Saturday, July 30, 2011

Saturday Snippet: Leads, Part Four, the flashback lead


Your lead—your opening—pulls your reader into your story.  

It causes curiosity and lures him in.

To keep your reader from meandering away, write a lead that inspires him to stick around and read all the way to the end of each vignette.

Many people create leads after they’ve written the main body of their piece because, “Often, in the process of composing, beginnings do not clarify themselves until endings arrive,” writes Priscilla Long in The Writer’s Portable Mentor, a delightful book I recommend.

She continues, “‘Good leads often show up late,’ writes many-book author Ralph Keyes in The Courage to Write. ‘…I generally find the best opening deep within the narrative. This opening only makes itself known as I read drafts, see what catches my eye, something that sets a tone, that gets the piece up and running. Knowing this, I don’t concern myself with beginnings until the end.”

In previous blog posts we’ve examined several types of leads, and today we’ll look at the flashback lead. (Thanks to my friend Shel Arensen for sharing this material. You’ll enjoy getting acquainted with him. See below.*)

The Flashback Lead: Start with the most gripping part of the action, then flashback to the beginning of the experience; use the word “had” because it moves you back to the beginning.

For a flashback example, here’s this excerpt:

Alone in Amsterdam
by Shel Arensen

I opened my eyes, suddenly awake. An eerie sense of uneasiness crept over me. Had I heard someone moving in the room? It was too dark to see. Then I heard the door click.

I sat upright in bed, straining to see who might have invaded the barracks-style hostel room where I was staying in Amsterdam, Holland. I sat perfectly still, hardly breathing, for several minutes. No one else stirred.

“I must have been imagining things,” I told myself as I lay down again. I decided to lie on my stomach so I could get back to sleep quickly. When I turned over, I noticed what was wrong!

My pants, hanging on the wall near my bed, were twisted, and the lining of my pocket was hanging out. With a frightened gasp, I reached for my wallet. It was gone!

My misfortunes had started the day before when I arrived at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. I was to make connections there for Kenya, where my missionary parents lived.

“I’m sorry,” the voice of the ticket agent had grated in my ears, “but tonight’s flight to Nairobi is full. We can’t take any more passengers…. I will confirm your ticket for the next plane to Nairobi.”

“When will that be?” I questioned.

“Next Thursday—Christmas Day. Here’s your ticket. Enjoy Amsterdam. Who’s next in line please?”

… I was forced to step aside. Stunned and bewildered, I wandered over to a bench to collect my thoughts….

It was Sunday night…. Now I would be unable to leave Amsterdam until Christmas – four days later….

Did you notice where the flashback ended? Where does Shel move the reader back to the story’s beginning? (Paragraph five.)

Feel free to experiment. You can come up with many variations on lead types. Keep in mind your lead’s purpose: to catch your reader’s attention and motivate him to read your story.

Have fun!

*Check out Shel’s novel, The Dust of Africa, at

Read my two blog posts about Shel:

The Dust of Africa

Related posts

Leads, Part One

Leads, Part Two 

Leads, Part Three 

Thursday, July 28, 2011

SPECIAL EDITION: I need your help: Final four days of Barnes and Noble’s special Rising Star Special Collection

I’ve never sought fame or fortune with my memoir, Grandma’s Letters from Africa. I’ve only offered it up to God to use it as He sees fit.

Flannery O'Connor said, "When the book leaves your hands, it belongs to God," and that’s exactly how I have always looked at it.

I offered the book up to God, praying He will use it—and He has, often in ways I could not have anticipated.

The memoir has received three honors along the way: Editor’s Choice, Rising Star, and Reader’s Choice.

And then a few weeks ago Grandma’s Letters from Africa received this additional honor that includes phrases like “hand-picked” and “up-and-coming authors.”

