Friday, April 28, 2006

BJH: About Agents

A number of questions routinely come up about agents, but one the most frequent is, "How do I know when I'm ready for (or need) an agent?"

My reply to that would usually be, "When you have an offer on your book." When a publisher actually makes you an offer and indicates he's ready to go to contract, then you seriously need to consider working with an agent. The problem at that point may well be that you can't find one (a good one) soon enough. To complicate matters, though, if you start shopping around for an agent too soon, before you get an offer, the fact that you don't have an offer can hinder your chances. It's not always as simple as "have contract, sign with agent." Although some agents will still consider a writer who's yet unpublished, who is just starting out to build a career, more won't. And as I understand it, it's becoming more and more difficult to find an agent–a good one–unless you at least have a contract practically in hand.

Remember that, just as you will want to be highly selective about the agent you ultimately work with, so agents need to be selective, too. If you look at this from the agent's point of view, it only makes sense to choose your clients carefully. For most agents–though not all–this is their livelihood, a full-time job. Like us, they have mortgages and utilities to pay, in addition to educating their children and putting food on the table. So it's only natural that they would be interested in taking on writers who have a few publishing credits or who are at the stage where they've received definite interest from a publisher.

Agents are also interested in working with writers who aren't "one-book-wonders." A good agent expends a considerable amount of time and effort on selling a project and then negotiating the contract, including a good marketing plan and all the other issues involved in a publishing deal. Unless an agent is convinced that both of you stand to make a killing on your "one book," they're not likely to be too enthusiastic about working with someone who's going to toss a single title into the market and then go back to teaching school or whatever he does for a "real job."

Another situation that might make you go in search of a good agent would be if you're already a published author, perhaps even multi-published, but you're in the midst of a sticky dilemma with your publisher. You don't want to burn any bridges by becoming adversarial (or violent), but you also realize you're out of your league when it comes to resolving the problem. As an author, you always want to be the "good guy" with your publisher. Let the agent wear the hard hat and handle the difficult, awkward situations. They're experienced at doing just that, and most authors don't have the stomach for it.

What do you look for in an agent? It varies, depending on what kind of a working relationship you want–and, to some extent, what kind of a writer you are. Some writers are high maintenance and want (or need) someone who will function as both manager and agent. Other writers want little more than someone to negotiate their contracts and make certain all the "t’s" are crossed. Others want editing assistance and a good bit of editorial input from their agents.

Before you begin to actively look for your agent, take time to figure out, as best as you can, what kind of a relationship you want and what you believe you need, given the type of writer you are. There are some basics you have a right to expect from an agent: (1) That he/she be well-acquainted with the market, its editors and publishers, so that she's aware of who's looking for what and will know where to take your manuscripts instead of wasting everyone's time with circulating them to houses that don't even publish what you're writing or are overstocked with similar projects. (2) That he will avoid publishing houses known to be "unstable," who treat their authors like second-class citizens, or who aren't interested in the kind of material you like to write. (3) That she will maintain frequent contact with you to keep you in the loop as to what's going on with your projects. (4) That he will work for you rather than the publisher, while at the same time will maintain good relationships with the various publishers. You don't want to work with an agent who's viewed as "the enemy." (5) That she will see to it that your advances and royalties are paid on time and accurately, and that your publishers live up to all elements of your contracts. (6) That he will work on long-range planning with you to help you achieve your career goals, while also advising you if he believes your ideas are unreasonable or faulty, your goals too small or too large. (7) That she's well-experienced in all areas of the business of publishing and qualified to negotiate legal contracts to your benefit, as well as offer professional advice to you on career issues. (8) That he responds positively to your request to see at least a partial list of his clients and the publishers with whom he's placed projects during the past year, and that he offers two or three professional references for your review. (9) That she will consult you before accepting any offers on your behalf or making any significant business decisions for you. (10) That he is genuinely enthusiastic about and interested in your work so he can represent you with confidence. An agent who's ho-hum about a client doesn't deserve that client–and you most definitely do not want to be that client.

You might want to avoid an agent who is not enthusiastic about the genre you write in or about your style of writing. In other words, if you want to write romantic suspense and an agent specializes in literary fiction and general nonfiction, and admits that her personal reading taste disdains your genre, that's a fairly obvious red flag.

Also, if an agent wants to charge you a "reading fee" or an "evaluation fee" before committing to represent you, run...don't a different agency. Reading fees are unprofessional, and no reputable agent resorts to them.

If a prospective agent has been an agent for only six months and comes out of an occupation that is absolutely foreign to publishing or writing in general–I suggest that you let him gain two or three more years of experience and learn the business before you consider him.

Once you've found the agent you think you might like to work with, interview her–and speak with at least two or three of her author-clients to see how satisfied they are. It's also a good idea to inquire of one or two editors who have worked with her. Find out how they view her as a professional. Caveat: if an editor raves too much about a particular agent, if you sense that that agent might be more a publisher's darling than an author's advocate, you might want to take a second look before signing on with her. What you want is an agent who's respected by the industry, and while known to be an advocate for her clients, is also reasonable and professional in all her dealings.

You're going to have obligations, too, so you should be familiar with at least some of them and be willing to meet them. (1) Keep all details of your contracts: the negotiating process, financial matters–everything–between you and your agent. Sharing financial or other confidential information with your author-friends can be deadly to your author-agent relationship. Be discreet. Very discreet. (2) Refer any interested or prospective publishers to your agent. Don't become involved in discussions or negotiations on the side. (3) Make certain that her commissions are paid on time and are representative of your agreement with her. (4) Let your agent know right away if you foresee any change of direction in your writing or even changes you'd like to make. (5) Occasionally talk with your agent about your ideas for new works and get her input on those ideas. Let her help you plan your career long-range and carefully, rather than trying to keep up with your impulses. (6) Don't attempt to "over-sell" yourself. Be objective and totally honest with your agent about what you see as your strengths and weaknesses. If your abilities don't live up to your aspirations, it's better that your agent find this out from you, not from your publisher. And don't set yourself up as a literary snob or a leader of the intelligentsia. I promise you, you won't impress her. Don't ever try to con a good agent unless you sense she needs a good laugh–they know when you're trying to sell yourself instead of good writing. (7) Listen to his advice. You may think you know as much or more about the business of writing, but you probably don't. Trust your agent. If you do come up against a point of disagreement, discuss it openly and honestly with him until you can reach a decision or solution that satisfies both of you. (8) If you should encounter some sort of a difficulty or problem with your publisher, let your agent know right away.

Something else writers want to know about this business of working with an agent: Doesn't this mean you're left with no possibility of a one-on-one working relationship with your editor and/or publisher? No. By no means. Not unless you want it that way. I have plenty of contact with my editor and others involved in getting my books to readers, and most of the authors I've talked with say the same. There are a few authors who prefer not to have a "relationship," to stay far removed from the publishing house, but I can't imagine working this way.

