Monday, July 31, 2006

AD: Literary Fiction, Popular Fiction, Great Fiction

My friend Angie Hunt recently asked a bunch of novelists what we think of these definitions by Bret Lott in his forward to The Best Christian Short Stories, (Westbow, 2006, p. viii):

“…literary fiction is fiction that examines the character of the people involved in the story, and…popular fiction is driven by plot. Whereas popular fiction…is meant primarily as a means of escape, one way or another, from this present life, a kind of book equivalent of comfort food, literary fiction confronts us with who we are, and makes us look deeply at the human condition.”

While I love short stories and believe we need more of them published, and I wish Mr. Lott and all the contributors to this book great success, I do have doubts about the premise that literary fiction is driven by characters and popular fiction is driven by plot. This implies the possibility of characters and plots existing at the far ends of a sliding scale describing the percentage mixture of the two, and the further a novel moves toward one end or the other, the more purely literary or popular it becomes. But in the modern novel, where “show, don’t tell” is fundamental to the art form, plot and character are not polar opposites; they are synergistic. Decent plots are impossible without interesting characters in action, and decent characters are impossible without something interesting for them to do (read: conflict). It is difficult then to imagine an accurate scale with “literary fiction/character examination” at one end and “popular fiction/plot driven” way over on the other, unless we add “mediocre novel” to our labels at both ends and a third form called “great fiction” somewhere in the center.

This brings me to theme, which is not a word Mr. Lott used in his definitions. Webster’s defines theme as “a subject or topic of discourse or of artistic representation.” Since “subject or topic” could leave one thinking themes are simply what the story is about, I would add that theme is what a story explores behind the scenes, not out in the open. Moby Dick is about hunting for a whale, but the whale hunt is not the theme. Because of Mr. Lott’s comment that literary fiction “makes us look deeply at the human condition” I’m afraid some might view our sliding scale as a measurement of theme, with “none” at the popular end and (forgive the pun) “lots” on the literary end where we “look deeply.” If so, again I have my doubts. Les Miserable was the popular fiction of its day, as was David Copperfield—they certainly fit Mr. Lott’s definition, given their hard driving plots—yet these popular novels are nothing if not thematically rich.

Mr. Lott is correct to write that a purely plot driven novel is “the book equivalent of comfort food,” but I would add that the philosophical or psychological ramblings of a purely character driven novel are the book equivalent of a lecture by a stranger on an airplane who will not let you sleep. If interesting characters are necessary to drive interesting plots forward—and they are—it’s also true an interesting plot can tell us things about the characters that they themselves cannot express, communicating on levels behind the scenes, not out in the open, which is where most of the really interesting stuff concerning “who we are” is found. Remember the whale.

Since great fiction is not found at the polar extremes of plot or characterization, where is the best combination of these things? How can we recognize the proper setting on our scale? Sadly, I do not know. But I do know the bookstore’s fiction department has more of a say in this than the university’s English department. Dickens' and Hugo's “popular” novels are still alive today because readers will not let them die. Readers will not let them die because they contain the illusive proper combination of character and plot that drives a theme so deep within it cannot be forgotten or ignored. There is no measuring or defining this perfect combination but readers know it when they read it.

If we must persist in labeling each other’s work, here are better definitions than Mr. Lott's, in my opinion: "Popular fiction" is a book that sells mainly to the so-called average person (be it poorly or well). "Literary fiction" is a book that sells mainly to the so-called intelligentsia (be it poorly or well). “Great fiction” is any novel still selling well a century or two after the author is dead.

If you’re thinking this final definition means novelists cannot know which label applies to their own work in their own lifetime, you are right. How can it be otherwise when the things that make the difference are indeed illusive, and to some degree, eternal? Still, novelists can use these definitions to their advantage. When we aim for the literary heights, when egos threaten to intrude upon the craft and we begin to think of laurels round our brows, all we need to do is remember sales today are no indicator of sales in generations to come, when many hugely popular novels and hallowed literary novels will be moldering in trash dumps, and others by unsuccessful authors will be resurrected to live on. Again, remember the whale. If, like Melville, we'll never know one way or the other, we might as well relax, do our best to tell interesting stories about interesting people, and trust the readers to sort it out in a hundred years or so.

Athol Dickson, author of:
River Rising
The Gospel According to Moses

Friday, July 28, 2006

JK: Speaker Phone Interviews

I just finished a radio interview with Lynne Ford of WBCL Ft. Wayne, IN. This morning, in addition to her having familiarized herself with A Clearing in the Wild, she’d read the publicity material as well. She commented that she was surprised to read that I frequently “visit” reader groups by speaker phone and she wondered how that worked.

Readers from California, Nebraska, Wisconsin and other parts of the country have gathered at their church or homes on the evening they’ve chosen to discuss one of my books. Before hand, they’ve left a message on my webpage saying they’d like to have a speaker phone visit from me. I contact them and if it works into my schedule, I can sit right here on Starvation Lane (our address!) and they call me while sitting around a speaker phone wherever they are. People have asked how I can take the time but for me it’s a gift to have those 30 minutes or so with readers directly asking questions.

One woman in Wisconsin told me that my character, Marie Dorion, in the Tender Ties Series, had such a hard life she didn’t finish the book. I’m of the belief that life is short and if a book doesn’t make you want to finish it, you ought to trust that and find a book that does. As we talked though, and I shared with her that the Greek word for character comes from a word that means chiseled, she reconsidered. For me, this woman’s life of trials and hardships defined her character. Most of us think we don’t want any trouble in our days and yet if we were asked to tell someone about a time when we were strong, we’d probably share an experience when we were challenged and how we overcame it. It’s what’s left after a sculptor has gouged out the marble that is the character. The woman later wrote to me to say she’d gone back to finish the novel and was glad she had for it gave her hope for the trials in her own life.The publisher prints reader’s guides in my titles now. They can also be downloaded from my website. But I have to say those “phone to phone” contacts enrich me greatly. I learned that I have to ensure that my character’s lives are not so difficult that readers won’t read on.

Jane Kirkpatrick,, now scheduling groups reading A Clearing in the Wild (WaterBrook Press, a division of Random House

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

PH: A Fairytale for the Storyteller

Assignment at a writer’s retreat: Write a story that shows the responsibility of the storyteller.

There is a farm where girls are given tools to dig for treasure. One girl named Chloella digs best with a spade while her sisters Ursula, Moonbeam, and Vonda use spoons. Chloella digs deep in search of treasure left behind by her ancestors. Ursula, Moonbeam, and Vonda are in a hurry to find coins scattered just beneath the dirt by careless travelers.

Vonda likes to walk up behind Chloella jingling her apron pockets so that Chloella can hear the coins she’s found so quickly. Chloella covers her ears and continues to dig until the ground’s red clay gives way and the black soil of her ancestors turns the tip of her spade as black as oil.

