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READ LIKE A WRITER, a teaching blog


I need to make a disclaimer. I am not a professional book reviewer. I am a reader and an author. For both those reasons, I write reviews.


I wish instead of writing this blog article we could all sit around an old-fashioned coffee house or French salon and have an informal discussion about writing reviews. I'm sure I will miss many points in this one-sided conversation. So, please join in on the comment section. The reason I'm tackling this topic is because I hear readers say they don't—won't—review for a variety of reasons. (My introvert husband is a voracious reader who won't review. I even set up a Goodreads account for him, trying to encourage him to interact with other readers, and he won't use it. He has been in an in-person book club. He keeps a written log of books read. But he won't interact on-line with fellow bibliophiles.) Readers who don't review often express that they don't know what to write. I suspect it's also a time factor. Life is busy and we spend time on what is important to us personally.  


An issue authors have with reviewing is whether to review as an author, or as a lay reader. (Come on, authors, be honest. We're more critical because we look at a work from multiple angles, and with a trained eye.) Authors have told me it's come back to bite them when they wrote honest reviews and gave lower ratings.   


The last reason I decided to tackle this topic, and address readers who review, is because some wordings and rankings in reviews are actually working against authors. I am not saying a reader shouldn't be honest in the review. Not at all. Please, hear me out and then tell me if I'm wrong and why in the comment section.


Last prelude comment before I wade into this discussion. Authors, please do not put me on the spot and ask me to review your books. Like I said in the beginning, I am not a professional reviewer. I'm an author who is under contract as I write this. So, like you, I have deadlines. (My concern in making this conversation public is that authors will flood me with unsolicited books to review.)   




Why are reviews important to authors? In a time when bookstores have declined, selling online is of utmost importance in the 21st Century. Amazon has become a game-changer in the importance of book reviews. Amazon rewards with increased visibility and "pushing" (advertising) when books have 50 reviews, then 100 reviews.


Many publishers are asking their authors to try to get 100 reviews as quickly as possible after the book's release. Imagine asking enough people to generate 100 reviews! Has anyone figured the averages? Would an author need to ask 500 people? One thousand to get one 100 reviews? It's daunting for authors to ask anyone for a review. In the old days the author wrote the book and the publisher sold the book. Now the burden has shifted to shared responsibility. If the author is that good of a salesperson then she might do better self-publishing. Just a thought.   




1. If you think it takes too much time out of your busy schedule, know that reviews don't have to be long. A book review can be one word: Suspenseful. Gripping. Harrowing. Superb. Stunning! Inspiring! Illuminating.


Or two words: Jaw-dropping. Gut-wrenching. Thought-provoking. Soul-searching.


It is not enough to just click the stars and not leave a word or more in the comment section. Amazon doesn't count stars only as part of the count toward rewards.


2. Do not add your relationship to the author. Recently a debut author had asked people supporting her through a FB "street team" page to review her book. When I posted my honest review, I noticed the other reviewers mentioned their relationship to the author: sister, in-law, neighbor, friend, schoolmate, knew her from church, etc. All 5-star reviews, of course. (Mine was a 4-star. More on that later.) As a reader, I would not read or believe any of those reviewers. Worse, Amazon is cracking down and deleting, even locking, accounts from reviewers, if the reviews are suspect to be highly biased. (More on that later, too.)


3. This is up to you, but, as a non-professional reviewer, I personally will not review a book if I can't give it at least 4 stars. (If you are not an author, you might set the bar at 3-stars.) In the case of the debut author I mentioned above, one reason I had no hesitation giving her a 4-star review and pointing out an ambivalence in the ending was because she needed a balanced review. One readers would trust. I view myself as a supporter of other authors. However, that doesn't mean that in comments I write fluff.


