Friday, March 31, 2006

HA: A True Story

When I had been writing for a few years, with several unpublished manuscripts in my desk drawers and on my computer, but no publications under my belt, I felt the pangs of desperation. I mean, I'd gotten the writing down pretty well. I'd had almost-theres and encouragements from several editors, but no sales. I knew that if I couldn't sell these manuscripts, many possible readers would miss the message I had for them.

So shy Cheryl, with low self-esteem, worked up the nerve to start sending my manuscripts to other writers whom I thought would understand my predicament. I mean, they'd been there, too, at one time, right? They knew what it was like to paper their walls with rejection slips.

I sent a Peretti-like manuscript--yes, the whole thing--to Frank Peretti. He would immediately see the value of my work. I waited and prayed, just knowing God had intended this all along. Peretti would take me under his wing and help nurture me.

Imagine my surprise when, not only did I not receive a wing to cover me, I didn't even receive a personal note of explanation! His assistant--ASSISTANT, mind you!--simply sent me a short note suggesting an editing service.

I was devastated. Not only couldn't I get an editor to read my work, I couldn't even convince a fellow writer to help me out.

Of course, much later still, I did get that first editor to take a chance on me--on Hannah Alexander. And then, when Mel and I were also published authors, I realized why Frank Peretti didn't have the time to deal with my complete manuscript. There is simply no time! It's amazing how much more a person has to cram into a day once those books are published. We have to help publicize, we have to help with back cover copy, front covers, work on a proposal for the next book, do book signings (ick) for recently released books, and keep up with the writing for the next book. And there are deadlines to be met for everything!

Last summer, much older and somewhat wiser, I finally had the opportunity to meet Frank Peretti in person at a convention. I'm so relieved he didn't know what I'd done in the past--that I'd had the audacity to suppose that he would take a complete manuscript from a complete stranger and read it from cover to cover. That once upon a time I'd been a newbie.

Guess we've all been there, huh? We've all been newbies at something, some time in our lives. I'm no longer a newbie in the writing world--at least, not my small corner of the world--but I'm always a newbie at something, and I always will be. I want to remember that lesson I learned long ago, and look at it from both sides. First of all, newbies are new. They don't know the rules yet. I need to be compassionate, and help them, because I understand and I've been there.

Second of all, I still have to learn things the hard way. I still have to do the work. I can't just expect an experienced mentor to take me under her wing and do the work for me. The hard work still has to be done. I have to do it. There is no other way.

Let's all be kinder to one another, more understanding. Let's stand on our own two feet and do the work that needs to be done. But let's also be willing to lend an encouraging word, and point those newbies in the right direction.

Hannah Alexander, author of Fair Warning

Thursday, March 30, 2006

AG: Pay No Attention to the Blogger Behind the Curtain

One of the blog sites I visit has a short but interesting article on a fairly new trend in blogging: Character blogs. A character blog is just what it sounds like—a blog written in a fictional person’s voice. For example, fans of the television show MONK might enjoy reading the “Natalie Teeger Blog.” (For those, not familiar with MONK—shame on you. It’s a great show. Oh, and Natalie Teeger is the sidekick to the mildly obsessive-compulsive detective played by Tony Shalhoub.)

When you visit the site, you find blogs “posted” by the character (played by actress Traylor Howard). Of course, it’s written by someone else. In this case, Lee Goldberg. Look closely and you’ll see a down-arrow that lets you read blog postings by other characters in the show.

MONK isn’t the only show doing this kind of promotion. A character on the sci-fi drama INVASION is an avid blogger. In fact, his blog gets him into trouble. It’s part of the script. So, ABC thought it a good idea to post a real blog written by a fictional character. Of course, when you visit the site, you see ads for the program as well as other ABC offerings.

This practice has caused a bit of hubbub. Some folk hate it; others see it as a positive marketing idea. One company has a blog written by its mascot…a rabbit.

Okay then, what about books. Would you read a blog ostensibly written by a character from a novel? Should Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan have a blog? Can you see yourself telling someone, “Hey, you should read what Ebenezer Scrooge wrote about Thanksgiving. He hates it more than Christmas.”

Or in my case: If Perry Sachs or Mayor Maddy Glenn wrote blogs, would you read them?
What do you think? If you could post comments to President Jed Bartlet of WEST WING as he pens his memoirs in digital ink would you? Maybe some enterprising TV exec could set up dueling blogs. “Geena Davis says Martin Sheen should be impeached.”

Could blogs be a way to keep characters alive long after their books have gone out of print? Or do you think that character blogs are a cheap marketing ploy?

Alton Gansky blogs as himself at

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

BC: Think a Writer’s Conference Can’t Kill You? – Part 2

I have this memory from childhood. I was a good kid, see, rarely in trouble. But one day I told a lie. Insisted on it, even when my mother got that look in her eye like, Girl, your nose is a mile long. I remember being sent to my room, where I would be spanked. I remember my mom coming in, grim-faced, to do the deed. I was terrified. Then—my memory cuts out. Too traumatic a moment.

So here I am many years later, whizzing down the hill at Mount Hermon. I’m zilch on body strength, and my Lyme brain ain’t workin’ too well. I’m about to meet my death and am utterly helpless to stop it.

Blam—blackness. Trauma cuts my memory right there.

Later, building upon the evidence that I apparently survived, and asking witnesses what happened, I’ve been able to recreate the scene.

“Kathleeeeen!!!” I’m clutching my cane, heading straight for Mr. Waiting for a Bus sitting on a bench below. This I do remember—the guy continues to just sit there, watching me. No expression. No body language, like Hey, maybe I oughtta try to save this gal’s life. Nada.

Kathleen is long gone behind me. At least I think so. At this point, all I can do is steer. No time to glance over my shoulder.

I can only say I end up surviving that day due to God’s intervention. Remember, at that conference, He wants folks to pray for my healing from Lyme. And He knows, two months later, He is going to perform one miraculous New Testament healing.

Whizzing down the hill, however, I know none of this. I only know I’m going to die—at a Christian writers’ conference. Arguably one of the safest places on earth. This has to be a first. I can see the headlines, even as I streak to my doom. It will be the dumbest death ever.

How on earth will they break this to my husband?

Then—God’s providence. Pals Kathleen and DiAnn start to chase me. They are losing. But then, somehow, they gain Superwoman strength. Their feet pick up speed. They run . . . sprint . . . fly down that hill. And they catch up to me.

They grab the cart—and pull.

I have a bit of momentum going, know what I mean? It fights them. They pull harder.

Out of nowhere, a third gal appears. Tall, strong. She sees the situation and dashes over. Grabs hold of the cart.

The three of them tug and yank and dig in their heels and grit their teeth until rubber burns from the cart tires and their bouncing, scudding feet.

Mr. Waiting for a Bus calmly watches.

The cart loses speed.

It slows . . . jerks . . . They pull and pull. More slowing . . . skidding . . . winding down . . .

The cart stops.

Kathleen and DiAnn and woman #3 are snorting like horses. Me? Catatonic.

My next memory puts me in my room. Shaky can’t begin to describe my body. D. and K. are unloading my things. I am on the phone to hubby, who reminds his Lyme-brained wife that she has to flip the cart switch to motorize it.

