Tuesday, January 31, 2006

LC: Starting Over

Often people ask what I’d do differently if I were just beginning to write. There are a lot of considerations for a writer: do I want to write romance? Mystery. Suspense. Mainstream?

In 1982 I sold my first book to the secular market. The book was romance; I’d given the genre little thought since I wasn’t writing the book to sell. I just wanted to see if I could write a book! It must’ve come close to a book because it sold in six weeks and even more exciting, I’ve continued to publish--ninety-two books in the past twenty-three years. What? You say you’ve never heard of me? Never read one of my books? Fair enough; there are a lot of books and a lot of authors. Chances are if you browse the shelves your eyes would have skimmed my name: Copeland. I’ve published in the General and CBA markets. Romance, cozy mystery, romantic historical, women’s fiction, co-wrote a series once. You’ve seen my name in libraries and used book stores and books passed around by friends and family. You might have seen my name on local book stores' best-selling list—not THE Best Selling list, but a best selling list. Maybe you picked up one of my books once and read the back, then the front, then put it back on the shelf.

There are all kinds of studies on readers' buying habits. Some buy by name, some by cover, and some by back blurb. Seldom by title--mostly by impulse-that’s why best sellers are easily located within easy reach at the front of stores in floor displays and prominent placement.

What would I do differently if I was just beginning to write? Here is a complete, updated list: I’d buy a Complete Idiots Guide to Grammar and Style sooner, and I would read it. Cover to cover.

I’d learn who versus whom (or just shoot myself and get it over with)

I’d try harder to devise a fresh, stunningly clever plot. I’d stop using so many ly words.

I wouldn’t I felt or I thought the reader to death.

I’d pay more attention to technicalities: I’d use less stale clichés and work harder on effective dialogue, vibrant description, well-developed conflict and intricate sub-plots.

I’d learn my tenses and stick with one.

I would persist at my craft until I got better or stopped selling.

I’d dig into my characters more—their pasts, their psychologies, their faults and weaknesses.

I'd dig in less to my faults, my psychologies and weaknesses.

I would never again say an unkind word to a publisher.

I would never again say an unkind word to an editor.

I would never again say an unkind word to an agent.

I would pick my confidants wisely—my friends even more carefully. My enemies do well enough on their own.

I would be more adventurous with my writing.

The follies which a man regrets most, in his life, are those which he didn't commit when he had the opportunity. - Helen Rowland

Have a great day!

--Lori Copeland. You can learn about Lori Copeland's ninety-two books at www.loricopeland.com.

Monday, January 30, 2006

BJH: Desert Island Fiction

No, I'm not talking about beach books or that "one special book" you'd take with you to a desert island. I'm thinking here of novels that exclude the world outside the pale, novels with absolutely no sense of what's taking place in the culture in which they're set--and the effect this particular flaw can have on a story.

None of this applies to the short story, by the way, which by its nature is more a slice of life, a work that focuses on and to some degree examines under the fictive lens one or more characters in a particular setting. The short story isn't meant to be a microcosm of the novel.

As an example, let me use a book I read not too long ago. By not revealing the author's name or the title of the book, I feel free to use this particular novel as an example of what not to do. Incidentally, this isn't an isolated case, but something I see fairly often in both the general market and CBA as well, especially given some of today's hurried, sound-bite styles used in fiction. Although this particular story was clever, with writing that "crackled," interesting characters, and enough twists and turns in plot development to keep a reader turning the pages, it seemed to take place in a vacuum. No world seemed to exist beyond the periphery of the characters and their personal setting. In fact, had the author not given the date of the setting in the beginning, even the time frame would have been difficult to pinpoint (aside from some dated speech patterns and costuming). Consequently, throughout the reading of the book I was at least vaguely aware of something lacking, something that served to undermine the overall texture and foundation of the story.

I realize that some authors would plead "immediacy" as the motive for this type of writing, but immediacy has more to do with the closeness, the intimacy of the characters, than with the setting and the wider culture.

An opposite example to the above-mentioned book would be D. L. Doctorow's novel, The Waterworks. The author brought post-Civil War New York City to life in this historical novel without taking anything away from the mystery, the terror and darkness of the story. It could never have been the brilliant, atmospheric work of fiction it is had Doctorow not immersed us in its setting and its culture. Life as it was in the city and in the times pulsated with authenticity and realism. So deeply entrenched was I in the story that ending a chapter and returning to my living room in the present century was almost a shock.

To completely ignore the world at large in a novel is what I mean by "desert island fiction," because that's how the story "feels"--as if the events are taking place on an isolated piece of land surrounded by nothing but water. It exists within a black hole, and so there's nothing to help the reader experience the story in a world any wider than the stage upon which that story is set.

Granted, not every novel demands an intricately developed broader culture. In the series I'm working on now all the stories take place in an isolated community, a small coal mining town. To have given these stories a more detailed and broader expansion of history and culture would have weakened the focus, the ambience and tone that I felt was crucial to the books. Even so, I sensed the need to provide at least a faint sense of period and some integration with the mountain culture and differing backgrounds of the characters.

In both my Emerald Ballad and American Anthem series, however, I needed to develop a much more detailed, extensive historical and cultural landscape for the stories. These were larger books with more characters--many of whom were immigrants--as well as a variety of settings, specific historical events, the ongoing Irish and Irish American struggles, vastly different societies, the music culture of the times, and more. These were stories that could be told only by using extensive "world building." In my novel, Cloth of Heaven and its sequel, Ashes and Lace, one of the plot lines was set in the Claddagh in western Ireland. This involved a culture that no longer exists, but I felt it imperative to bring it to life for these two books, because this was the locale of two primary characters. I discovered that developing the physical place wasn't enough; I also needed to paint as clearly as possible the remote and primitive culture so completely foreign to most readers. Without that, the characters would have merely acted out against a colorless backdrop.

That's my point: we do as much as we need to do, whether we're writing historical or contemporary fiction, to avoid the desert island syndrome in our novels. We have to learn to sense which stories require the most layered, detailed depictions of setting and culture and others that might actually suffer from too much. Otherwise, no matter how appealing our characters are or how gripping and breathtaking the plot may be, our readers will still be aware, on some level, that there's "something missing."

And sometimes that's the very thing that will cause readers to go missing.

BJ Hoff is the author of the recently released A Distant Music, The American Anthem series, and An Emerald Ballad.

Friday, January 27, 2006

AG: How Long Should a Chapter Be?

Being an insecure writer, I like to surround myself with novels by other authors who do things the way I do. That way, I feel justified in the decisions I make. Writing a novel involves more than telling a story. There are big decisions to make right up front. Decisions like, “How Long Should a Chapter Be?”

I’m a facts and figures man so I conducted a purely subjective test. I grabbed a dozen novels by different writers from secular and Christian publishing then dutifully counted the chapters, compared them to number of pages, broke out Microsoft Excel, punched in the numbers, created a chart and ended up with this (hey, it’s easier than doing real writing):

Chapter Page Ratio Study
Author-- Title-- Chapters-- Total Pages-- Pages per Chapter
Robin Cook-- Marker-- 25-- 406-- 16.2
Jeffery Dever-- 12th Card--45-- 396-- 8.8
Brad Meltzer-- Zero Game-- 84-- 346-- 4.1
Johnathan Kellerman-- Rage-- 46-- 317-- 6.9
James Patterson-- 4th of July-- 146-- 344-- 2.4
Michael Connelly-- The Closer-- 44-- 403-- 9.2
Terri Blackstock-- Last Light-- 70-- 367-- 5.2
Clive Cussler--Black Wind-- 67-- 530-- 7.9
Frank Peretti --Monster-- 21-- 419--20.0
Jack Cavanaugh-- Dear Enemy-- 43-- 283-- 6.6
Dean Koontz-- The Taking-- 67-- 338-- 5.0
Brandilyn Collins-- Dead of Night-- 49-- 366-- 7.5
Average-- 58.9 chapters-- 376.3 pages -- 8.3 pages per chapter
Less that 10 pages per chap: 8
Greater than 10: 3

A quick survey reveals that the length of a fiction chapter should be exactly whatever the author wants it to be—no more; no less. James Patterson has taken the “cinematic style” to extremes: just 2.4 pages per “chapter”. That’s a lot of white space. There was a time when writers got paid by the word, but I’m left wondering if Mr. Patterson is paid by the column inch of white space. I’m not knocking Patterson. I don’t have exact numbers, but I’m pretty sure he sells a few more books than I do (exponentially). Still, 2.4 pages per chapter!

On the flip side, Frank Peretti and Robin Cook stayed old school with 20 and 16.2 pages per chapter respectively. Nothing wrong with that. Interestingly, some authors (Koontz for example) will write a book with long chapters and then one with “chapterettes.”

The short chapters are more like scenes in a movie. Watch a contemporary film and the number of cuts, camera changes, scene changes is enormous. Even television commercials will often have twenty or more cuts in a thirty second spot.