4. If you are an author, it's not about you. Sorry for being so blunt, but it's not. Recently a publisher sent me an ARC (Advanced Reading Copy) and asked if I would review the book. I did. Only to find Amazon had locked this author's book from reviews after the first review was accepted. I've checked back after several weeks and it is still locked. I noticed on the publisher's website where they also have reviews posted (including mine) and noticed a whole string of authors who reviewed and added their taglines "(Name), Award-winning author of …"


*shaking head* I've written book blurbs for cover copy at the request of publishers. It's an honor I take seriously. (So much so that I've even turned down requests from certain authors.) In those cases, the publishers are asking me because of my reputation as an author. (That's why I'm selective, it's my reputation on the line.) But this is not that. Requests to review and post on a website or booksellers site or Goodreads is not for a book cover. It's not about you. It is to help readers make intelligent decisions whether or not to buy another author's book.      


5. Write the review to reflect something you liked or did not like about the book. Do not make comments that have nothing to do with the story. I've read reviews that were personal attacks against the author and didn't have anything to do with the story.


6. Even though I won't give a book a low rating, I don't write fluff. Think about who might benefit from your review. Since I was a teacher and wrote education materials, I mention if a book would be useful as a companion to curriculum in classrooms, or for homeschoolers, or as a resource in libraries. Think audience. Would this book be good for Book Clubs? Or, people dealing with grief, or eating disorders, or addictions? Or Christian schools? I even try to mention what age groups might enjoy the book, or find the reading accessible for certain ages. If it is a children's book, I tend to write book reviews as if I'm speaking to educators and parents since they buy the bulk of books. Whereas, maybe you prefer to aim your reviews to the intended audience.


7. Cross-post your reviews. I write them in a Word document, then copy and paste in Amazon and Goodreads. If it applies, look at posting it in Christianbooks.com. Some publishers have pages to post reviews of their books.




To all who write reviews, thank you! To those who are on the fence whether to take the time, look at it this way: Posting reviews does not cost you one cent. Yet, it's an act of kindness that can mean sales for the author. If books don't sell, the book dies, and an author's career could short-circuit. So authors really do appreciate the time you've taken on this act of kindness by boosting their books' visibility.    






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Photo by Johnnys_pic at Pixabay

I had a dream recently where I was in a bookstore. The owner was recommending a book to me about names. In real life I'd just been in a discussion about name changes, so the dream completed the unfinished conversation. (Like how in the old days we would go to books instead of Google to research topics.) What stayed with me most this week about the dream has been the visceral experience of being in an old bookstore again, like an old familiar friend.

Inhale the smell of bound books, slightly musty in sectioned off rooms, shelved according to topics. Sink into comfy chairs tucked in corners and perch on stools or children's school chairs in aisles. Help yourself to free coffee from the pot on a little table. Ask a knowledgeable clerk who is an avid passionate reader, to make a recommendation…sorry, I got carried away reminiscing about my favorite old bookstore on Broadway in San Antonio. (For a great description of such a bookstore, if you've never had the privilege of being in one, read THE SHADOW OF THE WIND about The Cemetery of the Forgotten Books by Carlos Ruiz Zafron.)  




Ben Fox, founder of Shepherd.com, seems like a man who has been to such bookstores. Anyone who has ever had a good bookstore in his or her life, knows what we're missing. Fox is trying to fill that gap online with a book service that features authors, offers recommendations according to topics, and provides easy-to-navigate links for readers.




Shepherd.com turned one year old in April 2022.  In March 2022, Shepherd.com logged for that one month 71,000+ visitors, 111,000+ pageviews, and a guesstimated 11,000 clicks to just one bookstore partner. Fox is upgrading software to track more accurately clicks to partner bookstores. This is where Fox gets his income revenue. That's why he can offer this service free to authors. And no ads for readers to click out of or scroll through.   




Disillusioned with Goodreads and Amazon, Fox did extensive studies of how readers make decisions to buy books before setting up Shepherd.com. He designed a questionnaire for authors different from other sites—which sets Shepherd.com apart from the competition. I talked to several authors about joining Shepherd.com and they were concerned about how much time it would take to assemble the material and fill out the form. I completed it in one day. It takes me much longer than that to apply for appearances at bookfests and library conventions. Here's the link to my page "Best Books Going Beyond Bombs: How War Affects Families" so you can see the format.  




