Thursday, November 30, 2006

Ask the Authors: Thursday

Which element do you usually begin with: plot, character, theme, or setting?

Usually the character but sometimes an event. Reading a diary entry about 11 wagons turned around on the Oregon Trail, all driven by women because their husbands had died, made me wonder about what happened; and what it would take to allow someone to help them in their grief and perhaps find a new direction. That became a series about those 11 women which then drove the story, though I suppose it was also the theme, about finding new direction when life as you know it has ended. -Jane Kirkpatrick

It varies, depending on the book. The idea that drops into my brain may contain the seed of any one of these. But because my novels are more character-driven than plot-driven, I usually begin with the main character and/or the time and place (e.g. World War II, Japanese internment camps). Plot and theme then follow. -Ann Tatlock

As I mentioned the other day, if any one of those four show up, I’m happy to wait on the others. –Angela Hunt

Usually a plot idea (as in Sins of the Fathers--what if a 13 year old shot up a baseball game?) which I start to flesh out with characters; or a character (as in Presumed Guilty -- what would a pastor's wife do if her husband was accused of sexual indiscretions and murder?) and then think of making the situation as troubling as possible. Theme I never think of until the book is almost finished, and I hear what it's trying to tell me. Setting is usually L.A., which offers more than enough good stuff. - James Scott Bell

Character. Always. Nothing else happens until I know--and I emphasize know--my leading characters. -BJ Hoff

Varies depending on the idea. -Rene Gutteridge

Plot. Some crazy premise comes to mind, a la my answer to the first question. -Brandilyn Collins

I break the rules and start with theme. The most popular answer to this question is probably “character,” but I find myself much more interested in exploring ideas as they relate to people, so I start with the ideas and make up people and situations to fit what I want to think about. I know, I know . . . the plot and theme ought to be “organic” and rise up from the interaction of the characters. Flannery O’Connor wouldn’t speak to me, God rest her soul. It’s a wonder
anybody reads my books. -Athol Dickson

Although I write character-driven novels, I do almost always start with a rough plotline––usually something taken from current news headlines––and then invent a character to live through the dilemma. -Deborah Raney

Character first, set up next--I wouldn't go so far as to call it an actual plot, more of a "what if" scenario. -lisa samson

Each book starts in its own way, and so much of it happens in my subconscious it's hard to pinpoint what comes first. Again, that's the intuitive writer in me. I "feel" when things are right. I think I most often begin with character, with theme following close on its heels. Sometimes they are reversed. I rarely begin with plot. -Robin Lee Hatcher

Character is always first. Setting is a close second. The plot then develops from the characters. And I often don't know what the theme is until I'm 2/3 of the way through the book. It emerges, like a figure walking toward me through the mist. -Liz Curtis Higgs

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Ask the Authors: Wednesday

Do you have a special process for naming your characters?

Sometimes the characters walk into my imagination with names and history (i.e. Roxy Burke in Return to Me, coming in July 2007). Other times I have a story idea with unnamed characters. When that happens, I pull out baby name books and other tools and just start browsing. Something inside "tells me" when I hit on the right name. Secondary characters get less attention. For each book, I keep names in a spreadsheet that sorts by first and last names. I try to avoid naming characters that start with the same letter so the alphabet helps me name secondary characters. -Robin Lee Hatcher

Most of my female protagonists have a name that's a plant or a flower, denoting growth. Or their name will fit either what they do, or their journey. Sometimes it's downright silly. In Straight Up, I named a character who hadn't yet come to faith Fairly Godfrey--Fairly God Free. (Sometimes I just crack myself up!) -lisa samson

For main characters I usually choose fairly common “everyman” names, and I’ve been known to change the character’s surname, especially, midway through the writing because the original somehow didn’t fit the character that ultimately developed. For characters who only appear briefly, I often turn to the morning newspaper and choose a first name from one article and a surname from another. The obituary or business pages offer a wealth of names to choose from. -Deborah Raney

I do try to find a name with some connection to the character’s nature, or their role in the story. Sometimes I’m subtle about it, sometimes not. “Hale Poser” for example is the name of the protagonist in River Rising. He is in some respects a type of Moses, strong spiritually and on a mission to save his people. “Hale” means “healthy,” and like the ancient Egyptian word “moses” it also means “to lift up.” To “pose,” of course, is to extend an offer, to question, or to assume an artificial attitude. He does all three at various points in the story. -Athol Dickson

I got a letter just this past week asking why I'd chosen a certain name for a character. Seems the name was the same as the grandfather of the guy writing me. Hated to disappoint the guy, but really, my name-choosing is quite unscientific. I do think of the basic stuff--make sure it's not too close to another name in the novel, make sure it has a nice rhythm to it. I want my protagonist's names to be friendly-sounding. I consider the age of the character--would that name have been used at his/her birth? That's about it. -Brandilyn Collins

Not really. I sometimes pop onto and browse. My editor, however, thinks I have an unfortunate talent of naming all my characters with the same letter from the alphabet. I don't do this on purpose, but she's right. Sometimes it ends up Jason, Jennifer, Jack, Jonah... Or Ray, Clay, Trey...Weird. -Rene Gutteridge

I obsess until the names finally "fit." I sometimes use name books, especially books with Irish surnames, given names, and place names, as well as regional telephone directories, historical journals and records, etc. I can't write the first word until my characters are named, and they have to wear those names perfectly and comfortably for a time before the story can start to take form. -BJ Hoff

For major characters, I often go through baby name books to search for names with meanings that amplify character. For minor characters, I use my friends or the phone book. –Angela Hunt

For my historicals, I love to visit churchyards in Scotland and combine the first name from one headstone with the last name from another, looking for names that represent the time period. I also say the names outloud, plug them into a dramatic sentence or a funny sentence, ask myself how the name will sound if it's whispered or screamed. I try to choose names that will wear well, that suit the character, and are fairly short. (I'm about to have a heroine named "Elizabeth" and am hoping I won't regret those four, long syllables!) -Liz Curtis Higgs

Once again, I listen and let the characters introduce themselves to me. If that fails, I have two places I go to choose names: the phone book and a “Name Your Baby” book. -Ann Tatlock

I keep all high school graduation programs. They're a wonderful source for character names. -Lori Copeland

I take directories of names, alumni yearbooks and the like, and mix and match. A first name here, a last name there. -James Scott Bell

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Ask the Authors: Tuesday

Richard and Patricia asked a variation of the same question: I've sometimes heard that the first novel is like the first waffle, the one you practice on and then throw away. How many of you sold the first novel you wrote as your first contract? How many sold it after you'd had others published? How many of you still have it languishing in a file somewhere, unsold and unloved?

I sold my first book, and it was my first book published. I wrote it in 1981, sold it in 1982, the publisher went bankrupt a few months later, I sold it again (along with its sequel) in 1983, and both books were published in 1984. -Robin Lee Hatcher

Sold first novel. Definitely a Cinderella story. -lisa samson

I wrote the first draft of my first novel in five months and sold it a few months later. I know the Lord had reasons for letting that happen, but in truth, I had a LOT to learn. Some of it, I learned in that first editing experience; much I still have to learn. I was privileged to get to rewrite that first book recently and while I chose not to start from scratch, it was nice to be able to apply some of what I’ve learned to fix some of my newbie mistakes. I do have a couple of novels written after that first one that have yet to see the light of day—and probably never will. -Deborah Raney

I baked a whole lot of waffles before I got published. I think seven is the final tally, but I may have lost count. At any rate, I have a good many completed and partial manuscripts filed away somewhere that have never been published and never will be. They represent some 8 to 10 years’ work. I don’t consider them a waste of time; I consider them the foundation of my career. I was learning how to write. They taught me. -Ann Tatlock

I sold my first novel, Whom Shall I Fear?, much to my surprise. I was busy with my architectural practice and aware of the odds against publication, so I made no attempt to see the novel in print. I never called or wrote anyone. Then I had an apparently random encounter with a newspaper editor, which led to endorsement of Whom Shall I Fear? by a Pulitzer prize winning author, representation by a major New York literary agency and an offer from Simon and Schuster. Throughout all of this, I was just led along. I still had never sought out anything. Unfortunately, Simon and Schuster’s offer was contingent on replacing the name “Jesus” in the novel with the “more generic word, God” (this was long before Mel Gibson’s movie). Some people today probably think I should have gone along in the interest of being “missional” or whatever, but I viewed it as a test of faith and refused. S&S walked away, the literary agent got angry and dropped me, and Whom Shall I Fear? went back on my shelf. Then a pastor friend heard this story and told someone he knew, who in turn contacted his own literary agent on my behalf. Again, I didn’t go looking for them to do that. Whom Shall I Fear? was ultimately published by Zondervan Publishing House, and here I am five books later, retired from architecture, writing full time with book number six in the pipeline and the rough draft of number seven coming along nicely. I’m pretty sure this writing thing is a calling. -Athol Dickson

My first written novel was Eyes of Elisha (suspense). Second written novel was Color the Sidewalk for Me (women's fiction). Third written novel was Cast a Road Before Me (women's fiction and prequel to Sidewalk). These were all for the secular market.

