Focus on the Story (A Writing Craft Post)

There’s an expression that goes, “don’t miss the forest for the trees”. Basically, you don’t want to miss the overall story because of something insignificant. Of course, being a writer, I’m going to tie this into storytelling. ๐Ÿ™‚ The forest is your story. The trees are elements that take place within the story.

The story is the main thing you’re dealing with when you’re working in genre fiction. I don’t care what genre you’re writing. It can be romance. It can be fantasy. It can be horror. It can be any genre you want. Your goal as a writer is to keep someone so wrapped up in the story that they have trouble putting the book down. If you insert things in your story that aren’t necessary to advance the plot in some way, you run the risk of losing your reader.

Let me provide an example of what I’m talking about:

There was a book by an author that took place in the BC era. The story was supposed to be about this woman who eventually becomes a leader and wins a major victory in battle. This story begins when this main character is a child. That is fine, but along the way, the author ended up writing pages and pages of about the character threshing wheat before she became an adult. It read like a how-to manual on threshing wheat. It had nothing to do with the character’s development into a warrior. I think the author was so excited about the things this author learned about threshing wheat that the author wanted to share it with the world. That would have been better left out of the book. The author could have shared this in a blog post or a newsletter, but it had no purpose in the story. Now, if the character had been learning how to yield a sword, then it would have been appropriate. At least then, we could see some character development.

Here are other examples I’ve read over the years:

Pointless conversations that have nothing to do with character development or the story. (Usually, this is a basic, “Hi, how are you doing.” “Oh, I’m doing fine.” “Yeah, me too. But I needed that thirty-minute shower first. You know, to get the day started off right.” “I hear you. The alarm almost didn’t wake me up. I pressed snooze twice before the cat jumped on my head to wake me up.” “How is Fluffy?” “Fluffy is great. She got a new collar.” “Oh, did she? What does it look like?” “It’s pink with a cute little silver bell.” “How adorable. Maybe I should get a cat.” “You should. They are the best pets to have. I can take you to the pet store next week.” “I’ll take you up on that offer. By the way, I’m sorry I’m running late in picking you up. I just went to get some coffee.” “Coffee? I love coffee. Where did you get it?” And on and on it goes until you skim the scene to get back to the plot. The plot, in this example, is about two friends who are on their way to the creepy forest where they will be hunted by psychos. We don’t care about this cat who never shows up again in the story, and we don’t care what kind of coffee they drink. There’s no need to devote pages of a story to mindless chatter like this, and yet, I seem to come across it quite a bit.)

The character spends pages looking over a map but never takes a trip. (Why spend all that time on the map if you never have a need for it? That map was a useless element in the story.)

Describing every single thing in a town when the character only needs to go to one or two places in this town. (Who cares if there’s a windmill, how it looks, or how it operates if the character never goes there during the story?)

Describing a battle in detail when the story is not about the war but is about a woman’s development toward independence and love. (If the woman had fought in the battle, you could make this detailed battle scene work, but the woman wasn’t a soldier. She was helping another woman give birth during the battle. Yes, mention the fighting going on and how she is reacting to it is acceptable, but we don’t need to know what street or store is catching on fire, how many men are falling over dead, or the specific orders the soldiers are giving each other. Unless those soldiers are going to come in and pose a threat, we don’t need to know all these details.)

Here’s a good rule of thumb for good storytelling:

If it advances the plot, put it in. If it doesn’t advance the plot, leave it out.

If you put these non-essential elements in, you risk losing your reader. I realize there’s going to be some reader out there who will love all of the teeny-tiny details of some historical place or event, but most readers just want the story.

The story is your focus, and the characters are the way you will advance the story.

