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5 Tips for Using Literal and Metaphorical Language, Part V (conclusion): Always Remember Context

  TIP #5 Use context to recognize, understand, and interpret literal and metaphorical language.

Historical, social, cultural, and biblical contexts are essential for understanding literal and metaphorical elements in speech and writing. Accurate understanding should come before interpretation!

A cropped photo automatically demands interpretation, zeroing in on details the user wants to emphasize while excluding others. In a close-up of young children searching the ground, viewers might wonder what they’re doing, Is someone making them work? Have they lost something?

contrast to cropped image

The full view shows a pumpkin patch, revealing that what could have been a scene for concern is actually a fun seasonal activity as they retrieve their rings for the Bottle Toss.

Interpretation occurs everywhere humans communicate, with family and friends, social media, neighborhood, church, or workplace.

Language and human experience are inextricably connected. Within a culture, people share many common reference points: history, background, arts, stories, symbols, celebrations, beliefs, and values. Yet misunderstandings or differences of opinion occur frequently. Some produce laughter, others confusion, hurt feelings, angry outbursts or even violence. The more important a subject, the more problematic differences of interpretation become.

EXAMPLES from children’s stories

You Are Special (Max Lucado) presents a message popular in many children’s books today, with one critical difference. Secular authors tell children their self-worth is based on themselves: “I’m enough as I am,” says Charlie Mackesy in The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse. While this sounds comforting, the claim has no underlying foundation. Lucado’s message based on Christian context adds the missing element: “You are special because I [God] made you. And I don’t make mistakes.”

In Ramona the Pest, Ramona’s mention of “The Dawnzer Lee Light” song seems ridiculous to her fifth-grade sister. But in kindergarten context, misunderstanding the words of the national anthem is perfectly understandable.

Connections to children’s real lives

Stories describing war offend some adults. Some reject historical acts or attitudes that don’t fit their 21st-century ideas. We may want to shelter children from harsh realities. The truth is that many children today face dysfunction, even violence. Stories about love, safety, and God’s provision are important. We also want to bring children the message that God is real, good, and loving even if their environment lacks love, safety, or basic needs.

Context is essential. Stories about ideal families, neighborhoods, or schools may not seem genuine to kids who experience conflicts in those settings. What is our audience for the specific message of a book or article? Real readers meet our characters and situations, hear their voices, and imagine themselves in these worlds. Our own imagination unconnected to real problems in kids’ worlds may offer escapism – but not the gospel truth calling us to be “in the world but not of the world.”

Writing, reading, and interpreting stories

Some teach that “art” has no right or wrong meaning – a song, poem, story, or picture means whatever the audience thinks or feels. In matters of personal taste, we may agree that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Leaving a work’s main theme open to any interpretation is another matter.

A story portraying sibling rivalry(or differences) may include unkind comments, plots to undermine one another, jealousy, adults’ favoritism, and trivial or tragic consequences. It might encourage readers to change their own attitudes and behavior even if an offending person does not. Missing context, however, might lead readers to negative interpretations:

  • leave the story believing only their sibling needs to change
  • side with one character against the other, wishing the story ended with revenge
  • miss applications to their own relationships from the culture or time period described
  • fail to empathize with characters, their motivations and feelings
  • miss hints that characters aware of problems, but not directly involved, may need to help
  • internalize and magnify pain portrayed in the story, to the point of harming themselves

[For stories with contrasting depictions of a brother’s attitude and actions toward an older or younger brother, see Much Bigger Than Martin, by Steven Kellogg and There’s Nothing to Do, by James Stevenson.]

Building context clues

We can’t control what readers take away from our stories. However, without preaching or too much “telling,” authors have tools for providing important context.

  • Characters (fictional or historical) may discover more about their own situation, finding old photos, records, previously unknown facts. Encourage readers to look beneath the surface.
  • Figurative language – narrative patterns, rhythms, sound devices, and tone — show connections between situations and characters’ feelings.
  • Symbols, analogies, and sensory description — promote awareness and empathy.
  • Irony, pathos, or humor — illustrate problems, encourage critical thinking, or help relieve tension
  • Literary, biblical, or cultural allusions — show constructive comparisons.
  • When misinterpretations or lies bring negative consequences, people and events let characters recognize their mistakes. Help readers examine their own interpretations.
  • Characters struggle with conscience as they say, do, or plot wrong responses. Help kids reconsider their own thoughts and actions.
  • Characters find “kindred spirits” who turn out to be false friends. Show the need to test before trusting.
  • Feelings of hopelessness (no choices or power) change as characters find resources like supportive people, faith in God, or hear another person’s story of escape.
  • Situations where restitution and reconciliation can begin may help readers consider these steps.
  • Characters who accept or reject good advice can remind kids to consider opinions besides their own.
  • Real or fictional stories featuring “lemons to lemonade” approaches can help kids look for options.