Just when I was about to make my first sale in the secular market (Sidewalk), God called me to the Christian market. I took back my books, told my agent they were no longer for sale, and rewrote the two women's fiction as Christian novels, then rewrote Eyes of Elisha. Cast a Road sold first, followed by Eyes of Elisha (in a two-book contract, with the second book being "blind"), followed by Color the Sidewalk for Me (also in a two-book contract, with the second being "blind"). So my first written novel--Sidewalk--was my fourth book to sell, coming after a book I hadn't even written yet, nor had any idea what it would be. However, I will say that when these doors started to open (after a 10-year-journey), they opened quickly, and these contracts came in fairly short succession. (The entire story of my 10-year journey to publication is on my blog--"How I Got Here.") -Brandilyn Collins

I had written other novels, but my first published novel was actually sold off of a proposal, meaning I hadn't written it yet. But the publisher was familiar with my writing style. - Rene Gutteridge

I sold the first novel I wrote and went to contract for it, but withdrew it before it could be published due to myriad rumors of upheaval within the publishing house (and enough confirmation among friends to support the rumors). A little later, I decided it probably shouldn't be published, because it wasn't good enough for publication. I fed it to the shredder a long, long time ago. -BJ Hoff

First novels are very important to your learning curve. But don't make them cul-de-sacs. Get on to the next one, and be thinking about the one after that. I did sell my first novel, but that was after several years as a screenwriter. My first few scripts didn't sell but I learned more with each one. -James Scott Bell

My first attempt sat in a drawer for a long time before I finally pitched it. Trust me, it wasn’t publishable. I consider it a learning exercise, as most first manuscripts are. –Angela Hunt

I wrote and sold my first novel in 1982 to the secular romance market. At that time it was a hungry market, just about anyone who could put pen to paper and write a cohesive story sold. I take pride not so much in publishing, but having remained published all these years. Every author fears selling one or two books and the well runs dry. Even more amazing, I don't have a single unpublished book! Lots of ideas that never flew, but no full length books. -Lori Copeland

I did sell my first novel, A Sweetness to the Soul. I have several short stories lanquishing in my drawer though. -Jane Kirkpatrick

I was already established as a published writer of both nonfiction and children's books when I approached a publisher with a proposal for a novel in 1997. The good news is, they gave me a contract. The bad news is, I hadn't written a novel yet, "waffle" or otherwise! It was very scary to go public with that first effort, Mixed Signals! -Liz Curtis Higgs

Monday, November 27, 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!

Barbara asks: In your mind you plant the first tiny seeds for a story. How do you determine the angle you will use to write the story? Do you have a method?

Not to sound overly spiritual, but I believe the Lord plants that "first tiny seed," and then I let it germinate, watering it with research and prayer. Where to set the opening scene is the hardest thing for me. Even though I know I can throw it away if it doesn't work, I long to start out on the right foot. When I can put it off no longer, I just close my eyes, paint the landscape in my mind, and listen until my characters start talking. --Liz Curtis Higgs

Something "divine" has to start happening. Someone mentions a detail, says that Marie Dorion, the only woman in the first fur trade expedition west after Lewis and Clark got back, and Sacagawea knew each other. Hmmm. Intriguing. Then someone else mentions the same subject over dinner in another state, let's say. Or I'm researching the history of hat pins and I read about the Astor expedition; or someone out of the blue emails me and says "I understand you're writing a book about Marie Dorion, the only woman in the Astor Expedition of 1811. (That did happen!) She'd worked with a descedant of that expedition. "Can I help you?" Could I turn that down? -Jane Kirkpatrick

I have no particular method, and my favorite way to write a story isn't necessary the most popular with the reader. I love to write in lst person. I think it brings a warmth and a closeness to the story that 3rd person POV can't achieve. But readers tend to find 1st person hard to read. -Lori Copeland

My method is simply to listen. After that seed of an idea plants itself in my brain, I give it some time to germinate and check in on it periodically to see what it’s doing. Once it has sprouted roots and I know it’s going to be viable, I start doing research and begin scribbling notes concerning characters and plot. That’s when I really begin to listen carefully. And that’s because the characters speak to me, telling me who they are and what they’re doing. I certainly have input into the story, but the characters have minds of their own. There have actually been times when I tried to kill a couple of them off and they refused to die. So I let them live and my stories were better for it. So the only way I can explain it is that I listen and let my imagination take over. Of course, it’s my conscious mind that does the hard work of writing, and rewriting, and rewriting again, and polishing…. -Ann Tatlock

I’ve learned that a novel is made up of four parts: characters, setting, plot, and theme. Any one of these four elements may be the first to make an appearance, and I have to let that element sit and wait until some other elements show up to keep it company. Sometimes my method is simply letting an idea marinate for a while. –Angela Hunt

I start a free form letter to myself. I just type away, asking and answering whatever comes to mind. Why am I interested in this story? Why would anyone else be interested? What might happen to whom? It's a stream of consciousness document. I'll come back to it the next day and do more of the same. This might go on for a week. I use the highlight feature to single out promising things. If I'm jazzed by the end of the week I know I may have something worth pursuing. -James Scott Bell

All my stories are developed through the characters. I don't believe I've ever thought about an "angle" or a "method." The characters tell the story, and I follow along to clean up after them. -BJ Hoff

It's a method of madness! I don't really know if I have an exact method. Sometimes it is decided by what comes first, the characters or the plot or the theme. If the plot is going to be the emphasis, I usually decide on third-person multiple point-of-view. If it's a character I want to focus on, I'll consider writing it in first person. Whatever the case, I get in my car and drive around the city for an hour thinking about it all. -Rene Gutteridge

Actually, I don't plant the first tiny seed. It plants itself. Blows into my brain (which ain't necessarily fertile) from something I've seen, heard, what-iffed--and before you know it, there's a tiny little seedling. Lots of 'em never grow beyond that point. I tend the ones I do because something's different about them. Odd-shape to the leaf, a different color, an interesting smell.

Once I have a premise, I think of the final twist. Then I fill in with smaller twists in the middle. This can be a long process and involve the kicking of many cabinets. Somehow I end up with a story. -Brandilyn Collins

For me there’s no method for coming up with “the angle” on a novel, if by that we mean a step-by-step system I can repeat from novel to novel. It’s just the result of a lot of thought about the theme, plot, and characters. By the time I sit down to start a synopsis I usually have about two months of work invested. I take long walks in the park talking to myself out loud (people passing by probably assume I’m mentally ill). I work up a 10,000 to 30,000 word “brainstorming” document. I do 40 or 50 hours of research. All of this is painful at times—I want to just get on with it—but I can’t seem to find a streamlined, easier way.-Athol Dickson

Because I don’t do much plotting before I start writing, the angle sort of seems to “determine” itself as I go along. In the first few weeks I’m working on a story, the words pile up very, very slowly, but there’s a lot going on under the surface. I’m constantly thinking about my characters and character traits suggest scenes that add to plot and build on each other until finally, thankfully, it all becomes a snowball rolling downhill, collecting speed as it goes. -Deborah Raney

I try to imagine which character's viewpoint has the most conflict, the most room for change and will tell the most compelling story. If there more than one character has a tale needing to be told, I'll opt for multiple POVs. -lisa samson

Because I am an "intuitive" writer, the angle unfolds as I ponder the idea. There is no particular method to my madness. I let the characters guide me as I begin to know who they are. Out of all the books I've written, only one (Beyond the Shadows, 2004) has been a first person POV. It was a story that demanded to be told that way. The next book I tried to write in first person, and it refused. But now I have another story that wants to be told in first person. Years ago I had an editor give me some good advice: "Go with your gut." So that's what I do. -Robin Lee Hatcher

Friday, November 24, 2006

AT: The Power of Words

Imagine living without words. How would you form a thought? How would you communicate a desire? How would you commune with a God who is himself the Word? I can’t begin to fathom it, and maybe you can’t either. But let’s consider someone who knew firsthand what it was to live without words.

