February 21, 2017

So You Want To Be a Writer?

I took my dad along with me to my first writers' conference. I was sixteen years old.

Normally, there is a Teen Track at the Mount Hermon Christian Writers' Conference, but that year, due to low turn out, I attended the mainstream fiction track. At dinner, the first night, one of the other conferees mentioned something about a teen writers' group who only attends every other year - and this was the off-year.

I met the other teen writer the next day. One of the most precocious, outgoing people I had ever met. And we still keep in touch to this day.

Already, she had a novel finished and was talking to agents and editors about publishing. All I had was a rough draft that my pre-conference group tore to shreds (I thanked them for it later... but still). I certainly felt a bit overwhelmed and less than enthusiastic about whether or not I could really do this whole "writer thing."

https://www.amazon.com/Touch-Grace-Daughters-Blessing-Book-ebook/dp/B00B5J4ZE2/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1487702684&sr=8-1&keywords=a+touch+of+graceI can't even begin to explain just how much that Palm Sunday weekend in 2011 sticks out in my memories.

I met my favorite author, Lauraine Snelling, and finally got to hear why Grace and Jonathan weren't together by the end of the book (apparently it was unrealistic for anything to happen between them in the time span of the book in the context of the early 1900s). She really shaped my perception on realism in historical fiction.

I heard hymns sung with enthusiasm I'd never encountered before (they have a special place in my heart now - regardless of ridiculously complex melodies).

And several ladies, many about forty years old to seventy, came up to me and mentioned that they wished they figured out they wanted to write at my age.

That caught me off guard.

I wasn't exactly the next Christopher Paolini. One of the authors at the conference even mentioned that it takes a writer, on average, seven years of trying before their book gets published.

So what?

I went back to that writers' conference in 2012 and sure enough... there were several other teens that year. Lissa Halls Johnson led the track. And it was that year - I was convinced.

Don't think too much about age when it comes to writing. There is no exact window during which you may or may not be eligible to put out a novel. While there is something to be said for life-experience fueling your work, whatever you do - write what you know. 

You don't need a degree for that.  

At the end of the conference, I was seated in the chapel beside my dad (who showed up rather unexpectedly) listening as they announced the awards. Pace-Setter, Writer of the Year, Most-Promising New Writer, etc. I don't recall my heart beating as they announced the Most Promising Teen Writer. I kept looking across the isle at my friend from the previous year seated beside her mom (another writer, of course).

Then came the introduction.

Started writing at thirteen. Just accepted into Westmont College, etc. etc.

The description sounded awfully familiar. Funny thing though, while accepted, I didn't plan on attending Westmont, I'd already decided on William Jessup, so the words didn't initially register. Until they said my name.

Then the whole world went into slow-motion as I rose, dodged the knees of the people seated next to me, and made my way to the front, where I received a hug, a firm handshake and a framed award while someone snapped a picture.

I could hardly believe it, even as I sat back down in my pew beside my dad - though I now understood why he came early.

I tucked all those memories away, and remembered them fondly from time to time.

I was only 17-going-on-18 at the the time. Now, I'm 22-going-on-23. And the manuscript I brought to that conference is the same manuscript I'm working on today (draft number five!). College gave me major writers' block and throughout those last four years, I started to wonder if maybe I'm as called as I thought I was to write.

My roommate and I have this thing we call, "doors and arrows." It started when our housing situation got a little screwy, so we decided that we were going to trust God to direct us. We would ask Him to either open or close doors and give us BIG arrows to point us in the right direction.

That thing, "doors and arrows" turned into my methodology for how I looked at my calling in life. More and more, I began to wonder if all the doors I was walking through were leading me in a different direction - writers' block, agents and editors weren't interested in my novel... you get the point.

Doors and Arrows are a confusing thing, at times. After letting go on one dream, I started looking into other options. Those doors seemed wide open - until I started thinking about what I would enjoy about those job descriptions versus what I wouldn't. Did the positives outweigh the negatives? Not exactly. Actually, some aspects outright scared me.

So I took another good hard look at writing.

I actually wrote my capstone for my degree on the historical background of my novel

I love the job description of a writer.

and I really need to finish my stupid manuscript after all the effort I've put into it, the numerous drafts and money spent on writers' conferences.

So, here's to me, attempting to get my inspiration back (I'm a panster, so this is going to be interesting).

This is year six for me.

