Wednesday, February 28, 2007

JC: Got Change?

Got Change?

Hmm. Let me check.

Two quarters. A dime. Two nickels. Three pennies. That makes…
Don’t tell me! I can do it myself!

…seventy-three cents!

Told you I could do it.

A person’s change (and how long it takes him to count it) reveals a lot about him. What does seventy-three cents in a grown man’s pocket say about him? Probably that he writes Christian fiction for a living.

Change in a novel reveals a lot about it, too.

Too little change means that if by some miracle the story did get published, it is destined for the table in the bookstore that has a sign, Three Novels for a Quarter.

Too much change too quickly in a novel will set a reader’s head to spinning until it explodes. That’s why librarians favor literary novels. Fast-paced thrillers leave such a mess on the bookstacks.

So how much change is enough? Too much?

To some degree the genre in which you write determines your pace. While gone are the days when an author can take fifteen pages to describe the room, generally literary-style novels have a slower pace of change while thrillers are getting so fast some authors panic if their chapters are longer than a page and a half.

What’s an author to do?

Here’s a benchmark that’s been helpful to me. Ken Follett—a suspense fiction author who doesn’t shy away from setting a scene or describing a character—suggests that there should be some element of change in a story every four to six pages.

It doesn’t have to be major change (“My wife is an identical quintuplet and they all have amnesia and I don’t know which one is mine!”) followed four pages later with another major change (“Aliens just ate my Lexus!”). The change can be a small turn in the story (“I can’t get my zipper up!” Hmm. Then again, that may be a major change…). Anyway, the important thing is that you frustrate your character and torture your reader.

Change is a staple of storytellers. It’s also an essential element in Christianity.

Aha! If that little juxtaposition didn’t set gears to whirring in your Christian novelist head, maybe you really should call ITT Technical Institute the next time the commercial airs.
This is what excites me so much about storytelling. Change and the gospel message are two sides of the same coin!

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (II Cor. 5:17)

I’m talking about Once-I-Was-Blind-Now-I-Can-See change. Before and After. The building block of every Christian’s personal story. The old is gone, the new has come. I’ve died to myself and risen to new life.

Isn’t that exactly what any good story does? It starts with before and ends with after. Even those written by secular authors.

To quote Isaac Asimov (an author who has written more books than most people have said they’ve read):

“It is change, continuing change, inevitable change that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but as it will be…”

Or can be, in Christ. That’s my seventy-three cents worth.

Jack Cavanaugh is the author of many books, including Death Watch

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

JSB: Gnawing Questions

I'm sometimes asked why I write suspense. It has been pointed out to me that if I had adopted the pen name Belle Scott-James, and wrote romances, I might have reached the widest market that exists. But I always remember what Gilbert Morris once said, that the three things he'd never try are incest, folk dancing and writing a romance.


Now let me say up front that this is not about the merits of writing romances. I'll let Gil field the tomatoes on that one. Besides, I have several friends who write, or once wrote romances. And I don't have anything against Fabio.

No, what I want to consider is the question of why we write what we do. That's always worth a step back and ponder from time to time.

Nicholas Sparks, for example, has been quite open in admitting he writes as a business proposition. He told author David Morrell he saw that a certain genre of book seemed to have the best shot at massive return for the time investment. He literally chose his market, his niche, his brand, his profile, according to commercial calculation, and has succeeded wildly.

Which is fine. He's a businessman, and in our free enterprise system that's permissible.

Morrell, after hearing this, reflected that he is just not constituted to be that kind of writer. He can write only when there is something (an "inner ferret" he calls it) gnawing at him, something that needs expression from the deepest part of himself.

I'm a Morrell type rather than a Sparks type. That's why I write suspense. It's the genre that's best for me to explore questions I consider important, usually centering on how people of faith deal with real evil in the world.

For example, my latest novel, No Legal Grounds, is about a subject that has long fascinated me – sociopathology. This came to a head as I watched the Scott Peterson case unfolding. How a seemingly nice, charming guy, the proverbial boy next door, could use and abuse women and ultimately murder his wife and unborn child, and sit stone faced through a whole trial, became a burning question in my gut.

I began to ask myself how a good Christian family man, a respected lawyer, might react if a sociopath decides, for reasons unknown, to come after him and his family. And what if the legal system, because the sociopath is so clever, is unable to help? And if the Christian man has a vulnerable teen-age daughter who becomes subject to the evil, what then? What would this father do?

That's the germ of suspense for me, when I am able to set up hard questions that don't provide any easy answers, or easy ways of escape.

But there's even more to it than that. I had some professional people read the book in manuscript, and while I was gratified with their favorable comments about the suspense aspect, what was even more important to me was their connection to the issues the book raises. One said, "the evil of the antagonist resonates." A review of the book noted that this "straight-from-the-headlines tale will raise the hair on your neck for one important reason: it could happen to any of us."

That last line sums up why I wrote No Legal Grounds. It's this very real menace, garbed in charming clothes, that drove me to the keyboard. Yes, I want and need to keep the readers flipping pages. If I fail as a storyteller, the rest won't matter.

But mostly I want and need my "inner ferret" to do its work.

My last novel, Presumed Guilty, dealt with a problem I see as epidemic, pornography. It began when I started to ask myself the question of how a good Christian woman, the wife of a prominent pastor, would react if she found her husband was using porn? It built from there into a murder case and other family issues.

I got more mail from readers about Presumed Guilty than ever before. Many women readers thanked me profusely for dealing with this subject, because they had husbands or boyfriends addicted to porn.

And then there were the men, who wrote to me admitting the problem, said how important this subject was. One heart rending letter begged me to keep praying for deliverance.

This reaction somewhat stunned me, but told me that I'd hit the nerve I was aiming for.

Then today (as I write) I read two stories in the newspaper that show both pornography and sociopathology are on the rise. All this confirms for me that I have chosen the right genre for my "inner ferret."

As a writer, you need to make a decision, too. If you want to write to make money, it's not against the law. You can aim for markets and try to please them. I've even heard of writers using focus groups to help shape their books. Hey, I used to be a trial lawyer, we did that all the time with juries.

But in my experience the best fiction, the most lasting fiction, the fiction that reaches people at a deeper level is not going to come from a purely commercial place.

One of my dear friends used to write historical romances. They were good, too, and the genre is fine for others. But they weren't the books she truly wanted to write. Sales were disappointing. One day she said to a few of us, "You know, I'm not making money writing what I don't want to write. I might as well not make money writing what I do want to write."

The result of that decision is a string of amazing, award-winning novels by an author named Lisa Samson.

Another close friend long ago decided that the fiction she wanted to write had to be a challenge for her. The result has been a body of work that is stunningly original, and has even become a de facto brand. We've learned to "expect the unexpected" from Angie Hunt.

I could add many other examples here. But these will suffice to make the point again, that the best fiction comes from the deepest part of you.

So if you decide this is the kind of fiction you want to write, I say welcome, Brother; glad to have you, Sister. Give us your vision and your passion, the thing that gnaws.

Give us a glimpse of your writer's soul.

James Scott Bell

Monday, February 26, 2007

JK: Commitment

For those of you interested in my last month’s contribution about titles…we’ve decided on one for my book. I do thank those of you who sent me emails about possible titles. That was cool!

What we’ve chosen is “A Mending at the Edge.” I like it. In part because it is a book about a woman’s healing, her coming to terms with the mistakes of her past while moving forward. I’m using Acts 26:2 in the King James version where Paul says “I think myself happy…”

I love the idea that we can change how we feel, that we can think our way into a better, more hopeful place. Mending involves that kind of re-thinking, pulling threads across the tears and making something whole again. I like the idea of an edge as well because this woman was at the edge of her religious colony. She didn’t always see eye to eye with the leader and yet she found herself needing the security and comfort that the colony provided to a woman with four children in the 1860s whose husband had abused her. She was marginalized in some ways, at the edge.

But in backwaters, it’s the edge that promises the most intriguing bits of flora and fauna. Rich life goes on at the edge of things and contributes greatly to the health of the entire river. I like the idea that this woman will find her way toward spiritual health and in so doing, she will bring good things to the rest of the colony as they make their way.

There are quilts in the story too, so mending and having a tight, well-stitched edge, just stands for quality, doesn’t it? And perseverance. So thanks for your offers of titles. I think this one says what I want. We’ll how readers feel after they get the book in 2008! You won’t even remember we had this conversation by then!

