Friday, September 29, 2006

Ask the Authors: Friday

Welcome back to “ask the authors week.” This week we will pose five questions to our contributors, and you’ll find their varied answers to a single question each day.

If you have questions you’d like us to ask during a future “Ask the Authors” week, send it to As always, thanks for joining us!

Is there a certain book you try to read at least once a year? If so, what is it?

Listening to your Life by Frederick Buechner—Jane Kirkpatrick

Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. Oh, and the Bible. :>) --Liz Curtis Higgs

Other than the Bible--The Pursuit of God, by A.W. Tozer, and Rose from Brier, by Amy Carmichael. -BJ Hoff

Same book? No. I just do all I can to read the latest fiction, keeping up on what’s going on in the market. And that’s a lot to keep up on. –Brandilyn Collins

No. But I’ve read a few books quite a few times such as Philip Yancey’s Reaching for the Invisible God or Richard Foster’s A Celebration of Discipline. I’ve read A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving several times. Oh, and I’ve read Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler quite a few times. One year I read the Bible in a year, but I can’t do that every year. –Patricia Hickman

The New Testament. --Hannah Alexander

No. I struggle to get new books read every year. I rarely revisit old books (not counting the thesaurus, dictionary, Chicago Manual of Style, etc.). -- Robin Lee Hatcher

Not really. I love all kinds of writing books by different authors. –Lori Copeland

Streams in the Desert devotional. That book has impacted me more than any other book besides the Bible. –Karen Ball

"Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim", a collection of headlines edited by the Columbia School of Journalism. Headlines like:
"Milk Drinkers Turn to Powder"
"Child's Stool Great For Use in Garden"
"Shut-Ins Can Grow Indoors With Lights"

These remind me to use language carefully, and also to not take myself too seriously.—James Scott Bell

My husband and I read through the Bible once every 3 years or so, reading a chapter together every weekday morning before we pray. But there are very few other books I would read more than once because there are simply too many new books vying for my attention. One exception is that I do “spot-read” writing books anytime I need a boost of inspiration. My favorites there are Stein on Writing, Writing the Breakout Novel, Self-editing for the Fiction Writer, and Plot & Structure (by Charis Connection’s own James Scott Bell). ––Deborah Raney

I’m always a better writer after reading anything by Sol Stein. –Angela Hunt

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Ask the Authors: Thursday

Welcome back to “ask the authors week.” This week we will pose five questions to our contributors, and you’ll find their varied answers to a single question each day.

If you have questions you’d like us to ask during a future “Ask the Authors” week, send it to As always, thanks for joining us!

Silence or music—which do you prefer to write by? And if music, what type?

Silence. Once in a while I've had music on but then it's instrumental, related to the story (celtic harp; German bands, etc)—Jane Kirkpatrick

Silence. I love silence. However, there are certain types of music I listen to that put me in a writing mood. Movie soundtracks, mostly— John Williams, James Horner, Hans Zimmer, Danny Elfman. Then there is classical. Mahler. Wow. His Resurrection symphony, No. 2; and Hero symphony, No. 6. Wow. — Jack Cavanaugh

Oh, I have to have music! Instrumental only. Classical music is too dynamic in range, so I prefer fairly mellow, moody soundtracks or Celtic music. I have an extensive list of writing music on my Web site, if you care to take a look... --Liz Curtis Higgs

I have music on all the time--except when I'm writing. I tend to get too involved in the music and let it distract me, so my office is dead-quiet. However, I do have certain kinds of music to "think by" and "plot by." Almost always movie soundtracks, classical or Celtic. -BJ Hoff

Absolute silence. My pea brain can’t handle competing noises. Music—never. I’m too into it. I’d end up humming, then singing, then seat-rocking, then getting up to dance. I’d have me a grand ol’ time, but the word count would be a mite meager. –Brandilyn Collins

For writing, absolute silence. When I edit, I listen to the CD’s currently in my player. They are titles like Healing Sanctuary and Sound Healing. I’ve listened to the Secret Garden CD’s until I wore them out. Music without lyrics. And good-smelling candles. –Patricia Hickman

I usually listen to music while I write, anything soft and instrumental, from "new age" to the classics. --Athol Dickson

Silence. I wish I wrote to music, but it distracts me most of the time. Everything distracts me, though. --Hannah Alexander

Both. Some days I'm more into the story and need concentration. Others I love to listen to classical or easy listening. –Lori Copeland

Give me music! Soundtracks or opera for writing, while anything goes for “busy work.” I love Secret Garden for writing, and Allison Kraus, Carly Simon, the Manhattan Transfer, and Renee Fleming for everything else. –Angela Hunt

Oh, music! I find I get so distracted by other things if I don't. Rock 'n Roll, baby, does the trick for me! My favorite right now, however, is a young Christian band from Baltimore called Unsearchable Riches. They are fabulous. Billy Joel always does the trick too. Also, in a different vein, I love west coast jazz. Vince Guaraldi is probably my all time favorite musical artist. –Lisa Samson

Music. Usually movie soundtracks without words. -- Robin Lee Hatcher

Music, definitely! But without lyrics. I'll often fit the music to what I'm writing. When writing Reunion, which focused on the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone, I played music that had wolves howling in the background. Whatever the music, it has to have some drive to it. I can't write to music that's too soothing. –Karen Ball

Since I write suspense, I love movie soundtracks that fit that mood. Such as "Road to Perdition" and the Hitchcock scores of Bernard Herrmann. I have a list of "mood tunes" that I'll listen to if I'm going to be writing a particular type of scene. For example, if I'm looking for a warmer feel, I've got the barn raising theme from "Witness" ready to go. And others like that. Oh, and to get in the mood to write I'll sometimes play the football practice theme from "Rudy" followed by the main theme to "The Magnificent Seven." –James Scott Bell

Music! I love writing to movie soundtracks (instrumental only, though, or I find myself typing lyrics instead of story!) Soundtracks seem to have just the right balance of fast-paced action/adventure rhythms and quiet, contemplative melodies. ––Deborah Raney

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Ask the Authors: Wednesday

Welcome back to "ask the authors week." This week we will pose five questions to our contributors, and you'll find their varied answers to a single question each day.

If you have questions you'd like us to ask during a future "Ask the Authors" week, send it to As always, thanks for joining us!

When you begin to write, are you aiming for a certain word length? How do you know how long your story is going to be? Do you try to keep your manuscript under a certain word count?

My contracts want my manuscripts to be about 120,000 words. I write chapters that are around 3000 words each so that keeps me pretty close. And then sometimes the story that begins as one book becomes three! -Jane Kirkpatrick

One mark of a professional writer is the ability to write to specs. At present, most of my publishers have set a 90,000 word target. My story concepts tend to fit naturally into the 120,000 word range. I trim them down. Am I selling out or am I being professional? A good storyteller tailors his story to his audience and we seem to have a 90,000 word audience. If I had a story that could not be told in less than 200,000 words, I'd pitch it as a trilogy. -Jack Cavanaugh

My contracts specify a desired word count. Despite my best efforts to tell a story in those alloted words (120,000), I always go over. Always. Sometimes way over! Once the book is turned in, my editors and I negotiate a finished word count that truly suits the book. I've cut as much as 22,000 words from a novel (Whence Came a Prince), and was glad to do so. I knew it was flabby, knew it needed tightening. I reduced the length not by taking out any scenes but by trimming out extraneous words, sentence by sentence. It's still my longest novel to date--180,000 words--but I think reducing the word count made it stronger. -Liz Curtis Higgs

I know the general ballpark for my genre. Contemporary suspense at my publishing house comes in at 90 - 95k. So I keep that in mind as I write. My longer historical, Glimpses of Paradise, was 135k. -James Scott Bell

No. I work mostly in series, and with the first book I have no particular word count in mind, nor have I found my publishers too stringent on this issue. After the first book of a series has been released, however, I do try to keep the word count similar for the succeeding books--within 5,000 words either way. -BJ Hoff