One day Vonda begins to mock Chloella, saying, “You’re wasting time while the rest of us become rich. Look I’m wearing a new dress and my hands are soft as infant’s skin. Your hands are weathered and have grown callus from the spade’s handle.”

“I like your dress,” says Chloella.

“You’re digging too deeply for treasure when all you have to do is scoop money right from the surface of the ground.”

“I can hear the faint sound of singing from the earth,” says Cholella, “and the black soil whispering. What does it mean?”

Vonda calls Moonbeam and Ursula to stare at foolish sister.

Chloella digs for years while her sisters settle for the leftovers of travelers. One day, the travelers find a new road that takes them on journeys past other farms.

Vonda, Moonbeam, and Ursula start fighting over their coins. The money is growing scarce. Moonbeam hears a distant tapping sound, like metal against iron. She looks, and, behold! Chloella is afar off, her spade swinging overhead.

“Let’s see if the fool has found any coins,” says Moonbeam.

The women gather around their sister.

“It is an old chest,” says Chloella.

“Treasure! Quick! Let’s drag it out and claim it for our own!” says Ursula.

Vonda, Ursula, and Moonbeam foolishly jump into the hole and are swallowed up into the earth’s belly and breathe their last breath.

Chloella cries for a bit. Then she turns to the black soil that is now her mountain. It is a fertile place that yields food for all of the traveler’s souls. Travelers flock to eat from the fertile place.

And that is the responsibility of the storyteller.

Patricia Hickman writes women’s fiction like her upcoming novel, Earthly Vows, Faith Words.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

AG: In Search of Perfection

Past, present, future perfect—sort of.

First, you had better sit down. I refuse to be responsible for any goose eggs popping up on any noggins resulting from fainting.
Seated? Good.

Here goes. I’m not perfect.

I know, I know, it’s hard to hear, but it’s time to face the truth of things. Worse, you’re not perfect either. Well, maybe Angie. The rest of us tiptoe along the sloping curb of imperfection doomed to slip and twist a mental ankle.

I have written before about my propensity to make typos that make sense—much to my embarrassment. (Namui ate rice from a rough wooden bowel,” when I meant bowl; “The widow was enormous,” when I meant “window.”) Shocking as it is to hear, I make another kind of mistake; mistakes known among literary professionals as the “factual-boo-boo.”

Actually, I seldom make errors in facts. I try to have three sources for any facts that appear in my books, but sometimes something slips by. The real problem comes when I decide to make a change late in a project. For example, I had a minor character, a secretary to my protagonist Perry Sachs, who makes a couple of short appearances in A TREASURE DEEP. For some reason that I have been able to successfully scrub from the Teflon walls of my memory, I decided to change her name. I did a good job of it, successfully searching and finding every occurrence of her name…except one.

I got letters.

In A SHIP POSSESSED, I struggled with a supporting protagonist who just wasn’t cooperating. Then I uncovered the problem. The man, a navy ensign, was in fact, a woman. With a quick literary snip-snip, I performed a sex operation and the problem was solved. I even made all the appropriate pronoun adjustments. I got waylaid, however, by something I didn’t ever realize I had written and that had nothing to do with the major change over which I had been so punctilious. In the book, I weave two plot lines around a single MacGuffin (a WWII submarine) like DNA strands. In my 1940’s story, I have a character at sea, in mortal danger, and recalling his wife and home…and how they watched Milton Berle together. Which is fine, but I was just a tad early…say, eight years.

I got a letter.

Not long ago, in BENEATH THE ICE, I researched at length the types of aircraft that fly to and over Antarctica. I studied everything I needed to know about a particular cargo plane. I had it down pat. Then I decided to change aircraft in favor of a more likely candidate. So I dutifully altered the mentions of wingspan, fuselage length, engine size and so on. Good Al. Except one aircraft has propellers and the other doesn’t; one lands on skies, the other doesn’t. Somehow, I forgot that I included those details. Bad Al.

I got a scathing review on Amazon.

Sometimes the mistakes aren’t research related. In SUBMERGED, I describe a fisherman watching F-22 jets zoom overhead. Except the keyboard didn’t respond and I wrote F-2. I didn’t catch it. The editors didn’t catch it.

Oddly, a couple of readers caught it.


Since I’m not all that fond of parading my stupidities, I need to find some point to this. How about this? All writers must learn to live with their mistakes. Past, present, and future tense are fine in grammar but hard to find in life, especially the writer’s life. I find gaffes in almost every book I read. Sometimes we focus so much on the big things, the little embarrassments slip by.

What amazes me is how often those anal-retentive readers who feel compelled to inform us of our faults are themselves wrong in their corrections. (Reminds me of a letter sent home from my children’s English teacher that required great restraint on my part not to correct and send back for a rewrite.) Such is the price of being human. The writer-human, however, gets his or her mess-ups printed by the thousands and distributed to the public.

So what’s a writer to do?

Simple. Just remember that the Navajo rug weavers purposely inserted mistakes in their work so as to offend the gods.

I think it was the Navajo…or is it Navajos…Navaji…

While I figure this out, why don’t you post your favorite boo-boo.

AG (who wants the reader to know that any typos in this post are intentional and intended for the entertainment of all.)

Alton Gansky lives and blogs in California where all the girls are beautiful and all the men look like Arnold . . . however you spell it.

Monday, July 24, 2006

KB: Why I Write Christian Romance (Part 2)

As I’ve pondered this whole issue raised by Russell Moore, the guest host of the Albert Mohler radio talk show, I’ve found myself doing some soul searching. Why do I love to read romances? And to write them? Here’s are some of my thoughts…

Mention romance novels, and what do people think? Sex. At least, that's what people who don't read romances think. But for those of us who read and enjoy this kind of book, it isn't the sex that sells romances. It's the wonderful, engaging, uplifting stories.

For women readers, what counts most is the relationship between hero and heroine, the power of their love, the ways they reach and emotionally save each other, the affirmation that "love conquers all," the sense that there is some man out there who is strong and virile and protective--the John Wayne of the 90s, so to speak--who will cherish and stand for and protect a woman.

Why do women love these books? For a lot of reasons. First, because God designed us to hunger for love. The first and greatest romance ever written is found in that book we call The Bible. There's the typical hero, coming to save us even at the cost of His own life, and He even rides in at the end on a white horse! Women read about such things, and our hearts long for that kind of giving, protective, warrior-heart, self-sacrificing love. You can find it in Christ, but many women don't know or believe that. So they look for it in men, and that's custom-designed for disappointment. Not because men are worthless, but because they are human and subject to the flesh.

Another factor is that many women today find themselves struggling with disappointment and a sense of longing they don't quite understand. Some women are in roles God never intended them to take on--financial, emotional, even spiritual heads of household. As a consequence, these women are weary and discouraged and too often lack respect for men. Many women, deep in their hearts, long for a man who will stand for--and, if need be, stand up to--them; men who will shelter and protect them while treating them with respect; men in whom they can rest. Those are the kinds of men readers find in the romance novels.