Obviously, for the sake of time I can’t begin to cover all the specifics of a subject this complex in a blog entry. But I have tried to touch on most of the elements I consider essential, the things that go into a mutually enjoyable and beneficial author-agent relationship. That said, you might have yet another question by now: All the above sounds great, if somewhat idealistic, but in reality, are there agents like this out there? Do they even exist?

I can vouch for the fact that they do. It's been my good fortune to work with the best in the business, and a good friend as well. Frankly, I wouldn't want to face another day of publishing without Janet Kobobel Grant. There are still a few heroes out there, and Janet is one of them.

Good luck on finding yours.

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

Thursday, April 27, 2006

PH: Writing and its Impact on Faith

Have you considered how writing has impacted your relationship with Christ? I was recently asked this question. Writing has had the same impact on me that being in the ministry has had on my husband who is a pastor. When you prepare a work that you intend will communicate something to others, you feel the weight of that responsibility. It has caused me to spend knee-time asking God what he wants, but also a lot of time studying the Bible and other books that help me reach for a deeper understanding of the great mystery of God and of man’s response to Him. I sense him beside me continually now and I attribute that to a deeper understanding of knowing the person of Jesus Christ. When I walk through a dark season, I’m grateful for his vigil over my life, but also my awareness of it. Writers are students of life and my need to watch humans responding up close has made me aware of God’s gracious love feast that he continues to pour over all humanity.

I once wrote a book with Jill Briscoe’s son, Pete. He’s a Dallas pastor, a stable role model for Christian leaders, and just an all-around cool guy to know. He wrote of the high vantage point of ministry and how it caused him to know things first. But then how feeling the weight of that knowledge becomes a silent exercise in responsibility. Because writers are so aware of culture, trends, industry buzz, we often know things ahead of others. Learning to ponder those things in our hearts rather than exploit them is an exercise in self control. Writers can also become the target of criticism and are taught through experience to respond in mature love. The tremors that shake our industry to its core, scandal, market dips, irreligious books that become popular and lead readers astray cause us to seek God and His peace. We see a writer friend who has struggled so hard to make an impact with her books given a shred of limelight and we are overjoyed. A tiny, miniscule, mouse crumb of limelight falls on one of our books and we learn to exercise meekness. We work in solitude and, in spite of what some believe about novelists, most are seldom recognized. But in spite of the isolation and the long roads to deadlines, the vine of longsuffering grows a leaf and our character is strengthened. Who knew when we started out that writing would be an exercise in gaining spiritual fruit?

A friend or relative may ask why me why I slave over a book only to reap an advance that barely covers my living expenses. Yet when I consider the benefits, they are so close to the benefits of knowing Christ that I know in my heart I can’t help but sit back down to begin the next story. Writing has become so intertwined with my faith, I can scarcely tell one from the other. Perhaps like me, you live and breathe writing and reading. Your bookcases can scarcely contain your obsession and you can no longer see the carpet for the books, the notes, the research, and the abandoned time lines. Has writing impacted your faith? Is there another breath to be drawn?

Patricia Hickman is the author of Nazareth’s Song, Whisper Town, and the upcoming Earthly Vows.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

JC: Verbomit

When there are no words to say what you want to say, make one up. There’s nothing illegal about it. People have been doing it since the beginning of time.

When Adam turned to God and said, “What’s that?” do you really think the Almighty plopped a twelve volume set of the Oxford English Dictionary into his lap and replied, “Look it up. You’ll remember it longer?”

Webster’s adds new words to the dictionary every year. Last year’s additions include: brain freeze, chick flick, Wi-Fi, and zaibatsu.

(Bikini wax was also added, but I thought it inappropriate for a fifty-four-year-old Baptist minister to admit he knows about such things. Off the record—it’s beyond me why anyone would want to polish their swimsuit.)

Coming soon to a Webster’s near you: blog. My spell checker doesn’t recognize it yet, but the word has become part of our everyday vocabulary.

Not only are new words created every year, but new phrases as well. Once a phrase is repeated often enough it becomes a cliché and the target of every editor. The key to clichés is to be the first person to use them.

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes is riddled with clichés, only they weren’t clichés when Cervantes wrote them. Recognize these?

“The sweat of my brow.”
“Put you in this pickle.”
“Too much of a good thing.”
“Without a wink of sleep.”
“Thanks for nothing.”
“To give the devil his due.”
“A finger in every pie.”
“A wild goose-chase.”
“Mind your own business.”
“Within a stone’s throw.”
“Thou hast seen nothing yet.”
“I begin to smell a rat.”

The list goes on. All of them from a single novel.

Clichés are clichés because they’re so perfect; they say exactly what we want to say or wish we’d said.

A new word or phrase is said to be coined. As though there was money in it. There isn’t. (Though Disney hasn’t done too poorly for itself coining the words, supercalifragilisticexpialidocious and twitterpated.)

As a writer, you are licensed to make up words and phrases. Plus, you have the added satisfaction of knowing that if you do it well enough and coin a cliché, editors will someday ruthlessly excise your creation from other writers’ manuscripts.

I thought I’d try my hand at coining something. Here are my proposed additions to future printings of Webster’s:

verbomit, n. 1. Amateurish, cathartic writing. 2. The disgorging of one’s thoughts and emotions onto paper; writing that is good to get out of your system, but unfit for publication.
Used in a sentence: Editor to fledgling writer— “I haven’t seen verbomit of this quality in years. Unfortunately, we’re not publishing verbomit right now.”

Etymology: Some words are created by sheer inspiration or desperation. I coined verbomit for this blog. (I’ll let you read into that what you will.) The word simply popped into my mind.

usee timmee, n. From the Greek. 1. A literary device that explains the purpose behind an author’s composition. 2. An example so simple a ten-year-old boy with a dog could understand it.

Used in a sentence: All of our daily devotionals have an usee timmee in them.

Etymology: Some words are thrust upon you. While teaching a writing class, I drew an illustration from a popular movie about two speechwriters. One writer explains to the other that all good speeches need a “You see, Timmy,” explanation—the kind used in the television series Lassie, when mom explains to Timmy the lesson he needs to learn in that episode. One of the conferees misunderstood me. She thought usee timmee was a Greek term…and a new phrase was coined in two languages.

tweechizone, n. That moment in a restaurant when you know exactly what you’re going to order, regardless of price or what anyone else is ordering.

Used in a sentence: I set the menu aside; I was in the tweechizone.

Etymology: Some words are family heirlooms. Tweechizone was handed down to me by my father. He used it when a person’s choice made no sense to him. Not until high school did I understand that tweechizone was actually, “to each his own.” To define this word I paired it with something else dear to my heart—food.

Now it’s your turn.

Here are a couple of suggestions to get you started—

1. Start with a name. Everyone knows what you mean when you call a man a Romeo or a Don Juan. An infamous example would be to call a man a quisling, from Vidkun Quisling, a Norwegian politician who sold out his country to the Nazis. His cowardly collaboration placed him in the dictionary, synonymous with traitor.

Ask yourself: What does it mean to pull a gansky? If you were to blackstock something, what would you do to it? If someone said, “You’re such a lambert!” what would they mean? If they were to say, “When in doubt, hoff it!” where would you start?