In the last few decades we have seen the rise of sound bytes, music videos, and multi-storyline dramas. The other day I watched a CSI (I forget which flavor) episode that wove three unrelated story lines in a 60 minute program—reminiscent of Love American Style and Love Boat. And all television shows are broken into bite size segments meant to fill those annoying gaps between commercials.

So how long should a chapter be? Long enough to contribute to the unbroken telling of the story. If your plot works better with a James Patterson 3 page chapter approach (and a 146 chapter book), then so be it. If you prefer longer chapters and can still keep the readers attention, then that’s what you should write.

Still, there is much talk about the decline of the modern attention span. One British clergyman has created what he calls the 100 Minute Bible. His goal is to introduce people to the Scriptures by condensing them to a few key stories.

Just as I am about to be convinced that shorter chapters are better because most of don’t have the time, inclination or ability to sit and read, out comes an 800 page novel, or a three plus hour movie about a really big ape.

For an interesting read about the declining attention span in the western world and the 100 Minute Bible visit Albert Mohler’s blog from September of last year.

On behalf of those of us with short attention spans, I’ll quit here.

Alton Gansky has written dozens of novels which you can explore at http://www.altongansky.com/
Don't forget to visit his writer/reader blog http://www.altongansky.typepad.com/

Thursday, January 26, 2006

PH: Upon Closer Examination

My son is blessed with an art teacher who is quite crafty in her approach to freeing up the young creative mind. She asked my son to go out into the school yard and find an object, preferably something that would not matter to him. My son picked up a chunk of concrete and brought it back. She instructed him to then take his drawing stick of charcoal and tie it to a long stick. Then he had to draw the object—from the tip of that long stick. He had to draw it numerous times until he began to really see the object, see all of its imperfections, the way that light fell across it, and how it cast a shadow. He was energized by the exercise and told me, “I didn’t realize how much I could care about something until I had really seen it up close, appreciating it for the space it takes up and the shadows it casts.”

I am reminded through my boy’s art exercise that the story is not likely to come to me. Story is commenced when the writer reaches into life and draws back a chunk of it. Do you remember when you first started writing how you wanted to talk about your story to others, maybe your mother or pastor or anyone who would listen and encourage you? But as much as you talked about it, the story stayed locked away. Like the art that was hidden in my son’s chunk of concrete, story will be revealed when the writer pays it close examination. The story begins as a clump of an idea. In an earlier blog post, “The Art of Milling,” I discussed the dreaded expositional lump. This is the story locked away in summary form. It is not yet art but it is the substance of it. As I wonder how many students had walked past Jared’s chunk of concrete without knowing it as he had known it, I speculate about the chunks from life I’ve overlooked as meaningless.

I have to stop and ask myself about the tangible elements of a particular bit of my story’s information that bears explaining in specific detail. Then in long hand I’ll scribble down what intangible element is locked inside the details I’m revealing. Is it something that can be shown as a character’s internal thought? Is it an emotion that I’ve passed over that might reveal the character’s flaws or their unreliability as a narrator, or at least hint at it? These are the kinds of details that can reveal the character in a showing manner.

I’ve referred earlier on to sentiment being unearned emotion. We don’t want to tell our readers what they are supposed to feel, but rather to evoke emotion and stimulate thoughts. My son was amazed at how a lump of concrete evoked an emotion in him when he gave it closer examination. If someone had told him, “You’re about to look at a blob and feel awe,” he’d have written them off as one brick shy a load. But looking at the object from all sorts of angles, he was able to draw his own conclusions.

He discovered that as he would draw, redraw, and redraw that he began to care about an object from an artistic perspective because of up-close examination. As we examine the layers of exposition in our early drafts, life begins to unfold as we’ve seen but not necessarily known until now. Those kinds of secrets are not revealed in a scene summary or locked inside an expositional lump. It’s a lengthy process that takes patience. But as our character becomes known to us—through actions, dialogue, internals, their response to setting, external and internal forces, and through the eyes of the secondary characters—our emotions are tapped and we become involved in the story.

Patricia Hickman has been writing “stories that stay with you forever” for thirteen years. Latest release, Whisper Town. Earthly Vows, Summer 2006.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

DL: Stirring Up Emotion by the Inherent Power of Narrative

Art produces the most important progress civilization knows. Restating old truths and adapting them to the age, applying them in ways that they were never before applied, stirring up emotion by the inherent power of narrative, visual image, or music, artists crack the door to the morally necessary future. --John Gardner (The Art of Fiction, p. 80)

Like many others, I had a schizophrenic appreciation of fiction during my college years. I was learning to read and appreciate a variety of new novelists and writers of short stories, and many of them—Proust, Camus, Barth, and Barthelme, for instance—seemed to be enjoyable primarily on an intellectual level. Their writings were puzzles one figured out (or not) through mental gymnastics, but they rarely engaged the emotions. In that period of great intellectual curiosity and energy, I enjoyed those puzzles.

And then there was that other great body of writers—Steinbeck, Twain, Dickens, and Flannery O’Connor, for instance—that engaged me at an entirely different level. I found myself engaged emotionally as much as intellectually with those writers and their stories and characters.

I remember some of the ideas I gained from the first group of writers. But the books that affected me at a heart level, that changed my life, that helped make me the person I have become—those books came from the second group, the group the engaged my emotions.
It wasn’t until the end of my graduate school period that I found an explanation for that, in the book that is still my favorite book on the writing of fiction: The Art of Fiction, by John Gardner.

That explanation is succinctly presented in the quote above. Gardner goes on to say (p. 61):
However it may be achieved, in all great fiction, primary emotion (our emotion as we read, or the characters’ emotions, or some combination of both) must sooner or later lift off from the particular and be transformed to an expression of what is universally good in human life—what promotes happiness for the individual alone and in society; in other words, some statement on value.

If character and scene are the building blocks of fiction, and if a mastery of such techniques as plotting and writing dialog are the skills that allow the novelist to create something from those building blocks, then emotion is the fuel that runs the whole enterprise. Human emotion is not just the primary subject matter of fiction (The Art of Fiction again, pp. 14-15: “The primary subject of fiction is and has always been human emotion, values, and beliefs.”); it is also the means by which the truths communicated by fiction are internalized and appropriated by the reader.

When you read life-changing works of fiction, it’s unlikely that your response is, “Yes, good point. The novelist has made a very convincing argument for his approach to life here in chapter ten.” Rather, what happens is that you enter the lives of the characters in those novels, vicariously experiencing with those characters their lives, their victories, their mistakes—their emotions. And when those characters come to the turning points of their lives, you internalize and retain the truths inherent in those stories because you feel them. And your life will not be the same.

In order to fully impact the reader’s life and beliefs, in order to have power, the truths in a work of fiction must not merely be understood—they must be felt.

We all know that some people seem to learn only through experience. And that’s precisely why fiction is such a magnificent teacher—and why Christ himself used stories to impart truth to his listeners. In fiction, we readers do experience the ups and downs and disappointments and triumphs and pains and ecstasies and hard knocks and hard work of the characters. And what they learn, we learn. Fiction is an inherently moral art form. As Gardner says above, the emotion on the page (not the theme, not the hidden lesson, not the lecture or sermon of the protagonist, but the emotion) is transformed, through the act of reading, into “some statement on value.” As Christian writers, we create stories in which that statement on value is a statement on biblical values—a message sorely needed when so many of the novelists whose works are available in any bookstore write novels filled with hopelessness, despair, anger, and self-gratification.

Adapted from the fiction curriculum offered by the Christian Writers Guild.

David Lambert is a novelist, editor, frequent conference teacher/speaker, and musician.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

JK: Mental Health and History, part II

Do you write contemporary novels as well? How does your mental health and history differ with a contemporary setting, or does it?

I do have one-third of a novel that is set in a contemporary timeframe (the 1990s - A Land of Sheltered Promise. The first section is set in 1900, the second in 1985 but the three sections are linked together. It's a story about a landscape that spawned amazing things including the first act of bioterrorism by a cult in the US and it's now this amazing Young Life Christian camp. Talk about redemption!) But most of my novels are set in the 1850s into the 1930s at the latest. I consciously choose that time period because I've been intrigued with how the lives of others can touch us and teach us and I like helping characters step from their generation into ours. Because stories "come along beside" as they do, I think they can sometimes be more powerful than non-fiction self-help books in allowing people to see themselves and possibly identify ways to change their lives.

I suspect that self-help books often help people put up barriers, resisting what's in there because it suggests imperfection. After all, we buy self-help books because we want to do something different, want to make a change. Lose weight. Communicate better. Change is a significant part of the human experience but that doesn’t mean we don’t resist it.
Stories talk about the realities of lives and we see the imperfections of a character and yet their strengths and their hope. We can see the changes made and consequences and evaluate whether or not we might want to take that same trail. As a writer, it’s very gratifying when people have written or even called and said "Your book will change the way I live my life" or "Your character was so much like me! My friends all said that this or that would make my life better but I couldn't see it until your character's friends shared what they saw." I think that novelists who set their books in contemporary times have that barrier of resistance to overcome. If a reader thinks the abused woman in the story might be about them, they put up my blinders, or that that mouthy woman working too hard in the firm does what I do when I'm scared, but, oh, I don't want to think of myself as mouthy or overworking so I'll skip over that. It won't be a story about anything in my life; it'll just be a story to entertain me, a story about this woman.