This is one of those processes that works, but HOW it works continues to elude me. Somehow my novels come out at the right number of pages. They'll vary a little, but not much. Guess I've just gotten a handle on how many (a) people I can kill, (b) subplots I can have, (c) characters I can arc, (d) POVs I can run. -Brandilyn Collins

You asked "when you begin," so, the answer is no, not in the beginning. I could really obsess over things like word count. After each draft, I run the word count program to be certain I'm obtaining a contractual size. If it's over the limit, so far the publisher hasn't minded or asked me to cut down word length. -Patricia Hickman

I've never had a particular length in mind at the outset of a novel. It takes what it takes. Usually that's about 80,000 words, but I would not shy away from 60,000 or 120,000 words if it seemed best. While some stories take more words to tell completely, it's important to tell the story in the fewest words you can. I try to cut out everything that doesn't really matter, everything that doesn't "move the story along" as they say. It takes more time to be as brief as possible, but it's worth the extra effort. -Athol Dickson

I let the story set its own length and have had them come in as short as 70,000 words and as long as 150,000. I'm writing tighter than I did in the old days, though, and I find I can take old novels and cut thousands of words without changing a bit of the story line. -Angela Hunt

I write under contract, and so yes, I am always aiming for a certain word length, because the publisher requires that. They aren't sticklers, though, so I have a lot of leeway. I've written enough that I have a feel for what length a certain story will be. -Hannah Alexander

I'm a pithy writer. I always know the minimum word length I'm shooting for, and it's always hard to get there. I never go long or struggle with keeping under a certain length. -Robin Lee Hatcher

I have a target area: anything hopefully between 80,000 and 90,000 words. Sometimes it goes a little over, sometimes a little under. I don't know how long my story is going to be, but I'm usually somewhere in that word count. To be honest, I never worry about going over! It's under that concerns me. However, that being said, I usually shoot for my first draft to be 10,000 words less than my contracted word count. When I go back in to hard-copy edit, I almost always add at least that many words. -Lisa Samson

I go for page count. I know how to set up the page that when I have X amount I'm pretty close to my word count. -Lori Copeland

My ideal is to aim for 1500-2500 words a day on weekdays. (I've agreed with my family that, as much as possible, I won't work on weekends.) Most of my contracts put my books at 85-95K words. So doing 1500 words a day means I'd have a first draft done in 90 days, or about 2 1/2 months (without working on Saturdays). And actually, I generally aim for 80K in my first drafts because you invariably add word count in the revision. -Karen Ball

Now that I'm published, my contracts specify an approximate word length--usually between 80-100,000 words. I tend to write short and add in rewrite, although I once had to trim 10,000-plus words from a novel. Believe me, it was better for it! I think there is a trend toward a bit shorter novels. Bottom line: within reason, your story should be as long as it takes to tell it well. -Deborah Raney

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Ask the Authors: Tuesday

Welcome back to “ask the authors week.” This week we will pose five questions to our contributors, and you’ll find their varied answers to a single question each day.

If you have questions you’d like us to ask during a future “Ask the Authors” week, send it to As always, thanks for joining us!

In your opinion, what is the best writer’s conference for a newbie to attend? Do you have personal favorites?

Mount Hermon Writers Conference is fabulous. And I'm eager to experience my first ACFW Conference this month. I can't say enough good things about such events, both for the networking and for the inspiration. –Liz Curtis Higgs

I've only attended the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College once but it's a definite favorite!—Jane Kirkpatrick

For newbies, nothing beats the relaxed, nurturing atmosphere of Marlene Bagnull’s conferences in Philadelphia and Estes Park. Billie Wilson’s Florida Christian Writers' Conference is similar. For established writers, nothing beats the challenging, fun environment of a Donald Maass intensive. And how could I forget? Nancy Rue and I will be doing a conference in late Feb. 2007 at Glen Eyrie, CO—I promise it’ll be unique! –Angela Hunt

I've never attended one. Have heard good things about Mount Hermon and Glorieta, though. -BJ Hoff

ACFW. Hey, it’s the only conference out there PURELY for novelists. You don’t have to worry about those boring nonfiction types. Plus you can choose from four different levels of teaching in the morning tracks and the afternoon workshops—beginner, intermediate, advanced and professional. There’s no one-size-fiction-fits-all at ACFW. And all the attendees are like one big family—ready to welcome in new family members. It’s fun, informative, spirit-filled, and doesn’t cost a fortune. Try beating that. –Brandilyn Collins

The better workshops are competitive, so if you want to raise the bar a bit, I recommend either the Iowa Writer’s Workshop or the Sewanee Writer’s Conference in Tennessee. Then you have to consider the genre for which you prefer to study. I think it’s a good idea to mix up your experiences with the heavy duty intensives and some of the Christian workshops. If you want to be a worldview Christian writer, you need to know how the world processes beliefs. If you want to target Christian readers, then you should attend Christian writer’s workshops. They are all listed in The Christian Writer’s Market Guide by Sally Stuart. –Patricia Hickman

Mt. Hermon is great, and it's the only one I've actually attended that is still being held yearly. It's very expensive, but when I went, the money was worth it. --Hannah Alexander

Assuming that you are meaning conferences for writers of novel length fiction, I believe that ACFW is probably the best thing going today. Other wonderful conferences available for Christian writers include non-fiction and article writing and short fiction in their workshop tracks. But if you are pursuing publication in book length Christian fiction, then ACFW would be my first choice. I have also long enjoyed the RWA national conference, but its focus is romance and overwhelmingly secular, so you won't find many workshops about Christian fiction. Still there are always great workshops on both craft and the business of writing, and the award ceremony is amazing. -- Robin Lee Hatcher

I hear ACFW is wonderful though I haven't had a chance to attend. Same with Mount Hermon--I'd love to go to one of their conferences. –Lori Copeland

I've always felt the Mount Hermon Christian Writers' Conference in California is a very helpful, accessible conference. It's pricey, but it's one of the best. And I know the editors and publishing house representatives like going to this conference a great deal, so it always has a great faculty/staff. I also have enjoyed Sandy Cove and Glorieta. –Karen Ball

If you want to write novels, I’d recommend ACFW (American Christian Fiction Writers) hands down. If you write fiction, non-fiction, children’s books, poetry, or especially if you’re interested in writing screenplays, the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference is excellent, and growing in size and quality every year. I’m sure there are other great conferences, but those are two I’m well-acquainted with, having served on faculty at both for the past several years. ––Deborah Raney

Monday, September 25, 2006

Ask the Authors: Monday

Welcome back to "ask the authors week." This week we will pose five questions to our contributors, and you'll find their varied answers to a single question each day.

If you have questions you'd like us to ask during a future "Ask the Authors" week, send it to As always, thanks for joining us!

Do you, or have you, belong(ed) to a critique group? Was this beneficial for you and if so, how?