2. Coin a G-rated expletive or interjection that Christian novelists can use. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tracked down an innocent-sounding interjection only to discover that it has an irreverent or sexual etymology. Dig deep enough and even Mercy me! is tainted. We need good non-offensive expletives. Coin one and Christian novelists all over the world will rise up and call you blessed.

So that’s your assignment. Coin a word or phrase suitable for future editions of Webster’s Dictionary. Introduce it to the world in the comment section of this blog.

Advisory: Give this assignment the serious thought it deserves. I don’t want to see any verbomit.

Jack Cavanaugh, the author of Storm and Fury, for a listing of his books, click here.

Monday, April 24, 2006

JK: The Office of Stories

When I make presentations, I often talk about the power of story in our lives. I’m convinced that some of the best writing being done today is being done by those who write children and young adult stories because they capture the essence of story and must do so within 32 or just a few pages, unlike me whose stories tend to run to 400 pages.

Earlier this week my belief in children’s stories was affirmed. I visited a friend who is dying. He’s had a long struggle with cancer and has lived his life and faith in fullness. At his home where his wife and hospice nurse and others were settling him into his bed, he pointed out to me the pictures his grandchildren had drawn for him that had been hung on the wall.

They were stories, of course. You could tell how important this man was to them as he was the theme of all the stories but they’d drawn themselves in relationship to him. Close. Comforting. Being there.

One of the drawings showed a young girl reading to her grandfather who rested on the bed. But what she’d written above the bed is what struck me. She’d made a sign that said “The Office of Stories.”

I was on my way to lead a retreat titled “The Stories of our Lives” where I’d be talking about Journey stories, Hearth stories, Transition stories and Enduring stories. But her little sign sang to me. “The Office of the Surgeon General.” “The Office of Homeland Security.” And the most important of all, “The Office of Stories.” She’d put stories in the proper perspective: they are that important, and would be to them as their grandfather left their earthly presence and what remained were the stories of his life.

So often we ignore the stories of our lives. We get busy, we get distracted. As writers, this happens to us too. We get so busy putting ourselves inside the story we’re writing that we forget that we are writing stories of our lives at the same time and that those stories are important. They are healing. They protect us. They give us hope.

As part of my transition story session at the retreat I’d asked women to bring along a favorite picture of themselves, maybe a baby picture. I wanted to talk with them about change but also about God’s endurance as we transition from one stage to another in our lives. Divided into small groups that looked like they were sitting around a campfire telling stories, I asked them to tell the narrative of the picture: what was it about, who else was there, who took the picture. Each woman waited patiently and intently as the stories were told. Then I asked them to explore what positive quality was expressed by that child of long ago? Then I asked them if that quality still existed within them. Did they still have stories of resilience in their lives? Could they still see determination? Was that broad, happy smile still possible as adults?

The exercise appealed, they said. They loved telling the stories but more, seeing how the child within them was still alive, still to be nurtured and loved. “Suffer the little children to come unto me,” Christ said. That’s how important our stories are to him. We mine those early stories as we write and use them to explore our characters’ lives and change our own stories in the process. It’s important work fit for the office of Stories.

Jane Kirkpatrick’s 12th novel, A Clearing in the Wild, will be released from WaterBrook Press this month. .

Friday, April 21, 2006

DL: Storytellers

Halfway through my final year of graduate school, my faculty advisor called me into his office. “Chosen the three writers you’re going to concentrate on for your comprehensive exams yet?” he asked.

“Steinbeck, Twain, and Flannery O’Connor,” I said.

He was quiet. “That’s it?” he said.

“Why not?”

He shrugged. “Well…O’Connor’s okay, I guess. But Twain and Steinbeck—I’m not even sure what I’d ask you about them. Why don’t you choose someone with more depth? Someone whose work represents a philosophical thought system of some kind, someone with ideas? How about Faulkner, or D. H. Lawrence, or even Hemingway? We could have some fun with those.”

I had nothing against Faulkner and Lawrence and Hemingway. As an undergraduate, I had often said that Hemingway was my favorite writer. And like any other graduate student, I greatly enjoyed the late-night bull sessions arguing about the “philosophical thought systems” of writers.

The truth was, I hadn’t asked myself why I’d chosen the three that I had—they had simply appealed to me. So I was surprised that the answer was quick in coming. “Because I’ve chosen storytellers,” I said, “writers who excel at crafting strong plots peopled with memorable characters. That’s the kind of fiction I want to write myself.”

And it was. And is. I love language, and I love to play with it, but I don’t want to write stories that are primarily just language play, like Faulkner or Updike at their most self-indulgent. (Both of those writers, at their best, can be excellent storytellers.) I don’t want to write stories that are essentially just an apologetic for some philosophical system, such as Lawrence with Freudianism or George Bernard Shaw with socialism or Upton Sinclair with social reform. I want to create worlds of people and events that readers enter into as completely as they would inhabit a new planet, and remain there until the story is over.

But you’re a Christian writer, some might point out. Aren’t you essentially doing the same thing with your faith as Shaw did with socialism?

I hope not. It’s not my intention to make my stories an apologetic for the Christian faith.

There’s a place for that, but it’s not the kind of writing that appeals to me.

That means, of course, that some things I write will have no overt Christian content. If I’m to be honest in my writing (and shouldn’t we as Christian writers be, above all, honest?), I don’t see a way around that. If a story is a type of conversation with a reader, and if those conversations follow the pattern of all of my other conversations, then all will (or should) reflect my values and my beliefs, but not all mention Christ, and not all are for the purpose of spreading the gospel. Some are far more mundane, more whimsical, more focused on the temporal.

It also means that some of my writings, far from being an apologetic, will express my struggles and failures in my faith, as well as my doubts.

But above all, it means that I’m participating with God in the creative act. It could be argued that God’s creation itself is a poor apologetic for faith in him! When one looks at the history of mankind, and at society all around us, it doesn’t seem to be working as he must have planned it. Until, of course, one realizes that in this case the exception proves the rule.

Like God, I’m creating a world populated by self-willed beings who consistently sneak out from under my control. Like God, I have a strongly held value system that I would like my own characters (or at least the protagonists) to adhere to—but I’ve chosen not to force them to, and they seem to delight in slipping their collars and racing out into the street to chase cars. Like God, I expect to ultimately redeem my creation, but in the meantime, its inhabitants cause me and themselves a world of grief.

Like God, I’m a storyteller—not a pedant.

Dave Lambert is a novelist, an editor, and a musician. An all-around Renaissance Man . . .

Thursday, April 20, 2006

HA: Digging Deeper

I’m one of those people who have to learn things the hard way, and some things take a long time to sink in. For years, as a writer, I’ve tried to discern the importance of scene tension in comparison to scene action. It’s always been natural for me to keep the action going in each scene, both to keep myself, and the reader, from getting bored. For the same reason, I’ve tended to throw all kinds of complications into the mix, so the action wouldn’t have a chance to slow.