Here's the link for authors, telling how to apply to join the author program:




For readers, Shepherd.com is easy to navigate. It is especially helpful if searching for books in specific topics and categories. Like how we used to browse old bookstores. Except you have to find your own comfy chair and free coffee. 

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  Christine Kohler photographs for iStack / Getty Images. https://www.istockphoto.com/photos/christine-kohler?phrase=Christine%20Kohler&sort=mostpopular    

by Christine Kohler


Anyone who pursues a life in the arts knows well the path of practice, discipline, and persistence. Yet that path is not a straight line. Ask anyone who has survived a life in the arts for decades. (Raising my hand, in 2020 I hit the 40-year mark as a published writer.)


I'm about to review my writer goals for 2020 to see how I did. I cringe at checking them. I'm usually on-course with accomplishing my yearly goals. If one falls by the wayside, it's because a contract or two cropped up instead. But this year…what a year. I don't need to tell you about the hole blasted into the middle of my year from April 2020 until…until…the pandemic's not over yet. Unless you are a nurse or in a nursing home, you probably won't see a COVID vaccine until Spring. I won't until maybe May. Even then, will life go back to semi-normal? What. A. Year.


Oh, where was I? Ah, yes. Goals. (I get so easily distracted these days. Practice, discipline, and persistence hasn't been my daily routine this year. I've been playing and creating in different ways.) It wasn't just the pandemic that cancelled opportunities for me this year, it was also a drastic shift in the YA market. If you could read my rejection letters from this year, it really was a case of, "It's not your writing or story, it's the present market." However, whatever it shakes to that I did or didn't do, when I report that to my weekend goals' group, I'll be okay with it. Chilled. Out. … Honest!


Why? I took a lateral step in creative outlets that satisfied my goal-driven need for achievement. I didn't give up writing. But, I also turned toward something that I've always considered as supplementary to my writing—photography. In 2016, I applied on a whim to freelance for iStock Getty Images. I had just moved to a wildlife reserve and thought it would be relaxing to photograph nature. When I applied, I didn't know if I would get accepted. On the application, however all those years of experience added up. I'm published in photography in magazines, newspapers, and one NF book about refugees by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Getty accepted me within two days.


I didn't do much to build my photo portfolio until 2018 when I set a reasonable monthly goal. If you don't set goals, you don't have anything to shoot toward. I exceeded that goal. I also realized by then that shooting iStock photos which sell was more like photographing for advertising, such as leaving copy space. Not surprising, many of my photos are bought and used to illustrate articles, since that's how my writing background sees photo opportunities.


My portfolio grew, then the pandemic halted road trips, and halted seeing my grandchildren and using them as models. My husband was a good sport and allowed me to photograph him doing chores, yardwork, and pretending to garden. But it didn't take long to photograph everything in and around the house and run out of ideas what to shoot next. That's when I expanded in an unexpected way. I thought, what do I know about the most? Children's literature. Years ago, I had played with making felt board pictures with my eldest grandson. It was fun, easy, and came out pretty well. So, in 2020 I expanded my portfolio by making mixed media pictures and photographing them in what iStock Getty Images classifies as "still lifes." I also created awareness ribbons with different backgrounds and groupings, including hearts hung on a clothesline.


Late in the year, when I ran out of salable ideas again, I expanded to a fourth category: historical illustrations copyrighted before 1900 in public domain. This type of work is an extension of all the years I wrote education materials. Again, a sidestep from what I had already been doing in my writing career. By opening myself to making lateral moves, I doubled my sales in 2020.  


