Thursday, May 31, 2007

HA: The Glamour of Writing

Mel and I had an interesting conversation this morning at breakfast. I asked, “Honey, what’s your definition of glamour?”

Mel: I’d say that was the substance of being glamorous.
Cheryl: Thank you, Mr. Webster. I’m serious.
Mel: I guess you’re talking about the practice of wearing fancy clothes and going out for an expensive evening on the town.
Cheryl: Is that all there is to it? Doesn’t it have something to do with having perfect strangers recognize you on the street and gush? Oh, and then there are the jewels. You have to wear expensive jewels, and lots of them. And you need to be given an award for something to prove you’re good at it.
Mel: But the dress shouldn’t have a high slit up the side, or a very low décolletage, because then you’d be—
Cheryl: But maybe now we’re talking about fame. You know, recognition, fame, can’t go anywhere in privacy, and can’t even blow your nose in public without a photo of your scrunched up face hitting the tabloids.
Mel: Nice car. Got to have a nice car, which means you can’t have a high slit up the side of your dress because that wouldn’t be—
Cheryl: Why have a nice car when a limo will pick you up and take you to your private jet? A person might just forget how to drive. Does that mean we’d have to sell our manual shift?
Mel: Why sell? Give it away. Just think, if you’re famous, people will pay big money to own the car you drove, and you can give that money to charity.
Cheryl: But you’d have to make sure everyone knew about it so that photo would hit the tabloids to undo some of the damage done by the ugly photo of you blowing your nose.
Mel: You’d have to hang out with the right people, I hear. It’s great publicity leverage.
Cheryl: Who are the right people?
Mel: You know, other glamorous people who wear jewels and nice clothes and are famous. But you shouldn’t hang out with people who wear high slits up the sides of their—
Cheryl: Why are they famous?
Mel: Who cares? It doesn’t matter what they do to get there, they just have to be there.
Cheryl: Oh.

We sat in bed, finishing our breakfast in silence. Yes, we had breakfast in bed this morning. I think that’s what glamorous people do. Of course, I don’t think the glamorous people actually make their own breakfast. We’d have to change that if we actually were glamorous.
Unfortunately, that would mean losing more of our privacy to have a live-in housekeeper.

Cheryl: We’re not glamorous, are we?
Mel: No, thank goodness.
Cheryl: I was recognized on the street one day by a stranger.
Mel: That wasn’t a stranger, she was my cousin.
Cheryl: She was strange.
Mel: Do you actually want to be glamorous?
Cheryl: It seems to be what everyone expects of writers.
Mel: Unrealistic expectations. Are you happy doing what you do?
Cheryl: Ecstatic. I’m married to you, we’re silly a lot, we laugh a lot, we have a strong relationship with Jesus.
Mel: And we write.
Cheryl: Hard to do all that when you’re worried about your photo being splashed in the tabloids. Or when you’re hanging out with a bunch of people who are too worried about their image to relax and have fun.
Mel: Forget the glamour. I’ll take this life any day.

We have these kinds of conversations often. Maybe we’re naïve. Maybe we want to stay that way. Sure, we’ve had some brushes with glamour. Okay, not the expensive jewels, but I have a nice dress, and I do know how to apply makeup when I have to. I’m tempted to wear a skirt with a high slit up the side, because I know Mel would faint dead away, and I could take a picture for the tabloids…

Hope to see you here again soon. Mel and I write as Hannah Alexander. You can read more about us at You can even read our latest book if you can find it anywhere. It’s titled Note of Peril. If you can’t find that one, the book before that was titled Last Resort.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

PH: The Gift of a Spine

Someone asked me last week how I deal with an editor’s criticisms. The question was “Have you ever felt stung by an editor?” So I thought it might be helpful to discuss how as a writer you can mentally prepare for the edit of your manuscript. Christ best modeled what we need so that the work we present can stand: the gift of a supple spine.

Don’t throw tomatoes, but I like rewriting and I love it when the editor has the real zest and vision for my book and the spunk to ask for another rewrite. In part it’s because I worked for too long in a job I hated. Working at home, sliding into a pair of faded denims and a coffee-stained T-shirt is so comforting in a hurry-sick world. But then there’s the fact that I want to get the story right for those who want to lay down the cash to buy it. I hope to never feel uncomfortable with a story bearing my byline. I’m trying to remember if I ever felt stung by an editor. I don’t think I have, but I will admit that when my first edit was returned to me, bleeding like a sacrificial goat, I was surprised at how little I knew.

I think it’s the nature of the beast that we prepare our heart for criticism. There are two possible responses: you can steel your mind or you can soften your heart. “Let he who has an ear, hear. . .” Softening to the criticism or rejection is what Christ did, and of course he was Truth Personified and could see into the dark soul of critics. But he was also our model of humility.

A good editor can serve as the matriarch of your writer’s soul, the mother who warns you there are wolves outside the door. After the book leaves the editor’s desk, there are critics who reject our writings; readers who don’t “get us” in spite of the blood and sweat it took to create our work. And then, dare we say it, there is this shrinking market.

Criticism or outright rejection will always be a part of the process for a writer. But where there is no resistance or opposition, there is totalitarianism. It’s true of governments, of churches, of human hearts, and of kings and writers. A tyrannical author left unchecked leaves behind little more than spineless literature. That is not a legacy. The world needs a legacy. Embrace.

Patty Hickman. Her latest release is entitled Whisper Town, from FaithWords

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

JK: Quilt Show

I spent last weekend in Chicago at the Rosemont Quilt Show. Some of you are quilters so you know about this show and how huge it is and the expanse of materials and yarns and threads that simply wash over anyone fortunate enough to walk among the booths and listen to the chatter of people, mostly women, who love quilting.

Some of my titles have quilt connections (The Kinship and Courage Series and my current Change and Cherish series was inspired by my finding a quilt made by Emma Giesy who became my main character as I researched her life). Two different quilting groups in the Northwest have quilted their versions of my two of my series and have joined me at signings to share “their stories” done in fabric. What a thrill that was for me!

While there I was struck by how much the quilters that I met and spoke to love stories. On one side signing with me was fiction author Emilie Richards, who writes wonderful stories with quilt themes (she quilts) and has another series about a pastor’s wife (she is one) who keeps finding dead people and she has to solve the mystery. Emilie is beloved based on the fans who bought her books.

On the other side signed Ann Frischkorn, who is a true quilter, too. One of the books she’s written is called Scraps of Time, Quilting with Treasured Fabrics. What I loved about this very technical book was the story behind it. Ann’s grandmother had died and a male cousin had asked for her dresses. He saved them for 16 years knowing he wanted a quilt made from them. It took him 16 years to discover that Ann was a quilter, a consummate one. She got the dresses and brought the quilt she’d made from them with her to the show. And she’s making many more for all the cousins. Her book suggests how to use men’s ties or kids tee shirts or old aprons, let’s say, and of course dresses, to make beloved quilts. These pieces of fabric stitched together stories of a person’s life, and each time she told the story she lovingly stroked a piece of her grandmother’s dress.

As a fiction writer, I think that’s what I do, too. I hang onto little bits and pieces of memory, of experience, and then weave them into something that transforms them, I hope, gives them new life and hopefully touches the lives of others. Each time I revise or read a section after the book is printed, I’m reminded of that moment in time when the experience that created that piece of story was created. The threads between are the narrative, and it’s all bordered and structured in such a way that someone else can create their own experience from it. At least I hope that’s so.

Even writing this piece is a reminder that what we do as writers is to synthesize experience and in the process make it accessible to others who might never have that experience in any other way. I want them to be experiences worthy of a reader’s time.

I’m in awe of people who quilt: their time, the detail, the passion. And many say they’re in awe of writers: our time, the detail, the passion. We’re story-tellers all.