Recently, when Mel and I took a road trip, we learned an important lesson the easy way for once. Or at least, easier than is typical for us.
On the first leg of our journey, we listened to an audio book of one of our favorite authors. It was good, as this writer’s books always are. The action kept going, and never flagged. By the time we reached our destination, however, I was glad the book had ended. The reader of this novel had a great voice and excellent diction, but the voice tended to soften, at times, to the point that we had to turn up the volume to hear what was being said. During action scenes, the voice grew louder and louder until we had to turn down the volume. It became irritating.

Maybe that’s just me, but I don’t like having to take my hands from the steering wheel to adjust volume, and I’m more sensitive to loud noises than Mel is, so I was the one who usually adjusted volume.

On the way back home, we listened to a different audio book by another favorite author. I couldn’t help noticing that the reader of this book, a professional actor, knew how to modulate his voice perfectly. We never had to adjust the volume.

But I picked up on more than that. Though this second author writes spine-tingling chillers, he uses something besides fast action and constant high drama to draw the tension tight and keep it there. Every word, from the beginning of the story to the final sentence, is crafted to work with every other word to create a mood that makes the reader want to look over her shoulder. Every character is drawn with such depth that the reader finds herself crawling into that character’s skin. The pacing slows at just the right time, clueing us in as we read that something is about to happen that could change the course of the story—and it has become our story, so it’s important to us, so we have to keep reading.

High action is great, like good exercise that works up a sweat and gets our heart to pumping. But after a good session of exercise, I need to slow down. After a tense scene in a book, I need time to enjoy the scenery, dig more deeply into the characters so I will be more inclined to care about them. If I can’t care about the characters in the story, all the action in the world can be boring, and there will be no high drama. For a writer to produce drama, there needs to be tension, and that comes, as I said, from caring.

As a reader I need to slow down and catch a glimpse into a character’s heart to know if he’s worth rooting for—or finishing the book for. I know a few writers who can write a book about characters I don’t like, and still keep me reading. These writers are geniuses. I’m no genius. I can’t work that way.

As a writer, I find I’m constantly trying to force myself to slow down in my story, to dig deeper, to give the readers something to care about, a reason to live in the world I’ve created for just a little longer. I want them to return there again and again, to be eager to pick the book back up and continue the story, and then, when the story is over, to share it with someone else.

I want to be the best I can be. Don’t we all? Try digging a little deeper.

Hannah Alexander is the pen name for Mel and Cheryl Hodde. You can read more about them at

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

PH: Relevant

The Christian book niche makes a statement about our culture. While Christian writers were working to find our own voice, the marketplace was reacting culturally. A big enough percentage of readers wanted to connect with a different type of literature. Some wanted stories that made them think about the spiritual part of their lives. The reasons are as different as there are people. The fact remained that, except for the works that have become classics, twentieth century fiction seldom integrated the part of the world that seeks Christian faith. The Christian character was not typically portrayed as a strong person, or a person capable of loving others. While there are many types in the world, the religious “types” in modern fiction were not fully formed. The reaction was that some readers felt alienated from modern literature. For those who consider faith in Christ central to life, eliminating every trace of that God-relationship in modern literature is not realistic.

A segment of readers wanted characters that either eventually sought, stumbled upon, or raised questions about faith. In short, characters relevant to their Christian experience. Over the last couple of decades, the buzz around Christian writing circles is how do I balance the gritty realities of life with the Christian worldview without sanitizing my fiction or yielding to soggy sentimentality?

Shaping fiction relevant to the modern Christian aesthetic has required a lot of retooling. Moralizing sends the story flat-lining, unless your intent is to create a character blind to his own lack of authenticity, like Parson Adams in Joseph Andrews. So the Christian novelist has to walk the delicate line between literature and faith. The Bible is rated R if held under the microscope of those who rate morality in literature from within the Christian culture. The Genesis account alone tells the unvarnished truth about humans and our failure to trust God, to believe Him, to take Him at his word. The Bible also portrays the God-follower as prone to falling back into his old ways. We find characters fully formed, following God one moment and falling into adultery the next. However, it is not R rated in the sense of gratuitous descriptions (although the word pictures are telling enough.) But it is a book of raw truth and doesn’t sanitize how humans—even those who have consecrated their lives to God--act and respond.

We Christian writers have had to learn to balance reality in our own fiction while remembering why our readers came to us in the first place. We don’t want to promote an inauthentic or idealistic mystique about who we are, and then even worse, believe it. Even in our churches’ small groups, we want the new believer to know the faith walk is not a walk in the park and that we all stumble. To exercise this same guarding of the truth in literature gives us a greater chance of preserving our legacy in literature, blemishes and all. That is a big responsibility and one that most Christian writers hold in sober commitment. Many Christian novelists address the realities of life while faith informs their stories. That is a natural aesthetic for the Christian artist. We might issue the same challenge to our literary peers in non-Christian circles. Fully formed characters, after all, cast the longest shadows in time.

Patricia Hickman is the author of Nazareth’s Song and Whisper Town. Earthly Vows will release Summer 2006.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

JSB: Don't Play it Safe

My favorite time of the sporting year is March Madness, the NCAA basketball tournament. Sixty-four college teams play elimination rounds to try to make it to the storied Final Four, from which will come the national champion.

More great games happen in this tourney than any other, games won on fabulous last second shots or incredible defensive plays. Major powerhouses are upset by little schools with big hearts. Some games go into the category of legend.On March 23, one such game was played. The UCLA Bruins, a young team, went up against one of the country’s leading powers, Gonzaga. The Bruins almost lost in the first ten minutes. At one point in the first half they were behind by 17 points.In fact, with just over three minutes left in the GAME, the Bruins were down by 9 points. The way Gonzaga had been scoring (especially via their All American, Adam Morrison) this deficit seemed insurmountable.

But with one minute to go, UCLA was only down by five.And then what happened? “We dug deep,” Bruin sophomore guard Jordan Farmar said.Behind by one point as the clock ticked off the final seconds, Farmar and another teammate, Cedric Bozeman, put a double team on the Gonzaga big man, who had the ball. Bozeman knocked the ball loose. Farmar grabbed it, saw his teammate under the hoop, passed him the ball for a layup.

It was the last basket of the game, a game nobody thought the Bruins could win at the four minutes-to-go mark. The gutsy Bruins never gave up.But there was another aspect to this game that deserves mention. It was also a game lost by Gonzaga. In those final four minutes, they were outscored 11 – 0. Why? How could that have happened when they were scoring pretty much at will before that?

It happened because their coach decided to play it safe. Instead of staying in their game, Gonzaga tried to run down the clock. Instead of going to the hoop, they dribbled the ball up around the half court line. Result: disaster. The players were out of rhythm, and it showed, and it let the Bruins back in the game.

This lesson should not be lost on writers. Don’t play it safe. That is, don’t be afraid to stretch your writing muscles at every level of your career.

