Storytelling Lessons from Hallmark Movies

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Say what you will about Hallmark movies. You either love them or hate them. Or somewhere in between.

When I discovered Hallmark movies in 2015, I was going through a difficult period of my life. These movies helped me see that there are happy endings to stories. Certainly I could find a happy ending to my own, right?

Still if you’re aspiring writer of fiction, especially romantic fiction, you might want to watch a few of them. You might learn a few tips and tricks about storytelling.

There is nothing scientific about my observations below. They are strictly subjective based on my life perspective. Be free to agree or disagree with these lessons.

  • Create compelling characters. While Hallmark characters might lead idyllic lives compared to our own, they are flawed and often misguided. While their own troubles aren’t nearly as traumatic as some of the ones you or I might face, they are very real to them. For your own fiction stories, create characters with depth – depth of emotions and motivations.  What is their greatest desire? What obstacles stand in their way of getting it? What false belief or assumption have they been living with that prevents them from finding happiness? These are some of the questions you need to ask yourself about your lead characters so you can make them more believable on the page.
  • Create closure for characters. In Hallmark movies, there’s always a happy ending. I like happy endings, especially ones that are wrapped in brightly colored ribbons and bows. I want to see the characters solve their problems in a way that makes sense for them. You may not have a story that ends with a passionate kiss, but it should end with all loose ends tied up.  
  • Find humor in everyday situations. While some of the Hallmark movies border on silliness, the lighthearted spirit of these films appeals to audiences. The best humor comes from everyday —  and sometimes embarrassing – events. Like someone walking out of the bathroom not realizing with a piece of toilet paper stuck to the bottom of their shoe. That kind of stuff happens in real life, and readers can relate to them.  Even if you’re writing a film noir or a horror story, a little humor can lighten the mood. When Buffy the Vampire Slayer utters a sharp wisecrack just when she’s about to put a stake in a vampire’s heart, it makes for satisfying entertainment. Think about how you use humor in your own stories, but don’t add it just for humor’s sake.
  • Story lines don’t have to be overly complex to be effective. Surely, the plots for Hallmark movies are rather simplistic and not necessarily innovative. But they still work. There’s still an inciting incident (when the two romantic leads meet), a build-up of suspense and a climax when the two romantic leads finally come together.  
  • Avoid predictability. The knock on Hallmark movies has been that they are predictable, often rehashing the same story lines over and over. If you have several manuscripts in various stages of completion, make sure they’re not the same plot rehashed with different characters and settings. Readers expect more than that. Be surprising. Show them a twist that they may not have seen before. Introduce a character with an unusual background or trait. Write something unexpected to keep readers wanting more.
  • The best stories tug at the heart strings. If there’s anything that Hallmark does excel at, it’s creating heart-warming stories. You don’t have to write a romance novel to bring heart into your own story. Any work of fiction should touch the heart of your readers. Start by crating characters that you care about. If you care about them, readers will too. Then add a plot that is real and honest. You’ll have readers following your every word.
  • Create a compelling title. I find most of the Hallmark movie titles either aren’t memorable or they lack connection to the plot. They’re more cute than accurate. When you come up with a  title for your own manuscripts, think of something that adds a meaningful connection to the story and at least hints at what the story is about.

Whether you write romance, mystery, or something else, put a little heart into your stories by including these key elements. Your readers will appreciate you for it.  

On Being Thankful for Being a Writer

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Hello readers,
The article below was originally posted in 2018, but I wanted to share it again. It never grows old. I am truly grateful for sharing my thoughts and insights with you, and I am grateful to have you as my loyal readers. I’m putting my blog on hiatus at least through January 2022. Between freelance writing assignments and a new part time job that requires a lot of my energy, I find I don’t have as much time for my blog. Plus it will give me a chance to refuel for new content in the coming year. You are always welcome to return and read what I’ve posted previously, and I will try to keep the weekly writing prompt going as well. Enjoy, and have a safe and wonderful holidays. Regina 

As you gather with your families and friends this Thanksgiving holiday, think about what you are most grateful for, especially as it pertains to your writing. Perhaps you are grateful to have a mentor to guide you through difficult lessons, or maybe you are grateful for Daniel Webster for publishing a dictionary.

I was inspired by a post by Laura Stigler, President of the Independent Writers of Chicago, “On Being Thankful We Can Write,” to create my own list of things I’m thankful for.

* A mother who loved to read and instilled that love of reading in me. When you see a parent reading a book, I believe it encourages kids to become readers too.

* Former teachers who recognized my skill from as early as seventh grade and encouraged me to participate in writing contests. Each compliment and kind word of support made me want to keep writing. There’s nothing like a personal cheering section to keep you motivated.

* Former bosses who appreciated the fact that I could find the best words to explain a process or write a letter to an important client. Other times their tough love approach to critiquing my work only strengthened my resolve to improve.

* Friends who have shared a love of books and reading and who don’t mind talking about the latest book that they liked or didn’t like.

* The authors whose work I have enjoyed over the years, from Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” to Carolyn Keene’s Nancy Drew mysteries when I was young girl to the early works of romantic suspense authors Mary Higgins Clark and Joy Fielding that I enjoyed in my twenties and thirties to more recent favorites, such as Alice Hoffman and Sue Monk Kidd.