If Ford and GM can make ventilators, then you can find ways to make lateral expansions in your arts career, too. It's no different than a musician, writer, or artist who also teaches the craft. Or a book writer who also writes curriculum. Or a poet who writes song lyrics. Or a children's lit illustrator who works as a commercial graphic artist for a newspaper. In the arts, that's how most of us keep our careers alive. That's how we make a living with our art. Hodge-podging sidelines of our craft—editing, copy editing, teaching, writing a multiple of genres for multiple markets. It's how I was able to make a living as a professional writer for 40 years.


How are you going to adjust your artistic goals for 2021 taking into account the pandemic will still dominate life for at least half the year? How will you adjust your writing goals if the markets drastically changed from what you write?

Let me leave you with this thought: Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be bent out of shape.


I wish you all a creative journey on this very twisted path!

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Photo by Danielle Tunstall / Pixabay

 By Christine Kohler


Aren't all published contemporary novels now obsolete in light of COVID-19? Aren't published contemporary novels (or those in writers' files) now "period pieces" or historical? Isn't it like reading about Superman changing in a phone booth and teens say, "What's a phone booth?" Or, if the guy borrows a quarter for a pay phone the novel dates itself as bad as him saying, "Groovy, Man."


In graduate school we studied Post-Modernism. The term referred to experimentation with form. However, the term seems to fit these unprecedented pandemic times more than ever, post-COVID-19. I predict new terms will be coined to describe the before and after of this dystopian-turned-contemporary situation. (Will William Gibson lead us by inventing these new terms like he did with the internet in NEUROROMANCER?)


Consider the ways in which our society has changed drastically in 2020. Then mirror that against contemporary literature and what in each book is now obsolete. And, back to my first question, if it's out-of-date, then it is no longer contemporary. That makes the work a period piece or historical. Think of pre-COVID and post-COVID as The Great Divide. Even though the '19 stands for when the virus came into existence in 2019, I would argue that the awareness and societal changes came about in 2020. So, literature set in 2019 would be pre-COVID in details. And anything published post-COVID in 2020 would need to include the changes in society.


I propose, as a writer, that we made lists of ways that society has changed. What makes it a contemporary setting in post-pandemic time? The most obvious is how we greet one another. No handshakes. No hugs. No check-to-cheek air kisses. All obsolete gestures now. I noticed that the dishwasher installer gave me a low hand-wave. It was subtle, friendly, kind of cute in a shy way. I wonder if this will catch on. Personally, I like the small bow by slightly bobbing the head and shoulders that we did when I lived in Japan (and traveled to Korea). But, will the Western countries adopt the Asian bow? Or the Asian Indian palms pressed together, a waist-bow, followed by, "Namaste"? Maybe not. Keep your eyes peeled for what the American society settles into for greetings once we stop self-isolating.  


Another obvious outward change is wearing masks. (In Japan many people, especially young mothers, wore surgical masks in Tokyo when I lived there in the late 1980s.) I posted on a writers' site that perhaps masks might start being sold with clothing items in matching fabrics. The next day I clipped an article about how Louis Vuitton is now making face masks. You could have fun with face masks by adding dark humor with the prints, such as how John Green added humor in PAPER TOWNS with t-shirts that contained incongruent messages for the characters.  


Language is another area to expect change. I belong to a company photography chat room and love hearing the Brits talk slang. They've used the term "hamstering" and "iso-time" for what Alvin Toffler called "cocooning" in THE THIRD WAVE. Pay attention to new terminology that will surely enter our post-pandemic vocabulary.


This only scratches the surfaces of what we will experience in the nouvelle Post-Post Modernism, Post-COVID-19, Post-Contemporary society. (Gibson, can you help me out here?)


As always, I would to hear your comments on this topic. Yes, I love hearing from you introverts even by email. But if post in comments below, we can get a dialogue going. What are your thoughts. How will you be updating in revisions your next contemporary novel to truly make it reflect our contemporary society?     


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Photo by Karin Henseler from Pixabay

Self-isolation is an interesting term the medical experts chose for avoiding social contact during this present virus crisis. Self-isolation is what monks and priests and nuns of all religions do when they cloister themselves away in monasteries. Self-isolation is what writers do when they write first drafts and deep revisions.