Series takeaway

Interpretation occurs in all forms of communication. To avoid misinterpreting (and responding wrongly), we should check our first assumptions about what another person has written or said. Do we understand correctly, or are we interpreting through a flawed lens of our own experiences without recognizing theirs? How can we improve our own interpretive skills as well as help young audiences we write for develop theirs? Writing and reading thrive as we become good communicators and audiences of literal and figurative language. We’d love to hear your stories of context and interpretation in comments below or on our social media: Facebook Write2Ignite Conference page, Twitter, and Instagram.

 

 

12 Questions – Are You Ready for an Agent?

This information is for writers of fiction seeking an agent.

If you hope to have your book published by a traditional publishing house (Christian or general market) you will very possibly need an agent. Have you been thinking about searching for one? The task is daunting. Before you begin you need to figure out whether or not you are ready for an agent. That ultimately means knowing if your manuscript(s) is ready.

Here are 12 questions to ask yourself to decide when you are ready.

Picture book writers check out Carol Baldwin’s post 6 Tips for PB Writers Getting an Agent.

If you plan to self-publish your work of fiction you won’t need an agent. But answering these questions will help you to make your book the best it can be.

1. Is your manuscript finished?

Do not query an agent unless your book is finished.
Also, if you write for young children (below Middle Grade) do you have several finished manuscripts? Agents want to represent you and all of your work, not just one story. Do not send several manuscripts. Query only one. However, if the agent like your manuscript they may ask for more.

2. Is your manuscript perfect?

Is it perfect according to industry standards, not yours? Has it been through your critique group several times? Have you incorporated the changes you think work? Has it been edited for spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc.? Can you pay a professional editor to go through it?

3. Have other people read your manuscript?

If your story is for young children (picture book, board book, early chapter book, easy reader) have several people who have never seen it before read it aloud to you? Your ear will pick up problem areas. Listen and take notes.

If the story is a MG or YA have several beta readers read it and given you their comments? A beta reader is someone who isn’t necessarily a writer but likes books in the genre of your book and is willing to read it and note questions and problems.

4. Have you written a query letter?

Have you written a query letter for this book? Has that been critiqued by your critique partners? This is what you send to the agent. Follow the individual agency’s submission guidelines exactly. If they use a specific form for submissions, fill it in with the information in your query letter. If the agency uses a submission website like Submittable, use it.

Check out these websites for help with writing a one-page, three-paragraph query letter.
Agent Query: How to Write a Query Letter
Jane Friedman Query Letters
Reedsyblog Query Letters

Those who plan to self-publish will find this step a big help in making sure your theme, character arc and plot are strong.

5. Have you written a synopsis?

If your book is for middle grade students or young adults have you written a synopsis, and has it been critiqued by your critique partners? A synopsis is basically a 4 to 10 page detailed plot summary of your novel. Even if you plan to self-publish writing a synopsis is critical to making sure your plot is seamless. Check these websites for help.
Jane Friedman Novel Synopsis
Writer’s Digest Write a Synopsis
Jerry Jenkins Synopsis

6. Have you written a pitch?

Have you written a pitch of 50 words or less for your story, and has it been critiqued? A pitch should include the main character, the problem or decision they face, and the change the character passed through—that is, the theme.

Jericho Writers Elevator Pitch

BookBub Elevator Pitch

7. Do you know your book’s intended audience?

Do you know who is your audience is? Is it written for boys or girls? What is your target age group? Does your vocabulary and reading level match that age group? Does the subject matter fit that age group? Does the content?

8. Does the word count fit industry standards for your target audience?

Each age group and each genre of children’s books have specific ranges for the number of pages editors will accept. Do not expect them to make exceptions for your book. Word counts equal numbers of pages. Each page costs money to print.

9. Have you researched the agent?

Do you know what types of manuscripts they are looking for? Do you know their submission guidelines and procedures?

