Thursday, February 16, 2017

What Makes a Story Great?



“It isn’t a story until something goes wrong.” Wow, that’s a one-line course in writing a novel that will hold the attention of the reader. But surely there’s more to it than that.

After I read those words about what makes a story, I started thinking about all the elements that really do make a story. How do you put words and thoughts together to produce something a reader can’t put down even though the clock says morning will come in a hurry. Is it the plot line? Could it be the story arc? Are the characters holding the reader’s attention—does he or she identify with them? The answer to all these questions is, “Yes, and—“

One of the first Christian writers’ conferences I attended was held at Mount Hermon, California. I could name all the great writers from whom I learned at that conference and later, and there were a lot of them, but I’d probably forget and leave someone out. Let’s just say that I owe any success I’ve enjoyed in my journey along this road to writing to lots of people. But let me focus on one person and one phrase because this helps illustrate the point I’m trying to make.

I asked Jeff Gerke to take a look at my work in progress and give me some suggestions to improve it. We sat down on a sofa in the lounge, and I began to sketch out what I visualized. Jeff listened attentively for a couple of minutes, and then said, “So what?”


I tried harder to explain what the novel was about, and again, Jeff said, “So what?”

This went on for ten or fifteen minutes, with me going into greater detail on the storyline, telling him more and more about all the things that were going to happen, and Jeff responding with those two words that, by now, infuriated me. “So what?”

Then, as though a light bulb had been lit above my head, I got it. What Jeff was saying was the same thing other mentors have said in different words. What was at stake? If the hero or heroine failed at their task, what would happen? And, just as important, would the reader care?



In his excellent book The Writer’s Journey, Vogler says that every good story, from the time of Beowulf onward, includes most of the twelve steps he lists. At the beginning, we see the problem or the prize that stands before the hero (and here I’ll use the masculine form but we’re talking heroine also). They must achieve a goal, overcome a flaw, learn a lesson, do something or there are consequences. In some of our stories, they must succeed or die. In others, they have to navigate stormy waters to achieve true love. But whatever the driving situation of the story, the reader must quickly see the answer to the question Jeff Gerke posed to me: “So what?”

Looking at it another way, the reader fairly quickly must be invested to the point that they are rooting for (or in rare cases, against) the central character. The goal must be one that’s fairly obvious, not only to the hero or heroine but also to the person reading about it. This brings up another characteristic of a great story, one that’s as important as “so what?” A good story must be populated by characters with whom the reader can readily identify.

In my case, romance doesn’t drive my story—suspense or mystery does. In my genre, the protagonist faces “death” in a number of ways—physical, emotional, or professional, to name the most common forms. In one of my books, the physician has allegedly made a mistake in a prescription that may kill a patient and/or cause the doctor’s suspension. In another, the female physician finds that someone wants to do away with her—but she doesn’t know who or why. In a third, the protagonist finds that her fiancé isn’t actually who he seems to be—he’s in the witness protection program, and his true identity can’t be leaked.

The stakes are such that if the hero or heroine doesn’t succeed, they’ll be “dead” in one of the ways I have listed. The problem may be presented fairly quickly, or if we are to follow the outline presented by Vogler, there may be an initial refusal before the protagonist’s hand is forced and the plot moves forward. But whenever and however it’s made clear, the goal must be achieved, or…so what?

Although I’m a confirmed devotee of “writing by the seat of my pants,” I generally start with a one-line hook: something like “A disillusioned sea captain continues his lifelong search for a white whale.” Then I populate the story with the hero and/or heroine as well as other major characters. I pick an inciting incident, craft what Jim Bell calls a “knockout ending,” and decide on a couple of twists along the way to keep the reader interested. These may change, but I can’t start a novel without them. And I’d recommend that—whether plotter or pantser—the individual who wants to write a compelling story do the same.

Sometimes after I’ve written several thousand words, I find that my opening scene or even the initial chapter don’t hold my attention, despite the brilliant prose I’ve written. So I look into the first several scenes or chapters, find one that grabs me, and (with a great deal of anguish) start over in media res. In other words, the best first scene is often the second or third scene, or even the second chapter. What went before can either be inserted as backstory or consigned to the trash bin, thus upholding the oft-repeated advice to “murder your darlings.” To reiterate, write something that will get your reader’s attention, even if it means starting over a couple of times. The end result will be worth it.

So, to review, I believe the keys to a successful story are these:

(1) “So what?” There has to be something at stake so that if the hero or heroine doesn’t succeed, they “die”—physically, emotionally, professionally, or whatever.

(2) Characters with whom the reader can identify, making a journey that counts. We’re told that all protagonists are flawed, and the transition they make as the novel progresses is something that keeps the readers engaged. I’d add that it’s not always the central character that changes the most. 

3) The hand of God. I know this is trite, but I believe it is true. There are times when I go back and read one of my earlier novels and think, “I don’t remember writing this—but it’s good.” Then it dawns on me—as Mother Teresa said, I am but a pencil in the hand of a writing God. And that’s an honor I feel fortunate to have. My prayer is that you will have that same honor. Now go write.

But first, tell me this—what do you think makes a story great?


*        *        *
Dr. Richard Mabry is a retired physician, now writing “medical suspense with heart.” His previous novels have garnered critical acclaim and been finalists for ACFW’s Carol Award, the Romantic Times’ Inspirational Book of the Year, the Inspirational Readers Choice, and the Selah Award. He is a proud member of the ACFW, the International Thriller Writers, the Christian Authors Network, and the FHL chapter of the RWA. Cardiac Event will be his eleventh published novel. 

