What Makes a Great Story?

Coming off of our BHP Book Banter, I’m wading into the gridded, graphed, somewhat-unfamiliar world of data analysis. I like to imagine myself hacking through a dense jungle of spreadsheet rows and columns with a machete of clarity, because that sounds significantly more interesting than organizing survey responses.

Armed with that particular brand of melodrama, I found that while some of the sorting and graphing is a bit tedious, there are so many interesting comments and conclusions that it’s hard to be bored. I’m going to share one in particular that I think readers and writers alike will appreciate.

When readers were asked “What elements make a great story?” I noticed the feedback often clumped up in contrasting pairs.

Characters should be “flawed” but still “likeable.” Plots that are both “believable” and “surprising” make the best stories. Novels that “make you laugh” and “make you cry” were listed as favorites, often by the same person. The two most common adjectives applied to everything from setting to structure to and dialogue were “realistic/familiar” and “unique.”

HOpeAnd it made me think: good stories hold opposites in tension because The Story does too.

It doesn’t have to be Christian fiction, or even fiction written from the point of view of a Christian, for this to come through, although one thing that I think sets Christian fiction apart is seen in another comment made by several readers: “It’s not necessarily that the ending needs to be happy…but it needs to be hopeful.”

A special note for you writers—seeing these comments, I realized again that what you do is hard work. No other way around it. To write the novel described in these surveys you have to…

  • Give us characters who are better than us in some way so we look up to them…but also just like us so we can relate to them.
  • Portray a beautiful romance (which in real life can be a little dramatic, because lovebirds aren’t necessarily the most rational beings) without being cheesy, cloying, or over-the-top.
  • Maintain tension and suspense without slipping into melodrama or crossing the line into the improbability.
  • Make the heroes or heroines people with admirable qualities so we cheer them on the whole way, while still giving them deep flaws and weaknesses.
  • Plan a storyline that is complex enough to engage readers and keep them turning pages, but not so intricate that it becomes confusing.
  • Create an ending that has some element of unexpectedness, while still being nicely foreshadowed so it doesn’t feel like it dropped out of the sky.

Here’s the thing, though: you have everything you need to do this.

As a person of faith, you hold these contrasts together all the time. You believe that people are both made in the image of God and deeply broken by sin. You pray in the name of Jesus who was fully God and fully man. You listen every Easter to the greatest example of a surprising yet inevitable ending.

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Another contrast from C.S. Lewis, who liked writing about paradoxes.

Keep telling your stories, Christian writers. The world needs them because the world needs more hope.

Readers, which of the bullet points above do you think would be hardest to balance? (Writers, if you want to chime in with which one is most difficult for you, you’re welcome to do so!)

Ask BHP: Where Can I Meet With Bethany House?

This week’s question is probably from an aspiring writer who asks, “Where could I meet with Bethany House’s acquisition editors? Which conferences will they be attending?”

This year, Bethany House editors are only going to be at the ACFW conference. Usually they’re at a few others, but if you’re planning to talk to Dave Long or Raela Schoenherr in 2016, you’ll need to do it there. (For more on what BHP acquisition editors are looking for, there are some detailed and helpful tips here and here.)

ACFW

I (Amy Green, fiction publicist) will be at Taylor University’s Professional Writing Conference, explaining how to get published by going through examples of proposals from debut authors who received a contract with Bethany House. Since I’m not an editor, I won’t be taking pitch appointments, but I’d be more than happy to look at proposals and give the “inside scoop” on dos and don’ts. The conference is still taking registrations for a limited time, so it would be fun to see you there!

This week’s post is short because I’m spending my time getting ready for our BHP Book Banter over on Facebook! I’d love it if you’re able to join in the fun. You can find out more about that event here.

See you soon!

BHP Book Banter 2016

Even publishers like to party every now and then!

We want to hear what you have to say, on everything from cover design to what makes a book one you’d recommend to others to how many author newsletters you’ve signed up for.

But instead of just pushing a survey at you, we decided to throw a party! Like our author Book Banters, this will be held on a Facebook event page. There will be a set time where I’ll be posting survey questions—the time on the event—but anyone can stop by for 24 hours after the event and answer the questions and take the surveys to be entered in drawings for prizes. That way, you can come and go as you’re able and not feel like you’re missing out.

And if you really like this tag, I found it here.

 

Last year’s event was fun and jam-packed with information that I compiled. Some was helpful for Bethany House, some I passed on to our authors if I thought it might be useful to them.

Once again, there will be a set time for the party, but you can feel free to drop by afterward to see the posts and answer questions. Feel free to invite all of your reading friends!