* Libraries and librarians, book stores and book discussion groups, who all keep the love of books and reading alive and makes sure there is always a potential audience for the stories writers write.

* For my blog followers, thank you for reading my posts, sharing comments and showing your support.

Most important, I am grateful that I have the talent (or gift, as some writers suggest) for writing and the desire to use it in personal and professional ways. In fact, I think I enjoy the world of books, reading and writing more now than I ever have.

As you spend Thanksgiving with family and friends, remember it’s a time for bonding over shared experiences and swapping stories. And as you share old family legends and tales for the umpteenth time, don’t forget to create new ones to share next year.

Happy Thanksgiving!

12 Tips to Survive – and Thrive – National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)

Logo courtesy of NaNoWriMo

This article is reposted from October 2020.

Have you always wanted to write a novel but wasn’t sure how to start writing it? Maybe you’ve had a story idea swirling inside your brain for the past decade and just never made the time to write it. With November right around the corner, here’s your chance.

National Novel Writing Month is an annual creative writing challenge that takes place every November in which participants aim to write 50,000 words in 30 days toward a completed novel. The event is hosted NaNoWriMo, a nonprofit organization that encourages writing fluency and education for all ages. According to its website, the NaNoWriMo group believes in “the transformational power of creativity.”

Participation in this annual event has escalated from a mere 21 people in 1999 to 306,230 in 2017, according to the Novel Factory. You don’t have to sign up on their website to participate. You can do this in the comfort of your home, which is what I plan to do. While the goal is 50,000 words for the entire month, that is only the goal. If you can only achieve 30,000 words – or 1,000 words a day – that’s fine too. This is a personal challenge to motivate writers to write every day and work toward a larger goal.

Whether this is the first time you take part in the event or the tenth, here are some helpful tips for surviving this 30-day writing challenge. You can find other helpful tips here too.

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Outline and research your story ahead of time. Since you’ll be spending your November days writing, you’ll need to know what you’ll be writing about. Plan ahead. Plot your outline in advance. The Novel Factory has some awesome free downloadable tools to help you plan your story.

The same goes for research. If you’re writing historical fiction, do your research ahead of time. If you get to a place in your story where you need to do more research, make a note of what you need to do and come back to that place during the revision phase. Don’t get distracted by the desire to look up something or you will never get back to your writing.

Plan your schedule. With a hefty 50,000 word goal, you’ll need to plan how you will achieve it. That’s roughly 1,667 words a day with no days off, or 2,000 words a day with one day off each week. Those daily word goals can be daunting. So it’s important to plan how much you’ll be able to write. It might mean getting up an hour early each day to write, or doing mini sessions throughout the day. Remember, you don’t have to write in one huge chunk of time.

Try something new. Many writers use NaNoWriMo to experiment with their writing. It might be re-writing a current work-in-progress from an alternate point of view, or trying their hand at writing a different genre – science fiction when they normally write psychological suspense. This approach can be applied to your writing schedule too. For example, try getting up an hour earlier in the morning to start writing rather than waiting until the evening when you may be too tired.

Participate in live write-ins. If you’re looking to stay motivated throughout the month, check out a live write-in in your area. If you sign up at the NaNoWriMo website, you’ll be given locations of write-ins near you. With the pandemic, I imagine there might be virtual write-ins too. 

Work with a writing buddy. When you participate with a friend, you can motivate each other and help you through the rough spots. If you’re both competitive, set up your own contest to see who can write more words each day. Try putting a giant thermometer on your wall. As you complete your daily word count, fill in the thermometer with red to see your progress. Then compare your progress with that of your friend’s.

Be prepared to put some activities on the backburner. That may mean less time hanging out on social media, less time watching Netflix or Hulu or shutting off the TV. It could also mean spending less time socializing with your friends and fewer Zoom meetings. You’ll have to decide what you can live without for the short term while you work on your masterpiece.

Silence your inner critic/editor. As you write, turn off the internal critic who tells you that your work isn’t good. It’s easy to get sidetracked by negative thoughts. First drafts usually aren’t very good, so relax and just tell your story without judgment and self-criticism. The whole point of NaNoWriMo is to challenge yourself to write your story. There will always be time for editing later.

Avoid going back to the beginning. If you are ever tempted to read what you’ve already written or rewrite it, don’t. You may decide that your work is terrible and give up. Or you may want to start editing it, which only wastes time. If necessary, read the last page or two that you wrote to remember where you left off, but otherwise, keep a forward focus.

Find your writing rhythm. You may find one week into NaNoWriMo that you’ve hit your stride. That’s great news. If you get to the end of your 2,000 word goal and you still feel motivated to keep going, then by all means, keep writing. That’s one way to build up your word count early on in the challenge so if you feel a bit sluggish by the end of the month, you can slow down without harming your end goal.

Reward yourself when you reach milestones. When you get to the 5,000 word mark, for example, treat yourself to your favorite snack or watch a favorite movie. Set another reward at 10,000 words, 20,000 words and so on. Occasional rewards serve as great motivational tools to keep you writing.

Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t meet your writing goals. So you only wrote 30,000 words. Congratulate yourself for your accomplishment. That’s better than not writing at all. Remember the purpose of this event is to challenge yourself to make quick, steady progress.