One other thing we share is that we need to finish in order to share those stories….so I’d best get back at it.

Jane Kirkpatrick can be found this month taking in new stories as she promotes her latest novel A Tendering in the Storm. .

Friday, May 25, 2007

Ask the Authors: Friday

What do you believe makes fiction dialogue "snappy" versus "boring?"

"Boring" reflects real life dialogue. "Snappy" only appears to. And my rule of thumb is that every single word uttered means something to the story, whether it's for character development, plot advancement, setting, whatever. Not one word is wasted. -- Rene Gutteridge

More and more I’m doing away with speaker attributions almost entirely. There will always be places where “he said” or “she whispered” is needed for clarity or for rhythm, but as a reader, such attributions slow me down, and they are so rarely truly needed. Especially if a strong action beat will serve the purpose just as well. Another thing I’m learning to do with dialogue is ask myself what I expect my character to say, and then work hard to have him say something unexpected. –Deborah Raney

A couple of things. Brevity, for one. A lot of writers seem to have trouble with the notion that we don’t speak in complete sentences. They write, “I wish you would get out!” when “Get out!” is so much more true to the thing. So the first thing you should do is hunt for words and phrases that don’t have to be there to get the point across, forgetting about sentence structure and thinking only in terms of the absolute minimum required to communicate the meaning and/or emotion. Attributions are another thing. Don’t write “He said, ‘Get out!’” when just “Get out!” will do. If you think the reader might not know who’s talking, show that person to them like a camera would, then toss in the dialogue. For example: “John clenched his fists. ‘Get out!’” That way you keep the emotions flowing right along with the dialogue. Another thing on attributions, you must NOT get all flowery with them. For example, “‘Get out!’ he choked.” You see that kind of thing a lot with beginners, and it’s just silly. People don’t choke and talk simultaneously. They also don’t grin their words, or spit them, or grimace them, etcetera, and it feels artificial to read that kind of thing. Another thing: snappy dialogue trusts the reader. It makes the point and moves on. Boring dialogue circles all around the point before settling down to it, and then adds a little repetition for effect. Snappy characters say what’s on their mind and then move on. – Athol Dickson

When dialogue rings true, when it reflects real life and the personality of the characters speaking, when it's strategic (not about things that aren't vital to the story or character development) and balanced with effective beats, when it's written with as much style and craft as the other elements in the book, there's no way it can be boring. Karen B.

A word from Prof. Al: “Dialogue” comes from the compound Greek word dialogos which means “words between,” that is, words spoken between two or more people. (Hey, you could be on Jeopardy someday and need this info.) The key here is that words are spoken between characters and that exchange should reflect the nature of the players. A child doesn’t speak like a college professor; a college professor doesn’t usually sound like longshoremen; longshoremen are seldom confused with a southern lady living in Georgia during the 1800s. Snappy dialogue is fine in some cases, but genuine dialogue is always preferred. One exception: accent and affected speech patterns can become distracting. If your character is from the Bronx, give a hint of the accent, but don’t overdo it. If your reader has to translate the dialogue, then you will lose him or her pretty quick. Communicating to the reader trumps everything. Al Gansky.

When I teach dialogue, I try to get people to realize that it is an extension of ACTION. It's not people making talk. A character's words are tools he uses to get his way in a scene. This will eliminate a lot of flabby talk. – James Scott Bell

The absence of the "take for granted dialogue."
"Hi, Jim."
"Well, Lisa, hello. How was the drive to California?"
"Long, but well, you know."
"I sure do. Want to go write at my personal table at Starbuck's."
"Why yes, that would be delightful, thanks."
The best method for getting rid of unnecessary, boring dialogue is not starting your scene too soon. Start it after all the pleasantries are exchanged. lisa samson

The extent to which the author knows their character's background and lives, their motivations and desires and the flaws that get them into trouble will determine how snappy or boring the dialogue is. How much the author understands that dialogue is approximated human speech and not actual speech also makes a difference. Word choice (related to the specific character) and then an author's refusing to use dialogue as a "talking head" experience for the reader where the characters "tell" the reader things that would be best summarized. While revising, whenever I notice I have dialogue with more than three sentences being spoken by a character I ask if I can reduce what they're saying to one sentence and also make a decision about whether I'm trying to "tell" something, rather than having dialogue be what it's meant to be, which is action, moving the story along, demonstrating conflict or comic relief, and expanding the character's personality. That's my idea of what builds a snappy dialogue. Jane Kirkpatrick

Dialogue is snappy when it mimics the way people really talk. That way, when we read it, it’s as though we’re overhearing an actual conversation. Boring dialogue is stilted dialogue--too formal, too neat, too “cleaned up” and not a bit like the stuff your ear picks up whenever you hear people talking. Ann Tatlock

The sound. Even if it’s in incomplete sentences. Remember the movie The Big Lebowski? Every line in that film was scripted, even though it sounded at times like false starts and stammers. Do too much of that in a novel, and you’ve got static instead of dialogue. Do just enough and it sings. And you know when you’ve got it just right when you listen to it (preferably with a voice other than your own reading it) and it sounds right. – Tom Morrisey

Many factors, of course, but one is unpredictability. Don’t let your characters play ping pong with their words; every snip doesn’t deserve a snap. Throw something unexpected—even silence—into the mix every now and then. --Angela Hunt

Leave out the "stuff" we actually use in everyday dialogue. The "hi, how are you?" and the "well, I was just thinking," and most of the "ifs, ands, and buts." Don't use dialogue to update another character. Example: "Oh, right. That was the year George had the breakdown after Marcia left him for that golf pro, and you ended up in the hospital after stepping on the dog's tennis ball. You remember." Know your characters so well you don't have to pepper your dialogue with running streams of attributions ("Sissy said," "Terry asked," etc.). If you're confident of your characters, you ought to be able to write an entire page or more of dialogue without any attributions, or at least use them sparingly. Each character's voice should be so strong he's immediately identifiable by what he says and the way he says it. Say what you need and nothing more, and say it with as few words as possible. -BJ Hoff

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Ask the Authors: Thursday

Is there a genre not yet in vogue that you would like to see developed?

I'm actually working on my newest series with that in mind, though I don't know that you'd call it a "genre." Rather than "Southern fiction," think along the line of "Appalachian fiction," and you'll get the idea. Historical, of course, since that's what I write. -BJ Hoff

Not really, because “general” seems to cover everything that doesn’t automatically fall into a genre. When enough books of a kind crop up, they’re almost immediately herded together and they become their own genre. --Angela Hunt

I haven’t seen a true, snappy Christian crime novel, written with the fast intricacy and savvy of a James T. Hall or an Elmore Leonard. I’d like to. I’d like even more to write one. – Tom Morrisey

Britney Spears, Rural Nurse. – James Scott Bell

I’d like sci fi to move up the ladder. Unfortunately, the genre is little understood, even in the secular market. Science fiction has the ability to touch on social topics in a unique and unforgettable way. The genre has been around for nearly 150 years. It deserves a little respect. --Alton Gansky

I would love to see fantasy and science fiction more fully explored and embraced by the Christian market. But aside from a few exceptions, which I'm watching with great excitement and interest, the Christian readers haven't been responsive to recent attempts in these two genres. Unfortunately, until the readers demonstrate that there really is a market out there--translation: BUY the books that are released in this genre--publishers, the one I work for included, aren't overly interested in these genres. Sad, but true. Karen Ball

I'm afraid to name anything because, as soon as I do, that genre will be in vogue tomorrow. Nobody can tell what's going to be in vogue at any given time, because readers are human beings, and they have their own reasons for reading what they do. They're less predictable than Missouri weather. Hannah Alexander