BHP Book Banter
Thursday, July 21, 11 AM – 1 PM

Hostess
Amy Green, Bethany House fiction publicist and lover of all things Christian fiction

Schedule of Events
Note that all the times below are in Central, so feel free to do a bit of quick calculating to figure out when to set your alarms and mark your calendars in your time zone.

11:00
Welcome and Costume Party—in a comment on the welcome post, you can share a picture of an outfit you’re “wearing” to the party that might be worn by one of your favorite Christian fiction characters. (You don’t actually need to wear it—just find an image to share with the rest of us…and be sure to tell us which character you’re representing!)

Starting at 11:10 and throughout
Surveys and Q&A—I’ll post surveys for you to answer, and you can ask me questions about Bethany House if you like. I’ll do my best to answer them! Feel free to answer as many of the surveys as you like—each one will enter you into a giveaway (mostly books, but also gift cards and a few surprises).

12:00
Inside Bethany House—behind-the-scenes pictures of what goes on at Bethany House, including our costume closet and cover roughs.

12:30
Shameless Self-Promotion Post—I’ll put up a post where you can fill the comments with links if you’re a book blogger and want others to join in the fun at your site. We love helping readers gather in communities and interact—that’s the fun of it!

1:00
Conclusion—the event is officially over. But remember, if you weren’t able to be there during the specified time, you can drop by the page at any point and respond to the surveys.

Giveaway winners will be announced at noon on Friday, July 22, so be sure to give your input before then for a chance to win books, gift cards, and other reader goodies.

RSVP

Get your “costume,” questions, and opinions ready, and I’ll see you on the 21st!

July Bethany House Books

Summer is in full-swing, and if you’re like me, you enjoy reading a good book, whether that’s beside the pool or inside an air-conditioned refuge from the heat. Ever since my days getting plastic toys and Pizza Hut coupons from my local library, I’ve put “summer reading” on the top of my to-do list.

For your own summer reading, I can highly recommend Bethany House’s July lineup—there’s something here for everyone, whether it’s the new series starter from Mary Connealy, a trip to Seattle of the past with Tracie Peterson, Dina Sleiman’s mix of romance and adventure in medieval times, or a Regency love story from Kristi Ann Hunter.

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Be sure to click on the covers below to read the first few chapters and see which story catches your attention!

A Beauty Refined by Tracie Peterson

Beauty Refined

Phoebe Von Bergen is excited to visit America at last! But when she accompanies her father from Germany to Montana in search of sapphires, she has no idea of his real plans. As handsome lapidary Ian Harper gets to know Phoebe, he slowly learns the truth about her family. Yet exposing her father’s deception could put Phoebe’s life in danger. . . .

An Elegant Façade by Kristi Ann Hunter

HUNTER_ElegantFacade_FR&SP.indd

Lady Georgina Hawthorne has worked hard to become the Incomparable for her debut season. She is determined to marry well—and Colin McCrae is not her idea of eligible. But as their paths continue to cross, their ongoing clash of wits has both Georgina and Colin questioning their first impressions as well as their priorities and ambitions.

Courageous by Dina L. Sleiman

Courageous

Inspired to become a defender of the cross, Rosalind of Ipsworth joins a crusade to set captives free from Saracen prisons. As she and fellow crusader Sir Randel Penigree train young recruits, the two find themselves unexpectedly drawn to each other. Amid many dangers, they are both forced to reconsider their priorities and the very nature of their God.

No Way Up by Mary Connealy

No Way Up

After ranch patriarch Chance Boden is wounded in an accident, he demands that the conditions of his will go into effect immediately: His children must reconcile and live at home for a full year or forfeit the ranch. He trusts hired hand Heath Kincaid to see it done. But when Heath suspects foul play, his desire to protect Chance’s daughter goes beyond duty.

Do you or your children participate in a summer reading program at your local library? If so, what are some of the prizes?

Prayer for Authors: July 2016

Since it’s the first Sunday of the month, we’ll be continuing the Bethany House Fiction tradition of taking time to pray for authors who have new releases coming out this month. I’m Amy Green, the fiction publicist here, and I’m thankful for all of the readers who show their support for our authors in the way that matters most: by praying for them. To read more about the reasons behind this time of prayer, go to this post.

Authors with Books Releasing in July:

Mary Connealy
Kristi Ann Hunter
Tracie Peterson
Dina Sleiman

Verse of the Month: Feel free to use the text of this verse to guide your prayers for these authors, as well as other people in your life who you want to remember in prayer today.