Here’s what arrived in my in-box:

June 17, 2011

Dear Rising Star Author,

Congratulations! Your book will be listed in the Barnes & Noble Rising Star Special Collection on (Barnes & Noble) and will be available through this exclusive boutique through the end of the month of July.

It is very important to promote, market and drive traffic to your title listed on the Rising Star Special Collection page at The demand and traffic you drive to this page is watched and followed by the B&N national buyer. Website demand is an instrumental piece when a buyer is considering stocking a title in store.

Below is the link for the Rising Star Special Collection

Best Regards,

Rising Star Board

In the left column of the blog for Grandma's Letters from Africa ( you’ll find endorsements from Bob Creson, President/CEO of Wycliffe Bible Translators; Don Parrott, President of The Finishers Project; and others.

You’ll also find links to a couple of reviews there in the left column, one by Laura Frantz and the other by Anne Holmes.

Almost everyone says they laughed and cried when reading Grandma’s Letters from Africa.

Here are additional comments readers have sent me:

“…I started reading it aloud to my husband …. and we laughed (and I cried) as we related to your stories.… Thank you for your open, honest letters to Maggie and for being willing to share them with all of us! I sense God is going to use your book in our lives.” SHC

“I went to sleep with your book last night. I LOVE it. It’s so beautifully written, and brings you and Africa to life in such a gentle and sweet way.” GH

“I just finished reading your book 5 minutes ago. Thank you so much for sending it. I really, really enjoyed the reading. Your descriptions are so clear and interesting. I cried with the beauty and love that you end with in the Psalm of Africa and the Postscript. What a great tribute to your faith and perseverance, the grace of the African people, and our great and loving God!” KH-W

“I asked mom if she was done with your book, and if I could take it and read it. She said ‘only if you promise to bring it back.’ She said she read it in only a few sittings, and she wanted to read it again.… I see why momma wants to have the book back.… I'm half way through the book. I think I could use five more. One for my friend,  … one for the [church] library, one for me, one for [Pastor Mike], and one extra to give away when I need to.….”  PR

Do you know someone who’d enjoy Grandma’s Letters from Africa?

Your pastor? Your Missions Committee Chairman? How about a copy for your church library?

You can buy it for them as a gift: (at a reduced cost!)—remember to use the special link, (you’ll need to scroll down):

Or you can forward this blog post to them. Just below this blog post, you’ll see little gray and white icons that allow you to e-mail this, post it to Facebook, share to Twitter, Google Buzz, or +1.

Please help get word out. I have only four more days!

Spread the word!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Leads, Part Three

If you want your memoir to accomplish more than merely gathering dust on your kids’ and grandkids’ bookshelves, craft top-notch leads for your vignettes (chapters).

To review from Leads, Parts One and Two,* the lead is the first thing your reader reads—your opening sentences.

Your job: Create a lead that grabs your reader and thrusts him into your story.

Lead-writing can be challenging:

“Master copywriter Gene Schwartz often spent an entire week on the first 50 words … — the headline [or title] and the opening paragraph. Those 50 words are the most important part of any persuasive writing, and writing them well takes time. Even for the masters.”  (

For some of you, lead-writing might be the hardest part of composing each of your vignettes, but it's doable and can even be fun.

Learn the difference between effective and weak leads by noting them in everything you read: articles, blog posts, sermons, essays, fiction, and creative nonfiction. Ask yourself, “Why do some entice me to read on—or not?”

Then, with what you’re learning from them and from this blog, fashion leads for your chapters.

So far we’ve examined the following types of leads: quote, scene-setting, action (or narrative), anecdote, and statistics.

Below you’ll find more options:

Startling assertion: A shocking statement surprises readers and builds suspense. Example: “Not all enemies carry arrows. My grandfather just carried a six pack and a pitiful hangover. Julie Redbook, she carried a grudge so heavy it crushed a few bones of my childhood. And there’s this woman I know who carries around the shame of slapping her son. And tearing into her good man with a tongue blade sharper than any scalpel.” Ann Voskamp, When You’ve Been Wounded, Cheated, Disappointed, and Heartbroken, at’t-been-wounded-cheated-disappointed-heartbroken.html

Question: “Have you ever noticed that kids who grow up in small towns usually are ______?” If you draw your reader in and get him to think how he’d answer, he’ll probably keep reading. Avoid using a question lead too frequently.