Young writers may try to play it safe in order to get published. Instead of seeking their own voice, they try to imitate that which sells.Even writers who reach a certain measure of success can play it safe, trying not to lose what they have achieved. But “trying not to lose” is not the way to victory. Just ask Gonzaga.Instead, stretch and grow. This doesn’t mean, if you’re a genre writer, that you have to write the first experimental, time traveling, satirical-historical legal thriller in stream-of-consciousness mode. But it does mean digging a little deeper into character or plot or theme, or refusing to settle for the “Okay” when the “Extraordinary” is possible.

What editors look for is that combination of fresh voice and familiar territory, a story that crackles with originality and also with the possibility of being marketed to readers. Put those two things together in your writing, and you’ll definitely be playing to win.

James Scott Bell, author of Presumed Guilty (Zondervan),
“The Suspense Never Rests”

Monday, April 17, 2006

AG: B.I.C. Time

I’ve been preaching at a church about an hour from my home. The pastor is facing some surgery and I’ve been asked to fill in for a little while. This past Sunday I used the following opening illustration:

The human heart beats an average of 75 times a minute; forty million times a year; two-and-a-half billion times during a normal lifespan. With each beat, the average adult heart discharges about four ounces of blood. This amounts to 3000 gallons a day or 650,000 gallons a year—enough to fill more than 81 tank cars holding 8,000 gallons each.

The heart does enough work in one hour to lift a 150-pound man to the top of a three-story building, enough energy in twelve hours to lift a 65-ton tank car one foot off the ground, and enough power in seventy years to lift the largest battleship afloat completely out of the water.
Looking at the illustration again, I am reminded how much can be done in little increments. Just four ounces of blood is pumped with each beat of the heart. Four ounces isn’t much, but it adds up quickly because the heart doesn’t rest.

When someone learns that I write books for a living they often say, “I could never write a whole book. How do you do it?” My answer is, “I just put one word after another.”

Stephen King thinks the same way. He said, “When asked, ‘How do you write?’ I invariably answer, ‘one word at a time.’”

Some think that a book is born fully formed and springs from the writer’s brain like Athena from Zeus’ skull. The truth is it only feels that way. Novels are born not in a single act of labor, but by a long chain of words strung together like pearls. When looked at as a whole, the work seems impossible, but when viewed in bite-size segments things appear a little cheerier.
Writing five days a week and producing five pages per day will yield a 350 page novel in just 70 workdays—about three-and-a-half months. That’s three books a year. At just three pages per work day the same book can be penned in less than six months. Two pages per work day yields a book in nine months.

Granted, the math is easier than actual composition but it makes the point: Getting from “Prologue” to “THE END” is an exercise of daily production. Not to put too fine a point on it, writing requires consistent butt-in-chair (B.I.C.) time—not once in awhile, but day after day. One word joins another to become a sentence; sentences hookup to form paragraphs; paragraphs swell into chapters; and chapters add up to a book.

Craft can be learned; endurance can’t. Endurance is a function of desire. When the force of our desire exceeds the inertia of our reluctance a book is born.

Alton Gansky writes and preaches and builds furniture in California.

Friday, April 14, 2006

DR: Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Reviews

One of the hard things a published writer must learn is to toughen up where reviews are concerned. I hate bad reviews, whether from professional critics or ordinary readers on I especially hate them when they aren’t as much about the book, as they are about demeaning an author’s beliefs, religion, ethnicity, or personality. But bad reviews are a fact of the writing life, and there aren’t many multi-published authors who haven’t had at least one or two.

I’ll never forget my first scathing reader review (for Beneath a Southern Sky...and it’s still up on if you want to weep along with me! LOL!) That review almost paralyzed me for a few days. It truly did. It didn’t hurt so much that someone didn’t like my book (okay HATED my book). I’m well aware that the type of book I write isn’t for everyone, and there are many different tastes in genre and style. What hurt was that it sounded like the reviewer didn’t much like me as a person either!

When I go back and read that review now, I can be much more objective. I realize now that the reviewer probably has never met me. I don’t think he/she really meant their words as a personal affront. But I can also still, after more than four years, remember the deep pain I experienced when I first discovered that review. I actually broke out in a sweat and started shaking—and I’m not usually an excitable person. I shed some tears over that person’s words, and I have a feeling he/she would be surprised to know that.

But I did something else after receiving that review. I removed an review I had written months earlier for a book that really made me angry. No, it wasn’t wrong of me to post a review respectfully outlining why I disliked this book. But I had made the same mistake I think my reviewer made—I made my review personal, commenting on the author’s personality, not just his writing. I didn’t even know the man! But like my reviewer, I failed to acknowledge that this author was human and had feelings.

My terrible-horrible-no-good-very-bad review (and there have been plenty of others since) gave me two important things: a thicker skin for the inevitable bad reviews to come in my future; and a softer heart for other writers, who are real people just like me.

And wouldn’t you know it, I’ve discovered a brand new way to develop a tougher skin:’s AmazonConnect feature which lets people vote on whether or not they like an author’s AmazonConnect blog post. I gotta tell ya, it stings just a little to see that out of twenty-some people who voted for my first post, five of them said they didn’t like me—er, I mean my post. Sigh.

Deborah Raney is the author of A Vow to Cherish (Steeple Hill, June 2006). Work in progress: Remember to Forget for Howard Publishing/Simon & Schuster.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

DL: Transcendent Moments in Fiction Reading

All of us who read novels have had moments like this—the lucky ones among us have had several.

The first I remember came when I was in high school. I’d only recently been granted liberty to read, without my parents’ guidance, anything I could find on our family bookshelves, and it was with a great sense of freedom that I browsed the shelves one night for a novel (since I’d already read everything we owned on natural history, my other passion). I picked out a cheap mass-market edition of Pearl Buck’s The Townsman. I didn’t know much about Pearl Buck, except that I’d already read The Good Earth for school and had enjoyed it. I skimmed the back ad. This was a very different novel from The Good Earth—a historical about a man living in a small town in the American Great Plains in the nineteenth century. Like most American boys in the early sixties, I loved reading about that time and place: the great myth of the American West. I plopped down on my chocolate-brown corduroy bedspread that night, quickly scanned the cages of my menagerie around the room, making sure that everybody was still alive, and began to read.

As I’d expected, I enjoyed her evocation of time and place, and the subtle complexities of her plot drew me in. But this time, something different happened. There was something intriguing about her protagonist. I found myself chuckling in the first couple of chapters: “Yeah, that sounds like something I’d say. And here—yup, that’s what I’d do, too.” But as the evidence piled up, I stopped chuckling. I felt a chill, and by the time I’d worked my way several chapters into the book, I was breathing faster, deeper, my eyes widening in wonder—this man was me! It wasn’t just that I liked this character, not just that I admired him—he was me! If I’d been an adult living in a small town on the plains in the nineteenth century, this is how I’d have acted, these were the decisions I’d have made, the conversations I’d have had. I’d never met Pearl Buck, wasn’t even sure if she was still alive, but she had nailed me in this book, with great insight not just into how I spoke and acted, but also how I felt and thought, even in the secret heart of me that I revealed to no one, not even my friends or parents—the things I was proud of, and my hidden shames.