Make time for exercise and fresh air. All work and no play can stifle your creativity. Make sure you get outside if the weather is nice, and go for a walk or a bike ride. It’ll help clear the cobwebs from your brain and you can return to your desk with a fresh perspective.

Most important, have fun with NaNoWriMo. Yes, there will be plenty of hard work involved, but stay positive. Look at how much you will learn and grow as a writer. No matter how many words you eventually put down on the page, you can be proud of your accomplishment as you see your story develop.

For more great tips to survive NaNoWriMo, check out this article from Reedsy.

How to Instill a Love of Creative Writing in Kids

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I’m not a parent or a teacher, but I care about kids and education, especially when it comes to writing and reading – the pillars of lifelong learning. If you can read and write well – and more important, if you enjoy doing them – I believe you’re set for life.

Even if you don’t have kids of your own, you can still encourage a love of the written word in others. For starters, become an avid reader and writer yourself. When other people see you engrossed in a book, it might make them curious about what you’re reading and why. Even better, that book in your hand can make an interesting conversation starter.

But there are a surprising number of ways you can instill a love of reading and writing in kids – and kids at heart. Below are a few of them.

1. Fill your life with stories. Read to your child every day. If they’re in middle school, for example, choose a title that is slightly above their reading ability or take turns reading pages from a book of their choice. While waiting in the doctor’s office or in the park, tell your child stories. When they hear stories from you, they’ll learn to be storytellers too.

2. Subscribe to kids’ writing magazines. When that magazine arrives in your mailbox every month, it provides numerous stories that kids can look forward to enjoying, whether they read it themselves or you read it to them. It can entice them to become better writers too, says book editor John Fox. Some accept submissions from children. Imagine seeing your kid’s work published in a national magazine. There are numerous publications to choose from depending on the age group. Try Highlights, which I grew up reading. Or Humpty Dumpty, Jack and Jill or Cricket media.

3. Take your children to see plays. When they see a play, they’re seeing storytelling in action. It makes the characters come alive, and the live action can interest your child in creating their own stories and put on plays at home.

4. Bring them to the library or bookstore. When they see you browsing the shelves, you’re setting an example. This is another way to demonstrate your own love of reading. When you shop for yourself, be to shop for them. Browse the children’s section and see what they gravitate toward. The library or bookstore may also have readings from children’s authors too.

5. Set up a designated space for writing. I encourage writers to have their own writing space separate from other areas of the home. People just need that space to create without disruptions from the TV or other family members. If possible, set up a designated space for writing for your child. It could be a corner of their bedroom, a corner of your home office, or the attic. The important thing is that it’s quiet so they can think, dream and play with words.

6. Provide a variety of writing tools when they write. The Measured Mom suggests providing a variety of writing tools that kids can play with to engage their imagination. Try crayons, markers, chalk, colored pencils, ink pens or even charcoal or paint. As they write a story, they can draw pictures or write the words down in different colors. It can make a perceived boring activity like writing seem more fun.

7. Have them start their own journal. Either purchase one or better yet, create their own journal. Get some lined paper, staple one side to create a booklet. Add a blank cover sheet that they can design and color to their heart’s content. Creating their own journal instills a pride of ownership.

8. Use props to inspire writing. Sadie Phillips at Teachwire.net suggests providing props to inspire a child’s writing habit. It could be a shoe, a photograph, or a piece of jewelry you wear. Ask them to write a story about that prop. Where did it come from? Does it have a voice to speak, or ears to hear? It’s one more technique to prompt your child’s creativity.

9. Provide writing prompts. Just as writing prompts can be helpful in jump starting ideas for adult writers, kids can benefit from writing prompts too. Try a fill in the blank, like “Sandy the Clown baked a cake for the school bake sale. What kind of cake did she bake?” Prompts can stir their imagination in different ways.

10, Visit the neighborhood. Phillips suggests taking your child on short trips in the area. It could be the post office, the park, a candy shop, or a pet supply store. When you get home, suggest they write about their trip. What did they see, hear, smell, and touch that they remember. Writing it all down commits the visit to their memory.

11. Engage with authors and storytellers.
Phillips suggests connecting with favorite authors and storytellers via social media. Follow their Facebook pages, or those of your child’s favorite authors. Ask them questions about their writing, and share their answers with your child. Create a dialogue so you and your child can learn about the writing process.

12. Praise children’s writing the right way. Editor John Fox suggests giving your kids encouragement when they finish writing a story. When they show you their work, don’t be vague and give general feedback. Don’t just tell them, “I like your story.” That’s not enough to encourage them to keep writing. Instead, you might say, “I like the way you described the red car,” or “What happened to the evil witch at the end?” When you ask questions about the child’s story, they become curious about the story too.

As you glance over these suggestions, you’ll notice that they’re not quite different than those for adult writers. After all, it’s just as important for adult writers to engage with other storytellers, use writing prompts, visit unusual places, set up a designated writing space and write with different writing tools. To truly inspire the children in our lives to be creative writers, we need to share our best creative habits.

Write Stories with Better Sensory Descriptions

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This week’s writing prompt: Choose a season of the year and write about the smells that evoke that time of year for you.