Maybe that doesn't happen but it does for me. I find myself more easily in the historical genres, Regency, Western, all the rest. I think stories need to come softly to a reader, even with tough subjects and perhaps for some of us…people like me who love history… the spirit is able to move within the reader in a different way when the story is set in an historical context.
I think you've got some winning ideas for your novels and I bet you'll see them published before long. I hope so.

Jane Kirkpatrick, http://www.jkbooks.com/

Award-winning author of 11 novels and two non-fiction books. Look for A Clearing in the Wild, Book One of the Change and Cherish Series (WaterBrook Press/Random House) in April.

Monday, January 23, 2006

JK: Mental Health and History

This past December I was asked to be the guest for an on-line interview. Those asking the questions are writers, some already published and some soon to be I had no doubt. They asked some great questions and I thought I’d share some of them and my responses.

Question: I notice you have a background in mental health. Do you use that to develop your characters? I write regency novels and am a clinical nurse as well and wondered about blending contemporary mental health with historical novels. Answer: I do use my mental health background, all the time. My works tend to be character driven though the novels are historical and it is sometimes a balancing act to identify causation known in contemporary times but perhaps not known in historical times. I found that there was a medical diagnosis of "wasting women" a form of eating disorder in the late 1800s which was how some women dealt with depression and other mental health issues that are more common today. That sort of historical detail gives credence to modern trials people have while still not "rewriting" history.

I was drawn to story as a way of healing or using my mental health because story is so powerful. I worked for 17 years on an Indian reservation and I know that some of the healers there said that when they go in to meet with someone ill they ask three questions: When was the last time you sang; when was the last time you danced and when was the last time your told your story. Story just plain matters!

The research being done on post traumatic stress Disorder in children (Baylor University) just confirms the power of story. It notes that when a child has been abused, for example, his/her brain shuts down to the usual counseling interventions. The child goes on survival mode and focusing on almost anything for any length of time is just too difficult. But what does reach a child (and frankly I think adults as well who are in wilderness places in their lives) is music, movement/dance/quilting/etc, art and story. I often tell people who are struggling with things in their lives, can't concentrate, to find a good children's book so they can be engaged and nurtured through the words and metaphors. The word parable comes from the Greek word pebble meaning to "toss along beside" and the Greek word for comfort means "to come along beside." I think mental health, counseling etc. are naturals for coming along beside another to help them on their journey.

Jane Kirkpatrick, http://www.jkbooks.com/

Award-winning author of 11 novels and two non-fiction books. Look for A Clearing in the Wild, Book One of the Change and Cherish Series (WaterBrook Press/Random House) in April.

Friday, January 20, 2006

HA: In Support of SOP (Seat-of-pants) Writing

Husband and wife Mel and Cheryl Hodde write as Hannah Alexander . . .

Recently, Mel and I were on one of our hikes in the Mark Twain National Forest near our home. We got into a conversation about using a GPS guidance system for our hikes. I’m against it. I’m the original non-techie.
Mel, on the other hand, loves anything technological. Have gadget, he will travel. It’s one of the few areas where we clash, albeit gently.

“Just think, sweetheart,” he said, “we won’t ever have to wonder about which trail to take once I get my GPS for Christmas.”

“I’ve never worried much about that, anyway,” I said.

“Um…yes, I know. Isn’t that how you earned your nickname?”

“What nickname? You call me sweetheart.”

He shoved a branch aside so I could pass through without mishap. “I mean the other nickname. The one I would never dream of calling you.”

I knew, then, to which nickname he was referring. My girlfriends, on a hike in the distant past, had decided I should be called “One-Hill-Short-of-the-Trail Cheryl” due to my propensity to get lost, when I was sure the end of the trail was just over the next hill. It never was, of course.
Southern Missouri hills are notoriously confusing for even the most direction savvy hiker—which I am not.

“That isn’t fair,” I said. “We were never lost for long. And just because we didn’t exactly know where we were, didn’t mean it was a dangerous situation. This is the Missouri hills, for Pete’s sake, not some deadly African jungle.”

That was when he sweetly reminded me that I had gotten us lost in the Hawaiian wilderness just weeks before.

“We’d never have gotten lost in the first place if I’d had my GPS navigational gadget with me,” Mel said.

“What fun would that have been?” I scrambled down into a dry creek bed and up the other side, following the trail. “As it is, we can use that experience in our next book. It’s called research.”
It occurred to me that I tend to write the way I hike—following the most interesting trail. What could be more fun? Sure, as Mel has pointed out to me, often the trail just ends, and we have to backtrack. I do that when I’m writing, too, and have to delete unusable scenes.

More often than that, however, with just a little research, I’ve found that those trails that turn out to be the most interesting and exciting are those that aren’t on any marked map. In fact, the maps of our Ozark forests can often be misleading, since those trails change almost as quickly as an ATV can plow a new path.

I’ve always wanted to be able to plot out a good, well-rounded novel, step by step, character by character, scene by scene, to create a good, solid skeleton from which to work. Unfortunately, a novel doesn’t come to me like that. My stories come to me through interesting little vignettes, insights into an off-beat character, or something that happened to me while writing that neatly packaged little novel. Then my rabbit trails take on more substance than my perfectly planned outline.

Just like a hidden spring or pond surrounded in honeysuckle can suddenly become the main attraction for a four-hour hike, I find my most interesting moments in writing come from surprise or sudden insight while I’m battling an unyielding mass of words.

To me, a regimented plotline becomes a GPS navigational system for my story. I mean, if there’s no mystery to discover, why bother? Life is not about predictability.

And I, I would follow the trail less traveled by. And that would make all the difference.

Hannah Alexander writes romantic suspense for Steeple Hill. www.hannahalexander.com.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

CC Special Edition: The Snoopy Award!

Every once in a while, creativity, wit, and verve must be honored, even if it has arisen impulsively.

So this morning, once Jack had primed the pump, the Charis co-monitors (BJ and Angie) came up with the "Snoopy" award--the title chosen to honor Jack's "Dark and Stormy Night" exercise.

Never fear, we're not mailing the winner anything, but he or she may look at the attached digital trophy to his/her heart's content.

We also declare that from this day forward Jack Cavanaugh shall be known as Snoopy Emeritus. (If trademark problems develop with that title, we'll call him Loopy Emeritus.)

And so, without further delay, the winner of today's Snoopy Award is: James Scott Bell as Papa Hemingway and Karen Ball's 60's Poet.

Congratulations and a round of applause!

May your writing grow ever more sapient, pellucid, and piquant. (Adjectives courtesy of The Thinker's Thesaurus.)

JC: It was a Dark and Stormy Blog

It’s a dark and stormy day. The end of a dark and stormy year. I just pulled dark and stormy tax returns from the mailbox and mentally tallied the damage. You guessed it. It’s going to be a dark and stormy April 15th.

I sat down to write a blog, but in this frame of mind it would be a dark and stormy blog. Who can write on such a day? Let’s face it, there are some dark and stormy days when nothing is going to get done. You just have to write the day off. (Pun intended. For future reference, puns are always intended, even when they’re accidental.)

So what does one do on dark and stormy non-writing days? Some opt for a computer game. I don’t know why, but writers seem to have a weakness for Free Cell. One advantage of wasting time playing computer games is that if you angle the keyboard away from passageways and turn off the sound, you are able to maintain the illusion that you are working. (It’s a self-illusion. You’re not fooling anybody.)

I have a better idea. Why not waste time AND fool everybody because you really will be tapping out words on the keyboard! You just won’t be doing anything worthwhile. (Trust me, I’m an expert at this.) Here, let me help you get started…

I’m going to give you a list of variations on the sentence, “It was a dark and stormy night,” and you try to guess who would have written it that way. (Come on, it’ll be fun. You know you’d rather be doing this than working.)

Here’s an example: “It was the darkest of nights, it was the stormiest of nights.”