Glory in his holy name; let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice. Look to the Lord and his strength; seek his face always.”– 1 Chronicles 16:10-11, NIV

General Suggestions for Prayer:

  • For the ability to prioritize time with God even in a busy season with lots of things on the to-do list.
  • For readers to have a deeper or new understanding of their faith after finishing one of these novels.
  • For times of refreshment and encouragement in unlikely places.

As always, I’m grateful for and encouraged by those of you who take a few moments to pray for these authors. It means a lot!

Celebrating our Award Nominees and Winners!

It’s award season, and with it comes recognition for some great books! The Carol award finalists were announced earlier this week, with winners to be presented at the ACFW conference in August. Several were from the Bethany House family, and I’m excited to show them off. You can click on each cover to read an excerpt.

Contemporary:

Finding Me
Finding Me by Kathryn Cushman

After her father’s death, Kelli discovers a shocking secret: She has a family she’s never known. She may want answers, but are some doors better left shut?

Historical Romance:

BeyondAllDreams_mck.indd

Beyond All Dreams by Elizabeth Camden

When a librarian and a prominent congressman join forces to solve a mystery, they become entangled in secrets more perilous than they could have ever imagined.

Worthy Pursuit

A Worthy Pursuit by Karen Witemeyer

A teacher on the run. A tracker in pursuit. Can Charlotte and Stone learn to trust each other before they both lose what they hold most dear?

Romance:

Until the Harvest

Until the Harvest by Sarah Loudin Thomas

When a family tragedy derails his studies, Henry returns home feeling lost. Can a gifted young girl and her older sister help him find his way again?

Young Adult:

Dauntless

Dauntless by Dina L. Sleiman

Timothy Grey plans to earn a title by capturing Lady Merry and her band of orphan thieves. But will he carry out his mission when he meets their dauntless leader face-to-face?

Also, a special congratulations to Susan Anne Mason for winning a Christy Award in the Best First Novel category for Irish Meadows. Irish Meadows also joined Taken by Dee Henderson and The Painter’s Daughter by Julie Klassen to win Christian Retailing’s Best Awards. Also recently announced was Patrick W. Carr’s INSPY award win for The Shock of Night. We’re excited for you!

To celebrate, we’re doing a giveaway on the blog. Comment below with an answer to this question: what’s a time period or setting you would enjoy reading a novel about? I’ll choose 5 winners on Tuesday, July 5 to win their choice of one of these five Carol finalist titles. Winners will be notified by a reply to their comment.

Ask BHP: How Much Christian Content Should a Christian Fiction Book Have?

Welcome to this month’s Ask BHP, and it’s a doozy. First of all, thanks to whoever in Internet-land thought to themselves, “I’m going to ask Bethany House a seemingly innocent but extremely complicated question.” I see you there, chuckling sinisterly, waiting for this post to come up.

Fortunately…I love complicated questions. But you might have to content yourself with a less-than-simple answer.

Another way of asking this is if you see this sign at Barnes and Noble, what does it mean?

Another way of asking this is: if you see this sign at Barnes and Noble, what does it mean?

 

We’ll start with this: I don’t like the term “Christian content.” Maybe it’s the only helpful way to discuss this topic, but I think the terminology is flawed. Here are a few reasons why.

One: Content can’t be really Christian. Are the rows of chairs in your church “Christian chairs” just because of their location or use? Nope. Same thing with a novel and its content. People are Christians—“little Christs,” followers committed to living out the gospel and becoming more like Jesus. Content can be written for a Christian audience, written by Christians, or contain characters who are Christians, or all three…but the content itself hasn’t had a conversion experience.

If you’re thinking, “Amy, that’s 100% semantics, you know what that term means,” here’s reason…

Two: Thinking of books in terms of Christian content tends to make people reach for a checklist. If you’re a writer and feel like you have to have particular moments or themes and force them into your story, that typically doesn’t work well. If you’re a reader and are disappointed by a beautifully written tale that lacked a conversion scene (or, on the other end of the scale, if you’re offended by mentions of a character’s faith), you’ve missed the point.

But this post is in a series called “Ask Bethany House,” not “Amy Green Defines Terms,” which means I should probably give a useful answer.

Christian fiction is a genre, and that means a lot of things to different authors, readers, and publishing companies. Those definitions include, in no particular order:

  • Beautiful writing by Christians. The thinking goes that since we are made in the image of God, and God is a creator, we worship through excellence in all we do, including our storytelling.
  • Books that contain at least some overt references to God and his truth in a way that would inspire and encourage readers in their faith.
  • “Clean” fiction without the problematic content (and everyone has a different definition of what that is) that you find in general market fiction, possibly with a few spiritual references, but maybe not.
  • Stories where the central theme involves truth about God and how to live out your faith (forgiveness, unconditional love, the danger of greed, etc.). It’s more than a passing reference to prayer, but should leave the reader with something to take away and apply to their lives.