One thing I often struggle with in my own fiction writing is sensory descriptions. While non-fiction might address the five W’s (who, what, when, where and why), fiction deals with the five senses: sight, sound, smell, touch and taste.

Experts say it’s easy to go overboard with descriptions, which can distract readers. On the other hand, it’s also easy to forget to include them. Writers need to walk a fine line between the two extremes. However, using them judiciously in your work can make your writing shine.

Kellie McGann, a writing consultant and contributor to The Write Practice, says the key to unlocking the five senses is the question behind them. “Why does the character see, hear, taste, smell or touch something in a certain way? What do those sensations mean to them?”

If you’re writing a memoir, ask yourself the same question: what do those sensations mean to you?

McGann’s advice? “Don’t bog readers down with unnecessary details, but a few well-placed descriptions can immerse readers into the story and into the character’s world.”

You may find that some senses are easier to describe than others. For example, you may write an uncanny accurate description of the sound of a waterfall to your ears, but have difficulty describing the visual beyond just “stunning” or “beautiful.” There are other ways to make sensory descriptions work within your prose.

1. Sight – Visuals are the most important element in descriptive writing. However, it’s easy to overdo them. Masterclass writing experts suggest selecting only certain details you want to highlight. It’s not necessary to mention a person’s height or shoe size, unless those details are integral to the story. For example, a mystery where an imprint of a boot was found at the murder scene.

One way to approach visual descriptions is to describe them directly (“the sun was bright,” for example) or indirectly, which can give readers more visual interest. For example, “the light from the sun reflected off the glass windows so that they shone solid white.”

2. Taste – While sight might be the easiest to describe, taste may be the most difficult because it’s subjective. How do you describe the first bite of an apple? One person’s experience after biting into that apple, or a garlic clove, will be different than the next person’s. But if done well, it can make a powerful impression.

Remember that taste isn’t just about consuming food. Think of all the other ways we taste life. For example, the ooze of blood when we bite our lip or falling onto the ground and getting dirt in our mouth. What does that blood or that dirt taste like?

3. Touch/Feeling – Touch is usually associated with the texture of something. The sense of touch can be easy to overlook because we’re always touching some object every moment of the day. It’s a real and immediate sensation that places characters – and your readers – in the present moment.

For practice, make a note where you are right now. What are you touching? If you’re sitting down, pay attention to the chair. How does your body feel when you sit on it? Or try feeling different fabrics and textural materials. Describe how they feel in your hands or under your feet.

Remember that the sense of touch can refer to internal sensations too, such as pain, pleasure and temperature. Try describing the moist heat of a sauna, or the sharp stab of pain when you wrench your back.

4. Smell – Experts say the sense of smell is closely associated to memory. How many times have you walked into someone’s home and the smell of fresh baked break reminded you of your grandmother during the holidays? Or the scent of flowery perfume reminds you of your favorite aunt when she kissed you.

But don’t overdo descriptions of smell which can overpower your readers. Just like strong perfume in real life, a little bit goes a long way.

Try this exercise: Go to a place you know well, such as a library, a school, a bakery, coffee shop or a park. On a small notebook, make a list of all the smells that define the place for you.

5. Sound – Descriptions of sounds are often used to create a mood. Think of soft classical or jazz music playing in the background during a romantic scene, for example, or the boom of an explosion setting off panic and destruction.

Challenge yourself with this exercise: Sit quietly and listen to the sounds in your room, in your building or in your neighborhood. What do you hear? Make a note of every sound you hear and try to describe it.

When writing, it might be tempting to use onomatopoeia – words that sound like the noise they make (whoosh, boom, crash, etc.) It can help capture the mood of a scene, but again, don’t overdo it or your writing will come across as comical and insincere.

For more practice, I recommend Writing from the Senses by Laura Deutsch, which contains 59 exercises to challenge your sensory writing skills.

Whether writing fiction or non-fiction narrative, sensory descriptions can spice up your writing and help you bring readers along on your literary journey.  


How to Craft Stories – the Hallmark Movie Way

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I’ve developed a love-hate relationship with Hallmark movies. I’ve been watching that channel on and off now for at least five years. Especially during the holiday season, I am glued to Hallmark and its sister channel, Hallmark Movies and Mysteries, losing more than two months of my life as I immerse myself into their holiday rom-coms.

As I watch their productions, however, I notice a pattern in story telling, which really isn’t hard to do. Hallmark movies follow their own story structure, though it isn’t that different from other types of films or from romance novels. Hallmark gets a bad rap for its formulaic story structure, but that’s what makes them so popular with their viewers, who come to expect those feel-good stories. After you’ve watched as many as I have, one story looks and sounds just like the next.

That said, I enjoy these movies because they make me feel good at the end. As a hopeful romantic (why they call it hopeless, I’ll never understand), I’m always rooting for the couple to get together. I like to see that two people can find happiness despite the obstacles thrown in their path.

I also enjoy these movies for the pure escapism they provide from the everyday world. I suppose if the outside world didn’t seem so dark and hostile at times, Hallmark wouldn’t be as popular. Further, I like what they have done for my imagination, which keeps spilling out a stream of story ideas that may or may not fit the Hallmark structure.