No, I never have. But I have sent scenes from time to time to a group of friends, and they've given me great comments, helped me see places where I need to tighten, and really helped me refine my writing skills. --Karen Ball

Not until I joined a critique group did I begin writing for publication. The monthly meetings gave me a deadline, exposure to critique (which made me try harder to prove them wrong), and put me in contact with people who shared a common goal as well as information about publishers guidelines and needs. If it had not been for the critique group I may never have started writing seriously. -- Jack Cavanaugh

I've never belonged to one. Many writers seem to find critique groups beneficial, though. -BJ Hoff

I've never belonged to a critique group--my approach to writing was too accidental to do something so purposeful--but I often use "test readers" whom I trust to tell me if something isn't working. --Angela Hunt

I participated in a critique group around books 10 and 11. It was a horrid experience for me. I don't do well writing by committee, and since I am an intuitive writer, I work best without other input during the creative process. With rare exceptions, my editor is the first person who sees the book. Occasionally I will ask a trusted writer friend to read a scene or a chapter if I'm struggling with something, just to make sure I'm conveying what I hope to convey.
Having said all that, I am a huge believer in brainstorming groups. Once or twice a year, I love to get together with writers to brainstorm story ideas. -- Robin Lee Hatcher

I'm really not a "joiner" at heart, though I love keeping in touch with writer friends online. Time is also a challenge for me. All this to say, no, I've never belonged to a critique group! Instead I engage a few early readers for each manuscript-in-progress to keep me on track.--Liz Curtis Higgs

I live seven miles from my mailbox and eleven miles from pavement so it's just too far to travel for a critique group. I tried one on line but found myself pushing to meet the group's deadline rather than writing to meet my publisher's deadline or my own.--Jane Kirkpatrick

No, I don't. I'm too dad-blamed independent. I want to write what I want to write, and wail and moan all by myself. Other people would get tired of me in a hurry anyway. Then when the thing's all done, I do let a few people read it for feedback. --Brandilyn Collins

I believe I was published much faster because of my critique group. They were knowledgeable about the structure of the novel as well as the Christian book market. My undergraduate writing experiences in college (back in the Stone Age of Christian writing) focused on grammar and some creative writing but not the bones of a novel. My mentor also taught all of us to generate plot ideas very quickly and efficiently. I was not only able to make my first sale one year later, but have continued to remain contracted since that first critique group back in 1992. College writing programs now recognize the importance of the small group workshop, so new writers may access these in most every state now. When you sign onto a writing program, be sure to ask if they offer critique groups or small workshop groups. --Patricia Hickman

I've never been part of a formal critique group, but I do ask a few people to read my novels before the final draft. Usually these are fiction readers I can trust to be very frank about any weaknesses they find. Sometimes I ask certain people because their demographic profile gives them some special authority to speak about particular aspects of story. In that way, I get an insider's perspective, so to speak. --Athol Dickson

I had a critique partner when I first started writing 22 years ago. That partner still critiques anything before it goes to the publisher, and she does so for others now, and for pay. I still credit her for whipping me into shape. I don't belong to a crit group, because that's too overwhelming. --Hannah Alexander

Yes, for a short period, years ago, when I was writing my second series of historical novels, I belonged to a critique group. It wasn't beneficial in the sense that I got good feedback, however, it made me really polish up my writing, or at least a portion of it, to be read aloud each week. And I met a lot of neat people who encouraged me along the way. I think the camaraderie was something very special. --Lisa Samson

I did, once. For the beginning writer they're good, but if you're published I think critiques tend to be confusing. There's always the exception, but I like to have one or two confidants that I trust to me feedback on my work--and everyone does need feedback. --Lori Copeland

I never knew there was such a thing as a critique group. I thought all writers worked alone, sent in their work and hoped for the best. I did, however, show my early work to a few people I trusted, asking them for feedback. That helped. When I got a screenplay back that didn't work for some reason, it made me want to dig in and get it right and do another one. --James Scott Bell

I've never been in a critique group, but for the past 3-4 years, I've had a critique partner, author Tamera Alexander. Both her encouragement and her honest criticism of my work are so helpful to the writing process, I honestly don't know how I ever wrote without her! --Deborah Raney

Friday, September 22, 2006

AD: Evil in Fiction

There's been much debate in print and among my author friends about profanity recently. As a novelist, I see this in terms of the distinction between describing evil and indulging it. Although striking the balance is not always easy, for me the lines are pretty clear when it comes to profane words. In print profane words are not descriptions, but the actual profanity itself. When showing evil actions, where the profane thing imagined is distinct from the words used to describe it, one can temper the language to avoid making the reader feel polluted and to avoid being so descriptive it tempts the reader to commit the sin described. But written profane words cannot be nuanced. They are the profanity itself right there on the page, not a description of it, but it.

Of course there are much worse things than naughty words. Pornography, for example. Yet profane words and pornographic photographs have this in common: they require very little imagination. And when it comes to striking a proper balance between describing evil and indulging in it, understanding the written word's effect upon a reader's imagination is everything.

For example, is it necessary to write profanity when creating the kind of character who curses in real life? Will unbelievers dismiss the work as irrelevant or unrealistic otherwise?

I doubt this for several reasons.

We must decide what we mean by "relevant." One thing I know for sure: nothing is more irrelevant than a believer trying to reach an unbelieving culture on the basis of things that symbolize unbelief. Talk about mixed messages. To be sure, Jesus ate with "tax collectors, sinners and prostitutes," but he did not emulate the activities that earned them those descriptions, not even just a little, just to make a point. On the contrary, Jesus' difference attracted them, and nothing is more relevant to unbeliever's hearts than that same difference in our stories.

Also, we must decide what we mean by "realistic" fiction. Here we move into the practice of good writing. The job of a serious novelist is to show truth, not true-life, which is a different thing. True-life lies on the surface, but the truth lies deeper down, beneath superficial preconceptions. As a reader, what makes me believe a gangster or a longshoreman is a living human being? Not his profanity, that's for sure. Too obvious. In fact, if you must use profanity to show someone "realistically," at least let it come from the lips of a preacher or a nun, just once, at a moment of overwhelming rage or desperation. Then it might mean something real. Similarly, show a gangster who always speaks politely, and I'll begin to see a real person in your story.

Most importantly, writers should consider the role of imagination (or the lack of it) in defending ourselves from the effects of evil. We disengage our minds from evil. The more we are exposed to evil, the more callous we become. Everyone knows this. So it follows that the way to keep a reader cognizant of real evil is to show it only slightly, or obliquely, lest they tune it out. We show the truth of evil best by shining light most brightly on what is good, while never letting readers forget what waits within the shadows.

This is not only because of the numbing effect of evil, but also because all evil is an abuse of something good, which is not the case in reverse. In other words, the truth about evil is best understood in terms of the good it ought to be, not in terms of evil itself. Consider the Gospel of John, where it says, "They crucified him." That basic statement of fact is the only reference to the evil act, but after all the beautiful things Jesus just finished saying in the upper room and in the garden, those three words are exactly enough. Our sense of the evil done on the cross would be less true if John had "realistically" described the spikes going in, because we would be thinking of pitiless iron and gory flesh instead of the most realistic evil happening there: the fact that Jesus was the personification of all the love that ever was or ever will be, yet they( and I) still crucified him.

Another example: Adolph Hitler loved dogs, so they say. Only a fact like that can hope to make evil on the scale of the holocaust "realistic." Hitler's love of dogs brings the gas chambers to life, because I also love dogs and if a man could do such things while loving dogs, might I? To merely give escapism to a reader, to shut down deeper thinking, by all means give them bodies piled like cords of wood in gruesome detail. But to create some sense of the true evil in those camps, to explore the real horror, it is best to mention it in passing, while focusing on Adolph's love of animals.

Here's the thing: genocidal maniacs are nothing to me. I cannot comprehend them, and the more technical realism you give, the less I want to try. But a man who pets his dog with bloody hands? That I must receive.

Note that none of this has anything to do with appeasing prudish readers. I'm not saying our fiction should never include profanity. I meant what I wrote about the preacher or the nun, and I used the N-word with deliberate precision in a recent novel because a tiny dose of actual evil at the perfect moment is sometimes just the contrast needed to bring God's love to life. But those who sup with the devil should use a very long spoon, as the saying goes. I think that's practical advice both for living, and for writing.

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

Thursday, September 21, 2006

DR: A Writer's Relationship with Readers

When her first novel came out last year, Mary DeMuth posed this heartfelt question about a writer's relationship with the public and with her readers.

Q. I'm getting stressed about how much to share--how to be open, yet guarded. I
do believe Jesus works through our authenticity and shines through our
weaknesses. I'm not afraid to be open, but I worry that my transparency will
welcome criticism and, perhaps, a reader's false sense of friendship with me.
I'm worried about being so available to others that I'll be overwhelmed.

Sadly, Mary's fears are well-founded. When you become a published, promoted author, you become a publicly owned commodity. You not only risk losing some friends from your "old world" who can't handle your success and celebrity, but sadly, you also sometimes wonder if the new friends you make aren't just using you to further their own careers, or are only interested in you so they can drop your name.

