Tuesday, January 30, 2007

DR: Joy in the Journey

Recently, I was asked in an interview: What one thing would you like to share with up-and-coming writers that they may not even know to ask yet? I’m glad it was an e-mail interview because the question threw me for a minute. Yet, once I thought about it, I knew exactly what I longed to say: Appreciate the here and now! Don’t always be dreaming about what wonderful things the future might hold. Yes, a certain amount of “dreaming” is necessary to set goals and accomplish them, but I think we writers—and probably people in general—have too great a tendency to forget to enjoy the present because we’re so anxious about the future.

Our human nature tends to make us discontent no matter where we are in our career. We say “if only I could sell a manuscript,” but then when we do, instead of praising God for that blessing and letting it be enough for now, we start grasping at the next rung on the ladder. I want to write for a bigger publisher, I want to do a book tour, I want to win awards, I want to be on the bestsellers lists…

We also tend to compare ourselves to people who are further along the road than we are—more prolific, more “famous”—and of course we come up miserably short in our own eyes. Why don’t we, instead, learn to compare ourselves to the thousands of aspiring writers who have yet to see their name in print, or sign that first contract? Why can’t we look at the person who would give anything to be in our shoes, and be humbled to rejoice at how far we’ve come?

I know how I would feel if I gave one of our children a bicycle and she stamped her foot and pouted, “but I wanted a motorcycle!” There’s nothing wrong with wanting a motorcycle. I believe God honors us when we dream big and aspire to do great things for Him. But when we forget to acknowledge His gifts of “bicycles” along the way—or worse, when we gripe that “all I got was this stupid bike,” it’s akin to thumbing our nose at God’s gifts.

I hope I’m learning to enjoy each step along the way and to be grateful and content that God has seen fit to give me the opportunities and experiences He has. I have a long way to go before I accomplish all I’d like to in this business, but I’m so far ahead of where I was ten years ago.I’m learning that I can see a lot of great scenery as I pedal along—beautiful vistas that I might miss if I were whizzing by on a Harley. I don’t want to miss one mile of the journey.

Deborah Raney, author of A Nest of Sparrows and Over the Waters

Monday, January 29, 2007

JK: Choosing Titles

I’ve been working on possible titles for my as yet unwritten book that will be the third in my Change and Cherish Series. It was one of the surprises about writing, the realization that I don’t always get to have the title I propose. For this book (and the second in the series) I wanted “A Hand While We’re Falling,” but it was nixed. Too esoteric I guess; too difficult to come up with an image for the cover.

So we went with “A Tendering in the Storm.” I do like the word “tendering;" it has several meanings. It refers to something fragile, but it also refers to the taking care of things such as tending a garden. And it’s the word used to describe small ships that “tender” people from a larger ship to shore. Since my character was moving through a fragile time of her life, she needed tendering but resisted it for the view of obligation she thought came with it, and she needed something to take her from a place of isolation to a safe place in life’s storm. So tendering seemed to be ok.

But that also set up a pattern, since the first book was called “A Clearing in the Wild,” so now I’m looking for the same pattern in the third title: A Compassing in the Calm. A Mending at the Edge. A Raisin’ in the Sun…no, that’s been taken, although one can’t copyright titles. I could even call it “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” But I won’t.

I would love your suggestions, though, keeping in mind the pattern established. The story is about a real life woman who lived in the 1860s, and who was part of a religious colony that in many ways lost its way as a Christian group, following instead a charismatic leader. But Emma, my protagonist, resisted the leader’s direction, and in book one she and her husband and his family separate from the group. But circumstances and the trials of the 1850s limit her choices, and she finds herself back with the original colony. She is intent on making her own way there and does, becoming, I believe a model for living a faithful life.

If you have a title AND an idea for the cover, let me know! Thanks! Jane@jkbooks.com
http://www.jkbooks.com/ Jane Kirkpatrick's next book will be out in April. A Tendering in the Storm is the title.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Ask the Authors: Friday

What concerns you the most about the future of Christian fiction?

I think we're on a good course, but we're at a point that we have to ask ourselves some tough questions and trust writers to be cautious and diligently seeking the Holy Spirit. My fear is that we're so immersed in the idea of "crossing over" that we're forgetting we're set apart. I hear a lot of people complain that Christian fiction doesn't get the respect it deserves. That's true, but we'll never be accepted by the world, either. We've come to the place where our quality matches that of our secular counterparts, so now we have to come to an understanding about what "crosses the line" and what we're willing to sacrifice to be treated as equals by the world. My opinion is that there will be some who are called to go into the world and write in a secular format, but that those individuals are called by God to do that very thing. I believe there will be much temptation to compromise our values in order to get our books positioned better. However, I also think there will be much judgment on writers who are called to write novels that are meant to crossover. I don't believe there is a checklist of do's and don't's that we can go by. I think it will ultimately be the conviction of the writer and the motive behind the content. Still, I think we need to be in continuous dialogue about it and keep ourselves accountable. Ultimately, it's between the writer, the publisher and God as to where the book should go and what it should have in it. There may be a point where Christian fiction must be redefined in order to encompass the visions of all Christian writers. I truly don't know if that's the answer or not. I hope what the world sees is not a lot of bickering behind the scenes in the Christian writing community, but rather love and respect, even when there is disagreement. That being said, we cannot enter into this lightly and must continually seek God and be in prayer. Christian fiction is being used by God and I think it will continue to be as long as we are seeking to glorify Him in all that we do.-- Rene Gutteridge

That some of the primary decision makers in the industry have bought into the idea that we don't need to speak the name of Jesus in our books. I'm not at all against telling a great story, but there are a lot of great stories out there already. What we have to offer that's different is truth and hope. And not just any truth and hope, but the eternal truth and hope that comes only through Christ. If we're not bringing that into our stories, then what's the point? I'm not advocating preaching, simply that we need to ensure we continue to make the faith element as much a part of the story as any other element. --Karen Ball

I am concerned that, as Christian fiction becomes more popular, we may be poisoning the garden that grew it: the little Christian bookstores that were started and nurtured by people who saw such work as a God-given mission. Sometimes today, the mega-chains and online bookstores can sell a title at retail for less than what the little Mom-and-Pop Christian bookstore can buy it at wholesale. That’s why so many Christian stores now devote more than 75% of their floor space to what is known in the trade as “Jesus junk” – the hats, T-shirts, action Bible figures, scripture candy, bad art prints and all the rest of it. There are other ways to thrive despite the secular competition: one is to regularly hold events (readings, concerts, clubs, etc.) that make the bookstore such a congregation space that the store can profit from the foot traffic. And another is to have a store so large that people can find things on-shelf there that they cannot readily obtain elsewhere. But those things often take resources and marketing-know-how that is beyond the reach of the traditional, missionally called proprietor. And it breaks my heart to think that these good people might be driven out of business by the success of a genre that they helped in large part to create. – Tom Morrisey

I don’t know how the whole thing looks from the business side of things, but as a writer I don’t spend much time worrying about the future of Christian fiction. Just consider how much we’ve grown in the past 25 years or so--with God’s blessing, we’ve made great progress. I firmly believe God is doing something grand in the field of literature. Christian fiction is just going to keep getting bigger and better. -Ann Tatlock

I'm not sure I am concerned. I think there are so many talented authors in the industry today, and the ones whom I know personally are dedicated to God and to serving Him. As long as those are the people writing Christian fiction, it will thrive. I do hope that writers won't push the envelope for the sake of pushing the envelope, but that they will listen to the Holy Spirit and be guided by Him. If we write with truth for Truth, we will do well. -- Robin Lee Hatcher

I have high hopes for Christian fiction. There are so many different kinds of writers with so much to say, so much to share. We are reaching more and more people all the time with the truth of God's love. As Christian fiction moves away from our traditional "gatekeepers," who are our Christian publishers and booksellers, more and more books will be called "Christian" that teach truths counter to teachings from the Bible. Readers could be misled. My only control over this is to make sure I'm not one of those who mislead. --Hannah Alexander

The ten foot pole it would take for me to confess such things. --Patricia Hickman

The distribution and marketing. Not the content. I see Christian fiction changing. We're putting out books that speak to more issues, and that speak to the younger generations, for example. I know Zondervan has hired an editor specifically to acquire for the 18-35 age market. However, that age of consumer typically doesn't shop for fiction in Christian bookstores. Meanwhile, in the general stores such as B&N, our fiction is stuck in the "religious" or "inspirational" section, along with nonfiction Christian books--far from the other fiction. I don't mind being broken out into our own genre--frankly, I think that's a plus. But I do wish secular stores would put our fiction in the FICTION areas. So the question remaining for me--as Christian fiction expands, how will the marketing expand with it to bring in the targeted consumer, who right now doesn't even know to look for us? --Brandilyn Collins

I'm not concerned. The future seems bright. There are more talented writers and editors out there than ever before. - James Scott Bell

My greatest fear is that Christian fiction, in an effort to appeal to the masses, will become too much like every other genre, with the message of hope in Christ being hidden to the point of not being recognized by the very souls who need to understand it most. Along with that, I fear the elusive “envelope” being pushed to the point that there are no longer books available for my teenage daughter, my aging mother, and others who prefer to read only “whatsoever things are pure...right...noble...lovely...admirable” and who don’t wish to visit the gritty “real world” via fiction. –Deborah Raney

Actually, I have the same concerns about Christian nonfiction, and that's too many books being published but not supported, and backlist being all but forgotten. I'd love to see publishers reduce their lists and pour more time and resources into both their current titles and their backlist. (Just to be clear, my own publisher, WaterBrook Press, does a fabulous job on both counts!) -- Liz Curtis Higgs

Absolutely nothing. The future isn't my call. God has it covered. -BJ Hoff

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Ask the Authors: Thursday

Do you believe pop fiction and literary fiction are equals or that one is better than the other? Why?