Every schoolchild is familiar with Helen Keller. We’ve all been told of her amazing accomplishments in spite of the fact that she was both blind and deaf. But until I recently read her autobiography, “The Story of My Life,” I didn’t really consider the consequences of losing both sight or sound before having the chance to develop the use of language. While Helen retained some images from the first 19 months of her life, she was otherwise confined for years to what she called “the still dark world in which I lived.”

As she grew older, Helen felt more and more deeply the desire to connect with other people. But she didn’t have the means to bridge the chasm that separated her from the outside world. She recalls poignantly the misery of such isolation, of the tears and angry outbursts that resulted when she could not make herself understood.

Then came the day when her teacher, Anne Sullivan, held one of Helen’s hands under the water spout while signing “w-a-t-e-r” into the other hand. Annie Sullivan spelled the word again and again until suddenly, as Helen describes it, “the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that ‘w-a-t-e-r’ meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!”

With words, she could communicate, she could understand and be understood, she could think thoughts that were more than simply “wordless sensations.” But more than that, it was through words, claims Helen Keller, that “I was restored to my human heritage.”

When God created men and women in his own image, that included the ability to use language. The God who spoke the universe into being gave to humankind alone the ability to communicate with words.

That’s an amazing gift and an immense responsibility. With words we not only express ourselves in seemingly innocuous ways, but we build up and we tear down, we heal and we destroy, we bless and we curse, we tell the truth and we tell lies. Observing the consequences of man’s free-willed use of this God-given gift, Solomon wrote, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21).

Think about it. Words--both spoken and written--are the building blocks of ideas, and ideas, once ingested, become a part of us. That’s probably why Solomon, in his wisdom, warned us to be careful of what we read--and goodness knows that even in his day, “the writing of many books is endless” (Ecc. 12:12).

A one-time acquaintance of mine, Larry, was a friendly and successful young man who was heavily influenced by mystical thought. He suggested to me once that I might benefit, as he had, from reading the works of various New Age thinkers. Not long after our conversation, Larry was found dead in his home. His suicide note explained that his present incarnation was simply too painful. He was ready to move on to his next plane of existence; he wanted to reincarnate into a better life here on earth. The words Larry absorbed from the New Age gurus were lies, and it cost him his life. Worse than that, it cost him eternity.

On the other hand, one of the steppingstones for C.S. Lewis on his journey to faith was the fiction of George MacDonald. While reading a copy of “Phantastes” one night, Lewis explains that “my imagination was, in a certain sense, baptized.” Likewise for William Murray, son of Madelyn Murray O’Hair and one-time poster child for atheism in America. One of the great influences in his coming to Christ was the book “Great and Glorious Physician,” by Taylor Caldwell, a fictionalized account of the biblical Luke. Both Lewis and Murray were born into eternal life, in part because they believed the words that pointed to the Word Made Flesh.

As writers, we’ve got some pretty powerful tools at our disposal. As writers who are also believers, we can offer words of life. We can speak the truth in love. That’s our calling, our privilege, and our responsibility.

You can learn about Ann Tatlock's books at

Thursday, November 23, 2006

RLH: Brainstorming and the Intuitive Writer

The word "plot," for anyone who hasn't noticed, is a four-letter word. That's more or less how I feel about it. Writers who are more analytical thrive as they work out the plot before writing their books. But I am an intuitive writer. I create from my gut. I write to discover what will happen next just as my readers read to discover what will happen next. I don't know what will occur in chapter ten until I have written chapter nine.

I keep what is called a "rolling plot" notebook. Basically, I journal before beginning to write for that day, determining, based on what I wrote yesterday, what needs to be accomplished next. Sometimes, of course, I write down what needs to happen in the future. I keep an 8.5" x 5.5" spiral notebook for each book, and some pages are flagged and highlighted as I go along, knowing I will have to backtrack to some of my comments.

While plotting causes me to break out in hives (kidding, it isn't that bad), I love to brainstorm. To me that is something different. I love getting the ideas flowing. Any idea. All ideas. Never saying, "No, that won't work," but saying, "Why would that work?" or "How could that work?" Once or twice a year, I get together with other Christian authors to brainstorm books. I get as much out of brainstorming their books as I do out of brainstorming my own. I get inspired and excited about writing.

Sad to say, I've had to brainstorm many projects on my own as I can't always fly off to meet with other writers. But now, thanks to a recommendation from fellow novelist James Scott Bell, I found a software program that works for me, the intuitive writer, as well as for those writers who are more analytical. I've tried other writing software programs through the years, and they've gone unused. They didn't "think" the way I do.

Enter Inspiration 8. I've used it now on two projects, and I highly recommend it as a way to get the juices flowing. Drop over to the Inspiration 8 web site at and check out their free trial version. You just might find you like it, too.


Robin Lee Hatcher is now brainstorming her next book and praying all that intuitive stuff pays off in the end. Look for her 50th release, A Carol for Christmas, in bookstores now. For more information, visit her web site at and her blog at

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Happy Thanksgiving

From all of us at Charis Connection
to all of you and yours--

Have a safe and healthy, happy Thanksgiving Day!

JK: Took'er Books

I learned a new word this week and decided it described a kind of book I didn’t write. An English woman told me she’d begun reading my latest, A Clearing in the Wild, about a woman who travels with nine male scouts from Missouri to the Northwest to find a site for their religious colony in 1853. It’s based on a true story and so far, it’s been well-received.

Anyway, this lovely English woman with her 7-Up accent (English accents just bubble in my mind) said that her husband told her she probably wouldn’t like my book because it wasn’t a “took’er” book.
“Took’er book?” I asked. “I’m not sure what that is.”

“Oh, you know, when the author writes, ‘He took ‘er into his arms, or the bedroom or wherever and I get to imagine all these titillating things going on.”

“Ah, a ‘took her’ book….” I said. “And you’re probably right. Mine aren’t because I have this agreement with my characters, that I won’t reveal any of their sexual idiosyncrasies and then they won’t reveal any of mine!”

“But he was wrong!” She added. “I do love this book and even went into the living room to read it because he has lights out at 11:00 PM and I wasn’t ready for lights out.”

I’m quite sure their marriage would make an interesting essay.

I digress. The good news was that one can write a compelling story without the “took’er book” scenes. But we’ve known that for a long time, haven’t we Christian writers? That’s not to suggest there is no romance, for there is in a good novel. But the romance doesn’t have to include gynecological scenes in order to whet a person’s appetite for passion. It just needs to include feeling deeply and that’s something we want all our characters to experience and our readers too. I also think it takes more work as a writer to create that sense of deep devotion, of romance, of moments when our breaths are taken away with the suggestion of the sheer joy of passion WITHOUT the use of gynecology. That’s when language truly is our paintbrush and the imagination our pallet.

Still, ‘took’er book keeps ringing in my ears…not so much what it means but just the word itself. It made my day even if I don’t write them!

Jane Kirkpatrick does write award-winning books, though. You can read about them on her website

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

JSB: An Invective Against Mere Fiction

Some writer friends and I were recently discussing the merits of Moby-Dick. I and another intrepid soul extolled the virtues of Melville's classic. It is the great American novel. The language is like the ocean itself, the highs and lows and storms and calms. (One of the other writers thought this sounded more like a Harlequin romance scene than a description of the book).
Anyway, comparing Moby-Dick to today's fiction is sort of like comparing the Empire State Building to the Dunkin' Donuts franchise. There's a lot of the latter, but only one of the former. And you only have to look at them to know there's no comparison.