A “You” Message: Address the reader, using the word “you,” to help him identify with the person(s) in your story. Example: “You recognize shapes as written words and can spell them out letter by letter. You write down lists so you won’t forget. You read a book for leisure. You enjoy crossword puzzles. You get news from the Internet or a daily paper. And as you study God’s Word, He speaks to you. For millions of people [however], these skills do not exist….” (from “Eyes to See, Ears to Hear,” Rev.7, Fall 2006)

News article: In the first two sentences, answer the Five W’s – who, what, where, when, why. This is the “pyramid” style that used to be the most standard style of lead. “Thirteen high school students and a teacher from Coeur d’Alene were sent to the hospital Wednesday evening with injuries after their bus tipped over on U.S. Highway 95 in Hayden.” (The Spokesman- Review, January 11, 2007)

Many writers craft their lead last. I recommend that you write the body of your piece and set it aside. Come back later, re-read it, and probably the subject of your lead will appear to you somewhere within those paragraphs. When you find it, in many cases you can leave it where it is but capture the essence of it by using different words. In other words, “Dig it out, polish it, craft it” (Shel Arensen).

Grab your reader’s attention and make him want to read the rest of your piece.

*Related posts
Leads, Part One
Leads, Part Two

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Saturday, July 23, 2011

Leads, Part Two

An excellent lead is a must for your memoir’s vignettes (chapters). The lead is the first thing your reader reads—your opening sentences.

A well-crafted lead stirs curiosity in your reader, hooks her, and draws her in.

A lead can make or break a story: It can entice a person to read it—or to close the book, slide out of her chair, and walk away.

Lead-writing can be hard work, even for pros. Like Bill Roorbach said, “…Most first lines weren’t first till after much revision.…” (Writing Life Stories)

In Leads, Part One,* we considered two types of leads, the quote lead and the scene-setting lead.

Today we’ll look at three more types:

Action (or narrative) lead: “The dusty earth vibrated and bushes crashed, snapping the silence of the tawny African plain. . . . We caught a blurred glimpse of some creature approaching us, carving a path through the dense thorn scrub brush. Two tick-eating birds flapped frantically off a massive iron-grey back as their resting place lunged out from under them. Now we saw clearly what was heading our way. It was a rhinoceros, one of Africa’s most unpredictable animals.” (Dr. Jon Arensen, Rhino! ) (Jon and I worked together in Africa; besides being a storyteller, he’s an anthropologist, linguist, and Bible translator. Be sure to check out Jon’s new memoir, Drinking the Wind: Memoirs of an African Odyssey. It covers his childhood in Africa and his many years working among a people group in Sudan. Buy Drinking the Wind from Amazon at this link:

Anecdote: Use a short story to illustrate or personalize your story’s broader topic or main point. For example, this anecdote lead kicks off a story about a broad topic, the surge in violence across America: “Even before the fireworks launched from the French Quarter’s Jackson Square, 2006 went out with a bang in New Orleans – a handful of them, actually. At 7 p.m. on December 31, several of those bangs felled a 42-year-old man, who was found inside his FEMA trailer with multiple gunshot wounds to the back of his head. At 8:45 p.m., another man was shot several times and left dead on the sidewalk. At 10:12 p.m., a third was killed inside his home.” (The New Math on Crime, by Will Sullivan, U.S. News and World Report, January 15, 2007)

Statistics, if brief, can effectively create curiosity and entice readers to keep reading. For example: “More than one billion people won’t get enough to eat today. In the next seven seconds, another hungry child will die.”
(World Vision,

Many writers craft their leads last. After you write the body of your piece, set it aside. A day or more later, re-read it, capture the essence of your vignette, and determine what type of lead will work best. So far we’ve looked at five types: quote, scene-setting, action, anecdote, and statistics.