We generally call a work “pop fiction” when it is plot-oriented. We begin to think that it might be literary when it is character-oriented, and we label it absolutely as “literary” when it is language-oriented. But there is no reason that pop fiction cannot be character-oriented, and in my estimation all fiction should be language-oriented, at least to the point that the implied sound of the words does not work against the thrust of the work. So to me the best fiction is popular fiction that has literary qualities, and history is full of work that fits that description: Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn and For Whom the Bell Tolls, to name three. Write one of those, and you won’t have to worry about what to do for a day job.– Tom Morrisey

They serve different purposes, so it's really not a question of "better" or "worse." Popular fiction has as its goal entertainment, and as such must please readers in some sense--making them laugh, cry, dream, etc. It's meant to be a satisfying experience. Expectations are found in each genre, and the successful writer of popular fiction will meet or exceed those expectations. Literary fiction, on the other hand, is not about making readers feel comfortable or satisfied. Often it challenges their worldview, or forces them to face painful realities in their own lives, or leaves them pondering bigger questions than a single storyline can answer. I think the writing can be equally strong in either form, even as the writers strive after different goals. -- Liz Curtis Higgs

While so-called literary fiction may possibly stand the test of time better literarily than books labeled pop fiction, I strongly believe pop fiction has equal (if not more) value, simply because it is accessible to a broader audience. If the primary reasons Christians write fiction are to entertain and to convey a message, then isn’t a wider audience desirable, whether over the long or short term? –Deborah Raney

If you write popular fiction, you should strive for, as John D. MacDonald put it, "unobtrusive poetry" in the style. If you write literary, it wouldn't hurt to accept that plot is not a dirty word.
Then go for your vision with everything you've got. - James Scott Bell

I think they're equals in that they each entail certain challenges in their writing. I suppose I could post for days on that thought. But to keep this answer short, I'll say at best, I like to mix the auras of the two in my own writing. My women's fiction wasn't fully literary--it had too much plot for that--but there were aspects of the style of writing that tended toward the literary. In my suspense, the challenge is to keep the pages turning, keep the tension high. Not easy--at least not for me. But within that constant "stretched rubberband" of tension, I like to use some literary techniques--deeper characterization (than a typical suspense), and different turns of phrase in the writing. --Brandilyn Collins

I think the story inside each writer has to be told in as excellent a fashion as possible. I read equal amounts of both popular fiction and literary. I’ve heard readers call Anne Tyler literary, but she’s very mainstream; she just happened to win the Pulitzer. But now that I’m getting to know more literary authors I find many of them squirming out of that harness. Literary authors run screaming from any sort of labels, so even “literary” becomes a label to them. I’ve heard other writers refer to my books as literary but they aren’t literary at all. I write from a personal aesthetic, but always with elements of popular fiction such as humor, suspense, and romance. My literary friends don’t understand why anyone would refer to my books as literary, but they think the same thing about their own writing. So the question to pose first is, “What is literary writing?” --Patricia Hickman

A well written book is a well written book, and if it's done skillfully enough, it will have qualities of both "literary" and "popular." --Hannah Alexander

There is wonderful writing in both popular and literary fiction. There is wonderful storytelling in both popular and literary fiction. And there are books of both types that are sheer torture to read for one reason or another. The only thing I require as a reader is that the author hold my interest and entertain me.

Last year, I tried to read a book that was being raved about. It had won a Pulitzer or some other major prize. While the prose was evocative, the story was so boring I thought I might die from it. I don't understand why it garnered so much praise. If you write beautiful prose for the sake of showing off that you can write beautiful prose, I am not impressed. Likewise last year, I tried to read a popular award-winning novel. The story was great and I wanted to know what happened to the characters. But the author bombarded me with the f-word and behavior so gross by some characters that I finally had to give up without knowing how it ended. Too bad because all the vulgarity and foul language wasn't required to make the characters and setting realistic.

Entertain me. Make me empathize with your characters. Pull me into their lives and help me experience their feelings. That is what makes a book better than others. -- Robin Lee Hatcher

I lean toward fiction that moves me, that makes me think of issues I otherwise might not, that expands the genre, (is not predictable) and is inventive with structure and that surprises me while still being congruent with character development and plot. I like the use of language that tends to mark literary works. Someone once said the the primary purpose of fiction was to move people and the primary way to do that was through the metaphor. A good story should also entertain in such a way that a reader continues to read and finish the book and not set it aside because it was too inaccessible, too "erudite," too literary. Good literary fiction does all a story should do, well.

That said, pop fiction can do all those things too. It can move people, be inventive in structure, make us think about things we otherwise might not and be congruent without being predictable or is predictable (think Sue Grafton) and yet creative within the confines of the structure the reader has come to expect for that author or genre. It may be more entertaining than thought provoking, perhaps; but if we trust the power of story to "come along beside us" as a pebble/parable does, then pop fiction can change people and move people and bring insights without ever being in our face and can provoke thinking in ways different than a literary work can.

Truth is, sometimes I can't tell the difference, which probably says more about me than the authors. When I read Lisa Sampson or Melody Carlson's adult works or B.J. Hoff or Linda Hall and their deft use of language and metaphor, are they literary (even though they might be mysteries or historical novels) or are they pop (because they are accessible to readers) the way the Yada Yada Sisterhood is pop? (But then, the Yada Yada girls are pretty inventive, too!) I read Cormack McCarthy's latest, The Road, which I'm sure is considered literary and yet it was so accessible to readers it could easily be called pop. It'll be nominated for another National Book Award while I doubt Sue Grafton's work ever will. That might distinguish between literary and pop right there...

I guess I want a good read, one to hold me, move me, inspire me, make me think, even laugh, transport me then bring me back so I can take what I read into my everyday life and use it to bring meaning to my own life and to those around me. That can happen with pop or literary, can't it? And I'm not sure either is better than the other. If we're true to the story, that's what matters. We can aspire to tell the story either literary or pop. I guess I do aspire to write both. I'd better get back to it right now. --Jane Kirkpatrick

There's no easy answer to this. It seems to me that the differences aren't entirely due to the "style" of the novel, but also cast by the perspective of the reader--and the publisher. I see a number of novels labeled as 'literary" that really aren't, and conversely see literary novels that are deemed more general (which usually, though not always, translates to better sales for them). It's become a kind of trend for publishers to define more and more of their releases as "literary," when in reality they're genre or general. The mistake of equating literary fiction with excellence and popular fiction with mediocrity has led to some gross misunderstandings about both. In truth, there are mediocre and inferior offerings in both "commercial" fiction and literary. Literary isn't just another word for excellence. Nor does "popular" or "general" mean inferior. Just read a sampling of both from ABA--and CBA--and you quickly find that each has its "stars" and each has its failures.

Better to concentrate on working toward excellence in whatever we write and forget the labels. Jodi Picoult has written some really good, insightful articles on this very subject, by the way. -BJ Hoff

Because there are different kinds of readers in the world, both pop and literary fiction are valid and necessary. I can’t see that it makes a difference which category a book falls into, as long as it touches the reader’s mind and heart. I personally enjoy both pop and literary fiction, and choose a book depending on what kind of “reading experience” I’m in the mood for. -Ann Tatlock

I think they're different, that's all. One isn't any better than the other, they're just different styles of writing. We need both, I personally like to read both. As, I think, do many readers. But whatever kind of fiction you choose to write, it has to be done with an eye toward excellence and quality. There's great literary and commercial fiction out there, and there's really awful stuff in both categories. Let's just do everything we can to ensure we're adding to the quality of whatever we are called to write. --Karen Ball

I think they're equals, but I don't think they always need to be compared. They both serve their (different) purposes and serve them well. I think at the end of the day, you have to ask yourself, Does this book have compelling characters, an interesting plot, a respectable writing style, etc. All the basics of writing fiction apply to both genres. There are certainly bad examples of both. -- Rene Gutteridge

Give me a story that takes me out of my world and gives me characters to care for. If a book can do that, I don't care what label it wears. --Angela Hunt

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

ASk the Authors: Wednesday

Is there a novel you want to write but feel a responsibility to wait until certain people in your life have passed on?