Only bring things into focus if they have something to do with the advancement of the story. I’ll give some examples below:

1. You want to reveal something about the character.

a. Say you have a character who is terrified of some kind of plant, but this character will have to go through a jungle to save his family. In that case, bring that terrifying plant into the story before the character runs off to the jungle. Show this character’s reaction to this plant when the character is in a safe environment. Then when he comes across this plant in the jungle, the stakes will be high when he is trying to save his family.

b. Another character example could be a character who notices little details others miss in order to solve homicide cases. In this case, the character would pick up on little things here and there in a room. The fact that this character is detecting these things prove this character is good at their job. It also shows the reader that these little things the character notices are clues, and the reader can use these clues to see if they can solve the crime before the big reveal.

2. You want to give hints that something in the setting will play a pivotal role later on in the story.

a. On the surface, your town might appear normal, but let’s say there are too many cats, and these cats end up being part of the conflict. You want to mention the cats early in the story. Mention all the trees they’re lurking in. Mention how they’re running across the street. Mention one cat in particular if it ends up playing a bigger role than the other cats later on in the story. You’re using these cats to build suspense, and suspense does wonders for advancing the plot.

b. If the story is about surviving a tornado, the character will need to know where he can hide when a tornado comes along in the story. Where is the storm cellar in this town? Where is the barn? Where is the general store where the character will need to find a loved one? In this case, we would need to know some of the layout of this town in advance.

c. Let’s say your villain loves a certain color or object. This color or object can be instrumental in the hero discovering the villain’s identity later in the story. Lay down little clues where this color or object pops up early in the story. For example, let’s say the villain likes music boxes. You can have a music box show up at a home the hero is visiting. The hero notices the music box and might even listen to the music. But the hero doesn’t give the music box any more thought until it’s time to track the villain down.

***

Final thought:

Writing a tight story essentially means you remove the excess stuff that doesn’t advance your plot. If you need to write non-essentials to create your story, you can still use those. Just remove them from the story and use them for blog posts, newsletters, in an “extra” section on your website, or in the back matter of your book. You can still use these if you want. I just don’t recommend using them in the story itself.

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Nothing is Black and White (a personal reflection post)

Today’s post has nothing to do with writing or my books. It’s one where I speak about something on a personal note. Specially, I am going to discuss breastfeeding and giving birth.

This morning while I was doing my morning routine of tidying up around the house, I was listening to someone on a podcast who was talking about the baby formula shortage in the United States. This person said that this shortage is not a concern because, “Women have the ability to feed their babies.” My first inclination was to go on the internet and make a comment on this person’s podcast because despite what he thinks, this isn’t true. I tried breastfeeding my first two, and I was unsuccessful at it. With the first one, my milk ended up drying up, and I ended up giving him baby formula. With the second, I had decided that I hadn’t tried hard enough with the first, so I refused to give him any formula. I breastfed him every couple of hours. I followed the nurse’s advice down to the letter. But he wasn’t wetting his diaper. No matter how much I fed him, he just wasn’t getting enough, and I did have some milk, so I knew I was producing something. One day, I saw what I thought was blood in his diaper and ran down to the emergency room. It wasn’t blood, but it did turn out he was very dehydrated. He wasn’t getting enough to breast milk. I had done my best, but my best wasn’t enough for him. So I gave him formula, and, thankfully, everything turned out alright. After that experience, I never even bothered breastfeeding the other two.

Not all women can produce enough milk to feed their babies. Years after my children were born, I came across a post from a woman who had also been having trouble getting enough milk for her baby. Unfortunately, she didn’t seek out medical help. Her baby died. I wish I had been able to reach out to her before this happened. She was surrounded by people who told her to “keep at it” and “this is nature’s way” and “women’s bodies were made for feeding their children”. She was too ashamed to give her child formula. She made her post so that other women would give their babies formula if their bodies weren’t producing enough milk. Maybe “most” women can successfully breastfeed, but no “all” women can do it. I’m proof of it. That lady is proof it. Nothing is black and white.