As for Mr. Waiting for a Bus? I never see him again. Not during the entire conference. Nor do any of my three rescuers. You think he’d come up to me sometime during the weekend and say, “Hey, glad you’re all right” or something. Huh-uh.

Was he a man? If so, just as well I didn’t see him again. I might have punched his lights out. Well, if I’d had the strength.

An angel? Sent to X-ray some super power to K. and D. and woman #3?

Guess I’ll find out in heaven. Which, fortunately, lies in the future. God, the Writer in this protagonist’s eternal story, has pulled off one dramatic delay to my entrance.

~ Posted by Brandilyn Collins
Seatbelt Suspense™

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

BC: Think A Writers’ Conference Can’t Kill You? – Part 1

Next month Mount Hermon writers’ conference rolls around again. I’ll be there, on critique team, and teaching one of the fiction mentor tracks. More importantly, I will be walking. And lucid.

Not the case three years ago, when I was suffering from Lyme disease, and was only getting worse despite treatment. This five-mile-a-day runner was reduced to standing only a few minutes at a time, tottering with a cane. House-bound. In lots of pain. Sensitive to light. Unable to think clearly and stuttering in my speech. I thought Mt. Hermon was lost to me that year, but then I had a remission. As it turned out, it would be very short—just long enough for the conference—and then I would really plummet. But God had His plans. I would be prayed for there.

I would also, thanks to a few well-meaning friends, nearly meet my death.

I knew I’d have to stay in my room most of the time to rest. And I still couldn’t walk any distance—even on level ground. Mt. Hermon with all its hills? Forget it. So I got myself a handy-dandy electric cart thingy, and I was all set. My stuttering was down considerably, so maybe I wouldn’t sound like a complete idiot. Neither would I be the sharpest tool in the shed.

The motorized carts have to be unmotorized when you need to roll one without turning it on. It’s a simple flip of a switch. My husband turned the switch off so he could roll the thing to the back of our car, lift it up and put it inside. I knew when I reached MH I’d have to ask someone to take it out of the car for me.

My adventure begins.

Starts out fine, but the hour’s drive exhausts me. I arrive, already wondering what I’ve gotten myself into.

Soon as I drive in to park at MH I spot two editor pals, Nick Harrison and Terry Whalin, who, like good gents, lift the cart out of the car for me. Then along comes two ACFW pals—DiAnn Mills and Kathleen YBarbo. They can see I’m spent. They say they’ll help me check in and get my bags into my room, where I can rest. I’m set to be on a main floor so I can drive my cart right into the room.Great to have friends to help. All seems to be going fine and dandy. Except that the cart won’t work. I climb on, turn the key, and nothing happens. I don’t know why. Think the thing has broken. Lyme-brain here has completely forgotten about flipping the switch to re-motorize it.

Oh, man, now what to do? An hour away from home, on that very hilly terrain, and no motorized cart. I can’t walk three steps on that slanted ground.

Everyone except DiAnn and Kathleen has disappeared at this point, checking into their rooms or whatever. Most folks haven’t yet arrived. The conference grounds look pretty deserted.

Well, first things first. DiAnn and Kathleen say they’ll get me to my room. From there I’ll call the place I rented the cart from—maybe they can tell me how to fix the thing. My room is across the street and down a hill. A good size hill. I’m thinkin’ Mt. Everest. Wonderful D. and K. say they’ll just roll me down the hill to my room, then one of them will drive my car around and unload all my stuff for me.

Sounds like a plan. So. I’m on the cart. Holding my cane, which I will need when I get off said cart in my room. D. and K. will hold the cart in back to keep me from rolling too fast.

They push me across the street. Which, of course, is level.

Apparently this gives my helpers a false sense of security.We reach the hill.

My mind is a fuzzy on how this happens. But somehow D. and K. decide that K. can handle this operation alone. D. will go ahead and drive my car.

K. and I start down the hill.

All goes well at first. Then we start to pick up speed. Boy. We are really picking up speed.

It suddenly hits me how utterly helpless I am. If this cart gets out of control, I don’t even have the leg strength to put my feet down and attempt a Fred Flintstone stop.

Faster still. Oh, man, we are honkin!

This all happens in a matter of seconds. I look over my shoulder, opening my mouth to tell K. to slow me down a little. “Kathleen—”She’s not there.

I take in the terrorizing truth in a split second. The cart has slipped from her hands. She’s running to catch up, a look of abject horror on her face, and she's not going to make it. Not at all.

I pull farther away.The wheels churn to warp speed.

I swivel back toward the hill before me.

At the bottom on a bench sits a man, watching my deathly spectacle with perfect calm. Like he’s waiting for a bus. I am headed straight for him.


The cart pulls farther away--and rockets down the hill.

~ Posted by Brandilyn Collins
Seatbelt Suspense™

Monday, March 27, 2006

LCH: Power Outage

It was a dark and stormy night. Alone in my study, I pounded away on my laptop computer while the air conditioner hummed in the background, holding the early July heat at bay.

A glance at the clock confirmed the late hour: 10:49, with many pages yet to write. After several extensions on my book deadline, the pressure was intense. Like having five college term papers due at once

I’d circled July 22nd on my calendar, the day my family and I would be heading to Pennsylvania for a reunion my sister had planned for two years. If it meant writing around the clock, I had to finish the manuscript before we left town.

All at once a deafening crack of thunder sounded overhead, and the lights blinked out. Oh, great. After saving my work on the laptop’s hard drive, I located a candle and made the most of my waning battery, reminding myself this was only a temporary setback.

Our power returned the next afternoon, but not for long. A second storm left our old farmhouse in the dark—this time, for two long days. My editor called to check on my progress. “Not good,” I confessed. “We’ve lost power…again.”

Though my laptop was portable, my many bookshelves full of resources were not, which ruled out moving to a hotel room or a friend’s kitchen table. Besides, the lights would come back on any minute, wouldn’t they? Please, Lord. When the electricity finally returned, I brushed away tears of relief and fired up my computer.

One week later a third storm struck.

The blackout was so massive our city made the national news. Five powerless days dragged by. Meals were fast food, showers were cold, and tempers were short. Once my husband tracked down an overpriced generator, I had electricity flowing into my laptop. What I didn’t have flowing were words or ideas, as the stress mounted. Help, Lord!

When July 22nd dawned, I still had two dozen chapters to go. Genuine panic set in. My siblings and I hadn’t gathered in one place for nearly a decade. How could I miss my own family reunion? Yet how could I go, when my publishing contract required a completed manuscript—now, if not sooner?

I didn’t dare phone my editor and ask for more time. Heartsick, I called my sister instead and begged for mercy.

“We know you’d be there if you could, Liz. Just keep writing.”

Guilt washed over me as I helped my family pack. Bill promised he would hug all my relatives, especially my understanding sister. But I still felt awful.

With a heavy heart I watched our SUV disappear down the driveway, then returned to my desk, determined to write nonstop. I’d paid a terrible price for this time; I wasn’t about to waste it.

My fingers flew over the keys. By nightfall I’d almost completed another chapter when the unthinkable happened: The lights blinked out.

“Nooo!” I shrieked, fumbling for my cell phone. With trembling hands I called the utility company, only to hear, “Could be an hour, ma’am. Could be tomorrow. Sorry.”

Sorry. I sank across my desk, tears flowing in earnest. I was the sorry one. Sorry I hadn’t worked harder last spring. Sorry I’d sent my family off without me. Sorry I’d put work first—again.