But as for you... the journey into writing isn't necessarily straightforward. Whatever you do, do what you love, and write what you know. That's all there is to it. And if you do choose to write, really go all out. Don't be afraid that someone won't like your work. The market changes all the time - and you can always become a better writer.

So have courage, dear heart.

February 10, 2017

Indie Publishing: From Your Dream to Your Hands (Part One)

Hey there!
Kara Swanson, here. Welcome to my blog series on independently publishing. Here, I'll talk about my personal experiences like I actually know what I’m doing J

I first indie published at seventeen, and am taking the plunge again for an urban fantasy/sci-fi novella called The Girl Who Could See (learn about it on Goodreads here) that releases in June.

As I grow and gain a little more knowledge about the vast ocean that is indie publishing, I’ll be sharing with you! So stay tuned.

I’m calling this series Indie Publishing: From Your Dreams to Your Hands for a very specific reason. People who independently publish their work are just that—dreamers. Those who are serious enough to learn the tangled web of formatting, cover design and CreateSpace. Those who have a story to tell, and have decided this is the best way for them to do it. Those who are willing to reach for the stars, even if that may take hours of long, hard dedication to being author, editor and publisher.

I’ve thrown around the word “indie (independent) publishing” several times already, and I’d like to explain briefly what that really is. There are two basic types of publishing in this industry. Some other options cross over, but these are the two most well-known:

Traditional Publishing
Independent Publishing

Traditional publishing has been around for…well…ever. It’s the one most people think of when they hear the word ‘publishing’. A traditional house will contract an author (after a very difficult submission/screening process that I can’t get into here) and then find editors, a cover designer, formatter, the best way to market and distribute the book, etc. They will essentially make your life easier, and pay you for writing and gaining an audience through book signings and any media. That’s the very, very basic version.

With Indie publishing, you become the publishing house. It is up to you to find editors, a cover designer, to format your book, to distribute it, to publish through various venues (generally Amazon Kindle/CreateSpace) and then market it. You must find an audience of people who will want to buy your book when it finally is available. You will have to get it into bookstores, libraries etc.

Seems like a lot of work, right? So, why go indie if a traditional house will do much of that for you?

There are many reasons people choose indie, here are a few:
  • Many want to retain all the control over the process they can, so that the book that ends up on bookshelves is the story they set out to tell.

  • For others, it’s their best option, as their stories fit outside the realm of what traditional publishers generally publish. (That’s one of the reasons why I’m doing my novella by myself, as it's too short/strange for most publishers. )

  • Some authors thrive by putting out their novel themselves, retaining far higher royalties, and already sitting on a large platform of readers.

So, there you have it! A basic explanation of what indie publishing is and why it might just be the perfect fit for you.

Okay, so you’ve chosen indie publishing…what next? Stay tuned for the second post in this series, as I walk you through the various aspects of indie publishing starting with the art of refining your craft as an author.

Are you considering indie publishing? Have you ever independently published your own novel? Was this post of any help to you? 

'Till next time, 

February 8, 2017

Everything Counts

I'm writing this post because I just finished a book.

Good enough reason to to write a post, don't you think?

Actually, any time I finish a book, I'm either inspired, or horrified that certain things made it past an editor's scrutiny.

So! In light of these interesting thoughts of mine, I want to share a quote with you. I stumbled across it on Pinterest of all things, but it's poignant.

Make every sentence, every chapter, every thought and every character fight for their existence. 

Needless to say, the book I just finished was very slow.

But THINK about it. Really. Whenever you read a book that starts off slow, or throws in characters you don't care about, or tells you something irrelevant - you either finish the story out of pure stubborn committal, skip to the good part, or put the book away. It's frustrating.

So how do we fix this in our own writing?

It comes down to tension, I think.

Tension is what keeps your reader awake at 3 AM with a flashlight trying to get to a stopping point (but there is none). It's the panic induced speed reading because you are so concerned for the character's well being or success that you can't even pick up the details - hence a need for a second reading now that you know how it ends.

But knowing what tension looks like and creating it are two separate things. For some writers, it can be a serious struggle.

Here's a few things to try...


 Whether you are a Panster or a Plotter, this is a crucial skill to have down. While Plotters might be a bit more detailed in their story mapping, Pansters can learn a thing or two to improve tension. There is no room for meandering in a tension filled story. Meandering leads to rabbit trails and useless scenes (harsh, but you know it's true).
So, without cramping your panster style too much, write down some major plot points throughout your story. Make sure you get a good grip on how each point leads to another. This will help you stay on course as you write. No irrelevant plot points. EVERYTHING must add to the central story. Even subplots. 