You can learn more about him at his website, his blog, his Facebook fan page and/or his Twitter page.


Seekerville is giving away a print or ebook copy of Richard's latest release, Medical Judgement to one commenter. Winner announced in the Weekend Edition.



Someone is after Dr. Sarah Gordon. It’s been tough trying to recover from the traumatic deaths of her husband and infant daughter, but now someone is stalking her and has even set fire to her home. Her late husband’s best friend and a recovering alcoholic detective assigned to the case are both trying to solve the mystery, but both are also vying for her affections. No wonder she continues to live in fear and distrust with her only help coming from unreliable suitors. As the threats on her life continue to escalate, so do the questions: Who is doing this? And why? And how will her faith help her through this time in her life?

137 comments :

  1. First of all Richard, as a reader, I love how you list your points in concise and understandable form! Because I can see each point in the many books I've read. You're right...if I can't answer the question "So What" fairly early in the book, I may not even want to finish it because I'm not invested in the story. I don't really care to find out "the rest of the story" (Paul Harvey's phrase).

    Going throng them: #1--So What? There has to be a challenge for the characters to overcome or a risk they must take to make me want to (like you said) root for them. And it also (like you also said) makes me identify with them :-)

    #2--Kinda goes with #1, relatable, identifiable,character connection! One of the most important aspects to myself as a reader...character depth!! I love walking the journey the characters do...like stepping in their shoes if you will. I like how you pointed out that it's not always the central character that changes the most. Because, sometimes that is the case :-)

    #3--The Hand of God. Twofold for me, I read only Christian fiction because I know I will find God in between the pages of the book. It's THE MOST important aspect that a story must contain for me. All others fall flat! That brings me to the second point, oftentimes God will use the authors pen (or words) to minister to me in some way that touches my life at that very moment I need Him to! I've found myself encouraged, convicted, comforted, reminded of God's promises to me or how much He REALLY does love me, etc!! I've often said that writers have a wonderful opportunity to have a "mission field" in their readers. It's not just a Pastor's job to minister God's words, but if you are called to write....God will use YOU to speak to someone through the words He places in your heart and out your pen (or whatnot)! Why not use it to glorify Him?? And the neat part? He can speak many different messages to many different people using your ONE book...you never know what someone will get out of it :-) I LOVE it!!

    Wonderful post Richard, thanks so much for sharing :-) No need to add my name to the pot, as I have a copy of this book. As a matter of fact, when my mom was visiting in June for my son's graduation, she read "Medical Judgement". Well, ALL the books I have from you :-) You see, she lives in New Zealand (since 2001) and she made the trip overseas to stay with us for the month so she could be a part of my son's graduation. AND she's a retired LPN, so she LOVED the medical aspect. Lastly, she's not walking with the Lord, so maybe your "ministry" of words got down in her heart somewhere :-) Blessings!!

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    1. Thanks, Trixi. I appreciate those kind words and your comment.

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    2. wow Trixi, you've just scared me. That's a big job to fill and makes one realize they truly must rely on God for inspiration.

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    3. Trixi - What you said about God speaking different messages to different people through the SAME book is so true. I can't tell you how many times I've received reader emails and letters telling how a book touched them--and for the very SAME book another reader was drawn to something totally different that reached their heart. God is truly amazing!

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    4. Lovely, Trixi. I always ask God to inspire me to write a story that will touch the heart of at least one person.

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    5. Sandra, I'm sorry for scaring you...that certainly wasn't my intent! I guess my point was that I think God can use anyone to minister to people, even me :-) Maybe it's just to say a kind word to someone in the store, or share a smile or whatever way He chooses. It never has to be the BIG things (like writing a novel) or be through some popular person (like an author). Let whatever God has blessed you with be your way to minister to others.

      It just saddens my heart when I read a Christian fiction book and there is no mention of God or it's thrown in as an afterthought. You writers have such a vast opportunity to let your light shine for Christ, in more far reaching ways than myself as a reader. Anyone can pick up your books, let God lead you in the words he has for you :-)

      It was meant as an encouragement :-) You have opportunity to bless someone through your writing, make it shine bright!!

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    6. Glynna, just like when I read scripture. I can read the same passage multiple times and God will give me something new & fresh from it. And it's always JUST what I need to hear :-) Isn't that amazing to think it can be the same for your books? What a wonderful thought!

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    7. Debby, I believe if you keep doing that, relying on God's words for you to write, He'll give those perfect ones! And we readers will be blessed by them :-) A win-win for everyone around!

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  2. Richard, welcome back to Seekerville. I admit to reading this post before it went up, at least half a dozen times. It's profound in its simplicity and completeness. This is what it's all about.

    A mystery/suspense writer who is a pantser. Okay, I did not see that one coming.

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    1. Thanks, Tina. Good to be here with the other Seekers. And I'm glad you liked the post.

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    2. Love it, love it, love it! Doc Mabry is a pantser!

      Take that, Vince!!!

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    3. Hi Myra:

      Please read this the good doctor also wrote:

      "I pick an inciting incident, craft what Jim Bell calls a “knockout ending,” and decide on a couple of twists along the way to keep the reader interested."

      This is all before he starts 'pantsering' and thus this qualifies as plotting though it does fall short of fully outline plotting. Planning the ending before you start writing is the sine qua non of plotting.