What exactly does one do in self-isolation? And how does it apply to us as writers?


Self-isolation should be more than deprivation of pleasures. It should be more than the absence of another's company. Or to sit in silence. The purpose of self-isolation is to lead toward transformation.

Those seeking spiritual transformation do so through the practice of prayer and meditation through deep contemplation. After internalizing what is revealed to them through these practices, some scholar-monks/priests transform the world by sharing their revelations through writings.


Prayer is an earnest hope or wish. In prayer we examine our faults, make confession, and ask for help in doing better. Putting the religious aspect aside, this would also apply to writers who desire to write better. First, we need to examine our writing and see objectively our weak spots. We also need to confess where we get defensive during critiques or editorial letters. Then, we need to adopt teachable spirits and be open to learning from others. We can find resources to write better online, through writing books, and by reading mentor texts.


As an example of learning through a mentor text, last week I re-read PAPER TOWNS by John Green. For a year now I've been thinking about writing a travel/journey YA novel. I know the title, theme, four of the characters, and locations. However, there are some aspects that escape me, so I'm looking at novels where the characters travel. (Would love your recommendations in the comment section!) I hadn't read PAPER TOWNS for more than a decade. I'd completely forgotten about how the teen girl ran away from home and left clues using LEAVES OF GRASS by Walt Whitman. In re-reading this novel, it was obvious that the author meditated deeply on the poem LEAVES OF GRASS, and wanted his readers to contemplate the meanings, too.


Which brings me to the next purpose in self-isolation, spending time in meditation and contemplation. For years, this had been my New Year's resolution—to meditate. To think deeper. In another blog article I wrote about "Creating in Kairos instead of Chronos Time." This article was the cumulation of contemplating about time for probably close to a decade. I'm not saying meditation is easy. Busy schedules and people (family, mostly) interrupting our thoughts crowd out time for meditation. But that's the silver-lining part of self-isolation. The medical experts, government entities, and organizations are closing down many of our distractions and telling us to stay out of crowded venues. They are telling us to cloister ourselves at home. And if we must go outside, take a nature walk in a secluded place.

As writers, we could use this stepping-back-from-distractions time to meditate, to think deeper, to contemplate motives, purposes, and applications. Spend the time to create more imaginatively, beyond our boundaries of yesterday.  Expand your creativity.


Experiment. Writers are used to rejections, so it's not a big deal if we experiment, fail, and try again. Inventors, scientists, and writers know it's not really a failure, but rather a trial that didn't work, an elimination to the stepping-stone of a break-through success. (The drug company medical researchers are going through this exact process right now to find a cure to the Corona-virus.)


In this time of self-isolation, use these tools of prayer, meditation, and contemplation to transform your writing. Transform the way you look at things. Transform how your readers look at things. Transformation is the goal. Imagine how you can transform your creative process and product. Imagine. And imagine deeply.


How are you using this time of self-isolation?

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Edgar Allen Poe was the first author to use an unreliable narrator, according to Harry Lee Poe in his biography EDGAR ALLAN POE (Metro Books, 2008). Poe used this literary device in "The Cask of Amontillado" and "Tell-Tale Heart".

When writing a story with an unreliable narrator in children's literature, authors are tipping the reader  Read More 

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Photo Credit: Gerd Altmann / Pixabay

by Christine Kohler


When I moved to a different high school mid-11th grade, I was short one semester of physical education to be able to graduate. My first day the gym teacher told me to get on a trampoline. I told her I had never been on a trampoline. It became obvious that she thought I was lying.


"Jump higher!" the gym teacher yelled at me. "Higher!" Then she instructed me to do a somersault, or flip, or some contortion I had never done in my life. Not one to disobey, I threw my body in the air, twisted…and landed an inch of cracking my skull on the outer metal bar.


"Get off!" the gym teacher shouted. She never said a word to me the rest of the semester. I passed the class, though I don't remember what grade she gave me.   


