve my writing skills. I have taken long courses, short courses, attended writing seminars, and joined writing groups. But the best advice ever given to me came absolutely free from Mark Weston.

Who is Mark Weston? The younger generations probably wouldn’t have the slightest clue who he was. Actually, the older generations might not recognize his name either. But, if they were around in the 50s and 60s they probably still remember the words to the jingle in the Brylcreem commercials on their black and white televisions. Brylcreem was, and still is, a pomade hair styling product for men. The commercials said a little dab of it made men’s hair excitingly clean and disturbingly healthy, but they must beware of using more than a little dab.  The catchy jingle, which was implanted in my memory almost six decades ago, goes somewhat like this:

Brylcreem – a little dab’l do ya

Brylcreem – you look so debonair

Brylcreem – the girls will all pursue ya

They love to get their fingers in your hair!

Mark was the handsome man who made the mistake of using a tad too much Brylcreem and the girls couldn’t keep their fingers out of his gorgeous head of hair.

Mark performed twenty years both on and off Broadway, along with being in numerous films and television commercials. After being stricken with Bell’s Palsy, a sudden weakness of the muscles in half of his face, he became a successful writer of stage productions, screenplays, and documentaries. He taught writing skills free of charge, because he wanted to give back what was given to him.

I had already learned from taking acting classes that the most successful actors are those who get “naked on the stage.” That doesn’t mean they have to strip their clothes off. It means they strip themselves of anything that blocks their emotions. I learned from Mark that the page is to novelist what the stage is to actors.

Mark gave me the best advice ever when he simply said to me, “When you write, if you feel it, your readers will too.” When he said that, it was as if a light bulb turned on in my head. Being inclined to not show my emotions, I knew it would be difficult to do. But I knew I had to do it in order to be a successful writer. It wasn’t easy getting naked on my pages. It would have been much easier to walk down Main Street buck naked.  I knew I was on the right track when I found myself laughing and crying while writing Where’s Stephanie.  Now,  when I read reviews on Amazon or on my webpage,  I know without a doubt that Mark’s advice worked . My readers say they laugh and cry when reading my book.

Sadly, Mark Weston passed away before receiving his autographed copy of Where’s Stephanie. I presented it to his widow, Linda Herskowitz.

Getting Naked on the Page by @LenoraLiving #ACFWBlogs #amwriting www.acfw.com/blog
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Besides books, Lenora Livingston has written short stories; newspapers articles, and school programs, including a “Character Education Word-of-the-Month” program. She earned a BA and MAT from University of South Carolina, plus continued post masters studies at The Citadel. Visit her at http://lenoralivingston.com, or the film webpage for Where’s Stephanie?

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by Marianne Evans

The creation of a series isn’t a solitary endeavor. Series novels require research, continuity, a solid plot base and characters that will see it through. Like a progressive measurement curve.

But then…in steps…life. Christ. The power of love and family. Resurrection hope. Let me share with you the bittersweet love story of my sister and brother-in-law: Mary and John Hilger.

Once upon a time, the seeds of a series planted themselves in my heart and spirit. I saw a farm. A family. Midwest strong and vibrant. Within this harvest I saw three brothers. A picturesque piece of rolling land in Indiana. There were low-lying, rippling fields of soybeans. There was turmoil, faith, and overwhelming love. For the bulk of their lives, John and Mary oversaw the operations of a 400-plus acre farm much like the one I imagined. They bore and raised six precious daughters, and life was good. You couldn’t leave their home without fresh fruits and vegetables. John’s booming voice and Christ-centered spirit resounded. John and Mary were instrumental in helping me research and develop my series; their family example was something I longed to pay homage to because they were mentors to me and key to my spiritual discovery and growth.

The Fishermen of Antioch series was born.

I began to write a trio of books that honored farm families, stories that celebrated deep roots. I wanted to demonstrate the honor and respect owed to those who work the earth and harvest without thinking of anything else but community provision. How much like our Father God? In John and Mary’s world, if strawberries rested on the vine after the main harvest, those without means were bussed to their farm to pick the fields clean. For free. Waste of God’s gifts was never an option.

