Tuesday, October 31, 2006

AT: Say Something

Charis Connection is happy to welcome Ann Tatlock to our group of contributors!

Several years ago, I attempted to read a critically acclaimed novel published by a large secular house. About a third of the way through, I gave up. I simply could not figure out the purpose for the story, or even what it was about. It seemed like nonsense, because it made no sense.
Thinking I’d glean some insight by checking out the readers’ comments on Amazon, I discovered the book was being touted as a postmodern novel.

I had no idea what that meant. So I began to do some research. What I learned, briefly and in broad strokes, is this: In postmodern literature, the author isn’t saying anything. More accurately, the author can’t say anything. In a culture where absolutes are lost and everything is relative, even words no longer have intrinsic meaning. A text may mean one thing to the author, but sure as one man’s tree is another man’s god, that same text is going to mean something entirely different to the reader. Every reader.

Out with the old rule for literature: The author is saying something. In with the new rule for postmodern literature: You, the reader, have to decide what the text is saying to you.

This is one more lie that our postmodern culture is trying to feed us, right up there with the classic: “It doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you are sincere.”

Nope. It doesn’t work that way. It does matter what a person believes. There is such a thing as absolute truth. And words do have meaning that can be universally understood.

Recently my writers critique group considered the work of a fledgling author. We read her first
chapter, and then she gave us her general outline for the novel.

After silently considering what appeared to be a series of events held together by chewing gum and seemingly going nowhere, one of the women in the group said as kindly as she could, “So what’s your point?” I chimed in with, “You need a theme.”

A story tells us what happened. A theme lets us know why we should care.

The theme is the abstract idea--philosophical, theological, humanistic, moral--that the author is trying to portray using the vehicle of fictional events. Maybe it’s suffering and redemption, as with Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.” Or hypocrisy, guilt and revenge, as with Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter.” Or maybe the author is exploring angst or absurdity or alienation, as Camus does in “The Stranger.” (What else do you expect existentialists to write about?)

The human condition offers us a multitude of themes. Happily, when we see the world from the Christian point of view, those themes are beautiful: hope, faith, truth, perseverance, forgiveness, restoration. The list goes on.

God has called you to the writing life. The computer screen is blank and the cursor is flashing. Now’s your chance. Don’t just give us a series of events. Say something.

Christy award winner Ann Tatlock writes stirring fiction and we're happy to have her aboard. You can read more about her novels at www.anntatlock.com.

Monday, October 30, 2006

DR: Is there anything new under the sun?

An aspiring novelist posed these questions after discovering I'd already written a book with a premise she thought was original to her work in progress: Are there any original ideas anymore? Has anything not already been written? Do you ever get a great idea for a book, think, how original! Surely nobody will have thought of that! Then, just to confirm--do a search on amazon.com and find at least five books with the very same "original" idea you had?

Age-old questions, and ones I think every writer has faced at one time or another. As far back as Ecclesiastes, we've been told:

"What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there anything of which one can say,
"Look! This is something new"?
It was here already, long ago;
it was here before our time."

When the first review for my second novel, In the Still of Night (a story about a woman who becomes pregnant as a result of rape) appeared in Library Journal, it followed a review of Francine Rivers' wonderful book, The Atonement Child, a story about...what else?...a woman who becomes pregnant as a result of rape. I could not believe it! How could this be? (I was just grateful my book released a month before hers, so no one would think I'd stolen her idea!) I know now that truly, every story has been done before. But NO ONE--not even Francine Rivers--could tell my story the way I told it. Did my book sell as many copies as hers? Not even a fraction. Ten years later, does anyone remember my book? Probably not. Is my book still in print? No, it's not. But you know what? God used that book to touch a few lives--including the very real life of a young woman who gave birth to a baby after having her virginity stolen by a rapist. Maybe I wrote that book for that one woman. It doesn't matter. I wrote the story God gave me and that's all I was called to do.

A couple of years ago, author Susan Meissner wrote Why the Sky is Blue--her very first novel--a story about...you guessed it, a woman who becomes pregnant as a result of rape. I have no doubt God is using that novel to touch a new generation of readers, just as he used The Atonement Child and In the Still of Night a decade ago.

If God has given you a story to tell, tell it as only you can tell it. It may have similarities to books you've read before; the short synopsis may be nearly identical. But because God created you with a distinctive voice, unique life circumstances and a way of telling the story that will resonate with certain readers, your story will be as individual as a snowflake, as different from mine as you and I are from each other.

A word of advice if you're writing a story with a similar plot or theme to one that's already out there: change every aspect you can possibly change. Try:

*switching the roles of the hero and heroine
*placing your characters in a different era
*setting the story in a different locale
*writing from a different point of view--first person instead of third, etc.
*giving your characters totally different occupations, if possible
*changing the characters' backstory
*making the secondary characters unique and memorable

I have a book releasing next year that was inspired by a movie. When it comes out, I suspect people will know just which movie, but they will not be able to accuse me of "stealing" anything beyond the basic premise from the film because the idea for the film came from the same place I got my idea--a story that happened in real life. It's the inspiration for many books and movies.

So don't be discouraged if your idea shows up in a book with someone else's name on the cover. Write your story anyway. After all, there really is nothing new under the sun.

Deborah Raney is the author of A Vow to Cherish (Steeple Hill). Coming in February: Remember to Forget for Howard Books/Simon & Schuster. http://www.deborahraney.com/

P.S. If you're looking for an entertaining read and a demonstration of the nothing-new-everything-unique concept above, order a copy of What The Wind Picked Up . It's a collection of 21 short stories that share five common elements, including identical first and last lines. You might be amazed at how many ways authors can spin a tale.

Friday, October 27, 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 CharisConnection@gmail.com. As always, thanks for joining us!

What do you do to refill your "think tank" or renew your passion for writing? In other words, how do you "recharge your batteries" when you suspect you might be approaching the edge of burnout?

I take time to "fill the well" by doing some project around the house—I paint something or plant something or make something. Exercise a different creative muscle. –Angela Hunt

I get desperate for methods sometimes, so I try different fire starters; one may work one season and then next season I try something else. I take a writing sabbatical away from phones and demands. Sometimes I pull weeds in the garden or take a walk or sit out in the sun. I returned to school a couple of years ago. During the school season I wasn't as aware of the change that was coming over my writing. I had to put a few months between graduation and writing to process new thoughts, etc. I did have a moment of, "Oh, boy! I hope this was a good idea." But now that I'm back writing again, the changes in my writing flow are evident, so I'm really glad I went for it. Treating yourself to a workshop or, if manageable, a writing MFA, is a gift to your own writing soul. Whatever it takes, though, to realize that, "yes! this is actually working!" is better than time wasted sitting and brooding miserably in a writing rut. –Patricia Hickman

Taking a day off to do something completely unrelated to writing is sometimes just the ticket for me. Going away to write—to a bed-and-breakfast, a hotel, or to a friend’s empty house—is an incredible help when I’m stuck in a story. Attending a writer’s retreat or conference inspires me and gets me excited about my writing again. And sitting down to read a wonderful book reminds me why I wanted to be a writer in the first place—to offer the amazing gift of story to someone else. - Deborah Raney

Pray. Takes walks. Read a good book. Go to the movies. And some times I just have to slog through it as best I can. -- Robin Lee Hatcher

Travel usually provides the experiences and new insights on life I need to continue writing. Travel invests even mundane things with meaning. Just going grocery shopping in Mexico is worth a chapter, at least. But that's more about recharging the ideas, not the passion. For that, I turn to other artists: fellow writers, musicians, painters, sculptors, or moviemakers. Experiencing beautiful art of any kind sends me straight to the computer keyboard, but I’m especially inspired by great paintings. --Athol Dickson

I force myself to take some time off. This is very hard for me. I'm a bit of a workaholic. I had a mandatory break this summer when I had a knife accident and my hand was in a cast for six weeks. When I came out of that, I was really ready to write! Normally I can't take that much time off, but taking even Sunday off helps me recharge for Monday. –Rene Gutteridge

Immerse myself in my favorite music while I read my favorite authors. Go for walks. Take three or four days off to catch my breath and let God heal. -BJ Hoff