Yes! -- Rene Gutteridge
Nope. --Karen Ball
No. -Ann Tatlock
No. -BJ Hoff

Yes. I'd like to write about my grandmother's life but I have one living aunt who disagreed greatly with an older aunt who wanted me to tell the story in a certain way. So I'm thinking maybe I should wait. --Jane Kirkpatrick

No. I have written two books that were closely based on circumstances and experiences from my own life. Beyond the Shadows deals with alcoholism and how it affects the alcoholic's loved ones. The Forgiving Hour deals with infidelity in marriage and the need for the wronged party to forgive. I wrote the books because God called me to write them, and He did not call me to wait to right them. However, the characters became their own persons too and did things that I didn't do and/or that others didn't do to me. I let the novels play out the way they came to me. -- Robin Lee Hatcher

No. I write fiction. --Hannah Alexander

I waited for my parents to pass away before writing Katrina’s Wings, but the story wasn’t fully realized until after they had passed away either. That one was birthed from loss. --Patricia Hickman

Yes. --Brandilyn Collins.

LOL. I'll take the Fifth. --Angela Hunt

You mean the one about my thieving, conniving, lying, stinking....No. - James Scott Bell

I have a finished novel sitting on a floppy disk (which tells you something about its age!) that I decided shortly after writing it, not to submit—at least not yet. It is about a romance between a Holdeman Mennonite (an offshoot of the Old Order Mennonites) and an “outsider.” Because there are many Holdemans in our community (including gentle, elderly next-door neighbors) and because their church would not approve of my conclusions (that faith in Christ, not sharing a denomination, is the only thing necessary for equal yoking) I’ve decided not to walk into that possible controversy with neighbors and friends. –Deborah Raney

No. I've been able to bury any incidents from my own life deeply enough in my fiction that no one living should recognize themselves. -- Liz Curtis Higgs

The short answer is “no.” The longer answer is that I can see two situations in which one might be tempted to wait: to avoid hurting someone, or to avoid getting sued down to the soles of your sweat-socks. The former situation might be that of say, a writer who was an abused child and whose parent sincerely repented of that action and the relationship has healed – waiting in that case can avoid rubbing salt in a wound. But if it’s the latter case, a case of “I’m gonna wait until Jack’s dead so I can fling mud at him”? Well … that just shows a shortage of integrity. – Tom Morrisey

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Ask the Authors: Tuesday

When you get an idea for a story, how do you know that there's enough there for a book? Or just a short story? Or maybe it's just a fleeting thought that can't grow into a story at all? How do you decide?

When I write a novel, I am not writing a story. I am writing stories—plural. And the thing that makes it a novel is that these stories intertwine and resonate and conflict with one another. The novels that I am most satisfied with usually have at least four conflicts (one major and three minor) going on. And to tell you the truth, most better short stories have at least two storylines working with one another. So I look for that narrative depth—an orchestra of stories as opposed to a solo or a duet. If I have that, I know that I have a novel in the oven.– Tom Morrisey

I have a storyline right now that I'm noodling on. At first, I would have told you "short story." After a week of noodling, I thought "novella." Now I'm convinced it's a full-length novel. The number of characters involved and the complexity of the conflicts usually determine story length. - Liz Curtis Higgs

Because I’m a seat-of-the-pants writer (or as Al Gansky so suavely terms it, an “intuitive writer”) many times, I get a few thousand words into a book and and begin to fear there’s not enough there for the full-length novel that was contracted. But I’ve found I can always make a story long enough if I make my characters interesting enough. If I can make the reader love my characters, they won’t care so much whether every single thing that happens to them is front-page newsworthy. –Deborah Raney

The stakes have to be high enough. In my book, Plot & Structure, I talk about three kinds of death: personal, psychological, professional. Unless at least one of these is on the line, I don't have enough for a book. - James Scott Bell

I'm bombarded by what ifs on a daily basis. That's simply the way I view the world. I'll see a flicker of emotion on someone's face, a drop of dew on a spider web that makes me think metaphorically, see something as I jog that gets my brain turning... But many of these never go anywhere. Some of them, however, strike me deep in the gut. It's a sense that I will use the thought someday, although it may be books away. Funny, but these thoughts I don't forget. They can sit in my head for years. -Brandilyn Collins

I have other people give me ideas that won’t work as a fully realized novel. My ideas work out really nicely. -Patricia Hickman

All my ideas turn into books, simply because I don't know how to write short. When I try to write a short story, it quickly becomes more complicated with subplots. The one time I did complete a short story, it was painful, and I didn't like the finished product until months after it was published. I can always be assured that any thread of an idea can become a complete novel with a few brainstorm sessions with friends. -Hannah Alexander

When an idea or concept just will not let me go, then I know I must write the book. Not every idea when it first comes has enough conflict or layers for a full length novel, but if I am intrigued by the characters, then simply listening to them will expand the idea and bring me the conflict needed for a novel. - Robin Lee Hatcher

I actually posed this question because I wonder how others decide. I'm personally grateful for the book Structuring the Novel (Meredit and Fitzgerad)that does offer some way through this. But so far for me when I thought I had maybe one book, I've ended up with three. Maybe writing many books is easier than a short story! Wasn't it Aristotle who apologized to his friend for writing a long letter. He said he didn't have time to write a short one. I'll be interested in the other responses for this one. -Jane Kirkpatrick

I just ... know. It's something that simply "clicks" with me. -BJ Hoff

When an idea comes to me, I don’t know whether or not it will ever fully blossom into a novel (I don’t write short stories, so that eliminates that possibility). I write down the initial thought, stick it in a file and get back to my WIP (work in progress). Given time, the idea will either disappear or begin to grow on its own. If I sense it growing, I’ll start to pay attention to it when it’s time to begin working on a new book. -Ann Tatlock

Every novel or novella I've written has started as one little "What if" scenario or something I saw or read about. Some event, or some interaction between people, something that caught my attention. But those seeds, when watered with time and imagination, always spread roots and sprout into stories that go far beyond what I'd originally concepted. So my feeling is that as long as you have the spark of an idea, you've got enough to build on. -Karen Ball

I think you have to look at it another way. You have to decide to make it more. So, for example, if I have a character in my head, I make a decision to create a great plot to encompass this character. If I have a plot idea but no character, I make a decision to think through a great character to go along with the plot. I think often times writers believe that whatever pops into their head is the final version. I see it as the very beginning, something that needs time to cultivate. I truly believe that any idea can evolve far enough to make it into a novel. It just takes creativity and time. An example from my own work is Boo. Never in a million years would I have dreamed of all the supporting cast and the town called Skary. The original idea was about a horror writer who converted to Christianity. Everything else sprang from that. - Rene Gutteridge

Monday, January 22, 2007

Ask the Authors: Monday

Welcome back to another "Ask the Authors" week. If you have a question you'd like to ask our authors, send it to charisconnection@gmail.com. Enjoy the week!

Have you ever started writing about a character that as you wrote you found you didn't like? What did you do about that?

This just happened in a book I was working on. It took awhile for me to identify exactly why I didn't like him. Even my editor missed it. I finally realized that he didn't really evolve. He didn't have an arc. Once I put that in, all was forgiven because though he didn't become great or heroic, he did overcome a few bad traits. Then I could identify with him. -Rene Gutteridge

Yes. I had a heroine who turned out too bitter and whiny. And that made it harder and harder to write because I didn't want to spend time with her. So I had to take some time to figure out why she was acting that way, what she was afraid of, what her inner struggles were. As I thought about it, I realized she was like a part of me that was stuck because of a past hurt. Suddenly I not only understood this character, I realized I'd been writing more as catharsis than because it worked for the story. So I had to figure out what really worked for the book, then go back and fix the scenes with her. It was a good lesson to be sure I knew my characters before I jump into the story. And the final story ended up being much better than how it started! So that confirmed for me that we need to listen to our instincts. -Karen Ball

No, I’ve always grown fond of my characters and even start to think of them as real people. If, however, a character became unlikable and annoying, I’d no doubt lose all inspiration to write about him/her. -Ann Tatlock

If possible, I suppose I'd cut the character from the story altogether. Otherwise, I'd explore why I didn't like him/her and "redevelop" the character as much as possible. This has happened to me only once, and I came to realize that the character was too passive, so I worked through it with her and made some changes. She stayed--and was a better person for it! -BJ

Yes. Since I write about real historical people, fictionalized, I'd begun this one story thinking it was a lovely romance, about a man who built this garden and mansion for his wife, though I was intrigued by what kind of a woman would inspire such a place and yet no one talked about her. Then I found out why. But what it made me do is go deeper and try to find out what might have happened in her life to make her choose the things she did. And it turned out to be a book about living with the consequences of our decisions. People either really like that book or they hate it because they don't like "her". But I think she is all of us who want to do the right thing but then don't always and how we seek redemption even until our dying days. A part of me wanted to abandon this story when I first learned about some of her poor choices but I'm glad I didn't. One woman who read that book called me from Ohio and said "This book will change the way I live my life." so perhaps it was written for her. -Jane Kirkpatrick