Most difficult of all, when you become an author, readers begin to see you as an expert--and a counselor. Not only in matters of writing, but in psychology as well. I often get letters from readers pouring their hearts out to me about some tragedy of their life. The compassionate Christian Deb wants to hold their hands and ease their pain. But if I do that, I quickly find myself in an ongoing dialogue. And I simply can't be in a running correspondence with all my readers! There aren't enough hours in the day! I've learned that if I reply with much more than --my heart goes out to you and I'm praying for you-- I risk being seen as a confidante or counselor, and next thing I know, I'm hurting the person worse than they hurt before because I "drop" them or "ignore" them or worse, give bad advice.

It's so hard sometimes to find that perfect balance between warm-loving-genuine and professional-and-stand-offish-for-your-own-protection. When I try to nurture my readers too much, I invariably neglect my family and my in-person friends. When I care for my family and take time for my long-time friends, I must keep my readers at a bit of a distance. It's a constant struggle!

I think all any of us can do is minister where you are at any given time. If you're speaking to a group, it's fine to put an arm around someone, to cry and pray with them afterwards. What I try to avoid are e-mail relationships with readers. They are draining and you risk allowing the correspondent to become dependent on you, when they should be seeking face-to-face counsel with a friend, pastor or professional. My rule of thumb is that I respond personally to every reader mail or e-mail once. After that, unless there's a compelling reason, I don't enter into ongoing correspondence.

On the other hand, an e-mail friendship with writing peers can be the most refreshing and affirming thing in the world. Such relationships can keep you from draining your non-writing friends and family members, and from being disappointed when they don't "get" what you're about.

I wish someone had warned me of the struggles I'd face with this aspect of being published. It would have saved me a lot of false guilt had I known ahead of time that I simply cannot be all things to all people. I'm learning, day by day, how to keep things more in balance and not take on guilt I don't deserve. Good thing, because I've got more than enough I DO deserve.

Deborah Raney is the author of A Vow to Cherish (Steeple Hill June 2006). Coming in January: Remember to Forget for Howard Books, now an imprint of Simon & Schuster.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

JSB: Find Your Own Event

One of the greatest athletes ever produced in America, Bob Mathias, passed away on September 2. What he accomplished still boggles the mind. And it was all because of a gift of God.

Mathias grew up in the farming town of Tulare, California. He was sickly as a kid, but his doctor father put him on a regimen of vitamins and naps, and Mathias’s body responded. That was the gift of God—this amazing athletic machinery that came into being before the age of steroids. Soon, Bob Mathias was beating everybody in almost any physical endeavor.

But no one expected what happened next. At the age of 17 he went to the 1948 Olympic Games and stunned the world by winning the gold medal in the decathlon. And this was only his third decathlon ever. His first competition was a mere 6 weeks earlier.

Mathias came back an American hero, went to Stanford, played football and, in 1952, he won the Olympic decathlon again. No one had ever done that before, and only one man (Daley Thompson) has done it since.

Mathias went on to serve in the Marine Corps, was a popular spokesman for athletics and was elected to Congress, where he served four terms. He is survived by a wife, five children and ten grandchildren. An All American story.

They made a movie about Bob Mathias in 1954, with the shocking title “The Bob Mathias Story.” Starring…Bob Mathias. He did all right playing himself, but the film is best remembered as capturing this amazing athlete in action.

After seeing the movie as a kid, I decided I wanted to become a decathlete. Unfortunately for my aspirations, my body was not made for decathlons. I wasn’t particularly fast, couldn’t jump particularly high, and my arms were better suited to shooting silky jump shots than putting the shot or tossing the discus. In other words, I wasn’t built for ten of the ten decathlon events.

So I found my place in basketball, and was happy about that. Every now and then – such as when Bruce Jenner won the 1976 Olympic decathlon – I’d feel a twinge. But it would pass, because I had found my athletic place in another sport.

BTW, years later I was in Starbucks when Bruce Jenner walked in. As he was waiting for his latte, I edged up to him and said, “Say, aren’t you Bob Mathias?”

He laughed (whew). We had a nice conversation. I told him as a kid I wanted to be a decathlete. Jenner said, “And then you woke up?”

I laughed (forced). But we both agreed it was a body thing. Jenner has these legs like industrial springs, and a wide upper body. My legs are more like pylons from a New Jersey dock.

The point is we come into this world with certain potentials and limitations. This is as true for literary talent as anything else. And it doesn’t do a writer any good to feel bereft because he or she can’t write like so-and-so. You’re not supposed to. You’re supposed to write like you. That way of writing is unique, if you’ll let it be. Put your heart into it.

Find your own event, and work at it with all your passion and love. Write your book (“There is only one story in the world,” Ray Bradbury said. “Your story.”) And every moment you spend writing is another moment spent not comparing yourself to another writer.

When you’ve given it your all, you can rest. You’ve brought something into the world no one else could have. And, as writer Leonard Bishop reminds us, if you strive to write a great book, and don’t quite make it, you could very well succeed in writing a book that is splendid.

“If you want big,” Bishop says, “you dare big.”

Set the bar for yourself. Don’t try to high jump eight feet if your previous best is three. But do set it higher. Work up to the next level. Make it all a competition with yourself. This is how you grow as a writer.

Oh, and by the way, if Jenner had challenged me to a free throw shooting contest, I would have smoked him.

James Scott Bell is the bestselling author of Presumed Guilty and Write Great Fiction: Plot & Structure. His website is

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

JK: Remembering Wholeness

I’m reading a book called StoryCatchers by Christine Baldwin. In it she shares a story of an African tribe with a tradition that when someone offends the tribe by word or deed, everyone stops what they are doing and surrounds the person. One by one they begin to tell the person about an act, a behavior, a word, a deed that the offending person performed that was uplifting to the tribe, that strengthened the group, that was a mark of their compassion and their lack of offense. They “remember” him or her into the being they really are. The offense was an aberration not to be hung onto.

This practice truly touched me especially as I write and make revisions; as I learn that once again my most recent book is not a bestseller; as I prepare to teach a workshop on Landscape, Spirituality, Women and Story while I’m feeling overwhelmed by my own landscape, not all that spiritual, wonder about the changes my body is going through as a woman and question how to even tell a story let alone write one down!

I need to remember myself into healing, remind me of when I did feel that the ranch I live on nurtured instead of just demanded. I need to remember those things I did that once made me feel close and connected to God and what I might have stopped doing that has moved me farther away. I know I need to exercise and not just meander on a walk to help my body adjust to the changes of age. I need to remember when I used to run three miles a day (before my airplane accident) or when I exercised 20 minutes every day for one entire year. And most of all, I need to remember that I am in the middle of a story, awaiting an editor’s line-editing comments. I’m not where I’ve been with the story and not yet where I’ll be. I used to write and feel completed when I finished. I remember now.

So I will take a walk, purposeful and far through this landscape I love. I will rise a bit earlier and write in my prayer journal and take the time to listen (and remember that research tells us that the mere act of writing raises the T-cell levels that increases one’s immune system) but knowing that when I do I move closer to the kind of spiritual life I pray for. I will begin work on another story. With God’s help and my memory, I’ll move away from offense and on toward wholeness.

Jane Kirkpatrick,
Award-winning author of 12 novels and two non-fiction books. A Clearing in the Wild, Book One of the Change and Cherish Series (WaterBrook Press/Random House) is available now!

Monday, September 18, 2006

LS: finding william, finding myself

Photo left: Bill Ebauer and Joy Snider, Baltimore, MD, 1952.

My husband requested a crazy birthday present this past weekend. "Three hours of complain-free help in cleaning the house."

He'll be finishing up his MA in Theology this year and going on for a PhD so we've had some major shake-ups in household duties and fiscal responsibilities. In other words, I bring home most of the bacon and he fries it up in a pan.

My first thought? "Why didn't I think about a present like that when I was the one with those responsibilities?"