I closed my eyes, afraid of the truth. Are you punishing me, Lord? Though I knew better—blackouts from summer thunderstorms were business as usual in Kentucky—I still felt the weight of regret. Forgive me, Lord. Next time, family first.

In the silence of my study I was unprepared for the sudden whirr of the air conditioner. My eyes flew open in time to watch the lights come back on.

Not tomorrow. Not even an hour.

I could credit Louisville Gas & Electric for prompt service. Or I could thank the Lord for giving me a chance to learn from my mistakes and press on…power restored.

Liz Curtis Higgs, author of Grace in thine Eyes (WaterBrook Press).

Friday, March 24, 2006

JK: My Interest in Native Americans

My interest in Native Americans, American Indians if you will, began at the age of five when I saw a television program called Crossroads and heard about a Sioux warrior choosing Christianity. Moving to Starvation Lane in 1984 to ranch and follow what we thought God was asking us to do meant a wish I’d had to know more about native people would not be fulfilled. Once one has “left a professional job” I assumed no one would ever want to hire me again. Besides, I believed that I was supposed to “go to the land and write” and that didn’t include working somewhere else than the ranch. Even more confirming that my interest in Indian ways would not be nurtured was that the nearest reservation where I might have found a job was more than a two hours away.

And then just when needed, the job on the reservation became available. We didn’t have a phone yet so I learned of it through the mail. A man who worked there said they were starting a new program and he was sure I could do it and would I be interested. Yes, it was a two hour drive away. Yes it meant staying overnight there. Yes, we prayed about it. Was it really what I was supposed to do? That job opening, working as a mental health consultant in early childhood on the reservation, began my fiction writing career.

It turned out I worked with the very tribe that had helped this family I’d read about accomplish their dreams 150 years before. I hoped to tell that family’s story. I could interview people on the reservation, do the research I needed after work. I was surrounded by stories of Indian people and as they slowly took me into their lives I discovered more about myself than I otherwise might never have known.

If I had tried to imagine the best job, the best support for our lives on this isolated ranch in Oregon, I would not have come up with the reservation work. I spent 17 years there and wrote eight novels from that little trailer where I stayed two nights a week. I helped deliver a baby, attended weddings and funerals and festivals; grieved and celebrated with families. Eventually my parents came to live on that reservation in an assisted living program so I could see them, stay close to them.

An added joy has been the letters and comments from readers who tell me that their view of Indian people has changed because of my writing. They see them now not as just a “stereotyped group” but as individuals who had traditions and passions and dreams, who made good choices and bad, just like each of us.

Ephesians 3:20 came alive for me in my writing journey with that offer for a job all those years ago. My writing did not suffer; it got better. And my trust in God was deepened by the specificity of His care for me in sending me the perfect job that in the beginning I thought had nothing to do with writing.

Look for Jane’s newest this April A Clearing in the Wild from WaterBrook Press.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

PH: Small Group Success for Writers

Jesus taught us the power of small groups. He started a love revolution with His first little band of brothers. I am privileged to lead women’s small groups at my church. While I came to the Lord at one of those old fashioned altars, (yes, I know that dates me) I finally found my steady plane of faith when I joined a small group. No more up and down faith or Lone Ranger Christianity. I finally knew that I was headed in the right direction spiritually after a year of immersion under the gracious care of my first small group study. And then, thankfully, better yet, gratefully, I still carry fond memories for my first small writer’s group. In the same way that small study groups got me on the right path biblically speaking, my early writer’s group provided those same advantages for my writer’s craft. I have to say that my writer’s group helped me find publication in record speed.

I’ve seen writer’s groups come and go. While attending residencies, I’ve eavesdropped and
gathered up information about those groups that have died on the vine. Even published writers benefit from a good group. But I’d suffice it to say that there are measures your group needs to take to keep the meetings fresh.

Here are some guidelines that should help you to take the pulse of your group, or be of some assistance if you’re thinking of starting a critique group:

• A strong moderator will help keep the group on course and not allow the discussion to get bogged down in personal problems, recipe swapping, or dog talk. There’s plenty of time for those topics at the bridge club. A writer has to learn to treat his/her work like a business, so getting right to the topic of writing is paramount.

• Do begin with a brief talk on a subject relevant to writing fiction. It could be a ten minute talk on plotting or a discussion on how to develop believable characters. There are many how-to books available providing you with years of topics. I would try and teach only one new thing, two at the most, per meeting. With many writing topics, you will need to spread out the topic over several weeks.

• When critiquing, encourage members to deliver the news in the manner they would like it delivered to them. At the same time, honesty is going to help each writer cut through the haze and find clarity. Starting with a brief summary of what you think the member’s story is about throws light into those dark, uncertain corners. I’ve often heard a writer say, “I had no idea that was what you would get out of my story. That was not my intent at all.” And then they would return with a revision that was more on target with their aims. Pointing out what is strong about the manuscript at the beginning and end of the critique helps the writer to feel that their writing is not a complete washout. When you deliver the harder “middle” news, they’ve been given a lifeline of hope already. While marking up the manuscript for the writer is highly recommended, kindly use a gentler color of ink. Red is so, well, you remember when grade school teachers did that, I’m sure.

• While you may not have a published author living in your area who can come and visit your group for a Q&A, remember that there are many authors who are providing live chats online in cyberspace. A couple of times a year, I accept the call for Q&A’s and topical workshops online. For book clubs, if they want to set up a time for a live discussion, I can sometimes work that out too. They put me on the speaker phone. It’s much cheaper than providing accommodations for the author. I give a brief topical chat based on the group’s interest in fiction, and then there’s a Q&A. When you invite your group to come together online or visit with an author through a live phone chat, it could pump a fresh well of thought into your meetings as well as giving the leader a break.

• In my state, there are writer’s havens where you can attend book festivals, conferences, even go on writer’s sabbaticals. By checking those out for your group, you could arrange field trips that will refresh you as a group. At most writers’s conferences you will also meet publishing experts and agents. Teaching your group to network and to build a healthy relationship with published folk will help them to feel closer to the industry rather than isolated. You want your group to be a “freeing agent.” Your goal is to see each member find publication.

• A word of caution regarding choosing the group you will join. Your moderator should be making every effort to find publication and to make inroads with improving her craft. If your group leader seems to be in a recycling mode with information, or spends too much time promoting herself, then it could be she is using your group to gain kudos instead of honest critique.

I always feel a little wounded at the end of a good critique. It’s not so bad once you embrace the inevitable. Then I go back and do the job of real writing and that is revision. A healthy writer’s group will major on revision and progress.

If you have found or founded a critique group in your town and want to crow, please feel free to share the news. I recently found a couple of resources, but recommend you carefully research your group before joining:

Patricia Hickman admittedly bleeds on a regular basis through critique. She will hold a writer’s craft workshop online June 9 at

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

AG: Genre Discrimination

THERE'S a rule in publishing that has been around for a long time. Usually it’s an acquisition editor or agent giving advice to the writer. It goes something like this:

I have this great idea for an action-suspense novel.

But you’re a mystery suspense author.

So. A story is a story and that’s what I do. I write stories for people to read.

But if you switch genre’s it will confuse your audience.


Because it will. Everyone knows that.