Easy, right? Charles Dickens. Let’s see how you do on your own. The answers are at the bottom of this blog. (I would have inverted them like the professional puzzle-makers, but then you’d have to turn your computer upside down to read them.)

a. But, soft! What dark and stormy night through yonder window breaks?
b. How dark and stormy is the night? Let me count the ways.
c. Dark is my beat. Stormy is my business.
d. The sun did not shine.
It was too wet to play.
So we sat in the house
On that dark and stormy day.
e. Dark. Stormy. The night.
f. It was a stygian night, stormy on the macadam.
g. Dark. (Thump, thump, thump.) and stormy. (Thump, thump, thump.)
h. It was dark. Very dark. As dark as the Belgian Congo during a solar eclipse, the last of which occurred on Tuesday, June 13, 1944. And it was stormy too. Very, very stormy. The universe had never seen dark and stormy like this before as a cosmic battle between two atmospheric titans took place for the supremacy of all time and eternity. Darker and stormier than hurricane Katrina that nearly wiped out New Orleans where my aunt Agnes used to live with her cat, Puddles, and two poodles, one who almost drown if my aunt, who is three hundred pounds if she’s an ounce, hadn’t dove under water three times to rescue the loveable mongrel (true story).
i. Turn that frown upside down! There’s a bright sunny day on the horizon of every dark and stormy night!
j. It was a darker and stormier night than he’d imagined possible. Little did he realize it now, but before the storm passed, his life would change forever.
k. Ask not what the dark can do for you,
Ask what you can do on a stormy night.
l. In the beginning, it was a dark and stormy night…

Now wasn’t that a perfectly acceptable waste of time? When was the last time you wasted time and felt literary afterward? But wait…there’s more!

Each of the above is either a stylized version of the phrase (style being a useful writer’s tool), or a juxtaposition of the phrase with another well-known phrase (juxtaposition—It’s a word! Look it up!—being a useful humorist’s tool).

So now it’s your turn. Take the phrase, “It was a dark and stormy night,” and write it in the style of one of your favorite authors. Or write it in your own style, make it vintage YOU. Or, take a well-known quote and shoehorn the phrase into it somewhere.

Then, share the results in the comments section. Please. I’d hate to think I wasted all this time by myself.

Jack Cavanaugh, the author of more than twenty novels, including Dear Enemy (Bethany House) and the supernatural thriller, Death Watch (Zondervan).

a. Shakespeare
b. Elizabeth Barrett Browning
c. Raymond Chandler
d. Dr. Seuss
e. Hemingway
f. Al Gansky
g. Edgar Allen Poe
h. Every creative writing student who ever took a course at a junior college.
i. Cue the theater music for Annie.
j. Jack Cavanaugh (Seems I favor the prophetic with my openings.)
k. John F. Kennedy
l. God

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

DR: Writing Fashionably

Photo: Deb now . . . and in 1973!

As I pulled on my brand new Gap boot-cut, flare jeans this morning, I couldn’t help but remember a day thirty years ago when all I owned were bell-bottom jeans almost identical to these. Oh, how those flared denims dismayed my preppy co-ed sisters in 1976. As the oldest of four girls, I was an “old” married lady by the time my sisters left home for college, where they quickly traded their hippie jeans for the new straight-leg style all the fashion magazines were showing.

I was skeptical. Those new jeans not only looked weird to me, they just didn’t feel right. All my favorite outfits depended on the floppy flared-leg look. Adopting a new style of dungaree would force me to buy new shoes and new shirts, not to mention give up my wide leather belts for the skinnier ones that were suddenly so “in.”

But I finally gave in to my sisters’ nagging and eventually adjusted to the straight-leg look. Who could have guessed that three decades later my youngest daughter would campaign to get me out of those comfy straight-legs and into something that looks suspiciously like my jeans of old? Once again, kicking and screaming, I made the swap. If anything, the switch was even more painful the second time around. Not only am I older and more set in my ways, but—well, let’s just say that in spite of the innovative addition of spandex to denim, these new flares just don’t fit like they did back in the seventies.

My attempts at keeping up with the latest fashion remind me of how I’ve balked at the ways the conventions of writing have changed over the years. I recently updated my very first novel, written ten years ago, and I found myself thinking I might have come out ahead with that book if I’d been paid by the adverb! Those of us who grew up reading classic novels and dreamed of writing a classic of our own may have started out imitating the style of Jane Austen or Charles Dickens.

Those authors wrote at a time when readers were quite content to sit through long passages of description and partake of page after page of sickly sweet prose. But television and movies have trained today’s readers—those who haven’t been completely ruined for books—to expect faster paced action, far less description and metaphor, and a closer point of view than the omniscient viewpoint most classic authors employed.

Thus, the conventions and “rules” publishing houses expect writers to adhere to today have changed drastically over the last few decades. And yes, rules were made to be broken, but before you can break the rules, you must know what they are and have a viable reason for breaking them. If you grew up on the classics, today’s editorial expectations for tighter writing, spare use of adverbs, adjectives and speaker attributions, and staying in one character’s point of view per scene can feel a bit confining.

Perhaps someday the old “bell-bottoms” of literature will make a comeback and we can once again try our hand at “flowery.” But for now, if you want your work to find favor with an editor, you may have no choice but to wiggle into those newfangled jeans and get used to the way they fit.

Deborah Raney, author of Over the Waters and A Vow to Cherish

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

PH: What Jane Austen Knew and Virginia Woolf Stole

If you’ve ever taken any writing intensives, you’ve most likely dissected another writer’s story so that you could shake out its secrets. I’ve tried to make this dissection of my favorite authors’ writings a frequent practice. One in particular is the writings of Jane Austen. Austen lived during a period, as we do in our day, where people presented themselves to one another in a manner that made a good impression. That meant that the conversation evoked was seldom what the character was truly thinking. Thus, for Austen to honestly portray her characters through the modern façade of polite language yet revealing character through honest internals she employed a method called free indirect style or indirect discourse.

To invest in the character, the reader must gain access to his or her internal thoughts. This intimate right of entry is more freely accessed through first person POV. But for the third person, past tense POV, the narrative can distance the reader from the character. Free indirect style, says author David Lodge, “renders thought as reported speech, but keeps to the kind of vocabulary that is appropriate to the character, and deletes some of the tags, like ‘she thought,’ ‘she wondered,’ she asked herself,’ etc. that a more formal narrative style would require. This gives the illusion of intimate access to a character’s mind, but without totally surrendering authorial participation in the discourse.”

The practice (known as le style indirect libre) originated with an obscure French writer but writers like Austen and Henry James embedded the tradition firmly in the English novel. Virginia Woolf took free indirect style to new heights with her acclaimed novel Mrs. Dalloway, a novel that immerses the reader in the mind of the character thus making us sympathetic to her life.

Instead of being bound in formal third person writing, the narrative is freed into a fluid stream of consciousness style similar to the character’s spoken cadence in natural dialogue. You may use it to conceal the character’s never spoken thoughts from the peripheral characters, but to reveal unspoken thought to the reader. The character’s biases, their true motivation behind their actions, their deceit or perceived deceit of another, vanity, logical or illogical fears, and the truth about themselves that they are unwilling to admit can all be revealed through indirect discourse.

When Virginia Woolf moved away from formal writing into a more stream-of-consciousness style, it gave us a more sympathetic view into her character’s life. We are able to see Mrs. Dalloway’s flaws and yet still understand her because we are privy to her immediate thoughts.

The practice of free indirect style is not like sliding on a pair of gloves. I find as I practice it, that I am continually rewriting sentences as I try and connect what my eyes are falling upon directly into the conscious mind of the character. It’s a discipline for me that is forcing me into a new discipline, exactly what I felt I needed to breathe new life into my WIP. If you’d like to give it a try, here’s an exercise in transposing, one I borrowed from David Lodge:
Excerpt from Mrs. Dalloway using free indirect style:

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. For Lucy had her work cut
out for her. The doors would be taken off their hinges; Rumplemeyer’s men were
coming. And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning—fresh as if issued
to children on the beach.

What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always
seemed to her when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear
now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open

Here’s the opening of the novel transposed into first person:

What a lark! What a plunge! For so it always seemed to me when, with a little
squeak of the hinges, which I can hear now, I burst open the French windows and
plunged at Bourton into the open air.

The original excerpt gives us direct access to her thoughts. The transposed piece sounds more like writing than her thoughts. For me it has the same affect as when I’m watching a film and the narrator breaks in as if they are reading from a diary.

You can try transposing your own WIP. It’s really tricky and takes a lot of patience. Every time I take another run at it, the story’s tone changes and I’m brought closer to my character. It is a lengthy process but interesting to try if you’re wanting to give your story a new voice.

Patricia Hickman is author of The Millwood Hollow series, Fallen Angels, Nazareth’s Song, Whisper Town and the next release, Earthly Vows, Summer 2006.

Monday, January 16, 2006

JSB: Why I Write What I Write

I am sometimes asked why I chose to be a writer, and why I write what I do.

These questions do not necessarily have the same answer.

I'm not sure I chose to be a storyteller as much as the Great Storyteller chose me. When I read about other writers' experiences, one steady refrain is that they felt they HAD to write, that writing was something they couldn't NOT do.

Considering all of the obstacles a writer faces, I suppose desire is absolutely necessary, and in a large enough dose that it seems to have come from on high.

As to why I write suspense fiction--which falls under the marketing umbrella "commercial fiction"--the reason is more circuitous.

I fell in love with stories by reading the plot driven Hardy Boys series and watching adventure movies on TV. I loved nothing better than being caught up in a whirlwind of a story, on the edge of my seat, desperate to know what happened next. It was a magic carpet ride, and I knew I wanted to be able to give other people that kind of ride someday.