So the kids and I joined him at 9:30 on his birthday. We toted lots of books, shelved them, and some of us ended up down in the basement. The Wallers built our house in 1882; the basement is dirt, rich, dark dirt. I looked like I had been on the outskirts of a volcanic eruption when I was through.

My job? Go through a corner full of boxes; throw out what we didn't want to keep; and arrange the rest into plastic tubs. Most of the boxes held papers and pictures, keepsakes and cards from people I didn't know, never knew, never knew that I never knew!

But nested inside a box filled with snapshots and report cards, an old spiral notebook waited to be found. The cover was thick and hard, truly cardboard, the spiraled wire a tad rusted, no writing on the outside told me to whom it had belonged. When I opened the cover, however, I knew right away. My father's handwriting, slanted and artistic, yet male, even and flowing, filled page after page.

I cried. Let's get that out of the way. Every time I see my father's handwriting I grieve. He held the pen, he wrote those words. He is gone and I am left only with memories and envelopes and handwriting. Thankfully, he was an artist, and I have his paintings as well. But there's something so intimate in the handwriting of the dead, this physical remnant of their everydayness. The dead don't leave behind in any tangible way the manner in which they stirred their coffee or dragged a comb through their hair. Only in our minds do we see our mothers blot their lipstick on a kleenex or our fathers put in their cufflinks or shuffle through their wallets for a dollar bill. But handwriting sits before us in real ink on real paper, a snapshot of "their way".

Inside the notebook lay poems and thoughts of my father as a young man. He was twenty-three and the year was 1951. I found out he'd wanted to be a priest:

To raise His Body up on high
For all the world to see
To raise His Blood to cleanse the world
For sinners like me to bathe in the hopes
To console the dying and bring them peace
Underneath the garb of black
In a little gold case that holds the Life
And the key to better things.

He'd never said a thing. For in truth, in 1952 he'd met my mother, a woman with cancer. He married her believing she would die soon, that he could bring her comfort in her death.

Quickly I approached her bedside
What could have happened
The tanks, the tent, the hoarse breathing
Dear God, don't let it be.
She was in a light slumber
The void that shuns the pain
Her face was pale and drawn
Her lips drained and thin.

But she lived, recovered, and lived another fifty years. And now, perhaps, I understand my father a little bit more. A man who yearned to be in communion with God, deep communion. He wrote of love, of charity, of death, of marriage. He even wrote of the frustrations of furniture shopping with one's fiancee in a piece he titled, "On Furniture and Other Things."

"Should it be gold and brown, or coral and coco? Well, it wasn't any. It turned out coral and black. It's like the old saying, 'Did you ever have the feeling you wanted to go and still the feeling you wanted to stay?'"

Why do I write of these things? These discoveries which strip away the hard coverings of my father and reveal the young man beneath? Because in this book I found myself, that portion of me that must write life down, and I found it in a place I never knew existed. And somehow, finally, it all makes sense. Perhaps I write for different reasons than I ever thought. Perhaps I write not because I can or because I ought. Perhaps I write because I am my father's daughter, and he was just like me, but somewhere along the line (was it due to marriage, his practice, his children) he simply stopped writing things down.

That's all we do, really, isn't it? We're just writing things down. Sometimes I forget the true simplicity of what I do. But a reminder surfaced in a dirty old basement and gave me reason to keep placing pen to paper, to write of love and charity and marriage, to write of death and dreams and even furniture shopping.

To write of life, to write of God, to write of life.

Lisa Samson writes from an old house in Lexington, KY. Find her at

Friday, September 15, 2006

The Genre Experiment: Jack Cavanaugh

A man walks into a room occupied by two women. One he loves, one he hates. He utters one line, then exits. One of the women then follows him.

Scene Exercise Final: Historical

“You’re quiet. Are you scared?”

Imiu rubbed her arms. “A little,” she said.

“It’s only natural.”

Her mother hummed behind her. Hand followed comb down Imiu’s long black hair.

“Isn’t it exciting?” her mother said. “Did you ever in your best dreams imagine you’d someday live in a room like this?”

Imiu had to admit she hadn’t. Her gaze hadn’t rested since they arrived, moving from wall to ceiling to wall.

Stiff scenes of daily activity in the Queen’s court surrounded them in fresh hues of black and red and white and yellow and blue; scenes of attendants serving the Queen delicacies, of wise men advising her, of military commanders presenting her with a chain of captures slaves. All of this was under a ceiling spangled with luscious clusters of grapes on fertile vines.

Outside, workers labored under a parching sun with hot winds dusting their faces and grit penetrating their clothing. In here, it was cool, spacious, and colorful.

“Stand up! Let me look at you!” her mother said.

Imiu stood and turned. Her sleek white dress unfolded from her lap and fell to floor length. The weight of earrings and a necklace called attention to themselves. She’d never known gold was so heavy.

Her mother clasped her hands in delight. Tears glazed her eyes. “You look like royalty!” she cried.

Imiu felt like a princess.

An imperfection on Imiu’s eyelid snagged her mother’s attention. She dove for the cosmetics box.

Was there an imperfection? Imiu wondered. Or did her mother imagine it, wanting an excuse to open the painted cedar box again?

As the lid lifted there appeared a dazzling display of alabaster and brightly colored glass jars filled with unguents and oils. Her mother reached for the blue paint container and wooden khol applicator.

She went to work on Imiu’s left eyelid as four male servants paraded past them carry an impressive array of foods—preserved meats, wine, bread baked in animal shapes, dates, grapes, garlic, onions, and cumin.

Her mother’s hand paused. She closed her eyes and breathed in rapturously the culinary odors.
“I wish you were enjoying this more, Imiu!” she moaned. “Today should be the happiest day of your life!”

But it wasn’t, and Imiu knew if she said anything, they’d argue.

Her eyes must have spoken for her, because the next thing she knew, her mother was slamming the lid on the cosmetics box.

“You’re thinking of that stonemason’s son, aren’t you?” she shouted.

“His name is Intef, mother.”

“His name is of no importance. He is of no importance.”

“He loves me, mother, and he makes me happy.”

“How can you say he loves you when he wants to take you away from here to a life of mud and poverty to raise a litter of ill-clad and ill-educated children? For generations our family has served the wealthiest houses in Egypt and now we have an opportunity to serve royalty. You would throw that away for a stonemason’s son?”

Imiu said nothing. Her lack of contrition angered her mother more.

“I can’t believe I’ve raised such a selfish daughter!”


“I don’t want to hear that name! I forbid you to speak his name!”

“He’s here, mother.”

A tall bronze-skinned young man with broad shoulders and thick arms entered the room. He wore the clothing of a kitchen servant, one of the four men who had delivered food.
Stepping between mother and daughter, he took Imiu by the shoulders. “I’m not going to let you die,” he said.

Imiu looked into his eyes and was lost. It wasn’t the first time she’d drowned in those eyes. In her best dreams she had not dreamed of lavish rooms, she’d dreamed of these eyes.

Intef jerked. Alarmed, his hand slapped the back of his neck as though he was swatting an insect. His mouth twisted in horror. He sank to his knees and collapsed onto the stone floor.

“Mother, what did you do?” Imiu screamed.

With calm, steady hands, her mother returned a small vial and needle to the cosmetics box.
Imiu trembled uncontrollably. “What did you do?” she screamed again.

“Asp venom.”


“I’m not about to let a stonemason’s son ruin everything for us.”

Imiu felt her knees grow weak. She began to sink next to the body. Cold, iron hands caught her.

“Stand up!” her mother ordered. “You’ll get your dress dirty. And I forbid you to cry! You’ll ruin your makeup!”

Her mother ushered her to a straight-backed chair set against the wall.

“It’s time,” she said. She kissed her daughter’s cheek. “Make me proud.”

Her mother called for workers to remove the stonemason son’s body. They obeyed her without question. She followed them out.

Not a moment passed before Imiu heard a commanding shout. The walls trembled as restraints were severed and mountainous granite blocks slid down grooves, stone against stone, sealing off the antechamber.