I stop writing for awhile. I go hiking. I read good novels by friends and other excellent writers. I get away with God and count my blessings and remind myself why I'm in this business, which is more than a business because it's a lifelong love affair with words and emotions and triumphs and failures. I can't NOT write. -Hannah Alexander

I think it's essential to have a Sabbath rest. I take Sundays off from writing concerns. I write 6 days a week, but take a week sometimes to let the "boys in the basement" (Stephen King's description of the subconscious writer's mind) do their work. Also, re-reading some favorite novels always charges me up. - James Scott Bell

I get lost in a good book, wander around for a while, and come out refreshed. Invariably, I’m inspired to write good stories by reading good stories. –Ann Tatlock

Always, I turn to close friends. I try to meet up for a long weekend or week and be together. Nothing recharges me more than to be with writing friends I cherish. We talk shop, kick around plots, laugh and cry together. It’s exhilarating. -Lori Copeland

Great question, and I have to admit I've been approaching that edge for the past couple of years. I've discovered that author brainstorming sessions, where I get together with other novelists, helps a lot. Getting away for a few days, spending time with other writers, talking about projects and having them brainstorm about my ideas, it's invigorating and fun. It's been a great help when I've felt more or less stuck. –Karen Ball

Thursday, October 26, 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 CharisConnection@gmail.com. As always, thanks for joining us!

Is novel writing a full-time job for you? Part-time? Or a hobby?

Part-time. Certainly not a hobby. My hobbies are MUCH more relaxing. –Karen Ball

It’s more than a full-time job. Probably about 50-60 hours a week . . . without overtime pay! –Angela Hunt

Full-time, as much as possible. It was never a "hobby," although I started out intending it to be just that. -BJ Hoff

Within the last three or four years, writing has become pretty much a full-time job for me. But it’s a job with extremely flexible hours. I almost always take a week or even a month off after I finish a book, and I sometimes write at night or on the weekends because I decided to go out to lunch with a friend on a weekday I should have been writing. So while I easily average 40 hours a week or more working on writing-related projects, I never feel like I have the burden of a full-time job. - Deborah Raney

Writing is full-time in that it takes up my whole life. Most times, I spend maybe 2-4 hours per day writing, but I live in the story all the time, from beginning to end of the process. I am always either talking about the story, or developing characters, or dreaming about possible scenarios. I can't even escape the story when I'm sleeping. -Hannah Alexander

It’s full time, pay the bills, work five days a week and sometimes on weekends, work. -Lori Copeland

It's full-time for me. But it's also still a hobby. I enjoy it very much. –Rene Gutteridge

It is my full time job. It is the sole source of my income (which at times is terrifying). - Robin Lee Hatcher

I write full time, but I don't think of it as a full-time job. A full-time job implies something done for the money, and if I had to rely on the writing income alone I would not write. I'd have to write too many words in too little time. I'd have to move from one story to the next too quickly to get my head out of one and fully into the next. I wouldn't be able to reflect on the themes and the characters long enough to really understand them. I wouldn't be able to rewrite enough times to get the words and the pacing just the way they ought to be. You have to hurry up and produce to make a living wage at writing fiction (or else have the pure dumb luck it takes to write a runaway bestseller), so if I thought of writing as a job I'd have to think of writing as the production of goods for sale and that would suck the fun out of it for me. Besides, if making money was the goal I'd be crazy to keep writing when there are so many other ways to make a lot more with a lot less effort. -Athol Dickson

Very much a full-time job for me, though I have two other full-time jobs as well: I travel and speak two dozen weekends a year and mother our two dear teenagers. Even Sundays aren't always a day of rest for me, since I'm either speaking somewhere or ministering in our choir. But I LOVE what I do, so I count all of the above pure JOY! -Liz Curtis Higgs

Full time for thirteen years. This semester I've added part-time teaching to the mix. Still writing full time, though, so far. –Patricia Hickman

Full time, but I am not one to advise that this is something to jump into. Many a famous, and productive, writer has also held a day job. Anthony Trollope managed to become one of the best and most prolific of writers while working as a civil servant. Elmore Leonard wrote from 4 - 6 a.m. before heading to his job in the ad business. A day job keeps toast on the table and allows you to concentrate on what you really want to write. It also keeps you grounded and close to people. You might find some good material there. -James Scott Bell

It is a full-time job that I do part-time. Hour-wise, I don’t write 40 hours a week. Thinking-wise, I’m almost always writing, no matter what else I’m doing. –Ann Tatlock

After 17 years of working as a mental health consultant on an Indian reservation while writing a novel a year, I quit my day job so now I am now "only" writing. I consider it a full time job with research, writing and promotion. Story-telling and writing are healing things so I feel like my other profession continues to inform my work and hopefully blends with what I feel is God's calling at this point in my life. My hobby, though, is reading. God is good. –Jane Kirkpatrick

Wednesday, October 25, 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 CharisConnection@gmail.com. As always, thanks for joining us!

Where do you look for encouragement when you get discouraged? (IF you get discouraged!)

I get discouraged when a book doesn't sell well. I get discouraged by harsh criticism. I get discouraged when the writing just won't seem to flow. Encouragement comes from my closest Christian friends who are also writers, and it comes from the members of my prayer team. It comes from reading the Word. And sometimes all I need is a lift from watching a good and/or funny movie so that I'm not living only in the world of my current project. -- Robin Lee Hatcher

Humans. Friends. Family. The best encouragement comes when I take my little pity party to God. He has true power to change me (and often, rather than my circumstances) Jesus reminds me to focus on his greater, higher purposes. –Patricia Hickman

I do get discouraged sometimes. It used to be “will I ever get published?” Then it was “what if people hate my book?” And now it’s “why aren’t my books selling as well as so-and-so’s?” But those are all signs that I haven’t truly given my writing wholeheartedly to the Lord and left it in His hands. I’m amazed how often I have to do that all over again. But it’s still the answer. I also find that he’s given me amazing encouragement in my writer friends—the ones who know my struggles because they struggle with the same things themselves. There’s something wonderful about knowing you’re not alone in your struggles. - Deborah Raney

I have a computer file with encouraging notes from friends and readers. When I get discouraged, I read those. Or the Psalms--they're very encouraging. –Angela Hunt

Music. A great soul-restorer. I also have some favorite books on writing by the great writers, and by now I know just where to look for what I need. And above everything else--prayer. BJ Hoff

IF I get discouraged? IF??? Snort! Choke! Chortle! Haaawww! Ahem, I mean, right. When I'm discouraged. Like every five minutes or so, right? I do a couple of things. Go play with my dogs. Garden. Read Scripture. Read letters from my readers. Things that help me focus on what really matters: the One who called me. –Karen Ball

I always get encouragement from my husband, Mel, who is part of this writing team. I also get encouragement from writing friends online. When I'm discouraged, it takes very little time to whine about it before I have a husband and several fellow writers giving me words of encouragement. God has blessed me with a wonderful support group. Hannah Alexander

If? Disappointment and discouragement (plus elation and joy) is part of the writing life! Writing through discouragement is tough, and I haven’t found a way to completely overcome the malady. I suspect the cure comes when you have a story so strong it won’t allow you to wallow in self-pity. You write because it brings you pleasure and your work during that period reaches one person God intended, you’ve written you most worthwhile book. --Lori Copeland

I read poetry (Mary Oliver, Barbara Crocker), inspirational writings from scripture and in my "inspirational file" including Goethe; I find new devotionals (right now White China by Molly Wolf) or Buechner. I pray that I'm on the right path and then remind myself to trust that I'm not alone in this process. --Jane Kirkpatrick

Scripture never fails to lift my spirits and to remind me of my calling. Reading a few pages of a novel I love inspires me to keep at it and to not lose heart. Asking a close friend for prayer helps me confess my discouragement and move past it, even as her prayers are sent heavenward. Highs and lows are part of the writing process as God refines us and shapes us on our journey. --Liz Curtis Higgs

I like to read the rejection letters and reviews famous authors have received. Check out "Rotten Rejections" and "Rotten Reviews" by Bill Henderson. One rejection came to Tony Hillerman, when he submitted one of his first Navajo detective novels: "If you insist on rewriting this, cut out all the Indian stuff." All writers have been through discouraging times. All. You're not alone. -- James Scott Bell

I turn away from the story I’m writing and back to “real life”--my own life--and there I recognize the goodness and beauty of this great gift called living. Writing can be hard and discouraging, but I’m not here primarily to write. I was created first and foremost to love the Lord Jesus--and that’s easy! And sweet. And refreshing. And always encouraging. –Ann Tatlock

When I'm depressed I go for walks and pray along the path. I also talk to my wife and my brother. But I don't usually get discouraged about writing. I've had pretty good critical response to all my novels so far, but the sales have not been wonderful. There's always something good and something bad about everything. Why not focus on the good? Especially if the bad is due to circumstances I can't do much to control. Besides, writing is my second career so far, which means there could always be a third if this one fades away. Not that I'm planning a change--I can't imagine not writing--but it would be fun to build boats. --Athol Dickson

I pray. God helps me through those times. I also talk to my writer friends, who have been there done that, and can often give me good advice. –Rene Gutteridge

Tuesday, October 24, 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 CharisConnection@gmail.com. As always, thanks for joining us!