      Old Russian proverb: "Scratch a pantser and underneath is a plotter."

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  3. Hello Doctor Mabry:

    What makes a story great for me is one that immediately captures my imagination by asking questions I simply must have answered right away and which does this in a way that rewards me on each page for reading -- especially when such rewards are over and above what is needed to advance the storyline.

    For example: I find the virtual experience of spending time on an 19th Century British war ship a rewarding experience regardless of the storyline. (Patrick O'Brian) I also think medical stories are very rewarding to those who enjoy leaning about medicine.

    I had a great mentor/teacher who told me to always teach from the overflow. Don't teach the textbook as the students can read that on their own. Teach from what you know over and above what's in the textbook. Teach the stuff that makes it all so interesting to you and make learning it an entertaining and rewarding experience.

    I think great stories are written from the overflow. In somewhat medical terms perhaps one could say to be a holistic storyteller treating the whole reader to a rewarding reading experience on many levels and not just meeting the editor's needs for getting the novel published.

    Now, if I just knew how to do this...

    Please put me in the drawing for "Medical Judgment" -- ebook version.

    Vince


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    1. You know, Vince, that is the art of storytelling, isn't it? From the "Holder of Stories" before the written word, to current day, the storytelling is key.

      Weaving the warps and wefts to form an unbreakable word pattern... and of course the editor rightly wants something that will sell, but sometimes one person's rejection is another house's bestseller... The human element is just that: human.

      I like your teacher's advice. Simple and brilliant.

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    2. Thanks, Vince and Ruth. Good points.

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    3. Hi Ruth:

      I just love the way you make your point:

      "Weaving the warps and wefts to form an unbreakable word pattern..."

      You seem to be getting more poetic! I'm reading "The Pastor Take a Wife" and I've been noticing the more lyric style. Love it!

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    4. "Write from the overflow." Very nice, Vince!

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  4. Thank you for a really informative post, Dr. Mabry. What makes a story great? For me, I need to have a powerful emotional experience. If I'm weeping or laughing or feeling bittersweet while reading, then I'm hooked. If the author manages to pack a nugget of truth into my powerful emotional experience, then I'm a raving fan. So, for me, powerful emotions and powerful truth are signs of story greatness.

    Please enter me in the drawing!

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    1. Preslaysa, I'd like to have the Kleenex concession when you read a book you really like. Matter of fact, I'd like to write that book. Thanks for commenting.

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  5. Thank you for such a clear, interesting and informative post.

    Vibrant characters who leap off the pages and make me care for them and what happens to them make a story great for me!

    Please enter me in the draw for an ebook.

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  6. Richard, what a marvelous post.... and huge thank yous for being here in Seekerville! Inciting the reader to care, giving them a reason to invest, laugh or cry is the best part of writing... and I agree, the most important part of storytelling.

    I've heard wonderful things about this book, and I'm wishing you the best with it!

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  7. First, I brought food, a full spread of breakfast croissants layered with eggs, meat (your choice) and cheese... on my homemade, lightly buttered (real butter... duh!) croissants...

    Second: I love that Richard is a pantser. He starts with the story line (Richard I do the same thing, the idea of the story is my go-to... and then I build the story based on that) and then goes for the gold.

    I love that I'm not alone in that! Richard, I think Connealy does the same thing, maybe she'll chat about that later. I'm on the East Coast and an early riser, but I'm so glad you said that: Vindication for us pantsers as performers! :)

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    1. Ruth, nice to be here (although I'm going to have to be gone for a couple of hours this morning--I promise I'll get back, read all the comments, and chime in).

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  8. Welcome, Dr. Mabry. Thank you for visiting and sharing such a though provoking post.
    For me, a great book is one that not only makes me wish it wouldn't end, but one that moves me emotionally. Quirky characters are fun too!

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    1. Jill, I agree. One of the definitions of a good book is one that you're sad when it ends.

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  9. Good morning, Richard! Such a meaty post! I'm working on a new proposal and the "so what" is always a challenge--pinpointing the BEST "what matters?" for a given story. What matters to my hero & heroine and what matters to ME so I can write it in a way that will make it matter to a reader. Thank you!

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    1. Glynna, it took me a while to figure out that every story needs a "so what." All the writing books have that in different words, but the reader has to have something to care about.

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  10. Dr. Mandy, a fabulous and concise post. I've reread your blog three times and you have certainly given us the best information on what makes the reader identify with the protagonist and what keeps their interest to keep turning the page. The first book I thought was great as a child was The Wizard of Oz. I stepped into Dorothy's world and walked along that yellow brick road as I read it over and over. There was great characterization, plot and goals. It had it all. I just paused and checked out one of your books on Amazon and read a couple of pages. It had all the elements of what you mentioned in this blog and I was immediately pulled in. Thanks for taking your precious time to share this column. I'm a writer and a reader and will be a new fan too. Today I am adding Apple turnovers and French vanilla coffee to the Seekerville table. Have a productive writing day all! Good luck Dr. Mabry on your latest book.

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    1. The apple turnovers sound yummy. Thanks Suzanne. I'll take one please.

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    2. Turnovers, fritters...if they are fried and say apple, I am so in.

      Suzanne, how's the writing going?

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  11. Suzanne, I love Apple turnovers--I'll snatch one to eat later. And thanks so much for your comment.