Next time we’ll cover these leads: startling assertion, question, a “you” message, and the news article lead.

Between now and then, analyze leads in good newspapers, magazines, blog posts, novels, memoirs, devotionals, and newsletters.

Wednesday, my friend Carol, a real pro and a former coworker, left his comment:

"A fun exercise to get your head around this is to look carefully at the opening words of famous or favorite writings. 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times' ... 'Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.' ... 'Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again' ... 'There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.' Read more: "

Ask yourself: Why do some leads succeed and others don’t?

*Related post: Leads, Part One

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Leads, Part One: Please don’t get mad. I’ve dropped lots of hints!


Now that you’ve carted off your scaffolding* it’s time to work on leads—opening sentences—for your vignettes, so round up all those WIPs—your works in progress—your rough drafts.

In recent weeks, you have picked up, haven’t you, on my references to your WIPs and rough drafts?

If you didn’t notice, and if you consider your vignettes “finished,” you’re probably frowning into your computer screen and grumbling, “Why didn’t she tell us about leads a long time ago?!”

Here’s the answer: I deliberately waited. I can explain.

But first, what’s a lead?

The lead is the first thing your reader reads. It catches her attention.

You “hook” a reader with your lead; it causes curiosity, draws her in, and motivates her to read all the way through. 

A lead is a crucial component in newspaper and magazine articles.

A catchy lead is a must for blog posts, sermons, and devotionals.

A top-notch lead is vital for a memoir’s vignettes (chapters) as well.

Why did I delay bringing up leads until now? Because most people write the lead after they’ve written the main body of their story.

It’s true. The reason? A lead is challenging to craft and, for a couple of reasons, many writers prefer to pin it down after they’ve composed most of their piece.

The first reason: Sometimes a story evolves into a different story. The writer didn’t set out to tell that story, but it’s good—it’s an important story, a keeper. In that case, if she had created a lead before writing the piece, she would have wasted her time. Usually a different story will need a different lead.

The second reason: Often an idea for the lead comes from within already-written paragraphs and pages. Pinpoint that idea and use it to formulate your lead.

For clarification: Spiritual Memoirs 101 is not the same as English Composition 101.

Memoir is “creative non-fiction,” and it differs from English Comp 101.

You remember English Comp from school days, right?

Paragraph one is your introduction, a few sentences about your topic. Here’s a topic example: your three-step decision to work as a nanny in Scotland.

In EnglishComposition format, you follow  your intro with the main body: three paragraphs, each one explaining one step in your decision-making process.

Then you write your conclusion: you more or less rephrase your introduction.

In memoir, however, do away with English Comp 101 format. Instead, your first lines, your first paragraph(s), will be your lead, your hook.

Today we’ll look at two types of leads, and in coming days we’ll examine even more:

Quote:  Use a quote, song, poem, or proverb to illustrate the point of your story. For example, I used a quote to start a blog post about the way our ancestors’ DNA impacts us: “’My grandmother, Catherine (Cassie) Helmer, died when my Dad was age 13,’ wrote my mother. ‘People who knew her thought I was much like her. In my hearing, old Aunt Maggie once said in her thick Scottish brogue, “Cassie will always be with us as long as that gairl (girl) walks the airth (earth).”’ Over the decades, Aunt Maggie’s declaration has played through my thoughts dozens of times. I wish I knew more! What about my mother, specifically, reminded Aunt Maggie of Cassie? … And even more intriguing to me: Did I inherit anything of my great-grandmother Cassie?”*