Romance heroes are bold and just a little bit dangerous; they are forceful, strong, overpowering, but always because of love, always because they want the woman and will do anything to get her. Women want to feel cherished and desired and held and honored. And too few of them find that in real life. So today, when life seems so far off the mark of the fairy tales, when so many men are unwilling to fill the roles God designed, when relationships are fraught with disappointment and hurt, when romance and sex are so very hazardous--even life-threatening--women turn to vicarious experience in these novels.

Is there truth in romance novels? Absolutely, when they’re based in Christ and Scripture. Which Christian romance novels are.

Many women readers are looking for encouragement, answers, truth. They've been told from childhood that love is wonderful; Prince Charming is out there; and you're never so complete as when you're with a man who loves you. Then they grow up and bam! Reality smacks them right between the eyes. That happens for Christian women as often as it does for non-Christians. Relationships are hard, full of hurt and loss, and a lot of work. Men aren't princes, and love is often hollow--especially when you think sex is the proof it exists. And all of that is exactly why inspirational romances NEED to be there, why we have to give readers truth in a format they already love and enjoy.

Is it wrong for women to read romances? No. No more wrong than it is for men to read westerns or adventure novels. They’re just stories. But women are, for the most part, drawn to relationship. They're going to read romances. That's a given. Just look at the success of Princess Bride, You've Got Mail, Sleepless in Seattle...and on and on. So why are women so drawn to these kinds of stories. Because they are responding to the longing God has planted within them to be loved completely and unconditionally. The longing of a bride for her groom. Women long to be loved by a man who is all that God intended him to be: a leader, a warrior, a mentor, a friend.
That's what appeals to women, that's what they long for. Like so many, they want the void inside to be filled. And like so many, they're looking in the wrong places for the answer, which is Christ. So let's get in there, let's jump in with all our energy and strength, and give them the TRUTH instead of the world's lies.

Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers is the quintessential romance. It has it all. Every element you'll ever find or that readers could ever want in a romance--a best-selling, powerful, life-altering romance--is there. That book has enchanted and moved and inspired hundreds of thousands of readers. And it's a romance. It's a story that strikes at the heart of what women long for, what men need to know and be, and what God intended. And that's why it works. Those are the kinds of stories we need to give readers: powerful romances, stories that will transport the readers and uplift and inspire them. Stories where readers see romance in a whole new light.

So to all the writers I say let's give readers what they want: solid, powerful stories with characters they'll love. The ride of their lives. Inspirational romances can do that. But remember, when you step out to make a stand for God, especially when doing so takes you smack dab into enemy territory, opposition comes hot and heavy. So don't be surprised when people (nonChristians and Christians) fight us, when they make sarcastic or careless comments, when they say any woman who reads a romance must have something wrong with her. And the next time someone spouts off with: "How can you be involved in THAT market and call yourself a Christian?", square your shoulders, stand tall, and tell them the simple truth: Romance is the market to which God has called us. Which is why it's so important and exciting and powerful. And why we need to go in as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. This is where God has called us, and it's where we will go, whole-heartedly, equipped with God's armor and the sure knowledge that He's gone there before us to prepare the way and to prepare hearts for His truth.

Go get 'em, team. We're on the right side.

Karen Ball lives and writes and edits and expounds on life from her home in Oregon. See more of her work at

Friday, July 21, 2006

KB: Christian Romance: Christian’s Public Enemy #1?

Anyone listen to Christian radio talk shows? I don’t. Not usually. But when a bunch of my writer buddies starting buzzing about a recent broadcast of the Albert Mohler show, I had to take a listen. So I went to the link for the recording, and what I heard…

Well, let’s just say it’s a good thing there wasn’t anything heavy close at hand. My hubby has enough to do without patching holes in my walls. .

First, a caveat. The host of this broadcast was a guest host, Russell Moore. I don’t know what Mr. Mohler’s stand on this issue is, but Mr. Moore’s position was painfully clear. He dissed Christian romance but good. Or, more to the point, but bad. Claimed that those who write Christian romance do so for the almighty buck and little else. That these books “feed on sentimentality and portray an unhealthy idea of romance.” As for those who read this stuff, they are, in a word, pathetic. That the only women who read these come from homes where their moms and dads hated each other, so they need some kind of unrealistic escape.

Excuse me?

Ironically enough, when the show begins, the announcer says “this is your place for intelligent Christian conversation.” Um…not. Moore’s prejudice was clear from the start. Even so, I was astounded at the depth of his disdain for and ignorance of not just the genre, but the writers and readers as well. Now, to Moore’s credit, he talked with Karen Kingsbury first—and she gave wonderful comments and information, all of which he promptly ignored. He then went on to interview Kathryn Falk.

Kathryn Falk.

Okay, this woman isn’t a believer. And she said what you’d expect her to say (e.g., there may not be a Mr. Right, but there’s always a Mr. Right Now and he can be trained). So guess which comments Moore focused on as proof that Christian romances are harmful? Yup. Falk’s. He even went so far as to say that her belief that men could be trained wasn’t biblical.
Well…duh. The woman isn’t a Christian. Why would her words be biblical??
The capper came when he led back from a commercial by playing the praise song, “Draw Me Close.” As you may know, the lyrics are:
Draw me close to you, never let me go.
I lay it all down again
To hear you say that I'm your friend
You are my desire, no one else will do,
'Cause no one else can take your place,
To feel the warmth of your embrace;
Help me find a way, bring me back to you.
You're all I want, you're all I ever needed
You're all I want, help me know you are near

Moore’s comment when he came back on? That he hated that song. Didn’t know a man who liked it. Because it sounded like a song a woman was singing to Fabio.

“Intelligent Christian conversation”? Hardly.

By the time the show was over, Moore had questioned the intelligence, wisdom, and faith of anyone who read or wrote Christian romances.

So now I have some questions for Mr. Moore.

· Has the man even bothered to read a Christian romance novel? (I doubt it.)
· Has he ever had a serious, honest discussion with any Christian romance author or reader? (Again, serious doubts.)
· And, finally, has he ever read Scripture? I mean, talk about the greatest romance of all time! We even, as author Robin Jones Gunn points out, have the hero riding in on a white horse at the end to sweep up his bride. If that’s not romance, then what is?

Okay, yes. Romance has long been the “red-headed stepchild” of publishing, and Christian romances have been regarded with real caution and even suspicion. (Can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with pastors about the power and truth contained in Christian fiction and, yes, Christian romances. They usually look at me like I’m insane. Or possessed.) But I confess I had no idea there were Christian leaders who viewed these novels—novels, mind you, written by authors devoted to serving God, not manna, and helping their readers better understand themselves and their relationships to others and to God--as toxic to the body of Christ.

The show was a call-in. And there were, happily, two callers who spoke in support of these books. But all the others agreed with the host, saying how reading romantic novels is hazardous, that doing so detracts from what God intends in relationships and marriage. In response, may I just say “AAAAAHHHHHH!!!!!” That, and where on earth were those who would speak out for the truth??