10. Have you read many books in your genre?

Have you read current books—published in the last 5 years—in your age group and genre? For young children have you read and studied 100 picture books, board books, easy readers, or early chapter books? Have you read at least a dozen recently published MGs or YAs in your genre?

11. Have you put the manuscript(s) away and not read it for 3 to 6 months before you query the agent?

12. Do you have a professional website and a regular presence on social media?

This may not be important to you and me, but it IS important to editors and agents.

5 Steps for Goal Recommitment

GoalsThink back to the resolutions or goals you set in January. Less than 5 months ago,  yet it feels like years have passed! Did you write them down? Do you remember what they were…or would you rather forget?

How well have you done with your goals? Perhaps you haven’t thought about them for months. Maybe you recall them but just gave up. Maybe you’re one of the few pleased with your progression, but want to do even better.

We’ve all been enmeshed in a giant “pause.” Terms such as shelter in place, quarantine, and social distancing have wreaked havoc with our plans and our goals for 2020. If you’re anything like me, you may have thought that staying home would give you extra time to work on your manuscript. But for many of us, the disruptions to our routines, combined with new concerns such as homeschooling children or where to buy toilet paper have shattered our hopes to get that book finished.

Whether you’re focusing on your own goals or encouraging others, this is the perfect month to talk about it because May is National Recommitment Month. It’s a time to review the resolutions you made or the goals you set.

Your goals might be related to physical health, such as diet, exercise, or conquering a habit or addiction. Or they might be relationship-oriented, focusing on issues of forgiveness and restoration. Perhaps your objectives are in the financial realm, such as managing debt or exploring new investments. Maybe you set a goal of tackling a new challenge, one you’ve never attempted before. And of course, they can be writing-related.

Regardless of what your goals are, here are five ways you can encourage yourself and others to recommit.

1. Avoid guilt trips

As we move through the month of May, we’re approaching the halfway point of the year. Our natural inclination is to beat ourselves up for failing to meet our goals or accomplish our resolutions.

Maybe with the strain of juggling work-from-home demands, family responsibilities, and home-schooling in addition to all your usual activities has forced your writing onto a back burner.

Perhaps you’re lacking motivation because the pandemic hit just as you were approaching the “sagging middle” of your novel. You haven’t picked it up again because, frankly, you’re not certain of how to progress the story.

Maybe you’re struggling because your objectives are tasks you have to do, not items you want to do. The right motive makes a remarkable difference in accomplishing goals. You may need to tweak your objectives to examine them in light of the things you want to do. How can the objectives you have to complete help you accomplish the aims you want to complete?

Perhaps the toll of caring for ill loved ones or sadly, the tragedy of losing loved ones in this pandemic, has consumed your emotional energy and depleted your creative drive.

Regardless of why you’ve stalled in your writing, don’t beat yourself up. If you didn’t achieve your objectives today, remember tomorrow’s a new day.

2. Define success

Perhaps you haven’t made progress because your goals are too vague. Finish my story. Market my book. Develop my writing skills. Even if you accomplished these goals, how would you define success?

Re-examine and tweak your objectives to make them SMART. SMART is an acronym for specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely. Assembling SMART goals will make it easier for you to both define success and achieve it.

3. Take one day at a time

Have you ever been asked how one eats an elephant? The answer is simple: one bite at a time.

When it comes to your goals, there may be days when you feel as if you’ve bitten off more than you can chew. Are your resolutions overly ambitious? Once you’ve established SMART goals, you can develop interim action steps and benchmarks.

As the saying goes, “nothing succeeds like success.” So create objectives that enable smaller successes on your way to accomplishing the final goal.

The more worthwhile the objective, the more effort it will require and the longer it will take to accomplish. The question to ask may not be whether you’ve achieved your goal. The better question to ask may be, are you making progress toward your goal?

And if your goal is to develop your fiction writing skills, a good step might be to register for the Write2Ignite Fiction Master Class on September 19!

Don’t be discouraged…and keep chewing, one bite at a time!

4. Encourage accountability

When John Donne penned the words of the poem, “No Man Is an Island,” he could not have realized the impact his work would continue to have almost 400 years later.

We need each other. We need love, fellowship, and encouragement. With regard to our goals and objectives, we also need accountability partners and prayer partners. Being transparent makes us vulnerable, which can be scary. But if we refuse vulnerability, we’ll cheat ourselves out of the support we need to achieve our objectives.