This isn’t an effort to make editors sound stupid. They’re not. They’re very bright and extremely talented, but they, like all of us, are a product of the industry. As such, certain ideas creep in and stay.

Is it wrong for a novelist to write across genres? Is it career suicide for a mystery writer to pen a western? Is a gritty crime writer tricking her readers if she writes suspense/mystery? What if a science fiction author has a killer idea for political intrigue?

It is true that some well known novelists have sneaked over the wall of their chosen genre and had a go at something different and met with trouble. I think of Robin Cook, a bestselling medical-thriller man, but who also tried his hand at other things (Sphynx, Abduction, and Invasion). Did those books hurt his later sales? Only Cook and his publisher know for certain.
Michael Crichton has stretched his wings with other genres and even screenplays (as well as being the creator of the TV hit ER). True, almost all have some connection to technology gone wild, but there is a big difference between Jurassic Park and State of Fear.

I wonder about these things. Some authors take on a pseudonym when crossing the invisible boundaries of genre. Stephen King wrote as Richard Bachman; Dean Koontz wrote science fiction before settling into his sometimes horror, sometimes suspense, sometimes supernatural-thrillers. A man of Koontz’s talent can’t be expected to sit comfortably in a box. I’m having trouble classifying Life Expectancy, one of Koontz’s recent releases. It is a hilarious thriller that had me laughing out loud in a restaurant. (Middle-age men who sit alone in restaurants laughing make others nervous.)

Maybe it’s because I grew up in the seventies, but I resist being pigeonholed. For me, it’s all about the story. Story is what matters in this business. Personally, I think readers are smart enough to know that writers are artists and artists have to peek over the hedge from time to time.

Alton Gansky lives in California . . . where the hedges he peeks over are figurative, not literal. Visit his web page at

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

BJH: Contests and Awards

There seem to be lots of questions floating around about contests and awards--especially at this time of year--and several have made their way into my e-mail. If this entry sounds vague and even seems to contradict itself in places--it's because the replies to these kinds of questions almost always end up being as subjective as...well, their subject.

In truth, this entry is a kind of "collage" pulled from things I've written over the years regarding awards in the CBA publishing industry. A caveat (or two) here: I have no ax to grind about contests. Without going into details,this being a personal issue, my books have not been entered in any award events for several years now--at my request. Nor do I enter them myself.

That wasn't always the case: the first novels I wrote were entered in the usual contests and did include a few "winners." But some years ago, the Lord "impressed" it upon me to refrain from the practice in the future. That was several books ago. I'd like to be able to say that God "invited" me to enter into an agreement with Him about this contest business, to negotiate it on a book-by-book basis--but the truth is that there was no "invitation" involved. It was a straight-out admonishment, no "ifs" or "ands." If I knew the reason or reasons for this, I'd probably not talk about them anyway--but the fact is that I don't know His reasons--nor do I need to know them.

I will admit that I'm aware of some of the benefits to come out of it--one big one being that it gave me an incredible sense of freedom. It allowed me to write without ever wondering if my work was "award material." It also made it wonderfully easy for me to cheer all my writer-friends and other contestants on, rejoicing with them when they won...without ever being tempted to wonder why my book didn't win.

So-–all that to say that I hope you can understand that my only interest in posting this entry is to try to provide a personal perspective on the subject, and at the same time attempt to answer some of the questions writers and aspiring writers occasionally ask about it. I believe the real heart of this subject is how we view awards and how we allow them to affect us. If I didn't think that it's a a critical issue for writers to settle on an individual basis, I wouldn't make the effort to write an entry around it.

I am not, in any way, suggesting that my "approach" to awards is for others. We all know that God takes us in different directions, by different paths, to different places, and I believe that's the case with awards. Nor do I believe, and would never suggest, that there is anything inherently wrong with contests, although I don't view an award in itself as a worthy goal for an author to work toward. If you're aware that you have a problem in this area, though--if you continually struggle with your attitude toward the issue--why not commit it to God and work it out with His guidance and in His will?

What many writers and aspiring writers seem to want to know about the subject boils down to this: do awards help sell books? Most editors don't seem to think they do. I'm not basing this on any kind of "poll," but merely on discussions I've had with editors and publishers, authors and booksellers over the years. A number of award-winning authors have indicated that their awards haven't affected their sales in any measurable way. Naturally, there are some who would differ and probably can offer evidence to support their conclusions, at least in certain cases.

The reality is that most readers--and even some bookstore owners--don't care about awards. Many don't even know about them, or if they do, they have no opinion as to whether they're important or not. So awards aren't likely to influence their buying habits.

But on the other hand, as one author recently pointed out, although awards may not affect an author's consumer sales, they can make a difference to an acquisitions editor or a publisher, enabling an award-winning author (or the author's agent) to more easily place that author's work. That's definitely something to consider, especially in today's crowded and highly competitive publishing industry.

Another possible benefit: awards just might help to foster the desire for excellence in some authors...and among certain publishers as well. Earlier I said that I don't believe an author should work toward an award as the ultimate goal. But some authors need more encouragement than others, sometimes in the form of recognition, so an "eye on the prize" might serve, for a few, as a source of that encouragement; and so long as the award itself doesn't become the primary motivation for striving for excellence, what's the harm?

I've also witnessed some of the negative consequences, however, that can come out of this whole awards thing: disappointment, discouragement, and, much worse, even despair on the part of certain authors who tend to see their lack of awards as a judgment on the quality of their writing. I have personally talked with or exchanged correspondence with authors who were tempted to throw in the towel and leave publishing altogether...often because this year, again, their books were overlooked. They begin to take it for granted that the quality of their work is lacking, that they shouldn't be writing at all.

You might be surprised at the number of widely published and/or critically lauded authors who feel "rejected" when their work isn't recognized with an award. But those reactions shouldn't surprise us: the fanfare and publicity and emphasis--by some--placed on awards make it nearly impossible for an author to ignore these events, and he/she is often deeply hurt and discouraged by the "failure" to win, or at least to be chosen as a finalist. A resulting loss in self-esteem and self-confidence, frustration, and depression are all too real in some cases.

One author-friend made the comment that winning an award could be accompanied by its own set of problems. For example, she said that once she had won an award, it really bothered her when the event came around the next year and she didn't win. She became anxious, worrying about why her work wasn't deemed as good as it had been the year before.

Winning or losing, it's obviously important to see contests for what they are and react to them accordingly. A group of people--judges--from different areas of publishing read lots of manuscripts and, although we hope they'll be impartial, their own personal reading taste can not help but enter into their decisions. We'd also like to think those judges will be reading in their particular areas of "specialization," but that's not always so. Finding enough qualified judges for any given award event is no easy process, and as is the case with any other competitive event, some judges are simply going to be more qualified and more experienced than others. But no matter how many are selected, and no matter how qualified-–or not--they may be, the reality is that this is a highly subjective process. (Even the matter of qualification is a "subjective" one.)

We also have to consider this: one of the judges who reads your work may love it and consider it the best work he/she has seen in publishing for years. Another judge may be less enthusiastic, or might see the "promise" in your writing but not consider it "award-winning" material just yet. Several eyes will see your work, and you can't assume that their individual assessments will form a collective "yea." That might happen sometimes–but it's not likely to happen all the time.