I assume that you mean you start disliking your protagonist whom the reader is supposed to like and/or empathize with. Thankfully, this particular problem has never happened to me. I always seem to become ever more fond of my characters, even the less than perfect ones. - Robin Lee Hatcher

I always write about characters I care about in some way, even the antagonists. There were some secondary characters whom I discovered I liked enough to give them a story of their own, but I've always cared about my characters. -Hannah Alexander

I started writing about a character I didn’t fully have fleshed out, so “like” may not be the correct word, but the rewrite had to happen or the book couldn’t continue. -Patricia Hickman

No. In fact, this problem has never even occurred to me. I do suppose my most multi-layered, complex character to date was Celia Matthews in my (women's fiction) novel, Color the Sidewalk for Me. (Yes, in the days before I turned to killing people full time.) She could have been difficult to like, for there was much selfishness in her. Yet really, she THOUGHT selfishness, but many times ended up ACTING in giving. I liked her, because I understood her. And that is key. I understood her deep hurts, what made her the way she is. To this day, that novel moves me in ways no other novel of mine has. And it's due to Celia's character. -Brandilyn Collins

In an early novel I had a Lead character I thought was just fine. I was into his inner life and writing away. It was only when others saw it that I got the word he wasn't all that likable. Came as a shock to me, but I learned that you can be so into the writing that you lose objectivity. It's therefore important to me, before I start writing, to get the Lead in fighting shape. And I need to step back from time to time and look with fresh eyes at the character. - James Scott Bell

I very often don’t like my heroine when I first begin writing a new book. It’s very difficult to create a character who is likeable, yet has enough flaws to give her room to grow and change throughout the book. I think the secret is showing the reader why she’s the way she is—what in her childhood or earlier adult life has caused her to behave the way she does now? But even that can be tricky when so many writing gurus advise us to avoid backstory in the early pages of the book! –Deborah Raney

That's happened to me twice with heroines, and in both cases it's because they were too weak (and too whiny!). I went back to page one and started over, giving them more backbone, which also affected how other characters responded to them. With my last novel, I had the reverse happen: I became enamored of a character I expected to hate! In that case, I ran with it, realizing that a slightly sympathetic bad guy creates a much more interesting story. - Liz Curtis Higgs

I have encountered this issue as well as its evil twin—writing about a central character that the editor and/or the pre-readers didn’t like. In such cases, I revise the character with an aim toward overcoming the criticisms. That’s the great thing about fiction; you can change what you don’t like. Wouldn’t it be great if we could do the same with the people in our lives who rub us the wrong way?– Tom Morrisey

Not like my character? How can the creator not like her creation? Seriously--even if my characters do vile things, they have very good reasons . . . from their perspectives, anyway. -Angela Hunt

Friday, January 19, 2007

JSB: One Man’s Life

Last December I read a random obit from the L.A. Times and it got me thinking. It was for a man named Sam Chapman, who died at the age of 90.

Who was Sam Chapman?

For starters, he was an All-American halfback on the last University of California football team to win the Rose Bowl — in 1938 — who then went on to play pro baseball with the Philadelphia Athletics.

He grew up near Tiburon, California, where he was an all around athlete at Tamalpais High School. As a football player he was dubbed the "Tiburon Terror." If I were a football player, that’s a name I wouldn’t mind having. It would beat things like the “California Cutie” or the “Los Angeles Somewhat Scary Guy.” If you’re going to have a nickname, make sure it’s a good one. A guy I went to high school with was nicknamed “Wimp.” And this was by his friends! At our 20 year high school reunion, I was chatting with him when one of our old high school circle came up, a woman who was now married to a congressman, and she smiled widely with her arms out to the fellow and said, “Hi Wimp!” These things have a tendency to last.

Speaking of nicknames, Sam Chapman’s high school football coach was a man named Roy Riegels. Riegels was also a noted football player for Cal, but will always be remembered for his nickname, “Wrong Way Riegels.” That’s because he picked up a fumble during the 1929 Rose Bowl, got mixed up, and ran 69 yards the wrong way.

This was captured on film, by the way, much to the regret of Mr. Riegels, who nevertheless managed to live the rest of his life in somewhat good cheer whenever the incident was brought to his attention, which must have been all the time.

Can you imagine having a mistake hung around your neck from your college days, with a nickname attached to it? Good thing there were no cameras running in the apartment I shared with four other guys at UCSB. It might have captured the time I purloined a Sarah Lee cheesecake my roommate had bought for himself, to break out some night when he was studying hard. I’m glad the incident stayed private, or I might have been known as the “Santa Barbara Sarah Lee Bandit” or “The Cheesecake Cheat.”

I did tell my roommate I was sorry, by the way, and offered to buy him a new cheesecake. He said I didn’t have to do that, but please don’t take his food again.

He showed me grace. And isn’t that a picture of God? He doesn’t say to us, Go back and make everything right and then I’ll forgive you. He says I will forgive you right now. Then you can make things right, if you’re able.

Sam Chapman was also a darn good baseball player. He played 11 years in the majors, and in 1941 batted .322, with 25 home runs. That’s a Hall of Fame career had it been repeated season after season.

1941, by the way, was the year Joe DiMaggio went on a 56 game hitting streak, a record most say will never be broken. It was also the year the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and brought us into World War II. Sam Chapman answered his country’s call, enlisting in the U.S. Navy, earning his wings as a pilot and serving as a flight instructor in Corpus Christi, Texas during the war.

He was part of what Tom Brokaw called “The Greatest Generation.” Like so many men of that time, he came back from the war and took up his life again. He finished his baseball career in 1951 and worked as an inspector for the San Francisco Bay Area Air Quality Management District. With his wife, who died in 2000, he raised a family and is survived by four children, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

In Tiburon, they will raise a life sized bronze statue to a hometown hero, the Tiburon Terror, Sam Chapman.

It seems to me Sam Chapman lived a full life, using his gifts to the best of his ability, and not for mere self-indulgence. He fought for his country and his family. He fought for excellence on the football field and baseball diamond.

Maybe I responded to this obit because Chapman was a lot like my Dad. They were about the same age. My Dad was a standout athlete (played baseball at UCLA with Jackie Robinson), a WWII vet, a hardworking man who provided for his family.

There’s something inspiring about those “old fashioned” values. I guess that’s how I see myself as a writer. I’m no gifted literary genius. I get up every day and work and try to get better. That’s all I can do, all any of us can do. It’s what I learned from my Dad, and men like Sam Chapman. And I’ve also learned that this is enough, even if they don’t erect a statue in your name.

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. – 2 Tim. 4:7

James Scott Bell
“The Suspense Never Rests”

Thursday, January 18, 2007

DR: Having a Positive Influence

Just before a new book is ready to hit the bookstores, most publishers send out what they call “influencers copies”––hot-off-the-press books intended to start a buzz among readers all over the country. What fun it is to send one hundred reading friends a free copy of my new novel! But often the question that follows the thank-you is, “What am I required to do as an influencer?”

Well, technically, nothing. There is no obligation whatsoever in being an influencer. If a particular book isn’t your cup of tea, please pass it along to someone you think might enjoy it. But if you do like the book, there are numerous ways to help spread the word.

Not everyone will feel comfortable or have the means to drop leaflets while parachuting from an airplane, but on the list below, you’ll find at least one thing that will be a perfect fit with the ways God has gifted you. And I guarantee your efforts, large or small, will bless the author.

•Write a review for the book on online bookstores such as:

•Write a review at one of the many online book review sites, including:

•At http://www.christianbook.com you can recommend books via an e-mail link that will take your friends right to the page of the book you’re promoting.

•Recommend the book as a featured title for an area book discussion group. This is especially appropriate if the book has discussion questions in the back.

•Start a discussion about the book on your blog or on e-mail loops you’re a part of.

•If you have a website or write a newsletter, consider featuring novels you’ve read and enjoyed.

•Add the book to your list of favorites on myspace, facebook, or other online communities.

•After reading and reviewing the book, give it away as a prize in a drawing on your website or blog.

•If you have a unique perspective—for instance, personal experience with the book’s topic, a man offering a male perspective for a women’s fiction book, etc.—offer your insights in venues that might not ordinarily hear about the book.

•Donate your influencer copy to your public library or church library when you’re finished reading it. Better yet, share your copy in other ways and buy a second copy for the library.

•Print out a review you’ve written, or other reviews of the book and give them to your public or church librarians for consideration.

•Offer to distribute bookmarks and/or postcards for the author or publisher. Public libraries, church libraries, bookstores and gift shops are usually happy to have giveaways on their counters.

•Ask your church if you could tuck postcards or bookmarks in the morning service bulletin some Sunday.

•Place bookmarks or postcards about the book at each place setting as favors for a luncheon or banquet.

•Hang out in your local bookstore and “hand sell” the book by talking it up to customers shopping in the fiction department.

•Talk to the clerks in any bookstores and libraries you visit and ask if they carry the book. If not give them a short book report and recommend they order a few copies.

•When visiting bookstores, do a little creative rearranging to turn the book face out on the shelves. Use good judgment and don’t hide one book to promote another. Also keep in mind that in some stores front-table space is paid for by the publisher, so don’t “steal.”