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  12. Welcome to Seekerville Dr. Mabry. Very enlightening post. I always enjoying hearing each person's writing process and journey. It always amazes me how different we all are and I think that's what makes our books so interesting.
    My first Christian conference was at Mt Hermon also. Wasn't that the most inspirational experience? The beauty of the redwoods combinded with all that Christian fellowship and teaching and mentoring.
    Thanks again for sharing with us. I hope you enjoy your day.

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    1. Thanks, Sandra. I appreciate what you've said.

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  13. A White Whale. Really, someone should write that.
    KB

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  14. Richard, I love the way you boil good writing down to those three points. I may put that over my desk. There are a lot of sub-points, but your three form the basic framework and that is what we need, plot, pants, whatever.
    Please enter my name in the drawing.
    So I was on here yesterday whining about my WIP and it still isn't great, but I am powering through. I just had to remind myself that the first draft isn't great, can't be great, and that you need to Get This Stuff Down On Paper. Or in the computer, again, whatever. I did a little work on it in the evening and I'm feeling encouraged, not by the material itself, but that I did anything. :)
    I usually start my books with a character, but I started this one with a setting, a small town that will be a framework for several stories. THEN I found the "so what," characters at least I care about, and (I hope) the hand of God.
    Thank you for a good post, please put me in drawing.
    Kathy Bailey

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    1. Kaybee, I've got a refrigerator magnet that says first drafts don't have to be good, they just have to be written. Hang in there. It's always easier to edit than to figure it out in the first place.

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  15. So what? wow. I just realized that some of my WIPS do not answer that question satisfactorily - which would go a long way as to why I am not published. Thank you for this wonderful post that gives me the great take-away. I am sure this will be very helpful as I continue to write.

    As for great stories, I'm not sure having me respond emotionally is a good gauge, considering I even tear up at sappy commercials. *sigh* Most of the Seeker Ladies' books require a box of Kleenex at hand for me.

    Great stories have settings that make me wish I could visit or live there. I love books that have the characters stick with me for a few days after I've finished the book. When I think of them and either smile because of how great they are, or growl because they were so villainous.

    I'd have to say one book that has stuck with me most was a historical romance based in Louisiana. The book kept me up into the wee hours of the morning and a black moment twist had me literally jumping up from my chair and yelling "NO!" I thought I remembered the name of it - but I looked up the title and it didn't show the right cover. *double sigh* But that visceral reaction has stuck with me twenty plus years later.

    This was a great post. Thank you for sharing with us. Place my name in the drawing please.

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    1. DebH--when I wrote my first novel (or, at least, tried to do so), my wife read it and said there was nothing to engage the reader. She was right, of course, Took me a long time to figure it out. Thanks for your comment.

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    2. Deb H, I tear up at that Johnson and Johnson commercial they run at Thanksgiving, with the older couple and it runs through their life together and then their whole family toasts them. That one kills me.

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  16. Richard, WOW, what a treasure-trove post, my friend -- I've already earmarked something you said to apply to my own WIP right now, so THANK YOU!!

    And what would that gemstone be? You said: "I pick an inciting incident, craft what Jim Bell calls a “knockout ending,” and decide on a couple of twists along the way to keep the reader interested."

    As a die-hard romance writer, one thing I didn't care for when I started out writing was the fact that in most romances, you knew from the beginning who the heroine would end up with. Don't get me wrong -- I love all romance -- but like you and Jim Bell say above, I wanted a "knockout ending" that didn't only address the question of HOW the hero and heroine get together, but IF they get together. So like you indicated above, I planned that knockout ending up front, straining my brain for some way to make the reader bite their nails till the end. But I gotta be honest -- that's really hard in a romance where the main thrust is boy gets girl. Consequently, I've been shying away from that knockout ending in my last few books, and YOU have now inspired me to get back to that, so THANK YOU!! Looks like I'll be doing some major brainstorming today ... ;)

    You also said: "the best first scene is often the second or third scene, or even the second chapter."

    LOL ... so true and you're right ... SO painful!! I remember getting an author critique at ACFW on my first book before it was published. "Get the action up front," the author told me, which meant axing seven pages of what I thought was "brilliant prose." So I put the action on page five instead, then moved it to page three, and finally after multiple constructive judge's comments in contest, slapped it on page one, murdering "my little darlings," for which I am now utterly grateful!!

    Great post, Richard!

    Hugs,
    Julie


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    1. Julie, Jim Bell gets a lot of credit (or blame) for what I've learned in my writing journey. Looks like you've learned it, as well.

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  17. Richard, you also said: "There are times when I go back and read one of my earlier novels and think, “I don’t remember writing this—but it’s good.” Then it dawns on me—as Mother Teresa said, I am but a pencil in the hand of a writing God."

    First of all, I absolutely LOVE that Mother Teresa quote -- thanks for sharing it.

    And secondly, I would have to say that is the thing I love MOST about writing Christian fiction. Like most writers, I usually think what I've written is garbage on the first go-round, and my hubby always says, "move on, Julie ... you'll love it later." And, as is the case with most authors, I'm sure, I DO love and end up liking it and totally shocked by that change of mind.

    I'm convinced there is a writer mode and a reader mode, and the two are distinctly different for me, at least. What I thought was awful in the writer mode is usually a spiritual aspect, which ends up being the very thing that rips my heart out and convicts or inspires me all over again in the reader mode (the first time usually being when I personally experienced the lesson from the hand of God in my own life).