But as a writer, I recognize the pitfalls of these films too, such as the predictable plot structure. I also dislike how they engross me so much that I lose time away from writing. Since Hallmark began showing their annual barrage of Christmas movies in late October (another aspect I dislike — way too early, in my opinion), I’ve made little progress toward my own writing projects. I’m ready for January when I can roll up my sleeves and get back to work.

As I mentioned, there is a set structure to these stories. I’ve outlined the basic elements below, based on my own observations as well as comments from screenwriters and producers who presented at a Story Summit workshop recently.

1. Start with a strong protagonist. Rom-coms feature female leads who enjoy an aspirational career, such as a lawyer, a bakery owner, florist or nurse. While she seems content with her career, she has one great desire to achieve something within her career or outside of it. She feels her life is complete just as it is and is NOT looking for love.

2. Surround the protagonist with a supporting cast. The female protagonist usually has one or two close companions who are her confidants. They provide counsel and advice when they see she needs it, and encourage her when she feels down. In addition, she may be part of a larger group of friends or colleagues at work or in the community.

3. Some incident sets the action into motion. This is true for all stories, not just Hallmark rom-coms. The female lead might get a plum assignment, get engaged or break off a relationship, or maybe she receives an inheritance. Something significant happens that sets her on a course that puts her in the path of her love interest.

4. Create a compelling love interest. No Hallmark rom-com would be complete without the love interest. He may not get along with the female lead at first. They likely clash over conflicting goals or they’re fighting for the same thing but in different ways. However, he complements the female lead in ways that may not be obvious at first. He provides a skill or specialized knowledge that helps her achieve a goal, and occasionally, she does the same for him.

5. Allow the couple to grow together over time. The two leads are thrown together to work toward a common goal – planning a fundraiser, putting on a production, or solving a mystery. The more they work together, the closer they get and the more attracted they become to the other person. They each provide the other with a perspective they’re lacking. They keep fighting the attraction, however. Further, one or the both of them are harboring a secret that could tear them apart.

6. Create confrontation by revealing the protagonist’s secret. Once the secret is revealed, a confrontation ensues and the leads wonder if they can trust the other person. All seems lost. But through the separation, the female lead begins to realize what’s really important to her.

7. Save the kiss for last. They see the fruits of their labors in the final scenes – they reach their fundraising goals, the production takes place and they solve the mystery. The couple reconciles their differences because they each realize they are better together than they are apart. They finally come together for a kiss, which takes place in the very last scene.

A couple of other pointers: For Christmas-themed stories, either the protagonist or love interest lacks the holiday spirit, so the other person helps them regain it by engaging them in Christmas activities. That said, there are so many times I can watch scenes of playful snowball fights, baking cookies or Christmas tree lightings.

I will leave with one more bit of advice, and this stems from a personal pet peeve. Keep the title short and pithy, which will be easier for readers and viewers to remember. I find the longer movie titles are distracting and do nothing to entice me to watch.

As a writer, I’ve begun to look at movies the same way I experience books. I pay more attention to the key elements, like the characters, plot, setting and dialogue. I observe how the story unfolds, the relationship of the characters and I consider different ways I can tell my stories. This can either be helpful to me or a distraction. That said, I notice that when I’m immersed in the movie or book, I don’t pay attention as much attention to those details because the story is too compelling. That means those elements are working well together.

Whether writing a rom-com novel or a film script, these story telling elements will create happy endings that will make readers feel good.

To learn more:
Inside the TV Networks’ Battle for Christmas Movie Supremacy

How to Write Stories That Will Inspire Your Readers

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Now Available! Download your copy of the new white paper, Find Motivation to Start Writing and Keep Writing. Also check out our new weekly writing prompt in the sidebar!  Happy Holidays!

Browse the Internet for “writing inspiration” and you’ll find pages of links to articles that describe how  to find inspiration for writing. But when you put the shoe on the other foot, when you search for articles about writing to inspire others, you’ll find very few articles that address that issue.

How do you create a story that not only engages with your audience, but inspires them? How do you shift the focus from seeking inspiration within yourself to helping others become inspired?

In this season of giving, it seems fitting that we all consider ways to give, share and, yes, inspire others. What better way to do that than through our writing?

If your goal is to share stories of inspiration with readers, here are a few ways to do that.

1. Be authentic. Be real with your readers. Tell personal stories of your own struggles, which makes you relatable. Readers are interested in knowing who you are, your triumphs and challenges, your fears and joys. They want to read about the obstacles you faced in your life and how you overcame them. “All these are common traits in many stories and inspire the reader to do the same with their own lives,” writes Bethany Cadman at Writer’s Life. People want to hear your story because they want to believe that they’re not alone in their experiences.

2. Bring lightness and warmth to your writing. Be personable as if you are having a conversation with a good, close friend. Add humor if it comes naturally to you, but don’t make jokes just because you can, which can come across as forced. It might be helpful for you or someone else to read your story out loud to make sure you’ve captured the right tone.

3. Share a positive message. Think about the message you want to convey, whether it’s hope, love, resilience, self-confidence or courage. Readers want to believe in the goodness in others, and in the goodness of the world at large.