John and Mary saw their family to fruition. As life’s golden-age came upon them, sons-in-law joined the picture. A multitude of grandchildren blessed their lives and there was retirement on the near horizon. They had plans. An art and Scripture-based ministry they’d carry out from church to church was already taking off. John’s engaging recitation of Scripture coupled with Mary’s ordained artwork brought souls to the Kingdom. They couldn’t wait to embrace an exciting new season of life. A few Christmases ago, their family gifted them with a river cruise through Europe that would take them to Germany—a long-held bucket list destination.

Before departing, John and Mary stopped by our house on their way to Detroit Metro Airport. We shared dinner, and, in typical fashion, Deacon John prayed over me as they prepared to depart for Europe. Selfless love. I prayed with and for him as well, but nothing was as special as a blessing from John…

Less than a day after they left, we received a panicked text notification from Mary that read, simply: “PRAY.” We did, of course…but that’s where the story takes a twist. Soon we discovered what prompted her outcry. Following dinner on the first night of their cruise, John suffered a massive heart attack. Thanks to Jesus alone he was in Amsterdam and was immediately transported to a world-class hospital where he was placed in a medically induced coma.

We prayed, we believed, we stormed the gates of heaven. Meanwhile, all six daughters made their way to Amsterdam, battling horrific weather patterns, botched deliveries of passports, and a nightmare of bureaucracy…but by the grace of God alone, they all made it there.

Just hours before John passed away.

My sister-in-law has written a book about her journey through grief. It’s called ‘Finding Beauty in Ashes.’ The story is amazing. Meanwhile, the final book of the Fishermen of Antioch series was finished just a few months ago. Book 1 released in October, Book 2 releases in January, Book 3 in March. It took a while to complete because I needed to mourn, yet rejoice in a life well lived. The result, I hope, will honor my original God-given goal, and the rich legacy of a family’s love.

For every story we create, there’s so much more than what meets the eye. Multi-award winner @MarEvansAuthor tells her story behind the story for #ACFWBlogs @ACFWTWeets www.acfw.com/blog
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Marianne Evans is an award-winning author of faith-affirming fiction who has won acclaim from critics and readers. RT Book Reviews named her book Forgiveness a 4.5-Star Top Pick and readers laude her books as ‘riveting’ and ‘true to heart.’ She’s a life-long resident of Michigan who calls suburban Detroit home.

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By Kimberley Woodhouse

I’m always fascinated with research. It’s one of my favorite things to do in my career. I find it so easy to get sucked in by an interesting time in history, an amazing person, or an absolutely breathtaking location. But if I had to give one piece of advice about research it would be this: Go visit the location in person (if at all possible). Do some ‘hands-on’ research because it’s invaluable.

For example – at least nine of my fiction books take place in Alaska. We used to live there, but I still travel back to do research on specific locations for different stories. Why? Well, for starters, Alaska is my favorite place and it was great to have an excuse to go back. Then there’s also the fact that Alaska is one of those settings that authors get wrong. A lot.

So when I was in Texas on a book tour a few years ago, I decided to stop by the Texas Rangers Museum in Waco, Texas again. I knew that I wanted to do a story or two including the Rangers, and what better way to learn about them than to go to the historical source.

Not only did the museum sell a lot of research books to me that day, but I learned so many interesting facts getting to touch and feel and look at all the amazing paraphernalia they’ve acquired. Several stories started simmering in my story-creating mind.

But there were several things that made me ask the question, “How did they do that?”

One particular one was a Colt revolver that a Ranger would have used. They had it set up in a case where you could stick your hand in and pick it up.

Let me tell you, that wasn’t an easy task. I will never forget it. The gun itself was big for my hand, but it was the weight of it that astounded me. I kept thinking, “How could someone shoot this with one hand?”