It turns out that the loudest howls of protest came from those who had been forced to read Moby-Dick in school. Not many kids are ready for the great book. I can just see some harried juvenile back then, wanting to watch The Dukes of Hazard, but having to get to Moby-Dick instead. His mom sends him to his room as he kicks and screams, and he puts on the Stones and tries to read this novel.

He's a goner. No way he's going to like it. And that first, awkward introduction may shape his relationship with the book that lasts a lifetime.

Too bad. I was lucky to read Moby-Dick after college, because I wanted to. And loved it. (As an aside, if you do decide to give the book a try, or another try, be sure to pick up a version with illustrations by Rockwell Kent. They are the perfect meeting of artist and novel.)

I do think there is one point the critics and supporters of Moby-Dick can agree upon, and that is this: Melville can never be accused of writing mere fiction. He was going for it. In sports parlance, he was leaving it all out there on the floor. He could have made a good living writing penny dreadfuls, but he was after more than a living. He was pursuing a vision. He was about that elusive dream of literature as apotheosis. God love him.

By the way, that term mere fiction, and the title of this piece, come from an essay by the late John Gardner, a great novelist in his own right, but also a teacher and essayist. I like the title, because there is too little time for anyone to be writing mere fiction.

I had to laugh, then, when, a couple of days after what is now called The Great Moby Dustup, I picked up my new copy of Salem's Lot by Stephen King. I'd read it years ago, but my son got me a new, illustrated, hardback edition for Christmas last year. And it has a new introduction by the author.

At this point in his career, King was still an unpublished novelist. Carrie had yet to come out. But he had this vision for a vampire book that was breathtaking in its grandiosity, especially for a twenty-three year old unpublished novelist. He wanted to combine, he says, the vampire myth of Bran Stoker's Dracula with the "naturalistic fiction of Frank Norris and the EC horror comics I'd loved as a child….Did I really think I could combine Dracula and Tales from the Crypt and come out with Moby-Dick? I did. I really did….Was I daunted by the fact that Moby-Dick only sold about twelve copies in Melville's lifetime? Not I; one of my ideas was that a novelist takes the long view, the lofty view, and that does not include the price of eggs. (My wife would not have agreed, and I doubt if Mrs. Melville would have, either.)"

Well bravo for King. And Melville. No mere fiction for these two. And look! Melville, forgotten in his lifetime, is still talked about today and taught in college courses. King himself is taught right now, and has sold considerably more than twelve copies.

Which is to say, go for it. As a writer, may your reach exceed your grasp. Don't ever settle for mere fiction. You have a voice and a vision and we need to see it on the page.
Do not be timid or afraid. Have a little of the 23-year-old Stephen King 'tude. You won't fail. As the old advertising man Leo Burnett once said, "If you reach for the stars you may not quite get one, but you won't get a handful of mud, either."

And now I give you the opening of Moby-Dick. If you think you can top this, friend, then go ahead and do it. I'll blog about you next:

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago - never mind how long precisely - having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin
warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street and methodically knocking people's hats off - then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.

James Scott Bell's website is

Monday, November 20, 2006

BC: Bring On the Big Ones

I have this continuing problem when I write. (Well, actually, I have quite a few.) This one has to do with using “big” words. I love them. Bring on a chimera, the lares and penates, the halcyon days and effluvium and macedoine. Show your characters to be bathetic or benefic, uxorial or oneiric, full of duende, or homunculus.

So readers need a dictionary with the book. So what?

However, editors don’t seem to share this viewpoint. If an editor thinks most readers won’t know what the word means, or (heaven forbid!) doesn’t know the word herself—aayyo, bring on the red pen!

Over the novels I’ve written, I’ve gone back and forth on this issue. First, in my naive beginnings, I used all the “big” words I wanted because, well, the authors I read used ’em. Result—the editorial red pens came out. So I caved. Next book—I tried not to use big words. Book after that—I tried a second time. More editorial pens. So next book—I went a little lighter on the words again. Back and forth, back and forth.

“Big” is a relative term anyway. Does it mean a certain number of syllables? If so, supercalifragilisticexpialidocious would certainly be considered a big word. But everybody knows that word. (Don’t you? Suddenly, I’m wondering about you young ’uns.) Or does “big” mean not number of syllables, but whether most people would know the meaning? Take nidus, for instance. Only two syllables. But how many readers would know what it means? (A breeding place; a place where ideas originate—usually negative connotation. Now isn't that a dynamite word!).

Perhaps we should use the term “unusual.”

I don’t want to use unusual words for the sake of unusual words. I want to use them because they happen to be the perfect word for the circumstance. Or perhaps I’ve used all the synonyms and don’t want to repeat. Still, I compromise and try to use only a few unusual words per book. Figure maybe that’ll keep me under the Big E’s red pen radar.

Editors aren’t the only ones who give me grief over this issue. My own family can be pretty doggone hard on me as well. There was one phrase in Color the Sidewalk for Me (back in the day when I wasn’t killing people off with every book) that made it past the Big E, but sure set my mother off when she read the manuscript. Upon returning to her home town just as dark is falling, the main character is gazing upon it from a distant hill: "The buildings and machinery of the lumber mill built by my great-grandfather jutted into the sky above the riverbank, boldly silent against a scrim of nascent stars."

Mom frowned at me. "What on earth is a scrim of nascent stars?"

"Oh, you know. When the stars are just coming out, and they're not fully formed yet, 'cause the sky's still half-dark and half-light."

"Well, why didn't you say so?"

"Um. I did."

"No, you didn't; you said 'scrim.' What'd you say 'scrim' for?"

"Because"--I was sinking lower and lower in my chair at this point--"I sort of wanted to sound lyrical and, uh, poetical, and, well, you know."

"Well, what you sounded is misunderstandable. Nix it."

Naturally, being the independent soul that I am, I left the phrase in.

I figure if a word can pretty much be understood in the context, what’s the big deal? So a reader’s eye snags on a word? This never bothers me when I’m reading. Quite the contrary. I’ll think, oh, cool, new word and run for the dictionary.

What say you?

~ Brandilyn Collins writes Seatbelt Suspense™ for Zondervan. She is hoping she's able to remain a contributor to Charis after this post, seein' as how the Big E is a fellow Charisite.;

Friday, November 17, 2006

DR: Friendly Fire

It’s a chilly, windy day here in Kansas and I have a nasty cold, so if I sound a bit testy in this post, I apologize in advance. I didn’t much feel like writing, so after logging about 600 of the1500 words per day I need to make my deadline, I took my laptop and a cup of chai to the cozy chair in front of the fireplace and allowed myself a few hours to mindlessly surf the net.

I caught up on the blogs I normally read, explored a few new ones, and somewhere along the way, I ventured onto a thread about Christian fiction. I was immediately interested, since that’s what I write. But the deeper I dug, the more my discoveries irritated me, then made me fume, and finally, left me deeply disturbed and saddened.

I’m accustomed to hearing criticism from the secular world. I—along with many fellow Christian novelists—have had more than one review from secular sources that include variations on the “compelling story, marred by a poignant, but all-too-expected conversion scene” theme. I learned several books ago to let that roll off my back. The mail I get from readers whose hearts were touched or whose lives were set on a different course by the very scene a reviewer mentioned with derision is enough to keep me writing with confidence.

I’ve been in on discussions with aspiring writers who want to “push the envelope,” or “write edgy,” and usually it’s been a case of them being unaware of how far that envelope has already been pushed. Or they have a difference of opinion about the definition of “edgy” or about whether Christian fiction is best served by becoming more edgy.

I’ve seen portents here and there, passing complaints about the dearth of quality in Christian fiction. Usually those naysayers read one of Janette Oke’s prairie romances back in the seventies, maybe a Frank Peretti or two in the eighties and nineties, and the first Left Behind book, and forever after judge all of Christian fiction by those titles. (For the record, I’ve read at least four titles each from those authors, and found entertainment and spiritual value in each one.) A Publishers Weekly writer in an article announcing the National Book Awards, spoke of “the trend of paying homage to the old writing that makes new writing possible.” Whatever one thinks of early Christian fiction, these writers (and the brave editors who acquired them) forged new territory and made my job viable, and I honor them for that.