Now let’s discuss birth. There seems to be a stigma against c-sections. Vaginal birth is considered the “natural” and “best” way to have a baby. I even had two people in my husband’s family who pretty much told me to never go with a c-section because it went against nature’s way and that my body was made to handle it. With my oldest, I was told he was larger than most. The doctor gave me the option of scheduling a c-section or inducing labor. I did a lot of praying on this, and I believe God steered me towards the c-section because I happened to come across of TV shows where women mentioned trying to give birth vaginally, but their babies got stuck. In one case, the baby’s shoulder got dislocated, and he never did get full use of his arm from the birth injury. In another case, the woman suffered from it. I don’t recall the specifics of that one except that the woman had to go through surgery and wasn’t the same ever again. Then I recalled the woman I had met while in college who’s baby got stuck. In her case, her child’s shoulder got dislocated, but he was able to gain full movement after some months. Anyway, I believe God was guiding me to go with a c-section, so I opted for that. I have never regretted that decision. I had c-sections with all of the others since they were all larger than average and I had them close together. (Kids are currently 20, 18, 17, and 16. They’re stair steps.) Years later, I met a woman who gave birth vaginally, and it tore her enough where even surgery didn’t sufficiently help her. She said she wished she had gone the c-section route and that I should never let anymore shame me for going “against nature”.

Not all women can handle a vaginal birth. Sometimes a c-section is best for the mother and the baby. Not all women’s bodies are made to handle it. I don’t know why, but that’s the way things are. I get tired when people try to shame a woman for choosing a c-section. I also get tired of women being shamed for buying formula for their child. I thought the goal was “healthy mother, healthy baby”, but apparently, it’s not.

And while I’m on this topic, something else came to mind. I communicated with a woman some years ago who went through menopause in her 20s. She worried that she would never be able to find a husband because she’ll never be able to have children. I also communicated with a woman who didn’t have a full reproductive system. I also communicated with a couple of women who had something going on with their bodies that made it impossible to carry a baby to term. That’s all heartbreaking, and I feel terrible for these poor women. Sure, most women can conceive and give birth, but not all of them can. And I noticed that society tends to punish women for not having children. Well, maybe those women can’t physically have them.

Nothing is black and white. There are a lot of grays in this world. We tend to think that if something is the norm, then it’s true for everyone, and that simply isn’t the case. I think we need to stop making assumptions about other people based on our experiences or what is socially expected. There’s a lot going on that we don’t know about. And quite frankly, what is going on in someone’s life is not our business. If someone wants to confide in us, fine. If not, that is their right. We are not entitled to the details of someone’s life.

All I’m asking is that instead of jumping to conclusions about a certain situation, it would be better to take a step back and realize we don’t have all of the information.

That’s it. I’m done ranting. I’ll return to posting my usual writing related posts. ๐Ÿ™‚

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The Loner’s Bride Trivia

If you haven’t read the book, you might want to do so before reading this post. It contains spoilers.

I wasn’t originally going to write Jeremiah’s romance because I was afraid people might not want to read a romance where the age difference between the hero and heroine is so great. (We’re talking a little over twenty years). When I was writing The Rancher’s Bride, I knew the only person who’d make a good match for Katie was Jeremiah. I had a conversation with a writer friend who said I should pair Katie up with someone else. I decided to not write about Jeremiah because I couldn’t imagine him with anyone else, and by not writing the book, I could keep him with Katie. Well, long story short, a couple of people assured me that they had no trouble with the age difference. After knowing that, I decided to write the book.

Since Abby taught Katie to read in The Rancher’s Bride, I decided to make Katie an avid reader in this story. ๐Ÿ™‚

I brought Pearl into this story to show what happened to her. I like knowing she turned out okay after what happened to her parents in The Rancher’s Bride and thought other people might like an update on her. That was the only reason I added scenes with her in the book.