Scene-setting: Describe your story’s setting so your reader feels she’s there, hearing and seeing the event beside you: “Suited up in a knee-length tuxedo jacket, 15-year-old Nathan Neintz bowed slightly to the seated girl, held out a corsage and asked, ‘May I have the next dance?’ With a fur stole flung across her shoulders and legs daintily crossed at the ankles, Lindsy Ingalls, 16, smiled and nodded her acceptance. It was enough to make Miss Manners blush with pride. With a rustle of gowns, tugging of gloves and twitters of laughter, dozens of teens and pre-teens gathered Thursday night for a winter ball, sponsored by the North Idaho chapter of the National League of Junior Cotillions” (The Spokesman-Review, January 13, 2007).
Feel free to experiment. You can come up with an almost unlimited number of variations on the above list.

While you develop leads for your vignettes, keep in mind their purpose: they catch your reader’s attention and motivate her to read your story.

Go easy on yourself: Writing the lead can be the hardest part. Give yourself permission and time to experiment, a lot of time, because even for pros:

“…Most first lines weren’t first till after much revision.…”
Bill Roorbach, Writing Life Stories

Next time, we’ll cover additional types of leads: startling assertion, question, statistics, anecdote, and others.

*Related Posts
Have you removed yor scaffolding?

Friday, July 15, 2011

Have you removed your scaffolding?

Most of us know the story we want to write, but we’re not sure what to say or how to say it. We don’t know where to begin, but we know we must—so we ease our way into it: We start writing.

Pros call it “scaffolding.”

I have good news and bad news about scaffolding.

The good news: It gets us going, provides momentum, and helps us zero in on the story we need to tell.

“As the tennis player rallies before the game begins,
so must the writer.
And as the tennis player
is not concerned with where those first balls are going,
neither must the writer be concerned
with the first paragraph or two.
All you’re doing is warming up.…”

Leonard S. Bernstein

The bad news about scaffolding: After it has served its purpose, we need to tear it down.

I learned of scaffolding decades ago from Donald Murray, and later from Roy Peter Clark and Don Fry, authors of Coaching Writers: Editors and Reporters Working Together. They say,

“… Sometimes the writer must write her way into a story, creating sentences that can’t appear in the final version but do get the writer where she wants to go. So the writer erects a scaffold to build the story, but dismantles it to let the story show through.”

Scaffolding is a temporary structure that supports the construction of what will eventually stand alone.

Bill Roorbach describes scaffolding this way:

“Good stories, good essays, leap right to their subjects, perhaps not in draft one, or draft six, but at some point, the introductory apparatus is cut, seen for what it is: scaffolding. You put up the elaborate and complicated and even beautiful scaffolding and build the cathedral. When the cathedral is complete, well, you take the scaffolding down.” (Writing Life Stories)

Readers like us better if we get rid of our scaffolding.

Why? Readers want us to get right to the point and when we do, our stories have more punch, more focus, more power. People are more likely to read such stories.

Take out your WIPs (works in progress, rough drafts) and read them, looking for answers to these questions:

What is my story really about? What’s the main point?

Does my opening paragraph, or my first few paragraphs, focus on (or at least significantly point to) the main point? Or did I write them only to find my way into my story?

Do my readers need to know this information, or is it extraneous?

Dismantle your scaffolding. Let your story shine through.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Your stories: Not because of who you are, but because of who God is

We’ve established that you are important to God.*

And we’ve recognized that your stories are important to God and your family.*

So you want to write your memoir, but you hear nagging little whispers:

“Who do you think you are? You? Write a book? What makes you so special?”

You might ask, “Who am I, that I should write such stories? I’m not a Moses, or a David, or a Paul, or an Abraham.…”

But wait! Moses witnessed an Egyptian beating one of his fellow Hebrews and got so mad that he killed the Egyptian.

Then Moses ran away and hid in the desert for 40 years.

And later, when God said He was sending Moses to Pharoah and wanted to use him to bring Israelites out of Egypt, Moses made all kinds of excuses and balked and wailed, “O Lord, please send someone else to do it” (Exodus 4:13).