Imiu trembled in the dark. She glanced in the direction of a door she could not see and recalled her training.

If the Queen calls you at any time, you shall rise up and say, “I will do it.”

Imiu tried not to cry. It would ruin her makeup.

Jack Cavanaugh, together with Bill Bright, is the author of Storm and its sequel Fury, to be released in September.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

The Genre Experiment: Angela Hunt

A man walks into a room occupied by two women. One he loves, one he hates. He utters one line, then exits. One of the women then follows him.

The Genre Experiment: the scene written a la "women's fiction":

I wasn’t surprised when Jake came through the front door. In all the years we were married, he never once forgot his mother’s birthday.

He looked at me, hands in lap, unopened gift balanced on my knees, then his gaze skittered across the floor as if I’d been nothing more than another objet d’art on the cluttered bookcase Gilda called an étagère.

“Happy birthday, dearest love.” He crossed the room in three long strides, bent to cup his mother’s chin in his hands, and then placed a lingering kiss on her Botoxed forehead. She closed her eyes and leaned into him, exhaling an audible sigh.

So this is why she’d come back from Europe early. So she could be here to receive this tribute. What, didn't five phone calls a day provide enough motherlove?

“Darling boy,” she whispered, her hands closing around his wrists. “I know you must have had to leave something important to come here. But I adore you for it, and I’ll see you later tonight.”

My stomach churned. Jake had probably run out of a surgery, leaving his assistants to stitch up some poor patient so he could be here at the stroke of noon. Her birth hour. The exact moment this controlling monster had been born.

When his mother called because she'd seen a shadow in the house, he hadn’t hesitated to run out on me . . . in the middle of childbirth.

He released her, looked straight through me once again, then blew her a kiss and headed toward the door.

I couldn’t stop myself; I followed. Tossed the token present into Gilda’s lap and ran after him as if my life depended on it.

But it didn’t. Not anymore.

“Good to see you, too,” I said, passing him when he paused to scan the mail in his mother’s box. “And so good to say good-bye.”

That’s how I left Jake Wilson . . . and began to discover the me I’d left behind.

Angela Hunt writes a lot of women's fiction. You can explore her books at

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The Genre Experiment: James Scott Bell

A man walks into a room occupied by two women. One he loves, one he hates. He utters one line, then exits. One of the women then follows him.

The genre experiment written in the hardboiled, masculine style of James Scott Bell:

L.A. was as hot as a cat in a jacket. My ceiling fan was moving the air around my office like a boot camp Marine -- pile it here, pile it there, back again. I hadn’t had a client in months. The only investigating I’d done lately was in the 99 Cent store, the canned goods section.

So when the phone rang I thought it was the landlord. I was behind two months on the rent. My argument was that the building was behind ten years on code safety. Didn’t impress Vlad Davidovich, the owner, who liked being sued. Got his name in the papers.

But it wasn’t Vlad the Impaler. It was Mama Fred, owner of the finest independent donut shop on the west side. Kicked the glaze out of Krispy Kreme. These were donuts from the heart, which is where most of them lodged. Mama Fred had come over from Korea in the 90’s with her husband and built up a business from scratch.

She also took in a few extra dollars from me to be my eyes and ears and, occasionally, my west side office. She had a room off the kitchen that was nice and private.

“They here,” she said. “Both of them.”

I knew exactly who she meant.

Lena, the wife who’d walked out on me, my beating heart clutched in her icy fingers.

And her sister, Monica, a reporter. Before Lena and I got together, Monica helped me bring down a sitting mayor who stood for nothing. We turned up the heat. At roughly the same time, she turned down my proposal of marriage.

It took me half an hour to make the trek across town. Mama Fred was hovering over a tray of apple fritters when I walked in. She motioned with her head for me to go to the back.
I stepped into the room. Lena was standing with her arms folded, as if the world owed her an explanation. Monica sat, legs crossed, a cinnamon twist in her hand.

Before either of them could talk I said, “If I had a nickel for every woman I ever loved, and a nickel for every woman I ever hated, and invested those nickels in a stock market index fund, and figured in taxes and fund management fees, and withdrew a nickel for every punch to the heart, every slight to the soul and every night longing for something just out of my grasp, I’d have barely enough to buy a tall drip at Starbucks, even with the personal cup discount.”

Then I turned and walked out of the room, slamming the door.

I walked quickly through kitchen, out past the display case. Mama Fred was just putting the apple fritters in. They smelled like a twenty-year-old’s future – warm and full and sweet.
I waited at the door. I knew one of the two women would follow me out, chase me down. And whoever it was would determine my future forever.

I heard the back door smack the wall, footsteps running through the kitchen.

And then I saw her.

James Scott Bell keeps all of us in suspense, particularly when he sings "The Hairy Man." Check out his books at

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The Genre Experiment: Brandilyn Collins

A man walks into a room occupied by two women. One he loves, one he hates. He utters one line, then exits. One of the women then follows him.

The genre experiment a la "murder mystery":

Two a.m.

We waited in the hotel room, Cassie, pale-cheeked and refusing to speak to me. Picking at a tattered seam on the chair upon whose edge she perched. I on my feet, pacing, peering every five minutes out the window.

Three o’clock . . . Three-twenty . . . Four. How many hours since we’d slept?

Brad stumbled in shortly before dawn, face shadowed with new beard, eyes bleary. Cassie shoved to her feet.

“It’s done.” Brad’s gaze flicked over his wife and landed on me.

A moment passed as the news sank in. After all the years, I felt numb. “How?”

“It doesn’t matter how, dear sister.” Cassie’s eyes spat fire. “You’re finally free of your rat of a husband, so just be thankful.”

“But I don’t want Brad caught. And I sure don’t want the police to think I did it.”

Cassie snatched up her purse and stalked over to push her face within inches of mine. “Brad thinks of everything; you know that. The perfect schemer. You wouldn’t have begged him to do your dirty little deed if it wasn’t for that.” She pulled back, her jaw rigid, pulse throbbing in her neck. “Now go back to the rock you crawled out from under and leave us alone. Brad hates you as much as I do.”

My lips spread in a smug smile. Perfect schemer, indeed.

“Really now, Cassie. You think I’m the one he hates? He killed David for me, didn’t he?”

The lines in her forehead unraveled. She stared deep into my eyes, as if seeing me for the first time. Her gaze slid to Brad, who regarded her with bland expression, then back to me.

Cassie blinked, and hardness etched her jaw once more. Flinging back her shoulders, she swiveled toward the door. “Let’s get away from here, Brad.”

Following him out, she swiveled back. “I don’t ever want to see you again.”

I wiggled my fingers in a mocking wave. “Farewell, dear sister.”

The next day when Cassie was arrested for the murder of my husband, Brad and I both cried crocodile tears.

Brandilyn Collins lives and breathes suspense at

Monday, September 11, 2006

Something New: The Genre Experiment

We invited a handful of our Charis authors to participate in a writing experiment. The assignment, since they chose to accept it, was this:

Write a short scene that depicts a man walking into a room occupied by two women. One he loves, one he hates. He utters one line, then exits. One of the women then follows him.

Jim Bell will write it as a masculine action story.
Brandilyn Collins will write it as a murder mystery.
Angela Hunt will write it as contemporary women's fiction.
And Jack Cavanaugh will write it as a historical.

Should be fun! Stay tuned for the rest of the week to read the results!

Thursday, September 07, 2006

JSB: Confessions of a Dirty Dog

The reason that adulation is not displeasing is that, though untrue, it shows one to be of consequence enough, in one way or other, to induce people to lie. ­– Lord Byron

A few years ago I was standing in line at the drugstore when I heard a woman's voice shout, "Jim Bell, you dirty dog!"

Stunned, I looked for the source of the invective. But my vision was obscured by people and displays.

"You are a dirty dog!"

At that point, the people in my line, not to mention the whole store, were wondering about this resonant accusation. No one knew it was directed at me, of course. But that was about to change.