4. Write with emotion. Writing with some emotion – joy or sadness, fear or excitement – can help readers empathize with you because you’ve shown your “realness.” If you’re writing about the death of a dear friend, for example, let readers see and feel your pain and loss. As I mentioned previously, people want to believe that they are not alone in their experiences. The better you are at writing with emotion, the more exciting, exhilarating and inspiring your stories will be to your readers, writes Cadman.

5. Remember why you write. If you ever find yourself at a loss for what to write next or if you’re searching for a story that will make a difference, go back to your “why,” suggests author Julie Petersen at Bang2Write. Think again about why you write and who you write for. Think about what is your passion. When you remember your why, finding the right stories to inspire others will be much easier.

6. Be brave in your writing choices. It’s not always easy to write about deeply personal and meaningful events of your life, but sometimes it’s necessary to heal yourself. Still there’s a lot of emotional pain to muddle through before you can reveal your old wounds. It takes a great deal of courage to step out of your comfort zone to spill your guts on the page, but readers will usually understand that process because they’ve gone through something similar in their own lives. Taking a stand on an issue and speaking your truth can be scary, but despite those fears, it is likely to garner the respect of your readers, more than you know.

Whether you share stories of heartache or of personal triumph, it’s not easy to bare your soul. But when you write those stories with emotion, courage and warmth, readers will respond to you in positive ways. Writing to inspire others is one of the greatest gifts you can share with your readers.

Related Articles:
How to Make Your Writing Inspirational
Breaking Barriers: Inspiring Others, Julia Alvarez

Creating Stories with Child-like Wonder and Delight

Sing like you know the words, dance like no one’s watching, and love like it’s never going to hurt. — Unknown

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 Christmas always makes me feel like a kid again. It’s that time of year when I realize that I really am a kid at heart. I love the decorations, the music, the lights and especially the gift-giving.

It’s especially joyful when I watch children. I see their eyes grow wide with wonder and delight at each new experience, from sitting on Santa’s lap to seeing brightly wrapped presents under the tree. Everywhere they look, they see something fun and interesting to explore.

I call this “Christmas delight.”

Children experience the same delight through the things they create, whether it’s a drawing, a poem or a dance. They make things up as they go along, and they don’t worry about editorial guidelines and rules. They just do what they feel in their heart. They only know how to express themselves, to laugh, to have fun, to delight in their own creativity.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all experience this same wonder and delight with our writing?

A recent essay on Brevity’s Nonfiction blog got me thinking about our capacity as writers to delight in our own creativity. The author, L. Roger Owens, described his experience when he lost the joy of writing. Even as he struggled with writer’s block, he admired the unabashed joy his daughter expressed in her own creativity. She proudly read her stories out loud to a roomful of strangers. She spoke enthusiastically about plot points and character motivations. She delighted in her original turns of phrases. Things Owens wasn’t able to do with his own writing.

For Owens, repeated rejections and strict editorial guidelines squashed his creativity. A lack of interest in topics he was assigned to write about through his job killed his enthusiasm too.

Why are we able to experience this delight of creating as children, but lose it as adults?

Whatever we create as adults seems more open to scrutiny, not just our own, but that of editors, publishers and our peers. What we write seemed unique at first but now seems mundane and boring. Too many rejections and negative feedback weighs us down. We worry more about pleasing others than ourselves. All that negative input kills our enthusiasm, our joy.  

It may seem that the child-like wonder and delight for writing is lost forever. But it’s possible to reclaim it. Here’s how:

1. Pretend you are a child again. Do you remember how you felt when you finished writing a story? Did you take pride in your creation? View your writing as a child would. Children have no knowledge of editor’s rules or expert writing advice, so they are not worried about how people might react. They write for themselves, for the pure joy of creating. Perhaps we can learn from children to live in the moment and enjoy the process of creation.

2. Give yourself permission to fall in love with your work. It’s okay to appreciate turns of phrases, story ideas, plot lines, characters, and witty dialogue. So what that it may never be published, that it might land on the cutting room floor at your editor’s office. Even if you don’t use the material, keep it anyway. Create a file of writing that you review periodically to remind yourself that you are capable of writing enjoyable stories, even if they are never published.
 
3. Read your work out loud. It doesn’t have to be a large auditorium. Whether it’s an audience of one or ten, it doesn’t matter. Getting up to read your work takes courage and shows pride in your writing. When you read it out loud, even if it’s a first draft, you may find it isn’t nearly as bad as you think.

4. Don’t take your writing too seriously. Remember that writing is just one aspect of your life, not the only thing. “Writers are entertainers,” writes author Barbara O’Neal in Writer Unboxed blog. “We’re supposed to have fun. If you’re not, it’s probably time to find something else to do for a while.”

5. Allow yourself time to play. Take a break from writing and do something else, advises  O’Neal. Indulge in a favorite hobby, visit a museum, or go for a hike. Bring a small notebook with you and jot down any details you notice in your environment. As writers, we spend a lot of time closed off from the rest of the world. It’s important to get out as much as possible, engage with other people, commune with nature and the world at large. We need to give our brains a break from creating – and to give joy a chance to rise again.

6. Illustrate your story rather than write it. Put away your laptop or your notebook. Instead, take out a piece of paper and draw images to tell your story, writes Ben Soyka at the Writing Cooperative. Readers are more visual and enjoy having visual aids to go along with the stories they read, he explains. Besides, the illustration process forces you to develop new creative skills while you consider different ways to share your stories.