Bethany House books are going to be all over the spectrum, though I can’t think of an example of a recent BHP book that is either a fictionalized sermon or only a clean read without any spiritual themes at all.

Our books may fit into one or all of these categories (which I just made up, so I may have missed some).

Christian faith as a major plot element.

Sometimes, the plot of a novel is driven by a crisis of belief. For example, in some of Beverly Lewis’s tales, a character wrestles with Amish beliefs about salvation or community, comparing them to the Bible. Or, in Angela Hunt’s Risen, a centurion investigates the supposed resurrection of Jesus. There is a lot of outright discussion about Christianity because it fits the story. It would be impossible to tell the same story without the faith element being front and center.

Christian faith as a character motivation.

Almost all Bethany House books fit into this category. They feature one or more characters who are Christians, and that comes out in their speech, words, and actions (although imperfectly) because it’s part of who they are. If you make a character a workaholic, that will influence that person’s choices. If you make a character a first-generation immigrant, that character will come from a certain perspective and react in particular ways. If you make a character a Texan…I don’t even know how many aspects of their life that will affect, but I’m guessing a lot. Same thing with Christian characters—including them makes faith a necessary and organic element of the story. (Note that the Christian in the book may not be the main character—for example, Ronie Kendig’s Conspiracy of Silence features a male lead who wouldn’t claim the label Christian, though several supporting characters are people of faith, and his spiritual seeking is one of the themes of the series.)

Christian faith as an underlying truth.

By this I mean that we live in a moral universe. God created the world to reflect truth about him. It’s why even unbelievers consider betrayal in fiction wrong and recognize sacrifice as something deeply beautiful. Our stories—the places we cheer and boo, the emotions we have as we turn pages, whether we feel that the “good guys” have won at the end and what makes us consider them good—work because they’re set in this framework.

Here, I’m especially thinking of our fantasy titles. They might not take place in worlds where the historical Jesus Christ died on a cross for our sins. They might not even be direct allegories of the gospel. Does that mean they’re not Christian fiction, even if they teach us, using a different world, the truths of our faith?

I get a little frustrated with reviewers of our first-in-a-series fantasy novels who critique the imperfect view of religion the novels portray. “Many of the people in Jill Williamson’s King’s Folly worship multiple gods. How can this be Christian fiction?” they ask. Well, I want to explain, because those gods are leading people to pursue empty, hopeless, selfish lives. Because Jill has several more books to bring you to the correct conclusions, but you can already and obviously tell that the series isn’t endorsing sacrificing your son to idols. Because maybe, just maybe, you can see the sin in your own heart more clearly as you read about the wrong pursuit and priorities of a pagan people group.

Christian faith as a reason for hope.

Some novels give you the “moral to the story,” others leave you only with profound, soul-searching questions. Some are testimonies of God’s power to change lives, others remind you what a broken world we live in. But all contain some element of hope. That, to me, would be the biggest difference between Christian fiction and anything else. Our faith has hope, and the best Christian storytellers showcase it well.

What are your thoughts on this question? If you had to describe Christian fiction as a genre, how would you do so? If you’re a writer, what role has faith played in your stories?

Guest Post: Elizabeth Camden!

Today on the blog, Elizabeth Camden is joining us to talk about the theme of her newest novel, From This Moment…and a subject that many romance readers and writers are interested in: true love.

FromMoment

Do you agree with the quote above?

While it may not be the most romantic of sentiments, I think most happily married people will affirm it. As people go through life their needs deepen and change. A good marriage requires the strength and flexibility to adapt to these changes… and to keep falling in love anew as life unfolds over the years.

Romance novels typically celebrate the triumph of early-stage, idealistic love, but in From this Moment I wanted to try something a little different. I wanted to explore the qualities of an enduring relationship, with all the exuberant hope and heart-rending choices that sometimes come into play. Is the joyous infatuation of first love enough to sustain a lifelong commitment?

SummerofDreams_novella.inddFrom this Moment features two distinct love stories: Romulus White is a charming womanizer who is secretly terrified of marriage, and for good reason. Then there is Evelyn and Clyde, whose early courtship was shown in the free novella Summer of Dreams. The main novel picks up ten years later with these three lifelong friends at a turning point in their lives. Clyde and Evelyn’s marriage is unraveling, and Romulus is about to meet his match in Stella West.