An attractive blonde woman suddenly approached. I recognized her immediately. She was a member of my church. She had this huge smile on her face as she came right up to me and said,

"Jim Bell, you are a dirty dog!"

Now the people in my line were looking back at me, wondering who they were in close proximity to.

"You kept me up all night!" the blonde said.

The old woman directly in front of me looked shocked.

My friend said, "I started your book last night and couldn't put it down!"

With a sigh of relief, I looked at the old woman as if to say, Nothing to see here. Move along.

She scowled at me and turned her back.

To my friend I said, "Thanks so much. That's, er, one of the nicest compliments I've ever received."

"Just wanted you to know!"

I guess I'll take "Dirty Dog" to some of the other things I've been called. As a former criminal lawyer, I'm familiar with more colorful labels. All of them beat the embarrassed silence which follows this more typical response (I usually get this at Starbucks):

FELLOW: So what are you working on?
JSB: A book.
FELLOW: You a writer?
JSB: Uh-huh.
FELLOW: Have I heard of you?

Inevitably, no, and the fellow's face drips with disappointment. I usually excuse myself at that point by saying, "I have to take this," and picking up my cell phone and saying, "Hi Steve. No, I'm not going to give you the rights. I was disappointed in Munich."

Or not.

The point is, the "celebrity author" thing is highly overrated. Even those with #1 NY Times bestsellers are known only by a relative few. And a yearning for adulation can be destructive. The moment you start believing your press releases, you're on a slippery slope.
Don't worry, though. As a Christian writer, you'll have God taking care of the humility thing.

He's rather good at that.

A couple of years ago I was teaching at a major writers conference, when the daughter of the conference director came up to me and effulged, "My Dad started your book last night and couldn't put it down!"


"He was up past 2 a.m.!"

Feeling a glow come to my cheeks I said, "Which book was it?"

"Oh, I can't remember….it was a one word title."

"Ah! Must have been Deadlock."

She frowned and shook her head.

I tried to think of another of my one word title books. But, having none, could not.

Then she remembered, and beamed. "It was Blink!"

Yes, Blink.

By Ted Dekker.

Another great moment in the life of the celebrity author.

Also a good reminder that writing to become "known" is a false pursuit. The quest for celebrity can only lead one off the track. Or lead to disaster. The young woman from Harvard who plagiarized major portions of another author's work had been offered the golden idol of fame.

"We'll make you a star," the packagers whispered. And she fell for it, and did some unethical things to make it happen.

Forget about stardom. Write for excellence. Tell your story. And if someone calls you a Dirty Dog, and doesn't follow it up with a punch in the nose, take it as an indication that you've done your job. You reached a reader. That's the important thing.

James Scott Bell is the bestselling author of Presumed Guilty and Write Great Fiction: Plot & Structure. His website is

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

PH: Readers, Relevance, and the Culture Gap

On behalf of all novelists, I’d just like to say that we have a tough job. We all want to write stories that are relevant. But relevance is in the eye of the reader. Relevance in modern and postmodern Christian texts often refers to a young generation. But demographics often show that a large percentage of readers fall within the category called Baby Boomers, those born between 1945 and 1957. I was born on the skirt tails of that group, so, culturally speaking, I tend to relate to the generation that follows the Baby Boomers or the Shadow and Echo Boomers. I worship well with rhythm, good acoustic and electric guitar, hands raised, no cumbersome hymnal impeding my worship experience. My mother-in-law, on the other hand, believed that when we founded our church that we were making a mistake by choosing such an irrelevant music style. “Everyone wants Bill Gaither style worship,” she said. (I love Gloria Gaither, BTW) But the families joining us interpreted what they deemed as “culturally relevant music” like they would a giant welcome mat.

You would think that writers, trafficking in mere words, would have it easier than our musical brethren. When I first started writing Christian fiction in 1993, our readership was very small but easy to define. My mentor told me, “Write for the check-out clerk at the grocery store.” A few years later an editor told me, “the typical Christian reader wants ‘her’ novels on a fifth to eighth grade reading level.” Soon after, the Christian book market (yes, I still call it that) emerged as a reckoning force, breaking away from the formulaic biblical and historical romances to include practically every genre recognized in the mainstream press. Then the popular copy-cat mentality emerged: If you like John Grisham, then you’ll like Dirk Detecto, Christian author.

But instead of making our job easier, the acceptance of all genres, of course, forced the Christian author to make tougher choices. Some writers aimed straight for genre writing for the sake of branding while others experimented with novels bearing a slightly literary flavor. Homosexuality, feminism, abortion, racism, mental illness, adultery, and fatally- flawed-clergy themes emerged—at first a bit feebly. Then, breaking away from Christian psycho-babble and easily-fixed conflicts, story characters became more deeply drawn.

Our little market was growing up. The reader mail I get now has a sense of backlash to it. One reader said this week, “I didn’t think I’d ever read Christian fiction again until I picked up your book.” You’d be surprised, though, at how prevalent this reaction is today. It could be because our old fiction is available in libraries. Therefore, the reader who hasn’t visited a retail store of late doesn’t realize that change has finally come to faith-based fiction. (Yes, that’s what we’re supposed to call it now.)

Still. We have a tough job. Now on top of the infrastructure of readers that hold to the old style of Christian fiction, we have a new readership emerging. Some readers prefer stories for escape; some want novels that “make them think”.

For the writer, it’s a dilemma.

The key word here for traversing all genres and markets is transcendence. I think about the iconic moment when NASA sent the first rocket up in space. What eye wasn’t turned upon it? When a story transcends genre and pop-culture, it rises above market becoming its own market. And why? Humanity is exposed. We see that kind of story for its truth, or its poignancy, or its ludicrous absurdity. All eyes cannot help but focus on a story that transcends. Forrest Gump. A Prayer For Owen Meany. Tom Sawyer. A Christmas Carol. To Kill a Mockingbird. Les Miserables. It’s impossible to utter any of these book titles without drawing a reaction.

To understand how to apply transcendent themes has typically fallen under the category of what not to do: don’t fall into sentimental writing or unearned emotion; avoid transitive verbs like the plague and other craft advice. But the truth is that when I’m focused on word-by-word craft over character development, I tend to lose sight of the elements that transcend such as understanding the tension of opposites in a character’s life; or giving the character the time to go from mistake to ruination or failure to triumph without deflating the plot. And then there’s the invisible minutia of culture and its effect upon character. It’s the very thing that affects us as writers, but can so easily become the overlooked elephant in the room when it comes to character development.

It’s all hard, but good. Focusing on the transcendent elements of my story gives me less room for worrying about reader age or culture gaps or whether or not my story is culturally relevant. It’s like giving myself permission to be creative again.

You can visit Patty Hickman at or blog on over to Please check out Fallen Angels and Whisper Town. Both books strive to provide relevance, escapism, and food for thought.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

AG: The God Solution

Life is filled with paradoxes, especially life in the world of publishing. This occurred to me the other day as I contemplated the often convoluted universe of Christian publishing. In many ways, Christian novels are very similar to secular ones. They operate under the same basic rules of storytelling but have a little more freedom to explore the extra dimension of the spiritual life (or lack thereof).

Novels, like cakes, need certain ingredients. Every novel has a set of characters. It doesn’t matter if the characters are human or not. Characters can be animals as in Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull, fantasy beings like Tolkien’s hobbits, robots, or actors based on real people (I still remember Jeffery Archer’s Shall We Tell the President? in which he sets up Ted Kennedy as president of the U.S.). What matters is that characters act true to their nature and interact with the others in a believable way.

Here’s where the irony comes in. In Christian fiction, God is always a character. He is considered, spoken of, prayed to, resisted, ignored, blessed, cursed, and endures every other imaginable response a flesh-and-blood person might have with the Almighty.

In Christian fiction the paradox is this: We expect the Christian characters to pray, to have faith, and to live as if God is active in their lives—except He’s not allowed to help in any obvious way.