Decades have passed, but I remember the wonder, the sense of a world opening to me. If this somewhat obscure novel could create this sensation in me, how many other novels, other novelists, out there could speak to me in this way, or in ways even more profound? I began to haunt the fiction shelves at the public library, trying novels and collections of stories by authors well known and not so well known, judging less on reputation than on how much I liked the first few pages, and finding new favorites (Alexander Solzhenitzen, Isaac Bashevis Singer) and expanding my reading in those I’d already come to love (Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Joseph Conrad). Some were hits, some misses, but I was rewarded often enough with new plots to lose myself in, new characters to love. I’d always been a reader of stories, but in The Townsman I had discovered something different—a new way to read, at a whole new level. I had learned how to invest myself in the reading of fiction, and how to be consciously transformed by it, rather than simply entertained.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my own writing changed soon thereafter. Whereas I’d been writing stories for years simply for the love of it and showing them to no one except perhaps family, now I began to write stories and poems and circulate them among my friends, anxious to gauge, by their reactions, whether I was engaging them at a deeper level than, say, a television program would. And when one of my creations seemed to elicit a more profound response from my friends, I would screw up my courage and stick it into a manila envelope and mail it off with hopes and prayers.

It would be five more years before I would find an editor enchanted enough by my poetry to publish any of it—and another five before any magazine would publish a story of mine. And in those poems and stories—and in all the ones since—I have striven to achieve the same type, the same depth, of response in my readers that Pearl Buck’s novel achieved in me on that long-ago evening on my chocolate-brown bedspread, surrounded by cages of critters I’d dragged home from hill and desert.

I invite you to respond to this blog—what have been your own transcendent moments in fiction reading? What novel, what story, was it that removed the scales from your eyes about what fiction could be? And how did it affect your own writing?

I’ve experienced many transcendent moments since, although few that I recall with such clarity. I have many prayers as a writer, but one of the strongest and most persistent is this: that other readers will have their own stories to tell of the night they were touched at the very deepest levels of their psyche by a story that opened their eyes to a new way of experiencing the world—and that the book that creates that experience in them will be one written by me.

Dave Lambert is a novelist and an editor of Christian fiction. He and his wife, Cindy, live in Michigan.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

LCH: No Offense, But…

I’ve never been voted off the island, named the weakest link, or told what not to wear, but I’ve weathered my share of criticism—constructive, destructive, and otherwise. A sharply-worded email from a disgruntled reader makes me question my calling. A scathing evaluation from an audience member sends me back to my hotel room with a heavy heart. A mean-spirited letter from a Bible study attendee brings me to tears.

Ouch, ouch, ouch.

You’ve been there, too. A customer’s disparaging comments about your work still rankle. A supposed friend points out some character flaw “for your own good”—except her advice hurts more than it helps. An employer’s negative evaluation echoes in your head long after you’ve moved on to another job.

When, as the Bible aptly puts it, “You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting” (Daniel 5:27), what’s a Christian to do? (a) Take those critical words to heart? (b) Pretend you never heard them? Or (c) strike back while your ire is hot?

The correct answer, of course, is (d) none of the above. But there are ways to turn a negative into a positive when unwelcome criticism comes along.

Consider the Source

Everyone is entitled to an opinion, but some caustic comments stem from jealousy, frustration, or anger. Look not only at what people say, but also at who they are and why they spoke up. Are they qualified to judge you or your work? And are they speaking the truth in love…or throwing fiery darts intended to wound you? If it’s clear someone is speaking from a place of pain, overlook her caustic barbs and gently ask, “Are you okay? You seem really down today…”

Search Your Heart

Most criticism, however painful, bears a kernel of truth. Wise is the soul who finds that small kernel, chews on it, and swallows his or her pride along with it. However difficult the process, if we can grow and improve, the momentary discomfort is worth it. Years ago I performed on my first radio jingle…as a singing chicken. I was awful, and everyone in the studio knew it. Before the producer handed over my paycheck, he made me promise never to darken his door again. Though he said it with a smile, I got the message and took both the check and the lesson to heart. No more fowl play for Liz!

Seek a Second Opinion

Usually one discouraging comment is far outweighed by ten encouraging ones. Our human nature tends to focus on the lone naysayer and discount the many affirming voices, telling ourselves, “They’re just being nice.” Exactly! As Paul said, “encourage one another and build each other up” (1 Thess. 5:11). Nice is a good thing. Take a consensus vote—not one person’s opinion—as your guide.

Eliminate the Fringe

Any time you’re assessed by your peers, remember this rule of thumb: throw away the worst evaluation and (this is harder) toss out that gushing, over-the-top one, too. Fringe voices throw us off balance. Somewhere between “Wow!” and “Ugh!” lies an honest appraisal of our efforts.

Win Them Over

As a retiree my father took on the daunting volunteer task of handling complaints for his local government office. Not an assignment most people would want, but my dad loved the challenging of making an unhappy person happy. He listened to irate callers, agreed with them, and did what he could to appease them. But most of the time Dad simply helped them accept the situation using honesty and diplomacy. And patience.

First Things First

The truth is, only one opinion counts, only one evaluation truly matters. If I’ve done what I believe to be right and am criticized, I remember Paul’s soul-searching question: “Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God?” (Gal. 1:10) Many times you can please both, but when forced to choose…well, a smart cookie like you knows what to do.

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

Monday, April 10, 2006

JSB: The Yo-Yo and You

"A good idea is like a yo-yo -- it may go to the end of its string, but it doesn't die there; it only sleeps. Eventually in rolls back up into your palm." – Stephen King, on getting the idea for "It" 3 1/2 years before he wrote it. The idea kept coming back to his palm.

One night he was sitting on his front porch, in Bangor, smoking, thinking about the idea that would not go away, and asked himself if he was getting too old to TRY such a project, afraid to just "jump in and drive fast."

So he got up off the porch, went into his study, cranked up some rock and roll, and started to write. The first line goes like this:

"The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years--if it ever did
end--began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of
newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain."

Does that not make you want to read on?

First lines, BTW, are fun to write. Dean Koontz used to do that all the time, to prime his writing pump. One day he wrote:

"You ever killed anything?" Roy asked.

Koontz had no idea what these words meant. But the yo-yo came back to his palm. He wrote furiously for another ten minutes, and got down two pages of story, which became the book, The Voice of the Night.

Give yourself time to play with the yo-yo. Keep a list of ideas as they come to you. I expand my own list all the time, one or two lines. Then, when I find that some keep coming back, I put them onto my "front burner." Eventually, I select one to write.

Then it's: Jump in. Drive fast.