What is the most difficult part of the novel- writing process for you . . . and why?

Writing the proposal. I tend to get very excited about my ideas, and I want to say, “Trust me, this is going to be good.” If I’m not careful, I can distill my excitement by writing a proposal that’s going to sit and grow cold for several months. I’d rather write the book. –Angela Hunt

Plotting. So after a few years I finally learned to let my characters do the plotting. I just go along for the ride. -BJ Hoff

Getting to know my characters, their pasts, their hurts. Once I know them as well as I know myself, then I will always understand their motivations and I won't try to force them to do something out of character just because my story needs them to do it. -- Robin Lee Hatcher

Getting that first draft on the page. As for why, I'd love it if someone could explain it to me. I enjoy writing when I'm doing it, but it's murder to make myself sit in the chair and put my fingers on the keyboard. I'm thinking about the story all the time, but actually writing that first draft...Oy! What a pain! –Karen Ball

Honestly, I think it's ALL hard! You can never do enough research, enough plotting, enough character development in advance, nor enough self-editing when you finish the manuscript. Perhaps the very hardest part is the first chapter, the first scene...okay, the first paragraph. So I tell myself, "This is not the final draft, you can throw it all out," and that seems to help me get off high center and start writing. --Liz Curtis Higgs

For me it's the middle of the book. It's usually Chapters 15-20. You have to keep the pace going, but you've already introduced the characters, the plots, etc. and it's not time to build to the ending yet. –Rene Gutteridge

The most difficult part for me is the first draft. It's creating a world, and characters, and a story out of nothing. Later, when I rewrite, it's much easier, just as it's easier for someone to criticize what you've done instead of trying to write their own story. Meow. --Hannah Alexander

The editing process. It's vital and necessary, of course. But the fun is in the initial creation. You're falling in love with the story and the characters. Then the marriage begins, and you realize your manuscript has bad breath in the morning, and gets cranky, and you have problems you have to work out. Things always get better when you do, but it can be unpleasant at the time. -- James Scott Bell

The most difficult is getting a new book ready to send to the publisher. Each writer faces different challenges, but for me until a book is edited to the best of my and others knowledge, I’m in a perpetual sweat. --Lori Copeland

The first draft. I'm trying to create a pulse out of a glob of imaginary hope.—Patricia Hickman

Facing the blank page, because there’s nothing there. Doing the research is fascinating, because I love to learn. Rewriting is soul-satisfying, because there’s something there that I can craft into a better piece of literature. The hardest work is creating “something from nothing,” so to speak-- pulling that first draft out of my mind and heart and getting it dressed in words. –Ann Tatlock

Definitely the first draft. The blank screen is a very scary thing for me. Not sure why. I’m always afraid I don’t really have enough material for a novel, that my plot isn’t clever enough, that my characters aren’t likable enough, that my theme has been done a gazillion times. I LIVE for rewrite! - Deborah Raney

Coming up with a story idea and building a plot around it is the hardest part. With every other stage of the process there is a something to work from (the rough draft is based on the synopsis or outline, revisions are based on the rough draft) but trying to put a story together where nothing yet exists means there is not yet a framework within which to think. The mind wants rules to make decisions, yet the rules don't exist because the story doesn't yet exist. There are no characters yet to let you think, "She wouldn't go along with that." No setting yet to let you think, "I can see it happening here." It's just chasing through a total whiteness, looking for something one can cling to without any way of knowing if a thing is WORTH the clinging; that's the hard part. This is one reason I begin with theme. You don't need characters or plot or setting to know if a certain theme is worth the effort, and it gives you some basis for evaluating everything else as it emerges from the fog.

I also think some of the problem is a matter of self confidence. At a certain moment a writer must simply think, "This, because I said so." Yet who am I to say it? None of us are any good in our own minds. We delude ourselves at certain moments in the process, thinking we have something worth the telling after all, but when there's nothing yet to tell how can such delusions be maintained? Nowadays I force myself to remember I've done it a few times before, so apparently I know how. I force myself to trust that. But before I had any work to fall back on that way, I must have been an egomaniac to think I could say anything worth saying, and say it in a worthwhile way. --Athol Dickson

Monday, October 23, 2006

Ask the Authors: Monday

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 CharisConnection@gmail.com. As always, thanks for joining us!

Dee in Houston asks: What did you do in the waiting period after pitching your first novel? Begin another? Focus on other kinds of writing? Bite your fingernails? Feel poverty-stricken and sorry for yourself? Pray? I've done all of the above and they're not working.

I had already done a great deal of research for the second book, so after a few days off, I started the writing. And that's still my routine, except now I usually take more than a few days off between books. Prayer, of course. That's my beginning for everything. -BJ Hoff

I pitched my first novel to several publishers, and started right in on my next novel. Yes, I prayed hard, but I pretty much just kept writing, reading books about writing, and studying the craft. Fourteen years later, the work began to sell. I'm sure glad I didn't put any other books on hold to wait for a sale! --Hannah Alexander

I also did pray, lots, but found when I was writing (working on the next novel) I didn't feel so anxious about that exposing thing I'd done...be so bold as to tell someone I thought I could write a novel. Writing helps! So does reminding myself that it isn't my job to write the great American novel but to be faithful, to "assume the position of a writer" regardless of what comes of it. It's a great leap for a control freak like me! -- Jane Kirkpatrick

By “not working,” do you mean these things haven’t helped your novel be accepted? I think it’s important to remember the element of time. God acts “in the fullness of time”--that is, when He knows the time is right. I can talk about time because it took 13 years of writing before I saw my first book in print! And I am so thankful, because God had a work to do in me before He could do a work through me, and He always thinks the former is more important. During all those years, I just kept writing and praying, praying and writing, until God decided it was the fullness of time. –Ann Tatlock

Dee, you ask such thoughtful questions. I placed myself in the hands of an extremely driven mentor. He explained that I needed to write a lot of manuscripts that year. I didn't know to work any differently than had dictated. So I churned them out one right after another. So instead of looking for that big contract to show up, my focus was to tell my mentor about my newest work; we'd start workshopping that piece next and that kept me from becoming too preoccupied with what was happening out in the publishing arena with my stories. There were three of us who met once a week. We were brutal critique partners; but we were all deadset on becoming full time novelists. But whether or not you have joined a critique group, the point being down and churn out the words on a daily basis. I wrote thirteen manuscripts that year; the thirteenth sold to BHP. When the editor asked if I could make the book a series, well, of course I said yes, and it sold. It wouldn't be honest to say I didn't sit on the mailbox. But as I drove home each day, my entire family could see all of those returned manuscripts falling out of the mailbox. Making rejection that visible certainly helps to steel you for the long road ahead. Getting published is not a long lasting goal; but staying published gives the writer purpose.—Patricia Hickman