From the Latin comes this familiar phrase: deus ex machina—“God from the machinery.” In ancient Greek theater, thespians called a device used to lower actors to the stage a “machine.” These actors often played one of the ancient gods and would be lowered to the stage to help or interfere with the storyline.

Today, any book presenting an deus ex machina ending gets a quick and inglorious trip to the trash can. I, like most writers who teach, have warned my students away from this literary evil. “The protagonist must solve the problem.”

To be honest, I’ve done it once. I used it in a novella for a Dutch publisher. I wrote it in 1998 and felt that a deus ex machina ending not only fit, but could be the only believable solution. I felt guilty doing it, like I had crossed the invisible line and would soon be exiled to the literary equivalent of a leper colony. At times, I thought I heard other writers whispering behind my back, “Psst, there he goes, Mr. Deus ex Machina.” Snickers would follow.
I had become unclean.

I am not a proponent of using the “God solution” in fiction. (Come on, I only did it once.) I understand the difficulties it can produce, but the irony amazes me. Every day, Christians pray what amounts to an appeal for deus ex machina. We want God to step in and heal, comfort, guide, bolster, correct and even work a miracle or two. Odd, that the very thing we ask for daily we refuse to tolerate in the fiction we expect to glorify God.

It seems that talk of faith is permissible in Christian fiction; acts of faith are welcome; discussions of faith encouraged; just so long as God doesn’t actually act on the character’s faith. We’ll accept, “God gave me the strength to do what had to be done,” but we cast off as literary slag any story wherein God manifestly intervenes.

I believe God works miracles, some grand, some hidden, but I acknowledge that God does most of his works through His followers. Most of the time we are called on to be the solution to our own problems and at times the problem of others. Perhaps that is why we prefer to see such solutions in the books we read. It is why I write such stories.

Still, if fiction is a creative mirror held up to reality, then shouldn’t there be allowances for the intervention of God? If we beseech God to intervene in our lives, then why would we ban His actions from our literature? Can you imagine standing over the sick bed of a friend and praying, “Heavenly Father, we ask for the touch of Your healing hand on our brother. In the name of Jesus we ask that you touch his body and make him well—but try to do it so that no one will know it was You.”

So what’s the solution? I don’t have one. Over use of the “God solution” is crippling to fiction, but to deny it in our work is to be unfaithful to biblical teaching and personal experience. The secular markets avoidance of the deus ex machina makes sense, but Christian fiction has that fourth dimension that sets it apart.

Are we afraid to use it?

Alton Gansky is a fulltime writer living in the High Desert area of southern California. He is the author of 17 novels and 6 nonfiction works. Visit his website at

Monday, September 04, 2006

DR: When will I be ready to submit?

This is a question I get often from aspiring writers:

Q. I’m a fairly new writer (as yet unpublished) and I’ve been seeing a lot of calls for entry in anthologies and writing contests. Many of these are judged by editors at the publishing houses I’m hoping to target when my novel is finished. I know my writing isn’t quite there yet, but is there any harm in taking advantage of some of these opportunities? Is it a good idea to start getting my name out there, or should I wait until my writing skills are better? If I submit material that’s not quite ready, will my name be flagged for the slush pile in the future?

A. I hate answers that begin with "it depends," but unfortunately, in this case, I think it depends.

If you’ve been told you have a real gift for writing, but you’ve never read a book on the craft of writing, never been to a writers’ conference, never been part of a critique group, and don't read more than half a dozen books a year, then you might be wise NOT to submit anything just yet. Editors do remember names and earlier submissions, and—especially if you have a memorable story idea—they might form an opinion of your work that could hinder your chances with future submissions to them.

However, even if you are fairly inexperienced as a writer, here are some things that may qualify you to start submitting your work. Have you:
• read and studied numerous books and magazines on the craft of writing?
• taken college or community education writing courses?
• attended writers’ conferences or workshops?
• been an avid reader (reading a book per week or more, particularly in the genre in which you hope to be published)?
• belonged to a writers’ group or a critique group where you routinely get honest feedback on your work?
• studied the market to know where your work would fit?
• consistently practiced your craft by writing, writing, writing?
• finished numerous articles, columns, novel chapters, etc., which you’ve self-edited and rewritten multiple time?

If you can answer yes to most of the above, then chances are you are ready to begin submitting your work. Contests are a good place to begin, especially those that offer a written or oral critique on your submission. And anthologies are a nice way to get some publishing credits under your belt.

Hopefully even we multi-published novelists are continually seeking to learn more about the craft of writing, honing our skills to become better with each manuscript we turn in. But we all started somewhere. We all had a first book that, though some editor deemed it good enough to be published, we would love a chance to rewrite it knowing what we know now about the craft of writing and about the CBA market.

If we had waited until our writing was perfect before we submitted that first piece, it's guaranteed we would still be waiting.

Deborah Raney is the author of A Vow to Cherish (newly updated and revised, from Steeple Hill). Coming in January: Remember to Forget for Howard Books/Simon & Schuster.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Ask the Authors: Friday

Ask the Authors: Friday

If you have questions you’d like us to ask during a future “Ask the Authors” week, send it to As always, thanks for joining us!

Today’s question: What two writing reference books do you use the most? Or what are your favorite two writing reference books? (Title and author, please.)

Creating Character Emotions by Ann Hood and Reading like a Writer by Francine Prose. I am gaga about that last one! It's new and it's wonderful. –Angela Hunt

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King, and my latest favorite is First Draft in 30 Days by Wiesner. --Karen Ball

Strunk and White's Elements of Style and Stein on Writing, by Sol Stein. –Hannah Alexander

The two reference books I seem to reach for the most are: CHARACTER NAMING SOURCEBOOK by Sherrilyn Kenyon and WHAT'S WHAT, A Visual Glossary of Everyday Objects - from Paper Clips to Passenger Ships, edited by Reginald Bragonier, Jr. and David Fisher. And a third that is becoming a favorite: THE WRITER'S DIGEST FLIP DICTIONARY by Barbara Ann Kipfer. -- Robin Lee Hatcher

Roget’s International Thesaurus. The original version. I’ve tried others, but for my money, there is no substitute for the original. Not only do I find the word I need, but usually learn something about the word in the process. — Jack Cavanaugh

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King, On Writing Well by William Zinsser, and for sheer inspiration and encouragement... Bird by Bird, byAnne Lamott. --Liz Curtis Higgs

I’m always flipping through the Chicago Manual of Style (new 15th Edition from The University of Chicago Press) trying to figure out some grammar or punctuation issue. I worked part-time for years as a proofreader for a group of weekly newspapers, so I’m somewhat of a stickler for correct usage. Another favorite—not sure this is technically a reference book—but Stein on Writing by Sol Stein never fails to inspire me to hurry to my desk and write. ––Deborah Raney

The Thesaurus and the Dictionary. --Lisa Samson

Steering the Craft by Ursula K. LeGuin and Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway. For inspiration I also like On Writing by Stephen King. --Patty Hickman

The two books I refer to on a regular basis is: 20 Master Plots (And How to Build Them) by Ronald B. Tobias and The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes ( And How to Avoid Them) by Jack M. Bickham. –Lori Copeland

Two books I use most:
1. Dictionary (Websters)
Large thesaurus
Two fave writing books:
Getting Into Character by Brandilyn Collins
Ditto #2
(Buy it and know the royalties are going for a good cause. She has a daughter to send to college next year.) ~Brandilyn Collins

Two books I use the most for writing would probably be The Careful Writer by Theodore M. Bernstein, and my Random House Dictionary of the English Language, Second Edition, Unabridged.
Two books about writing that I often use are the Modern Library's Writers' Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction by Stephen Koch and The Passionate, Accurate Story by Carol Bly. -BJ Hoff

Nowadays I mainly just use thesauri (all the usual ones). When I first set out to write novels I got the best advice from Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing, and John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. I think the best references for a working novelist are other people’s novels…and life, of course. —Athol Dickson