Unlike many of you, I began writing for other people to read later in life. My first book appeared on bookshelves the day before I turned 45. As a child I wrote wretched little poems. In school, I heard teachers praise my use of words and story-telling. At sixteen, I submitted an essay to our state-wide Church sponsored contest titled “What Jesus Means to Me.” It was my first award for writing.

But I still didn’t listen to God’s voice. I resisted, not sure that doing something I loved could really be the way God called one into service. I had a profession as a clinical social worker. Helping people with wounded spirits by listening to their words seemed like worthy work.

But I deceived myself. I was listening -- just to other voices. I call them the harpies. You’ll remember them as those shrouded creatures from Greek tragedies who run across the stage announcing disasters. Whenever I’d think about writing, they’d be sitting behind me saying: “You think you have a gift? What makes you think you have anything worthy to say? Do you really think people will give up cleaning their toilets for an hour to read this drivel?”

But finally a story found me and would not let me go. To write it, I had to put Duct Tape on the harpies. I didn’t know if it would get published or not, but I committed to writing it down.
Commitment is a word derived from the ancient banking industry. It meant “to make a deposit against which one can later draw.” I made a commitment to be at the computer to write by 5:00 AM every morning, to enter and live that story and to trust God for the rest. That story went on to win a couple of awards but it was keeping that commitment that blessed me most.

As Christian writers, it isn’t our job to write the great American novel. It isn’t our job to get Oprah to know our names. It’s our task to show up, to assume the position of a writer and to tell the stories that we’ve been given the best way we know how and to trust that we’re not alone in the telling.

That last is the most important I think, for those of us who tell stories with a Christian’s heart. Madeleine L’Engle in her book Walking on Water, reminds us that when we create, we co-create with Spirit, with God, with Christ’s voice in our ears; and we co-create with readers who bring their lives and needs and loves to what we’ve written.

Listening comes first but then we’re asked to commit, to “simply say yes or no” to that voice (Matthew 5:37 God’s Word). We’re asked to step out onto a cloud of faith believing we won’t fall through. We can trust that Christ’s spirit and a reader’s heart will transform our stories and make them greater than they otherwise might be.

Jane Kirkpatrick author of A Land of Sheltered Promise

Friday, February 23, 2007

Ask the Authors: Friday

Final day for "Ask the Authors" this month:

Do you have a blog? If so, what do you think is its most significant advantage? BTW, you can visit any of our authors' blogs and/or web pages by clicking on the links to your right.

I don’t, and I feel guilty about that. One of these days I will probably feel guilty enough to do something about it. -Tom Morrisey

Sort of. I write a monthly memo and I contribute to this Blog and also one with Women Writing the West. The greatest advantage I think is staying connected to readers, knowing what interests them, keeping the "buzz up" and hopefully introducing my work to new readers, younger readers. -Jane Kirkpatrick

I’ve thought about starting one, and even put a button on my website for it, but so far I’m not sure I have the time. I don’t enjoy reading blogs about people’s daily life. What they had for breakfast and who their favorite actor is, etc….I mean, if they were a friend of course I’d be interested, but these are strangers, so who cares about their eggs? The blogs I enjoy are the ones that come off more like a series of essays. Smart people thinking out loud about important things. So that’s the kind of blog I’d want to write. But I’m not sure I’m smart enough to do that on a regular basis. (Who ARE these people who write brilliantly about so many different subjects, and do that EVERY SINGLE DAY? I sometimes suspect a whole editorial and research staff lurks in the shadows, unacknowledged. Just kidding.) I need time to ponder things. What you put out there in cyberspace can come back to haunt you, right? So I’m thinking of doing something different on my website, where I might start posting essays from time to time, in a separate little area with an index all its own. That way there’s no pressure to come up with something worthwhile every single day, but if anyone wants to know what I think about something for some reason (one cannot imagine why), then they can check to see if it’s listed. We’ll see… -Athol Dickson

Yes. I love my blog. The most significant advantage is that it creates community. My blog is moderately successful because it's very two way. Because a blog isn't and shouldn't be a professional/formal medium, it allows me to reveal more about who I am and so further build relationships with my readers. A word of advice to any bloggers: If it's all about you, your life, your career, it will fail. Blogs are NOT websites. I've got more opinions on this but if I say more, it might just give you hives! -Lisa Samson (Editor's note--will someone get this girl some Calamine lotion?)

I do have a blog—two, in fact, but I use blogging a little differently than most. Two blogspot accounts comprise my website. I’ve disabled the comments, date and timestamp, trackback features, etc. On the blog to which my domain name ( is pointed, I have links to a second blog where I keep a static group of posts such as “Complete List of Books,” “Deborah’s Bio,” “2007-08 Schedule,” etc. and on the main page, I post current news—everything from updates on writers events to family happenings to my current reading list and links to recent interviews. The site is heavy on photos and light on type, and I try to post something new at least once a week. I doubt I get the same kind of traffic a typical blog might get; still, it’s a great (and free) way to have someplace to send my readers for the latest news, and a site I can maintain myself, in spite of the fact that I’m not computer savvy. –Deborah Raney

I used to blog, but found that regular blogging took too much time and energy away from my writing. The occasional Charis entry is just right for me. - James Scott Bell

Nope, not a blogger. :>) -Liz Curtis Higgs

You know, there are so many things I should be doing as an author but with a full-time job I just can't do it all. I'd love to have a regular blog. Heck, just cyber-talking with folks all the time? How cool is that? And I do have a blog through Amazon, though I don't get to it very often. So I'm not capitalizing on it the way I should. As far as the advantage, I think it puts you in touch with your readers. And that's vitally important. Both to know what your readers are thinking and to help re-energize you as a writer. I LOVE hearing from my readers, and any avenue for doing that is worth pursuing. -Karen Ball

Yes. I don’t know. --Patricia Hickman

I do, but I have mixed feelings about it. I tend to write short essays. My writing life isn’t exciting enough to keep me awake, it certainly won’t interest anyone else. I prefer to blog about creativity and imagination. I have ideas for three other blogs but have yet to act on them. Some days I sits and thinks, “I’m just one 54 million bloggers;” other days I sits and thinks, “People have been responsive to the blogging I’ve done;” and other days, I just sits. -Alton Gansky

Yes, I have a blog. I've kept a blog for five years now. I started with the idea that I would let readers see what went into writing a novel. I quickly found that most days, that's rather boring. "I wrote for four hours today and produced eight pages." Eventually, the blog developed into a potpourri of glimpses into my life -- my writing, films I enjoyed, spiritual lessons I've learned, books I'm reading, my thoughts on culture, etc.

A reporter told me that reading my web site and blog left her feeling as if she'd been to my home and sat down with me at the kitchen table to chat over a cup of coffee. I loved that because it is who I am and what my writing is all about. It exemplifies my brand: From her heart ... to yours! - Robin Lee Hatcher

No blog. No time. No energy. --Hannah Alexander

Yes, I have a blog. On some days I wax profound, on some days I babble about trivia. Mostly it's for my mom and Aunt Irene and whoever happens to drop in. --Angela Hunt

I do, though I'm not a daily blogger--not enough time. I blog sporadically. If there's any advantage to it at all, it's probably to provide information to readers about my books. -BJ Hoff

Nope, no blog. Not yet, anyway. Maybe someday I’ll work my way into the 21st century. --Ann Tatlock

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Ask the Authors: Thursday

Ask the Authors:

Do you do extensive biographies of your main characters before you begin to write? Any other procedures or programs for creating them?