In fact, I don't remember anything about that gym class, except getting to swim with a Polish exchange student later in the semester. I don't remember any of the sophomores in the class. Not what we wore.  Not even group showers or the locker room. But I remember every detail of what happened that day on the trampoline. That is the story I tell—the disaster story.




It's like that for most of us. What sticks in our memories are the stressful, the terrifying, the suspenseful, the horrifying…the conflict-filled, confrontation, heart-in-the-throat stories.

Why, then, do we writers back off from confrontation and conflict?


I have a theory about women writers reared in time periods and cultures where we were taught to behave lady-like, to be peace-makers, to acquiesce to others for the sake of avoiding conflict and arguments. What happens is that these life lessons water down our fiction and we write too quiet. Often it comes out in the main character observing more than being in the thicket of the conflict and action. This type of writer can succumb to having adults lecture to the main character as the resolution, then the main character acquiesces to please the adult.




The only thing you can do about how you were reared is to be introspective, and acknowledge it. (My dad reared me to be polite, lady-like, to not talk back, to exhibit good manners, and respect authority. Not saying there is anything wrong with these qualities, but I didn't learn to stand up for myself, or deal with conflict or confrontation.) However, as a writer I have had to be bold in print, put my main character in a royal mess, and escalate conflict.




First and foremost, write the first draft. This is the finger-painting stage. If you get too caught up in psycho-analyzing everything, you can get stymied and stuck. So, just write the story you want to tell.

After the first draft is written, do a reverse outline. A reverse outline is a chapter-by-chapter synoptic outline of what is already on the page. Don't add or subtract. Be honest and stay true to what you have already written in that early draft. You are going to use this outline to see if your first draft has full story and character arcs. The reverse outline will show you if your story is missing plot points. It's also a good way to check the subplot and an overlay of the character's emotional arc and growth change.  




Ask yourself these questions:

Is the main character in the mess, or observing someone else's mess?

Is the main character avoiding conflict or confrontation?   

Does the conflict escalate?

Does the main character resolve his or her own problem?


Note: Lectures do not work. Every parent can testify that if lectures worked then they would have perfect children after each lecture.   




Look at conflict differently. Instead of focusing on the unpleasant aspect of the conflict itself, look beyond the conflict and confrontation to the change it brings about. Change for your character. Change for your character's situation. Confrontation can empower a person. The alternative is for the person (your character) to constantly acquiesce and swallow her anger. To avoid conflict is to go along with the status quo. Let me repeat that vital point: Conflict and confrontation lead to mature growth in your character and change in his or her circumstances.


Just as you cannot help a butterfly break out of its cocoon prematurely, or break the shell for a bird or turtle, you shouldn't make it easy for your character to overcome adversity, avoid conflict, or back down from confrontation. It would make the character—and story—weak. Instead, in revision, have the main character stand up to the bully or overcome the obstacle bravely and boldly. Hit the conflict and confrontation head-on, and, by doing so, you empower the readers who identify with your character.     



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by Christine Kohler


Children's book editors often say they do not want writers to submit rhyming picture books. Yet, we all read and love rhyming picture books. What editors really mean is that they receive in the slush pile so few rhyming stories that are done well that they don't want to wade through them while reading submissions.


As a former writing instructor and an author for 37 years, most unpublished poems writers want critiqued as picture books are written in iambic. This is the most common rhythm in English verse.

As one who is published in poetry in two languages, I suggest you experiment with different feet and meters.