Losing the joy of writing is bound to happen at some point in your practice, especially when you put so much of yourself into it. Have faith that the child-like delight will return. And when it does, imagine how much joy you’ll bring to your readers.

Thank you for reading. Happy Holidays! Don’t forget to check out the weekly writing prompt in the sidebar.

Novel Beginnings: Eight Tips for Writing a More Compelling Opening Chapter

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If you have ever read The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, you probably remember this opening line:

“If I have learned anything in this long life of mine, it is this: In love, we find out who we want to be; in war, we find out who we are.”

I’d be hard pressed to find any opening more poignant than this one. From the very start, readers are taken on an emotional journey that doesn’t end until the final sentence.

Writers are tasked with the challenge to create a similar experience with their readers. The start of any  novel should accomplish several things: create the tone of the story, provide the point of view, reveal character, and show tension and conflict, among other things. Certainly, the opening line from The Nightingale accomplishes most of these objectives. Does your story do the same?

Why is the opening so critical? Because if it doesn’t grab the reader’s interest and keep it for the first few pages, the reader will likely close the book and set it aside, never getting to the end of it. Ask any published author, editor or agent what makes a strong opening, and you’ll hear a number of answers, which are summarized below. And these suggestions don’t just pertain to fiction, but to short stories, memoir and non-fiction works too. Without a compelling start, readers will dismiss your effort.

If you are participating in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), it might be helpful to keep the following suggestions in mind as you write the opening of your novel.

1. Skip the prologue. There is ongoing debate about the merits of a prologue. Many editors and agents feel they aren’t necessary. I tend to agree with them. I’ve rarely read a prologue that made a difference in my understanding of the plot. The one exception is Caught by Harlan Coben, which provided sufficient background on one of the main characters to make you second guess the outcome. But if you plan your story well and write the opening pages right, there shouldn’t be a need for a prologue.

2. Create a protagonist that readers will care about. The opening is your opportunity to reveal your protagonist’s character. Is he/she rebellious, angry, ambitious or curious? In the above opening from The Nightingale, the character speaking is introspective and perhaps has gained wisdom from life experience. It makes me care about who she is and what else she (and it is a she, btw) might have to say.

3. Ground your reader in the story’s setting. According to the Write Practice blog, let readers see where the story takes place. Establish early on what the setting is for the story – the time period, the location, the season of the year, etc. When the reader feels grounded in the setting, they feel mentally prepared to experience the events as the characters do.

4. Create conflict and tension. Identify what the inciting incident is – that starting point to your story that changes the status quo. Where is the conflict? Is that conflict with another character, with a situation or within themselves? That conflict is needed to create tension, which helps draw readers in and keep them reading to see how the conflict is resolved.  

5. Don’t frontload with dialogue or action. According to Fuse Literary, too much action or dialogue can confuse readers. Sure, you want to start with some sort of action, but an opening chapter heavy on action and dialogue and not enough narrative or backstory can be confusing to readers who may need a point of reference to understand what is happening on the page. You need some action, of course, but balance it with some narrative so you don’t lose readers’ interest.

6. Don’t overload the opening with backstory either. According to recent Reedsy webinar, Crafting a Novel Opening, writers should focus on what the reader needs to know at that moment. There’s plenty of time to reveal backstory and world building as the story progresses, says Shaelin Bishop who led the discussion. Weave in backstory throughout the length of the manuscript, and allow details to breathe between scenes. This approach will help with the pacing too. If readers are overloaded with details up front, they may feel overwhelmed.

7. Hook the reader with an interesting twist. Start where the story gets interesting, which is usually at the point where there’s a change in the status quo. For example, the protagonist gets a letter with good news or bad news, a new person enters the protagonist’s life, or they get into an accident that alters the course of their life.  “Show what is interesting rather than focusing on the mundane. It’s okay to show less of the status quo than you think you need to,” says Shaelin Bishop with Reedsy. This approach avoids overloading your opening chapter with too many details that can bore your reader.

8. Every scene should serve several purposes. For example, one scene can establish the tone of the story, reveal something about the character and hint at future conflict. This sounds complex, but it’s necessary to keep the story moving forward and keep readers interested. Don’t waste your first sentence, or any sentence for that matter. Write every scene with a purpose in mind. If it doesn’t serve  purpose, and if a character doesn’t serve a purpose, cut them out.

To get into the habit of writing stronger openings, try these two exercises.

Exercise 1: Take 10 minutes and create as many opening sentences as you can think of. It could be for a current work in progress or any other story. Experiment with different perspectives. Here are a couple of examples of intriguing openings that made me keep reading:

“You would think it would be impossible to find anything new in the world, creatures no man has ever seen before, one-of-a-kind oddities in which nature has taken a backseat to the coursing pulse of the fantastical and the marvelous. I can tell you with certainty that such things exists ….”
The Museum of Extraordinary Things, Alice Hoffman

“My name is Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) and almost forty years ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British Security Service. I didn’t return safely. Within eighteen months of joining, I was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover, though he certainly had a hand in his own undoing.”
Sweet Tooth, Ian McEwan

Exercise 2: Select five novels from your collection that you enjoyed reading. Go back and read the first page from each one. What made you turn the page? Why did it grab your interest? Did it reveal anything about the setting, tone or character? Did it create tension and conflict? What can you learn from these first pages that you can adapt to your own work?