So I also have a question for us.

What can we do, in the face of such misinformation and prejudice, to share the truth of what these books are? Who these authors and readers are? Not the money-grubbers or borderline psychotics Moore painted them. But real life women who live and love and long to be cherished.

Interestingly enough, Moore had a solid question as the basis for this show: Why are romance novels so popular? He kept asking why women read these novels with such devotion, and what does women’s fascination with romance novels say about them, and the men in their lives. How can we answer that, and in doing so, help those like Moore to understand that Christian romances aren’t about creating unrealistic ideals. Not at all. They’re about representing the truth of relationships, of the need for being centered in Christ before you build a relationship with someone else. Of being anchored in God so you can face the struggles and pain inherent in living with another human being. That they’re about grace and kindness and God’s ability to use us to refine each other.

So what do you think? How can we get through to people like Mr. Moore? And should some of us take up the pen and let him—and Albert Mohler—know that shows like this do more to hurt the body than any romance novel ever written.


(Should you decide to write Albert Mohler about the broadcase, I’d urge you to listen to it first. That way you can avoid doing what Mr. Moore did: speaking out of ignorance. You can find it at But friends, if you decide to listen, be sure your blood pressure medicine is close at hand—and the crystal treasure from your great granny isn’t.)

Karen Ball lives and writes and edits in Oregon.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

JK: Waiting is Working

I’m in that in-between state. I’ve finished my latest manuscript and am awaiting editorial comments about it. I have all I can do to not keep pecking away at the existing manuscript, tweaking and stretching and cutting with the hope I’m making it better. It’s too long, I know. But as I began to cut I frightened myself that I might cut the wrong things and so I wait, trusting in the editor’s suggestions before beginning my revisions.
Ivan Doig, a National Book Award winner who also writes fiction (his English Creek I’ve read out loud to my husband after reading it twice it’s such a wonderful story) once said that the best part about writing for him is in the revision process because that’s when he discovers what the book is really about.

When I first read his words, before I started writing myself, I wondered how an author could not know what their book was about until after it was finished! Now I know.

It’s during this in-between state that the experiences of the characters gain perspective and in many ways, take on true lives of their own. They live inside my head as I’m getting up to take a new puppy out. They rattle around in my heart as I listen to a friend tell me her cancer is no longer in remission. They go to bed with me when I’ve smashed my fingernail and its throbbing and they get up with me after my husband has kissed my forehead before going out to change the irrigation pipes. All the while I’m wondering how they might have responded to those everyday life events, how different I might be from them or how similar.

Joshua 3:7 says “And the Lord said to Joshua, ‘This day I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, that they may know that, as I was with Moses, so I will be with you.’” In Jack Hayford and Sam Middlebrook’s Living the Spirit Filled Life they suggest that scripture talks about new beginnings. I like that. The revision process is about new beginnings and the assurance we have that God is with us. The us for me this day is the editorial team, my characters and me. And someday there’ll be readers “revising” and hopefully being changed by the way we revised this story.

Jane Kirkpatrick,, working on book two of the Change and Cherish series…waiting is working.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

JSB: Summer Movies

Tired of the over loud, over computerized, by-the-numbers, no deeper than Paris Hilton movie offerings this summer? Then get a blast from the past this summer, with family and friends around.
Of course, there are some standards all movie mavens must know, like Casablanca, Citizen Kane, The Wizard of Oz. Here are a few more I'd heartily recommend:

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Starring James Stewart, Jean Arthur and Claude Raines, the film tells the story of Jefferson Smith, a naïve scout leader who is tapped by a political machine to become a puppet U.S. Senator. But when he finds out the real score and tries to stand up against the machine, he's hit with everything they've got.

The movie's theme is summed up in something Jefferson Smith's father once told him. "Sometimes lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for."
Unabashedly American, Smith is the quintessential Frank Capra film, even more so than It's a Wonderful Life.

Twelve Angry Men (1957)

Directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Henry Fonda and eleven other fine actors (most notably Lee J. Cobb and Jack Warden), this classic "one man against the crowd" film is a legal mystery with social themes aplenty. See it for its tremendous acting and ability to tell multiple stories without ever leaving the jury room.

On the Waterfront (1954)

This classic from director Elia Kazan and writer Budd Schulberg has what I think is the greatest performance by an actor ever put on film. Marlon Brando plays Terry Malloy, a pug fighter now working for the mob, and there is not a single false note anywhere. This immensely moving drama of one man's awakening from animal existence through the love of woman, features plenty of fine performances (Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden, Eva Marie Saint) and has the famous cab scene between Rod Steiger and Marlon Brando. "I coulda had class! I coulda been a contender! I coulda been somebody."

It is also about standing up against evil.

Shane (1953)

I agree with Sam Peckinpah that Shane is the greatest Western ever. But to me, calling Shane a Western is like calling Moby Dick a fish story.

What makes Shane a classic is that you find new things in every viewing. Indeed, I think you need 5 or 6, minimum, to get at the richness of it.

The first time we watch it, naturally, we see the main story--a rather spare tale about homesteaders versus cattle ranchers. That's as it should be. It's a good, timeless story, well told.
But there is so much more going on.

First, appreciate the filmmaking artistry. Every frame is perfect. Watch the way the actors and mountains and props all are framed to obtain specific effects. Director George Stevens used a telephoto lens to achieve that incredible feeling of the Grand Tetons out in the backyard (no Western, and few movies, before or since, has had such striking imagery. The closest is Ford's Monument Valley, but the mountains in Shane are breathtaking).

The film is a Christian allegory (even more explicit in the novel). The devil makes an appearance in the form of Jack Palance, whose stunning portrayal earned him a Best Supporting Actor nomination.

Hail the Conquering Hero (1944)

This, the finest film of director-writer Preston Sturges (who flashed like a comet across the Hollywood heavens in the early 40's) is, on the surface, a simple screwball comedy. Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith (Eddie Bracken), the son of a World War I hero, has been released by the Marines because of a hay fever problem. Ashamed to go home, he makes the acquaintance of seven Marines on furlough, led by a crusty but benign sergeant (William Demarest). The sergeant was with Woodrow's father when he was killed. He and his buddies hatch a plan to pass Woodrow off as a hero to his small town.

It all unfolds with typical Sturges energy. But underneath it is a story about duty owed to home and family, and the unbreakable bonds of friendship. The last shot in the film is one of the most perfect in movie history, explaining everything that happened with one, simple image.

Duck Soup (1933)

The best of the Marx Brothers films, this also remains a trenchant political satire, timeless in its way. It is also a reminder of how dreadful so many "comedies" are these days. The secret of a Marx film was great writing mixed with perfect timing and delivery.

Watch for the often-imitated mirror scene, in which Harpo, dressed like Groucho, tries to mimic Groucho's every move through an open doorway.