    So like you, each and every time I reread my novels, I stop and stare at the page and think, "did I really write that???" And the truth is, as you indicated above, no, we didn't -- the Holy Spirit did, and nothing amazes me more than that as a writer. That God uses each of us to write His story of love to mankind.

    Finally, you asked: "Tell me this—what do you think makes a story great?

    I think the relating to the characters is absolutely foremost, along with a good plot, obviously. But honestly, if the characters are strong and draw me, the plot becomes almost inconsequential because I will read it anyway, just to travel the journey with them. But if the characters do not capture me in the beginning, great plot or no, that's a book I most likely won't finish.

    Hugs,
    Julie



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    1. Julie, the "newness" of something I've written when I read it again later is, I think, a tangible indication that God really wrote it. Like you, I love the Mother Teresa quote.

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    2. One of the wonderful perks of being an author (and there are only a few so you better enjoy them) is finding something on your computer that you wrote a long time ago and you forgot about. Reading it with those fresh eyes and thinking, wow, I'm okay. I'm really okay and possibly really amazing. HA!

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    3. I've had a few of these moments already as well. There's nothing like it. Creating with The Creator is amazing.

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  18. Hello, Dr Mabry! This post is timely for me as I revise and prepare to submit my entry to Genesis. I'll go over it asking "So what?" at every turn. Perfect!

    I stayed up WAY past my bedtime last night reading a new author (to me) and as I read, I found myself asking, "Ok, why am I enjoying this? What's the takeaway?"

    It was the characters. The plot was fine, nothing particularly spectacular or inspiring but the characters jumped off the pages. The writing was really funny and entertaining.

    I was heartened to read that you're a pantser. I am too, but I'm embracing some (very loose) plotting which I hope will save me time in the end.

    I hadn't heard that quote from Mother Teresa. It's so true. How blessed we are to see the hand of God in our work.

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    1. My kind of book, Josee!! We'll have to talk titles later.

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    2. Go, Josee, go!!!! The Genesis contest is a GREAT learning process and such a fun experience. :-)

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    3. Oh Tina, I thought of you, for sure!

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    4. Thank you, Cynthia. The feedback from contests is gold! Congrats on your double-finalist title!

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    5. Thank you, Josee ~ I'll be rooting for you when your name goes up this year! :-)

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  19. Thanks, Josee, and good luck in the Genesis contest. Sounds like you have a good handle on what makes a story.

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  20. Hi Dr. Mabry. Thank you for such an inspiring, informative post! I had the privilege of seeing you in person last Saturday at the ACFW DFW meeting in Arlington (my first visit there) and enjoyed that presentation as well. I've got several pages of notes from that speech, and I'm bookmarking this. So very helpful. Thank you again!

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    1. Thanks, Laura. I hope I said a few things you'll find helpful. I appreciate your being at the meeting, then being here and commenting.

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  21. Thank you for this post. I will be printing it out to refer to later. I love reading fiction that is based on Medical. So far the books I have finished writing have to do with doctors, nurses and the medical field. I have two that I am hoping to enter in the Genesis Contest if I can get the Meneires to cooperate so I can polish them up without the vertigo interfering Have a great day and thanks for stopping by.

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    1. Two entries! Wilani, I am so impressed. Good for you!

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    2. So glad this post came at a time that it could be used as you prepare to enter Genesis. Good luck.

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  22. At this stage in my, well, career, I'm more apt to be discouraged by myself. (See yesterday's rant.) I'm more likely to become depressed and want to hang it all up when I look at something I wrote and it's not especially good. I don't get as depressed any more about polite "no's" from editors or agents because I realize 1. The business is subjective; 2. The business is dicey because of the economy and e-books; and 3. The market is fickle; and 4 (DID YOU EVER THINK I'D BE DONE?) yeah, 4. It's not God's time for me. Those I can more or less handle. It's when I look at my own stuff and think, "EW!" that I want to quit. Which I suppose is progress.
    Kathy B.

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    1. The universal mankind response to life is to focus on the negative and never on the positive. Why is it we can get ten affirmatives for our work followed by one negative and it is that one negative that haunts us.

      I highly recommend keeping a writing notebook where you document / track those affirmations.

      For example. Kathleen D. Bailey won the 2016 Phoenix Rattler with her novel, Lost and Found.

      That would mean that out of every singe writer who entered and did not final, entered and did final, Kathleen Bailey sailed over them all to win the entire contest.

      That's an affirmation that should be zeroing out your hang it all up rants.

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    2. Totally, Tina, thanks.
      Off to shovel snow. Talk to you during Weekend Edition.

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    3. Between the rejections all authors get (the only way not to get one is not to write and submit) and the snow you all have had, you're entitled to be depressed. But God's got this one. Hang in there.

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    4. Tina, I like your idea of keeping an journal of positives! The negatives always speak with a louder voice.

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    5. Hi Tina:

      Affirmative living and having a PMA, positive mental attitude, is a way of life. This is practiced by Unity a religion of affirmations.

      Also, ignoring negatives in the wild have a way of getting us killed. "Don't eat this. Don't pet that." Paying more attention to negatives has survival value. God knew what he was doing. Just look at how the Ten Commandments are written.

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    6. Tina, the older (and hopefully wiser, ahem) I get, the more I realize that steeping in the negative plays right into our Enemy's hand. I won't let myself be a pawn moved around his chess board.