Hope you find these tips and exercises helpful.  

12 Tips to Survive – and Thrive – National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)

Logo courtesy of NaNoWriMo

Have you always wanted to write a novel but wasn’t sure how to start writing it? Maybe you’ve had a story idea swirling inside your brain for the past decade and just never made the time to write it. With November right around the corner, here’s your chance.

National Novel Writing Month is an annual creative writing challenge that takes place every November in which participants aim to write 50,000 words in 30 days toward a completed novel. The event is hosted NaNoWriMo, a nonprofit organization that encourages writing fluency and education for all ages. According to its website, the NaNoWriMo group believes in “the transformational power of creativity.”

Participation in this annual event has escalated from a mere 21 people in 1999 to 306,230 in 2017, according to the Novel Factory. You don’t have to sign up on their website to participate. You can do this in the comfort of your home, which is what I plan to do. While the goal is 50,000 words for the entire month, that is only the goal. If you can only achieve 30,000 words – or 1,000 words a day – that’s fine too. This is a personal challenge to motivate writers to write every day and work toward a larger goal.

Whether this is the first time you take part in the event or the tenth, here are some helpful tips for surviving this 30-day writing challenge. You can find other helpful tips here too.

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Outline and research your story ahead of time. Since you’ll be spending your November days writing, you’ll need to know what you’ll be writing about. Plan ahead. Plot your outline in advance. The Novel Factory has some awesome free downloadable tools to help you plan your story.

The same goes for research. If you’re writing historical fiction, do your research ahead of time. If you get to a place in your story where you need to do more research, make a note of what you need to do and come back to that place during the revision phase. Don’t get distracted by the desire to look up something or you will never get back to your writing.

Plan your schedule. With a hefty 50,000 word goal, you’ll need to plan how you will achieve it. That’s roughly 1,667 words a day with no days off, or 2,000 words a day with one day off each week. Those daily word goals can be daunting. So it’s important to plan how much you’ll be able to write. It might mean getting up an hour early each day to write, or doing mini sessions throughout the day. Remember, you don’t have to write in one huge chunk of time.

Try something new. Many writers use NaNoWriMo to experiment with their writing. It might be re-writing a current work-in-progress from an alternate point of view, or trying their hand at writing a different genre – science fiction when they normally write psychological suspense. This approach can be applied to your writing schedule too. For example, try getting up an hour earlier in the morning to start writing rather than waiting until the evening when you may be too tired.

Participate in live write-ins. If you’re looking to stay motivated throughout the month, check out a live write-in in your area. If you sign up at the NaNoWriMo website, you’ll be given locations of write-ins near you. With the pandemic, I imagine there might be virtual write-ins too. 

Work with a writing buddy. When you participate with a friend, you can motivate each other and help you through the rough spots. If you’re both competitive, set up your own contest to see who can write more words each day. Try putting a giant thermometer on your wall. As you complete your daily word count, fill in the thermometer with red to see your progress. Then compare your progress with that of your friend’s.

Be prepared to put some activities on the backburner. That may mean less time hanging out on social media, less time watching Netflix or Hulu or shutting off the TV. It could also mean spending less time socializing with your friends and fewer Zoom meetings. You’ll have to decide what you can live without for the short term while you work on your masterpiece.

Silence your inner critic/editor. As you write, turn off the internal critic who tells you that your work isn’t good. It’s easy to get sidetracked by negative thoughts. First drafts usually aren’t very good, so relax and just tell your story without judgment and self-criticism. The whole point of NaNoWriMo is to challenge yourself to write your story. There will always be time for editing later.

Avoid going back to the beginning. If you are ever tempted to read what you’ve already written or rewrite it, don’t. You may decide that your work is terrible and give up. Or you may want to start editing it, which only wastes time. If necessary, read the last page or two that you wrote to remember where you left off, but otherwise, keep a forward focus.

Find your writing rhythm. You may find one week into NaNoWriMo that you’ve hit your stride. That’s great news. If you get to the end of your 2,000 word goal and you still feel motivated to keep going, then by all means, keep writing. That’s one way to build up your word count early on in the challenge so if you feel a bit sluggish by the end of the month, you can slow down without harming your end goal.

Reward yourself when you reach milestones. When you get to the 5,000 word mark, for example, treat yourself to your favorite snack or watch a favorite movie. Set another reward at 10,000 words, 20,000 words and so on. Occasional rewards serve as great motivational tools to keep you writing.

Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t meet your writing goals. So you only wrote 30,000 words. Congratulate yourself for your accomplishment. That’s better than not writing at all. Remember the purpose of this event is to challenge yourself to make quick, steady progress.

Make time for exercise and fresh air. All work and no play can stifle your creativity. Make sure you get outside if the weather is nice, and go for a walk or a bike ride. It’ll help clear the cobwebs from your brain and you can return to your desk with a fresh perspective.

Most important, have fun with NaNoWriMo. Yes, there will be plenty of hard work involved, but stay positive. Look at how much you will learn and grow as a writer. No matter how many words you eventually put down on the page, you can be proud of your accomplishment as you see your story develop.