Now, to put this into perspective, I always thought that I had strong hands. They might be small, but I’ve got the strength of a being a classically trained pianist since I was just a little tyke. When other people can’t open their pickle jars, I normally can.

Talk about harsh reality. That gun was heavy. And I decided right then and there that there wasn’t any way I could hold up that pistol, aim it, and fire it with any accuracy using only one hand. It was an incredible thing to think about because those Rangers had to be able to do it. And do it well.

Of course, then it put my mind into motion about how difficult it would have been for a woman to fire that behemoth of a pistol. And then my brain conjured up a headstrong woman that was passionate about temperance and women’s rights but was accident-prone and a menace to a Ranger. My story MissTaken Identity in the MissAdventure Brides Collection was born.

Little tidbits like the ones I learned at the museum will live on in my mind for a long time and probably spark several more stories. Doing that hands-on research was worth more than words can ever say.

Enjoy the journey,

Kimberley

How Did They Do That? thoughts from @kimwoodhouse #ACFWBlogs @ACFWTweets #writing #research www.acfw.com/blog
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Kimberley Woodhouse is the best-selling author of more than fifteen books who loves the JOY of story. A lover of history and research, she often gets sucked into the past and then her husband has to lure her out with chocolate. She lives and writes in Montana. https://kimberleywoodhouse.com  

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By Donna L.H. Smith

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been disappointed in writing or life — or had unmet expectations — I’d be a rich woman.

Because disappointment is a part of life and how we handle ourselves, our feelings, our responses when life throws us a sucker punch…

Let me tell you a story. Eighteen years ago, I was in a Bible School through our church at the time. It was life-changing to me.

Something happened just about a month before I was finished with class. A teacher and I discussed an issue not related to class, but that talk had me stewing all night long.

The next morning, a fellow student said something off-hand, and I was so upset, I ran to the bathroom. My teacher followed me and asked me what had happened. Through my tears, I explained the discussion and how disappointed I was about the outcome. She said something to me I’ve never forgotten.

“This is a test, and how you respond will determine your future.”

I felt like I’d already had my guts pulled out, then stuffed back in. But you better believe I was determined to respond “correctly.” I was tested that weekend more than I’d ever been tested previous to that time. Since then, I’ve had worse.

A few years later, I underwent another test of great disappointment and unmet expectations that made the first test seem like a cakewalk, as all my dreams at the time were crushed, leaving me emotionally devastated.

I was attempting to become a “certified” teacher with a national ministry. I was so excited about it. God seemed to be opening doors for me, and I loved the preparations, the practice teaching, all of it.

But something happened. Looking back on that time, the only thing I can think of was that after passing one test, I flunked the next one. These were character tests. I did well in handling one disappointment, but an offense slipped in. As a result, I said and did a couple of things that ruined my chances of getting what I wanted.

It took me ten years to recuperate and heal to the point where I’d risk stepping out in that area again. During another time of prolonged disappointment, God inspired my pastor to restore me. I’m so thankful. It helped me get through that difficult time.

Even when things happen, we still have to try. When we’re not pleased with the outcome, we still must give effort. And sometimes the effort fails. But we can’t just dig a hole for ourselves and crawl in. We have to keep trying, keep the faith, and hang in there. God hears our prayers and He is with us.

Eventually, as we continue to pursue the Lord, things change. Doors open. God’s presence leads and guides us—and we take another step closer to our destiny—that place of favor, and what my pastor calls our “sweet spot” — convergence — where it all comes together.

Trusting God with our lives involves having faith in our God, that He knows what’s best. By Donna LH Smith #ACFWBlogs #writingencouragement @ACFWTweets www.acfw.com/blog

Donna L.H. Smith, award-winning novelist, is a Kansas prairie girl transplanted to Lancaster County, PA, writing for over forty years. She writes historical romance and currently serves as the ACFW Mid-Atlantic Zone Director. Her second novel, Rose’s Redemption was just released, and placed 2nd in the 2017 Golden Leaf.

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