When you think of Christmas shopping, visions of toys, jewelry, clothes, and candy probably dance in your head. That’s if you’re a normal human being. If you’re a little weird and a lot nerdy, you get starry-eyed over Lord of the Rings mugs, graphic T-shirts with famous literary quotes, and stacks of books as tall as skyscrapers.
I’m guessing that everyone reading this falls into the latter category. Am I right?
Some of you may also focus on immaterial gifts that are much more meaningful: hugs from your kids, baking with grandma, and caroling with friends.
But very few of you will count the gift that’s right in front of you. The gift you use almost every day. The gift you’ve spent hours and hours making. The gift you’ve poured your heart into.
Your story. Your words. Your characters.
Some days your work-in-progress may feel more like a curse than a blessing. But whether you realize it or not, a book is one of the most precious gifts you can offer the world. And it’s like a set of Russian dolls, because the pages inside hold even more treasures—six of which I’m going to unpack so you can then repackage them to delight readers.
1. The Gift of Joy
Did you know that laughing improves your health? Every witty remark, ironic situation, and funny description can enrich the lives of readers. How often have you watched a funny cat video and it turned your rotten day into a pleasant one? Or at least brightened a few minutes?
A humorous story (or scene) is like a gag gift that people read instead of unwrap! It has the power to flip a frown upside down. Never be ashamed of the humor you write if it cracks someone up.
Sure, a story about a book-eating dinosaur or a Spanish-speaking squirrel might be too corny to publish, but that doesn’t disqualify it from being a wonderful gift! A few years ago, I wrote a crazy story featuring several of my friends. No one but a deranged agent would have accepted it, but the story cheered up my friends and that was all that mattered. And if a ridiculous, plot-deficient story like that can make people smile, imagine the effect a carefully crafted, theme-centric story can have!
Gift-giving tip: If you’ve never attempted humor, draft up a short story in that genre, but don’t worry about being too outlandish. Jot down every hilarious combination that comes to mind, whether it’s guinea pigs and tacos or llamas and piñatas. Even if you don’t use the story (aside from amusing your friends and family), the practice can help loosen up your brain and trigger new ideas.
2. The Gift of Hope
We all have moments when we want to hide in a corner and cry. Our dreams seem buried under a hundred feet of snow, and our mood isn’t getting any warmer the more we dwell on the task ahead. Usually all we need is a kick and a shovel to motivate us to start digging again. Sometimes that push comes from a family member or friend who won’t stop pestering us until we stand up again.
Other times, that push comes from a book.
Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, you have the ability to revive readers’ spirits. Every sentence is an opportunity to reach out with love and empathy. In such a broken and chaotic world, you may wonder how you can contribute to healing the pain. Should you volunteer at a nursing home? Sell your house and donate every cent to the poor? Leave America to become a missionary?
Although those pursuits are noble and worthwhile, you don’t have to sacrifice all of your possessions and become a modern apostle to make a difference. You already are—through your writing. Your story can console people better and endure for longer than anything you’ll ever say or do.
Gift-giving tip: Instill your stories with hope, not for your characters’ sake but for your readers’. Even if none of your characters survive, their deaths should encourage readers to keep living. However, your endings don’t need to be anywhere near as rosy as a Hallmark Christmas movie either. Sad stories can radiate hope as much as (or more than) happy stories.
After all, the best presents are ones that bring the recipients to tears.
3. The Gift of Adventure
Wouldn’t you like to take your family on an all-expenses-paid trip to Paris? What if you could afford to invite your friends too? And even your friends’ friends, relatives, coworkers, nice neighbors, and not-so-nice neighbors? What if the whole world could come?
Your book can transport people across the globe (and centuries) for only a few dollars! They can travel to Rome, the moon, Middle-Earth, or Neverland. Float on the peaceful current of a romance or careen up and down on the roller coaster of a thriller. In some respects, reading is more fun than a real vacation because people have the freedom to experience cultures and events and settings that they’re curious about but couldn’t explore otherwise. Furthermore, it provides them with an escape from their troubles and the mundanity of everyday life.
Gift-giving tip: Sending readers on a vacation doesn’t obligate you to be their tour guide. Let them roam around the fictional landscape and discover its wonders on their own (even if you were the one who planted those shapeshifting flowers). Don’t distract them with extended commentary that’s not relevant to the path they’ll be following alongside the protagonist.
4. The Gift of Wisdom
Hardly anyone enjoys school—well, except for nerds, teachers, and homeschoolers. As human beings, we have a tendency to avoid instruction in favor of clinging to familiar habits and beliefs, so sometimes the most effective conduit for a lesson (besides firsthand experience) is a story. It demonstrates right and wrong without waving a ruler in our faces.