I actually do create extensive internal biographies. I think that their looks and clothing are somewhat important, but creating an internal clockwork that provides a natural impetus for internal monologues and responses helps keep the character development real. --Patricia Hickman

No. I get in their shadow and see where they go and what they do. Along the way, I learn about them. Sometimes I learn surprising things. I do, however, jot down information about them as I learn it, lest my 35 year-old, coal-haired leading man become a 41 year-old, redheaded woman. --Alton Gansky

I know I’m “supposed” to write extensive biographies, but I don’t. I do jot down sketchy notes, and my imagination fills in the rest as I go along. Even though my novels are more character-driven than plot-driven, I spend much more time agonizing over the plot. Maybe because the characters come to me more naturally and more fully developed. I seem to know them without having to spend time writing down all the details. --Ann Tatlock

What I know about my characters--and I know a lot even before I begin writing their story--is mostly in my head. I do keep a chart of their basic physical characteristics--age, eye color, hair color, etc.--just for the sake of reference. I used to do really exhaustive biographies, but I eventually discovered it was a waste of time (for me). Whatever went into the biographies was redundant, because I "live" with my people for long periods of time anyway, and just as I wouldn't have to print out all this information about one of my family members, I don't need to do it for a character either. -BJ Hoff

I don't do extensive biographies, because they change while I'm writing. I don't have procedures or programs, I simply allow myself to be inspired by people I see, incidents that occur, books I've read. --Hannah Alexander

Either before I begin or by about chapter three, I write first person autobiographies of my main characters. I use "stream of consciousness" writing for this, letting the character tell me his/her story from birth to the time the novel opens. This gets me into their heads and helps me understand their motivations for the things they will do in my novel. -- Robin Lee Hatcher

Yes, complete with pictures of them and anything special to them, be it an animal (like Kodi, Annie's German shepherd in Kaleidoscope Eyes), or a cane with a silver lion's head top (such as Rafe has in What Lies Within). I write down their emotional, spiritual, and physical characteristics and issues, and what they need to learn. And I talk with them. Yeah, yeah, weird, I know. But a friend once suggested that the best way to get to know your characters is to sit down and have a cup of coffee with them. So I do that. And I'm always amazed at what I learn. Especially if I'm not writing them the way they want me to...the ingrates. I mean, I created them! But characters do take on personalities and you can't go against what you've laid as their foundation. Or they just don't work right. --Karen Ball

Yes, I do extensive bios of my main characters, and mini-bios of the minor ones. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is very helpful in making sure I get a mix of personalities with both strengths and weaknesses. I also choose photos of people from magazines and have them sitting about my desk in picture frames, basing my physical descriptions on what I see in the photo. That helps me get more specific details than just red hair, brown eyes. --Liz Curtis Higgs

There are two schools of thought here. One is to do extensive "dossiers"; the other is to add to the character gradually as story needs arise. I have to know how the character looks (I clip magazine pics or find them on the Web) and sounds (I do a lot of free form "voice journals" of the characters talking) and answer a few basic questions. Then I let the characters take shape as I move along. - James Scott Bell

I get to know my characters as I write, just as I get to know my plot. Yes, it means a lot of going back to layer in personality traits, motivation and backstory, but that’s what works for me. And I happen to love rewriting, so I’m reading over my story multiple times anyway. I’ve tried filling out character sheets and using personality profiles, etc. It just doesn’t work for me. If I use any “technique” for creating characters, it’s modeling them after an actual person I know. But I’ll never tell who my “models” have been. ; ) –Deborah Raney

No. A basic sketch and then I move forward from there and discover them as I go. This helps influence the plot, for although I have a good idea of what point B is, but how they get there from point A is sketchy at the get go. Thinking about anything more detailed at first gives me hives. --Lisa Samson

Yes, I usually know a lot about the main characters before I start the first draft, just as I know the setting and the plot very well. I’ve tried just diving in without much preparation, working it out as I go along on the first draft, and frankly I find that method frustrating. It’s one thing to throw out a lot of raw ideas that lead to a dead end; it’s a much more painful thing to throw out ten completed chapters. So I’ve learned to begin the creative process with brainstorming files, which are not limited to characterization or plot or setting, but flow freely between every aspect of a story idea in a stream of consciousness kind of way. I just go and go until I hit on something rich in one area or another, which I might then use to start a whole new “stream.” Some of these ideas deal with the characters directly, and some are external to them, but everything helps me understand who and how the people in the story need to be, just as the people help me know where and when they need to be. I do not subscribe to the school that says the characters must drive the story, because that means plot driven stories are more superficial. Why be so limiting in my thinking? Imagine a painter who insists that the yellows must go on the canvas first. That procedure might mean something to him as an individual, or be something he finds helpful, but to make such a rule apply to everyone? Ridiculous. What I’m saying is my procedure for creating characters is identical with, and simultaneous to, my procedure for creating everything else. For example, characters can be driven just as legitimately by settings as by plot ideas or by other characters. Good novels handle all of them so seamlessly it’s not possible to discover where the author started out. Good novels are like a dance, in which every aspect leads sometimes, and sometimes follows. For that matter, settings often ARE characters in a well written novel for all practical purposes. Just like any character, a well sketched setting can establish moods for the reader, teach the reader things about themselves, and move the story forward. Think of THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA. In a similar way, characters can be thought of as settings themselves, repositories for ideas. Think of SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE. Take a crude, harsh man who is totally unconcerned about demonstrating his bodily functions in public, then cause him to deal with some delicate and fragile idea in a very serious way. Then take a harsh physical environment, put a newborn baby naked in the middle of it, and let the babe be brought up by wolves. The same story could be told either way, in terms of theme. But I digress. So anyway, when I have enough brainstorming done, I go back and mine the information from these files—from all the various “streams”—pulling qualities and ideas and details from here and there, looking for patterns that align with each other, organizing all of it into something more formal, which I can reference later. Biographies, setting sketches, metaphors, etc.. But for me the key when creating all these things is not to be concerned about who or what is driving them this way or that. Just let the ideas flow without judging them, and the good ones will always out. --Athol Dickson

No, but I do ask myself what is their desire? What is the most important thing they want in their life and do they know that's what they want? I ask myself what tangible object would represent that for them and how will they get that by the end of the book? One of our colleagues Ron Benry, created a program to keep track of things like hair color, age, nickname, etc. which I love! And I look at things like the Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory and a list from Carolyn Pearson's book Awakening the Heroes Within which includes archtypes, their stories, their addicitions, their "dragons/problems" and their gift or virtue. But then I let the character sort of take over and hope I can keep her/them in check so I don't get to the end of the book and have to write ten more to finish off their desires! Jane Kirkpatrick

I have a little Moleskine notebook that I carry around, and as I “know” something about a character, I write it down in that notebook. Once I’ve done that, I very, very rarely check back to keep my facts straight. The act of writing it down just helps me remember. And I often go back and fill in things in my manuscript as I “learn” them. But on a novel with historical background, such as DEEP BLUE, I research the historical characters in depth and create very detailed timelines before I begin writing. --Tom Morrisey

I do a simple 4 x 6 card that contains their birthday (important, and not for astrological reasons), their physical description, their Myers-Briggs type, and their secret. That's all I need to begin. --Angela Hunt

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Ask the Authors: Wednesday

Welcome back to Ask the Authors! If you have a question, send it to . Thanks!

Do you use any software programs for plotting your novels (ex: Dramatica Pro, Inspiration 8) or do you create the story entirely on your own?

Being an ex-PC junkie, I've tried everything--from Sol Stein's programs to Word Blocks, to Dramatica Pro. And you know what? They really don't help much. They might spark something, or check something, but the story still has to come from your head and have good dramatic structure. --Angela Hunt

No. I have no one to blame but myself for my arcane and convoluted plotlines. Besides, I think plotting is the easier part of writing. It’s characters and language that keep you filling up the trashcan. --Tom Morrisey

My first two novels I used Write Pro from Sol Stein (you can tell how old I am, eh?) to help me develop character ideas, do a character timeline and compare it to my own so I wasn't writing MY story into that character. I listen to STORY by Robert McGee before beginning each new novel to be reminded about the elements of story. But beyond that, it does all come from my head and from the expert advice of editors as they give me suggestions for revising. --Jane Kirkpatrick

Software for plotting? Hmmm. I guess if it was a kind of story-boarding software, some kind of graphic user interface that allowed me to keep track of my ideas and the relationships of cause and effect in a more streamlined fashion, that might be worth looking into. But as for “creating the story entirely on my own,” I hope they never make a software to help with that, because if they do, then the very next step is software that will write the story, and of course who needs us writers after that? I’m not seriously worried about having my job automated, of course, because it’s not a job; it’s art. Unless they figure out a way to give computers human intuition, the day will never come when computers are any use for coming up good story ideas. The ideas are a vital part of the art of the thing, and cannot be pre-programmed, or arrived at through pure logic. --Athol Dickson

Honestly, I can't even begin to imagine using a computer program to create my story. That gives me hives too. --Lisa Samson

I played around with Inspiration when starting a novel a couple of years ago, and I did like the way it allowed me to make a family tree of my characters, and do some basic plotting. But my free trial expired and I haven’t used it since—or missed it, really. Because I’m an intuitive (seat-of-the-pants) writer rather than a plotter, I’m not sure most of that type of software would work for me. –Deborah Raney