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Classic Americana is on display in the story of three vets returning from World War II. Frederic March earned a Best Actor Oscar, and Harold Russell, a Navy vet who had lost both hands in the war, took home the Best Supporting Actor statuette. Dana Andrews, never better, plays the other role.

In addition, this film has what I consider to be one of the two most perfect film scores ever (the other being To Kill a Mockingbird).

A Few More Not to Miss

Rear Window
Sunset Boulevard
Lilies of the Field
It Happened One Night

James Scott Bell is the bestselling author of Presumed Guilty and Write Great Fiction: Plot & Structure. Visit his website at This post is adapted from the book Behind the Screen: Hollywood Insiders on Faith, Film, And Culture.

Monday, July 17, 2006

PH: I’m Falling For You, Baby

“Some readers don't like quiet subjects; others don't like bustling ones. Some enjoy a complete illusion; others revel in a complete deception. They choose their novels accordingly, and if they don't care about your idea they won't, a fortiori, care about your treatment.”
Henry James, “The Art of Fiction”

When a reader picks up a book, flips through the pages, and lays down the cash to own it, it’s like an engagement. The reader is agreeing to walk with that writer into his or her fictive world. The anticipation from store shelf to nightstand is high.

The reader may or may not be aware of the succession of words it took to make that story unfold. If it’s well written, they ought not to know or be aware of the actual words. But something about either the back cover copy or the early pages has made them aware of its story. And if they bought the book believing they’re in for a ride, they’re rooting for it.
But stringing together a bunch of words into scenes that tell a tale is a poor substitute to writing a story that works. And then believing that our story idea is “sellable” to the reader is secondary to actually delivering the goods. The reader comes with a list of expectations, and they expect a good story. They aren’t investing in words, but in story. But here we are as writers working with words, and yet knowing that the reader wants more.

The words that make up story ought to dazzle, but not as single gems. Think of a bag of gems and how difficult they are to cart around. They can’t look good on you unless they’re placed in a ring setting or some object d’art. It’s true of words that they can’t dazzle in purposeless isolation.

It is fun to play with words, their sounds, and how they slip off the tongue and sail off into the air. But when placed correctly into the narrative sentence, words take on function and speed. They join up with the next sentence and the next, pulling us into the river of story. It’s for that reason that the writer must take care that they don’t use words like poets. The poet can write words that in and of themselves are breathtaking. But the novelist must take great pains to use words less obviously. The words in a novel have a job and that is to keep the reader moving, motors wide open. The beauty of a well-told novel is that meaning is tucked deeply into the story. If we’re doing our job artfully, the reader is operating solely on sense rather than actuality. Not until the story’s finale is the reader aware of the story elements’ slow convergence.

I’m trying to resist the urge to say, “And this is really hard to do,” but it’s true. Words are a natural part of the writer’s life. We grow up using language, and then believe that writing a compelling story ought to be a natural birth. So we dream up the story, sit down to put it in front of us, and then our war with words begins. It doesn’t seem to matter that we’ve written fifteen novels, the sixteenth is as difficult to write as the first and for the simple reason that the words have to be nearly invisible.

A young man once approached my husband’s gorgeous cousin and told her that God told him that she was going to be his wife. No courtship, no sweet subtleties, just rush in and expect the girl to place the ring on her finger, say the “I do’s”, and be done with it. She turned him down flat, to say the least. The man wanted the wedding without all of the work.

Wouldn’t that be a schmaltzy writing job? Toss down a plot, throw in some character names from the Character-Naming Sourcebook, paste on some paper doll-like wardrobe, and there you have it—a story you can love. But wordsmithing is darkly exacting. Our words are held up for examination. If our language doesn’t take on force and movement, we’re out of the engagement party. The reader wants to be fully engaged by at least page three. Like I said, this is really hard to do. I have to remind myself that if I deeply desire for the reader to fall in love with the story that means that I have to take care that I don’t fall in love with my own words.

--Patricia Hickman
Coming November 2006, Earthly Vows, Faith Words.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

KB: Oh, the Author and the Editor Should be Friends

A couple of years ago my editor, Julee Schwarzburg, and I taught a workshop at Mount Hermon Christian Writers’ conference entitled “The Author and the Editor Should be Friends.” We thought it would be fun to write a theme song, so to speak, for the workshop. I share that with you today, with sincerest apologies to Rogers and Hammerstein.

For those of you who are musically inclined, this is set the to the music of “Oh, the Cowman and the Farmer Should be Friends” from the musical OKLAHOMA!

The Author and the Editor Should be Friends

The author and the editor should be friends
Oh, the author and the editor should be friends
One likes to create a tale,
The other likes to make a sale,
But that's no reason why they cain't be friends

Publishing folks should stick together
Fighting at all would be absurd
Authors dance with the editors' red pens
Editors dance with author's words,

I'd like to say a word for the editor,
They read the books and offer sound suggestions

They read the books and make a lot of changes
And make 'em right acrost our precious pages!

The editor is a good and kind perfessional
No matter what the author says or thinks;
You seldom see them drinkin' in a coffeehouse--

Unless somebody else is buying drinks!

The author and the editor should be friends
Oh, the author and the editor should be friends
The editor stops cliches with ease
The author fights each change with pleas,
But that's no reason why they cain't be friends

Publishing folks should stick together
Fighting at all would be absurd
Authors dance with the editors' red pens
Editors dance with author's words,

I’d like to say a word fer the author,
The path he’s on is difficult and tricky.
He writes for days on end
with just an HP for a friend--

I sure am feelin' sorry fer the HP!

The editor should be sociable with the author
If he comes by and asks to take a rest stop,
Don't treat him like a louse
Make him welcome in yer house--

Just be sure that you lock up your brand new laptop!

The author and the editor should be friends
Oh, the author and the editor should be friends
One man likes to change a verb
The other likes to say “What nerve!”
But that's no reason why they cain't be friends

Publishing folks should stick together
Fighting at all would be absurd
Authors dance with the editors' red pens
Editors dance with author's words!

Karen Ball and her usual shenanigans can’t be explained. But they can be read about and even viewed at .

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

AG: Silverberg, Asimov and Me

I recently read an essay by famed science fiction author, Robert Silverberg titled “Building Alternative Realities.” Silverberg is one of the pillars and guiding forces of science fiction and has been writing for fifty years. Fifty years! His work has been recognized by five Hugo awards and five Nebula awards.

Intrigued by the article, I did a little internet research. The revelation that he had been writing for half a century impressed me, but a line in a Wikipedia article flat stunned me. By his own accounting, Silverberg used to write a million words a year. I’m going to give you a moment to let that sink in. One million words per year. Such numbers prompt me to break out the calculator. After a little number crunching, here’s what I’ve learned. A million words per year….

…is equal to ten, 100,000 word novels.