I mailed out 21 queries, ten or eleven with sample chapters, the rest without (per instructions included in The Writers Market). Then I went to work on the sequel. Most of the responses were form rejections. Some never sent a reply. Two wanted to see more. One bought it. That publisher went bankrupt a few months later, after the contract was signed but before I received the first payment. By that time, the sequel was finished. Six months later, I sold both the first and second novels to another publisher and had begun to write my third. So I say, keep writing. Don't wait for an answer. Whether it is good or bad, it will come when it comes. You might as well be working on the next book. --Robin Lee Hatcher

Worked. It's amazing how distracting the ol' 9-5 can be. I'd been in publishing long enough to know you don't quit your day job until you've replaced your income at least three years in a row. You'll notice I'm still working...Sigh...—Karen Ball

I clean my house, have lunch with friends, get a manicure--in other words, I do something OTHER than writing (or reading, for that matter). Within a few days, my fingers are itching to work on another writing project, so I open a new file and start putting the pieces together for the next book. I also choose a new novel to read, to get my storytelling juices flowing. --Liz Curtis Higgs

Authors tend to do all of the above, but you learn to start another project and keep working. Waiting is the hardest part of writing---uncertainty can lead to paralysis, a deadly condition if you really want to write for long term. --Lori Copeland

This is a very unnerving time. The industry does, indeed, move at a snail's pace sometimes. I don't know how many times I would go out to my mailbox, waiting for the mail, hoping for a reply. It didn't help the process any! My suggestion is to get to work on other story ideas. I sold my first book like this: I pitched three or four projects. The editor liked my writing, but didn't like the story ideas. Finally I said, "Well, I've got this other idea I'm working on about an editor who receives an anonymous manuscript about the secrets of his life..." And he said, "That's it! That's the one I want!" So in the waiting process, be working, either on the book or another proposal. –Rene Gutteridge

The only answer for a writer is to keep writing. Don't stop. As you're writing one project, be thinking about the next. Work on two at a time sometimes. Write. Produce the words. You get better the more you work at it. Time spent stressing about a project that's "out there" is wasted time. As Stephen King said, he writes this way to keep ahead of the wave of doubt. The words of the great theologian Satchel Paige come to mind as well: "Don't look back. Something may be gaining on you." -- James Scott Bell

I’m always researching new ideas and working on new proposals while I wait to hear back from my editors. I used to do more sitting and twiddling of the thumbs. And worrying. Now I wish I had time to do that. : ) - Deborah Raney

Keep working. If you’ve only written a proposal, write the novel. If you’ve written a first novel, write a second. Not every manuscript or idea sells, so you need to press on. –Angela Hunt

Friday, October 20, 2006

JSB: One Reason to Write

There's a moment near the end of the Woody Allen movie Stardust Memories, wherein Woody plays Sandy Bates, the highly successful director of film comedies who wants to get serious. So he makes an art film that is immediately panned. The critics say they used to like his films, particularly the early funny ones. Sandy is in despair. He wants to make a statement that is important to the world.

A space ship with super intelligent aliens has landed in a field, and is about to take off. Sandy races out to them.

Sandy: Wait a minute! Don't go! I've got some questions.

Og: We can't breathe your air.

Sandy: You guys gotta tell me, why is there so much human suffering?

Og: This is unanswerable.

Sandy: Is there a God?

Og: You're asking the wrong questions.

Sandy: Look, here's my point. If nothing lasts, why am I bothering to make films, or do anything for that matter?

Og: We enjoy your films. Particularly the early funny ones.

Sandy: But the human condition is so discouraging.

Og: There are some nice moments, too.


Sandy: But shouldn't I stop making movies and do something that counts, like helping blind people or becoming a missionary or something?

Og: Let me tell you, you're not the missionary type. You'd never last. And incidentally, you're also not Superman, you're a comedian. You want to do mankind a real service? Tell funnier jokes.

There's a lesson there for writers, especially Christian writers. We need to tell better stories (and funnier jokes wouldn't hurt, either). But they have to come from who we are. The source of our stories should gnaw at us from within, not from an external measure someone else creates.

As Brenda Ueland puts it in her inspirational book, If You Want to Write: "Everybody is original, if he tells the truth, if he speaks from himself. But it must be from his TRUE self and not from the self he thinks he SHOULD be."

And Ray Bradbury says, "There is only one story--your story." Find it and write it.

The mountain climbers say they scale a peak "because it's there."

You should write because it ISN'T there.



James Scott Bell is a novelist and columnist for Writers Digest magazine.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

PH: The Juggler

Madeleine L’Engle once said, “I . . . have to constantly balance ‘being a writer’ with being a wife and mother. It’s a matter of putting two different things first, simultaneously.

As much as I’ve fought to live life only writing, I have never fully known that kind of sweet ecstasy. I spend most of my time juggling. I bargain with myself. If I go to sleep by eight, I say, then I can rise by four, write for two hours, edit some manuscripts, run to the gym, run back, write some more. I’ll clean the house on Saturday. Four Saturdays later, dust still clings contentedly to the webs hanging over my doorposts. I’ve tried several different juggling acts, but all of them feel awkward. The fact remains that when I am not writing, I suffer enormous inward pangs of guilt. I tell myself, “There are people fighting to be where you are, writing for a living.” But the truth is that making a living solely as a writer seldom works as we dreamed it might. Most writers, unless they’ve married into money, also speak or teach at workshops. Then if marriage and parenting are figured into the equation, we slip out of the comfort of our bed at dawn to toss yet another task in the air. All that in addition to the to-do lists, the church volunteerism, and the daily grind of paying bills and keeping a pair of clean jeans on the ready.

Writing is a sort of altar. We have to lay many things on its pyre to keep the fire stoked. I wrestle with the needs list; do I need this house? What if I lived in a tent? Can I stretch the budget and cook more? But when I’m cooking, that’s not writing. What if I quit my teaching job so that I can pour more hours into writing? If I pour more hours into writing, will the readers know? Will they buy more of my books, tell their friends, make my literature, finally, please God, a reckoning force?

Money is both root and branch, evil and good. Evil because need is never satisfied. Good because it keeps me writing. I have churned out a steady stream of works due to the need to satisfy both my soul and my belly. I simultaneously put many things first. I wonder if my desire to pursue the unfolding of mystery through words will be my death. Oh, happy death, to have lived and known the revelations found through costly words!

Patricia Hickman is the author of Earthly Vows and Whisper Town. Please visit her at http://www.patriciahickman.com or http://www.wisefood.blogspot.com.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

AG: Me and T.R.

This year is almost over, its existence measured in weeks. The holidays are soon to be in time's wake and a dozen fresh, new months will be laid before us. The yielding of one year to another, of course, is artifice. Nothing really changes. The sun will shine with the same intensity it did on the last day of 2005, as it did on the last day of the year 1005. All that changes is the number we use, yet the switch is somehow still remarkable.

It is especially remarkable for me. For some reason, I hold New Year's Day in special importance. Perhaps more than others. Maybe it's because I'm one of those "sign post" people; those folks who measure distance by every sign post, progress by every achievement or completed task.

So once again, we approach the threshold of a new year, and like the double-faced Janus (for whom January is named) look in two directions. As 2007 turns on my street and starts down the dirt road that leads to my home, I find myself thinking about what I want to do in the next year and how I am going to achieve it. I have some ideas--too many ideas. My multifaceted mind (read that as fragmented brain) has more thoughts and ideas than a Ringling Brothers. clown can juggle and they won't go away.

That's all right. Most of the time, I like it that way. I've learned that that for me to have one good idea, I have to wade through a pile of not-so-good ones. I'm afraid I don't know of any better way.

Attempting to corral my mind is like herding cats. Still I try and in the process I've revisited three of my favorite quotes from Theodore Roosevelt. T.R. has been an inspiration to me for many years. I doubt we could have been friends even if we lived at the same time and I occupied the same social strata as he. He was a man always out to prove something. A writer, adventurer, rancher, police commissioner, children's rights advocate, soldier, governor, assistant Secretary of the Navy, vice president of the United States, and finally the youngest man ever to serve this country as president (don't write, JFK was the youngest elected president--T.R. came to office on the death of McKinley).

The phrase high achiever is little more than understatement when applied to T.R.

On criticism, he said:
It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again, who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who at best, knows the triumph of high achievement; and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.

On reading, he said:
I am a part of everything that I have read.