I took a little detour into the sporting life, but in high school I had a great English teacher tell me I had some writing talent. I believed her. So when I got to college and had the chance to take a writing class from Raymond Carver, I jumped at it.

Carver is now recognized as one of the great literary writers of the 20th century. Mostly what I remember about that class was that I could not write like him. In fact I couldn't write like anybody I admired. I tried writing like Hemingway, especially his great story "Hills Like White Elephants ." But what I turned out was surface level, derivative and often pretentious.

Looking back, I probably should have realized that a 20 year-old who had been raised in suburbia probably isn't that deep to begin with. I had not lived much, so what did I have to write about? At that age, Hemingway had already been wounded in the fields of wartime France. I didn't even have a draft number.

I began to think my English teacher at Taft High School was wrong. Maybe I didn't have any talent for writing. When people said writers are born, not made, perhaps they spoke the unforgiving truth.

So I buried the desire to write under a heap of other responsibilities, like raising a family and earning a living. The desire was still there, whispering to me, but I tried not to listen to it.
Then one day my wife and I went to see the movie MOONSTRUCK. It blew me away.

It made me sit up and say, If another human being could write something that wonderful, maybe if I could too. Somehow, some way. And I knew then that I would keep on trying, even if I never got published or sold a script, because that's what I wanted to do.

I decided to go out and see if I could defeat the myth that writers are born, not made.

What I found out thrilled me. I found out there was a great deal about writing that could be learned, because I was learning it, and applying it, and my writing was actually getting better. That's one reason I wrote a whole book on plotting. I wanted to take the myth (or what I call the Big Lie) out of the picture for other writers.

I started writing the kind of books that I hoped would put people on that magic carpet ride I loved as a kid. Twisting plots. The fictive dream.

Why didn't I try literary fiction, of the Carver kind?

Perhaps because I didn't really care for the distinction. Two of my favorite writers were toilers in the field of commercial fiction. Both were looked down upon by most of the literati when they were in their prime. Yet of late have they come to be recognized as tremendous stylists, who brought something deep and unique to their work.

One of them is Stephen King, who was awarded the 2003 National Book Foundation's award for Distinguished Contribution to literature(causing a very public snark on the part of the literary gatekeeper, Harold Bloom). But King deserved it. He will be, I predict, another Dickens. Dickens in his time was also a commercial writer, and had his detractors (the realist writer Anthony Trollope, for one). Yet now he is seen as someone who captured characters and time and themes in a singular fashion.

King--yes, the horror meister Stephen King--does the same. His fiction is, therefore, elevated beyond the prosaic categorization of "commercial." (I realize, of course, that King is not for everyone. His novels are definitely rated R, so caveat emptor.)

The other writer who was under the literary radar for so many years is John D. MacDonald. He wrote a string of paperback novels in the 1950's, some of which sold in the millions. But he was not taken seriously by most critics.

Now he is recognized as a supremely gifted writer, a stylist of the first order, an explorer of the human soul. His books live on because they are not just about plot. There is so much more going on.

That is why I write what I write. My genre is suspense fiction, mostly of the legal thriller type. And yes, I want readers turning pages fast and furious, caught up in the plot.

But I also want to elevate the form as best I can, with every book. I want to explore the soul like MacDonald and paint characters like King.

MacDonald himself said he wanted several things from a novel. A strong sense of story: "I want to be intrigued by wondering what is going to happen next."

He also wanted "a bit of magic in his prose style, a bit of unobtrusive poetry. I want to have words and phrases really sing." Good writing, he said, "should be like listening to music, where you identify the themes, you see what the composer is doing with those themes, and then, just when you think you have him properly identified, and his methods identified, then he will put in a little quirk, a little twist, that will be so unexpected that you read it with a sense of glee, a sense of joy, because of its aptness, even though it may be a very dire and bloody part of the book."

Like John D., I want to get that in my own fiction. Any writer who can do these things, no matter what genre or whether he's tagged "literary" or "commercial," is a success.

A daunting task? Of course it is. But embrace the challenge. As writer Leonard Bishop once said, "If you boldly risk writing a novel that might be acclaimed as great, and fail, you could succeed in writing a book that is splendid."

James Scott Bell, http://www.blogger.com/www.jamesscottbell.com, is fiction columnist for Writers Digest magazine, adjunct professor of writing at Pepperdine University, and the author of many novels.

Friday, January 13, 2006

DL: The Empty Page

When I was in third grade, the love of stories prodded me to larceny.

I would sneak to the paper cabinet when Miss Ayres wasn’t looking and steal a couple of dozen sheets of writing paper, fold them over and staple them with a construction paper cover, and voila! An empty book, ripe for filling with stories. I would slide silently back into my school desk and gaze with awe at those empty pages, nearly trembling in my desire for school to be over so I could begin filling them with stories of talking turtles, pioneers, Lewis and Clark, Indians (odd—I never wrote about cowboys), space exploration, and any other subject that spurred the boundless creativity of a third-grader.

And I confess, there were many occasions when I stole more paper and created another book even before I’d filled the previous one, just for the love of holding the promise of all those empty pages in my hand.

It would never have occurred to me to see an empty page as a source of frustration, something I didn’t know how to fill. Why should it? My entire life stretched before me then, empty page after empty page, waiting to be filled in whatever way I chose, and the thought held no terror for me, only promise and excitement.

Most of those pages of life have been filled now, with as much pain and disappointment as pleasure, and for the most part not in the ways I would have foreseen then. (Although the third-grader would not have been at all surprised to find that the man in his fifties is an editor and, still, a writer of stories.) But I still am excited by empty pages, and I stand in awe of the process by which they will be filled with scenes and people that no one has envisioned before. (Ignore the fact that most of us no longer work with paper pages—I prefer the old-fashioned metaphor!)
For a writer, an empty page is a sacred thing. It is our invitation to participate with God in the creative act. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” the Bible tells us in Genesis 1:1 and 2. “Now the earth was formless and empty…” An empty page. Formless as an untold story. And God filled that page with light and life.

A writer sits before a stack of empty pages as God stood before an empty world. It is an awesome privilege—to participate with God in the creative act. Those empty pages represent our earth, the world of our not-yet-born story, formless and empty. And we have the opportunity to create on those pages a world filled with light and life. A world that mirrors and interprets for our readers God’s creation so long ago, that explains and organizes meaning and insight and emotion. That points the way. We have the privilege of becoming secondary creators who draw our readers closer to the Original Creator.

And as Christian writers, we have the freedom and the power and the opportunity to imbue our stories with that rarest of qualities in a fallen world: hope.

What gives us the audacity to take on that divinely modeled role? We were born to it. “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him;… the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” (Gen. 1:27 and 2:7). We are made in God’s image—the Creator made us little creators—and God’s breath is in our nostrils. When we step into our role as the creators of little worlds, we simply fill out the clothes God put on us when he created his big world, and breathe out onto those empty pages that divine breath he breathed into us.

We were born to create.

Let us find the ways to do it best.
( Adapted from the fiction curriculum offered by the Christian Writers Guild.)

David Lambert is a novelist, editor, and frequent conference teacher. He has also authored the fiction curriculum offered by the Christian Writer's Guild.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

RLH: Getting Published 101

I wrote my first novel in 1981, which means in 2006, I have been writing professionally for twenty-five years. Wow! I'm not sure how that happened. 2006 is also the year I will see my 50th release published (A Carol for Christmas, October 2006, Zondervan). Not sure how that happened either.

About four years ago, an unpublished writer in a writers' group I'm in posted the following:

"Like many of you, my goal and hope [for next year] is to get a contract and be published. Of course that brings a whole bunch of scary thoughts with it. I would really like to hear from those recently published and those who have many books out there about how you accomplished this! Is there anyway we could hear via the loop or the newsletter or the writing tips ... or all three!? This could include many things, i.e., what publishers to start with, how do you really know what is going on in the market and who wants what, do you need an agent or not, how far can a contest take you, etc. I've read a lot and researched the market to an extent, but it seems tougher than ever. Please share your thoughts about this when you have time.”

Here is my response, updated slightly for Charis Connection:

It's my belief that perseverance has much more to do with getting published than talent. As with anything of value, getting published takes sacrifice and commitment. Are you willing to give years to the quest without seeing any visible results? Sometimes (many times) that's what it takes. I personally know two who both wrote ten novels over about ten years before they made their first sales. Would you continue to write even if you never got published?

For Christians, of course, there's the faith issue. Are you seeking God's face? Did He call you to write? Are you willing to follow Him no matter what, even if the road He takes you on diverges from the one you want to be on or takes longer than you planned?

I have often read or heard a comment that goes something like: "God wouldn't have given you the talent if He didn't want you to use it" or "God wouldn't have given you the desire to write if He didn't want you to be published." I don't agree. If you study your Bible, it's clear that God often uses people where they are the weakest and need to rely on Him the most (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). As for the desire to write, Psalm 37:4 says, "Delight yourself in the LORD; And He will give you the desires of your heart." (NASB) This verse is often misinterpreted as, when you delight in the Lord, you'll get what you want. But the true meaning is, when you delight in the Lord and love Him above everything else, He will change the things you want into the things He wants.