Interesting question. I do wish there were more historical mysteries and suspense stories around. I suppose that’s really a sub-genre, isn’t it? But anyway, I love Caleb Carr’s work, and Umberto Eco, and E. L. Doctorow, and I wish more people were writing in that vein. – Athol Dickson

I’m not sure this is a genre, exactly, but as a teen I read several epistolary novels and fell in love with that format. So many of my own relationships have blossomed via letters—and now e-mails—that I think it’s fascinating and challenging to think of creating an entire story from written correspondence. I’d love to try it someday! –Deborah Raney

I don't know that I'm advancing this any, but I'm trying. I would like to see more comedy without a heavy romantic emphasis. Not that it couldn't have romance, but romance doesn't drive the storyline. Just your plain old everyday comedy. -- Rene Gutteridge

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Ask the Authors: Wednesday

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

Mine mostly happen in my head. I would say they're semi-extensive. I think about them all the time. If they were real it would qualify as having an emotional affair. They distract me, make my mind wander, make me day dream and I pretend to have conversations with them. This might also qualify for insanity. -- Rene Gutteridge

I’ve tried that route before and it’s never been helpful. What seems to work best for me is getting to know my character’s background, motivations, weaknesses and strengths, as I go, through his response to the developing action. (I “plot” seat-of-the-pants, too.) Of course, this means I must go back during various rewrites and weave what I’ve learned about the character into the novel’s earlier scenes. But it’s still worked better for me than personality charts, stream of consciousness biographies, etc. –Deborah Raney

I don’t take it so far as to think of what they named a puppy when they were five, and what their favorite color is, but I do have a good understanding of everything that ever happened in their past to make them behave the way they do and make the choices that they do. Knowing a main character’s back story seems pretty fundamental to me. If you don’t know their motivation, how can you know when they are acting like themselves? – Athol Dickson

I used to fill out several pages of character sheets on each main character, but found that, except for physical description and names of family members, etc, the real character did not develop for me until I started writing their story. The book is their story. So I don't do a complete biography as much as I crawl into the skin of each character and learn about that particular life, those particular desires. You must live with your characters to make them come to life. Hannah Alexander

Yes. My Character Description file for the book I've just finished, What Lies Within, is 11 pages long, and includes:

Full descriptions and pictures of the protagnists, antagonist, and any important secondary characters, such as Rafael's Force Recon team. The descriptions include everything from physical traits to the emotional issues and character arc
Any important elements to the story, such as Rafael's cane with a silver lion-head handle, Kyla's kitten, military garb and weapons, etc.
Because I'm using both Yiddish and Spanish/Spanglish in this book, I've got phrases that my characters use with the translations
Important info that I need to keep in mind, such as the structure and culture of inner city gangs
So this becomes my "manual", in essence, to be sure I'm remaining true in the story to facts and what I've said the characters will be and do. If something major changes--which always happens...a new character will appear, or a character makes it clear the issue he's facing isn't at all what you thought at first--I change the info in the file to reflect that. Karen B.

No. As an intuitive writer (no, not a “seat of the pants” writer—my seat has never touched a keyboard, um, intentionally) I work in an unending period of discovery. For me (not others but me), extensive bios lead to plastic characters. I prefer to discover facts about my characters the same way my readers do. --Alton Gansky

I want a visual and a voice. I want to see and hear my character. I want to know what she yearns for and what her life lacks right now. That gets me started. I don't do extensive biographies at first, because it tends to tie me down. I want the character to develop. I add to the biography as I go along. The character grows with the story. – James Scott Bell

No extensive biographies, although I'd never say it's a bad thing to do just that! I have to get the name first, know their basic situation and past (an overview in my mind is enough) and then I move forward from there. --Lisa Samson

I don’t write extensive biographies for my characters. But I spent so much time thinking about them that I’m well acquainted with them before I start writing. My personal approach is to simply listen to the characters as they tell me who they are. They really do have minds of their own, so my job isn’t so much to craft them as it is to discover who they are. Ann Tatlock

I learn about my characters as I write. Sometimes they start out as shadows or two-dimensional cutouts and then assume identity as I warm to the story. Then I go back and fill in the missing details as I know them. At other times, I know the character so well before I write (Kevin, the father in In High Places, was this way), that they are pretty much all there from the get-go. I don’t keep extensive biographies on my characters (other than cursory notes on age, birthplace, and so forth) because it’s not necessary – you get to know them just as you would get to know your friends. As to where they come from, sometimes they are amalgams of people I’ve known. Other times, they’re just … there. – Tom Morrisey

I determine their Myers-Briggs type and find their picture at After that, I’m good to go. The rest unfolds as I write. --Angela Hunt

I've always found it impossible to explain my process of characterization. My characters are simply "there." I know them because I seem to have lived with them for a long time before I ever begin writing. I do make brief notes about hair and eye color, age, etc., so I won't mess up the physical details somewhere along the way, but I don't do extensive dossiers. I do, however, often do a mental interview (I've done a few written ones also), just bouncing numerous questions off them to see how they respond. -BJ Hoff

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Ask the Authors: Tuesday

What, exactly, does a good editor do?

I recently watched “Copying Beethoven,” a delightful film about a young woman who wrote out Beethoven’s music after he had gone deaf. On the night of the premier of his ninth symphony (one of his most famous), he was worried about being able to keep the beat and keep the orchestra together. This young girl, Anna Holz, volunteered to keep the beat for him. So they set her in a little alcove, and she stood hidden among the orchestra. She knew the music so well she was able to “conduct” Beethoven, who conducted the orchestra and the chorale.
And that’s what a good editor does. He or she takes my “music” and helps me overcome my weaknesses so that the audience will hear my song the way it was meant to be heard. A good editor knows my music, but is content to remain hidden in the orchestra in order that the song might shine. --Angela Hunt

A good editor combines the best attributes of a really insightful and intelligent reader with the instincts, not of a person who knows what sells, but of a person who knows what is going to sell in a coming season. They are not “rewrite people” or punctuation cops. They are passionate and fully involved guides. And yes, they’re hard to find. -- Tom Morrisey

My editor--who is thankfully a good one--looks at both the large picture and the small details. She lets me know first of all whether the book as a whole even works. If so, does each scene work? If there’s something wrong with a scene, what’s wrong with it and how can I improve it? She looks for gaps and lets me know what I need to add to fill in those gaps. She cuts out unnecessary material that only bogs down the flow of the story. She catches mistakes of all kinds--everything from historical details to small typos and misspellings. She’s the polisher, taking my manuscript and making it look better than it did when it hit her desk. -- Ann Tatlock

They ask the right questions. They say "I wonder what might happen if that character did such and such?" or "How could you make that scene more believable?" They make suggestions such as "That walk on the beach scene needs to be lighter because in the main scene you're about to do real harm to your character and the reader will like both the setup and the surprise more if you do." They give an overview of the story including what they like about it and hope I won't change and what needs changing related to pacing or character development or plot. They ask a writer to be ruthless about musings or explaining what the reader needs to get for themselves. They share an author's vision. They negotiate between production/publisher issues and author/editing issues. They are champions within the house for the story. They see the possibilities in an author's future and help match that to the needs of the publisher. They're honest and fair and tell you things it's hard to hear in diplomatic ways so the author can hear it. Copy editors are in a class of their own and they keep an author clear and authentic and raise questions that readers are likely to raise if a sentence or thought isn't clear. I could use a good editor with this answer! Jane Kirkpatrick

A good editor makes you better, but allows you to do the work. A long time ago I had an editor that rewrote entire sections of my book. I didn't like that. One bit. A good editor takes the time to understand not just your work, but you, and your vision for your overall body of work. A good editor has no smarm. A good editor tells you the good as well as the bad. lisa samson