And on something we all need, he said:
The one quality which sets one man apart from another--the key which lifts one to every aspiration while others are caught up in the mire of mediocrity--is not talent, formal education, nor intellectual brightness--it is self-discipline. With self-discipline, all things are possible. Without it, even the simplest goal can seem like the impossible dream.

Maythe coming year be filled with fewer critics, more books, and lots of steaming hot self-discipline.

Alton Gansky writes and thinks deep thoughts from his home in California. www.altongansky.com

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

LS: Put It On the Bottom Shelf

I’m blessed with a hyperactive child named Gwynneth. Eight-years-old, she’s already perfected a British accent and a Popeye face, and she makes me laugh at her antics. We call her Lucille Ball in the making. Sometimes, however, when the little hand on the clock approaches eight and her volume approaches Harley Davidson, we all cringe and Will, my husband, will point at her and say, “Gwynnie, put the crazy on the bottom shelf.” And the rest of us breathe a sigh of relief.

Lately, I’ve been reading quite a bit of Flannery O’Connor. Essays mostly. Flannery O’Connor, a southern novelist, essayist, and writer was a “Christian novelist” before anyone thought there could be such a thing. She called herself, “a novelist with Christian concerns”, a description I find far more appealing. Recently, I’ve been centering my thoughts on “the novel as art.” This serves as a distillation of my calling, for a painter can only paint a picture and hope the work will compel those who’ve experienced his art to a higher purpose, a deeper appreciation of beauty, a greater love of truth. And as novelists we are called to provide much the same. O’Connor wrote in her essay, The Aim and Nature of Fiction, “ . . . all I mean of art is writing something that is valuable in itself and that works in itself. The basis of art is truth, both in matter and in mode. The person who aims after art in his work aims after truth, in an imaginative sense, no more and no less.”

So are novels by writers “with Christian concerns” vehicles for our agendas, our dogma, and our beliefs? Ideally, no. Practically speaking, yes. Because for all the glorified talk of art, we would be hard pressed to effectively banish our beliefs. How then do we aim after truth by aiming after art? The answer could be rather simple.

Let go. Or in Gwynnie lingo, put the agenda on the bottom shelf.

While most of us would love to come at our work with definite messages in place, I’ve come to the conclusion from discussions with other novelists, that normally, we end up finding out the deeper messages of our work after we’ve finished. How absolutely lovely; how organic; how creative. When I hear these words, “I want to write fiction so that I can present the gospel in a way which will really speak to people’s hearts,” my first reaction is to cringe. But then the practical side of me takes over and admits we all approach almost anything we do with an agenda. So then, as best you can, remove your agenda during the creative process, and remove yourself while you’re at it, and so let God have his way through your art.

What freedom!

In that frame of mind, you are on your way to creating something truthful, honest, compelling and even more honoring to the God who created you to create. “We are his workmanship, created for good works in Christ.” Trust God to reveal His message through you, within your art, and you may find you have revealed a deeper truth in a more honest way than you believed possible, a truth you may not have realized before. For those of us who’ve been around the block a few times, the industry can make this a bit difficult – what with questions like, “What is the redemptive factor in this book?” or “What is the ‘take-home’ value?” asked during the proposal process. The most encouraging answer publishers could receive if they the ears to listen would be, “How should know? I haven’t written it yet!”

Maybe I’m a dreamer, but I’m hoping that one day novelists with Christian concerns publishing for the Christian market aren’t forced to make up answers to questions they shouldn’t have to entertain; that one day, we can put those on the bottom shelf as well.

Pax Christi,


Lisa Samson
Author of The Church Ladies and Straight Up

Monday, October 16, 2006

DR: The Tapestry of Life

In every book I’ve ever read on the craft of writing, there is at least one admonition to avoid the cliché like the plague... Well, okay, it’s a safe bet they don’t state it that way, but the message is clear: writing clichés is a no-no. So forgive me if not just that first sentence, but my first contribution to this blog is riddled with clichés.

The thing is, phrases become cliché because they so aptly describe some truth. Clichés tell a story with a few short words. My favorite is a metaphor that describes my life spot-on: life is like a tapestry. There are songs and poems, greeting cards, posters and probably entire books espousing that premise. But it’s true. And I love watching the threads of my own tapestry being woven. Sure, most of the threads of my tapestry are just everyday cotton in shades of white and beige. Most of my time is spent sitting in front of a computer screen or chauffeuring a teenager who’s a few months short of a driver’s license. But every now and then God sees fit to lace a shiny silken thread of scarlet or gold through the loom of my life. It’s amazing how much brighter that colored thread appears against the backdrop of an ordinary life.

Unfortunately, this side of heaven, we rarely get to see the right side of our tapestry. If you’ve ever looked at the underneath side of a piece of needlework, you know it’s not always a pretty sight. Knots and snarls and tangled threads obscure the pattern and sometimes make it look like an impossible, unredeemable mess. Sometimes we’re tempted to cut out those knotted masses, which, of course, represent the trials and tragedies of our lives. But oh, here’s where the metaphor gets rich, for it is those very tangled snarls that hold the exquisite pattern on the right side of the tapestry in place. To cut them out would be to unravel the intricate work the Designer has planned from the beginning of time. Thankfully, as I enter my fiftieth year, I find that God occasionally unfurls the tapestry and gives me a fleeting glimpse of the right side. In spite of the tangled underside, I find that my tapestry is becoming more glorious than I—supposedly a professional wordsmith—have the syllables to describe. How profoundly those scarlet threads are tied to the knots I despise!

But the most beautiful thing about life’s tapestry is that the threads in my tapestry are not merely of my own craftsmanship. Threads from so many other lives are entwined with mine—the sturdy foundation of my parents’ and grandparents’ faith, the threads of learning and insight contributed through the years by many wonderful teachers and mentors, lacy filaments of joy our children have provided, and threads of comfort and godly counsel given by friends.

I think of these things often as I work out the plot of a novel. Not a one of my characters has been enough to make a complete story. It is only as lives intersect and intertwine that the story becomes interesting. Just as conflict is a necessary ingredient in my fictional stories, the messy underbellies of our real life tapestries keep life interesting, keep us connected to one another and best of all, keep us dependent upon the Designer.

Deborah Raney, author of A Nest of Sparrows and Over the Waters http://www.deborahraney.com

Friday, October 13, 2006

JK: Finding the Cure for Cancer

A friend of ours is losing her twelve year battle with cancer and soon her life will end. “I know I’m not doing anything to cure cancer,” I told a friend of mine and I went on to explain how others were making bigger marks in this world I thought, than mine. Their efforts might one day bring about relief from terrible suffering while I write stories. Little stories that some people won’t read because “they aren’t even true.”

Now Frederick Buechner, theologian and novelist, has given me a new way to look at truth inside story. He noted in his book Secrets in the Dark, A Life in Sermons, that fiction, from the word meaning to imagine, feign, or shape, is not true the way a photograph is true. But it can be true the way a portrait is, where one sees more than just the rendering of what is. With a great portrait we see something of the artist as well as a depth of the subject that we might otherwise miss. His words give me a little more room to appreciate rather than discount my efforts as a novelist over someone writing non-fiction, for example. But I still hung onto my wish that I did something truly important in the world instead of just “writing stories.”

My friend didn’t join in my whine. “We are all writing the human story,” she said, “when we do what we feel called to do. You do what you can to ease suffering through your stories and the scientist does what she can to find that elusive cure. Together the human story gets written, revised, expanded.”

Some of us have stories not yet published; yet we are authentic when we listen to that inner voice and write even if we don’t that day see the results that we think should. Perhaps because I spent this past hour writing I will be more compassionate toward my husband as he suffers with a bad back. Perhaps as you took time to finish that chapter or sent out that proposal you’ll be more aware of the dullness in a neighbor’s eyes and thus take time to ask what you can do to be of help. We are all writing the human story when we pay attention to our own.

My friend went on to remind me that it takes imagination to bring about innovation and imagination is from the right brain that works quite well with those predominately left brain scientists. Together, each of us doing what we think we’re supposed to be doing, together perhaps we’ll find that cancer cure.