Remember, there's a danger in wanting to be published so much that you make it an idol. Want Jesus more, and then be amazed by the blessings. Follow what He has called you to do, and you won't go wrong. If He has called you to write, then write. Pursue excellence with everything you have; don't give God second best. Write for Him and not for an editor or a critique group or even with the goal of getting published (or, if published, to hit the bestseller lists). Write to please the Lord. It's so easy to pursue success. I know. I've done it. I've compromised in the past, been guilty of wanting the wrong things, and I always regret it.

What publisher do you start with? You must know your market. What sort of books do you most like to read? What published books are most like the one you're writing? See who that publisher is and start there. Go to your local bookstore and see who all the publishers are. Get a copy of The Writers Market and The Christian Writers Market Guide. On-line lists are excellent sources to know what's happening in the markets and who wants what. Visit the publishers' web sites frequently. Go to conferences where editors will be attending. The best source is the horse's mouth. American Christian Fiction Writers puts on a great conference in September. Other great Christian writers conferences include but are not limited to: Mount Hermon, Sandy Cove, Glorieta. Invest in your writing by attending one of these conferences, particularly if your main goal is to publish with a CBA publisher.

"Do I need an agent?" This is the great, $64,000 question. The answer is, it depends. It's often harder to get an agent than to get a publisher. And getting the wrong agent can be worse for you than no agent. I firmly believe that you should start marketing to publishers yourself and be looking for an agent at the same time. But don't sign with the first agent who says he likes your stuff. Take your time. Meet agents in person. Talk to an interested agent several times on the phone. Ask for client references, then call the authors and ask serious questions: How long does it take for the agent to return phone calls? How long to release checks? Does he or she read everything before it goes to the editor? Is he or she hands on (like a first reader) or is his/her primary role negotiating contracts? What do you like most about the agent? What do you like least about the agent? You also must know what you want from an agent. You discover this by getting with other authors and finding out what they want from their agents. I have friends who need/want their agents to be their first editor. I don't want that. I want a champion and someone who will help me plan my career steps.

A good agent will know who is looking for what. She will have a solid relationship with certain publishers and will often be able to get your manuscript before the right person at the right time. A bad agent will submit anywhere to anybody or let your manuscript linger on her desk for a year. (I have heard horror stories that could turn your hair white.) I negotiated contracts for my first seven books myself. Then I hired my first agent, which only lasted for one contract. I have been with my current (second) agent for over 16 years and it's been a very positive relationship.

Contests? I'm not sure a contest can take you anywhere, but it can give you an edge. It can get you read when otherwise your manuscript might linger in a slush pile or not be seen by the senior editor with buying power. My advice is to enter only those contests where the final round and/or the winner is read by an editor. Contest wins on your resume may look nice, but editors don't give them a lot of weight. But being read by an editor in the contest itself just might get you a contract.

Is the market tougher than ever? No, I don't think so. I've been in this business for 25 years. It's always been tough. There are growth spurts in certain markets/genres, ebbs and flows. Not all that long ago historicals were king and a writer couldn't give away a single title contemporary. But historicals have been hurting for a several years and the romantic comedy, chick lit, and the suspense novels are ruling the shelves. I've seen this cycle several times in the past two-plus decades. Back in the mid-1980s, I read the statistic that over 100,000 novels are written every year and less than 1% get published. I suspect that 1% statistic remains about the same today (not counting self-publishing and non-traditional publishing avenues).

Now, I'm going to return to the very first question of: How did I personally get published? This is the quickie answer: I wrote my first novel in 1981. I sent queries and partials to 21 publishers. All rejected it without reading more than those three chapters, except for two who requested to see it. The first publisher to read the manuscript bought it. I signed the contract and the publisher went bankrupt two or three months later, before I ever saw a penny. I kept writing on the sequel, and in 1983, I sold both books. They were published in 1984. In addition to the 19 rejections received on that first book, I've been rejected by agents after I was multi-published and by other publishers when I was seeking to sell elsewhere. I've had proposals rejected many times. So every time a rejection comes my way, I nurse my wounded ego for 24 hours, then I get back to work. (For more on my publishing story, check out my Fact and Fiction blog at http://robinlee.typepad.com/fact_and_fiction/.)

And that's my advice on Getting Published 101.

Robin Lee Hatcher is the Christy and RITA Award winning author of The Victory Club and the Hart’s Crossing series. Learn more at her web site at http://www.robinleehatcher.com/ and on her Write Thinking blog at http://robinlee.typepad.com/.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

JC: I Am A Blog Virgin

Our final Charis Connection Encore . . . Who can forget Jack Cavanaugh's debut post?

I am a fifty-three year old blog virgin.

There. I said it and I’m embarrassed.

But the fact remains, I’ve never blogged before in my life. So why now?

Two words. Peer pressure.

All my friends are doing it. It’s all they’re talking about. Blogging and websites. Am I the only writer who’s not doing it?

Still, I’m hesitant. After all, stories are rampant about the dangers of indiscriminate blogging. Aren’t bloggers concerned about viruses?

So I promised myself I would never blog unless I could practice safe blogging, which meant waiting until I could make a commitment and blog with someone for whom it would be special and meaningful.

And now you’ve come into my life.

I love writing. I love writers. Let’s blog.

Having studied the art of fiction for twenty-five years, and having spent more than a decade writing fiction full-time with twenty published novels bearing my byline, you’d think I’d know what I was doing, don’t you?

You’d be wrong.

The truth is, writing my twentieth novel has been more of a challenge than writing my first novel. Surely the old adage, “Ignorance is bliss,” has something to do with it, but having a sieve for a brain figures into it too.

So I surround myself with notes to remind me how to write. Some of the notes currently staring me in the face are—

Solvitur Ambulando

It’s an ancient Roman saying. It means, “The solution comes through walking.” Actually, I see a double meaning in these two words.

First, the solution comes once you get started. A journey begins with a single step. Every novel begins with a single word. Quit putting it off, get started.

Second, walking loosens up more than your muscles. There’s something about mindless activity that spurs creative juices. For me, it’s walking. For mystery writer Agatha Christie, it was washing dishes. For many novelists in the Christian market, it’s taking a shower. (See all the fun facts you learn by attending writers conferences? I wonder why Christian publishers are hesitant to use this intriguing bit of trivia in their advertising?)

Solvitur Ambulando. Take a walk. Do the dishes. Jump in the shower. Limber up your creativity and get started.

“The more the words, the less the meaning.” God, Ecclesiastes 6:11

Do you realize how hard it is for a Baptist preacher to admit that brevity is good? But according to God, good writing means eliminating all unnecessary words, so it must be true.

“That my words might be the mirror of the thing.” Dante, Divine Comedy.

The classics are classics for a reason. I gleaned this tidbit of inspiration from the 14th Century poet. My daily prayer is: Lord, make my words mirrors.

“There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labor of thinking.” Joshua Reynolds, English painter.

The great inventor Thomas Edison had this quote printed and framed and posted throughout his labs. It’s a valid observation for both inventors and writers. Writing is hard work and we’ll do just about anything to avoid the difficulty that excellence demands. Don’t take shortcuts.

Don’t settle. Writing is hard work. Do the work. Give God your best.

And my all time favorite note—

“Torture the reader to the end.” Dean Koontz, author.

Readers are a masochistic lot. They love to be tortured. Indulge them. They will be tempted to put the book down at the end of a chapter. Don’t let them. They’ll try to figure out what’s going to happen next. Surprise them. If there is an unforgivable sin in storytelling, it predictability.

Tension and suspense are the storyteller’s best tools. Master them.

Well, there you have it. Our blog honeymoon. How’d I do?

--Jack Cavanaugh, with Dr. Bill Bright, the author of Proof

We hope you've enjoyed these special encore editions. Tomorrow we take you back to our regularly-scheduled bloggers . . .

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

BC: Straight Talk from a Christian Editor

Special Charis Connection Encore . . .

In our Christian writing world, there is quite a bit of negative talk from published and aspiring authors alike about publishing houses in the Christian market. How they’re focused only on the bottom dollar—to the detriment of higher art and their Christian calling to publish books for the glory of God. These opinions are expressed from author to author, through e-mail loops, and in blogs. Are these accusations true? I’ve wondered if we authors suffer from a lack of knowledge. How much do we really know about what goes on in the publishing houses as they make their decisions?

In all fairness, it’s time to give the publishers their say on this topic. Here’s an honest and no-holds-barred response from an editor with many years of experience at numerous major Christian publishing houses:

“Anyone who thinks Christian publishers only care about the bottom line, or that they don't care about art, is flat wrong. People who work at Christian publishers care about a great more than just making money. They care about truth and art and changing peoples' lives--all the same kinds of things YOU care about. They take risks every day on projects in which the numbers don't support the dollars because they believe in the writing, the message, or the author.