But—and forgive me if I’m coming late to the party—I had not realized how much criticism of Christian fiction is being leveled from within our own ranks. Constructive dialogue about how we can improve our craft is always healthy, but what I read on post after post, comment after comment, left me feeling as if I’d been gunned down by friendly fire. And sadly, most of it seemed to come from a root of arrogance, a belief that for the sake of Christianity’s reputation, only highly intelligent people should be writing, and that they should be writing only for other highly intelligent people. And maybe, just maybe, their erudite offerings will manage to pull a few of the masses of stupid, lazy readers up a bit closer to their level.

Well, I’m no dummy, but neither do I have any illusions about belonging to the intelligentsia. In spite of the fact that I’ve slogged my way through dozens of books on the craft of writing and have made an attempt (not very successful, I’m afraid) to read Pulitzer and National Book Award writers in an effort to understand and maybe emulate what the literary world deems excellent, I always come back to the truth that the voice God has given me (dare I say gifted me with?) is not a literary voice. It is a very common and simple voice. And I’m honored that it has struck a chord with a few readers—common and simple though they must be to have found value in my bourgeois offerings. (I’m kidding, of course! I love my readers!)

It’s become a clichéd comparison, but truth—however oft repeated, does not change—and I can’t help but think of Jesus’ parables. Some were metaphorical and deeply symbolic, told with a let-him-who-has-ears-hear attitude. Others, the Savior saw fit to tell in simple, everyday terms, and then retell, explaining the meaning to his listeners. Is it possible that he’s called storytellers of this century to likewise reach out to people across spectrums of intellect, lifestyle, spiritual maturity, socio-economic status and a host of other attributes that make us uniquely different from one another? After all, it is God who bestows the talent. Could it be that He has distributed to each author the style and voice that will reach the particular audience He has in mind?

1 Corinthians 1: 19-21, 25-31 For it is written: "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate." Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.

For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength. Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: "Let him who boasts boast in the Lord."

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

Thursday, November 16, 2006

AH: What Is Christian Fiction, part II

Continued from yesterday--Angela Hunt's presentation at the Dover Book Festival:

My friend Karen Kingsbury once told me a story about her children, Kelsey and Tyler. One Sunday their family was on their way home from church, where they’d just heard a rip-snorting sermon on heaven and hell. “Where do you want to go?” Six-year-old Kelsey badgered three-year-old Tyler. “You have to make up your mind, Tyler. Heaven or hell, where do you want to go?”

Tyler pulled out his pacifier, blinked at his sister, and said: “Disneyland.”

As you might expect, some Christian fiction deals with issues of eternal destiny. Other novels are more concerned with entertainment. But all of them contain a spiritual thread that runs throughout the book and assures the reader that he and his decisions matter to God. We are created beings and our lives have purpose. We who are lost can be found; we who are defeated can claim Christ’s victory.

Perhaps the most unique thing about inspirational fiction is its authors’ motivation. I have been privileged to count many Christian novelists among my best friends, and though many of us consider writing our full-time work, we’re striving for more than a royalty check or a place on the best seller list. We’re not trying to save the world, preach a sermon, or browbeat anyone into submission. We are working to be great story tellers so the light in our stories can shine into the hearts, minds, and souls of readers.

Scripture is filled with stories that changed men’s hearts. Nathan told David a story about a man and his pet lamb . . . and the Spirit of God brought David’s hidden acts of murder and adultery into the open. Jesus told stories about a prodigal son . . . and a wayward sheep that sent a shepherd into the night on a desperate search.

As I considered what I might say today, for about five seconds I thought about reading from one of my books—isn’t that what authors are supposed to do?--but rather than attempt to impress you with my prose, I’d like to demonstrate the power of Christian fiction by letting you peek at some comments from my online guestbook.

From Joel: Although my wife has read several of your books, I must admit until yesterday, your name was one I knew as just another Christian author. Then I picked up Magdalene from the sofa where Vickie had left it and started reading. I finished it tonight and it so moved me that I felt I had to respond. Although I have been a Christian for over fifty years, I, as Mary M., have held onto things that should have long ago been released. It is reassuring to know that someone who had a direct relationship with our savior and LORD might still have had things to work out. Thank you.
From Nicole: Uncharted was indeed unexpected. Usually upon completing one of your books, I get warm and fuzzies, am entertained for a few hours and am encouraged in the moral lessons you write about. This time however, I was challenged deeply. I don't usually allow myself to read anything, Christian or not, that details any crimes involving murder, but I was so invested in the others' lives. I didn't figure out the end until you revealed it but it really hit me as tragic. . . . I was disturbed and revolted by Mark's secret life, but the other characters' lives didn't disturb me. But I was judging through my worldly views. Through your book, God spoke to me . . . . My thought life is just as evil as Mark's sin. . . . Thanks for being brave enough to tell the truth.

From Trish: I recently read The Novelist and it has drastically changed mine and my family's lives. All through the book I was surprised at how similar my husband and I were to the novelist and her husband. Their thoughts, feelings, and prayers were at times verbatim to ours. When I reached the end of the book I was dumbfounded, their son was not on drugs, but bipolar. I sat and stared at the pages for a long time and then started to cry. I then went to a website for bipolar kids and there were my two children. We had been searching for an answer to their erratic behaviors for three years. I am so grateful you allowed God to use you to write a story that literally changed our lives. Our two children have been officially diagnosed and are on meds. Our lives have finally become somewhat peaceful for the first time since we adopted them. With tears in my eyes, I pray you know the depths of gratitude we feel.

And that, friends, is what Christian novels do. These replicas may be made of paper and glue instead of bronze and marble, but the light they reflect can shine into the dark places of men’s souls, bringing hope and comfort while they change lives.

Angela Hunt is hard at work on two projects this month, one novel and one nonfiction book. Look for The Nativity Story in your bookstore and in your movie theater!

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

AH: What is Christian Fiction, part I

Angela Hunt was recently invited to speak at the Dover Book Festival in Dover, Delaware. This is the first part of her presentation.

Since you'll be hearing from several authors about process and procedure, I thought I'd talk about Christian fiction, faith fiction, inspirational fiction, or whatever term you'd like to use. I’ve written over 100 books for this market, of which seventy-something are novels for children and adults, so I have looked forward to this opportunity to explore this genre with you. Until a few years ago, inspirational fiction was only available in Christian bookstores, but today you can find it at Wal-Mart, in airport book shops, and even at your Barnes and Noble. It’s being read by all sorts of people, many of whom don’t consider themselves evangelical Christians.

I recently found a review of my book, The Novelist, in an online blog. Someone named “Dy” wrote: “As an agnostic I expected to be turned off . . . when I realized, early on, that [the book] was going to take a strong Christian bent. I was pleasantly surprised at the authors' (both Ms Hunt & her protag) ability to express their faith in their Faith without driving me off. Overall, it was okay, not great, but I give it kudos for not putting off this agnostic.”

Despite the disparaging tone of that last line, I consider Dy’s comment high praise because it disproves the commonly-held assumption that faith fiction is "preachy."

What is Christian fiction? Is it a book in which the protagonist is a Bible-thumping, bellicose preacher? One where the characters were robes and travel on donkeys? Or one where the main characters are engaged in constant war against the antichrist?

When I say the words “Christian fiction,” some of you may immediately think of prairie women in bonnets or red-eyed demons lurking in shadows, eager to possess the unwary. You may assume that all the characters go to church, pray three times a day, and quote scripture in dialogue. You may have heard that all Christian fiction has to be “safe” for even a child’s consumption.

You’ve heard wrong.

I recently read this description of my chosen genre: “Evangelical fiction has become a genre unto itself, with conventions of its own. One-dimensional characters contend against one-dimensional villains. The style is preachy. The theme is moralistic. The plot is characterized by implausible divine intervention. While the convention demands a conversion, the characters are never allowed to do anything very sinful, or, if they do, the author is not allowed to show it. At the end, all problems are solved and everyone lives happily ever after. It is all sweetness, light, uplift, and cliché.”