Unfortunately, not all judges are able to approach the process without at least a measure of personal bias, and a few have even gone public with their "observations" about certain contest events. It's very difficult to totally wipe out long-held opinions and convictions about certain things you either like or don't like. That's asking quite a lot--perhaps it's even unreasonable.

I've served as a contest judge. I know how extremely difficult it is to remain entirely impartial, no matter the area in which one is offering an opinion. It's a significant responsibility, and one with which I'm never been completely comfortable, mostly because of that responsibility.

I don't mean to bludgeon you with this, but I'm going to repeat it again: this is a highly subjective experience. Don't allow it to become the impetus for your writing efforts. Don't view it as the end-all judgment of your work. If you want to grant that kind of judgment to anyone, for goodness' sake, listen to your editor. He or she has worked with you, knows your work, is most likely well-acquainted with the genre in which you write, and is in the best position to offer objective criticism or praise.

Find a way, whatever works best for you, to keep awards from becoming too important. Remember that contests are usually an annual event, and they're quickly forgotten by everyone except--unfortunately--those who didn't win. But whether you win or don't win, hold this thought: the only award that's truly important, the only one that's worth winning, and the only one that ultimately will not be entirely forgotten is the one for which we're all striving: the words of our Savior (who is, after all, the one, and the only truly qualified judge of our efforts)--"Well done, good and faithful servant."

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

Friday, March 17, 2006

AD: Good Beginnings, Bad Advice

It is widely advised in literary circles that one cannot write good fiction by beginning with a theme and constructing a plot and characters around that theme. This is often said to be the path to propaganda. Some read “Catholic Novelists” in Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners and arrive at just this point. The author, they say, must allow the theme to grow from the natural interaction of the characters, trusting that the author’s world view will flow organically from the plot and characterization. That is art, whereas to methodically construct a plot and characters to express a predetermined theme is artificial. But I believe Ms. O’Connor would have agreed that the difference between art and propaganda has to do with the end result and not the method.

I did not start out a writer. I was trained at the college level in painting and sculpture first, and then moved on to architecture for two decades. Throughout those years I noticed two kinds of artists: those who treat their medium as a kind of partner in the search for something meaningful, and those who treat their medium as a tool to communicate a meaning they have already found. These two types can be quickly identified by looking at two ways beginning landscape painters work. One kind of beginner paints with bold color and spontaneous brush strokes but minimal attention to the proportions or perspective of the scene before her. Another kind of beginner works meticulously to get the scene correctly documented but somehow it ends up feeling stiff and awkward. If they have native talent, both painters will improve in time and each will do so by crossing over into the other’s territory. The best painters get things technically correct (insofar as they conceive “correct”) yet they do so in a bold and apparently spontaneous way. But while each artist must move into the other’s territory to paint well, that does not mean they must start out there.

Similarly, the Roman architect Vetruvius taught that a good building must have “firmness” (a good structure), “commodity” (maximum results, minimum investment) and “delight” (the intangible quality of beauty). This is just a different way of stating what our two landscape painters learned: the secret of good art lies in striking a proper balance between essential qualities, regardless of which quality first attracts us to the project. Exciting plots and rich characters that say nothing of substance are doomed to join the millions of novels that are forgotten virtually in the moment they are read. Themes that overpower the story and characters are equally doomed. But so long as the end result includes “firmness” (a good plot and interesting characters), “commodity” (maximum message, minimum moralizing) and “delight” (the beautiful turn of phrase) it does not matter where the author begins.

Athol Dickson,
Author of River Rising, and The Gospel According to Moses

Thursday, March 16, 2006

JK: Tipplers and Corn cobs

For years, I’ve thought I had a “metaphorical disorder,” a latent disease that hovers beneath the surface just waiting to spill over onto phrases that amaze. Connections no one else makes seem to pop into my head. I’d read about research on corn from my alumni magazine, for example, and learn why it is some cobs are fully complete while others leave gaps that look like mouths of missing teeth. It seems that when a single kernel doesn’t grow it’s because the silk that connects to every single kernel with its genetic code attached, must have disappeared, been caught in wind or clutched itself to some passing animal instead of waiting for the sunlight to set the DNA message free, telling the kernel to grow fat and plump.

“Amazing,” I tell Jerry. “It’s like our life stories. Exposed to the light, our individual, uniqueness blooms. But if we are somehow disconnected from the silk that reaches to a higher light, there’ll be this empty space in the corncob of community. It’s all such an incredible plan, just one we can’t always see.”

“Huh?” he says, lifting his head from his book on double-barreled shotguns. And then he patiently lets me talk through this pattern seen for the first time until he, too, is amazed at the intricacies of creation as revealed inside a cob of corn. A metaphorical disorder, I call it. Jerry is forced to endure it (and you readers are, too).

Then I heard this radio interview in which a woman said that we are all creatures of patterns, that we seek them in order to organize our world, to help us sort and make sense. Perhaps that’s where bias and prejudice arrive from, too, choosing just a few items until we’ve passed judgment. Pattern-making may be a way to resist coincidence as the “tippler” of our lives. (A tippler is the machine that sorted ore in days gone by, sending high grade ore to one spot; lesser grades to another. No ore could be sorted, no wealth evaluated, if the tippler was down. Not unlike our minds, I like to think. The interviewee didn’t mention the tippler; that’s my disorder.)

So perhaps one reason I keep writing is to keep finding the creativity in creation, to be surprised by the patterns that appear where I least expect it. It’s one of the gifts of following our hearts, showing up, assuming that position of a writer. I never would have discovered how corn and stories combine if I hadn’t written about it. I wouldn’t have made a connection between an old mining device and our need to keep our minds ready to sort but to not put everything into so tight a pattern that we miss the uniquess of each other. OK, back to writing to see what my tippler will sort out!

Look for Jane’s newest this April A Clearing in the Wild from WaterBrook Press

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

LS: Writers and Editors and Mick J.

Criticism, even constructive, right-on and well-wishing criticism stings. I hate giving it out more than I do receiving it. Probably because I've been receiving it for so long now. But this is how I cope.

I know that my editor wants this book to be the best it can be. She's not just laying out the weaknesses of my work for its own sake. She's on my side. I've also developed a great relationship with Erin over the past six books. That makes a huge difference.

Editors take note here. Forging the relationship is your responsibility as well. Erin has totally done her part to get to know me. An editor will have a hard time "getting" an author's work without "getting" him or her. And that lack of the very basic understanding of what the artist is trying to do can be the beginning of the troubles. If the author doesn't want a relationship, well, they're making a big mistake.

Confession? I don't actually think the world is doing its best to cast me down. Some writers might be hard to work with, fighting every little change, being very difficult, but as for me, I'm not writin' scripture folks! And as far as I know, neither is anybody else these days. Of course, I'm relatively young and untried as a novelist. Maybe someday I'll have more confidence in my work. However, I honestly believe my editor and I are a team.

Sure it's hard at first to read her comments. I've worked months and months on the piece, why wouldn't it be hard to have its glaring inconsistencies, its plot problems, its underdeveloped themes, exposed in an email for heaven's sake?! While this process used to throw me for a loop for several days, I've learned to deal with it by second-guessing Erin.

"Okay, so if I were Erin, what would I think is wrong with this thing?"

