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October 2011

Reporter: Michael Ehret

Michael EhretMichael Ehret is the editor of ACFWs ezine, Afictionado, and the Editor-in-Chief of the Jerry B. Jenkins Christian Writers Guild. Previously, he worked as a reporter for The Indianapolis News and The Indianapolis Star and was a senior editor for Everence Financial in Goshen, Ind.

Editor: Vicki Talley McCollum

Vicki Talley McCollumVicki Talley McCollum, freelance editor and writer, is the book review editor for ACFW’s Afictionado ezine, an associate copyeditor for MBT Voices, and a fiction columnist for FCW Ready Writer ezine. She is a member of ACFW, MBT, FCW, and the Christian Editor’s Network. Visit her website and her blog.


Workshop 10: How to Write an Award-winning Novel

When award-winning novelists host a workshop on how to write an award-winning novel, attendance is a no-brainer.

Deb Raney’s books have won the RITA Award, ACFW’s Carol Award, HOLT Medallion, National Readers’ Choice Award, Silver Angel, and have twice been Christy Award finalists.

Her buddy and crit partner, Tamera Alexander’s books have won Christy Awards, RITA Awards, Gayle Wilson Awards of Excellence, the Bookseller’s Best Award, and more.

Raney and Alexander told conferees that award-winning novels have five key elements: Great characters, clearly defined character goals, universal themes, great storytelling, and cinematic elements.

Great characters

Deborah RaneyStrong characters feel real, Raney (right) said. They are people the reader can believe in and relate to. How do you achieve this?

  • Give them believable, well-drawn flaws.
  • Make them ultimately kind and likable or—since antagonists can be great characters, too—ultimately wicked and despicable.
  • Have them interact with other great characters in compelling ways.

Clearly defined goals

We need to know early on what the story is about and what the characters want.

These goals are both inward and outward, Raney said, and high-stakes. “We need to know early on what the story is about and what the characters want. And if those character goals can be in conflict with each other, all the better.”

Goals also need to be consistent with the character’s personality while moving them closer to who they long to be.

Universal themes

Tamera AlexanderA universal theme applies to almost everyone in almost all times. The theme of Cinderella, for instance, could be: When a person lives a life of goodness, she’ll be rewarded with good things.

“There is not just one theme in every story,” Alexander (right) said. “It’s a subtle takeaway message, not something the author has to prop up on each page.”

Furthermore, any spiritual message enfolded in the theme is organic to the story. Readers should see God in the picture—see that this is the way the character, who hasn’t thought about God in a long time, is being confronted by the reality of Him.

Any spiritual message enfolded in the theme (needs to be) organic to the story.

Finally, a universal theme must have takeaway value for the reader’s life, as well.

Great storytelling

An award-winning novel has a plot that draws the reader in and compels them forward, Raney said, while including surprises along the way.

The plot is not episodic—it comes full circle. There’s poignancy when the author can dovetail the inner journey and the outer journey to the same point.

Cinematic elements

“When you read a great book, it’s like a movie playing in your head,” Raney said. “If you can enhance that as a writer and make your book as much like a movie as possible, you’re that much ahead.”

Give the reader the basic outlines and let her fill in the rest to suit her preferences.

To make this work, the reader has to be able to visualize the characters—but not have those characters so finely drawn that the reader doesn’t have to be involved. “Let the reader design the outfits,” Alexander said. “Give the reader the basic outlines and let her fill in the rest to suit her preferences.”

Be sure to include the literary equivalent of cinematic techniques such as jumpcuts, foreshadowing, lighting, music—whatever it takes to keep the reader hooked.

Final thoughts

The perfect beginning

Raney then shared key elements from her workshop, The Perfect Beginning. For details on this see her “Writer’s Toolbox” article in a previous issue of Afictionado.

Write where it hurts

In closing, Alexander shared a key point that has helped her take her own writing deeper. She noted that author’s of award-winning novels are willing to write where it hurts. “They either have a personal invested hurt in what they’re writing about or have taken them time to go there with that hurt,” Alexander said. “Writing what you know is good, but writing where you’re hurting is even better.”

Be realistic

Alexander noted that while winning awards is nice, they don’t necessarily translate into increased sales.

“Don’t make the award your goal,” she said. “A goal is something measurable that you have control over. When the awards come, give God the glory. It feels great to final and win, but every time I’ve finaled and won, someone else has finaled and not won—and I know how that feels.”

In the end, after you’ve done your best, the awards and recognition are in God’s hands, Raney said. “Write the best book you can where you are right now—and leave the rest to God.”

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