“They care. Deeply.

“Please keep in mind what people in the publishing houses face every day. I am responsible for a set amount of revenue for the company. At the end of the fiscal year, I'll be sitting there while leadership evaluates if I was a good employee/steward or not based on meeting that goal. Stressful? You'd better believe it. How do I do it? By balancing the number of best-sellers we publish with midlist and newbies. I have a limited number of slots each year, and each slot MUST meet its financial benchmarks if my lines--and, ultimately, the company--are to survive.

“Like it or not, publishing is a business. It's wrong thinking to be upset or disdainful when publishers take the bottom line into account. The bottom line is not the be all and end all, but it does play into our publishing decisions. It HAS to, unless you don't care if we—that is, publishers or authors--stay in business.

“The irony is that publishers struggle with this very same perception, but about authors: ‘All they care about is money.’ I hear these kinds of statements over and over from publishers:
'Authors blame us for everything. We're always the bad guy, no matter how much we do for them. They don't care about the (financial-time-fill in the blank) constraints we're under, they just want us to treat their books like they're the only thing we publish.'

“Truth is, authors are pretty interested in the bottom line, too. They’re often pushing for higher advances than the sales of their books can support. It’s true that higher advances mean the publisher is invested in the book. Translation—the publisher's neck is square on the line. The authors have their money. Publishers are the ones who eat it when the books don't earn out. And trust me: A LOT of books DO NOT earn out. Yet authors push for higher and higher advances, and/or they get upset when publishers are hesitant to continue publishing their books when they haven't been successful.

“If a book doesn't earn out, it's not always the publisher's fault. We work in an unpredictable industry that’s partially based upon the whims of retailers and consumers, and on national economics that make people less inclined to buy any but proven best-sellers.

“Friends, publishing is a PARTNERSHIP. We ALL do our best. We ALL fight for quality books, for beautiful writing, for art as well as commerce. And I'm not just talking about the editors. I've seen marketing, sales people, and management—even the CEO—go to the wall for a book or author. In fact, I just saw the VP of sales do that very thing a few days ago for a book that hasn't sold in well. He's asking his sales reps to go back to the stores and make another push for this novel. Why? Because, he told me, ‘The writing is so great! Readers need to know about this author.’

“We who work for publishers fight for your books. For what we believe are strong covers. For promotion and marketing dollars. And if dollars aren't available--not because the publisher doesn't care, but because marketing budgets are BASED on revenue--we spend hours brainstorming ways to stir awareness and interest in both retailers and consumers.“Do we blow it at times? Sure, we're human. I'm not saying publishers are perfect. I'm just saying we care.

“So please don't be so quick to paint publishers as the bad guy, or to believe that all publishers care about is the bottom line. We're in this business for the same reasons you are: God called us to it. We care about the message, the authors, the quality of writing. We believe in the power of the word. And we want to make a difference.”

Brandilyn Collins is the author of Dead of Night and other "Seatbelt Suspense."

Monday, January 09, 2006

JC: Macbeth vs. The Mac

Special Charis Connection Encore . . .

If Shakespeare had written Macbeth on a Mac would it be as good?

Not long ago I read a quote from an author so famous I can’t remember his name. He said, “Until someone writes a great book on a word processor, I’m sticking to pen and paper.”

Which begs the question: Is it possible to write a truly great novel using a word processor? Or should we trade in our software for quill and pen? Possibly we need only go back as far as typewriters.

Playwright Neil Simon said that he knew his writing was inspired when he could feel electricity shooting out of his fingertips. He insisted he wasn’t speaking figuratively.


Again, the question: Would Neil Simon be Neil Simon if his electric fingers were short-circuited by plastic keyboard keys? I doubt we’ll ever know.

Technology, like time, only goes one way. Forward. Rest assured Bill Gates knows this. I doubt the computer software billionaire lies awake nights worrying that ballpoint pen manufacturers are going to put him out of business.

But that’s good, isn’t it? It would be hard to go back to typing templates and White Out. Harder still to go back to fountain pens or quills and inkwells.

I still have my old manual Olivetti portable typewriter, which is amazing considering the number of near-death encounters it had in the dark hours of my education. The Olivetti came close to typewriter eternity every time I made a fourth mistake on the last line of a page. (Only three were allowed. Four meant you had to retype the entire page.) Do previous research papers flash before a typewriter’s eyes just before it smashes against a wall?

So why do I keep the relic around? As a conversation piece. Nostalgic for the older crowd. A curiosity for a generation who has never seen a machine rise up on its tiptoes to print capital letters. Mostly I keep it around as a prayer reminder. Whenever I see it, I thank God for word processors.

What’s not to like about them? A stroke of a key and my mistakes disappear as though they never happened. That’s pure grace, isn’t it?

And a machine that saves a man from having to count the words of his book-size manuscript is a gift from heaven. It’s my belief that the software developer who wrote the programming for the WORD COUNT feature should be granted sainthood.

(I once heard someone complain that the word counting feature wasn’t accurate. Can you imagine that? What kind of person double-checks the word-counting ability of a computer? That’s not only sick, it’s sacrilegious!)

What’s next? Challenging the SPELL CHECKER? How many times has that little feature made every single one of us look good?

Instead of wishing for the good ol’ days of Cuneiform and stylus or looking a gift-machine in the A-drive, maybe we should spend that time thinking up new features for software developers.

Here are some I’d like to see—

A MAKE EVERY WORD COUNT button. Push this baby and the computer automatically takes out the verbiage.

A MEET THE DEADLINE button. Push this button the night before your deadline when you still have fifty pages to write. It will automatically reformat your manuscript to 14pt Courier with two inch margins and type “The End” after the last line.

A DELETE REVIEWER button. This handy little feature locates crotchety reviewers who couldn’t recognize quality fiction if it was printed on their foreheads and makes them mysteriously disappear.

A JAMES PATTERSON SUSPENSE button. Pushing this button starts a new chapter after every page and a half regardless if it’s in the middle of dialogue.

And how about a little program that’s initiated by pressing the ESCAPE + ! keys simultaneously. It’s for writers who have written yourself into a corner. Like breadcrumbs, a sequence of events appears automatically leading you back to the main story.

So let’s stop all this nonsense about looking backward. Be honest. Would you really choose Shakespeare over auto pagination?

Which raises one final question: What feature would you like to see added to future word processing programs? Your answer may qualify you for software sainthood.

Jack Cavanaugh lives and writes in California. Check out his latest releases on www.amazon.com or www.christianbook.com . . . or at your favorite bookstore.

Friday, January 06, 2006

LS: Keeping It Real

Special Charis Connection Encore . . .

Twelve thoughts I regularly think that keep it real: (The “you” is, well, me.)

1. Somebody somewhere has taken one of your books and thrown it across the room in disgust.
2. Lisa Samson who?
3. Maybe their dog really could have written it.
4. Maybe writing really isn’t a bona-fide job.
5. Somebody somewhere who will never be published can write rings around you.
6. Your books have been fallen asleep on more than you really want to know.
7. Maybe I should try sealing myself into that wet paper bag, getting out a pen and seeing what happens. It might prove them all wrong.
8. No, you’re not Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. (Think about it.)
9. All the stupid things you think are actually in print.
10. Some people have all the luck, and obviously you’re not one of them.
11. Well, it beats not having an excuse for a dirty bathroom.
12. I’d probably trade it all to eat anything I want and not gain weight.

pax Christi,

lisa samson has written seventeen novels. Go figure.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

AH: The Simple Truth

Special Charis Connection Encore . . .

A few random thoughts I try to pass on to new writers . . .

If you are trying to become published, please stop looking for short cuts. Do not ask a published friend to introduce you to an editor, do not print your manuscript on pink paper, and do not send it to your favorite author in an e-mail. Simply write an irresistible story. Keep working at it until you find an editor who agrees.

Face the possibility that you may be called to write for your children, your grandchildren, your church newsletter, and other local venues. That is a ministry in itself, and a worthy one. Do not disparage any of these avenues, but do your best at them. Anyone who writes is a writer. Never forget that.

There are many people who really don’t want to be writers, they want to be published. If you think being published will make all your dreams come true, think again. Life will go on pretty much the way it did before. People who know you well will be, for the most part, singularly unimpressed. They will view your work as a nice little hobby, or think it is only being carried in local bookstores. People who view you with stars in their eyes will do so largely out of ignorance—either they don’t know you or they don’t know what being a writer is really like. When they get to know you as an ordinary person, or when they learn how hard writing can be, those stars will vanish.

Life as a published author is not an endless junket of book signings. It’s a seemingly endless round of sitting at a desk, staring at a computer, and hoping against hope that the words rolling from the ends of your fingertips can carry the spark of life and a glimmer of truth to the reader you HOPE will pick up the book. It’s living by feast and famine, walking in faith that your finances will be provided and your creative well replenished.

