Join ACFW |  Forgot Password |  Login: 

October 2011

Reporter: Sandra Heska King

Sandra Heska KingSandra Heska King is a wife, mom, grandma, and a nurse. Her great-grandfather and great-great grandfather were both lumberjacks, and she grew up on Paul Bunyan stories. Today she lives in the same 150-year-old farmhouse where her husband grew up. She is currently working on an historical novel set in Michigan in the early 1900s. Visit her website.

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 e-zine. She is a member of ACFW, MBT, FCW, and the Christian Editor’s Network. Visit her website and her blog.

Continuing Education 1: How To Write A Bestseller!

DiAnn MillsAward-winning fiction author DiAnn Mills (right) published her first book in 1998. She has 50 books in print, which have sold more than a million and a half copies.

In this workshop, Mills shared how the new novelist can lay a firm foundation, develop strong characters, weave a plot that sings, establish conflict, sprinkle emotion, and write witty dialogue. Fiction writers are farmers, she said. They plant seeds in novels the un-churched are willing to read.

Mills stressed the importance of creating a working title for your manuscript, making sure it first the genre you’re writing. She then was off and running, packing tons of vital information into two days of instruction.


Mills said that plot comes out of character and readers should “fall in love” with your main character in the first paragraph.

In order for that to happen, writers should:

  • Interview their characters.
  • Complete an extensive worksheet exploring every aspect of each characters’ inner and outer “landscapes.”
  • Every item and trait can determine motivation, responses, attitudes, and feelings.
  • Apply meaning to their characters’ names in line with the story. Character names should mean something, Mills said, even if your readers don’t get it.

An antagonist, according to Mills, is “anyone who stands in the way of a goal.” More specifically, every villain is an antagonist, but not every antagonist is a villain.

God created humans with three specific needs, she said: relationship, significance, security. Character flaws, which will contribute to your story’s conflict, usually fall within money, power, sex, aesthetic appreciation.

To better understand ways to create powerful characters, Mills recommended the book The Power of Body Language by Tonya Reiman. Also, writers can learn much by studying the standard Myers-Briggs personality traits.

“Take the time to write the backstory so you get to know your characters well,” Mills said.


When determining your plot, decide and articulate why you are writing this particular story, Mills said. Include stress, tension, and conflict (inner and outer) as you plot. As Donald Maass said, every page needs to have conflict and every scene needs a goal. In fact, before writing a scene, writers should ask:

  1. What is the POV character’s goal or problem?
  2. What does the POV character learn that he or she didn’t know?
  3. What backstory is revealed? (Try not to insert backstory for the first 50 pages.)
  4. How are the stakes raised?

According to Maass, a novel has five ingredients:

  1. A sympathetic character—fully developed with a problem or problems to solve
  2. A problem that results in conflict
  3. A conflict that twists and turns, deepens and grows
  4. A climax
  5. A resolution

Point of view

Some things to remember about POV:

  • The POV character must be the one with the most to lose.
  • The POV character must be at the climax.
  • POV is either 1st person (I) or 3rd person (he/she).

Emotive conflict

Emotive conflict is the special ingredient that makes a manuscript sing. It’s why we keep turning pages, Mills said. Examples:

I lost my job so I can’t pay the bills, but I’m glad I don’t have to work there any more.
I want to live in the country, but I don’t want to leave Starbucks.

“Know your characters,” Mills said. “Get to like them—then hurt them.”

Be sure to balance emotions with tension, stress, and conflict. “You can’t write strong emotions unless you can face your own,” she said. To do that, she suggests the following writing prompts from David Corbin:

  1. What is your greatest fear?
  2. What is your moment of greatest courage?
  3. What is your greatest sadness or loss?
  4. What is your deepest shame?
  5. What is the one thing in life for which you still carry guilt?
  6. And another from Donald Maass: What is the most painful experience of your entire life?

Mills suggests writing about these things using all your senses. Writers must be transparent, she said, and “rip the scabs off our wounded hearts.” When we transfer our emotions to our characters, our writing is powerful.

She encouraged conferees to use symbolism, like colors, and to understand the seven universal emotions: surprise, anger, fear, sadness, contempt, disgust, and happiness.


Some touch points on creating realistic dialogue:

  • Purpose: Create tension in the present and build suspense for what’s to come.
  • Show body language: It makes up 80 percent of our communication.
  • Silence is effective.
  • Don’t waste words. Make every word count.
  • Dialogue should be tight, realistic, original, unexpected, and rhythmic.
  • Dialogue should be clear, concise, and credible.
  • Eliminate exclamation points whenever possible.
  • The noun or pronoun always comes before the verb.
  • Said is an invisible word. Use it when you need a tag—even for questions.
  • Use internal dialogue sparingly.

Final thought

“To rise to the top of the slush pile, your manuscript must sing, dance, turn cartwheels, whistle, and play the harmonica—all at the same time,” Mills said.

back to ezine