James Scott Bell is the author of Presumed Guilty (Zondervan) and Write Great Fiction: Plot & Structure (Writers Digest Books) "The Suspense Never Rests"™

Sunday, April 09, 2006

PH: Change

They say that Tiger Woods had to endure three years of an interrupted winning streak to learn a new swing. I get that, the whole self-challenge test. But since this is my year of gut-wrenching authenticity, I think it would be authentic of me to admit that I embrace new challenges while at the same time hating the sacrifice required for change. I like the idea of change better than the commitment to change. Or the isolation of it. I embraced going back to school to close up, shall we say, some gaping wounds in my education. But, as a writer, I wanted a new swing. I was giddy. I imagined school as fun and carefree, like when I was nineteen. I compare the change it brought into my life to the first time I jumped on a bike and climbed the first series of hills in my neighborhood. I dropped to the walk, retching, my clueless glow erased. I wheezed like a geezer, wishing I had carried my cell phone so that I could beg my husband to drive down and scoop me off the walk. School was like that. The same clueless expectancy lured me into the first residency; I hefted too many books into class, nearly wrenching my back. I struggled with petty changes, like trying to remember names and faces when I’m still the one whining at church that we all ought to wear name tags. Scholar-speak and publishing-speak are not the same language. I wasn’t bi-lingual. When asked by cohort members why I came back to school (isn’t publishing the goal?), I muttered that I wanted to embrace something new in my writing. I sounded lame. After the first residency, my resolve was weakening. My days as a reluctant scholar seeped into the wintry months of dissatisfaction and late night revisions and rising early. It didn’t matter that I had written for thirteen years. This was a do-over in the middle of life. A long literary winter. The story I wanted to write had to be chipped out of change. Some days I laid my head on my desk, whispering grumpy prayers, begging God for strength to finish and finish well. Finally, the exit interviews are coming and commencement is a week away. I can’t explain the melancholy. I have a new swing, finally. I’m glad winter is over.

Whisper Town is Patricia Hickman’s most recent release. Earthly Vows will release August 2006. Her thesis and Random House WIP is entitled The Painted Dress Diaries and will release some time in 2007.

Friday, April 07, 2006

AG: The Painful Truth About Deadlines

Albert Einstein is the father of relativity. It is he who said time is relative to the observer. “A few minutes spent with a pretty girl,” he explained, “goes by much faster than a few minutes sitting on a hot stove.” Logic like that is difficult to argue.

Writer’s experience “time dilation” when immersed in the shadow of a charging deadline. For some reason the hours and days pass far more quickly in the last few weeks before a book is due. If you visit this site often, then you might have noticed that I haven’t been posting as frequently as usual. You guessed it, I have a book due soon, and I’ll admit I’m displaying signs of deadlineitis. Here’s how to know if you’re on deadline:

  • You open your calendar program five times a day and count the remaining days to the deadline.
    At least once a day, you divide the number of pages needed by the number of days left to the circled date on your calendar.
  • TUMS has become one of the basic food groups.
  • Television is no longer a source of entertainment but a reservoir for possible solution to your plot problems.
  • You visit to see how difficult it is to post your resume.
  • You envy magazine writers who only have to produce 2,000 words (less than what you have to write today).
  • When you wake up you say, “Good Lord, it’s morning,” instead of “Good morning, Lord.”
  • The cat looks infinitely more kickable with each passing day.
  • You wonder if your editor will believe that you’ve been stricken with Ebola.
  • Your great outdoor adventure is picking up the mail.
  • When you go outside, you ask your spouse, “What’s that big burning sphere in the sky?” She tells you it is the sun.
  • You step from your office or writing corner and your spouse introduces you to the kids.
Deadlines can be awful things, but in the end, it is a far better thing to have one than not. No matter how tough the final days of writing, I feel blessed to have a contract, a publisher, and an opportunity to write one more book.

Now, where’s that cat . . .

Alton Gansky has really never kicked a cat in his life (we hope). Check out his books at

Thursday, April 06, 2006

RLH: Perseverance

Recently I received an email that included the following sentence:

“I know you are a busy woman, but I just wanted to know if I could send you a few pages of my book to get your insight on whether or not it will sell.”

I’m always a little flummoxed by this type of request. There is no possible way that I can tell anyone whether or not something they’ve written will sell, not from a few pages nor from the full manuscript. Even if it is the most brilliant piece of writing I’ve read, I can’t say if it will get published. Plenty of “good stuff” gets passed over in this business and plenty of “dross” makes its way into print.

So let’s assume that this writer has put in the effort to hone her craft. She has read countless novels in the genre she is most interested in, and she has analyzed the works of her favorite author(s). She has worked on her manuscript every day. She has attended at least one writer’s conference. She has joined a writer’s organization and/or found a critique group. She has poured over her copies of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Plot & Structure, The Writer’s Journey, Strunk & White’s Elements of Style, and/or other excellent craft books that are available to her through bookstores and libraries. She has studied the market, making use of The Writer’s Market and/or The Christian Writer’s Market Guide. She has revised and polished her prose and has written a solid, entertaining novel.

Even so, her work may never be published. Maybe it arrives on the editor’s desk five minutes after the editor bought a book with a similar theme or setting. Maybe the publisher’s list is filled for the next five years and they aren’t buying right now. Maybe the book is wonderful, but the publishing house has changed its focus for the future.

When I began writing my first novel, it never occurred to me to ask anyone else if they thought it would be published. I wrote the book because there was a story inside of me bursting to get out. I had to write it. When it was finished and I’d done everything I knew how to do to make it the best I could write at the time, I submitted it to publishers. Nineteen of those recipients rejected the manuscript based on my query letter and partial. Two were interested. One bought it.

So who was right? The nineteen who weren’t interested or the one who ultimately bought it? (That’s a rhetorical question; don’t feel compelled to give a reply!)

I think this quote from Calvin Coolidge is particularly appropriate for writers:

Press on: nothing in the world can take the place of perseverance. Talent will
not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not;
unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of
educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.

That’s good advice, whether you’re writing your first manuscript or your 100th. Press on.

Robin Lee Hatcher (Diamond Place, Hart’s Crossing Book #3, Revell, April 2006) has been persevering for 25 years and in October 2006 will celebrate the publication of her 50th release, A Carol for Christmas (Zondervan).

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

PH: Learning to Fall For Writers

This well known book title, Learning to Fall, also came with a journal. I am always buying a new journal. I celebrate small things and sometimes it’s with a gift of a journal. When I go on retreat either with other women or with other writers, I always grab one and pack it away. They’re lying all over my house, little unfinished threads of thought that I might go back and pick up. So I have a ready supply. Learning to Fall has become a favorite journal of mine. It’s the kind that has a question on each page. During my last women’s retreat, I took it out for my quiet time at sunrise, a date each of us had made with our Creator.

I opened to the page that asked me to describe how hurdles have affected me.

I penned, "A hurdle has one purpose. The rule of competition is that you can't go around it or even walk away from it. You have to go over it, running at high speed; then you defy gravity and your body lifts in a sort of airborne ballet. For that one moment your blood is pumping and you're no longer aware of the crowd because you have done the impossible--live for the moment in midair. And if you had gone around the hurdle instead of over it, you would have missed the breathtaking splendor of knowing what it is like to soar.”

All right, enough of that. But if you have been struggling with your writing, maybe it helps to know that all writers have to go over hurdles. It seems, at times, that we must be going in the wrong direction with our current WIP, or else we wouldn’t be experiencing so many roadblocks.