…means writing over 3800 words every work day of every month. In standard manuscript format that equals 15 pages per day. And this he did before word processors or computers.
Such information can inspire the writer’s soul, or knock it to the ground and kick it around the block a few times. Usually, I fall in the latter category. Writing for many of us doesn’t flow that fast. I’m considered a prolific writer, but compared to the likes of Silverberg or Isaac Asimov my production is akin to a stampeding herd of turtles. Asimov’s bibliography is a list of 509 works, 463 of which are books. His collected papers are kept in the Mugar Memorial Library tucked away in 464 boxes lining over 210 feet of shelf space.

On the flip side, some writers produce only a handful of books. Does that make them lightweights in the authorial kingdom? Not at all. Quantity is not the measure of good writing. Craft is. Some people can crank out four books a year, a dozen articles and maybe a few short stories and do it without breaking a sweat. Others agonize over the process.

Asimov quipped, “Writing, to me, is simply thinking through my fingers.” He also said, “If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn’t brood. I’d type a little faster.”

Some people think fast; some think deep. The same can be said of writing. The key is not to mimic the output of the prolific, it is to tell the story the best it can be told. If that happens quickly, then great. If it takes much longer, then fine. Just get it written.

Alton Gansky lives and blogs and thinks deep at his home in California. Read his personal blog at

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

BJH: The Best Writing Teacher(s) of All

In his book, On Writing, Stephen King, speaking about learning to write, says that “you learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot, and the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself. These lessons almost always occur with the study door closed.” He points out that “Faulkner learned his trade while working in the Oxford, Mississippi, post office,” and that he (King) “learned the most valuable…part of my life’s work while washing motel sheets and restaurant tablecloths at the New Franklin Laundry in Bangor.”

If you read much about writing and writers, you’ve almost certainly come across the admonition that to write well—and successfully—you must read…and write. “Read, read, read. And write, write, write.” It’s preached time and time again. Yet no matter how many times they’ve heard it, writers and those working toward becoming writers seem unceasingly interested in hearing the answer to the common question “how did you learn to write?” Or, questions such as “what (or who) has been most helpful to you in your writing life?”

If you’ve been curious enough to ask that question yourself, you may or may not have been surprised to learn that many published writers give the least credit of all to their college English or creative writing courses, as well as workshops, seminars and critique groups. Not that the instruction and technical information gained from all the above isn’t helpful; certainly the benefits shouldn’t be discounted. Still, if you’ve read the remarks shared by numerous authors—the famous and the not-so-famous, but quality writers all the same—you’ve undoubtedly come across the emphasis on three elements above all others as their “best teachers.” Reading, writing, and life experience.

Before I wrote this entry, I added to the information with which I was already familiar by querying a number of friends who are also writers and who have been publishing for several years in a variety of genres. Granted, this is a very generalized summary, but I thought you might be interested in it anyway. So without using any names, I’ll just post some of the feedback I received, combined with a bit of this & that.

This was a fairly simple effort actually, because here’s the way it shook out: Almost without exception, reading and writing topped the list of the most important “teachers” on the way to publication. Critique groups came in last—most respondents had never been a member of a critique group. Next to last? Creative writing classes or correspondence (or on-line) courses. Conferences and seminars were cited more for the value in networking and fellowship than actual instruction, although a few emphasized that the information they'd gained there had proved invaluable. Reading and writing, by the way, included not just the reading of novels or general reading, but the reading of magazines and books about writing, especially when written by well-known authors, whether from the past or by some of our contemporary authors.

Dean Koontz, who has much to say about the importance of avid reading in learning to write, also made this statement in his book on writing fiction: “To a certain extent, a novel can be dissected, its musculature revealed, its skeleton uncovered for study. But a pathologist cannot find a man’s soul while doing an autopsy on his corpse, and a critic can never hope to pin down and dissect the spirit of a novel. Primarily, one learns to write fiction by writing it, then by writing more of it and more of it and more….”

Naturally, it stands to reason that, as Koontz says, “While there is some benefit to be derived from the feedback that a beginning writer receives from other students and from his instructor, by far the greatest portion of his artistic maturation will take place when he is in a room by himself, confronted only by blank pages.”

In case you’re wondering, next to reading and writing, life experience came in at the top of the list. This has been so often pointed out by some of our greatest writers that it’s almost a predictable response. In fact, it seems to me that it should go hand-in-hand with reading and writing.

Another element frequently cited as “most valuable” was editorial input. So, editors—be assured that your role is vital in the development of good writers, even though you may not hear the kudos as often as you deserve.

Obviously, there are exceptions to some of the above. That’s only natural, since we learn in different ways, in different situations, at different paces. I’m simply giving you a summary.

I’m probably a poor one to ask about any of this, since I’ve never been a member of a critique group, never attended a writers conference, never worked with a mentor. But I’ll weigh in anyway, and my response falls in with the majority of the others. I’d definitely name reading and writing—and of course life experience—as my “best teachers.”

What about you?

BJ Hoff

Monday, July 10, 2006

BC: Rappin' Down the House

CBN Newsflash: A surprise debut performance took place Saturday at the Chi Libris retreat in Denver. Bringin’ down the house with “Nice, Nice Baby”—a rappin’ tribute to Christian fiction to the tune of “Ice Ice Baby”—were:

The Glorious G.I.G. (Brandilyn Collins)
Copdiddy (Mark Mynheir)
Vanilla Nice (James Scott Bell)
AminHim (Robin Lee Hatcher)

Sportin’ slick outfits and lots of ‘tude, the rappers took turns with verses, Giggy taking the first verse, Copdiddy on second, Vanilla Nice doing third and AminHim taking the fourth. All joined in on the chorus.

The audience went wild, clapping and cheering for an encore. The rappers handed everyone a copy of the lyrics and an invitation to join in as they performed the song a second time. These talented rappers have a great career ahead of them—and, no doubt, a #1 hit tune.

Nice, Nice, Baby

Lyrics by: The Glorious G.I.G. (Brandilyn Collins)

Yo, CBA, let’s write it!
Nice, nice baby, nice, nice baby.

All right stop, collaborate, and listen
This fiction’s hot, with grace a’glistenin’.
Our God grabbed a-hold of us tightly
We write pages daily and nightly.
Will it ever stop? Yo. God says no.
Open our books, watch ‘em glow.
To the extreme--all worth reading,
Truth displayed for a world that’s bleeding.
Look! There’s A River Risin’—
Athol’s tale of evil disguisin’.
Deb R’s books, all heart-rending,
Randy’s universe—mind-bending.
Kristin’s chicks strut the Prada
Neta’s gals go “Yada, Yada.”
If there’s a problem our novels present it.
Check ’em out though the world may resent it.
They’re nice, nice baby. So nice, nice baby.
Full a spice, spice baby. No vanilla.
Nice, nice, baby.