Makes it better, which requires both a good eye and a knowledge of the particular author's voice and vision. – James Scott Bell

“Good editor.” Are you familiar with the term “oxymoron”? I joke, I kid. There are several types of editors ranging from those who acquire books (and therefore provide you with milk money) to line editors who stay up late wrestling with advantages of the three-four dot ellipse conundrum. In between is the editor who advises about content, plot, character development, etc. A good editor knows the craft well, hopefully from having actually written a book, faced a deadline, struggled with story issues and the like. I have an editor that I request. I don’t always get her, but at least I can ask. She understands story and has written several novels. She knows not only the craft but also what it means to be the crafter. A good editor knows how stand with one foot in craft and one in the business world. It ain’t easy. --Alton Gansky magic? Okay, okay, sorry. I couldn't resist. First, a good editor checks his ego at the door. A good editor is there to serve the author. She partners with you. He brings his passion to your book, reading it as a reader would, watching for any speedbumps that would stop the reader or nudge them out of the story. She makes sure she's as trained in the mechanics of what works and what doesn't as she can be, yet always keeps in mind the author's voice. He knows the rules, but isn't controlled by them, nor does he let his author be boxed by them. If the author has places she needs to improve, the editor will act as mentor and encourager. She'll make suggestions for improvement, all the while emphasizing that it's the author's book, so the final call rests with the author. Ultimately, the editing process is synergistic, with a lot of give and take, dialogue, and learning on both sides. The end product? A book that's the best it can be. And that is an author's greatest joy! Karen B.

A good editor can catch the vision you have for your work. She then holds that vision for you while you struggle through the process, and she guides you if you lose your way. She is always on your side. Hannah Alexander

A GREAT editor is made up of equal parts muse, objective critic, cheerleader, and teacher. A merely good one might be two or three of those. As for what they do, it boils down to giving constructive feedback on story ideas, (not “No,” but “Yes, and…”), being bold enough to point out flaws, offering reassurance when self-confidence falters, and providing little lessons along the way that help avoid repeat mistakes. A GREAT novelist leaves her ego on the shelf when working with this kind of editor, accepting their guidance for the priceless gift it is. – Athol Dickson

I think the really talented editors (and I’ve been privileged to work with several) have a way of pulling the very best out of the author without losing any of the author’s voice. An editor does that by suggesting rather than actually rewriting, and by giving the writer options. The best suggestions from my editors always begin with “What if...?” With that, they’ve helped me see my own story with new eyes, and steered me in a direction I may not have thought of going before. The best editors also have a way of teaching as they edit, so I begin to recognize and correct my mistakes as I make them. –Deborah Raney

A good editor makes me strive to write better and shows me how--without making me feel like the worst writer that has ever lived. -- Rene Gutteridge

Monday, May 21, 2007

Ask the Authors: Monday

It's time for "Ask the Authors" week. If you have a question you'd like the folks of Charis Connection to consider in a future month, send your question to Thanks!

How do you balance art and entertainment in your writing?

I make sure I understand that for my style of writing, both are equally important. I give them both credit for their value in the craft. That way they don't fight. -- Rene Gutteridge

Honestly, I don’t worry too much about the art part. I enjoy “playing” with words—I love alliteration and metaphors and onomatopoeia—but I’ve never been a literary writer and when I try to force something for the sake of being artful, it sticks out like a sore thumb. I love it when a phrase happens to come out with more poetry and beauty than I expected, but I write to convey a story, not to impress with my prose. –Deborah Raney

One of Webster’s definitions of “entertainment” is “something diverting or engaging.” Given that definition I see no difference between art and entertainment, so it’s not necessary to keep them in balance any more than it would be necessary to balance, say, sports and athleticism. The best novels entertain us artfully by engaging us to the point of diversion from the real world, and in so doing, communicating something important about the human condition. – Athol Dickson

write. I enjoy placing words together in just the right flow that will allow the reader to see the world I see--even though she may not see it in the same way. I have to enjoy this world in my imagination, the conflicts and characters, or I won't enjoy writing it. If it doesn't entertain me in some way, it's just drudgery. Why bother? So to me, art is the ultimate in entertainment, and entertainment is the ultimate in art. --Hannah Alexander

I try to make sure, first and foremost, that I'm telling a great story, one that will hold readers and make it hard to put the book down. Then, when I've got that set, I go back in and work to refine the craftsmanship. And then my editor helps me push it up another notch. So it's a multi-layered process. --Karen Ball

No one has ever accused me of being balanced. I think the answer is best served by tossing away the presupposition that art is not entertainment. Art of all sorts (painting, sculpting, story telling, dancing, etc) is the act of making a statement in the mind of the viewer/reader. Where we get into trouble is trying to make art stand apart from entertainment. Most entertainment is not mindless. Much of it is enjoyable engagement. Sometimes, it isn’t even enjoyable. If you do the art right, it will engage and entertain the reader. They’re not separate goals. --Al Gansky

This question seems to suppose that the two are exclusive. But great art, in my opinion, is always entertaining—not in the sense of the Vaudeville comic, but in holding my attention and making time go away. ­– James Scott Bell

I find this a false dichotomy. lisa samson

When my book All Together in One Place came out (it was my fifth published novel) a kind and generous successful author contacted me and offered some mentoring advice. He said he felt I had great talent but that I needed to think about the reader I wanted to reach and that some of what I needed to do to be successful meant gearing the story to that reader without losing my uniqueness as a writer. He shared his own story of writing beautiful books that didn't sell; and how someone had talked with him in much the same way he was sharing with me. The focus on the reader is what I think of as the entertainment part; and the literary quality I want to find in my own voice is the art part. I balance it (and sometimes don't!) by continuing to improve my craft so that I can keep my reader interested in the story and not loose them to my self-indulgent use of words that I like but don't really move the story along. I cut a lot in my second draft and imagine that reader picking up the book in a store hoping they read the first paragraph and then keep going and don't even notice my balancing act because they've gotten lost in the story. Jane Kirkpatrick.

I think the entertainment has to do with the plot of the story itself and the art has to do with the way the story is told. And yes, there does need to be a balance. Some books have exciting plots but are poorly written. Some books are beautifully written but are otherwise achingly dull. Balance is found in developing an intriguing premise, then using your sharpest writing tools (imagery, metaphor, back story, rich vocabulary) as you put the story on paper. -- Ann Tatlock

If it’s good art, it is entertaining. If it isn’t entertaining, it is something else, pretending to be art. By this, I don’t mean that all art has to be smiles and chuckles; a dark novel can still entertain, just as a drama can at the cinema. And personally, I strive for entertainment. If a person finishes one of my books and wants to go back and study it, rather than savor it, then I have fallen short of the mark. --– Tom Morrisey

Don't balance them. Blend them. --Angela Hunt

This isn't something I think about when I'm writing. I simply try to write the best story I can. I should think the readers are the ones who ultimately decide what's art and entertainment, but then I doubt that readers consider a novel from that perspective. Mostly, they want to read a good story--which can be both art and entertaining. -BJ Hoff

Friday, May 18, 2007

DR: Spit Polishing Your Manuscript

When I teach at writers conferences, one of my favorite workshops to present is on rewriting. I just turned in a manuscript last week that was written in the midst of several out-of-town trips and moving to a new home. Unfortunately, I simply did not have time to do a proper rewrite of the book before the due date hit. Granted, my method of writing—starting each day by rereading and editing what I wrote the day before—means I am automatically in second or third draft by the time I write “the end.” But with this manuscript, even those edits were “quick and dirty.”