When I was young, soaring was not condoned because it was considered dangerous. "Best to keep your feet on the ground and your head out of the clouds," I was taught. But God placed in my path other hurdle jumpers. They lifted with that blithe agility that said that they were above all things--alive! Writers who wanted to tell their stories, choosing solitude for the sake of a written legacy. I longed to live life like that, blood pumping, heart pounding in my ears, adrenaline coursing, fingers flying with ease to churn out page after page of Hemingway-esque prose. So I tried my first hurdle, my first page, and stumbled. I got up bleeding and could hear the voice saying, "Keep your feet on the ground and your head out of the clouds." But the bleeding subsided and the scars were sort of a trophy, so I ran at the next hurdle and then the next until that shining moment when my writer’s muscles, strengthened by the trials, buoyed me up and finally, I soared. I finished my first proposal.

If you have been writing for any length of time, then you are accustomed to voices in your head. Anne Lamott calls the voices that interfere with her writing little mouse people. She picks each one up mentally by the tail, tosses them into a jar, and closes the lid until all is quiet. Replacing the negative voices with positive affirming voices is so good for the mechanism. And then if you are a God-follower, you are well acquainted with the Big Voice; the one that assures you that the hurdles are not in front of you by accident. Unlike the old voices, I sometimes imagine it smells like the rain and the thunder, saying to my ragged condition, "But those who wait on the Lord, Shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings as eagles. They shall run and not be weary, They shall walk and not faint."

The point being that if your writing is ever going to achieve lift off, you first have to learn the fine art of falling. It is the longing of the heart to do the thing we were created to do, defy gravity. Have courage, take another run, and see if grace does not enfold you like wings.

Patricia Hickman regularly practices the fine art of falling, but admits she has never mastered leaping over buildings with a single bound.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

LCH: The Book Keeper

They say when you overcome one addiction, a new one pops up to take its place.

Uh-oh. I just found another one. It’s not in the dictionary, but it’s everywhere else I look, quite literally: I’m a bookaholic.

(If books aren’t your weakness, substitute the word shoes or chocolate for any of the examples below.)

Nearly a century ago, writer Ellen Thompson quipped, “My home is where my books are.” Oh, I get that. The first thing I look for in a new house? Built-in bookshelves. The last piece of furniture I bought? Bookshelves. The teensy bathroom in my office has a 12-inch sink, but don’t you love those 36-inch bookshelves?

There are nicer words for my addiction: bibliophile, a person who loves or collects books; or bluestocking, a woman with literary interests. But bookaholic tells it like it is. I crave books. Inhale books. Am miserable if I get stuck somewhere without one. Have books hidden all over the house. Carry one in my glove compartment for emergencies.

Can one indulge in book buying without losing control? And how many books are too many? Consider the following warning signs.

You may be a bookaholic if you…

1) Buy a book, take it home, then discover you already own it.
2) Read ten chapters of a book, then realize you’ve already read it.
3) Seldom go more than two weeks without a bookstore “fix.”
4) Carry frequent-reader cards for two or more bookstore chains.
5) Cannot visit a bookstore without buying something.
6) Have activated the “1-Click Ordering” option on
7) Know what a TBR stack is. (“To Be Read.” My stack is scary.)

There are lesser indicators, of course. If, at yard sales, you visit the book table first,
reasoning, “Hey, they’re only 25 cents!”, that’s a telltale sign. Being a member of three book clubs could be a hint. Or maybe you tossed popcorn at the screen during the movie Sense and Sensibility when Fanny Dashwood said, “I have never liked the smell of books.”


I love the smell of books. Adore the feel of them in my hands. Delight in turning the
pages. Prefer giving books as gifts. Have fun talking about books with friends.

I’m beginning to think bookaholism might run in families. When two of my relatives traveled hundreds of miles to visit me one summer, did we admire local landmarks? Go on a picnic?
Drive through horse country?

Nooo. I took them to my favorite used bookstore and they loved it. Not hereditary, this obsession, but mighty close.

What’s a book-loving soul to do? Set up some boundaries. Here are mine:
1) I can’t buy a new book until I finish reading three books I already own.
2) I’ve renewed my library card. (For me, owning books is the problem, so this is a good discipline. So is the due date.)
3) I’ve donated old books (or ones I won’t get to for 20 years) to a local library.

Is it silly to worry about being “addicted” to buying books? Yes. And no. Any pleasure that becomes a must-have has the potential to hurt us practically and spiritually.

But books have a redeeming quality few other passions can boast: A book opened the door of my heart to God’s lovingkindness. When two friends said, “Read this,” and pointed me to C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, I did—and the insights I found among those pages changed my thinking completely.

And when Lewis pointed me to the Bible—God’s living, written Word—the timeless truths I discovered in that Good Book changed my life forever. That’s something shoe shopping, chocolate, or any other temporal pleasure can’t begin to accomplish.

For those of us who love to read, it’s comforting to know God meets his people across the printed page. That’s one “daily fix” we can enjoy without apology.

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

Monday, April 03, 2006

JK: Vexed and Blessed

Writer Wendell Berry once said of parenting that it was “a vexed privilege and a blessed trial.” I think that’s true of writing, too.

I do feel privileged to be able to tell the stories that grab hold of me. I do feel blessed beyond measure to have a husband who cooks and who has some special interests that help me with my writing (he’s a weapons expert which is great for someone who writes in the 1850s when guns were an everyday part of a character’s life; he’s a builder, plumber, electrician, photographer, cattleman, hunter, gardener…and amazingly, he remembers what he reads, unlike me). This writing is a privilege that is sometimes vexing, annoying when I can’t seem to put it aside to just enjoy time with my family, or to get lost in a good book while keeping my editing mind still.

And it is also a blessed trial. Like now while I’m in the middle of a novel and know it’s not working right. Is it BECAUSE it’s in the middle of the novel? (I’ve heard it referred to as “that muddle in the middle”). Or is there really something wrong here that will need major fixing? Sometimes, when I’m in the middle of a manuscript, while I feel blessed to be able to write it down, it also feels like I’m on a path that is littered with boulders I’d rather just go around. The idea that I might be coming back and have to deal with them again, well, that is vexing indeed.

So I’m reminded then of a book I read before we took the plunge and left our regular jobs to move to our isolated ranch in Oregon. It was a book about transitions, and it said that when we start a new journey (put manuscript here) we feel uncomfortable. In part it’s like crossing a street, and beginning something new is like stepping off of the curb. So we are not where we were (which was comfortable and known) but we are also not yet where we are going (the other side). We’re in the middle. And the worst thing we could do would be to sit down in the middle and think about it very much while cars go whizzing past us. Instead, we have to live with the discomfort and keep going until we reach our destination.

That’s a reminder to myself to get back to work. I’m in the middle and it doesn’t feel right. If you’re there too, then keep walking with me! It’ll be a vexed privilege and yes, a blessed trial but we’ll arrive! Thank God.

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