•Offer to write a book review for your church newsletter, neighborhood newspaper or any other printed source that might reach readers.

•At your next women’s retreat, volunteer to organize a book table, where you will feature the book.

•Offer to organize a blog tour for the author, setting up a week when numerous blogs will feature the book and interviews with the author.

•When you’re finished with the book, tuck it into a gift basket for someone who is ill or in the hospital; or take it to your next dinner party as a hostess gift.

•Leave the book in a waiting room where someone with a few extra minutes might start reading it.

•Prison ministries are always looking for wholesome books to distribute. Check out groups like Prison Book Project: http://www.nbbd.com/npr/PrisonBooks/index.html.

•Word-of-mouth is still probably the number one way books hit bestseller lists, so simply start conversations about the book. Tell your friends and family what you’ve been reading and why you enjoyed it so much.

•Drop leaflets as you parachute out of a plane. (Thanks to Karen Wevick for this MOST creative idea! Even though, come to find out, Karen is a member in good standing of the Big Honkin’ Chicken Club and wouldn’t agree to actually follow through on her suggestion. LOL!)

Deborah Raney’s newest novel is Remember to Forget coming next month from Howard Books/Simon & Schuster. http://www.deborahraney.com/

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

JK: Changing Words

Ok, I can't resist sharing about the way our language changes over time. I just finished reading a fine book written by Sheba Hargreaves called The Cabin at the Trail's End. It was published in 1952 and is set in frontier Oregon. It has lovely detail about how things were done (making brooms, etc.) But here's the changing language issue. Where we would write "He said" or "She exclaimed," or "he uttered suddenly," she uses "ejaculated" as in "she ejaculated." Often. It was an acceptable usage for the time and someone writing about the early frontier may well use it and be considered "authentic" but it took me out of the story every time I read it since the meaning of the word has changed so much. It reminded me of something Ted Kooser, the former national poet laureate, wrote in his book, The Poetry Home Repair Kit that I think I've mentioned before, about the importance of word choice and how the writer must work to keep the reader from leaving the page even for an instant to ponder a word. I suspect that did not happen for Ms. Hargreaves readers back in the '50s but it surely did for me.

Some authors I do expect to use words that I'll have to look up (P.D. James for one). I like that about her writing, knowing I’ll learn new words. And as a writer, I like introducing new words or meanings that aren't typical, like "frangible" (meaning easily broken and using as in a “frangible light came through the worn wagon canvas cover”); or "shattered silk" (the stringy quality that silk forms as it ages or is wearing out) but it does mean somehow placing the word in context so that the reader can gather the meaning without having to go away from the story to find it. When a copy editor notes my word usage, I really have to reconsider how strongly I feel about that word. Sometimes, I go with them and delete it because it took them from the story; and sometimes I just can’t not use it!

OK, I've ejaculated enough, I suspect. Happy New Year to all you wordsmiths!

Jane Kirkpatrick, http://www.jkbooks.com/, is the 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, January 15, 2007

BC: So What’s the Deal on Christian Suspense?

I sold my first Christian suspense novel, Eyes of Elisha, to Zondervan in 2000. It was published in the fall of 2001. I had one cabinet-kickin’ time selling the thing. Oh, plenty of publishers wanted it. But they were also scared to death of the book, ’cause it featured this woman having visions. (“Visions, oh my! We don’t do visions!”) Result—slammed doors. Until Zondervan took the plunge and threw their doors wide open. (Don’t you just love mixed metaphors?)

Well, let me tell you. Five years is a loooong time in Christian fiction.

The suspense genre has exploded since then. Visions aside, before around 2000, folks in the industry seemed to be scared of pretty much all suspense. ("How in the world are you supposed to mix the Good News with violence and terror? Agh!") Today not only can you find plenty of Christian suspense novels, you can take your pick from all manner of subgenres. Every month it seems a new Christian suspense author comes along. And some of the very publishers who wouldn’t touch Eyes of Elisha back then are now putting out some serious suspense of their own.

But why do I choose to write suspense in the first place? Why not romance, or historicals, or contemporaries—something a little easier on the nerves? My mother wonders this too. She thinks I'm getting more warped by the minute. From the looks of my stories, she's right. “Seatbelt Suspense” ain’t my brand fer nothin’. But the truth is, we Christian suspense authors have an amazing, fun freedom. We get to tell all manner of spine-tingling stories—and inject the hope of God into them. That's the best of both worlds, if you ask me.

Truth is, we do live in an evil world. But the truth doesn't end there, thanks be to God. The truth ends with the fact that God's power can help us live, even be victorious, amid this evil. Not to say bad things don't happen to good people. They do—in real life, and in Christian suspense. It is to say that followers of Christ have been given the awesome authority to go before His throne and ask for help in times of trouble—even big, bad trouble. Especially big, bad trouble.

Lest you think I sound too much like a preacher, let me set you straight. I'm not one. My #1 job as a Christian novelist is not to preach. It's to write the best rollickin' story I possibly can. I know my comrades in Christian suspense would agree. I want to grab you—from the very first line. I want to take you on a rollercoaster ride, make you need to sleep with a nightlight on. I want to make you forget to b r e a t h e. Yet along the way, you won't be so inundated with evil that you're left feeling hopeless. Quite the opposite. Even amid all the tension, Christian suspense presents hope. Readers can accept the message, or reject it and simply come along for the ride.

Either way, we suspense authors are mighty happy to have y’all along.

Brandilyn Collins, author of Dead of Night

Friday, January 12, 2007

KB: Ask the Editor, Part 2

Thanks to C.J. Darlington for the following great Ask-the-Editor questions:

1. From your days as an acquisitions editor, what were the top three things you consistently saw wrong with a submission that caused you to immediately put it in the reject pile? 2. What have you learned from your time "behind the desk" that you now apply to your own writing and dealing with editors?3. Are there any trends in Christian publishing you're noticing?

Karen’s Top Three Reasons for Instant Rejection:

Amateurish Writing. Say it with me: “Send no proposal out before it’s time!” I can’t tell you how many proposals I received that weren’t anywhere near ready to be considered for publication. Dialogue, characterizations, voice, descriptives…all showed that the author hadn’t done his or her homework. Sadly, I still see manuscripts like this. Just turned down a couple of them this week.

Been there, Published That. It happens all the time: proposals have storylines too similar to something my house had recently published. I think this happens because the standard counsel is for writers to look at what publishers are doing so they can know what that publisher might want. While that’s true, it’s really a gauge for what genres we’d like, not what storylines. If a publisher already has a Civil War series, they’re not going to be inclined to take another on. But if a writer can come up with something new and unique, set in that time period, without making it a Civil War focus, then that could perk an editor’s interest.

Some may wonder what we do if two manuscripts with similar storylines show up at the same time, which does happen. It’s the same as what makes one manuscript stand out over any other, the quality of the writing.

What Were You Thinking?? Contrarily, another “Instant Rejection” comes when someone sends me a proposal that’s not even CLOSE to anything we’d publish. At Zondervan, we made it clear we didn’t do SciFi or Speculative fiction, but scores of SciFi proposals made their way to my desk. And I won’t even go into all the steamy romances that were sent our way…Suffice to say, I don’t care how moving or inspirational it is, a story on a woman overcoming a difficult marriage with the help of the fifteen-year-old boy with whom she has a secret romance just ain’t gonna fly at Z. Or, I hope, anywhere in CBA!

2. Authors missing deadlines is the surest way to kill a publishing relationship. It causes so many problems and impacts so many departments that the folks on the publishers’ side grow weary and wary. As an author, writing to deadline is the surest way to kill creativity. (At least when you’re writing and working a full-time job, as I’ve always done.) So I’ve made a decision. Once I’m done with the current (painfully overdue) book for Multnomah, which is also my last contracted book, that I’m going to write my next book without a contract. Just write for the love of writing. Of course, I’ll talk with my brilliant agent, Steve Laube, to decide which idea to develop and write, but I’m not having him send it out to anyone for consideration until it’s at least half finished. Maybe more. That way, assuming anyone will want to contract it then, I’ll be ahead of the game. Which will help my poor, beleaguered editor, the stressed-out publisher, and me.

3. Trends? We don’t need no stinkin’ trends! I both love and hate this question, which I get all the time. The hate side is because by the time we actually identify a trend, it’s usually on its way out. Remember, books generally take a year from the time they’re contracted until they hit the shelf. So if I were to say new categories of Chick Lit (e.g., suspense, mystery, thriller, etc.) were a growing trend, which they do seem to be, the likelihood of that helping anyone who is writing now isn’t huge. Because by the time you wrote a book to meet that trend, the trend probably would be over. So spotting trends in categories and genres too often seems a bit of futility to me.

However, I love pondering this as far as business or strategic trends go. For example, I’m seeing more parings of solid midlist fiction authors with best-selling nonfiction authors. When it works, and there are specific reasons why it works, it seems to benefit both parties, even if the association is fairly short-lived.