      If I hope to have any influence for Christ and his kingdom, no matter how small that may be (by the world's standards), I need to live in the full light of His grace, and believe in my God-given talents. That means I have to renew my mind, Replacing the negative whispers with a loud clear voice AFFIRMING. It doesn't always work but I won't allow myself more than 24 hours of pity or negative self-talk.

      Checkmate.

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    7. Vince: The Lord laid it down with the Ten Commandments.

      Then Jesus bookends it with the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount in the affirmative.

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    8. Hi Josee:

      Absolutely! One of my favorite 'positive books' is "The Sermon on the Mount: The Key to Success in Life" by Emmet Fox.

      Vince

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  23. Hi, Dr. Mabry! It's so great to see you here! Love this post. Packed full of great information!

    A book that has stayed with me over the years is The Family Nobody Wanted. I read that in high school. 30 years later I still think about that book. I like books that challenge my walk with God, make me see something, feel something.

    I love that you included God in your points. If no one reads my stories but me, it's been my time with God. I go back and read stuff I've written, and I think, wow I wrote that? No, not me. God. He was speaking to me.

    The same book can speak to different readers in different ways. Depending on what they are going through, where they are, different things will speak to them. And if you write what God lays on your heart, He knows who will read it and when they will read it, and what they will need to read. That's the joy of Christian fiction, for me.

    Love your books! Can't wait to read more. Are you working on a new story? Or is one due out soon? Great seeing you here in Seekerville!

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    1. Sally, good to see you here. Thanks for your comment. While we sort out the problems with publishers, I'll be releasing my self-published long novella, Doctor's Dilemma. Watch for it. And Cardiac Event may not be far behind. Thanks for asking.

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  24. Welcome to Seekerville Dr. Mabry. I always enjoy hearing what you have to say. My first ACFW conference I helped hand out welcome packages, and I got that was the first time I met you. (I don't expect you to remember.)

    This is definitely a keeper post!

    You asked what makes a story great...to me it's getting the reader to FEEL. When I see a commercial, ball game, movie, or an event in real life that moves me, I try to analyze it and figure out how to get that emotion into my stories.

    Thanks for sharing!

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    1. You and Josee both mention "analyzing emoting" and I think this is a fabulous idea, Jackie.

      One worthy of a blog post in the future.

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    2. Jackie, thanks for your comment. Handing out packets at ACFW is a great way to get to know a lot of people--and you'll be amazed at how many of those friendships continue.

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    3. Hi Tina:

      I think 'Analyzing Emoting' would make an important counterpart to five-sensing.

      One way to start it would be to discover the 'triggers' of various emotions. Like seeing a pet abused, being insulted, being falsely accused, hearing music that brings back a flood of memories, even something like a déjà vu experience.

      I think this topic could make a series of important posts. Right off the top of my head I can think of great examples from "The Price of Victory," "The Lawman's Second Chance" and all of the Boston series books. (I mean you can't be edgy without trigging a lot of emotions.)

      This is a high concept idea I think would almost write itself. Can't wait to start reading!

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  25. Thank you Dr. Mabry. I so appreciate your insight and information. Sometimes I want to read a book that has no so-what. I know this isnt a book a publisher would be eager to take on but occasionally all I want is to unwind, relax, and read a sweet little romance, no conflict, no figuring out how to get from point A to point B. It just happens naturally. Odd, if not downright weird, I will admit. On another note, I ccould never ever put down a Richard Mabry book and be OK with that. You, sir, have mastered the art of keep the reader turning the pages. Thanks so much for being in Seekerville today.

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    1. Cindy, I suspect those sweet romances do have a so-what, but at a low-tension level. And that's a good thing too. Sometimes we don't need a big so what to make us get lost in a story. But without so what, there is NO story.

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    2. Excellent point, Tina. The "so what" doesn't have to be a major catastrophe. It just needs to be enough to throw our characters off dead center and make the reader wonder (and care) how everything will turn out in the end.

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    3. Cindy, I can't add to what Tina and Myra have said--Jim Bell says the protagonist has to face "death" in some form, but it can be physical, emotional, or professional. And thanks for your nice words about my books.

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  26. Of course it's also the story I started Just For Fun, so I have only myself to blame.
    KB

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  27. Hello Dr. Mabry, thank you for such an inspirational post! I've bookmarked it to read again and again. I love books that teach me something I don't know, which is why I love historical, medical, and legal stories whether they have romance or not. I want a story rich in detail whether it's the setting or characters. But your advice via Jeff Gerke to ask myself "so what?" about my WIP is gold! Thank you for boiling writing advice down to it's simplest form. Please put me in the drawing for an ebook...I love romantic suspense and all things thriller/mystery. And do you write series by any chance?

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    1. Laura, thanks for your nice words. It took me a long time to figure out how important "so what" is in a novel. Of course, I was angry with Jeff until the light bulb finally went on.

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  28. So what? I for one love raising the stakes in my stories, though I've noticed it seems to be one of two: the preservation of their family's lives or the protection of the world itself. Sometimes both.

    Maybe it's this 'so what' that made the Twilight Saga so interesting- and especially all the countering 'so whats.' Good and bad things would happen at either alternative... Just something to think about.

    By the way, you're book looks really interesting!

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    1. Boo, I was in a Donald Maass workshop years ago, and I still recall him saying two things. "Imagine the worst thing that can happen to your protagonist...Now make it worse." That's an example of "so what."