The two romances couldn’t be more different. While Evelyn and Clyde got married very young on an impulsive rush of infatuation, Romulus believes such feelings are dangerous, and avoids any woman who might rock his carefully won equilibrium. He and Stella ignite in a combustible mix of shared intellect, high-flying flirtation, and overwhelming attraction…precisely the sort of dazzling chemistry that terrifies Romulus. Meanwhile, Evelyn and Clyde are confronted with changes neither saw heading their way. It will either draw them closer together, or split them apart for good.

From This MomentI loved the chance to explore the meaning of love, marriage, and enduring friendship in this novel. Sometimes we have to fight hard to keep falling in love with our spouse, and sometimes it seems to come effortlessly. I hope you will see plenty of both in From this Moment.

Thanks for joining us, Elizabeth! You can follow her on Facebook or visit her website for more. Now a question for you, readers: what is the best advice you’d give to a couple approaching marriage about relationships that last?

Pros and Cons to Being a Fictional Character

If you’re like me, you sometimes finish a great book, sigh, and say, “I wish I could live in this world.” That sounds great…until you really think about what being a main character in a novel might involve. (Or maybe you still think it sounds great even after all that.) Here are some of the reasons for and against wanting to be a fictional character.

Pros:

You’d get to meet and interact with some delightful characters, from outrageously quirky to lovably charming. (Although she loves her Porter family, Becky Wade has covered fictional heroes in a way that might put this toward the “con” side of things…)

Fictional-Characters

Your life would never be boring. Conversations would lack the normal lulls of small talk, and your daily routine would be quickly interrupted by some kind of conflict or chaos. Mundane details like sorting laundry or vacuuming crushed Cheerios from the van would be replaced by confrontations, acts of heroism, and dramatic chase scenes, possibly on horseback. What’s not to like?

You could be reasonably sure that you were working toward a happy (or at least hopeful) ending, one with some clear resolution to it. That might not always look like what you expected it to at the beginning (Delilah and A Haven on Orchard Lane, I’m looking at you), but sometimes real life doesn’t have the same sense of conclusion as novels do.

As a fictional character, chances are you’d have a few details of your life that set you apart from everyone else, whether that’s a sudden inherited fortune, an incredible talent for delivering witty one-liners, or actual magical abilities.

Cons:

Besides the general not-being-real thing…you’d be under the complete control of an author. And authors can be a little sadistic sometimes. (No offense to all you writers out there. You know it’s true.) The kind of trauma they’d put you through on the way to a happy ending might not be worth it.

Even if you’re the star of the book, there’s at least a 25% chance your head will be lopped off on the cover. (For those who wonder why some covers feature partially-decapitated women, part of it is an artistic/style choice for a particular look, and part of it is because readers are divided on whether they want to see a character’s face or visualize it in their own imaginations. Although I like Regina Jennings’s explanation too.)

HeadlessCovers

But at least you’d be in good company!

If you accidentally stumbled into the plot of, say, a Dani Pettrey or Dee Henderson novel, chances are good you’ll be running for your life for the next several weeks. Or if your world is suddenly a Julianna-Deering-esque mystery, chances are one or more people around you will drop dead, and who wants to deal with that?

Assuming your setting forces you to go back in time, on the plus side, the dresses are prettier. On the minus side, you’d face a significantly lower life expectancy and no Internet, indoor plumbing, or iced caramel lattes, among other downsides. Makes the modern world look pretty good, doesn’t it?

Your turn! Can you think of any pros or cons to being a fictional character in your favorite novel?

Prayer for Authors: June 2016

Since it’s the first Sunday of the month, we’ll be continuing the Bethany House Fiction tradition of taking time to pray for authors who have new releases coming out this month. I’m Amy Green, the fiction publicist here, and I’m thankful for all of the readers who show their support for our authors in the way that matters most: by praying for them. To read more about the reasons behind this time of prayer, go to this post.

Authors with Books Releasing in June:

Lawana Blackwell
Elizabeth Camden
Angela Hunt
Karen Witemeyer

Verse of the Month: Feel free to use the text of this verse to guide your prayers for these authors, as well as other people in your life who you want to remember in prayer today.

Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”– Romans 12:17-18, ESV

General Suggestions for Prayer:

  • For the ability and desire to live at peace with everyone (even unfair critics or difficult associates or family members).
  • For a renewed sense of purpose in all they do, but especially in their writing.
  • For encouragement for those who sell and recommend books, that they would know that their work makes a difference in many lives.

Again, I so appreciate having a team of prayer warriors around our authors. Thanks for joining us, and I’ll see you next month!