And then I try to figure it out. Now a lot of the time, I know exactly what's wrong and have no idea how to fix the problem and I'm right up front with it at submission time so Erin can be on the alert. Sometimes, regarding concerns I haven't openly addressed up front, Erin comes back with the same concerns --so I know what really isn't working. It's fun to see if her comments jive with my own feelings. And usually they do. But only because I've let myself step into her shoes, step back from my own work, and try my best get through this with my defensive glasses firmly in my pocket.

Now, here's the caveat. I can only do this once the manuscript is at the publisher's and I've got the freedom to really think about the piece. Makes sense on some level. You have to let go to be real sometimes.

I've actually had wonderful epiphanies afer submitting the manuscript, before anyone's yet read it, and I'll email the message, "Wait! I've got another draft coming tomorrow!"

In short, I welcome the criticism of my editor and my publisher. Sometimes the suggestions are so right-on, and so NOT what I was thinking, that I put on my creative hat and set my hand to the challenge. That's kind of fun.

Sometimes, however, and usually this isn't from Erin, I find a suggestion complete bunk. But in preparation for this, I try to make as many changes as I can allow artistically, so that, when I need to stick to my guns, I've got a bank full of political capital. It's stupid to squander that wealth on a jot or a tittle. Plus, there are a lot of good writers out there and I'm not raking in the dough for my houses. If I'm a boob in the editing process, after a while, I just won't be worth it.

I believe in the art of the novel, but I also believe that once a novelist has entered the realm of publication, it behooves her/him to be professional, courteous, open and short the ginormous chip on the shoulder. In short, play nice and behave like you'd expect your children to behave. Like with your own child, a tantrum doesn't work after a while. It's always easier to give in to the child who behaves herself, and if something is important enough to her? Well, I've never had a publisher yet not acquiesce when something means a great deal to me. Patience and a long-haul perspective always does everybody involved a world of good.

Of course, I'm sure there are those who would disagree with my approach. But hey, whatever works for you. I guess I'm in the Mick Jagger school of editing psychology, "You can't always get what you want. But if you try sometime, you just might find (you just might find!) you get what you need.

"Ah, yeah . . . "

Find Lisa, author of The Church Ladies and Club Sandwich, at author intrusion,

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

AG: From Reality to Fiction--Attacked by an Idea

Back in November I came across an article that caught my attention. Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, congressman from San Diego, pleaded guilty to receiving more than $2.4 million in bribes. The 63 year old congressman served eight terms in the House of Representatives and is a noted Vietnam War ace. At this point, something happened—something that happens to many novelist: I stopped seeing a news article and began seeing a story idea.

Writers are often asked, “Where do you get your ideas.” I don't like to think about it too much. I'm afraid that if I come to understand the process it will cease to work. Writers are paranoid that way. Duke Cunningham's situation is a case in point. I know what the facts are, and I know that he confessed, but my first thought was, “What if he's innocent?”

Why would a man who has spent a decade and a half in Congress confess to something that forces his resignation, subjects him to open legal trial and dangles a jail term in his face if he was innocent of the charges? In the real world he wouldn't, but in the world of novels, such a man might.

If you're a romance writer, then maybe he did it for the love of a woman. If mystery/suspense is your bag, then maybe he confesses because he's being blackmailed or it was the only way to stop a terrorist attack. Think of the possibilities. Once he confesses, there are very few opportunities to receive help in solving the real problem, therefore, he must do it himself. Out on bail, our sacrificing hero—let's call him, Duke Alcott—must free himself from whatever cords bind him to this action, regain his could name, keep his family from falling apart, endure the snide remarks of faithless friends and neighbors, and deal with all the legal battles he faces. Poor Duke.

That is the joy of imagination at work. It takes us from real life to novel life—the life of “what if.” The courts and media may make the real bribe-taking congressman's life miserable, it falls to the novelist to make miserable the life of the fictional counterpart. The possibilities are endless and that is what makes reading and writing novels so much fun. And so much work.

Hmm. So why did our fictional congressman confess? Any ideas?

Alton Gansky lives and imagines in California. Visit him at

Monday, March 13, 2006

BJH: Balancing Act

If my mail and some of the questions raised among writer-friends are examples, the question of how we balance writing with our other daily responsibilities ranks right up there in the top ten most frequently discussed subjects among writers. Writers are usually interested in learning how other writers go about achieving a balance without relying on therapy or live-in help.

Like most other things about life and writing, this kind of "management" varies from writer to writer. Some things that help facilitiate this constant juggling act, however, are common to us all. You've probably heard this ad nauseam, but the only workable solution comes down to choosing your priorities--and making certain those choices are aligned with God's will.

In the rush of daily living, there's a great deal to "manage:" Family. Church. Housekeeping. Playing taxi and keeping up with all the extracurricular activities that go along with children in school. For some writers--perhaps most--there are full-time jobs in addition to everything else. And some of those full-time jobs are of a nature that might seem to dampen creativity or at least make it more than a little difficult. Editors who also write, for example, must often find their schedules positively grueling: spending hours reading the manuscripts of others, editing those manuscripts, discussing them with the authors, participating in marketing plans, attending daily meetings--and then going home to give quality time to their families plus finding a few devote to their own writing projects. It exhausts me to even think about it!

Since no one method of balance works for all, we each have to fumble our way through the confusion until we come up with what works best for us as individuals. Years ago, when I first began to see some of my work published, I made a commitment with God to focus on keeping my family first, before the writing. I'll always be grateful that I did this early, because it would have become only more difficult after a few years, when the children got older and the writing life became busier.

Because my tendency has always been toward being something of a writeaholic, I knew I'd have to be absolutely ruthless with myself regarding what to do and what not to do if I were to keep this commitment. Some things I chose to let go of were no-brainers: speaking, for one. I am so not a public speaker that I gladly offered this one up to the Lord and was vastly relieved when He didn't give it back. Teaching was a different story. I had always loved to teach (in my capacity as a church music director, I did a lot of teaching in the graded choir programs, etc.), and I come from a background of teaching music in one area or another. But teaching takes preparation, and preparation takes time. So--thinking it might be a temporary relinquishment, I set aside teaching too. Traveling (of the business variety); no sacrifice, that. I've been plagued by arthritis since I was in my early thirties, so traveling, especially alone, is actually more burden than blessing for me. In addition, after raising our two daughters, my husband and I were caregivers for my mother, afflicted with Alzheimers, for a long time. Consequently, we spent years finding it extremely difficult to make time for even the briefest of vacations, so we admittedly were somewhat jealous of any time to ourselves and chose not to spend it traveling for business--his or mine.

I cut out all professional associations except for those that required no time input, but served merely as research organizations (and required little or no e-mail). Out, too, went any Yahoo groups, except for a couple of writing boards I've belonged to forever. Even with these, I stay with the "no mail" option, which enables me to go to the web site and scan any e-mails, reading only those I think I should. This alone cuts down on e-mail in a big way. And that's a significant item to cut down on: from what I know personally and the comments of other writers, e-mail is one of our biggest time-consumers--and one of the most difficult to tame.

Recently, a writer-friend raised another question, a vital one: what about the things we need to do for ourselves--the personal things that help us stay healthy and reasonably sane? The need for rest and relaxation, for exercise and a hobby or two? Vacations? Those activities that keep us centered and help us live--and enjoy the living?