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  29. Dr. Mabry I had to laugh at the "so what" response. That had to be irritating. My mind would've be mumbling, "Jerk." But it's those comments that can make the greatest impact.

    One of my favorite movies is the Fugitive. The author was able to make us root for Richard Kimble, but still like Sam Jarod. (Of course have Harrison Ford play along side Tommy Lee Jones didn't hurt.) And we cared right away because Dr. Kimble suffered an injustice.

    Great information. Thanks!

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    1. You nailed that, Connie. I actually have The Fugitive on my desk ready to break down into the six stage structure. Perfect movie example.

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    2. Tina, that will be a fun one. I remember we had a family friend over to watch the movie. After it was over, he complained he had needed to go the restroom about half-way through the movie, but there wasn't ever a good time.
      Suspense never let up.

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    3. You've reminded me that it's time to watch The Fugitive again. Thanks.

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    4. I love The Fugitive.

      Tina, I analyzed Grisham's THE PELICAN BRIEF some years ago. I loved that he took a young college coed and forced her to run for her life. I wanted to determine how Grisham made me believe that young woman could survive.

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    5. Oooh, Debby. This is a good one. We need to have a private Yahoo group that does nothing but analyze movies.

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  30. Welcome back, Doc! Always a pleasure having you visit with us in Seekerville!

    Picturing you having your chat with Jeff and getting irritated by his repeated "So what?" :) Such a great point, though. Everything about the characters and conflict needs to matter--not just to our story people but to our readers.

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    1. Myra, thanks for chiming in. I wonder if these folks know our history? Maybe we'll tell them. Or maybe we won't. : )

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    2. LOL! Doc Mabry was my ENT for almost the whole time we lived in the Dallas area, back in the late-1970s through 1993. It was SO fun to discover he'd taken up novel writing after retiring from his practice, and then we were debut authors together at Abingdon Press!

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  31. Doc, welcome back! This was an excellent post. I had to smile at Jeff asking you the same question over and over. I can imagine how frustrated you must've been. :) But you're right that it's so important to ask that!

    I think what makes a great story for me as a reader is one where I'm rooting for the main character/s and can't wait to see what happens. Since I'm a romance novel lover, that means I need that big story question (how on earth will the the hero and heroine ever get together?!) to hook me into reading.

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    1. Thanks, Missy. Yes, if we'd had a hidden camera there in the lounge of Mt. Hermon, we could have sold copies of that tape at subsequent courses. I was a bit dense, but I think I got it.

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  32. Good morning, Doc Mabry ~ Brilliant thoughts this morning and I loved all your points. SO, so true about what makes a successful story.

    Francine Rivers' Redeeming Love is a great example of what makes an awesome story. It tugged all my emotions and forever changed my perspective regarding Christ-like love, forgiveness, and compassion.

    Your stories leave us on the edge of our seats in a similar, yet different way, along with nail-biting twists and unforgettable characters.

    Thank you for sharing your wisdom!

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    1. Thanks, Cynthia. Francine's Redeeming Love is one of those goals many authors shoot to equal. I hope this post has helped you get there.

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  33. Great post, Dr. Mabry. Thank you for sharing. So what? is a great question and I have to remind myself to dig several layers deep with it.

    So what if character fails? His boss kills himself.
    But that's not deep enough.
    So what if character's boss kills himself? Why does character care?
    Because his boss picked him and his mother out of the gutter and gave him a chance. Not to mention his career is pretty much over if he fails.

    Saving this post to my treasure box. :)

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    1. Amber--Now you've got it. As I said above, make the "what if" the worst thing you can imagine. Thanks for your comment.

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  34. DR. MABRY, thanks for being with us in Seekerville today. I loved your post. If nothing is at stake for our characters, why bother reading? I'm going to look at my wip and make sure that "So what?" is as strong as i can make it.

    As others have said, the best stories make me feel. When I'm invested in the characters and worry about the "so what?" I'm going to feel the emotion the characters feel. The hard part for me as a writer is putting that emotion on the page using details that show and will tug at readers' hearts.

    Not one thing about writing a story is easy, but thankfully, we've got the Creator's help, the expertise of posts like yours, and the support of each other.

    Janet

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    1. Janet, so many great comments, including yours. I'll bet you already have a "what if" in your WIP, but you might make it even worse if you think about it. Thanks for your comment.

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    2. Yes, I do have a "So what?" in my wip, but I'd like it to be more urgent. I'm thinking on it. :-)

      Janet

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  35. Doc, what a great question to consider: So What? I hadn't thought about stakes in that way before. And making sure my readers know my character's goals early on. This makes sense. I struggle with making sure my stakes are on point, but asking So What? may just be what I need to make them big enough and real enough to keep moving the story forward.

    I'm thinking about your question what makes a story good. At first I would have answered the character growth. But, as I consider the book I'm reading right now, it's the stakes that make me care about the story, about what will happen to the characters, and how everything will end. The stakes are life and death, literally. The author is using the stakes to bring about the character growth.

    Thanks for being here today and sharing your wisdom. And thanks for making me think about that question: So What?

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    1. Jeanne, it's my pleasure to be here, and to see comments from so many people I "know." I appreciate what you said.

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  36. Thanks for this very informative post. I am currently working on my first book, and I think I am showing what my characters stand to lose if they don't achieve their goals, but I will apply what you have written as I work.

    Your book looks good. Please put my name in the drawing.

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    1. Sandy, I hope you find what I had to say helpful. Thanks for your comment.