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

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

PH: On Knowing You Are a Writer

In her book For Writers Only Sophy Burnham asks the question “When did you first know you were a writer? Did you always know?” Oftentimes, the writer is the last one to know.

I recently edited a student writer’s essay; I’ll call him Larry. Larry was assigned a report, a factually supported essay about a problem within any culture that either lacked a solution at present or if the student so desired, a potential solution. The point was that I wanted the students all writing about a topic for which they felt passionate. Larry turned in anything but a report. His essay, if you want to call it that, rose to the level of edgy prose. Setting, dialogue, descriptive prose, narration, and expository writing, were all roughly lumped together in a story he told about a friend of his who had gotten into some trouble with the law. There were police dogs, local cops, guns, handcuffs, and a delightfully drawn character that was compelling and psychologically complicated.

When I selected a few “shine” papers to read aloud to the class, Larry’s mouth fell open as I read his name in front of his classmates. He was mystified. I was delighted. I had found a gem among the requisite essays and was the first person to tell Larry, “Yes, you are a writer and probably a novelist.” Hang the assignment! Larry was a storyteller and up until that moment, did not know.

For years as I struggled in misery in real estate, I recalled the day that Professor Francis Gwaltney, III pulled my freshman essay out of the stack and asked my permission to read it aloud. He asked me, “What is your major?” My father had insisted that I major in elementary education. I told him and he said, “You’re no grade school teacher. You are a novelist.” Like Larry, I was mystified. His words nagged at me, nipping at my Nikes until the day I gave my words story form. I had loved literature and writing, but in all my years at an Arkansas high school not once had any teacher noticed my abilities. I was overlooked and had grown comfortable with being overlooked. Years later when I got my first little book deal I remembered Francis Gwaltney and was still mystified. How had he known that I was not simply a writer in the raw, but a novelist? As I read Larry’s essay to the class, I finally realized why. Author Francis Gwaltney, also the best friend of Norman Mailer, was at that time writing his thirteenth novel. He knew like I knew that Larry was a storyteller. Nothing profound, but it takes one to know one.

It could be that each of us write because we have been prodded into the writing arena by a writer who first saw us as a glob of potential. During the long nights as we bend over our keyboards writing for the audience of one, pondering words and their meaning, behind us is a voice of encouragement that won’t stop nagging at us to keep trying until we get it right. The words have formed like a thunder cloud overhead—you are not a baker, a butcher, or candlestick maker; you are a novelist and won’t be satisfied until your life takes the form for which you were made.

When did you know?

Patricia Hickman teaches writing at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. Her newest book, Earthly Vows, is set to release any day. You may visit her website at http://www.patriciahickman.com or blog on over to http://www.wisefood.blogspot.com.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

AG: A Well-Told Story

Last Sunday morning I sat with my notes in front of me preparing to teach an adult Bible study class. The topic was THE OTHER SIDE, a look at life after death. For that class, I chose Luke 16:19-31, the rich man and Lazarus account. It's one of those passages that has something new for me each time I come to it. As I reread the passage, circling keywords, drawing lines of connection, highlighting some of the creative word choices Jesus used to tell this story, it hit me. I was not only reading a detailed account of two men who died, I was also reading a finely crafted short story.

There is increasing interest in flash fiction--stories told in a few hundred words. This is a two thousand year old piece of flash fiction.

Let me show you what I mean. Now, just so you know, I study out of the New American Standard Updated version and will use terms from that translation. So open your Bibles.
First, the pastor in me requires that I make this point. This passage is often called the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. In point of fact, it's not a true parable. A parable is often defined as an "earthly story with a heavenly meaning." That's a good description. If this is a parable, then it is the only one in which Jesus uses a proper name: Lazarus. Most likely, Jesus is relating an actual account and telling it like a parable.

The tale begins with character introduction and contrast. First we meet the rich man. Tradition has named him Dives, but the biblical account gives no name. The rich man (RM) is 1) rich, 2) habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, 3) lived joyously and in splendor everyday. Lazarus (not the same man Jesus raised from the dead) is described as 1) poor, 2) laid (passive verb) at the gate of RM, and 3) covered in sores instead of fine linen.

Then comes the character connect. Lazarus is hungry and would love the crumbs from the rich man's table. His only companions are dogs.

Verse 22 is the first plot point. A plot point is an event that changes or intensifies the plot. In this case, the catalyst for change is death. Both men die and Jesus describes the mother-of-all-reversal-of-fortunes. Lazarus is carried by angels to Abraham's bosom. Remember, in life he was carried to RM's gate. RM's passing is brief and blunt: "the rich man died and was buried."

Now comes another character contrast, this time it is set against the backdrop of The Other Side. RM is in Hades (the New Testament word for the Old Testament Sheol) and in great torment. Note the torment is described in physical terms. The man of comfort now pleads for comfort. He can see Abraham and Lazarus across a chasm. They can speak. In a sense, RM has been laid at the gate of Lazarus. Lazarus is in a state of comfort.

The story has a single point of view, that of RM. We are not told what Lazarus thinks or feels, only that he is "being comforted." Why did Jesus choose RM's point of view? A couple of reasons come to mind. First, the story's action swivels on RM and his response to his situation. Second, Jesus is telling this story to the critical Pharisees. In other words, it's a bit of a slap down.

The second plot point is in verse 27 when RM realizes his condition is fixed and begins thinking of his five brothers. Interesting that RM thinks they need to be warned. It appears they were as bad as RM. "Send Lazarus to them." Abraham says no.

Now the moral--the heart of the story--is stated: "they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead." I wonder who Jesus had in mind with that statement. Actually, I don't. He performed several resurrections then was Himself raised from the dead.

In less than 450 words, Jesus tells a story of timeless spiritual truth. He also gives a great example of story structure: interesting backdrop; believable characters; a sympathetic hero; character contrast; a character connect; dialog; action point of view; two plot points; a beginning; a middle, and an end; and a moral lesson.


No, I didn't list everything. I wanted to leave a few things for you to search out. What else do you see?

Alton Gansky is a man of many hats, including pastor, novelist, computer whiz, and fireman. Check out his books at www.altongansky.com.

Monday, October 09, 2006

BC: A Criminal Mind

Some time ago Fed Ex brought me a flat package from the Philippines. Right address, wrong name. I stood in my kitchen and eyed it warily. I didn’t know the sender, didn’t know anybody in that country. It had to be a bomb. Or a threatening note from some crazed stalker. I opened it with caution, at the same time laughing at myself. Girl, you watch too much crime. Turned out the package held sale papers for a car—in pesos. Who knows how these people got my address, but it wasn’t intended for me.

So then my brain got to working. Unknown package, sent by mistake. Opener sees something she shouldn’t see. Hm . . .

Here's another incident that happened more recently. I was jogging (I swear, the strangest things happen when I jog. And I'm just trying to mind my own business), when I spied a large manila folder in the middle of the road, not far from the parking lot entrance to a medical building. My active mind imagined an immediate scenario--someone in a hurry, placing the file on top of his car, then forgetting it and driving away. I wasn't very far from home at the time and didn't want to carry the thing on my entire run. Plus I figured whoever lost it would soon realize what he'd done and come looking for it. So I left it where it lay. But on the way back, after almost my entire five-mile run--there lay the package, still in the middle of the road. I went over to retrieve it, thinking I'd tote it home. I could probably find a name inside and make a phone call to the owner.

The contents? Original X-rays on a patient's spine, and the doctor's interpreted results--which didn't look too positive. In other words, very private information. I checked the name and address of the doc, thinking maybe his office was in the nearby medical building. But no--the address was two towns away.

I toted the thing home to call the doctor's office. During that short distance, my brain ran faster than my legs. Imagine this weird concidence: some patient two towns away has X-rays--and I, a total stranger, wind up with the results in my hand. What if that patient were a well-known and highly paid football player? Or a politician running for office? What if this information, leaked to the press, would completely ruin some famous person's career? And then what if someone found out I had this information, because I made the innocent phone call to the doctor's office--and came after me to silence me . . .?

Such is my life of writing Seatbelt Suspense™. I get a nosebleed, I think blood splatter patterns. I see someone on a cell phone, I think--Do you know how your movements can be traced? In short, crime is always on my mind.