One of the handouts from my rewriting workshop offered just the ticket to “spit polish” my manuscript before I turned it in. In this workshop, I highlight five quick fixes I’ve discovered—things that can all be done in a few short hours, but that make a real difference in the quality of the manuscript you turn in. I’m here to testify that my spit-and-polish job was a success and I’m rather proud of the manuscript I turned in. Here are the five quick fixes I employed:

1. Search and destroy speaker attributions. Replace with action beats where necessary to make it clear who the speaker is and to paint a more vivid visual image. Avoid most speaker attributions meant to replace “said” (such as retorted, exclaimed, asked, inquired, etc.) But don’t kill all attributions! It’s better to have too many, than for the reader to be confused about who’s speaking.

2. Search for pet words and phrases and “lazy” words. Every writer has personal pet phrases they overuse. I usually have a different set of overused phrases for each book. Discover what your particular pets are and do a manuscript search. Delete or use the thesaurus and alter a few for variety. Words like really, just, even, that, and superlatives, very, most, -est words, etc. often signify lazy writing. Search and delete or replace with fresher, more precise word choices.

3. Check first and last paragraphs. The first paragraph of each chapter should set the scene and establish the POV (point of view) character so the reader has an immediate frame of reference. The last paragraph of each chapter should be a “hook”—a story question or plot twist that will keep the reader turning pages.

4. Sprinkle in the 6 senses. Most manuscripts could benefit from a bit more sensory info to bring the scenes to life. Quickly scan the book, looking for places to judiciously add in a few more of the unique images, sounds, tastes, smells, and tactile feel of each scene. Don’t forget that “sixth sense”—perception, intuition, spiritual awareness, etc.

5. Allocate white space. Go over each page with an eye to the graphic, visual look of it. Plenty of “white space” makes a book more reader-friendly. Are there paragraphs or series of paragraphs that are too long, making for an intimidating “block” of type? If so, can you break the scene into shorter paragraphs or add a bit of dialogue to incorporate some white space on the page? (Often in a novel, a lack of dialogue for several pages means you are telling not showing—a good way to risk losing your reader. If this is the case, rewrite to put the telling parts “onstage.”)

I much prefer having time to go over my manuscript a dozen times with a fine-tooth comb before I turn it in, but in a pinch, a spit and polish is just the ticket!

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

Thursday, May 17, 2007

JK: Confessions

All right, I confess, I don’t write every day. Some days I’m working on schedules and how to manage my time and talking to a bookstore or about an event or signing a book someone has sent me in the mail for a Mother’s Day present. I’m tending the dogs, the goat, and my husband (not in that order). But while I’m doing “things” I think of myself as “writing”. This is probably a fallacy that will one day be revealed to me, but when I’m getting the goat off of the front deck where he arrived because someone left the gate open, I’m imagining how my character dealt with such everyday trials.

I’m wondering how frustrated she got when in 1855 her goat got loose and headed up to higher ground (they like to climb) just when she needed to be changing the baby or had her hands full of hot laundry being lifted from steaming water into a rinse tub. If she wanted to be an artist, a writer, a musician, did she ever have the time? Did every day things get in her way? And how will I write of those ways when I sit at my computer next?

I do write nearly every day when I’m in my “writing” phase rather than my “researching” phase even though those overlap. I’m at the computer by 9, take a break for lunch and return until 5:00. Then I write my blog contributions like this one or answer emails. But always, my most recent characters are on my mind. In my “researching/promoting phase” I’m making notes, thinking, but not putting fingers to keyboard. Still, the characters are always with me informing my current life while I probe their historical ones.

One Sunday morning in my writing phase I rose early to finish a book before I went to church with my husband. The book was Mystic Sweet Communion and it was about a Florida woman, the first teacher to come to South Florida in 1890, and her life and her commitment to her younger brothers and sisters as well as to many causes she was passionate about, including negotiating the treaty between the Seminole nation and the Federal Government when the tribe was being overrun in the Everglades by people moving south. (The Fort Lauderdale area tribe that just bought the Hard Rock Café franchise is the band of Seminole that this woman negotiated that treaty for. History propels itself into the present. I digress).

Anyway, I’d finished the book about Ivy and her sister Pink, and I remember getting dressed and wondering to myself if I’d see them at church that morning. It was the most natural thing in the world to think since Ivy did attend church and even took on some church authorities at one point.

But then it occurred to me that these people were dead and I was hoping to see dead people. (Wasn’t there a movie based on that premise….).

So I had to do a reality check and remind myself that there is a writing life and there is my life and while they intersect, they are separate. Still I am never less alone in what is called a lonely writer’s life than when I am writing, for I have a world of imaginary beings who keep me company. Sometimes they even remind me that they’re fiction and tell me to go fix dinner for my husband.

Jane Kirkpatrick, who is in her promoting phase for A Tendering in the Storm, her latest novel from WaterBrook Press.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

AT: Heroes with Clay Feet

When famed novelist Kurt Vonnegut died recently, our local newspaper ran a glowing tribute written by a woman who knew him. The article began in this way:

An avowed atheist, Kurt Vonnegut was perhaps the finest example of a Christian I ever met.

Now, if that’s not a kick in the teeth of the church, I don’t know what is. A man who doesn’t even acknowledge the existence of God better represents His Son than those of us who believe?

I have no argument with the article writer about Vonnegut’s having been a fine person. Maybe he was; not having known him, I can’t say for sure.

But what vexes me is this: what exactly does this woman think a Christian is?

Unfortunately, she probably thinks what too many people think: that a Christian is someone who is--like Vonnegut--“unfailingly kind to everyone around him.” A Christian, then, is warm and friendly, tolerant and nonjudgmental, and he at least lives up to his own moral standards.

In other words, a Christian is defined by how he acts rather than by Who he trusts. With actions rather than belief setting the criteria, it’s easy for unbelievers to decide we are not what we should be and to simply dismiss us all as hypocrites. Which leaves room for the twisted logic that someone who is not even a Christian is actually the best Christian of all.

Granted, we as the church have to accept a good portion of the blame for all of this. Because there is something to the idea that Christians should be good witnesses (we are, after all, “living epistles” (2 Cor. 3:2-3), expected to walk in a manner worthy of our calling (Eph. 4:1). Heaven knows we’ve messed up big-time when it comes to that, both corporately and individually.

But to say that being a good person makes you a Christian is as far off the mark as you can shoot. Because we are not inherently good, and that’s the whole point. We are sinners saved by grace, and as long as we remain in this world, we will struggle against the powers of the flesh. And very often, even with the best of intentions, we will fail.

Sadly, when we do fail, people dismiss God not because of God but because of us. Because they don’t understand that while

He is perfect, we are not.

How can we help non-Christians understand that being a Christian doesn’t mean living up to a standard of goodness, but rather means trusting a good God to do for us what we can’t do for ourselves?

As writers, we have a unique opportunity to tell the world what it’s all about. In our stories and in our characters, we can show what it really means to be a follower of Christ, and that means accurately portraying the struggle. We can tell about how we grapple with lust, with greed, with dishonesty, with bitterness, with any of the myriad sins that tempt us and sometimes bind us--while at the same time speaking of the great mercy of the God who keeps trying to transform us into the image of His Son anyway.

I love what novelist Frederick Buechner says about his characters. When asked by a reader why he had imperfect heroes in his stories rather than real heroes of the faith, Buechner explained, “Any saint I write about [will] always have feet of clay, because they are the only saints I know anything about or could imagine. I don’t think there are any other kind. I can’t imagine a hero of the faith in the sense that he or she does not have shadows and darknesses.”

Even if we could convince each other to straighten up and act right, that wouldn’t be enough. Should we somehow suddenly all be on our best behavior, we’d still be people filled with shadows, stumbling along on clay feet. Unbelievers would continue to call us hypocrites, because they don’t understand that we can’t “be nice” on our own and that, in the end, it isn’t even really about us anyway.