With whom have you shared your writing goals? Have you given them permission to ask you about your progress? Have you scheduled specific times to meet for accountability?

Who will you ask to pray for you as you recommit to your resolutions? What a privilege it is to know you and your goals are being brought before God’s throne on a regular basis!

5. Reward yourself

Celebrate your successes. Reward yourself each time you reach a new benchmark. Be alert to even the smallest achievements, which are often lost in the shuffle of our day-to-day commitments, and certainly in our Coronavirus-sensitive environment.

Those achievements do not always come in a way you might expect. Sometimes they come in the form of dogged perseverance. Other times they will appear, not in standing firm, but knowing when to retreat and regroup before you try again.

The important thing is to identify progress…and celebrate it.

As we recognize National Recommitment Month, what resolutions, goals, or objectives will you recommit to?

Why You Should Write Your Book Proposal Now

If you are gung ho on getting a book published, be it your first or 20th, one essential component you’ll need is a book proposal. Whether you’re in the brainstorming process or just about to type “the end,” I suggest that writing the proposal sooner rather than later will help sharpen your manuscript in the long run.

A book proposal is a packet of information about you and your book. Once you’ve pitched or queried your idea to a publisher or literary agent and they responded with interest, you will send your best representation of your book which will be the proposal.

If you’d like to know how to write a proposal, check out this article

With your proposal, you’ll ask these five questions which will ultimately help you write your book.

  1. What’s my message?

Understand the point you’re trying to make to your readers. Do you want them to know what true love looks like? Do you want them to know that though life can get rough, they are never alone? These messages come across through your themes. If you can articulate it, you will write with a clearer purpose.

  1. What’s my story about?

Many writers hate that question because it means we have to boil hours of thinking and writing into one or two sentences. A proposal is no different. You will need to not only communicate your plot in one sentence, but also again as a paragraph. Each step allows you figure out your hook, your conflict, and your stakes involved. What is going to grab and keep the reader’s attention for the whole story?

  1. What’s my plot?

Now that you have a concise picture of your story, you can write a synopsis. A synopsis is like a play-by-play of your plot. In a handful of pages, you must go through the whole book’s diagram: exposition, inciting incident, rising tension, climax, and resolution. Writing the synopsis will help you as the author understand where you want your story to go and how you’ll get there. At this stage, you might begin to see what does and what doesn’t make sense in your original idea.

  1. What’s my character’s arc?

Everyone knows that a good character needs to have a good character arc, a journey of change that takes place throughout the story. One example is a protagonist who learns to make peace with his/her past. Your plot might be solid, but if your characters have no journey, they become unrelatable and flat. Publishers are looking for that specific arc, and they don’t have time to read the whole manuscript to find it, so you must know it and know how you’re going to achieve it.

  1. What’s my market/audience?

We all like to believe that we write for whoever will read our books, but while we might have truth for readers from all walks of life, we do have a specific audience. In order to understand who you’re writing for, you need to understand what you write. Do you write cozy mysteries? Children’s books? Fantasy? Science Fiction?

When you understand your genre, you have a better idea of the people who read that genre. Do you write for ladies looking for light reads, parents looking for sweet and fun books to read for their kids, or teenagers looking for adventure?

If you get to know your audience, you find what’s already out there in your genre, and you get to know the needs of your readers and market in general. These elements will not only show a publisher that you’ve researched the market, but it will also reflect in your writing.

 

A book proposal is a challenging task, but it comes with its rewards as well. By the time you finish that manuscript, you will be one step closer to sending it out and drumming up interest. A bonus will be that you’ll have a coherent answer to those who ask what you’re working on right now.

What are your favorite proposal elements to think about?

Happy Writing!


Leah Jordan Meahl is an up and coming Christian author who writes for both the rooted and the wandering faith. She recently published her first novella titled The Threshold,and you can check out more of her work at her blog  James 4:8

Social-Distancing for Writers

social-distancing for writers

This week has been a turning point for the COVID-19 crisis in the United States. Many governors have enacted stay-at-home-orders, New York is erecting temporary field hospitals, and American manufacturers have pledged to build ventilators and protective equipment. All of this made me wonder: what does social-distancing for writers look like?

As writers, we often gain our inspiration from traveling, visiting historic sites, attending cultural events, and spending time with friends. Those things are not possible right now. Coffee with friends is limited to a FaceTime call and Google Earth is the only safe form of travel.