Once, for a writers magazine, I reviewed a bunch of so-called "writing software." I found none of the programs that help "generate" ideas or structure to be worth it. They held me back, if anything. IdeaFisher, when it was around, was a great brainstorming program. You can use the Internet and Google almost the same way now. Inspiration is a wonderful program that helps you keep track of your own ideas. It doesn't pretend to write anything for you. I use it on every project--fiction, non-fiction, speeches, workshops. - James Scott Bell

I've never tried any plotting programs. I do use the 12-step Storyteller's Journey as a guide, to make sure I'm building a story arc that works. --Liz Curtis Higgs

No software, but I'm thinking about giving it a try. It seems a great way to spark the story if you get stuck. And heaven knows we all get stuck at times. (Some of us more than others...) --Karen Ball

As I’ve been known to tell people, mine is a 19th century mind trying to function in the 21st century world. I’m thankful for computers because I sure wouldn’t want to try writing a novel on a typewriter. But anything beyond word processing, email and internet research is technological overload for me. Until this question came up, I wasn’t even aware there were software programs available for plotting a novel. I guess I rely on the old-fashioned way of letting my brain cough up the story. --Ann Tatlock

Nope. I avoid them like the plague. I’m an intuitive writer. Anything that looks like advance plotting gives me hives. I discover my stories and characters the same way my readers do—one page at a time.--Alton Gansky

I like the organic method still. If the writing becomes too much about learning new technology, it’s counterproductive for me. --Patricia Hickman

I have tried a number of different writing software programs without success. They just didn't work for me. When I first tried Inspiration 8 about a year ago, I tried to use it for plotting purposes and it went nowhere. Then I learned how to use it for brainstorming and found it very useful for that purpose. Very similar to me sitting down with pen and paper and scribbling ideas as they come to me which is the method I've used for years. I like it because I can bring in photos and graphics that give me visuals of the story. -- Robin Lee Hatcher

I don't want a machine telling me what my characters can and cannot do. My characters are people in my head, and sometimes they're even based on people in my life. I can't imagine any computer being able to predict what I'm going to do next, because I don't even know most of the time. --Hannah Alexander

On my own. -BJ Hoff

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Ask the Authors: Tuesday

Ask the Authors:

PC or Mac?

I wrote my first novels on a Macintosh Classic. It was a tiny little thing, but reliable. I liked the Mac and didn’t give it up until the internet came along. Now I work on a PC. --Ann Tatlock

I’m a PC guy. Never owned an Apple. Not that there’s anything wrong with owning an Apple. I have friends who are Mac owners and on more than one occasion I have consented to being seen in public with them. Truth be told—it doesn’t matter. Use what you have and use it well. Some writers still use a No. 2 pencil. All that matters is that the story gets out. --Alton Gansky

PC but tempted. --Patricia Hickman

Mac. I'm a "switcher" from a few years ago. I've kept my Sony Vaio laptop on hand--just in case I need Windows for some reason, and also because every now and then I like to use my WordPerfect again (hate Word--a lot.) But my heart belongs to Mac. -BJ Hoff

We have a computer. We turn it on. We use it. We turn it off. We don't believe in strict computer denominations. --Hannah Alexander

Mac. I was a PC user from February 1984 to February 2006. Then I made the leap to the Mac and have never looked back. -- Robin Lee Hatcher

PC, but I confess I'm growing ever more curious about the "dark side." All those lofty cries of no viruses and ease of use...and the Mac vs. PC commercials definitely make Macs seem more cool. (And hey, who doesn't want to be cool?) I've actually bought Windows Vista and the new Office suite, but haven't installed them yet because of all the problems I'm hearing about when others do so. Since the cost of these two upgrades tops $500, I'm wondering if it would make more sense to go with a new computer. And if I do that, I'll have to decide the Mac/PC issue soon. --Karen Ball

PC --Liz Curtis Higgs

Mac, of course! Always. I got one practically the moment they came out, after the famous Super Bowl ad of 1984. I've had many iterations (the Cube was the greatest) and laptops. - James Scott Bell

I started writing on a little Mac Classic 13 years ago and I’ve been a Mac purist ever since. I now write on a PowerBook G4, which is my only computer. (Well, I do have a smaller iBook tucked away in my office as backup. Except with a Mac, one rarely needs backup!) I love my 15-inch screen, which allows me to put two documents side-by-side on the screen—great for editing and reviewing my critique partner’s comments. –Deborah Raney

Mac. --Lisa Samson

I’ve always used PC’s, although I’m not fanatical about it. People become fanatical about their Macs, which is just plain weird, in my opinion. And Apple has this marketing thing going on right now that smacks of snobbery, where it’s uncool and nerdy to own a PC. Equating “hip” with a brand is about as superficial as you can get, so that whole advertising approach turns me off to Apple products right there. What’s the big deal? Computers and the software on them are just tools. Properly used, a good tool should be invisible to the artist’s imagination, not something that contributes to their sense of self worth. As long as my computer works well enough to get out of my mind’s way and convey my thoughts to paper without resistance, I don’t think it matters much who made it. --Athol Dickson

PC but we bought a MAC for our granddaughter and some of my best friends have Macs and I love the commercials...I may just be slowly being brought over...Jane Kirkpatrick

Actually, AlphaSmart Neo. That’s what I compose on. But it sends its text into a Mac iBook G4, and all of the editing happens on the Mac. I stopped using PCs more than a year ago; I find that blue screens lead to blue language, which doesn’t do much for my brand image. --Tom Morrisey

Mac! I'm a new convert, and I thought I would NEVER leave the PC. I mean, I knew how to cope with the Blue Screen of Death and how to flick dip switches and everything. But one day I had flipped one switch too many, so I snapped . . . and I've been delighted ever since. --Angela Hunt

Monday, February 19, 2007

Ask the Authors: Monday

Welcome back to "Ask the Authors" week. If you have a question for our queue, send it to . Thanks for joining us!

How do you work a "Sabbath" rest into your writing schedule? Is the day (Sat or Sun) the important part, or do you find the day that gives you the greatest rest and take that day off? How do you keep it HOLY when you're behind schedule?

As I also edit a magazine, I have to have my Sabbath on the weekend, so I go old-school and keep it from sunset on Saturday night to sunset on Sunday. If I’m behind, I write like crazy after the sun goes down on Sunday. --Tom Morrisey

Oh boy. Keeping it holy! What helps is that I begin each day with a reading, a sacred reading, scripture, commentary. For awhile it was Molly Wolff's White China: Finding the Divine in Everyday Life. Right now I'm reading a book by Tony Jones called The Sacred Way about the history and contemporary application of Christian practices. That all helps. I usually don't write on Sunday. I do save that day for worship and renewal. When deadlines loom, I may write then but it'll be at 2:30 in the morning or something crazy like that so I figure it doesn't really count! And I try to remember that it isn't about me, it's about the story and God using it as he sees fit. Jane Kirkpatrick

I take Sundays off, and usually Saturdays. I also believe very strongly in taking vacation time off between novels to allow myself to do some living away from the pressure to produce words, which provides material for my work. I know they say, “Writers write,” but if I just went rushing from story straight to story, I’d end up rehashing the same ideas until the landscape of my imagination became too over-farmed to produce a robust crop. I need a “year of Jubilee” between projects, as well as a Sabbath between weeks. --Athol Dickson

For a pastor's family, Sunday is anything BUT a day of rest. Besides, I believe the Sabbath is a separate thing, so I do not do "ordinary work" on Saturday. (Or, if I'm traveling, I'll take another day off during the coming week.) Instead I enjoy my family, my home, and take some time to spiritually and mentally recharge. Sunday is the Lord's day, of course, so I go to church with my family and then I usually work after church--either on my WIP or on my theology studies. I'm almost halfway through my doctorate! --Angela Hunt

I take Sundays off. Our church doesn't meet until 5 p.m. so it's a lovely, restful day full of reading and quiet. As far as keeping it Holy, I try not to be so far behind schedule I have to work on Sundays. I'm a real stickler not only about making my deadline but turning in something that's decent to boot. When I hear about writers with 30,000 words left and their deadline's a week and a half away, it gives me hives. I figure somehow the Lord will work it all out. --Lisa Samson

Except for the last month before a book deadline, I rarely work on Saturday or Sunday. Those are family days, and of course, church and a Christian education class for young marrieds that my husband and I teach on Sunday mornings. Even during that deadline crunch month, when I’m often writing 7 days a week, I’ve never skipped church to write. I’ve found that the Lord somehow multiplies the hours for me on Sunday afternoon if I make time to worship Him and fellowship with my church family, even when I’m bucking a tight deadline. –Deborah Raney