Here's a guide to different feet:  


Iambic – a foot consisting of an unaccented syllable and an accented. (Ex. forsake; New York)


Trochee – a foot consisting of an accented and an unaccented syllable. (Ex. happy; London)


Anapest – a metrical foot consisting of three syllables, with two unaccented syllables followed by an un accented one. (Ex. Tennessee; "The Cloud" by Byron Shelly, "Like a child from the womb, like a ghost from the tomb…")


Dactyl – a foot consisting of one accented syllable followed by two unaccented. (Ex. mannikin; Leningrad)


Spondee – a foot composed of two accented syllables. (Ex. football; all joy)


Pyrrhic -- a foot composed of two unstressed short syllables. (Ex. go to; the boy)


Teachers and poets who do school visits, I used to write these feet on the white-board, then have students come up and print their names and mark syllable breaks, stressed and unstressed syllables. This exercise was always a big hit. I like to think the lesson stayed with the teens longer because it was connected with their own names.    


In poetry, when you divide the lines into different feet by breaking up syllables and determining the accents, this is called "scanning" or "scansion."  Scansion tells you the rhythm of a line. From high school to graduate school I scanned poetry manually. However, if anyone knows of a scansion program, please share the link in comments, and how you liked using it compared to doing so manually. 

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photo by Antonio Doumas 

by Christine Kohler


Solomon, an Israelite king who ruled in 970-930 B.C., was a writer. Most know his works PROVERBS, SONG OF SOLOMON, and ECCESIASTES. Solomon has a lot to say to writers.


For instance, in Ecclesiastes 12:12 Solomon wrote to his son, "…of making many books is no end…" (KJV) This is true in so many different ways for writers. Writers often have so many ideas for books or articles that they couldn't begin to work on all of the ideas within a lifetime.  There's also the case of "byline high." The euphoria of publication and seeing your byline in print is a feeling that never gets old. When I switched to writing books exclusively, I waved my hand at all the files stuffed full of published articles and stories and told myself, "I have to never care whether I see my byline again" to pursue this path. (Prior to that decision I had 5 books and one collection published more than a decade before. It took me three years without a byline before I sold another book. That was a long three years, wondering if it would ever happen again.) 


Solomon doesn't always address writers specifically, but his wisdom still applies to writers and their quest to publish. One of my favorite verses is Ecclesiastes 9:10, "Whatsoever thy hand finds to do, do it with all thy might." That advice applies in genres, opportunities, efforts—including being able to seek and accept critiques, then doing multiple revisions, and improving craft skills.   


Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes 9:11, "…the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happens to them all." The Amplified version paraphrases the ending to read, "but time and chance overtake them all."    


The two nuggets of wisdom I take away from this is, one, to persevere. When I taught writing, I saw some of the most gifted writers stymied to submit because of perfectionism and fear of rejection.


At the other end of the scale, several times I had adult writing students whom I didn't think would pass the course, let alone ever get published. (A requirement for passing the course was to produce at least one publishable-quality article or story.) Then, low and behold, that writer would get a piece published, and then another, and another. Amazing. (It's a subjective business, so I was amazed, but evidently some editor felt differently. Keep in mind, I only had about three or four of these type of writers during nearly a decade of teaching the writing course.) The qualities I found these writers had in common were that they studied the markets, wrote toward the market they wanted to get published in, believed in themselves, and persevered.  


The second pearl of wisdom in this verse: there is an element of luck in publishing. We can't do anything about luck. (I once had a Curtis Brown Ltd. agent who said I was the most unluckiest author she ever met. Then she left the biz and proved I have the luck of the Irish. No luck at all. Ha, ha.) But more important than speed, strength, talent, money, what you know, who you know, acquired skill, or the elusive Lady Luck, what really matters is PERSEVERANCE!  


The king concluded the sentence in Ecclesiastes 12:12 by writing this about research, "…much study is weariness of the flesh." I would add that on-site primary research is also expensive. Not that Solomon had to worry about money.    


There are more rich words of advice from author Solomon that applies to writers, and life, in general, for any person. It's interesting to note that Solomon's father was King David, also a writer, composer, and musician of poetry and songs.