Once you are published, doors do not always open easily, fans do not routinely flock, people unrelated to your mother usually do not stand in line to praise your work. Getting your foot in the door is hard; keeping it there can be even harder. The work you did to get published will have to be improved upon. You will have to grow, to sweat, to strain, to keep improving. Most of the “overnight successes” you read about have been quietly laboring for years.

The writing life will keep you humble. Lately I've been speaking in schools and telling the kids that a couple of weeks ago I had a book signing at my church bookstore. I go to a big church, I tell them, with six thousand members. How many books do they think I signed?

"Six thousand!" some kid always yells. "Five thousand!" calls another.

"No," I answer. "I've already given you a big hint. I had A BOOK signing. So . . . how many?"

One. LOL. Oh, yeah, life has a way of keeping us humble.

When you are published, you will receive fan letters from people who say your book is the best thing they have ever read. Do not believe them; they say that to everybody. You will also receive letters from people who say you’re the worst writer alive and could not possibly be a Christian. Do not believe them, either. You will also receive occasional letters from people who gently point out areas where you may have erred—those letters you may take to heart, for they may be God’s way of correcting you.

If your book does not do as well as you have hoped, you will be tempted to become critical and envious of others’ success, to complain about your editors, your marketing department, your reviewers and bookstores. You will find that life is a never-ending struggle to walk in obedience to the Lord who called you to follow him. You will have to avoid being distracted by marketing plans and promotional gimmicks and best-seller lists. You will have to cast your dreams of million dollar sales on the altar and realize that if God calls you to write books that sell ten thousand, that is better than selling a zillion copies of a book not written in obedience. At some point, you will have to decide--are you writing for the praise of men or the glory of God?

Writing is a job like anything else, neither higher nor lower than the calling of the Christian dentist, minister, teacher, or day care worker. We have to see ourselves as ministers to an unseen audience many months away, and trust that the Lord will place books in the proper hands. We have to struggle against pride when a book does well; we have to struggle against discouragement when a book does not.We have to be kind enough to rejoice when a brother or sister succeeds; we have to resist the inner editor and critic who would (incorrectly) assure us our work is better. We have to guard against the self-censor who urges us to write to the market instead of writing the story God places on our hearts; yet we must not be such a slave to stories of our own egotistic imagination that we place them outside the realm of the average reader. Most of all, we have to be walking in Truth enough to know what springs from Self, and what from Spirit.

We must work to keep the unity in the bond of love, for other writers are our co-laborers, whether they write in our genre or not, whether they sell alongside us or not. We must banish the word “competition” from our tongues, for we are pulling the same yoke, straining for the same purpose: to honor God with our livelihood. We must not allow others to put us on a pedestal, for writing is like anything else—if God calls us to do it, we are to do it wholeheartedly, as unto the Lord. When glory or praise is given, it belongs to Him, for creativity springs from the Creator. (And if we are honest, we will admit that we are constantly torn between wanting to believe we are special and knowing we are completely human.)

We must recognize that each of us is unique, with different voices, styles, and callings. My job is not to write like my brother or sister, my job is to write the truths God places upon my heart.

Being a writer is a unique joy, for none of life’s experiences are ever wasted. But this means that the people around you may grow wary, and some of the things you write, if they are honest, may hurt. If you write from a place of honesty, you will bare parts of yourself you would never display before a neighbor, yet you do it, hoping your revelation will spare some other person some pain.

Writing is hard. Some days I can’t imagine why any sane person would ever want to do this. Other days, I know I’m the most blessed woman alive.

It all boils down to this: the creature finds joy doing the thing he or she was created to do. Birds put forth effort to fly, salmon expend energy swimming upstream, and writing requires hard work. But when you were fashioned to do it, there is joy in the effort.

I suppose it’s that simple.

Angela Hunt has just handed in her WIP and is looking forward to a month of housecleaning. www.angelahuntbooks.com, http://alifeinpages.blogspot.com

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

LS: The Gateway to Reading

Special Charis Connection Encore . . .

I’m sitting with Jake at Atlanta Bread Company as I write. He’s slugging down a cream soda, doing the tongue experiment thing at the opening of the bottle; I’m drinking a decaf latte. I’m supposedly working on my novel; he’s reading Harry Potter-The Prisoner of Azkaban. We’re biding our time until we pick up his big sister Ty from her high school’s football game.

Jake’s just started really reading fiction this summer. Always a non-fiction kinda kid, he’s recently been banned from TV, video games and such in order to get a grip on homework and the daily responsibilities of growing into an older kid. This fiction foray started with a series about Bionicles, the latest Lego fad that Jake adores. The Bionicle novels crack me up! It’s like reading another language unless you’re into the whole alternate universe of Toas and Rakshis and Raghas. Yeah, I know, I don’t understand it either. All I know is, he loves them. He builds them, and now he can read about them using their cool tools to fight the bad guys.

The books are horrible to me. I read them and want to edit, edit, edit. But you know what? Jake enjoys the heck out of them. They keep him moving forward in the world of reading, and have ushered him into the realm of meatier children’s fiction like JK Rowling. After that, who knows? As a mom, I don’t really care. Yeah, it would be fun to say my 11-year-old is reading the Iliad or David Copperfield, but that would be my pride speaking, and I’ve already got enough trouble with that sin as it is!

I yearn for reading to take my son on a lifelong journey where books aren’t read to make you appear smarter or more in-the-know, but are more like old friends who chat with you by the fire and converse with you about life as you’ve never quite seen it before, like a blind date, an exotic vacation. I want books to not be alternative sources of information, but the end in and of themselves. I want Jake to enjoy fiction, to become so engrossed in the pages and the world and characters found inside, not all of them perfect and fun, and that somehow it changes him for the better. Facts only go so far. Jake will change and grow not because a fact was pounded into his brain, but because he felt something and responded from somewhere deep within.

So when Jake reads about a little boy named Harry who feels out of place no matter what world he inhabits, yet behaves with courage in the midst of doubt and fear, perhaps he will realize that he too can face his basilisks with strength of heart. When Jake reads about a little girl named Hermione who isn’t accepted by the majority of her peers, but works hard against the odds, and succeeds, perhaps he’ll realize that a little elbow grease and determination can overcome the naysayers who tell us we are born to be nothing. And when Jake reads about a boy named Ron who is a loyal friend and companion, who fights his fears for the sake of the friend he loves—a friend who loves at all times—perhaps he will see that friendship is something to be given away lavishly even in the dark, lean hours of our lives.

How exciting for him to be at the starting point on this journey. How exciting for me as his mother to get to watch this child sitting beside me now, mouth as red as state fair licorice, light eyes darting to and fro beneath dark lashes, looking up and telling me what happened every three minutes. How my heart skips over itself in joyful little beats.

I remember the series that started my feet on the road to reading stories: The Bobbsey Twins. How about you? What books showed you the joy of the story? What books changed you from the inside out?

pax Christi,


Lisa Samson is the author of 17 novels including Club Sandwich,
Available in your bookstores now.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

DR: A Writer's Prayer

Special Charis Connection Encore . . .

A Writer’s Prayer

A few years ago, for the first time since I’d begun writing, my job as a novelist was beginning to be more than a part-time pursuit. I had multiple contracts and my calendar was filling up with speaking engagements. We had two of our four kids in college and one still at home, and I was feeling conflicted about being a full-time mom while trying to also be a full-time writer to pay those tuition bills. The writing life wasn’t quite the bowl of cherries it had been at first, and I was letting a lot of things distract me from what I had originally trusted to be a calling.

One morning I was praying, feeling overwhelmed and pouring my heart out to the Lord about a pressing deadline. I asked Him what I should be doing. I rarely write down my prayers, but for some reason, this time I went to my computer and began to type the words I was praying. God answered my prayer that morning, and I’ve gone back to pray these same words many times in the years since. This prayer is personalized—you may not share my tendency to be a little lazy, for instance—still, I hope it might express the fears and desires of other writers who log on to Charis Connection today. As you adapt it for your own situation, I trust God will meet you with the same comfort and peace He gave me that morning. Without him directing our fingers on the keyboard, we are nothing more than noisy gongs and clanging cymbals.

Father God, quiet my heart and clear my mind this morning, and help me focus on this story You’ve given me to write. Keep me from anything that would distract from the work I need to accomplish, but also let Your Spirit within me discern what is truly a needless distraction and what is important enough that it should distract me. In my striving, never let me put project above people or worldly gain above things that are eternal.

As I write, guard me from my tendency to laziness, Lord. Nudge me to dig as deep as necessary in researching my story; remind me to use all the tools at my disposal so that I handle the language in a correct, yet creative way. At the same time, don’t let me focus so harshly on one “tree” that I never make it through the “forest.”

Lord, I know that as I write this book––a book that won’t be published for many months––even now, You are preparing hearts that will one day read my words. So let every word I write accurately reflect Your truth and Your precepts. Supernaturally imbue my writing with that quality that, by Your Spirit, will woo souls to You. In Jesus’ precious name, amen.

Deborah Raney, July 29, 2002
Deborah Raney, author of A Nest of Sparrows and Over the Waters