Thayne needing to do an emergency c-section on Abby was based on a story a teacher once told my class about a doctor doing that on his wife. I don’t remember the details about that story. All I remember is that this was before c-sections were a thing. He took the risk in doing this procedure because he didn’t want to lose her. I was impressed by how much this man loved his wife and wanted to save her. The wife and baby turned out okay, so it was a happy story.

Wade now has a ton of kids. I felt it fitting to give him a bunch of them after what he went through with losing Lloyd.

I wanted to see how Lloyd was doing, so I added that scene where he shows Katie what he and his younger brother wrote. I had to do some research on the Three Musketeers for it. I have not read the original book or subsequent books based off the original, and I haven’t seen any movies on it. This kind of thing doesn’t interest me. I’d say about 50% of the books my characters like aren’t my cup of tea. I find out what’s in the books through online research.

Speaking of stories, there were two fables I learned about while writing this book. The ones with the frog and the peacock were new to me. Instead of reading them, though, I watched videos on You Tube that told those stories. I did find an old version of the frog one and quoted from it since it would probably have been the actual version Katie read. (I gave credit to this book at the end of The Loner’s Bride.)

I did read Oedipus Rex in the past, and I actually enjoyed it, though I have no interest in the sequels.

During the writing of the book, I kept getting “Lone Man’s Pass” mixed up with “The Lone Trail”. I had to go through the search function in Word a few times to make sure I got it right.

When I started the rewrite of the Wyoming Series, I kept thinking I would have something erupt between the US Army and the Indian tribes. That’s why I mentioned the tension between the Army and Indians a couple of times in the series. However, that idea never found its way into the stories. I’m a bit disappointed, but you can’t force a story to go in a direction it doesn’t want to go.

While I was writing this book, I was also writing The Cursed Earl. The thing about a peacock feather being bad luck led me to writing about Katie thinking of the men in town as peacocks. What happens in one story can influence what happens in another.

I never came out and said it in the story, but those widows in the orphanage played matchmaker behind the scenes. Stella backed out of the outing with Jeremiah and the kids so that he would have to go with Katie. None of the widows believed Jeremiah and Katie were secretly engaged, but they pretended to in order to coax him into agreeing to marry Katie. They even suggested he did something inappropriate with Katie in the kitchen to stop him from backing out of the wedding. Clementine only “chaperoned” Jeremiah and Katie on one of the outings with the children because she didn’t want them to have a chance to talk, lest they agree to cancel the wedding because there was no truth behind the rumor.

The widows did not know that Katie started the rumor, and they never found out.

At one point, Mic tells Jeremiah, “Youโ€™re not an old man. You have plenty of years left. The reason you feel old is because of whatโ€™s up here.โ€ Mic tapped his head. โ€œItโ€™s all in your mind.” This is my personal philosophy. I believe a lot of stuff starts in the head. I know there are some physical stuff we can’t get around. Disease, cancer, etc, are outside of our mental control, but a lot of what we tell ourselves does impact how we physically feel.

The reason Jeremiah shaved his beard is because the model on the cover doesn’t have a beard. I wanted him to match the cover.

I figured it was only fair that after all the restraint Jeremiah showed up to the wedding that he should be able to cast all restraint aside on the wedding night. Personally, I got a chuckle out of that scene, but my sense of humor is weird so who knows what other people thought?

The information about the Cassiopeia and Cepheus constellations is what I learned while homeschooling my youngest for his science class. (I never did get any good at spotting anything in the sky, even though the north star was easy to find. My son did a better job of it.) There are a couple of different versions of the Cassiopeia and Cepheus constellation myths. Being a romance writer, I preferred the romantic version. That’s the one I went with in this story.

I ended up giving Katie a girl since she spent so much time prettying Abby up in The Rancher’s Bride. I gave her boys first because Jeremiah was secretly worried he’d lose another child, and that fear would have been greater if he had a girl first. By having the boys come first, he was much more hopeful when the girl was born. (I realize this never made it into the story with him being worried and all, but his character did have that lingering fear in the back of his mind.)

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