I find the Lord's Day to be my best day off from writing and most everything else. After church I am in a worshipful mood, and take a nice Sunday nap. Around 4 or 5 p.m. I find my writer's mind is raring to go, asking permission to get back to work. I remind it that Monday morning is just around the corner. I'm always glad I take the full day off. Even if I'm facing a major deadline. The writing and energy after the Sabbath rest more than make up for any minimal advances I might gain if I were to write on Sunday. - James Scott Bell

Sundays ARE the Sabbath for us. We're involved in our church, sing in the Chancel Choir each week, and often have a visit from our college son, so it's a day of rest for our whole family. I'm ashamed to admit I used to stay home and write many Sundays when I was up against a deadline. No more. God deserves my full attention that day and I need time to fill back up! Liz Curtis Higgs

My Sabbath rest often comes in moments rather than an entire day. I take breaks to sit and spend time with family or just to absorb the beauty around me and spend time listening to and talking with God. That being said, I have made a covenant with my family that I won't work on Sundays unless there's just no way around it. And it has to be serious circumstances for me to work on Sunday. Being a PK, Sunday means a lot to me. To my mind, it's a day set aside to celebrate God, family, and gratitude, so I avoid letting it be swallowed up in stress and deadlines. But I don't want to get caught up in legalism, so we've all agreed that once in awhile I may have to work on Sunday. --Karen Ball

In a perfect world (and when I’ve been a good boy), I take weekends off. Saturday is work around the house or (if I’ve been a really good boy) torture hardwood into furniture. I often have to work part of all of Saturday, so I try to keep Sunday free from the business of writing. Truth is, I don’t work well on Sunday. I’ve tried it and my production stinks in both quality and quantity. Sunday is my day of rest.--Alton Gansky

My Sabbath rest is on Sunday. That just works well. Church in the morning, whatever I choose to do the rest of the day that is not writing on my book. I discovered a number of years ago that I'd become a workaholic. It was just so easy to go to my office after getting home from church. I decided right then to rest on Sundays. I adhere to it almost 100% of the time. But there have been a few times when the deadline demanded I write. I don't choose to be legalistic, and so I give myself the grace to write if needed. But this is only once or twice per year. It has to be a real need. I don't let it become a habit. -- Robin Lee Hatcher

This is such a difficult issue for us because Mel never has the same schedule at work. He might work one Sunday day shift, then one Saturday night shift, or a Saturday day shift. It's hard to schedule a particular day off for rest when that's impossible for him at work. We take what we can get. We have found, however, that no matter how behind schedule we get with the writing deadline, we're always refreshed when we do take the time to rest before jumping back in with both feet. --Hannah Alexander

I use the time (and the day) that seems to work best. If I'm really pushed (the last few days of a deadline, for example) I try to grab a few hours instead of an entire day. After worship services on Sunday, I usually just relax and be with my family. If no one's around for a few hours, I take a walk (depending on the weather) or read. But I don't necessarily believe the Sabbath has to be limited to Sundays. -BJ Hoff

Sunday has become other things for us since we’re a ministry family. I wrote a book about how to do this called Secrets From the Treadmill, but it’s still a struggle to stay on track and find a godly rest. I try to take two serious sabbaticals a year where I’m away from home so that I’m not accessible. My husband incorporates the same practice. He goes to a monastery. I go to a writer’s retreat center in my state, turn off the cell phone, and hit my knees.--Patricia Hickman

At this point in my life I’m finding rest to be an elusive thing, even though I don’t write at all over the weekends. With a high-energy, high-maintenance, only-child 9-year-old daughter, most of my weekends are devoted to her and her friends (and church activities and upkeep of the house, etc.). I think my real rest comes in the very early morning when I have my Bible reading/prayer time, and then again at night when I take 20 minutes or so (if I’m lucky) to lie on my bed and read a good book. Right now, rest comes in small increments. --Ann Tatlock

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

DR: A Novel Idea

I’m a visual person. I never feel I really know a person until I have a face to put with their name. I’m never quite at peace about my grown kids until I’ve visited the place they live or at least seen photographs. And I always learn a task more quickly when I’ve seen a demonstration, or when there is an illustration to follow.

So it’s no surprise that when I start a new novel, I need visuals to make my characters and setting come alive. About six books ago, I started putting together an “idea board” for each new novel. It’s become an important preliminary step for me, and one that helps me get to know my characters, setting, and even theme, far more quickly than any writing exercise.

My first idea boards were simple collages of photographs taped to Fome-Cor. I propped the resulting poster on my desk behind my computer each morning before I began to write. (I found that if my idea board sat in the same spot for all the months it takes me to finish a book, it started to be “invisible.”) Now that I have a dedicated office for my writing, I have a great swivel cabinet with a corkboard on one side. Here, I tack up photos of my characters culled from magazines or clothing catalogs. (Lands’ End and Eddie Bauer are great resources because they use ordinary-looking models of all ages.) Occasionally, I’ll use a photo of a family friend who’s inspired a minor character. There are also some online sites for stock photography that are great for finding character images. They are searchable, too, so you can enter “male, elderly, bald, beard” in the search field and come up with some pretty accurate results. Many of these are royalty-free as long as they are for personal use only. My favorite sites are and

Writer Jill Eileen Smith uses a collage of character photos and 3x5 index cards that spell out her characters’ physical and personality traits. Since some of her books are historical novels, she also finds the collage a great place to post images of period costumes her characters would wear.

Other components of my idea boards are maps of the locale, house plans or blueprints for my characters’ homes or offices (very helpful in tracking simple character movements), trinkets that evoke the mood of the story (for example, a locket, flower, poem, flag, menu, calendar page, matchbook or other icon that is representative of your story).

I’ve discovered that putting the book title somewhere on the idea board in large letters helps me to tie the nuances of the title into my narrative as I write. Sometimes seeing the title in print has also given me ideas for cover images or design, which I can pass on to my publisher’s designers.

I also post Scripture passages that informed my story somewhere on the idea board, again to remind me of the biblical inspiration for the book and to help me weave in the spiritual themes.

The beauty of an idea board is that you can tailor it to the way you think and the way your mind plots your story. For me, it’s the best jump-start to creativity I’ve found outside of brainstorming with a group of writer friends. The minute I start tacking images and trinkets to that board, my story begins to come to life.

Deborah Raney brand new novel is Remember to Forget the first of the Clayburn Novels for Howard Books/Simon & Schuster.

BC: “Safe” Christian Fiction—My Take: Part 2

Dead of Night, third in my Hidden Faces suspense series was a pretty intense book. And yes, some really bad things happened to some really good people. My target readers really enjoyed that book—many say it’s the best in the series. They could enjoy its intensity because it fell within their boundaries of D#1 safe. (BHCC members—forget it.)

But Dead of Night wasn’t D#2 safe for all those same readers.

"I am an intercessor, but had become discouraged … Dead of Night reminded me of the job and the power God has given us in prayer. Thank you."

"I read Dead of Night at a time when I needed to realize the importance of prayer …I am a pastor’s wife, and so many people assume I don't struggle in my relationship with God … I’m struggling right now with my husband’s illness … I realized after reading about Annie's struggles that even when I don't know how to pray, if I only turn to God in prayer, He will give me the strength I need. After reading your book, I felt an overwhelming urge to pray ...”

Definition #2 for safe Christian fiction: A story whose underlying message does not shake up the reader spiritually in a way that will bring him closer to Christ.

I don’t want my novels to be D#2 safe.

However, this is God’s territory. While my novels include an underlying spiritual message—some more overt than others, according to how it would naturally unfold within the story—not every reader is going to respond to that message. Some may not be weak in that particular area of their spiritual lives. Some may not have a spiritual life at all, and their hearts are hard against the message. Some may say, “Amen, amen” yet fail to put that belief into any meaningful action. For these folks, even if the book’s message is right-on, the novel is still D#2 safe. It’s God’s territory.

In some of the discussions I’ve heard about “safe” Christian fiction, Definitions #1 and #2 have been lumped together. As a result there’s been a lack of agreement as to what we’re even talking about. When I look at D#1 and D#2 as separate entities, I see two patterns. Please note that these are generalities; I’ll freely admit each point has exceptions. But I don’t think we should argue exceptions and miss the main point.