Whatever you do, leave things unresolved. Regardless of whether or not you write mysteries, each chapter ought to be like a clue that drives your character forward. BUT, your story cannot officially resolve until the end of the book. It's a bit like a trail of candy that leads to a gingerbread house. The candy is enticing, but it's building up to the real deal. Each chapter adds something to story - reveals a secret - that pulls the reader in. However...ALWAYS, always, always, leave something unknown. Keep your characters stubborn in that way.
 If there is still a stone left unturned, your reader will always have a reason to keep going. They want to see your character divulge their dirty little secret at the worst possible moment.  So leave off your chapters with more to be revealed.


We all love a good minor character. If you get to know them well enough, they can often prove to be a springboard for a sequel. HOWEVER. Do not let your minor characters steal the show from your main characters. Sometimes we as writers brush this off as a subplot that adds to the tension - all will be revealed in due time. BUT. Be careful. Your subplots may be skipped over because your reader cares more about your main character. 
 Your minor characters ought to have just as much personality and life as your main character, but they don't get to have their own story, not yet anyways. Unless their story is consistently feeding into the MC's story, it adds nothing to the plot of THIS story. 


 Ask yourself, did I start my novel in the right place? If you didn't, your opening chapter will throw the pacing of your story completely out of whack. I can only say this because I've done it.
Sometimes, we start back a little too far because it's tempting to really get into the back story. Back Story, however, can be great material for tension. Where it would otherwise drag out the beginning, you can treat your back story like a big secret and slowly reveal it as it becomes relevant. 
General rule of thumb, there should be no boring chapters. Traveling, sitting, sleeping and chit chat are all stumbling blocks for good pacing. 
Now, I know this is going to hurt... but I beg of you to read through your manuscript and check your plot. Make sure every sentence, every scene, every character drives the plot in some way. If they don't, it's time to say goodbye. Save it for another story where is WILL matter. Have someone else read it. Get an outsider's opinion. 

We all want to write the next great novel.

December 14, 2016

How to Fix the Sagging Middle

We all run into this problem at some point or another.

You start off writing this amazing story. Your beginning is beautiful. You love your characters. And you know exactly where you want the story to wind up in the end. But somehow, in the middle of it all, you get a little lost along the way. You write that scene - it's fascinating to you, the setting of it and the way your characters interact and react, but it has no real relevance to the plot. It breaks your heart to admit it. Those scenes are the answer to all of the "what ifs" you ponder.

But they're the reason for what you might call, "a saggy middle."

The beginning is great.

The ending is perfect.

But the middle just sucks...

And how on earth do you fix that? How do you get where you want to go with a story without getting lost along the way? Plotters are so much better at this than Seat-of-the-pantsers. Still, it's an important question. As a Panster myself, I'm going to share someone else's advice with you:

I took a workshop on this at a writer's conference and the speaker suggested an idea. You probably think the answer to this lies in the hero's journey - somewhere along the way, you forgot a few steps. But what about this:

Have you ever tried writing your story from the middle?

Picture your character in a moment of adversity - not quite the black moment. But a moment where their good intentions are in question and they're wondering, "How on earth did I wind up here?"

"How did I get here?"

Hopefully you know how to get from this moment to your black moment. First, it gets hard, then their friends rally around them, they come up with a plan, they execute, all hope seems lost, then your character does something they couldn't have done when the story starts out (a lesson learned). The day is saved and happy ending commences.

All right, now we work backwards.

From the moment of, "How did I get here," work back. Ask yourself what kind of person your character has to be to find themselves in the situation. How did they get out of their comfort zone? What went wrong? What was their intent? This will bring you to your, "Day everything changed," The moment that set them on their journey.

There. No more saggy middle.

I'm sure you all have your ways of fixing a saggy middle. But this is mine. And if you think about it, it's probably the way you came up with your story to begin with. We all ask the question, "What would happen if a character who ________ faced _________?"

And that, my friends, is actually the middle.

September 8, 2016

The Who's Who of Voice

Dialogue is the foundation of expressing a character's thoughts and opinions. It can show the ways that they interact with other characters, or even give the reader a sense of where the character comes from based on their grammar. Each character's dialogue is unique and differs from the others characters. Ideally... their speech should be so unique to them, that a "he said" or "she said" is not necessary.