My life has become constant research as to how crimes are solved and sent through the legal system. I’ll cut out articles in the paper about some unique crime or twist in a trial. I watch Court TV—Forensic Files, The Investigators, The System, etc., and programs such as Cold Case Files on A&E. I take notes and throw ’em in my idea boxes sitting on my credenza. I have learned some way cool stuff. All kinds of poisons, how killers think, legal system antics and forensics galore. To me the forensics are the most interesting. How one tiny fiber solved a case. Or how a branch on a tree proved a murder, when the body had never been found. What blood splatter shows us; gun residue issues; toxicology tests; how an anthropologist determines sex, age, and gender from a skeleton. I could go on and on.

I am careful not to taint my constant research. So I don’t watch TV crime dramas—CSI, Law and Order, etc. These shows may be based on reality, but they must adhere to the conventions of fiction in one hour of TV. So they’ll fudge on certain techniques, or who does what. In order to keep characters to a minimum, they’ll have the techies doing things that other specialists would do. I’ve had a critiquer read one of my books and make a comment as to how a crime would have been investigated—“Well, anybody who watches Law and Order would know that . . .”

Blat. Push wrong answer buzzer here.

My husband can’t understand it. “How do you watch those horrible shows?” Especially with my high degree of empathy for people. Well, how does anyone working in the crime field do it? You shut off the emotions and look at it purely analytically. Solving the crime is like piecing together a mind-boggling puzzle. It’s fascinating. Meanwhile he--and my friends--have learned to live with me. Anytime someone says something that triggers my brain, and my eyes glaze over and veer up and to the left--they know I'm spinning some new crazed scenario. Happened again just yesterday. One friend just shook her head at the other. "And she looks so normal."

Enter the criminal mind if you dare. Read the first chapters to all Brandilyn Collins's Seatbelt Suspense™ novels at: http://www.brandilyncollins.com/. Members of the BHCC (Big Honkin' Chickens Club) need not apply.

Friday, October 06, 2006

BJH: Stardust: Take Two

In my earlier entry, Stardust, I talked about the effect success and celebrity can have on an artist's life. Here’s the second part ....
Success. Celebrity. Popularity It can happen to you. Perhaps it already has. But if it hasn’t, now is your best time to prepare for it. Not after it’s already happened, but now.

Well-known authors are often caught up in a whirlwind once the "celebrity syndrome" strikes. Publishers want more books, more often. Fans write and want replies. Bookstores want book signings or readings. The media want interviews. Writing conferences want speakers and teachers. Authors, Christian authors, especially, seem suddenly to become counselors and experts on the human--and spiritual--condition.

If authors aren't careful, they can find themselves doing everything but writing, and perhaps not doing any of it very well. But it’s heady stuff, this celebrity status. Publishers want you, fans love you, the emotionally needy or hurting seek you out. You’re in demand. A star. Suddenly, there’s a tremendous drain on your time, your energy, your health, your marriage, your role as a parent and a family member.

Once you’re caught up in the storm it’s more difficult to handle the flying objects. The time to decide how you’re going to deal with success, if it comes, is before it comes. It needs to be worked out between you and God in advance. With his guidance, set your priorities and make a commitment--to Him--to keep those priorities in order. Because if you don’t go into it with an uncompromising clarity as to your priorities, you may find that you have none--or that they’ve been in the wrong order all along.

You might give some consideration to what others have found beneficial in preparing for and dealing with success:

Hold it with open hands. It’s fleeting. Just like anything else in life, success can vanish in a puff of smoke--and often does. So don’t attempt to claim it as an entitlement or a permanent fixture of your life. It’s neither. Accept it merely as an avenue through which God can work, with you as a partner, to accomplish his will.

Don’t believe your own press--the good or the bad. Praise can be every bit as deceptive as criticism. Follow your own instincts and listen for the voice of the One who knows you best.

Celebrity, more often than not, is fickle and altogether untrustworthy. I heard recently of one very wise author who turned down what sounded like a sweet, sweet deal with a publisher who hadn’t known she existed until she hit the charts and started getting a fair amount of media attention. At that point, the prospective new publisher moved in with a bag stuffed full of staggering figures and some altogether unrealistic promises. This particular author wasn’t overly impressed with what was happening to her and had the common sense to realize that if her sales numbers went down, even a little, and if the competition in the market tightened still more, the publisher who was courting her, judging from past history, would lose interest in a heartbeat and go on to more lucrative prospects. She had the savvy to realize that a contract or multiple contracts wouldn’t insure her longevity as one of their "stars."

Contracts, unfortunately, are not always written with "permanent ink."

She refused to take herself--or her publicity--too seriously. And that’s a point that in itself deserves some attention. We writers--yes, Christian writers as well--sometimes tend to see ourselves as indispensable and even entitled to whatever respect and attention we receive. We’re "doing God’s work," after all, aren’t we? Touching hearts, even changing hearts. He’s using us to further his kingdom, isn't that so?

While all that might be true, we’re merely a few among many. The fact that we might be more visible than thousands and hundreds of thousands of others who work unnoticed and often unappreciated doesn’t mean that our work is more valuable, more important to his kingdom. Even if we excel at what we do and become highly esteemed, that echo of praise we hear isn’t necessarily the applause of heaven.

We have to realize that we’re merely a part of a world and an entire community, and although what we write might have some impact on other lives, even lead a few to God, this is still a temporary run, and there are far more important things on God’s mind for us--and in his long-term plan for his world--than whether we’re writing the best fiction around or if we're appearing on the bestseller chart or on the publisher’s "star author" list. I seriously doubt that God is keeping an account of the number of books we’ve published this year or how many book signings we’ve done or how many fan letters we’ve received. On the other hand, it’s probably safe to assume that He does keep watch on the heart.

And in that regard--with his help--we need to keep a humble heart. Never forget that in the past God has been known to use a donkey to make his point. In truth, He really doesn’t need even the best of our abilities, although certainly He uses them if we don’t hug them too tightly to ourselves.

Remember that "it takes a village" to make a book. I’m the writer--but I’m not the entire process. It truly does take many working in community to produce a book of genuine quality: writer, editors, artists, proofreaders, production staff, marketing personnel, sales staff, publicists--too many others to count. All those people our readers have never heard of and probably never will--without them, there would be no book. And God values their work just as much as He values the writer’s efforts. He guides their part of the process just as He guides the writer’s, and He smiles on a job well-done by all. All.

May we keep a servant’s heart. Christ didn’t occupy Himself with taking bows, but instead washed his disciples’ feet. He spent more time praying than performing, more energy feeding the hungry and healing the sick than drawing attention to himself. He devoted his time and effort to doing his Father’s will and caring for his people instead of playing to the crowds or making a name for himself.

And always, He lived. He lived in the world. He was a participant, not a spectator. He didn’t sit at a desk 24/7 and expect to absorb a wealth of wisdom or unique ideas or develop greater spiritual awareness or true compassion for the multitudes. He went out among the people, and no matter how busy He was with the Father’s work, He made the effort to know those people, took time to listen to them, to speak with them, to offer a helping hand to them. He took time to love them.

He willingly, deliberately, totally, set aside all personal glory in order to glorify the One Who sent Him. He was a Servant who never sought success. He became a Sacrifice, not a celebrity. A suffering Savior, not a temporary "star." He claimed nothing for Himself, but gave away everything.

If Jesus were to give a seminar on how to handle celebrity and success ... I somehow think he might walk quietly into the room, hold out his hands in offering, and then turn and walk away without saying a word.

-BJ Hoff, author of A Distant Music and The Wind Harp.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

BJH: Stardust

"...And, you will be very careful that the dust the crowd is raising may not dim your vision of His face." S. D. Gordon

I've come across this sentence from the writings of S. D. Gordon in the past, and I happened on it again in the book, His Victorious Indwelling, edited by Nick Harrison (a Zondervan publication). Gordon's words in this passage are worth committing to memory. He's speaking here of the importance of listening to the voice of Jesus, following his guidance, taking the way He's chosen for us. To more clearly put it in context, here's a part of what goes before:

"If perhaps the chosen road then leads to crowds and the praise of men, you will be knowing that it was His leading that brought you there, not your own wisdom or talent .... You will also be very careful not to disappoint or thwart His plans. And, you will be very careful that the dust the crowd is raising may not dim your vision of His face." (emphasis mine)

"The dust the crowd is raising ..."