Social-distancing may be easy for some. And while working from home in your pajamas and watching Netflix all weekend seems like a welcome break from the usual pace of life, one can only handle so many hours of mind-numbing indulgence. Here are some tips to help writers be good stewards of their social-distancing time:

Self-Betterment

Reading

Take time for professional development, research, or inspiration — read books you’ve been wanting to read, listen to podcasts from inspirational writers or speakers, and take advantage of free online learning.

Whether you’re interested in developing your writing skills, learning about the publication process, researching for your own writing, or gleaning inspiration from fiction, take this social-distancing time as an opportunity to catch up on your reading.

Listening

There is a podcast for everything these days — from true crime to daily news updates to radio dramas. Here are two of my personal favorites that tell true stories and encourage me to see the world as a place full of opportunity and ideas:

  • This American Life — One of the most popular podcasts in the United States, This American Life shares true stories from Americans. Each episode is laid out in a three-act format and focuses on one central theme. One of my favorite episodes is set in my town of Lynchburg, Virginia, and tells the story of seven black students who integrated into an all-white boarding school in the late 1960s.
  • Criminal — Not for the faint of heart, Criminal tells true-crime stories in 30 minutes. The soft-spoken, inquisitive host — Phoebe Judge — tells true stories ranging from kidnappings to murder mysteries. Each episode also features original artwork!

Online Learning

If you enjoy learning new skills or knowledge, consider taking a free online class or watching a Ted Talk. Depending on how you like to learn, there are a variety of ways you can learn online.

  • Sites like Coursera offer traditional online courses that provide a structured, classroom-style environment. You can take courses from some of the country’s top colleges and companies.
  • If you prefer a more laid-back learning environment, sites like SkillShare provide video-based courses on a variety of topics. These courses are taught by professionals in the field. Students can even share their work with each other for feedback. While this is not a free service, you can sign up for a two-month free trial to occupy you during this time of social distancing.
  • Ted is a nonprofit dedicated to sharing ideas about technology, entertainment, and design. Ted Talks are usually presented at conferences and are available on YouTube and the Ted website. Search the Ted database for talks on any topic that sparks your interest.

Writing

social-distancing for writersIf you do not already have a writing routine built into your schedule, this time of social distancing is an opportunity to establish a writing discipline. Pick a time during your day to just sit down and write. You don’t have to work on a project or even write with intention. Just take some time to put a pen to paper or your fingers to keys and flex your writing muscle.

I’ve found the best way to exercise my writing muscle is to do “sprints.” Set a timer for five or ten minutes and write without stopping to edit or review. This sense of urgency allows me to write without my usual self-censorship. Some of my best work has come from “sprinting.”

Self-Care

social-distancing for writers

My governor ordered a stay-at-home order until June 10, so I will be spending a lot of time at home.

Practice self-care for writers: meditate, pray, practice yoga, or go for a walk.

By the grace of God, I’m still employed and am working from home. Though my workday is as busy as ever, I no longer have to budget time during my day for the commute to and from work, and I’m home for my lunch breaks. This gives me an additional hour and a half each day! I’ve opted to practice self-care during the time I spend at home.

Meditation and prayer are two things I’ve focused on over the past two weeks. My favorite spot to meditate and pray is my deck, which faces a treeline. I put down my exercise mat and lay on my back with my arms by my sides. Taking time to notice the noises — my wind chimes singing, birds chirping, and bees bumbling — and enjoying time away from the barrage of COVID-19 updates has really improved my mood. This is also a wonderful opportunity for prayers, either silently or aloud.

social-distancing for writers

Light activity like stretching, yoga, or walking has improved my moods and posture and decreased back pain from sitting all day.

Yoga or stretching helps with the stiffness and pain that comes with sitting at a desk. If I’m feeling stiff, I’ll either do some basic stretches or follow an instructional video on YouTube. My favorite video right now is called “Yoga for Writers” from Yoga With Adriene.

This week, my governor instated a stay-at-home order, which only allows me to leave home for groceries, medical appointments, family visits, and outdoor recreation (with appropriate social-distancing). Thankfully, my apartment complex has a short walking trail, so I’ve been able to go for walks during my breaks throughout the day. I’ve found that I have more energy to continue my workday when I go for a walk during my lunch break.

These are suggestions based on what I’ve found works for me. I hope this was helpful to you! Tell me how you’re spending your time social-distancing in the comments or on social media — I’d love to hear from you.

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. — Romans 15:13

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