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  37. Dr. Mabry, what a great post! When I get stumped, I ask WHAT IF but SO WHAT is a perfect kick. I love your advice and your books! I already have Medical Judgment and am excited to dive into it.

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  38. Sharee, Hope you enjoy Medical Judgment. As I said above, I'll have a new book--a novella, actually--out in a few weeks. It's been a long dry spell, and I'm ready for it to be over. Thanks for stopping by.

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  39. Dr. Mabry, Thank you for asking the question, "So what?" For me, the characters are what makes a story great, but you're very perceptive in centering in on the stakes as a key component to caring for a character and to rooting for him or her. So what? So why do I care? Excellent questions for a reader or a writer to consider as they move forward whether he or she is reading or writing a book. Thank you for giving me one more question to consider as I finish one book and am about to begin edits on another.

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    1. Thanks, Tanya. Hope my post is helpful in your future writing.

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  40. Dr. Mabry, so good to have you with us today!

    Bottom line? I have to connect with the protagonist.

    If I connect on an emotional level, then I'm hooked on the story. I'm cheering for the protagonist no matter where the journey takes her.

    I just read a YA that had me turning pages late into the night. I wanted the teen hero and heroine to succeed. The author took be back to my own high school days. I was walking the halls with those characters and seeing everything through their 17-year-old eyes. The author did a great job! I loved the story and hope to read more of her work.

    So what? She made me care...

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    1. Great example, Debby. Thanks for sharing, and thanks for your comment.

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  41. Excellent article, Dr. Mabry!

    I think great characters and plot make a story great for me. Though I've enjoyed a few books that had great characters and flat plots, I don't think I've enjoyed any that didn't have relatable characters.

    May God bless you and all of Seekerville!

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    1. Phyllis, I appreciate your comment, and the nice words with which you ended it. Blessings.

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  42. I should have mentioned that Voger and THE WRITER'S JOURNEY are favorites of mine! In fact, I talked about both yesterday. Great minds think alike! :)

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    1. Debby, I read your post yesterday, and thought it tied together with this one nicely. Thanks.

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  43. Welcome, Dr. Mabry!
    Your post is great - - thank you!
    I echo what some others have said here - - I need to relate to the main character in some way for the story to genuinely appeal to me. And if there's some strong emotional "attachment" I feel to the character, that's even better. :)

    Thank you for sharing your wisdom with us today. I do plan on ordering some of your books as I've heard they are great reads!

    Please enjoy the Georgia peach cobbler I've baked---still warm from the oven! :)

    Blessings, Patti Jo

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    1. Patti Jo, I appreciate your kind words. When you read my work, I hope you enjoy it. People always ask which is my favorite, but I tell them that's too much like asking which of my children I like the best. (But if you force me to ask, I'd pick Stress Test, Heart Failure, and Miracle Drug--see, I couldn't narrow it down to one).

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    2. PS--I absolutely love peach cobbler. May I put some Blue Bell ice cream on it while it's hot?

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    3. You sound like my Project Guy, Doc. He's always wishing we had some Blue Bell to top our desserts (and there are more of them lately with a 14-year-old grandson in the house who loves baking sweets!).

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  44. Richard thanks so much for being on today. I love the blog AND I think I need to read it a couple of more times so I can get it all.

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    1. Mary, you're too kind. I appreciate the opportunity to share.

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  45. Thanks for the reminder Richard. Great post!

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  46. P.S. Can't resist returning a minute to tell Doc that I'm setting out some Blue Bell ice cream just for him! And please do have another helping of the peach cobbler. ;)
    Enjoy!! Blessings, Patti Jo

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  47. "And the stakes just got higher..."
    Or so an intern Youth Pastor at my church once said while we were doing sword drills and he would pull out a prize that was better than the last.

    I find that is the motto for my stories. My first book starts off with my characters just trying stay alive long enough to find a way back home, then later in the series they learn that in order to get home they must make right a seven hundred year long wrong and because they are trying to do that they have a powerful emperor trying to kill them, then they learn that the entire fate of the world they are trapped in hinges on whether they accomplish their quest or not. THEN, it gets personal because now it turns out that the fate of one of their dearest friends will also be determined by their success- whether he will be saved or turned evil.

    So what?
    Well... the stakes just got HIGHER.

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    1. P.S. No need to enter me in the drawing for your book. My mom already owns it, and I can always just read her copy.

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    2. Thank you, Lord for Moms. And thank you to Dr. Mabry for spending the day with us!

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    3. Nicky, you've got the "so what" down. Great.
      And Tina, it was my pleasure. Thanks for the opportunity.

      Remember everyone: It isn't a story until something goes wrong. Blessings.

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  48. Dr. Mabry, thank you so much for this post. I have a chapter-by-chapter spreadsheet to keep track of word count and plot points and ultimately what's going on. Thanks to you, I just added a new column "so what?" I do so love the writing adventure! I have not yet read any of your books. the key word there is yet. They sound great and the cover of your give-away is fabulous. Thanks so much and blessings to you.

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  49. Dr. Mabry, thank you for sharing these encouraging ideas. I'm a reluctant pantser who hates getting lost in the mire of a manuscript in process. The broad ideas you've outlined are helpful and I've added this post to my writer's OneNote notebook.

    What I think makes a story great - characters who want something deeply, who go after it despite opposition, and have an adventure. Right now I'm rereading and loving the Mrs. Pollifax books by Dorothy Gilman.

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