When the great soprano, Jenny Lind (referred to as "the Swedish Nightingale") abruptly left her stellar singing career, she gave as her reason her belief that her career had begun to draw her away from God and she feared that it might eventually separate her from Him entirely. She quit at the very pinnacle of fame as an international "star," to the dismay of the crowds who had crowned her with success. God's hold on her life, her love and devotion--and evidently more than a little insight into her own nature--enabled her to realize that the "dust" the crowd was raising might indeed dim her vision of his face.

My American Anthem series--and some of my other books--deal with this very issue, although I didn't plan it that way. But the subjects about which we feel most strongly have a way of insinuating themselves into our fiction, and I'll admit that God placed this particular caution on my heart almost from the beginning of my own writing career. No doubt that's why the concept appears from time to time in my novels, in interviews, and in other writings--even in a web log.

D. L. Moody, the great evangelist and preacher--and a man accustomed to huge acclaim and the following of international crowds--was known to despise the limelight. Moody often spoke of the danger of "man worship," repeating over and over again the need to continually "sink the self," and the premise that our human nature desires the "great and the mighty," but God's way is to use the "foolish and despised things."

Moody wrote uncompromisingly about this issue: "If we lift up ourselves and say we have got such great meetings and such crowds are coming, and get to thinking about crowds and about the people, and get our minds off from God, and are not constantly in communion with Him, lifting our hearts in prayer, this work will be a stupendous failure."

"A stupendous failure." Harsh words. But words that have proven all too true.

God knows all about the hazards of success and celebrity. Certainly, his Son could have been born among all the trappings of wealth and royalty instead of holding court in a stable. Christ could just as easily have singled out twelve rich and learned men, aristocrats and noblemen, to study with Him, to spread the Gospel, and to serve. Instead, He chose a somewhat questionable mix that included a number of impetuous fishermen, a tax collector, and a fire-breathing Pharisee. The King of Kings could have hobnobbed with the creme de la creme, but instead seemed to prefer the company of the lowly, the downtrodden, the very dregs of society.

It would almost lead one to believe that God's idea of success differs radically from our own.

It's not that He doesn't bring some of his people to success. Of course He does. And it's not that He doesn't use the successes of his people to achieve his own ends. He does indeed. But it's more about what his people do with success, whether we crown it as Lord or hold it loosely and sacrifice it willingly.

Let's be honest. Who among us would want to be a part of the "foolish and despised things" God may use? It's far more pleasant to think of using whatever success--or "greatness"--we may gain to "further God's glory." And it's much more natural to equate, in human terms, success with wealth, fame, recognition, respect, and prestige. Musicians might relate success to the number of albums sold, acclaim of the crowds, demand for concerts and benefit performances, and--wealth. Artists might consider success in terms of private showings, the respect of their peers throughout the art community, and--wealth. Movie stars predictably see success as "star billing," the choice of any role desired, Academy Awards, adulation of the fans, and--wealth.

And authors? Publishers knocking (even pounding) on the door, hitting the top of the bestseller charts, literary awards, never-ending requests for interviews and keynote speeches, and–of course ... wealth.

I could go on and on (and have in other times and in other places) about what celebrity and success can do, the havoc and even destruction they can wreak, on an artist's life. But most of us can look around for ourselves and see--or reminisce and call to mind--the spiritual depletion and occasional spiritual breakdown born of the deception of success. Let the point rest on the words and wisdom of those mentioned above, those who have extended warnings and admonitions more incisive than I ever could.

Stardust. Celebrity fever. Fame frenzy. The lust for success. It eventually forms a veil that clouds our spiritual eyes. It can burn ... and it can blind. It can flaw the way we view those we admire, and it can skew our perception of ourselves.

How do we, as authors, handle any dust the crowds may raise? How do we keep it from blurring our vision of God, from building a barrier between us and our Lord? How do we control it instead of allowing it to control us?

By walking closely with God, staying grounded in His Word, and keeping Him, always, as our First Love.

-BJ Hoff, author of A Distant Music and The Wind Harp. www.bjhoffgracenotes.typepad.com

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

JK: Reading Poetry

Often I begin my writing day by reading poetry. Barbara Crooker is a favorite. Rainer Maria Rilke, another. My editor at WaterBrook Press, Dudley Delffs, introduced me to poet Mary Oliver a few years back. I’d never heard of her. Tells you how out of touch I was! But since he sent me one of her book of poems, I find her everywhere; awareness informing memory.

A few weeks ago, a friend whose wife had passed away (we’d been unable to attend the memorial) sent us his wife’s service program and inside was a Mary Oliver Poem called "When Death Comes." Each line was memorable. Each word evoked such emotion. I found myself reading and re-reading it and then reading it out loud to my husband, sending a copy of it to my friend who is dying and deciding to read it at an upcoming memorial service our church is holding for the 9/11 anniversary.

The line that touched me greatest dealt with how the poet wanted to feel when death comes for her and she said she wanted to say that she’d been “a bride married to amazement/a bridegroom who opened his arms to the world.”

That’s what I think writing is about, the privilege of being “married to amazement” and of opening our “arms to the world.” There is pain in those choices and disappointment, too. Life isn’t always amazing. Sometimes it’s just hard and filled with broken down machinery (we live on a ranch). Sometimes when we open our arms to others they turn away (I have my collection of rejection looks and letters). But the alternative is to give our readers words that don’t lead to amazement at all, words that say the same old thing, that speak of hardships, perhaps, but never of hope. It’s to give to our readers stories that don’t stretch outward, that keep what’s close in but makes sure nothing else penetrates those closed arms.

Someone once said that it isn’t true that we only use a small percentage of our brain. If fact, we do use all of it and 99% of our brain works at shutting out the amazing things in our world, to keep our arms closed tightly over our chests rather than open to what might be. If the brain didn’t shut that down we’d be walking around agog with the wonders of creation, other people’s open arms included.

Surely much of the writing life is meant to help us stayed amazed and to invite our readers to be amazed as well; it’s meant to keep our arms open so that when death comes we can say we truly lived.

Jane Kirkpatrick, www.jkbooks.com
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, October 02, 2006

AG: Whence Cometh Inspiration?

The other day, my wife and I were returning home after running a few errands. We pulled to a stoplight and waited for it to turn green. The wind was blowing. Where I live, the wind always blows. This day, the wind brought more than dust devils and a stream of uprooted desert plants--it slapped a piece of paper to the passenger-side window, right next to my wife's head.

The white sheet of notebook paper hung for a moment against the glass.

The motion caught my eye and I turned to see not just the paper, but handwriting in blue ink and a signature. Before I could read the message, the wind stripped it from the car and sent it tumbling down State Highway 395.

Before I could turn my head again, an idea for a story crashed into my mind and rattled around.
My wife watched the paper tumble in front of a fast moving Mack truck. "That was weird."

"What if you had seen your name on that paper?" My brain jiggled with new ideas.

"Uh-oh. Here we go again."

"What if you saw your name and the name of someone you know? Would you go after it? Would you chase the paper?"

She looked at big rigs, SUVs with cell phone toting soccer moms, pickup trucks with poorly restrained cargo and frowned. I had my answer.

"What if I saw my name and the word murder on the page? What if that one piece of paper were linked to the abduction of some child? What if we saw just enough information to make us think it had been penned by some terrorist? Would we risk stepping onto the highway to retrieve a note that may or may not save a life? What if you recognized the handwriting as yours but you don't remember writing it? Wait, even better. What if you recognize the handwriting as that of your long lost brother whom you assumed dead?"

She stared at me, unable to blink. "What if the light turned green and the first car in the line refused to move?"



"Oh, yeah." I started across the intersection. "So what do you want for lunch?" My mind, however, still wondered about that wayward note. The wind brought a gift that day--a chance to once again exercise my imagination and it all happened in a few seconds.

Al Gansky finds inspiration in all sorts of things. Visit his website at www.altongansky.com.