A. Should a reader happen to pick up a novel that turns out not to be D#1 safe, that novel most likely will be D#2 safe. I see two possible reasons. First, because the reader is so emotionally upset that he/she can’t begin to hear the message behind the story, even if it’s fairly overt. For example, the Gentle Reader letter I quoted yesterday—which was a typed page and half long—had plenty to say about “wrong” events in the story but never mentioned the spiritual message of the book. Herein lies a great temptation on the part of the more gentle readers. They can too easily label a D#1 unsafe book (according to their opinion) as lacking spiritual value (ergo, D#2 safe) for everyone, simply because they can’t personally see the message amid being so upset over content. This erroneous perception can pit some members of the so-called “core Christian audience” against those authors who aren’t targeting them as readers in the first place. This is a sad thing.

And/or—second possible reason: the author indeed may have been purposely subtle in his spiritual message because his target readers lie outside the core Christian audience. This is perfectly acceptable. While a subtle message may be plenty D#2 safe for someone who’s been a Christian for thirty years, that same message may cause an inner stirring in the heart of a non-Christian that will eventually lead that reader to Christ.

On the other side of the spectrum (and sounding somewhat like an oxymoron):

B. Christian readers who deem a wide range of novels as D#1 safe can erroneously view the spiritual messages in the books targeted for the more “gentle” D#1 safe readers as rehashed, “preaching to the choir,” and shallow, and/or “preachy.” These folks like their content envelopes pushed. Some may also prefer the more subtle Christian message. All well and good. These folks will tend to view the very widely accepted D#1 safe novels as totally boring in content. That’s fine too. They’re outside the target audience of such books. What’s not fine is to then assume that because these books are D#1 safe for just about everyone, they’re also D#2 safe for everyone. Remember, D#2 is God’s territory. He will use what He will use. That thirty-year Christian may be happily reading a very D#1 safe book—and be unexpectedly struck to the core by its message.

My bottom line: First, in our ongoing discussions, let’s not confuse the two aspects of “safe.” They mean very different things and have very different purposes. Two, let’s be very sure that our personal opinions of what constitutes D#1 and D#2 safe don’t lead us to judge what’s D#1 and D#2 safe for others. The wide range of readers calls for books on each end of the spectrum and everywhere in between.

Seatbelt Suspense™ author Brandilyn Collins blogs Monday through Friday at Forensics and Faith.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

BC: “Safe” Christian Fiction—My Take: Part 1

Recently I received a furious letter from a reader who felt utterly betrayed by me. This reader let me know in no uncertain terms she no longer “trusts” me and will never pick up another of my books. “I know bad things happen to good people,” she said, “but I don’t want to read about it in my pleasure reading.”

Surprisingly, this woman wasn’t talking about any of my suspense novels. She was referring to one of my women’s fiction titles in the Bradleyville series, published a number of years ago. She was mad at me because of a turn of events that happened to a likeable character, which changed everything in the story after that. The whole ending was wrong, wrong, wrong in her eyes. She cared so much for the characters that this upset her terribly. She wished she’d never read the book. She even went so far as to suggest that this was a deliberate “power play” on my part, done merely to make readers feel miserable.


This person—I’ll call her GR, for Gentle Reader—is absolutely right. She can’t trust me to not upset her world. If she couldn’t handle my women’s fiction, no way is she gonna handle my suspense. My books for her will never be “safe.” I am happy to know that I can recommend to GR many very competent Christian writers who write for her type of audence. Those books she can read and enjoy—and feel safe while doing do.

GR’s opinion is one I respect and honor. Each reader brings to a story her past experiences, her personality, the sum of who she is. This is why each reader responds so differently to the same novel. While I disagree with GR’s opinion about my book, I do think her opinion is spot-on right for her. Further, I respect this desire of hers: “I don’t want to read about it in my pleasure reading.”

Unlike nonfiction, readers don’t pick up a novel to learn something. They pick up a novel for entertainment. A reader has every right to “not want to go there” regarding certain subjects that may upset him or her.

There’s a club of folks who can’t read my suspense novels. I’ve teasingly dubbed it the Big Honkin’ Chickens’ Club (BHCC). Many of them read my personal blog and are friends of mine, but when it comes to scary, intense fiction, they say, “I don’t want to read about it in my pleasure reading.” Why should they? If they find a story truly upsetting, if it gives them nightmares and makes them queasy—I’d hardly call that entertainment for them. Of course they shouldn’t read my suspense.

Definition #1 for safe Christian fiction: A story that includes content and events that will not emotionally upset the reader beyond his/her boundaries.

Sure, my suspense might sometimes scare my core readers—but they like that. Sure, a women’s fiction title might move a reader to tears—but she likes that. I’m not talking about being emotionally impacted by the story—that’s a necessity in good fiction. I’m talking about stepping into territory upon which readers don’t want to tred.

Readers have a right to expect the fiction they choose to read to be safe according to Definition #1.

When we write about some of the more difficult subjects, we need to understand that some people won’t want to “go there.” This not only applies to suspense that contains murder and other forms of violence. It also applies to subject matter that’s hard to read about—sexual abuse, child slavery, physical abuse of the elderly, graphic drug use, etc. In this sin-ridden world, we are bombarded with stories about horrible happenings. We hear about child abuse and murder and rape and drug overdoses every day. Some readers will choose not to revisit these topics in their “pleasure reading.” We have to respect that. It’s not right to say these readers are hiding their heads in the sand in regard to these difficult topics, and they need to be shaken up. We can’t judge that. In fact, a reader may be very aware of the subject matter, may have suffered it in his/her own life, or may be actively working with victims in a day job or contributing to charities who do. For that very reason the reader may not want to immerse himself in said subject during his few hours of entertainment reading.

But the readers who don’t want to “go there” aren’t our target audience anyway. I don’t write suspense for those who are too upset by suspense to read it. I write for those who gobble the stuff up. For them, my fiction is plenty Definition #1 safe. Those who wouldn’t find my suspense D#1 safe—that’s fine. I turn them away from my books, suggest something else that better suits their taste.

Seems to me that our discussions of “safe fiction” can tend to hover around D#1. And because this involves our writing—our passion—emotions quickly become involved. Those writing about the more difficult issues or events can become upset at readers who don’t want to read their books, as if these readers are simply shallow and/or are wrong not to choose to be shaken in their entertainment hours. Those who write fiction that would be labeled D#1 safe by most people can judge the other side for containing too much difficult, “unseemly” content—whether violence or some specific subject matter. Each type of reader needs to understand he is right in that private opinion—for himself. He is judging according to his boundaries of D#1. We shouldn’t judge someone else’s boundaries—because we haven’t lived that person’s life.

But all this is only one part of the equation. There’s a Definition #2. It’s a separate entity and needs serious consideration. We’ll look at that tomorrow.

Seatbelt Suspense™ author Brandilyn Collins blogs Monday through Friday at Forensics and Faith.

Monday, February 12, 2007

HA: The Spirit in Us

In the Bible, when Jesus cast an unclean spirit out of one particular boy, that child was thrown into convulsions and into the fire. That spirit did not want to leave.

Likewise, when God identifies and illuminates a sin in someone today, sometimes that sin throws that person into emotional convulsions because it doesn’t want to leave. But God continues to work with his beloved to prune and cleanse, in spite of the suffering, because He knows how much healing will take place after the old, dead life is removed.

Sometimes this cleansing is gentle, a brightness in our lives, a soothing balm, a sudden discovery after years of wandering. But other times the cleansing feels as if it may kill us before it leaves, if not with damaged health, then with damaged relationships, a hurt heart, or a split church or financial loss. We so often wonder why.

When my heart and life become a battleground because still yet another sin has been shown to me, it is at these times I am drawn closer to God, to His promises, His healing strength. No matter how long it takes, or how painful the cleansing, when I turn to God through His Word, I am reminded of the bright future awaiting me. It is this hope that keeps me going.

Hannah Alexander ,

Friday, February 09, 2007

AD: Breaking the Rules

At a museum recently I saw early paintings by Mondrian done in a representational style. Then in another room were the works he is known for: blocks of color confined by black grids on a stark white ground, a style called "neo-plasticism." In one of the earlier representational paintings I saw him already experimenting with the use of line to confine color in the way he painted tree branches against a sunset. It was interesting to see seeds of his later abstractions in his earlier expressionism.

Painters who stretched and grew to the extent of creating new genres as Mondrian did usually began with highly representational technique, then became less and less concerned with showing the world as it appears on the surface and more and more concerned with how they perceive the world beneath the surface, or perhaps is it more accurate to say how they perceive the world within themselves. Some people malign their work because the result may not be "pretty," but they misunderstand the goal of art, which is to communicate the ineffable.