Also, it would seem the overall acceptance of Christian fiction as viable fiction is broadening, both in the Christian and nonChristian arenas. A 2006 study by LifeWay Christian Resources found that 53% of Protestant clergy read fiction! That’s good news, because it used to be that pastors not only didn’t read fiction, they didn’t encourage their congregants to read it either. And the fact that secular publishers are actively acquiring Christian fiction lines and Christian publishers shows that our books are not just successful at meeting the readers needs, but they’re financially successful as well.

The final trend I’ll mention isn’t such good news. Christian publishers seem to be more stressed than ever before. As evidenced by the musical chairs of late, with folks from House A shifting to House B, and House C acquiring House Q. Those I know who work in the field are pushed to the wall with insane workloads and a dearth of assistants to take on the piddly stuff. Money is increasingly tight, and the mystery of effective marketing continues to plague. (Trust me on this, what most authors consider effective marketing isn’t…and figuring out what really works is a monumental task.) So while Christian fiction seems to be gaining serious ground on many fronts, Christian publishing is in a bit of flux at the moment. Does that worry me? Yes and no. Yes, because of the people I know who are being negatively affected. But no, because if there’s anything about publishing that is consistent, it’s change. Things are always changing! And though it may take awhile, we do seem to come out of it stronger and wiser than before. So, God willing, CBA will be around for a very long time to come.

Karen Ball

Thursday, January 11, 2007

KB: Ask the Editor

Our first Ask-the-Editor question comes from Kristy D.: What are some tips for The True Writer to "find" "herself/himself," meaning, settle into his/her genre/voice/style so s/he becomes The Successful Writer (steadily-contracted)? Keep writing, keep learning, and don't quit, I know, but other pearls of wisdom?

My vote is that it’s not so much about genre or styles as being true to your particular story. Write the story that won’t let you go. Don’t try to write something the market or editors will want. Write the story that’s stirring inside you, burning in your gut, nagging at you until you’re about to explode. And write that story with as much honesty and vulnerability as you can. Think about the authors you love to read. What makes their writing stand out from the rest? One example is Francine’s books. Her “voice” is so clear, regardless of the genre in which she writes. Why? For me, it’s the gut-level honesty of her characters. That always gets to me. Hadassah struggling to be faithful in a world brutal to loyalty and truth. Marcus wrestling with his love for a woman he doesn’t understand, a woman he knows loves him in return, but who won’t give in if it means giving up her true Love. Sierra fighting against herself as she realizes she doesn’t understand love at all. Angel raging against the God who was supposed to love her and abandoned her to the basest of men. Michael Hosea, who loves even when he doesn’t want to, who stands as a man so sold out to God that he breaks—and captures—our hearts. These characters are alive and well, years after I’ve read the books. Because I relate to them, to their struggles, to their journeys. Because they don’t find easy answers or smooth paths, but wrestle with God, even as so many of us do.

But even as I write that, realize I’m not saying anyone else should write like Francine does. It only works for her. You need to write like Kristy, I need to write like Karen. Who we are, what stirs our hearts, needs to come out in our writing. We each have stories God’s give us to tell. We need to do that as ourselves, not as an imitation of some other writer. Don’t worry about sounding as good as someone else. Sound as much like you as you can. I have people tell me all the time they can “hear” me in my books. Whatever you do, make sure your heart is heard.

So how to do that? First, read. Read, read, read to find out what you like. Underline the phrases that capture you—not to steal, but to study, to understand why they hit you as they did. Second, though this is even more important, spend as much time with the One who gave you the call and the story to begin with as you spend reading anything else. Seek His desire for what you’re writing, ask him to use you. He gave you the story, He gave you your voice. All you have to do is open yourself, and He’ll use them. In ways you never imagined.


Thanks to Richard M. for a thought-provoking Ask-the-Editor question: Now you're writing full-time. Until recently, you were an editor but were also writing. Has your experience as an editor affected your writing? How?

Actually, I’ve always written while doing my day job of editing. Though I haven’t been with a publisher since early ’06, I’ve been working freelance as an editor. Editing is what pays for my writing addiction. (And—news flash—I’m joining a publishing house again. As of Jan. 1, 2007, I’ll be Senior Editor at B&H publishers, helping to head up their fiction line.) But my experience as an editor has affected how I review my writing. Like anyone else, when I write, I just write. Get it on the page. Then, when that’s done, I let the editor come out to play as I go back and read what I’ve done. Though I range from “Wow! I wrote that? That’s really good!” to “WHAT was I smoking?” it’s always a good process. One that shows me both how far I’ve come, and how much I still need to learn.

The other way it’s affected my writing is it’s made me teachable. I have no trouble recognizing I need an editor. And I love the editing process with my books, because my editor knows how to come alongside and encourage even as she’s pointing out places I need to fix. Sure, I have moments when I wonder what my editor was smoking , but I’d say 98% of the time, I agree with her comments and suggestions. Because she knows me as well as my writing. And that’s what makes for a great editor: someone who knows you, knows your writing, and likes both!


Nicole’s Ask-the-Editor question is one I hear all the time, so I’d delighted she asked it: Why is it that between agents, editors and/or publishing houses, each one seems to want something different? One wants a brief, snappy query, the other wants a specific type of proposal, another wants a 3 paged synopsis.

Because writing and publishing, fiction or nonfiction, is all SUBJECTIVE! Yes, there are some standards by which we measure quality, and a good portion of our decisions rest with what is and isn’t a good fit with our agency or house, but bottom line, it’s all about what we do or don’t like. Editors know the market, know their house, and know writing. And there are times they’ll go with a proposal for something they don’t particularly like, but that they know will do well for the publisher. But when it comes to proposals, what matters most to me as an editor—and to any other editor I know—is what makes my job the easiest. Hey, I told you I’d be honest. So for me, what makes my job in acquisitions easiest is the following:

The writing. No point reading a long synopsis or marketing ideas if the quality of writing isn’t what I want and need. Once I see the writing’s there, then I want to know…
The main storyline. Enter the BRIEF (for me) synopsis.
“But wait!” you wail, “Nick Harrison at Harvest wants long synopses.” You’re absolutely right. So here’s what I’ve started suggesting: write both. Don’t drive yourself crazy trying to figure out who wants what kind of synopsis—especially considering that editors do tend to jump around a bit. (Okay, okay, lately they jump around a LOT!) So the proposal you prepared for me at Zondervan, complete with a brief “hit-the-highpoints” synopsis is suddenly not what is needed because I’m now at B&H. And the Zondervan editor who now has your proposal in her hands wants a nice, long synopsis.

How do you avoid this insanity? Simple: just do both. Write a brief, one- to two- page synopsis that gives the salient plot points and reads like a movie trailer, and write a detailed, multi-paged synopsis that gives character names, backgrounds, themes, arcs, and on and on. Put both in the proposal, and you’re covered. Editors can then choose what they want, and your proposal is ahead of the game before it’s even sent out.

From that point, synopsis requirements are pretty much standard. Author bio/background/platform, a list of the marketing the author is willing to do, competition, and so on. One final note: most book editors don’t want queries, they want a proposal with sample chapters because, again, it’s the writing that makes the greatest difference. But either your agent or Sally Stuart’s great reference The Christian Writers’ Market Guide can help you know the basics of which houses prefer what.

Hope that helps!

Karen Ball says she will answer the other ask-the-editor questions whenever she can find a spare moment, which will be . . . whenever.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

AG: This is an Endorsement Free Posting

Just this morning I sent off a set of endorsements for a fellow writer. Endorsements are part of the writing life. Once you’ve published a few books here and there, requests for endorsements begin to trickle in. Endorsements are those short blurbs that appear on the cover of books, in promo material and on web pages. And, of course, these are positive statements meant to encourage the potential book buyer. (Who would buy a book with the endorsement: “This book reads like a root canal.”)

Usually, I agree to “read for endorsement” with reluctance. I do so for several reasons. First, I’m a ponderously slow reader. Empires have risen and fallen in the time it takes me to read a handful of books. Two, many publishers and authors assume that agreeing to read for endorsement is the same thing as saying, “Yes, I will read it and praise it beyond all measure.”

More than once, a writer has asked me to endorse a book that orbits a star of a different genre. Some have even gone so far as to ask for an Alton Gansky endorsement on a romance novel. A ROMANCE novel! I try to explain that I have a dominant Y-chromosome that makes such a thing difficult if not impossible. If a book doesn’t have gunfire, a fistfight, or a detailed description of a television remote control, then I lose interest. Okay, I’m exaggerating (no, I’m not). I received one book with a note that read something like this: “This isn’t a romance novel. It has romance elements but in reality it’s a suspense novel. It’s a romantic suspense, just the thing for a suspense writer like you.”

It was a romance novel. Calling a Dachshund a Doberman doesn’t make it so.