The irony in finding this necessary balance is that when your children are young, you play a kind of waiting game: "Okay, I can write only an hour today and tomorrow, because we have this and that going on. But someday, when the children are grown I'll have unlimited free hours, and then I'll burn up the computer."

Then the children are grown, off to college, then marriage, and you discover that you're still not writing all that much more than you did twenty years ago. Why? Because the family is still your top priority. As it should be. Although you're no longer a band or soccer mom and playing taxi six days a week, you still do things together with the family. They still, believe it or not, need you. And there are other matters of a different nature that chip away at your writing time. Now you have some books published, so you have to deal with interviews and the preparaton for them; newsletters; reader correspondence; mailing lists; schedules; and all the other details that go into being a working writer--and a business. Because like it or not, to the IRS, you are indeed a business.

So once again you're looking for ways to save time. My point is (I do have one) that as a writer, you'll always have difficulties with this thing called "balance." The difficulties may take on a different complexion, but you'll face them all the same. What helped me years ago to sort through the chaos, and still helps me today, was to carefully and prayerfully think through this entire business of writing. What did it mean to me? Was it a genuine "call" or simply carnal ambition? What did I want? What did I expect? To get rich? (Ha! Thanks be, that wasn't one of my expectations!) To be famous? Ha! again. To win awards? Don't even get me started on that one. To be in the "public eye?" Ask my family what their nickname for me is. Hint: it rhymes with 'Kermit.'

I finally came to the simple realization that what I wanted was to write...because I love to write. But more than that, I wanted to take care of my family...because I love them more than writing. You see, when the accounts for eternity are settled, I honestly don't believe the Lord is going to care one way or the other how many books I've written or whether they were bestsellers, or how I ranked with my readers, or what my yearly sales figures were. He probably won't be interested in the deadlines I made or didn't make. (Come to think of it, at that point I won't care about deadlines either--hallelujah!) But I'm almost certain He will care how I treated my family and friends, and even strangers. Most likely I'll still be looking for balance right up to the end; I can only hope that I don't have to take too much baggage in the way of excuses with me.

Do I regret anything I've given up? Not for a moment, except perhaps the teaching. But only now and then. Because, just as He always does, God has given me far, far more than anything I've given up. So much so that I'm daily dazzled by His goodness.

P.S. Three words every writer can use to her advantage: "No." And..."Yes, Lord."

BJ Hoff
Author, A Distant Music, An American Anthem, An Emerald Ballad

Friday, March 10, 2006

AH: Stainless Steel Prose

I’ve been third-drafting, which is about halfway through the process for me. I’m plugging minor plot holes, deepening character, wiping out weasel words, and polishing. Every draft after the first includes polishing.

And you know what? Maybe it’s because my publisher asked me to submit this book in double-spaced manuscript copy (I usually work in single space, so my computer screen looks like an actual book page), but when I look at my highly polished words sitting in that sea of white space, they look so . . . naked. Plain. Bottom-line basic.

Hardly an adverb to be found. Very few metaphors. All those delicious turns of phrase that I so admire in others’ writing are not found in my prose (well, not often). When I look at one of my paragraphs, I see people talking, thinking, doing. Not much else.

For instance, chosen at random from the WIP:

Isabel returns the trash can to its hiding place in the desk’s kneehole, then
lifts her gaze to the wide windows along the east wall. A sprinkling of lights
still sparkles in the skyscrapers of Tampa’s downtown district, a waste of
electricity no one seems to mind. The sun has begun to rise, but only a glimmer
of light penetrates the cloudy eastern horizon. Carlos warned her to be careful
on the way home because a storm is on its way, a huracán.

See what I mean? Nothing fancy. Simple writing. Probably on a third grade level.

But, after publishing more than 100 books and developing strong opinions about what I like and what I don’t (just ask any of my writing students!), my writing is what it is. Still changing, still adapting to the tone of each book and its characters, but probably more utilitarian than ornamental. More stainless steel than gold.

But stainless steel can sing. I know this because even in the third draft, I listen to each scene at least twice. I note the rhythm of the words, the flow of the punctuation. Maybe it’s my musical background, but my ear flags repetitions and vowel sounds. and rhythms If a word doesn’t fit seamlessly, it gets tossed out and replaced. After about five drafts, I happily hand the project over to my editor, who will refine my "steel" even further.

While I stand in awe of metaphorical masters and literary linguists, I don’t think I was meant to join their ranks. Which is okay. We do what we were created to do, and that’s what makes the world such an interesting place.

So--whatever you've been gifted to write, stay at the forge.

Angela Hunt uses either Microsoft Reader or Monologue 97 to have the computer read her work back to her. The monotonous voice is a great help. If a passage sings when that robotic computer reads it, it flat sings.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

JC: Flash Fiction

Have you heard of it? Some people are calling it Sudden Fiction, or short-short stories.

Contrary to rumors circulating on the Internet, flash fiction is not a market study of the shelf-life of Jack Cavanaugh’s books. And despite what you read on Alton Gansky's blog, short-short stories have nothing to do with what an author wears when he writes.

Flash fiction is the rebirth of a unique genre of story. It is a story that is told in less than two thousand words, and usually under one thousand words, sometimes as short as one hundred and fifty words. For some writers of flash fiction, the idea is to tell a story and the reader doesn’t have to turn a page.

Impossible you say?

Don’t be so hasty. I’ve tried my hand at short-short fiction in several different genres. Tell me what you think—

Bang! Bang! Whodunnit? Ned.
(4 words)

I hate him! He’s cute, but I still hate him! Those eyes! I think I’m in love. And they lived happily ever after.
(23 words)

Gotcha! No, you didn’t! Gotcha now! No, you didn’t! Ha! Tables turned! Now I got you! No you didn…Ahhhhhh! You got me! And once again, the world is saved from the brink of destruction.
(34 words)

Wagons clattered. Horses charged. Swords clashed. Blood flowed. Damaged limbs were sawed off. Millions die, more from disease than battle. Ah, the good ol’ days.
(25 words)

Save Tara. Steal Ashley from Melanie. Slap Sue Ellen. Save Tara. Marry men for money. Deliver baby. Save Tara. Speak to Rhett about his swearing.
(25 words)

Got the idea? If you think you do, you’ve got it all wrong.

Brevity is only one dynamic of the short-short story. Quality flash fiction delivers a punch. It makes you feel something, whether humorous or sad. It stops time. It starts you thinking.

It is a flash of illumination. It provides an insight that other writers struggle for pages to make clear. It creates a mood that resonates within the human heart.

Among those who have tried their hand at short-short fiction, include—John Updike, Raymond Carver, Ray Bradbury, Joyce Carol Oates, and Ernest Hemingway.
I wish I could illustrate flash fiction by sharing some of the great short fiction I’ve been reading, but copyright prevents it. So, we’ll have to settle for a lesser light.