I don’t know what that reviewer has been reading, but it’s not the fiction I read—or write. God never solves the problems in my novels—which seems rather unfair to him—because as a beginning writer I learned to avoid deus ex machina. Likewise, in my early years I learned to avoid one-dimensional characters and shallow problems. My protagonists don’t always meet their goals, and some of my endings are far from sweet.

Are the conflicts in inspirational novels of the “what color shall we paint the vestibule” variety? Not hardly. I’m active in a group of multi-published Christian novelists who recently compiled a list of some of the issues we’ve addressed in our novels. The list includes abortion, alcoholism, drug abuse, cancer, domestic violence, homosexuality, AIDS, infertility, infidelity, divorce, mental illness, suicide, pornography, unplanned pregnancy, rape, incest, sexual abuse, sexuality, racism, and loss. Whatever affects humankind can affect our characters.

So . . . what is Christian fiction? Let me offer an analogy:

The leaders of a small town wished to honor one of its fallen heroes, so they commissioned a life-sized statue of the man. But the statue seemed unimposing, so they set it on a marble base, not realizing that the base was so tall few people could see the statue from street level. Realizing their mistake, the town fathers called the sculptor and asked him to create a replica of the statue—a bronze miniature they could mount at eye level.

That’s what Christian fiction is: a novel that presents a spiritual truth, one a reader can experience at eye level. Christian fiction recognizes that readers are not bipartite, composed only of hearts and minds. We are tripartite, with hearts, minds, and souls. By sharing in the experiences of the characters, our readers are moved emotionally, they learn new truths, and their spirits, if they are open, are enriched by the experience.

Those who read inspirational fiction want what all readers want—good writing. Fascinating stories. Surprising plots. Believable characters. Multi-dimensional antagonists. Accurate details. Unique settings. And a spiritual element that is woven into the fabric of the story, not tacked on like the tail of a cardboard donkey.

There are now so many genres of faith fiction that I doubt I can list them all. If you visit the religion section of your local Barnes and Noble—if you can’t find it, look back by the restrooms--you’ll find novels that could easily be shelved in sections reserved for romance, historical novels, mystery, suspense, science fiction, fantasy, and women’s fiction. Those categories have sub-categories, and those are multiplying every month.

To be continued tomorrow.

Angela Hunt lives and writes in Florida. Latest release: The Nativity Story.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

AG: Six Little Words

Last night I snuggled down in my easy chair and opened the latest issue of Wired. This issue of the technology magazine included a section of short, short, I-mean-really short stories penned by some well-known authors. These tales are so compact they contain six and only six words.

Imagine that, a story with only six words. At first, I thought it was impossible but as I read these tidbit of fiction I became a believer. Here are a few examples form the article.
From Orson Scott Card came this little narrative: “The baby’s blood type? Mostly human.” Wow, that conjures up a few images.
From the comic book genius Stan Lee (giver of Spiderman, the Hulk, and X-Men): “Automobile warranty expires. So does engine.” I assume he was having a bad week.
Ben Bova the science fiction writer entered this: “To save humankind he died again.” I wonder who the “he” is he has in mind.
In the face of such creativity, I felt challenged to try my hand at it. “Ingested the nightly news. Indigestion. Sleep.”
Something more spiritual: “Three crosses; two thieves; one sacrifice.”
How about, “Recovered self—God’s Lost and Found.” Hmm, sounds like a book title.
All of this reminds me of the power of words. As someone who routinely produces book length work, I tend to think in tens-of-thousands of words. In school, I complained about the unfair burden of producing a five-page paper. Now, I throw that much away.
Short phrases have always made a difference. Think about, “I do” or “It’s a boy.” Sometimes the context gives the words meaning. Imagine a husband and wife lying in bed and almost asleep. “Do you smell smoke?” means something ominous. (Hey, there’s another one, “Bed. Drifting. ‘Do you smell smoke?’”) Maybe that’s why many novelist enjoy the occasional sentence fragment.
Okay, your turn. Can you write a six-word story? Choose from any genre: horror, sci fi, romance, suspense, chick lit, whatever. I look forward to reading them.
Alton Gansky creates novels with many words from his home in California. Visit his web site at

Monday, November 13, 2006

RLH: From the Deep Places

Recently, I attended the Women of Faith Contagious Joy Conference in Portland, OR. It was a wonderful experience for me, the first time I've been able to attend one of these events. There's nothing quite like worshiping God with 15,000 other women of faith, and the speakers all had powerful things to say.

Why powerful? Because they spoke from places of personal experience and deep pain. These women haven't lived candy-coated lives. Patsy Clairmont suffered for years with agoraphobia. Marilyn Meberg lost a child and a husband and battled a life-threatening illness. Sheila Walsh one day discovered herself in a mental hospital, battling depression and contemplating suicide. Thelma Wells was locked in a dark closet much of her childhood. Sandi Patty experienced a very public fall from grace. Robin McGraw is an adult child of an alcoholic who gambled away the very bed she slept in. Carol Kent's world was shattered when her only child was accused and convicted of first degree murder.

Soon after my first CBA novel, The Forgiving Hour (a story that deals with adultery and forgiveness), was released in 1999, I paid a personal visit to my publisher. One of the sales representatives made a comment that he thought the story rang so true because I'd experienced that particular betrayal (twenty-five years earlier). I remember saying something to the affect of, "If I have to personally experience every story the way I did this one, it'll kill me."

I'm not dead yet, but I have found myself mining those deep places of personal experience in the books I've had released since The Forgiving Hour. How can a writer do otherwise? No matter the subject matter of the novel I'm writing, the lessons God has taught me and is teaching me find their way into the fabric of my stories. They can't help it, and neither can I.
Of course, some novels come from deeper, more painful places than others.

During the past year and a half, I experienced a difficult loss. One day last summer, I was talking on the phone with my pastor's wife and she said, "I hope you'll write a novel about this. There are so many other women who need to know they aren't alone.? Three months later, I was at a church potluck, and a woman said to me, "Well, there's a book in this for me to read."

Both times I laughed and said, "Yes. It'll probably become a book."

It won't become a novel because it has been easy to live through or will be easy to revisit those deep places of personal pain. It will become a novel because this is what God has called me to do. He wants me to write about life. Real life. Real faith. Those hardships and losses and hurts I've experienced are the same things that countless other women have experienced. Through the power of fiction, I can invite readers into my heart, into the truths I've learned, into the hope that Christ has given me.

I came away from Women of Faith encouraged, my heart lighter. I witnessed what beautiful things God can do with cracked and broken vessels. I want Him to turn everything in my life-- even those dark and painful things, even those cracked and broken places-- to good because I love Him and am called according to His purposes. Then I want Him to use those things to lift and encourage others.

"Two people can accomplish more than twice as much as one; they get a better return for their labor. If one person falls, the other can reach out and help. But people who are alone when they fall are in real trouble. And on a cold night, two under the same blanket can gain warmth from each other. But how can one be warm alone? A person standing alone can be attacked and defeated, but two can stand back-to-back and conquer. Three are even better, for a triple-braided cord is not easily broken." (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12)

As a novelist, I want to be one strand in that triple-braided cord of a reader's life. I do that by mining the deep places of my heart.

Robin Lee Hatcher's 50th release is A Carol for Christmas, available now from Zondervan. For more information, visit her web site at and her blog at

Friday, November 10, 2006

The POV Experiment: The Cupboard, by James Scott Bell

The eyes.

They're always there. Looking. Longing. It tears into the very grain of my soul, the knotty fabric of my spirit.

I plead and plead, never again. Voiceless, I can only send out the thought: Don't do it! But then those cold, shriveled fingers slip through my handles, and the nightmare begins again.

I am opened and the eyes look up. Between those strange ears. Expectant. As if I am the repository of all sustenance and pleasure! The place where tasty dreams come true! A treasure trove for mouth and tongue.

How can I possibly be all that when the old biddy keeps forgetting to put any bones in me? I can't take it, I tell you! Somebody stop her!

When I was a tree I made the acquaintance of many dogs. Oh yes. But at least I served a purpose then. I found them innocent, these canines, doing only what God designed them to do.

It was the hands holding the leashes, or standing far off, who bear the shame! The way they talk to these creatures, as if they owned them!