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against the genre (or Dachshunds). Some of my best friends are romance novelists so there is no literary bigotry here. It’s just that I don’t read romance, don’t write romance, don’t understand romance (the genre I mean, not…never mind), and have no idea what makes for a good romance novel. You might as well ask me something about cooking. (I told my wife that for our next vacation I wanted to go somewhere I’ve never been before. She suggested the kitchen.) Question: “Al, what makes for a good soufflé?” Answer: “Um, the bun?”

Consequently, I’ve set up rules for endorsing. One, the book has to be in or near to the genres I write. That means suspense, supernatural suspense, or suspense mystery. I can and will do Sci Fi, but not fantasy. I don’t understand fantasy. You have to be smart to understand fantasy. Crime fiction is close enough, straight mysteries are fun, and techno fiction is right up my alley.
The second rule is that I must have the right to decline endorsing. Sometimes the book just doesn’t cut it and to endorse would require lying. There have been a few I’ve had to walk away from. There have also been some I’ve been privileged to read and have taken great satisfaction that I’ve read the work before the rest of the world has.

There’s a flip side to this. As an author, I too need endorsements. Recently, I sent out copies of Crime Scene Jerusalem and was blessed to receive endorsements from Terri Blackstock, Randy Alcorn, and Jack Cavanaugh. Jerry Jenkins carried the manuscript all over the country but never managed enough free time to read it before the endorsement deadline. (I think I know Jerry well enough to know he wasn’t lying to spare my feelings. If he had read the book and didn’t like it, I’m certain he would have given it a Martha-outside-the-tomb-of-Lazarus review, “Lord, it stinketh.”) I sent the book to T. Davis Bunn who was in England at the time. It came back three times. Apparently, the Department of Homeland Security considered the book a bomb before it hit the shelves. Usually that doesn’t happen until Publisher’s Weekly has taken a couple of swipes at it.

I enjoy being asked to endorse books but can only do a certain number a year. Truth is, my endorsement won’t sell any books. I doubt that endorsements do much to move book from shelf to cash register, but they can’t hurt.

Al “I’ll take a good endorsement from anyone” Gansky blogs at http://altongansky.typepad.com/.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

JK: Clothing for the New Year

In Colossians 3, Paul says to clothe ourselves with “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience….above all, clothe yourself with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”

This is the time of year when I consider what I want to “clothe” myself with as a writer. I do want my words to reflect compassion and kindness even while I might write of difficult things: how people have mistreated each other, how wars waged that resulted in the extinction of hundreds of tribes of native people, how love and loss became a part of the human landscape. Yet in the midst of terrible times, there were wonderful acts of kindness and I want to discover and share those. While people behaved with arrogance, they also wore the shawl of humility and meekness, acts that are remembered by family members who kept their stories in their hearts if not recorded in the early newspapers. And that patience, or lack thereof, shows up so often in a writer’s life.

A friend reminded me earlier this week as I lamented feeling uncertain about this latest book that “the Lord gave it to you so you can trust he’ll be there with you.” Her words are patience-stakes, words to hold me up while I’m growing and waiting to bloom. They are reminders of that early trust I had some 22 years ago when I first believed that writing was to be a part of my life.

Last of all, Paul says, “Clothe yourself in love.” Those words and Hannah’s annual act of love and recommitment as she brought a new woolen ephod to her son Samuel, reminds me to not only love others through acts of kindness but to tend to myself. Not wear myself down by making promises I later can’t keep. Not let the harpies who would scold and criticize my work have more weight than friends who remind me that I am not alone in the story-telling. This year I will take care of me and not allow the world around to clothe me with distrust and cynicism or hopelessness nor rob me of a cloak of joy. I will wear love to bind myself to others; wear love to keep my own body, mind and spirit warm and healthy through the year. I will wear love to bind myself to God. I wish that same clothing for each of you.

Join Jane Kirkpatrick at http://www.jkbooks.com/ where she patiently awaits the publication of her 13th novel, A Tendering in the Storm this April.

Monday, January 08, 2007

NH: In 2007…Get Thee to a Writer’s Conference

I well remember the early days of my writing and editing career. I was working full time and writing very, very part time. And yet, I knew this writing compulsion was something that was important to me. I desperately wanted to succeed at this craft…and yet I had so much to learn.

At that time, I was managing a Christian bookstore, so I was around the fruit of my mentors all day. I would eagerly unpack the latest shipment from Zondervan, Tyndale, or Harvest House and, to be honest, actually covet the success of the authors whose books I was shelving.

Fast forward to the year when I actually took the plunge and began to send out some query letters and humorous articles. At that time, our daughters were small—and as any parent knows, children are an incredible source of material. One of my early articles came about when I walked past the bathroom and heard an inordinate amount of splashing. I peered in and saw all three girls kneeling over the tub, holding their Cabbage Patch dolls.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

Our middle daughter piped up and said, “Our dolls have all accepted the Lord as their Savior, so we’re baptizing them.” Sure enough, the dolls were sopping wet…but thoroughly saved.

It was also about this time that I realized that I wanted to step up my progress as a writer. And so off I went to my first Christian writer’s conference. Could I afford it? NO! But could I afford not to go? NO! So for at least two, possibly three of my early writer’s conferences I traded work for conference admission. In short, I offered to shuttle arriving authors and editors to and from the airport. Both of these conferences were at least 45 minutes from the airport. That meant 90 minute round trips—several 90 minute round trips both at the beginning of the conference and at the end. But during those trips I met not only some other aspiring authors, but even better—some very prestigious editors.

And of course, there were all those great workshops and motivating keynote sessions. And wonderful fellowship with other would-be authors who understood the pain of rejections from editors who were clearly unable to detect great writing when they saw it. And speaking of those editors—it was with great fear and trembling that I would sit across a dinner table from one of them and try to pitch my latest great idea, no doubt with broccoli stuck between my teeth.

Fast forward a few more years. Now I’m one of those woeful editors who sits across the table from trembling authors—grinning ever so slightly and thinking to myself, if they only knew. And I’m now the one who obviously doesn’t recognize great writing when I see it.

But wait. That can’t be true. I have actually acquired some of my very favorite authors at conferences. Authors I wouldn’t have been exposed to in any other way.

When I first came on board at Harvest House, almost seven years ago, I sold them quickly on the idea of sending me to conferences (they hadn’t made conferences a priority previously). And on my first outing I came back with three proposals that we eventually published. Six years later, one of those authors, Roxanne Henke, is still very successfully publishing with us. I’m so glad I was there to discover her talent. I’m also so glad that she made the effort to come to that faraway conference in California all the way from a small town in North Dakota, with nothing more than a hope and a manuscript. She also came in spite of the knowledge that a previous editor had harshly rejected her with the words, “You need to learn how to write.” (I’m still incredulous that an editor could say that about such a powerful novel as Roxy’s After Anne).

Now we have a new year upon us. Fresh and unblemished. It’s entirely likely that no one reading this has received their first rejection slip of 2007. But you probably will. I’m certain I will, as I continue my own writing career, again writing very, very part time.

Here’s an idea for a couple of New Year’s resolutions: first, don’t be discouraged when those rejections come (you already know this, don’t you? But we all need reminding. No writer likes rejection). And second, make it a priority to go to a writer’s conference this year—preferably a Christian writer’s conference if that’s the market you’re writing for. These conferences are held in many places around the country. Find one close to you. Or go to the websites of some of these conferences and see if the faculty, speakers and/or workshops are ones you need to hear.

If finances are a problem, see if there are scholarships available. Several conferences do offer at least partial scholarships. If not, ask the conference director if there is a way you can work during the conference to pay for your tuition. Or, why not approach your church missions committee and share your plans to succeed as a Christian writer. Ask them if they would consider either a partial or full investment in your writing ministry by underwriting your conference expenses.

And, of course, pray. I think every successful Christian writer and editor can look back and see how God moved in their life to prosper them in their career. Ask God to open every door you must walk through to succeed. And then consider that one of those doors might be at a writer’s conference. So, make it part of your writing plan in 2007 to get thee to a writer’s conference.

Here’s one excellent site that lists some up and coming conferences: http://www.christianwritersinfo.net/conferences.htm

Nick Harrison is senior editor at Harvest House Publishers and the author of eight books, with his ninth to be released this spring. www.harvesthousepublishers.com.

Friday, January 05, 2007

TM: Potato-Potato-Potato, Part 2

What do we have that is so valued? Certainly there is the sense of identity. No one has to be told that we own Harleys; you can tell it just by looking at us. And even though that mode of dress may border on scary (a new rider once asked me what to wear on a club ride, was told, “Just dress like you’re getting ready to rob a convenience store…”), there are reasons behind it all: the boots, gloves and leather jackets protect us in a fall; the bandannas can be used to keep the sun off our necks or heads or to keep from inhaling too many bugs during a ride; and we prefer denim and black because they don’t show the grime that you pick up naturally during a long ride. As for the skulls, and the flames, and the tattoos, it’s because we have our own universe of patron saints, and they tend for the most part to be pirates.