Now that the market is jumpin’
Registers ringin’, publishers pumpin’,
Quick to the point, to the point no fakin’
Secular pubs want a pound of our bacon.
Ringin’ our phones all quick and nimble,
Dollars abound for the Christian symbol.
Here’s the chance for redemption to rule,
We’re on a roll, our God ain’t no fool.
Writin’! by the Bible,
Spread God’s word as much as we’re able.
Romance, suspense, a chick lit or two,
Spinnin’ stories with godly worldview.
Keep pursuin’ to the next level,
Toppin’ our craft and blitzin’ the devil.
That bro ain’t dead.
Yo—so we continue
On the soul fiction avenue.

Bethany’s hot, books compellin’,
Westbow’s got Colleen a-tellin’.
Multnomah’s rippin’, Tyndale’s divine.
Steeple Hill and Zondervan shine.
Hannah Alexander gives Fair Warning.
Mynheir’s Dragon—evil is swarming.
Steve Bly spins western story,
Robin’s romance hails love’s glory.
Scream! Brandilyn’s corpse, a-float!
Tricia writes of wars remote.
Gail Martin shows a girl and her fella,
Angie’s on tap with a talking gorilla.
Karen Ball has Kaleidoscope Eyes.
Jim Bell’s preacher a murder denies.
If there’s a problem, our novels present it.
Check ’em out though the world may resent it.
They’re Nice, nice baby. So nice, nice baby.
Full a spice, spice baby. No vanilla.
Nice, nice, baby.

Take heed! We’re lyrical poets.
Characters live and breathe, ya know it.
Terri B’s earth has no electrical,
Donita’s fantasies cause a spectacle.
Our worlds battle evil and good,
Jesus in trenches and God in the ’hood.
Crafted and formed, heaven in prose.
CBA rules, the whole world knows!
Who wants DaVinci, all that sex,
Plucked from a slush pile of rejects?
We dig our craft, our God is the Dope.
The world gives ya darkness, we give ya hope.
Want a good read? At the end of your rope?
Christian fiction will help you cope!
If there’s a problem our novels present it.
Check ’em out though the world may resent it.
They’re Nice, nice baby. So nice, nice baby.
Full a spice, spice baby. No vanilla.
Nice, nice, baby.

Yo, man—let’s go write God’s stories!
They’re nice, nice baby, so hot, so hot.
Nice, nice baby, so hot, so hot.
Nice, nice, baby, so hot, so hot.
Nice, nice, baby, so hot, we’re hot!

Seatbelt Suspense™ (Scenes and Beans)
Don't forget to b r e a t h e . . ™

Friday, July 07, 2006

PH: Killing Your Puppet Complex

“The sounds of our words and the cadences of our sentences must reinforce the content of our description.”
Rebecca McClanahan; Word Painting

Descriptive writing provides the details in a good story. Deciding what to describe and what to leave out is a weighty task. It isn’t a matter of building a list of details around setting, character, or object. If our character is about to make a terrible decision, we aren’t engaged by the description of every physical movement. The character must cross the threshold of his once happy life to enter the eroding landscape of his own devices. Making scene work means telegraphing enough details to let the reader know the story has shifted into a point of no return. Therefore, description has to dive into the story stream with the same force as its narration partner, reinforcing the scene and its meaningful content. Layering description between the folds of narration and exposition has to avoid the mechanical. The writer must resist taking on the role of a puppeteer dragging character all over setting, pasting in details, and bringing pace to a standstill.

Descriptive writing can be the finish on scene, but it is not the scene. Powerful description can cause a room to take on an unnatural pulse or use a herd of wildebeest in the Serengeti to create paranoia. Impressions are enhanced, as Aristotle said, “using expressions that represent things as in a state of activity.” Strong descriptive passages engage the emotions and intellect, settling into the human psyche.

Graham Greene’s novel The End of the Affair opens using subtle description: “. . . but do I in fact of my own will choose that black wet January night on the common, in 1946, the sight of Henry Miles slanting across the wide river of rain, or did these images choose me?” The rain represents a sort of god-like torrent, seeming to never let up throughout the course of the story, as God’s presence in the life of the woman hovers doggedly over her life. Never does Greene’s description get bogged down in weather clichés, but in a subtle manner, perfectly laid imagery serves the story with emotion and power. Graham uses a stormy tone to unify the theme. As Stanley Kunitz says, description used in this manner can unify the “constellation of images” that appears and reappears in a literary work, suggesting the idea or feeling that lives beneath the story line.

Description can serve many functions, from helping to shape a narrative line to aiding in grounding the story in the character’s life and plight. It can slow down or speed up pace and serve as the transition between scenes. It can lend metaphorical life to lifeless objects. But all description must be judged for what it lends to the larger story. A beautiful piece of description can be evocative and beautiful yet might ruin the story’s suspense. If it doesn’t provide a piece of the larger story, removing it will speed pace.

Good descriptive prose does not serve the paper on which it is written, but the reader, engaging the senses and causing story to flutter to life in the reader’s mind. That is when the imagination is enlarged and story is allowed to linger.

Patricia Hickman is the author of The Millwood Hollow series; Warner Faith.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

AG: Who's on First?

Not long ago, a story appeared on the front page of USA Today. It caught the attention of many including Christianity Today which featured it in its daily newsletter. There are many stories that might catch the attention of Christians, but not usually baseball stories—especially an account about a major league team that has struggled most of its existence.

Yet this story has less to do with America’s Past Time as it does with faith. It seems that many of the players on the Colorado Rockies are Christians and they make no secret of it. There are Scriptures posted in the weight room, and prayer meetings and chapel services have replaced the usual magazines and behavior expected of a bunch of men. Apparently this behavior extends to the executives, including owner and CEO Charlie Monfort.

What does this have to do with Imagination@Work? Well, it got my imagination going. That’s what writers and readers do—kick start their imagination as often as possible. At first I felt a sense of joy that these men would be so vocal about their faith. Then the storyteller in me began to ask questions. First, I wondered what it would be like to play on such a team. Are their daily values really different than other teams? Will their faith be challenged by the sport, the industry, and expectations of fans? What would it be like to be a Christian baseball player? Can you still slide into second cleats first and throw a fastball inside?

Then I realized the questions were silly. There have always been baseball players who professed a belief and commitment to Christ. After all, the evangelist Billy Sunday played ball, and Billy Graham planned a baseball career before heeding the call to ministry.
So what are the right questions for a storyteller presented with such an interesting tidbit as found in the USA Today article? If this were to be a novel, what would the premise be? Point of view—that’s where the key lay. The question isn’t what is it like to be a Christian on a largely Christian team, or even the lone Christian on a major league club. The pressing question for a story is: What would it be like to be the only unbeliever on a team of believers?

This is where my mind took a detour. So much of Christian fiction is written from the Christian point of view. I know, I know, “Well, duh.” I acknowledge the need for the approach, but now I’m wondering what kind of story might be churned out if some writer decided to write a Christian book from an unbeliever’s point of view. I don’t mean have an unbelieving secondary character, or spouse, or friend, or boss or any other such permutation. I mean write an entire 90,000 or more word book purely from the point of view of someone who has no idea what it means to have salvation.