I respect Mondrian and artists like him for their willingness to look foolish as they break the rules to try to reach that end. People stand in front of Mondrian’s abstract compositions and say, “My kid could do that,” and in the strictest sense, they are right. Mondrian endured such criticism from those who said he had no talent and could do no better. It may be true that he could do no better, but that was not because he had no talent. Mondrian did beautiful early work that proves he knew the rules and could paint brilliantly according to them, yet he chose to risk ridicule in pursuit of the ineffable.

I believe that kind of unconcern for convention is one of the prerequisites of faith. Like Mondrian, most of us must begin with complex rules and slowly weed them out one by one until we arrive at a place of simple understanding, while a few begin with that simplicity as children and never lose it. However we get there, the deepest faith can be compared to a drawing by a child who did not follow rules.

As a Christian writer, I pursue the One whose face cannot be seen, much less described with words. And to the extent that we are made in the image of that Ineffable One, I also strive to express the inexpressible about humanity. I am working on a novel now in hopes of drawing the reader into the mind of a character who is losing her sanity because she has turned away from God. It is something like Mondrian's neo-plasticism in that I hope to use the senses to explore and communicate things that lie beyond the senses, and I fear the result may seem simplistic or childish to some, especially because this character experiences life in ways beyond a sane person’s understanding.

It's the first time I have been frightened of writing. Rules are definitely being broken, with deliberation, and for specific reasons, and as I break the rules I feel small and foolish for daring to set foot on the vast creative landscape lying beyond them. I wonder if Abraham felt something like this as he took Isaac up Mariah, commanded to sacrifice morality on the altar of the Source of all morality. The limits and boundaries of rules can give comfort, but they can also cause stagnation in your faith (or art) unless you are willing to weed them out and get back to a childlike, trusting place.

Occupying the moral high ground at the wide bottom of the mountain, the Pharisees said, “Don’t do this, don’t do that, don’t do the other thing.”

In a narrow place at the top, Jesus just said, “Love.”

Yet like Mondrian’s early work, before Abraham could break the rules in pursuit of the Ineffable he had to know them very well, otherwise he would have been nothing but another silly man, justifying his own sin. Similarly, this business of breaking rules to communicate the ineffable is at once a burden and an advantage for the Christian novelist: a burden, because we have seen the face of the Ineffable and therefore will be held to a higher standard in terms of expressing Him to the best of our ability, and an advantage because, while other writers merely have a suspicion there is something more beyond the words, we know exactly what it is our words can never quite express.

Athol Dickson

Author of The Gospel According to Jesus – What my Jewish friends taught me about Jesus, and of River Rising. For more information, visit .

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

BJH: Writing Grace

As Christian novelists, I think many of us are continually aware of elements we don’t want to include in our work. There are excesses and "freedoms" and improprieties that simply don’t belong in the writing of those who create from a Christian worldview.

Just as an artist has choices in the elements she chooses to paint, so does the writer have choices in the stories she chooses to develop, the words she uses, the imaginary worlds she creates, and the people who inhabit those worlds. Occasionally there may be some grumbling about the "restrictions" of fiction written from a Christian worldview, about too many "do’s and don’t’s." But the truth is that we have many more choices for what we can write than what we shouldn’t write: a world of choices, really–a wealth of resources from which to draw whatever we need in order to create and add richness and beauty to our creation. The settings in which we place our stories, the characters in those stories, the arenas in which they contend and struggle, succeed and fail, what they give and what they take: with such limitless material at our disposal, need we really be concerned about what we can’t do?

An element that I long ago committed to keep always at work in my fiction is that of grace. I want to write grace, to weave naturally but freely through my stories the grace of God .... to have story people who are not only touched by divine grace but who also extend it to others ... and to explore the ways in which grace makes a difference in our lives and in our world. I see this in the writing of many other writers as well, and it sets their work apart and makes it "shine."

One line of thought would have us believe that for fiction to be "realistic" it must also be void of redemption and tenderness and hope. But not only is that dishonest fiction, it’s also unrealistic fiction. For the Christian writer, to even make a pretense of writing a novel without hope, without grace, would be a lie and an affront to what we profess to believe. In truth, I don't think I would ever write another word ... I don’t believe I could ... if I had to work in such a bleak, desolate climate.

We spend much time in our fictive worlds among our story people. I want those landscapes to be fertile and rich, and no matter how troubling the times or severe the struggles or tormenting the pain, I want "my people"–and my readers–to know hope.

As Christian writers, may we always have the courage and the conviction to write grace.

BJ Hoff recently completed The Song Weaver, the final title in her Mountain Song Legacy series, and will now take a long breath and a not-so-long break before starting all over again.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

LS: Take it to the Streets

We find a deeper knowledge of God together.My family lives in intentional community in the city of Lexington, KY. Committed to other believers in our faith community as well as to the people of Lexington, we seek, together, to live out the story of God, to be the hands and feet of Jesus to people who are suffering and in need of love and care. I think I’ve learned more about God in the past three months than I have in the last five years or more.

An old song says, “Now it is Jesus and me, for each tomorrow, for every heartache and every sorrow.”

Jesus and me. But is that how Jesus sees it? Me and Lisa. “Oh, yes, it’s Me and Lisa for each tomorrow.” That sounds kind of silly, doesn’t it? Especially if you’re a parent. Can you imagine singling one of your own children out like that among the others? I don’t know about your house, but at West Third, we are a family, not simply a collection of individuals; when one of us is gone, the rest of us feel . . . less.

Even as God Himself lives in community with the members of the Godhead (for without one of the members, would God be God?), I believe He’s called us to live in community with one another, to together learn who He is, together to be, as Lesslie Newbigin, theologian and missionary to India (to put it mildly) said, “a hermeneutic of the gospel” to a world in need of redemption.

Thus, the power of fiction!

Why is fiction so powerful? Well, on its face, we all say and hear over and over again, fiction is powerful because a story is powerful, a story will transmit truth and meaning so much more effectively than a bare statement of facts. Amen? Amen!

But why is this the case?As I’ve come to see it here in Lexington, it’s about one word: community.

When we pick up a novel, we are not just immersed in a story, we are immersed in a community of new friends, who live out their lives before us, who show us who they are in a transparent manner, who usher us to places we’ve never been. We have a common purpose with these imaginary friends: to get to the end of the story, hopefully in one piece, everybody a little wiser, a little bolder, a little more inspired.

When a book has the power to pull me into its community, I grieve when the end arrives, I want to stay with these people who I’ve committed myself to — allowing them to grow and learn in their own timing, their own way, trusting in the author to pull them through by the end. And when a book holds up a mirror and I see myself in truth for who I am, and contrast that with who I am called to be, I feel a certain gratitude.

What can we learn as believers from the world of a novel? I’ll name a few. Perhaps we can commit ourselves to other believers, not just on church days, but through the week. Perhaps together we can learn and grow, figure out what it means to imitate Christ, to do justice, love mercy and walk in humility, to get to know God more and, hopefully, come to the end of our story here on earth, a little wiser, a little bolder, our lives an inspiration to the next generation who, if we’ve done it right, we’re in relationship with. Perhaps we can allow our brothers and sisters in Christ some transparency, to grow in their own timing, their own way, trusting the Author and Finisher of their faith to complete them, to use them any way He sees fit.

Perhaps we can trust God to use our faith communities, and the Body, to hold up a mirror in love so that we might see where we fall short of an incarnational life; to show us if our lives, and even the communities of faith in which we find ourselves, are all about “me” or “us” and not about the living out the call of the gospel to the world for which Jesus not only shed his precious blood, but created in the first place.

It’s never easy to commit ourselves to others: to see oneself as truly part of the people of God, part of God’s story, part of God’s kingdom, for once we are aware of the story, we have only two viable options — step into the pages, or shut the book and remain in our “Jesus and Me” world.

For me, I don’t want to miss out on the action. I want to take the story to the streets, wherever they happen to be, with other characters alongside of me who ask the same questions, make mistakes, and seek to know the same loving, communal God. And I want to offer hope, and food, and kindness, and love . . . and in so doing offer them not only Jesus, but the Triune God, and the ‘good news’ that He is their God too.

Pax Christi,


Lisa Samson's newest release is Quaker Summer.

Monday, February 05, 2007

JSB: What Is Christian Fiction All About?

What, exactly, is Christian fiction writing all about?