Wasn't it Pascal who suggested that man is a reed, but a thinking reed? I wonder if Pascal had a dog. If he did, I would suggest--

She approaches! Look at her! Oh so innocent and sweet! Like a termite on steroids sweet! Like Dutch Elm disease sweet!

Yo, Lady! Hello! You didn't put anything in here! So how do you expect to get anything out? What is wrong with you? A pinecone has more sense! A knot hole more brainpower!

Quit bringing the dog in here and filling it with false hopes!

Vile crone!

Now look at her. She's turning to the dog with a sad smile and a shrug. The dog cocks its head, then its eyes come back to me.

To me!

Oh, the sadness of all creation is in those eyes! And I die a little. My sides begin to warp. Glue chafes my skin. My nail holes become stigmata.

I am my own cross!

She closes my doors and now I am alone.

What was it Nietzsche suggested? That if you gaze for too long into an abyss, the abyss gazes into you?

He should have been a cupboard. He would have gone insane a lot faster.

Alas, unless I am filled I cannot give. That is the nature and destiny of cupboards and man.

Fill me, I say! And then I can live out that rule of gold. For wasn't it Jesus who said Do unto others as you wood have others do unto you?

James Scott Bell is a lawyer-turned-novelist. Check out his books at .

Thursday, November 09, 2006

The POV Experiment: The Doggie, by Jack Cavanaugh

POV Exercise
Old Mother Hubbard — Dog’s Point of View

Flea! Flea! Scratch it! Back leg in motion. Get it…get it…over…over…over… There! There! Right there! Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

Sniff. Kitchen rug warm. Big sigh. Lick chops. Lay down. Wait. Soon. Soon?

Footsteps! Coming! She’s coming! Tail thumping. Happy.
It’s her! Female with three chins. Like her. Like her.
Follow slipper shuffle across the floor. Is she…?

Cupboard! Cupboard! Yes! Bone cupboard! Happy dog! Happy dog! Tail wagging happy. Good female. Good female. Like her.

What? No bone? Cupboard bare? Sad dog. Sad dog.

Oh…female’s chins quiver! All three of them. Eyes wet. She’s sad.
Don’t be sad three chins. Makes me sad. Tail still. Sad still.

Female pats head. Nuzzle her leg.
Don’t cry. Please don’t cry.
Lick her hand. Better now? Feel better?

Jack Cavanaugh writes all sorts of novels from his home in California.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The POV Experiment: Father Hubbard, by Lisa Samson

I once loved her in such tender completion, but forty years later, her voice scrapes down my Eustachian tubes like a rusty fork on a pilled sweater.

"Hezekiah! Hezekiah Hubbard!"

What now? Five minutes ago she yelled up the steps, asking if I'd remembered to get trash bags at Costco.

No. I hadn't.

Next--the 80 pound bucket of dog food.

Of course, I'd forgotten that too. Not that she'd written it on the list. Oh, no. The woman expected me to her mind. For forty years I've said, "I'm no mind reader, Mother," and for forty years she continues to get mad at me for not filling a role I ever once said I could.

"What is it, Mother?"I set my toothbrush, bristles facing the door, please, into the holder.

"Did you remember the Milk Bones?"

"Was it on the list?"

Oh, I could picture her, those skinny lips puckering inside more wrinkles than found in one of Al Gansky's plot lines.

"So I suppose it's my fault now, Hezekiah? Why must I always be the one worried about the dog's needs?"

Might as well go down. Sooner than any man married to a woman called Old Mother would like, I stood with her in front of the gaping cupboard.

"Look it, Hezekiah. Empty." She crossed her arms. "Would it kill you, even once, to look and see how much food the poor dog has?"

It might. Then I'd have to come into the kitchen, Old Mother's domain, more than I'd like because it would become my responsibility from thence point even forevermore. I couldn't suppress the smile.

"You think this is funny? Fine then, the dog can starve for all I care." She stomped out of the kitchen.

The dog sat at my feet, tongue hanging out, tail wagging.

I reached for the leash on the hook near the door. "Come on, boy. I've got steaks hidden in the freezer in the garage. Let's go to the park and have us a cookout."

Lisa Samson's latest, Straight Up, is winning rave reviews all over the blogosphere. Visit

The POV Experiment: Mother Hubbard, by Tom Morrisey

Charis Connection welcomes Tom Morrisey to our roster of contributors!

Consistency and continuity, they say, are the twin keys to success when dealing with children or dogs. So here I am, Ralphie's wet nose against the back of my calf, his tail beating a happy tympanic crescendo against the kitchen trashcan, and I am opening what I know to be an empty cupboard. For that I blame Dan Hubbard.

I remember that slick con-man, gazing into my eyes, making all of those promises--to love and honor, to be with me always in sickness or in health, whether richer or poorer. One glance in the mirror should have been enough to give me a warning: he was a dish and I was a dishrag. Even a five-year old knows that Ken does not leave Barbie to take up with Ugly Betty. And everyone in town knew that my parents had left me that Microsoft stock. I've always been so good at math; why couldn't I put two and two together?

It took a decade for him to burn through all that cash, but he finally did it. So here we are, no Dan, no money, no food. Just me and Ralphie. And three o'clock is treat time, and has been since he was a puppy. So I open the door and feign surprise when I find no box.

"Oh, no," I tell him to his moppet, furry face. "Cookie all gone."

He cocks his head, looks at the cupboard, looks back at me and licks my cheek. It's an inducement, I know he's hoping I will take him to wherever the dog treats went. But only Dan Hubbard knows where that might be. And I haven't seen Dan Hubbard for weeks.

Tom Morrisey is the author of Deep Blue and Dark Fathom. His next book, In High Places, will be released by Bethany in March, 2007. Check out his books at

Monday, November 06, 2006

The POV Experiment

The intrepid writers at Charis Connection have stepped up to tackle another grand and slightly wacky experiment. To illustrate the uses of POV (point of view), we have assigned the willing volunteers a poem . . . and a corresponding point of view.

The poem? A classic:

Old Mother Hubbard
Went to the cupboard
To fetch her poor doggie a bone.
But when she got there
The cupboard was bare--
And so the poor doggie had none.

Throughout the rest of this week we will hear this episode reenatcted by

  • Mother Hubbard

  • Father Hubbard

  • The doggie and

  • The cupboard

Should be fun! So stay tuned!

Friday, November 03, 2006

JC: Confessions of a Polymath

Confession time. My name is Jack and I’m a polymath.

Now I know what you’re thinking:

1) Poor Jack.
2) There, but for the grace of God, go I.
3) What’s a polymath?

Confession number two. I had to look up the word polymath in a dictionary to find out that I am one.

Contrary to how the word sounds, polymathism is not some form of mental disorder in which a person is afflicted with a preponderance of algebraic equations.

So, what is a polymath? Let me see if I can describe it in layman’s terms.

A polymath is a person who gets emotional about reading an encyclopedia. A polymath is a person who sneaks to Blockbuster late at night so his neighbors won’t discover that he’s the one who rents the documentaries. A polymath is a person who rewards himself at the end of a hard day by watching a college lecture on videotape.

A polymath is a person who is addicted to reading the spines of books. He’s drawn to them like a two-year-old to electrical outlets. Now I’m not talking about your garden variety reading of book spines in a bookstore or library. A polymath reads the book spines on a shelf behind a friend in the middle of a conversation. He reads the spines of books in the background of magazine photos and on the pull-down backdrop at the portrait shop at Walmart.

Don’t snigger. It’s nothing to laugh about. Polymathism is a social disease. As soon as your friends find out you are one, your social life dies. Let’s face it. No one will every make a reality show featuring polymaths.

And right about now some of you who are closet polymaths (you know who you are) are blocking the computer screen because you’re afraid someone in your family will see what you’re reading and say, “Hey Mom! He’s writing about you!”

Being a polymath writer is both blessing and curse. For the polymath researching a novel is fun. That’s the blessing. For the polymath, researching a novel is too much fun. That’s the curse. Too many rabbits to chase. Once while googling zeppelins for a World War I novel I lost the better part of a day following links to the rock group Led Zeppelin.

I know what you’re thinking. It’s a sickness.