Another thing Solomon understood well is that we don't have to walk a given path in life alone. In Proverbs 17:17 he wrote, "A friend loves at all times." Choosing a career in the arts is difficult for a number of reasons. Dreams are big, but only a limited number can rise to the top. Art is subjective, and no matter how hard the artist (encompassing writers, illustrators, actors, dancers, musicians, etc.) works, what is published or produced often has more to do with the present market than the brilliance of the work, and certainly the creativity and hard work of the artist. Put another way, we can only do the work before us. The rest is out of our control. This is not necessarily true in other professions. In addition, due the isolation of writers while creating, and the necessity to network during publishing and marketing, it's important to make friends with fellow writers. Invest in reciprocal friendships with people you trust.           


I made one such friend years ago with author Christine Taylor-Butler (TRIBES series, Move Books).  She is giving 20 FREE copies of my novel NO SURRENDER SOLDIER (Simon Pulse) to Kansas City middle & high school libraries. If you are at a KC school library, leave your name, school, e-mail, phone number on my Contact page and I will forward it to Christine Taylor-Butler.

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Photo by Alexander Kliem from Pixabay
Backstory is like a pinata. You have to bust it up to get sweet storytelling techniques.    

by Christine Kohler


I started reading a novel by a big-name best-selling mystery writer in the adult market when backstory confused the heck out of me in Chapter 2. I plodded through to Chapter 4 when, voila, that same backstory, only expanded, popped up again. This time it made sense in context. In my humble opinion, it never should have been inserted as early as Chapter 2. [I put the book down early in Chapter 5 because of poor writing and frequent tense and first-third person changes in single point of view passages.]


When I taught writing for a decade, one of the biggest problems novice novelists had was knowing when to insert the backstory. It's understandable because often we don't start "at the beginning" of a character's story. Often we begin the contained story in a book—the one that fits a story arc, and will hook the reader, then take off running pell mell—media res at the point of impact. Or, in laymen's terms, at the point where the apple cart is overturned. So, we have all this backstory that we feel the reader must know to understand our character and fully appreciate how the character got into this situation, and why the characters respond the way they do. (If you are tempted to add a prologue for this reason, don't. See my article on the purpose for prologues in children's literature.)


However, if you front-load your tale with backstory, then you are as guilty of slowing down the forward moving plot as if you had started the story in the wrong place. Either way, you lose their attention.


In first drafts, get the story down. Don't worry about what is backstory and what is forward-moving story at that point. Don't even get married to where your story begins. It's common to write a first draft, then in revision to realize the story really begins on Page 5 or Chapter 2 or backed up even further to show what is called the "Ordinary World" in a hero's journey.


In revision, get out your colored markers. One color for "Telling" and one color for "Showing" (action). One color for "Confused" and one color for "Backstory." (I capitalized the words here to show I use T, S, C, B as my shorthand codes.) In the confused places, often caught by a trusted critique partner, you may need a dollop of backstory. Just a dollop though early on. Maybe only a sentence or two.


In the places you've marked as backstory, take another colored marker and highlight how much of that backstory in the early chapters can be moved later and still have the context understood. How much can be deleted all together and not lose meaning or add confusion to the present story (what the readers already knows or needs to know)?


Some genres require backstory earlier, such as historical in children's literature. Ingrain in your brain this fact, all children today were born in the 21st century. Their Common Core experience is limited to only things that happened after the year 2001, at the earliest. Consider anything written in the 20th cenury as history to readers age 18 and younger. That's why you often need to fill in readers ignorant of the background in historical fiction and nonfiction. Consider, too, that this would also be the case if using in the story any pop culture such as music, dance, art before the 21st century.   


This same situation holds true in children's lit if you are writing about a sport, such as parkour, that is unfamiliar to readers.  


Other cases where backstory might need front-loaded is in mysteries where the premise and stakes need set.


Yes, we need to bust the backstory into smaller bites in the beginning. Or delay it. Or eliminate as much as possible so not to slow the forward moving action and bore readers. But, unfortunately, we can't cut all backstory, or make a hard-fast rule to dump it in, say, Chapter 5, if the reader gets lost early on without it.  


As always, I welcome comments regarding this difficult writing skill.

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