At the very least, I believe, the Christian artist must hold a positive vision of what life can and should be.

This has traditionally been the sine qua non of good art. John Gardner, author of On Moral Fiction, says:

"[T]he good artists are the people who are, in one way or another, creating, out of deep and honest concern, a vision of life . . . that is worth pursuing. And the bad artists, of whom there are many, are whining or moaning or staring, because it's fashionable, into the dark abyss."

We've got entirely too much abyss looking in art today. And if Hollywood box office returns are any indication, people are starting to get sick of it.

People created in the image of God -- and that means every living person -- yearn for the positive vision.

This does not mean a book has to be directed to a Christian audience specifically. But to be great art, IMO, the light as we know it must be there, somewhere, because people today are desperate for it.

My friend Barbara Nicolosi, who runs the Act One screenwriting program in Hollywood, has a nice saying for this. Great art will move a soul by making it "homesick for Heaven."

That's the feeling C. S. Lewis described in Surprised by Joy, when he found that exquisite longing to be the very thing that drew him toward God.

In our writing we must do that somehow, especially now. In an increasingly dark world, people are searching for the light.

There is an open door now for spiritual answers. If we can embody this in our fiction, wherever the "target market" is, we're going to hit bulls eyes with our art.

James Scott Bell,, is the bestselling author of Glimpses of Paradise (Bethany House) and Sins of the Fathers (Zondervan).

Friday, February 02, 2007

AT: Depression - The Occupational Hazard

She was talented and full of potential, but she stopped writing. Whether temporarily or permanently, I don’t know. Either way, it saddens me.

While I was thinking about and praying for this former student of mine, I decided to speak candidly with you about an occupational hazard associated with writing. It’s the reason my promising student came to a standstill. It’s called depression.

Granted, the image of the “suffering artist” may be seen as cliché, but I firmly believe there’s a link between the artistic mind and the dark night of the soul. You might argue that depression hits people in every profession, and you would be absolutely right--but within the confines of this limited space I’m not here to talk about everyone; I’m here to talk about you and me and writing and those seemingly inevitable feelings of despondency.

The causes for depression in general are many, from situational to brain chemistry. For writers, I think it’s partly the fact that we are sensitive souls, that the depth of feeling required for us simply to be writers alternately leaves us vulnerable to melancholy. We are also in a profession that is bullet-holed with rejection and criticism, no matter how successful we are. Too, we work largely alone, and such a solitary endeavor is hard on many.

The symptoms of depression run the gamut as well, from mild but chronic unhappiness to life-interrupting despair. And as for the cure, there is no one generic antidote that suits all; the healing process is as unique as the individual.

For these reasons, my intent here is simply to offer you a two-part word of advice should you ever enter a time of depression or if you are there now: Try as far as you can to take from it while not allowing it to take from you.

What do I personally know about depression? Let’s put it this way: if depression were a place, I didn’t just pass through, I took up residence. For years, every day was an emotional endurance test. I became so used to the inner turmoil, I almost thought it was normal.

So here’s the deal. When you’re in this particular place, you have some choices to make. The first is to get up in the morning and keep on going. If you can do that much, you have to then choose to believe that there’s a reason for your getting up, going to work, being alive. Even as you feel that you’re completely without purpose or a shred of significance, you have to choose to believe there is something beyond your feelings, something that says your being in this world is a divine appointment and not a mistake. And then, when the pain is so deep you can hardly move, you have to choose to believe that there is good in the world, and that the good is greater than the evil, and that the good will in fact outlast everything.

As hard as it was, I will never ever be sorry for the time spent in that dark night. I thank God for it, because I had to believe in exactly the opposite of what I felt. I had to exercise this mysterious thing called faith, with the inevitable result that my faith became stronger. Some of my most precious moments with God, some of the moments when I most clearly experienced his love, came right in the midst of those black hours.

Along with the spiritual refining came an emotional maturing. I grew tougher inside, while at the same time more tender toward the suffering of others.

Then there’s the writing. One’s growth as a person can only spill over into one’s growth as a writer. Greater faith, greater maturity, greater empathy, greater depths of understanding. Isn’t this what we need in order to write stories with substance?

My experience overall is hardly unique. I put out a call to my online group of author friends, asking two questions. Not surprisingly, I got numerous responses. Have you ever experienced depression? Yes. Did it make you a better person and a better writer? Oh, yes. Definitely.
You see, you take from it, you don’t let it take from you. Which brings me to the second part of what I’m trying to say. Never, never, never, never, never give in to the depression by giving up. Now, in case you think I’m waffling on this point, I’ll say it again: DO NOT GIVE UP. Not on yourself. Not on your writing. And for heavens sake, don’t give up on God’s plans and purposes by so much as entertaining thoughts of the unthinkable. A slew of writers have already gone down that road: Virginia Woolf drowned herself, Sylvia Plath laid her head on an oven door and turned on the gas, Stephen Crane jumped over the side of a ship, Ernest Hemingway shot himself, Dylan Thomas drank himself to death. And the list goes on. Writers--God love ‘em.
They’ve got emotions that drive them to destruction. If they let them.

You can choose a different way. You can reach for the alternative by getting help. Begin by picking up the phone and talking to someone: a friend, a family member, a pastor, a professional counselor. Easier said than done when you’re feeling hopeless, I know. Been there, remember? But don’t listen to the lie that it’s hopeless, because it isn’t.

And while we’re talking about lies, don’t listen to the one about real Christians never getting depressed. Says who? Surely no one who has read the Psalms, some of the finest songs of despair ever written. You bet those psalm writers were depressed, but they managed always to end on a note of hope. That’s what it means to live by faith.

If you’re in a place of depression, resolve to squeeze every ounce of good out of it that you can even while you are taking steps to move on. Sometimes that means going through the motions of living until life comes back. But that’s all right. Life will come back, and it will be even better than it was before. I promise. And more importantly, so does God.

Why are you in despair, O my soul?
And why are you disturbed within me?
Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him,
The help of my countenance, and my God.
- Psalm 43:5

Read more about Ann Tatlock at her web page,

Thursday, February 01, 2007

PH: On the Way to Why We Write

“There are writers who write for fame. And there are writers who write because we need to make sense of the world we live in; writing is a way to clarity, to interpret, to reinvent.”
--Bell Hooks; Remembered Rapture

Not every writer can pinpoint the exact moment she or he wrote down the first few passionate words that changed everything. We’re more likely to remember the feeling it gave us. Remember when that was more important than knowing why you write?

My first essays were guided by a published novelist who had come to our small Arkansas college to teach freshman English. Instead of the typical research essays, he directed us to write confessional narrative. It was within those early pages that my writing voice sputtered to the surface.

Confessional writing gives the emerging writer free rein to explore voice through brief introspective vignettes. I think I wrote about the muddy sneakers in my dorm room or something that seemed meaningless. It was a jumpstart subject; you probably remember those too. The confessional awakens the desire to write with a greater intent, truthfully interpreting life up close. If you write fiction in first person, you’ve examined the human condition beneath the epidermis, so to speak. I remember how meaningful personal writing became even if I could not exactly express why. It forced me to interpret first my life and then persons whose lives touched mine, whether negatively or positively.

My young life had been dictated to me; but now I was dictating and also clarifying what was within my grasp to peel back honestly and see. While I may not remember the exact language that led me to that experience, I remember the feeling; it was as if I were breaking through walls. It’s a common thread among some contemporary American writers to explore issues like liberation from an autocratic existence. (Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, Bebe Moore Campbell) Many faith writings express this theme through spiritual metaphor. You may have employed one or both strategies in your fiction. But the feeling of breaking through to find that raw layer of truth is a writer’s deepest satisfaction, no matter what the theme.

Somewhere in that tender place of discovery, we may eventually find that our writing voice becomes intertwined with our reason to write, the two engines inseparable. Writing provides a microcosm of why humans respond as they do and what causes a life to grow and then disintegrate. I love the flawed life of the antagonist after I’ve interpreted it more reflectively. Digging for the truth helps each of us to be honest about our own deficiencies. We learn to taste of grace and pass it on.

I’ve learned to reach for an answer, (sometimes not fully aware of the question) groping around like a literary mole until it appears mysteriously in the story. It is for that reason that I can’t picture writing without faith. Suffice it to say, we writers often find voice when we embark on the journey to find out why we need it.

Patricia Hickman is the author of Earthly Vows and Whisper Town. You may find out more about her either at or also called Food for the Journey.