I once read a tragic story about a polymath who was carted off to the loony bin. They found him frozen in front of his computer muttering, “Just one more link. Just one more link.” I know how he feels. For the polymath, saying “No” to just one more book, one more paragraph, one more fact, one more link is like saying “No” to a second helping of lasagna and ribs (Uh-oh. I just confessed to another addiction, didn’t I?)

Many people equate polymaths with geniuses. A natural mistake. But just because a polymath consumes copious amounts of information doesn’t mean he retains it (unlike the lasagna and ribs). Take me for example. My mind holds facts as effectively as my hands cup water. If Mensa were ever to give me an award, it would be for forgetting more information than the average PhD learns in a lifetime. Hardly the stuff of legend.

What does all this have to do with writing? Two things.

First, a word of advice to fellow polymaths. Researching is not writing. While it may seem important to research the perfect typographer’s font for your story, unless you’re putting words on paper, you’re not writing. Establish a realistic word count and force yourself to write every day.

Second, while some of you may not be polymaths (and until now you didn’t even know polymaths exist, but now that you know you’d willing sign a petition making it a law to register polymaths and track them on a web site so that you can identify all the polymaths on your block and warn your children to stay away from them), if you have any storyteller blood in your veins, by now you’re thinking, “Hmm. I’ll bet a polymath would make an interesting quirky character in my next novel.” And you’d be right.

Bonus tip: Like researching, reading blogs about writing is not writing. Go write something.

--Jack Cavanaugh, with Dr. Bill Bright, the author of Proof

Thursday, November 02, 2006

AD: Bobos in Christian Fictionland

Recently I witnessed an exchange between several published Christian novelists concerning the word, “fart.” Seriously. At first the question was simply whether it would cause an uproar among the core CBA readership (which it might, unfortunately), but as the discussion progressed there was a subtle shift in focus. Some began to wonder if we might need to risk offending the delicate sensitivities of the stereotypical “church lady” in favor of reaching out to a broader audience with more “gritty” fiction that is “edgy” and “pushes the envelope.”

How I wish I was making this stuff up!

It put me in mind of an excellent article by Wilfred McClay in the October 2006 Touchstone about "bobos," an amusing term David Brooks invented for "bourgeois bohemians." You know who they are: the folks who live in 5,000 square foot houses with air conditioned walk-in closets filled with Birkenstocks and sweaters handcrafted by impoverished indigenous people using genuine free-range alpaca wool. Bobos are those bravely counter-cultural martyrs who recycle $50 bottles of wine and pay the price of ten full tanks of gasoline to have their $40,000 hybrid car detailed.

In the piece, McClay writes: "Not so long ago the quest for liberation from social convention carried certain perils. But now we have made that quest into a new social convention in its own right, with its own canons of respectability, such as the routine celebration of books...solely on the grounds that they are "troubling" or "transgressive," qualities now deemed to be peculiarly meritorious in and of themselves, quite apart from their specific content." If I may sum this up in terms a Christian artist should understand: think about starting out to create a “profoundly religious work” and ending up with "Piss Christ."

When I hear Christian novelists and editors talking about using a little profanity here and there in the name of “cultural relevance” I begin to wonder if some of us are suffering from the early stages of this same ridiculous condition. Oh, how brave the vanguard of the march of progress! Let us not allow bourgeois convention to restrain our message! Let us pay the price of relevance and all type “fart” together! Let us all be bobos!


As I’ve written here before, naughty little words in fiction are usually a sign of lazy, superficial writing. Serious authors know that nine times out of ten there is a deeper, more accurate and more compelling way to get the point across. Still, there is always that one time in ten, so in principle I have no problem with using any word for the right reasons. Church ladies notwithstanding, artistic excellence demands we choose the word that's perfect for the work at hand. But it's not art to use naughty little words as a strategy to appeal to a certain kind of reader. It’s propaganda.

And if I may be so bold, it's not even good propaganda. None of the people for whom we wish to become "edgy" give a fart about the word "fart." (You may substitute any other F-word in that sentence and it remains just as true.) Only someone woefully out of touch with the realities of the fallen world would think they were going to gain any points out there that way. If we want to garner respect in the arena of secular fiction and use that respect as a bully pulpit for the Lord, I say it's a wonderful ambition. But we must do it with the undeniable quality of our writing, and for goodness sake we must demonstrate the difference Christ makes in our lives by doing it without superficial descents to the level of the pagan authors everyone outside is already reading.

To those still unconvinced I say take care you do not set out to create novels that are “relevant,” but end up putting images of Jesus into bottles filled with urine. You cannot compete with a pagan when it comes to being "edgy" without ending up looking exactly like a pagan. And what's the point of that?

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

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

BJH: Do It Your Way

Here at Charis Connection and on other blogs, there's always discussion taking place about the differences in the way writers write. To no one's big surprise, we've discovered that each of us has to take the road that's right for the individual, the road that leads us where we want to go. Some things can be thought of as standard, things that can be assumed: a writer will usually be an avid reader; a writer will--hopefully--want to learn the craft as thoroughly as possible; a writer will spend the necessary time and energy to produce a "finished" product--a manuscript that's as well-written as possible.

Other issues aren't standard and never will be. Some writers seem to work in a firestorm. They write fast. They're prolific. And the quality of their work doesn't suffer from the speed at which they're able to produce. Others (I'm one) don't write fast, indeed can't write fast, even though we sometimes wish we could. It doesn't necessarily follow that slow writers are better writers. We just...write more slowly.

Some writers plot an idea to smithereens. Others don't plot at all. Some plot by outlines and character charts and detailed notes. Others plot through their characters alone--in other words, as their characters develop, so does the plot. Some writers are strong on characterization. Others struggle mightily with bringing their story people to life. Some detest action scenes, while other writers thrive on a plot engine that charges through the story at breakneck speed.

Amid all the differences discussed, however, we've discovered that we share one fundamental quality in common: each of us...all of us...have to write the way that works best for us.

When I first began to write fiction, I experimented with most of the "rules" handed down by "experts"--some of which were included in the writers' guidelines distributed by the publishing houses--about outlining, plotting, characterization, timelines, scene and chapter structure, conflict and resolution, setting, dialogue, theme, style, and voice. I figured if I followed closely the approaches the "experts" took, I'd have to be doing it right. After all, it worked for them.

The problem was that one expert did a 50-page outline or synopsis, another outlined by jotting down a few words for each chapter. One expert couldn't begin to build his setting without staying on-site for at least three months, while another watched a couple of videos and made a few phone calls. One expert did extensive character sheets, so specific he knew what kind of toothpaste his character used and what he usually dreamed about on Saturday night. Others got to know their characters by "living with them" while they vacuumed or took a walk--but never committed anything to paper. One expert said you had to charge through the first draft without ever stopping to catch your breath or look back. Another said she could only move on to a new chapter after carefully editing the one she'd just completed. Some experts said you must write quickly. Others said no, you must write slowly or your work will be sloppy.

Those early attempts at listening to the expert voices in the writing world helped me to realize fairly soon that everyone seemed to have a different idea about what "worked." I also learned that much of what was touted as a sure-fire, 12-step method to writing the novel didn't work for me.

Not that the basic rules don't apply; of course, they do. And the old saying about needing to know the rules so you can break them? Well, some shouldn't be broken. Others beg to be. However, the rules are rules for a reason, and you ignore them to your own folly.

But your writing approach, your way of working--all that goes into making you the writer you are--has to be the method that's best for you. There's some room for change, for experimentation, for trial and error. You can train yourself to be more productive, to learn better work habits, to waste less time. You can build your vocabulary as you go. You can conquer the point-of-view beast. You can delve more deeply into characterization, add more depth and nuance to your scenes, sharpen your dialogue. You most definitely can form the habit of continually improving your craft. But there are some things about the way you work that aren't meant to be changed, and to force change could end up being destructive to your writing.

When it all shakes out, you simply have to be the writer you are, work the way you need to work to do your best, and refuse to be confused or frustrated by the fact that what's effective for fifty other writers on your internet group or the ten members of your critique group isn't effective for you.

That doesn't mean you're going to know all this when you're first starting out. Give yourself the time and patience to find your way, and don't let a few detours discourage you.

BJ Hoff