by Karen Ehman
Today, we have a special guest post from New York Times’ bestselling author Karen Ehman. She is the author of thirteen books, a writer for Proverbs 31 Ministries First 5 app and on February 26th, she is releasing her latest book, Keep Showing Up: How to Stay Crazy in Love When Your Love Drives You Crazy. In her newest book, Karen discusses how a spouse who drives you crazy can drive you straight to Jesus.
While she is no stranger to tackling tough topics like marriage, motherhood and friendship in her writing, Karen has always managed to walk the delicate balance of honoring the people in her life while being honest with her readership. Want to learn how she does it? Read below as Karen shares how she manages to walk that delicate balance and how you can implement her strategies in your own writing.
Have you ever been perusing an article, blog post or a chapter of the book and suddenly had this thought: “I think that author just shared a little too much info about their family member”? Or, has in fact the opposite been true: you wish the writer had revealed a bit more of the background story. Instead, they seemed to be evasive when it came to listing the details that might round out the narrative more?
Whenever a person decides to launch out and pursue their dream of becoming a writer, it isn’t just their own life they will be opening up for their reader to view. They will also be giving a sneak peek into the lives of others who are close to them as family or friends. Since it isn’t these other individuals who signed up to display their personal life on the pages of a book or the screen of a blog post, how does the one actually writing navigate this delicate situation?
After being a published author for nearly two decades—both in books and online—I’ve learned a few guidelines that have help me to traverse this often-dicey territory. I hope they will help you as well as you learn to tell your story without over-sharing, causing tension or hurt feelings in your relationships.
While this might seem very obvious, often it is overlooked. Set up a policy of asking permission of any family member or friend before you share a story in your writing. If they grant you permission, let them read the final product before it goes to print. This is both respectful and kind. You don’t want to be using the stories of others to round out your writing without them being on board. I have a policy of asking my family members if I may share something that happened if I think it might help my readers. (Of course, I have one child who insists he should also be paid a kickback if the story makes it into the book!)
Change of the details slightly
This is something that never crossed my mind until a fellow writer said her editor gave her permission to do so. If you can change just a couple adjectives in a story, in order not to fully disclose who you are talking about, do so. However, only do this if it doesn’t change the main point of the story you are trying to make. For example, if you are telling the story about someone you observed at a local football game, and you are commenting on their rude behavior, you can change a few details in order to get the point across. You could make the person tall and thin when in fact they or actually quite short and stocky. You might change the setting from a football game to a baseball game. Or change the season, having it happen in the summer rather than in autumn. You are not doing this to tell an untruth, but rather to protect the identity of the person but still make the point of your story.
Focus on your own thought process and feelings rather than on the actions of others
If you are telling about a situation that happened to you, focus more on the thoughts that ran through your mind, and the feelings that invaded your heart, rather than the actions of the other person. This will prevent you from harping on their behavior and will shift the focus to how you personally dealt with the situation emotionally as it happened.
Tell just enough to paint a picture without giving all of the gory details
When you are working on a section of the project where you do want to relay an incident that happened, ask yourself not how much you should tell, but rather how little is needed to get the point across. You don’t have to go into great detail. You just need to tell the reader enough to capture a snapshot of what happened so you can go on to make your point. Less is more. Do not over share.
Pray, pray, pray
And finally, make it a matter of prayer. Ask the Lord to put a check in your spirit if you are starting to write something that you shouldn’t. God is faithful to answer our prayers. This even includes the prayers of a writer longing to craft words in an impactful way but without being detrimental to their relationships.
May God meet you as you write words that inspire and help others but that also are honoring to those in your personal life.
Want to hear more from New York Times’ Bestselling Author Karen Ehman?
Many of our COMPEL Members may recognize Karen from her COMPEL lessons on Finding Something to Talk About and How to Write a Bang-Up Book Proposal (among many others). Join COMPEL Training today to learn more from bestselling authors, powerhouse speakers and master communicators on how to write words that move people.
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I’m so glad that Jasmine Morris at nosweetername.com led me here. I just had an honest conversation with some of my loved ones about two topic in my book and it did not go over quite well. I thought I was doing the right thing my asking them and inviting their opinion. I pray to God to find modesty in my honesty.
Thank you so much for this article!!! Keep writing, keep obeying God. We need it.
Please ignore my typos. They show how much this has affected me. I am still praying for and anticipating a completed and published work this year.
Thank you for this. I can get paralyzed in my writing because of these concerns. You have given me much to think about and great direction for those thoughts!
This is a question I’ve been asking for quite some time. Thank you, Ms. Karen! I have lots of notes in my manuscript to go ask so and so for permission. They were deleted out to send to my agent, but this reminds me I need to go back and reread with the one filter in mind of honoring the people in my life… and then sending a bunch of emails to ask permission!! 😉 Thank you!
Do you use any kind of form or signature to show they’ve given permission? I had a mentor recommended that to me, but it feels super formal and I’m not sure what that consent form would look like or even say. ??? Thank you!!
In my case, Danita, my publisher had a form that I used.
This is SO helpful! I’ve wrestled with this a lot in my writing.
What if you want to write a story about someone who is no longer in your life? For example, my childhood was strongly shaped by a family member who I haven’t seen or talked to in 10 years. I would like to write about it but wouldn’t know how to ask permission.
Kelly, is it possible to write about the impact of a person on your life, or the challenges you went through, and the victories you celebrated as you overcame, without giving details about this person’s name or life? It’s not always the actual person that is the story, but how you grew through that obstacle or relationship.