It’s about God. It’s about what He did and what He continues to do, in spite of us. The amazing thing is that we are so wretched, but He loves us anyhow. That’s the story that unbelievers need to hear.

Ann Tatlock

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

AEH: Our Calling

I often hear people say they have been called to do this or that—called to be a writer, a teacher, a pastor, etc. And Scripture does say that some of us have been called to be pastors, teachers, administrators, and the like, but that passage is talking about how we have been gifted . . . and how we’re expected to use those gifts in the Body and for the kingdom.

When I was writing The Debt, I did a search of Scripture—was there anything else to which we are definitely called? And I found one main thing from which everything else stems—we are called to love and obey God. Period. That’s it. God doesn’t speak of calling anyone else to do anything else but obey. In the Scripture, He is constantly calling people to obey.

I’m serving God as a writer now, but I’m also serving him as a mother, a wife, a sometime columnist, a neighbor, a woman on the street. In the past I’ve served him as a singer, a student, a secretary, a teacher, and a cashier. Wherever you are in life, you are to love and obey God where you are. That’s your calling.

My calling—and yours—may change tomorrow. The woman who’s obeying God as a teacher today may obey him as a missionary tomorrow. The things we often think of as permanent “callings” are anything but permanent . . . IF we remain open to the will of God and are willing to obey him. He does not always lead down well-paved interstates. Sometimes he leads over twisty, circuitous paths. But always, he is leading.

Most people ask me if I’ve always wanted to be a writer. They expect to hear that I grew up writing, or that I was scribbling stories as a child. Well . . . no. I have always loved reading and I did try my hand at a short story when I was in about fifth grade. But I never felt especially good at writing, nor did I ever think I’d be doing anything with it.

One thing I did know—I had accepted Jesus Christ as my savior when I was six years old, so I knew my life belonged to him. I didn’t know how he would use it or where he would take me, but I knew I was His and that He had a plan for me. I also knew that God would tell me what he wanted me to do in three ways: through His Word, the Bible; through the leading of my parents and spiritual leaders, and through His voice.

My job is simply to obey.

When God was about to create man, says a Jewish legend, He took into His counsel the angels that stood about his throne. “Create him not,” said the angel of Justice, “for if you do he will commit all kinds of wickedness against his fellow men; he will be hard and cruel and dishonest and unrighteous.” “Create him not,” said the angel of Truth, “for he will be false and deceitful to his brother-man, and even to You.” “Create him not,” said the angel of Holiness, “he will follow that which is impure in your sight, and blaspheme you to your face.”

Then stepped forward the angel of Mercy and said: “Create him, our Heavenly Father, for when he sins and turns from the path of right and truth and holiness I will take him tenderly by the hand, and speak loving words to him, and then lead him back to You.”

Whether you are a speaker, a writer, a mom, a teacher, a father, or a carpenter, or a cashier, we are called to show God’s mercy to the world because first and foremost, we are called to love and obey God.

I pray we never forget that.

Angela Hunt can be found at .

Monday, May 14, 2007

JSB: The Pantsing of Justice

Did you hear about the 75 year old woman arrested for shoplifting? She was taken to the judge and admitted stealing a can of peaches.

“Why’d you steal the peaches?” the judge asked.

“I was hungry,” the woman replied.

“It’s still against the law.”

“I know.”

“How many peaches were in the can?”


“All right,” said the judge. “I am going to give you six days in jail, one day for each peach in the can.”

At this point, the woman’s husband stood up in the courtroom and asked to speak.

“What is it?” said the judge.

The husband said, “Your honor, she also stole a can of peas.”

What justice should look like, I guess, depends on who does the looking.

I thought about that as I read the story of the man in Washington, D.C., who is suing his former dry cleaners for $67 million. You may have heard about that. It was all over the news.

The plaintiff, by the way, is an administrative judge in D.C. That’s right, a judge. A man sitting on the bench ostensibly to see that justice is done. He is the one suing two hard working Korean Americans for sixty-seven mil, because they lost his “favorite” pair of trousers. See, he wanted to wear those pants on his first day of work as a judge.

Because they were lost, he couldn’t.

And because of that, he alleges in court papers, he endured "mental suffering, inconvenience and discomfort."

Even though the couple offered to pay him $3,000 (refused) then $4600 (refused) and finally $12,000 (refused), this “judge” has decided he needs $67 million to make up for his lost pants.

I have another solution.

The lawsuit should be summarily dismissed, and a special finding of “legal idiocy” imposed on the plaintiff.

The penalty should be a public pantsing.

A well-attended middle school will be selected, and the school day will begin at the flagpole. A bully will be chosen by lottery. This “judge” will then be trotted out, his hands shackled, and his pants shall be removed by the bully and run up the flagpole.

This will be televised.

And that, my friends, will be justice in this case.

I wish this “judge” had shown the other side of the judicial coin, mercy, to these people. They said they were sorry and they offered to compensate him far beyond his “injury.” Yet he persisted in his vengeful way.

Aren’t you glad God is not like this “judge”? God takes our remorse and turns it into His forgiveness, not petulant wrath. Mercy is what God delights in.

When, in our books, we show characters who are fallen, flawed, struggling, we are set to show God’s mercy in all its glory. Tragedy ensues when characters, offered grace, turn it down (as in many a Flannery O’Connor story).

Either way, there is richness in this vein of mercy. Something lost on a “judge” who decided one day that pants are more important than people.

Friday, May 11, 2007

RLH: Balancing Writing and Family

The following question came in for "Ask the Authors," but we thought it deserved a more lengthy reply. Here's another take on the subject.

Writer and Mother--How do you respond to two "equal" callings?

As both a Keeper at Home and a Writer I have honestly a nearly equal pull to both. Many "writing guides" I've looked at imply that if if writing isn't your first passion either nothing will got done, or you're not serious enough. As a Believer I know that that can't be true, so I'm curious how believers (especially those at home with their children at home) define "priority" and affirm the importance of both callings.

When I first began writing, I was a working mom of two pre-teens. For nine years -- until the month my ninth book was released -- I juggled an 8 to 5 job, my writing, and my family. It wasn't always easy but it was doable.

My first two books were written for fun and as time allowed. That means writing generally took the place of other leisure time activities such as watching television or reading. But after I sold and had deadlines to meet (deadlines I made certain were reasonable based upon my circumstances), I set a regular schedule for myself. It looked like this:

Monday through Thursday: Write from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m.
Saturday: Write in the morning until kids were up

Friday evenings, Saturday afternoons, and Sundays were reserved for family time.

On weekdays, I came home from work and fixed dinner. After dinner, my daughters did the dishes and their homework while I went into my office to write. However, I had an Open Door policy. They were allowed to interrupt me any time they needed. I made sure they knew that they came first. I can recall some great mother-daughter discussions taking place in that room.

Sometimes, as my girls got older, their extracurricular activities (band, drama, cheerleading, etc.) meant I couldn't write on some evenings when I was chauffeuring or chaperoning. Flexibility is a must.

One thing to remember is this: If you write one page per day, you will have a 365 page manuscript at the end of one year. You may have to give up having the tidiest house in the subdivision or you may have to give up watching your favorite television program or you may have to get up an hour earlier in the morning or go to bed an hour later at night, but it is possible to be a good parent and be true to your calling to write as well.


Robin Lee Hatcher is the mother of two and grandmother of six. She began writing her first novel in 1981 and has seen more than 50 novels and novellas published since then. Whenever she considers the mistakes she's made in life, she looks at her daughters and realizes she must have done a number of things right, too. She will have four releases in 2007, including RETURN TO ME (June, Zondervan). Visit her web site ( ) for more information.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

LS: God-Shaped Poetry

Sunday during the sharing of the communion elements at our gathering, I read some poetry, beautiful, God-shaped poetry, by Robert William Service.