But how can you do this? Seems a bit... hard, right? Well, think about the last REALLY good book you read. Maybe one of the characters had a bad childhood experience and is hesitant to speak about themselves too personally. This could be key in that character's dialogue. This character will be a dodger, someone who only talks about other people and things that won't require them to give anything about themselves away. This makes your character different from another character who feels free to talk about say... their dog or their grandma or what food they like.

What about a character who comes from the slums (exaggerating here). This character will have poor grammar and limited vocabulary. They won't use words that you might find a college professor using. On the contrary, a character who comes from a very educated background will be better able to express themselves using good grammar and vast vocabulary. (stereotypical example) Someone from Texas will use words like, "ya'll," a Mainer will drop their r's and someone from West Virginia will say the "wash" as "warsh." Vocabulary and grammar are very simple ways to make them distinct.

But THINK about it. A character who has anger or lying issues will also speak differently. An angry character will jump to conclusion and accuse others regularly. They might also be the King or Queen of interjections. A lying character will say things that don't always make sense with the other character's opinions and statements. On the other hand, if say... a dog... is speaking, the dog will discuss things like food and being petted, toys or rawhide bones. A teenaged girl will prefer to talk about her boyfriend who offended her the other day, or whether or not she likes the shirt she's wearing.

So here's something to try...

  1. write out a conversation in which two or more characters are having an argument, but don't use "He said" or "she said" to tell them apart. No beats either (short action phrases, aka "Connor wiped the sweat from his forehead.") Just dialogue. 
  2. Read the conversation out loud and listen to see if you can hear your characters' distinct voices. 
  3. This done, now add some "he saids" and "she saids" 
  4. Read it again.
  5. Now you can add some "color" to the conversation: add some beats now. Make your characters DO things. Throw chairs against the walls if they need to. 
  6. Read it out loud again. I hope you're proud of the dialogue you've just created =) 

Remember, no two people are alike, even twins. When you create dialogue, we don't want a dry comments about the weather unless the character really is a dry person. Make your characters colorful and unique.

Happy writing =)

May 14, 2016

Sometimes... you just need a little Muse

I'd really like for you all to meet Rosamund.

She's a Mark Farmer China Doll Reproduction from approx. the 1960's and I'm kind of in love with her.

Most of what I write is Victorian Era historical fiction. I love the etiquette, the technology, the fashion, the hair - all of the above. And more often than not, I can be found browsing antique and junk shops just looking at the "old stuff" and savoring the smell of moth balls (I know I'm weird - most writers are). But the best part of browsing antique shops is the inspiration I find.

paraffin heater
When I see an old paraffin heater or a kerosine lamp, I picture a scene - something like the people who must have gathered around it in the evenings after in came in the mail (they probably ordered it from a Sears & Roebuck catalog during the late 1880s - 1900ish). I see a victorian lady reading her mail. I see a man with his newspaper. I see a child playing jacks. And I hear a blizzard howling outside.

When I see a China Doll, I picture the little girl who loved her to death and sewed clothes for her. I think of the French Fashion dolls - not unlike our barbie dolls. And all I can do is gush over the way the dolls represent the fashion and beauty trends of the day.

So while browsing a junk shop about a week ago, I spotted this Mark Farmer doll and just kept staring at it. The body was in the wrong condition to be truly Victorian in origin (she actually resembles more of the turn of the century style china dolls). Still, she had the look. And her body was too yellowed to be "new."

So of course... I took her home.

Every writer has their muse.

I know some who fill their writing room or surround their desk with antiques. Others who pin maps on their walls. Some have a closet they sit in every time they take time to write. Other have a specific jacket they put on.

I suppose we're creatures of habit.

I used to have a "spot." I sat in the same chair at the same desk at the same old Mac computer till it crashed. Then I went off to college and I never really could find a new "spot." But then perhaps I was simply too preoccupied to really write unless it was for a class.

But then, recently, I noticed another writer had posted a picture of her "muse" on instagram. I'll admit, I was really inspired. She writes WWII and hers was a doll in a flight jacket. While I have a soft spot in my heart for my childhood and dolls, I wanted something more vintage. I pictured a Victorian China doll. I've wanted to own one for quite some time.

And in that junk shop, finally, I saw one that wasn't too pricey. And albeit a reproduction of one of the turn of the century chinas, I was sold.

I have my new muse.

We all need one. We're just a little too habitual not too. It's how we slip into another world, another time, another place. And if it's our task to take a reader there with us, then ideally, we ought to take measures to get there and stay there.