Here’s my attempt at flash fiction. I wanted to see if I could write a story in 150 words or less—

“Dispensing Justice”

A coin is shoved into a slot. The legal system lurches into motion. Lawyers
light up. Witnesses whirr. News presses hum. Once started, there’s no stopping
The jury sits. The judge enters.
“Madam foreman, have you reached a
“We have.”
The foreman hands the verdict to the bailiff who
hands it to the judge.
The judge reads the verdict in silence. He allows
himself the smallest of smiles.
“You will make history,” he confessed to me
last night in his chambers. “Your case is unprecedented.”
Said he’d
researched it himself.
Jangling change in his pocket, he said, “Never
before, in the annals of American jurisprudence has a judge declared a man
guilty for a murder he himself committed.”
In the courtroom, the judge hands
the verdict to the bailiff who hands it to the foreman.
I stand accused.
The foreman reads the verdict aloud, dispensing justice.
(148 words)

Now it’s your turn. Can you tell a story, capture a moment or a mood in 150 words or less? Post your stories in the comments section for all of us to enjoy.

Jack Cavanaugh, the author of more than twenty novels, including Storm w/Bill Bright (Howard Books) and the supernatural thriller, Death Watch (Zondervan).
Check out Jack Cavanaugh's titles

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

JSB: Slaying the Monster

I’m reading a book on humility right now, so it’s safe to say I know more about the subject than any of you.

Which brings up the issue of pride.

How do Christian artists take "pride" in what we do, strive to do it well, feel good about results…yet keep pride from leading us to overestimation, envy or some other form of writers’ mental illness?
Anne Lamott, in her book on writing, Bird by Bird, has a hilarious chapter on jealousy. "If you continue to write," she observes, "you are probably going to have to deal with [jealousy] because some wonderful, dazzling successes are going to happen for some of the most awful, angry, undeserving writers you know—people who are, in other words, not you."

This is even (perhaps especially) true when it’s a friend whose "turn it is." Says Lamott: "It can wreak just the tiniest bit of havoc with your self-esteem to find that you are hoping for small bad things to happen to this friend—for, say, her head to blow up."

"Humility," wrote novelist Evelyn Waugh, "is not a virtue propitious to the artist. It is often pride, emulation, avarice, malice—all the odious qualities—which drive a man to compete, elaborate, refine, destroy, renew his work until he has made something that gratifies his pride and envy and greed. And in doing so he enriches the world more than the generous and good, though he may lose his own soul in the process. That is the paradox of artistic achievement."

Is that, then, the only way? To achieve in art, we must lose a little of our soul?

Here is where the Christian artist should claim the greatest victory. For if the promise of God means anything, it is that we are no longer slaves to the old nature. Yes, it still exerts itself in the cellar of our hearts, but we do not have to give it dominion. We have been set free.

So when you feel the monster of pride rooting around, don’t be a victim. Try this instead:
First, recognize that such feelings exist because we are fallen. Just slapping the label "Christian" next to our name doesn’t mean a thing. We are in just as great a need as anyone for salvation from self. The good news of the Gospel is that we have been shown the way.

Then, repent. Have you harbored any ill will toward another writer who has "made it"? Or is further along the road than you are? Give that up immediately. It will do you no earthly good.
Finally, pray it through. Have you ever "prayed the Scripture"? It’s a venerable spiritual discipline. I use Kenneth Boa’s book "Handbook to Prayer" to do it (he has the Scriptures laid out in prayer format). But you can do it easily straight from the Bible.

For example, here is Colossians 1:9-12--

For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying
for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all
spiritual wisdom and understanding. And we pray this in order that you may live
a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in
every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all
power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and
patience, and joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to
share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light.

You can pray it this way:

Lord, fill me with the knowledge of your will through all spiritual wisdom and
understanding, so that I may walk worthy and please you in every way, bearing
fruit in every good work, and growing in the knowledge of you; strengthened with
all power according to your glorious might, so that I may have great endurance
and patience with joy.

Start in the Psalms, and use this spiritual discipline as if your writing life depended on it. It just may.

And by the way, the book I am reading really is called Humility. It’s by the great Scottish preacher of the late 1800’s, Andrew Murray. Bethany House has republished this little gem. It’s a wonderful meditation that will help you keep the green-eyed monster, even if he still snorts on occasion, from eating up your soul.

Then guess what? Writing becomes what it always should be – a joy.

There is nothing James Scott Bell enjoys more than writing. His latest novel is Presumed Guilty (Zondervan). Visit his website at
"The Suspense Never Rests"

Monday, March 06, 2006

CC Special Edition: Meet Our Novelists at these 2006 Conferences

You may have noticed that many of our Charis Connection novelists enjoy teaching . . . and when they're not writing, you can often find them teaching at writer's conferences. Here are some names and dates for 2006. If you're in the area, be sure to look them up . Better yet, join the class!

Moveable Feast of Authors
Topsail Island, NC, March 4, noon
Contact: Lori Westervelt,
Patricia Hickman will be among authors at a Q&A luncheon

March 24-26
Glen Eyrie, CO
From Plot to Published
Angela Hunt and Nancy Rue, hands-on fiction clinic and critique

April 7-11
Mt. Hermon, CA
Mt. Hermon Christian Writer's Conference
James Scott Bell, fiction track
Randy Ingermanson, fiction mentoring track
Brandilyn Collins, fiction mentoring track and critique team

April 22-23
Downs, Kansas
Kansas Storytelling Festival
Deborah Raney will be doing writers’ workshops along with Bethany House authors Judith Miller and Kim Vogel Sawyer

May 17-20
Estes Park, CO
Colorado Christian Writer's Conference
James Scott Bell, fiction track
Angela Hunt (with Nancy Rue) advanced fiction clinic
Lisa Samson

May 20th, Eugene, OR, Oregon Christian Writer's conference .
Jane Kirkpatrick

May 21-25
Asheville, North Carolina,
Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference
Deborah Raney

August 10-12
Philadelphia, PA
Greater Philadelphia Christian Writers' Conference
Angela Hunt and Nancy Rue, advanced fiction clinic and critique

September 21-14
Dallas Marriott
American Christian Fiction Writers Conference
Liz Curtis Higgs, keynote speaker

Friday, March 03, 2006

LS: Your Own Drummer

I recently was privy to an email exchange by some writers who were asked by a friend if the phrasing in a certain sentence was appropriate.

It was a beautiful sentence with an aching description, a haunting thought, and a waltzing rhythm. Some people loved it; others didn’t and offered up alternative wordings. I could have told you based on their writings what the individual response would be.

The more literary, descriptive writers, understood inherently what he was trying to do. Even the genre fiction writers whose works go that extra mile in craft had minor suggestions. But the grammarians put their lips around it and sucked the very life from the sentence.

I just went over the line edits for my upcoming novel, Straight Up. This short paragraph came to my attention and I thought, “Cadence! Hey, there’s something I can talk about on Charis.” I was going to write about the proper use of prepositions, but, oh that’s right, I’m no grammarian!
So here’s the portion in its original form (at least original to the edited ms). I did my part. Now you do yours. Make this the flattest, most tone-deaf paragraph you can, all in the name of grammar and succinctness. If you have to add a few words to make it even worse, go right ahead. Oh, and (hint), there are three, count them, three usuallys in there. Surely only one is necessary right?

Jesse usually doesn’t talk like this. Jesse usually minds his own business when
it comes to things like sex, drink, and any questionable behavior he’s been
guilty of a thousand times or more himself. Jesse usually isn’t this annoying.

Musicality and rhythm are important to crafting a novel. How do you employ cadence in your writing?

Lisa Samson, author of seventeen novels, is bopping to the rhythm of life, love and an amazing cup of assam tea. Lexington KY witnesses this mayhem. Find her at