Robert William Service was quite the prolific poet in his day. He wrote a lot about the Yukon where he lived for a spell, many poems entitled The Ballad of (Fill-in-the-Blank). The most famous is probably The Shooting of Dan McGrew. The poem I’ve included (and warning, there’s a naughty word in it!) references this work. And while I could write a nice long piece about making sure what you’re writing is something you’ll be proud to have your name on in years to come, I’ll let this poem do the job.

While I love reading the exciting Dan McGrew, how sad that Service’s other works are barely noticed.

Want to read more of Service’s work, including the infamous The Shooting of Dan McGrew? Here’s the link!

My Cross

I wrote a poem to the moon
But no one noticed it;
Although I hoped that late or soon
Someone would praise a bit
Its purity and grace forlone,
Its beauty tulip-cool...
But as my poem died still-born,
I felt a fool.

I wrote a verse of vulgar trend
Spiced with an oath or two;
I tacked a snapper at the end
And called it Dan McGrew.
I spouted it to bar-room boys,
Full fifty years away;
Yet still with rude and ribald noise
It lives today.

'Tis bitter truth, but there you are-
That's how a name is made;
Write of a rose, a lark, a star,
You'll never make the grade.
But write of gutter and of grime,
Of pimp and prostitute,
The multitude will read your rhyme,
And pay to boot.

So what's the use to burn and bleed
And strive for beauty's sake?
No one your poetry will read,
Your heart will only break.
But set your song in vulgar pitch,
If rhyme you will not rue,
And make your heroine a bitch...
Like Lady Lou.


lisa samson

author of The Church Ladies and Club Sandwich.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Writers' Spaces: Angela Hunt

Okay, I'll admit that I love decorating. I love color and lace and sunlight and big, wide windows (so I can keep an eye out for the UPS man). I love objet d'art, my glorious desk, and books.

I also love my dogs, and they're not exactly pint-sized. The careful decoration of my home is a bit, um, offset by the fact that not too many steps into the foyer, you can't help running into Charley's bed. And the delicate air freshener in my office is also offset by the warm scent of my two canine pals. Sit for very long and you'll need a drool rag to wipe your arms (just ask Allison Bottke). And a box of tissues is a must, because I'm allergic to my furry pals.

But that's okay. We muggle through together, my doggie pals and I, for many hours every day.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

JK: Faulkner's Three Rules

William Faulkner is quoted as saying that “A writer needs three things, experience, observation, and imagination, any two of which, at times any one of which, can supply the lack of the others.”

This is reassuring for me since there are times when I don’t feel the least bit imaginative as a writer. That’s when I make myself pay attention to what’s going on around me: the way a man stands as he talks on the cell phone at the airport; how a woman either bends down to tend her child in the stroller or bends over or maybe just ignores him; the way a child plays hide and seek with her father’s coat in the restaurant while they wait for a table. All of those observations, however small and insignificant, are character marks; ways of helping people see themselves inside stories.

I was asked to look at a chapter of a book that is a fantasy and while it was well written, had wonderful commentary about the period and the time and was well imagined, I said to myself, “Well, this isn’t my kind of story but I bet it’ll do well in that market.” But a good story speaks to us no matter what the genre and I think a great part of that is bringing the observations one experiences in the every day into the present experience. The knight who travels through time ought to be someone I can identify with even if I don’t particularly like knight and time travel stories.

Those authors who can do that give us ourselves. That’s just one reason why the parables are so rich and memorable: they engage us. We never lived in that time period. We never saw a son running with his cloak toward the father with open arms. We never saw an unclean woman risk death by touching the hem of Jesus’ cloak. But we know fractured families and we know what it’s like to be so desperately alone and to have just a small amount of courage left, enough to reach for the healing source of our lives.

My thought for today is that you would indeed observe and imagine and experience. But in your writing, remember you’ll need all three to engage your readers and one way to do that is to make the reader experience what your character does regardless of the time period or the genre.

Jane Kirkpatrick is experiencing readers in public places as she promotes her latest A Tendering in the Storm. Visit her online at

Monday, May 07, 2007

Writers' Spaces: James Scott Bell

Where I Write

The attached photograph is the James Scott Bell table at the Starbucks about a half mile from my home. It is here I like to write.

The table is near a corner by two windows. Each window offers a never ending parade of the human comedy. It's like being at a people aquarium. As Yogi Berra said, you can observe a lot just by watching. And that's what I do, picking up all sorts of interesting characterizations along the way.

But mostly I put my head down and type, to get my quota in.

The black bag on the chair I always bring with me. It contains notebooks and books I'm reading – research, a novel or two, perhaps a favorite writing book I'm going over again for reminders. Today it has The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler (one of may favorite novels of all time, which I'm reading again), Writing and Selling Your Novel by Jack Bickham (the book that, in an earlier edition, was the one I believe had the most to do with my getting published), and L.A. Noir, a photo collection of the city from the 40's and 50's, the classic noir era.

Some Starbucks play their music too loud and that can be a distraction, especially when the track includes The Doors, perhaps the most overrated rock band in history. At another Starbucks I once tried to throw my table through the window as "MOJO RISIN'!" kept screeching across my brain. I recovered, though, and killed a character in my book instead. (This is called "inspiration," by the way.)

My Starbucks is a little like Cheers, where everybody knows your name. The baristas know me, I know them. They ask about my writing, make sure I get one of the occasional samples they pass out and will even change the music CD if it gets out of hand.

The company, the Borg, decides what CD mixes will be given to the stores, and on occasion there's a song that defies all rules of tonality. There was one a few months ago that sounded like a hog being slaughtered. I made mention of this to the staff and order was quickly restored. I only wounded a character that time.

So this is my office, and it's nice to know I have branch offices all over my city, country and world. Several months ago I was in my London office, for example, connected to the net and my e-mail via T-Mobile hotspot. And writing, always writing. It was a little harder to eavesdrop on conversations there, as people talk funny. Over here, I sometimes get great snatches of dialogue I can later use.

Like the time an impassioned debate was going on at a table near me, and one guy said, "Is that logical?" And the other guy shouted, "It's so logical it's ridiculous!"

There's something about having a little bit of human activity going on around me that stimulates my writing. I don't know why that is. I don't know why I shouldn't be like Proust, rolling in agony on the floor of his quiet quarters, trying to bleed the perfect word out of himself. He would have gone mad (if he already wasn't) at Starbucks.

Balzac, on the other hand, would have been right at home here. He wrote over 100 books on the equivalent of industrial strength speed – 40 or more cups of thick, dark coffee a day. "Coffee is a great power in my life," he once wrote. "I have observed its effects on an epic scale." He would have his servants wake him up at midnight, get to his writing table and write until exhausted. Then he'd start with the coffee and keep going.

Me, I like to have one cup of drip at Starbucks, after my morning home cup of Sumatra or Verona or Komodo Dragon.

I actually do have a "real" office, but don't usually go in until my morning writing quota is done. I suppose I could stay writing at Starbucks all day, but then I am reminded it was caffeine poisoning that killed Balzac at 51.

I'm off to get a refill now. Decaf.

James Scott Bell

Friday, May 04, 2007

AG: Artists and Writers

MANY YEARS AGO, a Bible teacher demonstrated a way to make Scripture passages more personal. He suggested inserting one’s name into the passage. For example, John 3:16-17…

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.”

…might become…

“For God so loved Al Gansky, that he gave his only begotten Son, that if Al believeth in him Al should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn Al; but that Al through him might be saved.”