The reader would see the events through the eyes of disbelief rather than faith as has become expected in the industry. Imagine a tale told of a lone doubter on a baseball team composed of practicing, mature, well instructed believers. How would he view the Christians? Would he be attracted to their faith or would he struggle with their human foibles? And could Christians learn from this approach? One wonders if a Christian writer, long in the faith, might even remember what it was like to be on the other side of the border. Such a story might be instructive for the author and the reader. The question is, is the market ready for such a thing?

In my book, The Incumbent, I write about a woman mayor struggling with personal loss, a cantankerous council, and her place in the world. She is not a believer and proves it in a number of ways. The spiritual strain of the story was purposefully left for the later acts. I received several letters from readers who had read 80 or so pages and wanted me to explain what made the novel a Christian book. I could only answer, “Keep reading.” Beginning a book with a fully formed set of expectations is courting disappointment—but that’s a subject for another time.

All of that to say this: There are more stories out there than can be penned. All they need are imaginative writers and courageous publishers to make them real.

Alton Gansky's blog, Imagination @ Work, reaches the world from his home in California. You can read it daily at this link:

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

KB: Enter the Editor, part 3

Okay, when last we visited our intrepid editor (yours truly), I’d waded through a manuscript full of pitfalls and brought it to a place of honor. Oh, the joy of a job well done. Off the manuscript went to the author, and I waited for the response, anticipating as much pleasure on the author’s side as there now was on mine for this newly refined manuscript.

Yeah, well, as my brother says, it’s nice to want.

The author hit the roof. Long story short, after countless phone calls and emails, I ended up redoing the edit. Twice. On that third pass, I barely touched anything other than misspellings and grammar problems. Of course, I’d gone to my boss to let him know what was happening, and the conclusion was what it’s been at all three publishers where I’ve worked: Bottom line, it’s the author’s book. I handed in the final manuscript with great fear and trembling, certain this one was going to crash and burn. And guess what?

It didn’t. Not by a longshot. Reviewers loved it. Readers couldn’t get enough of it. It charged onto the bestseller list, and sales were so strong we were all astonished.

So was I wrong? Yes and no. Generally speaking, my concerns were valid. (The one criticism reviewers had for the book was that it could have stood “a more careful editing”…Yeah. Thanks.). But bottom line, the author knew best what this story needed, how it needed to be told. Ultimately, I had to respect that. And I’m delighted the book did as well as it did, because it was a powerful story, and the author had other powerful stories to tell. Which wouldn’t have happened if the book had done poorly.

Was this a hard process for the author? You bet. Was it hard for me? So much so that I came perilously close to leaving publishing. So it’s a good thing that God was in control, not the author nor I. Because He did some really wonderful things. Not the least of which was take that devastating process and use it to build a solid bond between this author and me. And when the next manuscript from this author came in, things went far more smoothly. We’d earned each other’s respect and trust, and were both able to give where we needed to do so.

So, when (not if, mind you, but when) you strongly disagree with your editor, let him or her know. But don’t go in guns blazing. Just let her know you don’t agree. If she pushes, don’t get testy. Just stick to your guns. But only, my friends, if it’s a hill to die on. Don’t waste time debating issues that really don’t matter. Voice, vital characterizations, dialogue that’s true to the character, plot points that will destroy the story if they aren’t included…those kinds of things. Editors—good editors, that is—will listen. They may argue, they may even continue to disagree with you, but ultimately, they’ll need to respect that you know this story, these characters, better than anyone else. Because it’s not about being right. It’s about coming alongside the author, working with him or her, and creating a story that will change people’s lives.

Like every other aspect of publishing, it’s about relationship. Building trust and respect together, until the editing process is as enjoyable as the writing process. And that’s not fiction. It really can, and does, happen. More often than you might think.

That’s why I love what I do so much, because my authors have become some of my closest, most trusted friends. People I’ll stand for, and who will stand for me, not just when it comes to writing. So yes, I’m an editor. And a writer.

Nothing else I’d rather be.

Everything you want to know about Karen Ball (and probably way more) can be found at .

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Happy Independence Day!

The folks at Charis Connection wish you a happy and safe fourth of July!

To test your knowledge of American History, take the Ten Days Challenge!

and let us know how you did!

Monday, July 03, 2006

KB: Enter the Editor, part 2

Let’s see, where were we? Oh yes, enter the editor.

Yeah, yeah, I know. Saying that to a bunch of writers is like telling a kid the Boogey Man is not just under the bed, he’s comin’ out to play. But if you’re done shuddering, let me tell you what editors are all about. Not, contrary to some writers’ thinking, destroying voice or taking over your story and making it his or hers. Not by a longshot. I know many of the editors in the CBA, and to a person, I can tell you what drives him or her.

Beautiful writing. Powerful truth. Changing lives.

That’s what we’re about. Making an author’s writing even stronger, more powerful, and more beautiful than it already is. Coming alongside an author—not running him over—to draw out the passion and impact contained in the story he’s created. Editors don’t want to upset you, disrespect you, or make you over in their image. Not at all. What we want—what I want when I edit—is to take you and your writing to the next level. Not because I’m so wonderful, but because I have something you don’t: distance. The ability to review your work with an eye to what really works and what REALLY doesn’t.

Trust me on this, folks: your editor can be your best friend as a writer. Now remember, true best friends see you as you are--and love you too much to let you stay that way. They walk beside you, urging you to better and higher. That’s my goal as an editor. To understand my authors as well as their writing, to respect their quirks and voice even as I seek to push and tug and massage so the gold that’s too often buried can come out and shine.

Now, that being said, editors also know (or should know) that this is YOUR book. Not his or hers. And while it’s the editor’s job to point out challenges and makes suggestions for improvement, it’s your call whether or not to do those things. Do you disagree with your editor? Fine, just talk it over with her. Editors—good editors, that is—realize they don’t know everything. And they’re not always right. Okay, it’s a painful realization, but it’s there.

Case in point. A number of years ago, while at one of the publishing houses where I worked (no, I won’t tell you which one) I edited a manuscript from an unpublished author (won’t tell you which one of those, either). I’d acquired the manuscript on the strength of the first chapter (something most editors, this one included, have learned not to do). I was so excited when I received the whole manuscript that I sat down and started reading. Sure enough, the first chapter was just as strong as I remembered. Then came chapter 2. And suddenly my excitement shifted into something else.

I think “ panic” best describes the feeling.
As I read, I saw problem after problem, until I finally set the manuscript down and leaned my forehead on my desk. What had I done? This manuscript wasn’t publishable! Well, fine. So there was work to be done. That was, after all, my job. I straightened up, shoved up my sleeves, and went to it. Spent hours upon hours working, refining, doing some of the best editing I’ve ever done. By the time I was done, I was sure this would be a bestseller. Not, again, because I was so wonderful, but because the writer really did have a masterful story in there, under the challenges.

So what happened?

Ah, that, dear reader, is for the next blog.

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