But far more valuable to us than the brand image is the sense of community. A friend of mine owns a Honda Goldwing, a touring motorcycle that he contends is easier and more comfortable to ride, more economical to maintain, and just generally technologically superior to any Harley ever made (all of which are very probably true). Yet he also owns an FLHTCU Ultra Classic Electra Glide (the bike known among Harley enthusiasts simply as “an Ultra”) that he rides with us on the weekends. And when I asked him why he holds onto the Harley he said, “The social aspect—the people. I don’t know anybody who would consider it a good use of time to go hang out at the Honda shop. But I can go by the Harley dealership and always find someone to talk to.”

Harley owners embrace owners of other brands of motorcycles, even though we may privately pity them. We simply figure that they have not yet progressed up the path of enlightenment and that, given time, they will eventually find their way into the fold. So we wave to them when we see them on the road. And if they show up for one of our rides on a Brand-X bike, we welcome them with open arms.

I am a road-captain with our group—a ride-leader—which is a volunteer position and one for which I had to train at my expense. Yet, like virtually all of the positions for which the club accepts volunteers, the position is one for which we really have too many people; so many that I’ll find it difficult to organize and lead more than two rides in 2007. Still, we never turn a volunteer away. Instead, we accept them, make the workload light, and turn the entire enterprise into a party.

One reason we have so many volunteers is that our community of riders holds them in high esteem. We recognize them, honor them, and reward them (most Harley riders have leather vests that they wear specifically to have a place a put all the patches, pins and accolades that their clubs hand out to them). In this community, participation is not just an obligation. It’s cool.

There is also a great sense of fraternity among Harley riders. During my ride up to St. Augustine, I pulled over to check if a couple on a Road King at the side of the road was all right. They were—they were just stopping to take a picture—yet they weren’t surprised that I stopped, because part of the unwritten code of Harley ownership is that you never, ever leave a brother or sister stranded, not even if stopping to help makes you late or inconveniences you.

That fraternal sense extends into business dealings. When I patronize businesses owned by members of my club, I can generally expect a discount and I often receive things—from legal advice, to lunch, to the photograph that accompanies this blog entry—for free, and am greeted with an injured expression when I try to insist on paying.

Just yesterday, I tried to deposit a royalty check at a local bank branch and was told that the check would be on hold for 5-11 business days because it’s from an out-of-town bank. I took the check back and carried it this morning to another branch where the assistant manager rides a Softtail and has chatted with me about bikes before. When I asked, “Will it be any problem to make the funds available immediately on this?” … he just glanced at the Harley logo on the helmet that I’d set on his counter, smiled, and told me, “Not at all, bro.”

When one of our members was hurt recently, his mother and family coming in from out of town had places to stay and three hot meals a day, all provided by people who didn’t know them from Adam. He’s constantly being visited during his recuperation. If he has medical expenses that aren’t covered by his insurance, we’ll throw a party and raise money to cover them—and any money left over (I can practically guarantee you that there will be money left over) will go to a local children’s home that is largely supported by our donations and our activities. If we aren’t giving, we feel unfulfilled. Giving is part of what we are.

One more very important thing… My back-seat passenger? My daughter? She’s recently asked me if she can take rider’s lessons because she wants to ride her own Harley (she’ll probably eventually inherit my XL) and be part of the group. She wants that largely because they feel so much like family. And she wants it of her own volition. I didn’t even have to suggest it.

Christianity ought to work that way. Church ought to work that way. People ought to want what we have simply because of what we are. And the times when we get together with other Christians ought to be the very best parts of our week. Just like my scenes and my setting details, I try to remember that as I sit down to work on my craft. And the Harley is a powerful memory jog: one that I feel—quite literally—in my bones.


Tom Morrisey (www.tommorrisey.com ) is the author of DEEP BLUE and DARK FATHOM

Thursday, January 04, 2007

TM: Potato-Potato-Potato, Part 1

Photo: Tom and his Harley
Photo credit: Ron Bath

I just got home from St. Augustine, where I did some prospecting research on a yarn that will have modern-day adventurers searching a 17th-century Spanish fort for clues to an ages-old puzzle. And on this trip, as on several in recent months, I used my favorite research tool—one that has a saddle, and two wheels, and makes noise. Lots of noise.

If you know me, you know that I’m talking about my Harley®, a 2005 XL1200C that I got earlier this year after my venerable Honda bit the dust, and on which I’ve already racked up nearly 10,000 miles in surprisingly little time. With me was my research partner—my 16-year-old daughter and back-seat iPod listener, Carly. Her mother was also along, but on her own Harley-Davidson, as neither one of us will ever agree to climb up on the back of a motorcycle and ride behind the other.

Now true, it is possible to get to Castillo de San Marcos via automobile as well, but the reason I consider the Harley a legitimate research tool is that it encourages me to travel to places using not the interstates and toll roads that I would use were I driving a car, but what William Least Heat-Moon called the “Blue Highways”—those secondary, off-the-beaten-path roads that lend themselves best to the kinesthetic, total-sensory nature of travel via motorcycle. As I explore the possibility of setting stories in my home state, getting around via bike takes me away from the Florida of time-shares and theme parks and deep into the Florida of Spanish moss and orange groves, freshwater springs, gator holes and a town that had to change its name to Yeehaw Junction because Standard Oil wouldn’t put the original name (Jackass Crossing) on their road map.

Were it not for the Harley, I probably never would have made it to places such as Cherry Pocket, a fish camp (cracker terminology for any waterside facility that includes a ramshackle collection of cabins and house trailers, a bait shop and a bar) on Lake Pierce. Cherry Pocket has a boat-shaped outdoor bar fashioned from a real boat, and it was there I learned that many rural Floridians truly believe that stapling ZipLoc bags full of water to the eaves will keep an open-air location free of mosquitoes (the ZipLoc bags at Cherry Pocket had “DON’T ASK” written on them in Magic Marker: an admonition that I promptly ignored). And the kitchen at Cherry Pocket serves neither cherry products nor pocket sandwiches. “Cherry” was the name of the fish camp’s original owner, and “pocket” is old Floridian for a small bay on a lake.

I don’t know. Maybe you can find nuggets like that on the Internet. Maybe not. But either way, it’s not as fun as stumbling across them in person. And the Harley is a great way to facilitate the stumbles.

When I’m off in search of setting and atmosphere like this, I don’t carry a digital voice recorder; nor do I carry a camera. My wife usually has a little Nikon digital with her, but that is mostly for recording things like Carly and yours-truly cracking up at lunchtime, or wandering too close to the wildlife.

I do carry a notebook, but that is not used for taking down details. Rather, if a scene, or an edit, or a snippet of dialogue for the current work-in-progress occurs to me while I ride, I take out my notebook and rough it out at the next stop. Otherwise the scene will just keep re-running in my head and keep me from being in the moment.

I have a couple of reasons for not using a notebook or recorder to take down location and setting notes. The first is that people tend to clam up when they are speaking “on the record,” even if you assure them that it is only for background. So I learn more, and tend to get into those wonderful meandering conversations during which I serendipitously learn new things (like how Cherry Pocket got its name) when I’m just yakking, rather than interviewing.

And the second reason I don’t take notes is because, when I do, I write down too much… things I shouldn’t use. Ever. For instance, it may be true that the front window of one particular antiques shop in St. Augustine’s Spanish Quarter is composed of 32 separate panes of hand-poured greenish glass. But if I convey that information in a novel, it makes my narrator sound at best like some introverted neurotic, and at worst like Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rainman. I well remember getting editor Dave Lambert’s comment letter on my initial draft of Turn Four, in which he wrote: “Your command of NASCAR lore is impressive, but does the reader really need to know the inside diameter of the roll-cage tubing?”

Indeed, when I’m on travels such as this, I deliberately downplay the need to get details, because if I don’t I tend to over-observe. Years of paying attention to setting has given me the ability to record the sorts of details that would make me the state’s star witness in a bank robbery (my wife loves the fact that I can usually recall, in fair detail, what everyone was wearing at a party). So I find that what I remember naturally, without forcing things, is what I need to convey that you-are-there sense of a place.

That sense of recall is not limited to sight and sound. Much of what I brought back from Castillo de San Marcos from this weekend past has to do with touch (for instance, the cold roughness of the ancient limestone from which the fort was constructed). And my most vivid memory of the cannon-firing demonstration is that of the smell: detonating black powder dramatically conveys the impression that someone’s septic tank has just violently exploded. Yes—that means exactly what you think it means.

Another reason the Harley is my favorite research tool is because of the nature of the beast. I’m not talking about the 1930-ish styling, or the distinctive sound of the V-Twin engine (Harley-Davidson once tried—unsuccessfully—to register as a trademark their distinctive idle signature, a sound that enthusiasts universally describe as “Potato-potato-potato…”). Rather, it’s the fact that owning one, and interacting with other Harley owners, is a constant reminder to me of how Christianity is really supposed to work.

For instance, I belong to the Orlando chapter of the Harley Owners Group®. That chapter currently has well over 500 active and dues-paying members, absolutely none of whom had to be courted, recruited, convinced or persuaded to join. Rather, they joined because they saw what others in the club had, and they valued and they wanted it.

Tom Morissey will continue this adventure tomorrow.