The trials and growth your character undergoes can steer readers away from darkness and toward light. Your story may not seem influential enough—especially when your readers act like angels who merely need their halos straightened—but someday, somewhere it will irrevocably change someone.
Gift-giving tip: Don’t wrap your story’s moral so thinly that readers recognize its shape immediately. Wrap it so that no one can guess what it is until they’ve ripped off every scrap of paper. Don’t tell your theme, show it through poetic justice and your characters’ internal struggles.
5. The Gift of Friendship
No one can ever be lonely when they’re reading a book. Regardless of whether you become mildly or wildly famous, you’ll never be able to befriend, or even interact with, all of your readers.
As unfortunate as that is, most readers aren’t interested in your friendship (sorry). But that’s your fault because you’ve surrounded them with a whole cast of characters they can sympathize with, admire, laugh with, learn from, hit over the head, and root for. Best of all, these “friends” will never leave. They may cease breathing, but readers can easily resurrect them by revisiting the book (or emailing you to complain).
Gift-giving tip: Not every character is best friend material. Readers don’t need to be fond of your antagonist, but they should have positive feelings toward all of the others. And how do you determine if a character is truly likable? First, take an inventory of the quirks that you love about your family and friends. Small details, like protectiveness over caterpillars or a facial twitch that indicates excitement, are typically the most endearing. Apply this concept to your characters. Second, think about the similarities you share with the people in your social circle and make sure your characters have hobbies, values, or ambitions that your target audience will relate to.
6. The Gift of Inspiration
How many times have you read a story that sprouted an idea for one of your own? That’s because great stories fertilize even more great stories. Maybe a scene, a setting, or something as simple as a phrase captured your imagination. Whole worlds can be created from one word.
Your story can inspire people of all trades—artists, architects, doctors, chefs—to tackle new projects, embrace risks, and chase adventure. When you pass along inspiration, it multiplies a hundredfold. It’s a gift that keeps on giving. No store-bought item could ever beat that.
Gift-giving tip: The best way to spread inspiration is to keep pounding on your keyboard and writing what inspires you. Don’t worry about how readers will respond to it, because if it ignites your soul, I guarantee that sparks will fly for them too.
4 Cautions about Gift-Giving
1. You won’t know the exact number of people your gift touches. Unlike most gifts, once your book is on store shelves, you won’t be able to watch who picks it up (unless you hack retailers’ websites and surveillance cameras, which I wouldn’t recommend). Many readers aren’t comfortable expressing their thanks to a stranger. Others will forget that Amazon allows buyers to post reviews. But that doesn’t mean your gift is unappreciated. You’ll have dozens more readers than you ever hear from.
2. Your gift may not get discovered for a while. Handing your book to an agent or the public can be terrifying and discouraging—especially when no one seems to notice it. But the internet is a bustling place where countless other authors bear gifts (although some are coal disguised with an attractive cover design). You may have to be content with waiting a Christmas or two (or ten) for measurable results.
3. Since your story is a gift, you shouldn’t write it hastily or halfheartedly. Would you give a close friend a cheap present that wouldn’t appeal to them? Or buy them something nice but stuff it into a torn cardboard box without even a bow on top? Readers deserve your best effort, so invest as much time and money into your book as is necessary to meet professional standards.
4. No gift pleases everyone. Your book isn’t a one-size-fits-all. Some readers will love it. Some will like it. And some will question why you bothered to write it. Only a generic book with everyman characters will appease everyone’s tastes. The most memorable gifts, however, are the ones that have been chosen with extra thought and care directed toward a specific person (so, in this case, your intended audience, not random readers).
Most importantly, remember that someday a fan will put your book on their Christmas list.
Unless, of course, you don’t finish writing it, and to that I say:
GO FINISH THE BOOK!
Because it’s going to be the best gift you’ve ever given.
Mariposa Aristeo is a writer of quirky characters and fantastical adventures filled with heart, humor, hope, and, very often, dinosaurs. If you can’t find her in one of her own imaginary worlds, try combing the pages of a great middle-grade fantasy novel.
At Story Embers, igniting (and sometimes imploding) ideas is her favorite pastime, so she often uses her creativity to make graphics for articles and writing quotes, as well as implement new strategies for SE’s social media channels. Explosions aside, she loves getting to know each and every writer here at SE by running the popular #embersgram hashtag on Instagram and responding to your questions and emails.
Besides being a co-owner of Story Embers, Mariposa is an ACFW First Impressions contest finalist, a children’s book illustrator, and the host of the IGTV series #middlegrademagicwithmari. You can check out her book recommendations (and shenanigans) on her Instagram page or her character sketches on her art account.