The point? It’s not that Moses was so great—it’s what God did: He enabled Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt and into the land of milk and honey—and so much more!

Then there’s David, and Paul—it’s easy to think of them as saints, but they really messed up sometimes. Their lives were a mixture of faith and willful disobedience, spiritual successes and failures, yet God used them in mighty ways and continues to do so today. It’s not so much what David or Paul did, it’s what God did.

Abraham is …. one of the most important men in the history of the world. What makes Abraham so important … is not his sterling character (which he did not have), his outstanding intellect (which may have existed but it is not mentioned), his charming personality (he could be pretty annoying) or substantial personal accomplishments (he has a few, apart from his pilgrimage to the promised land). What Abraham is remembered for is his faithfulness in obeying God’s call to undertake a long and demanding journey. It was not so much what Abraham did, but what God did.… In Abraham we see not so much a saint in action; rather, the faithfulness and graciousness of God.… In Abraham we see an ordinary man who is used by God, not because of who Abraham was, but because of who God is….” (Richard Peace, Spiritual Storytelling)

Bottom line: Write your stories—not because of who you are, but because of who God is.

It is not that we think we can do anything of lasting value by ourselves.
Our only power and success come from God.
(2 Corinthians 3:5, NLT) 

… Our adequacy is from God.… Therefore, having such a hope,
we use great boldness in our speech [or writing]….
(2 Corinthians, 3:5, 12, NAS)

Write your stories!

Depend on God to make you adequate for this awesome task.

Use heavenly boldness in your writing.

Your stories can help your readers

become all God created them to be.

*Related posts:

You are important to God,
Your stories are important,

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The power of color

“…Push your story deeper, pull your reader closer,
and lift the heart of the story out of obscurity
into a sensory world
that you and your readers can inhabit together.”

(Judith Barrington, Writing the Memoir)

Take out your WIPs—your rough drafts—and let’s have fun! Let’s spice up blah words.

Today, we’ll focus on colors.

If you’ve described something as “blue,” choose a word with more punch or charm. Try sky blue, powder blue, navy, royal, denim, cornflower, turquoise, indigo, or aqua. My daughter-in-law chose periwinkle blue for her bridesmaids’ dresses. What other shades of blue come to mind?

Instead of “red,” how about fire-engine red, cherry red, tomato red, blood red, rusty red, crimson, ruby, or scarlet. What other shades of red can you think of? Leave your ideas below in the comments, or on Facebook at

Below, you’ll find a resource you’ll treasure! For now, though, this little excerpt is a gem from James Kilpatrick, a man I’ve learned from for many years:

“This is the secret of good writing:
We must look intently,
and hear intently,
and taste intently.…
We must look at everything very hard.
Is it the task at hand to describe a snowfall?
Very well. We begin by observing
that the snow is white.
Is it as white as bond paper?
White as whipped cream?
Is the snow daisy white,
or eggwhite white,
or whitewash white?
Let us look very hard.
We will see that snow comes in different textures.
The light snow that looks like powdered sugar
is not the heavy snow that clings like wet cotton.…”

James J. Kilpatrick, The Writer's Art

Here’s that new resource—I’m so excited to tell you about it!—it’s a writer’s paradise! Hop on over to The Bookshelf Muse at (I can't get this link to work, however, you can click over to it from right here on my blog—you’ll find an icon for The Bookshelf Muse in the right column, below.)

It contains a thesaurus for colors, for one thing. For example, to look up the color blue, use this link:

You’ll find red at this link:

The Bookshelf Muse offers much more than a color thesaurus. The good people there have a thesaurus for weather, another for emotion, for character traits, settings, and more. Be sure to spend time there, and return often.

Soon we’ll work on other aspects of your written pieces but for now, spice up colors in your WIPs, and feel free to start a few new vignettes. They’ll be chapters in your finished memoir. Have fun!