You get the idea. Over the years, I have found this technique humbling. It removes the truth from the academic realm and tattoos it on my mind and heart. I have done this so often that I occasionally do the exercise without thinking and with writings other than the Bible.

When a came across a list of quotes from famous artists about painting I instinctively redacted the passages so they related to writing. Here, let me show you:

Edgar Degas: “Painting is easy when you don’t know how, but very difficult when you do.”

Edgar Degas after verbal surgery: “Writing is easy when you don’t know how, but very difficult when you do.”

That struck home. Counting books yet to be released, I’ve written something like 30 titles, fiction and nonfiction. In some ways, it is easier; in many ways it has become more difficult. In my first novels, I didn’t give much thought to adverbs, exclamation points, passive use of “was,” and compounding prepositions. (Man, those were the days.) Now I do. Maybe I think about it too much. Nonetheless, the more I know, the more difficult the craft becomes.

Want another one? Okay, here goes.

Georgia O’Keefe: “I don’t very much enjoy looking at paintings in general. I know too much about them. I take them apart.”

Georgia O’Keefe after a compositional massage: “I don’t very much enjoy reading in general. I know too much about books. I take them apart.”

For years, I have warned budding writers to weigh carefully their decision to enter the craft. Becoming a writer often poisons the reader within. Sad but true. Most writers mentally edit as they read. They deconstruct, reverse engineer, challenge plot directions, shoot holes in character development, and generally destroy any pleasure in the once glorious indulgence called reading. Of the books, I’ve read recently, there are only two or so that were so well written they slapped my mental editor into submission. And it’s not other writers. There’s a reason I don’t read my books after they come out.

Okay, okay, another example.

Edmond de Goncourt: “A painting in a museum hears more ridiculous opinions than anything else in the world.”

The adjusted de Goncourt: “A book in the hands of a reviewer…” Um, never mind.

One last one.

Georges Rouault: “My only objective is to paint a Christ so moving that those who see him will be converted.”

Georges Rouault after Al: “My only objective should be to write a Christ so moving that those who see him will be converted.”

I can’t improve upon that.

Well, there ‘tis.

Al Gansky writes from California. Look him up at .

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Writers' Spaces: Deborah Raney

So that I could fulfill my dream of being a stay-at-home mom to our four children, we lived in a rented duplex for twenty years. My first novel was written at our kitchen table, the second in our tiny “master” bedroom, and almost a dozen others in various corners of the living room.

But two years ago, with three of our kids through college, we bought our first home, and I am delighted to finally have my very own writing studio. I never minded having my desk in the hub of the house, and in fact, I once vowed that even if we lived in a mansion, I'd never move my little makeshift office out of our living room. Good thing it's a woman's prerogative to change her mind, because I love my sunny, colorful, quiet room and the painted farmhouse table desk that I never have to clean off before I can serve supper.

For the past couple of months, my office “chair” has been a 65 cm. exercise ball. It is the most comfortable seat I’ve ever had - great for muscles and balance, and if I ever start feeling sleepy I just bounce for a while and it perks me right up.

My Dad built me a reference bookcase that keeps my dictionary, thesaurus, and other reference books within arm's reach and at just the right angle. Above the bookcase, is a crowded bulletin board with photos of my family - my visual prayer list, and a reminder of where my priorities should be.

One corner of my little office holds a cozy overstuffed chair complete with fluffy pillows and a warm afghan - a great place for afternoon naps—er, uh, brainstorming sessions. Or for my husband or our teenage daughter to plop in for a visit after work or school. My husband's beautiful art is framed over my chair (and all through our house).

My trusty Mac laptop is my only computer, so if I ever need a change of scenery, I can easily move my office out onto the front porch or our sunny back deck. Too often the Kansas wind keeps me indoors, but I love it whenever I can be on the deck with the wind chimes making breezy music and our “two cats in the yard” snoozing in the chair beside me. (One of those two cats presented us with four darling kittens a few days ago! Anybody want a kitten??)

Virginia Wolff said, “"A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction…” Well, I don’t know about money, but I’m starting to subscribe to the “room of her own” theory.

Deborah Raney’s new novel is Remember to Forget the first of the Clayburn Novels for Howard Books/Simon & Schuster. For a tour of Deb’s writing spaces click here.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

RG: Finding Balance

How do you respond to two "equal" callings?

As both a Keeper at Home and a Writer I have honestly a nearly equal pull to both. Many "writing guides" I've looked at imply that if writing isn't your first passion either nothing will got done, or you're not serious enough. As a Believer I know that that can't be true, so I'm curious how believers (especially those at home with their children at home) define "priority" and affirm the importance of both callings.

Great question! As a mom of two (ages 4 and 7), I can identify with this struggle. I remember when I was pregnant with my first child, I was in the process of trying to get published for the first time. It was grueling. I was getting a lot of rejection and I’d come to the point that I thought, “Well, God must just want me to be a mom.” And truly, I was okay with that. I wasn’t sure I could handle both anyway.

My son was five weeks old when I received the call that I’d sold my first novel. It was from a proposal, so I hadn’t written it yet. I was thrilled beyond words, because I felt as if the Lord was telling me, “Yes, you can do both. I’ve called you to do both.” There was a slight question in the back of my mind. I’d been trying for years to get published. Why didn’t God move then, before I had children and when I had a lot more time on my hands?

I’ve come to realize the timing was very intentional by God, because ever since that first phone call, and eleven novels later, it has been a constant battle for balance. Yet, it is in this balance that I find the most depth from which to write.

I find a lot of inspiration by watching pastors. They are constantly being pulled away from their families for things that seem very important and worthy of attention in the kingdom of God. Still, it is the pastor’s responsibility to shepherd his own family; if he can’t nurture his own flock, how can he nurture a bigger one with more problems?

The same is true for the call to write. Immersing yourself into it will cause brief moments of brilliance and success, but your family will suffer, and then you have nothing but a finished book and a lot of guilt.

To fulfill ourselves, we must be communing with God, trusting that we don’t have to do it all on our own. I spent many years writing like crazy, trying to keep up a momentum I was so afraid to lose. Hanging in the balance was my family. I am fortunate to have understood very quickly that if my family was going to suffer neglect at the hands of my “calling” then I wasn’t operating in the Spirit.

Let me assure you, though, that there is plenty of room in the heart to have a passion for writing while fulfilling the needs of your family. And in fact, your passion will be fed by the very love that is given back to you from the ones that you are taking care of.

To make it in this business, there is no question that you must have resolve, and you must be determined. But it is a lie to say that it must be all consuming. When it becomes all consuming, then you’ve lost the very reason you write. A novelist is an observer of life, and must be in it to reflect it.

Practically speaking, it is a challenge to balance writing and motherhood, but it isn’t impossible. I call what I do “work.” I hardly ever say, “I’m going to go write” because people draw all sorts of conclusions about your availability. So I will say, “I’m working from noon to four, but I’m free after that.” Over the years my friends, family and children have grown to understand that what I do is a job. Even if you are not yet published, begin referring to it as work. Just as any person who works has a responsibility to put in a number of hours, so do you. And it is most definitely a job that I have given to God.

At the end of the day, what often separates published writers from unpublished writers is self-discipline. I can’t count the number of people I’ve met who want to be writers but won’t actually sit down and write. I want to be physically fit, but that means I have to get off the couch and exercise! The same is true for writing. Begin to assess your schedule and see what can be removed so that you can have the writing time you need. Understand your craft and make certain that you are studying it as much as you can. Make progress in whatever project you have chosen to bring to the forefront.

“Priority” as a believer can be defined as working in the movement of the Spirit. When we are dwelling there, it amazes me what suddenly becomes a priority, often times things that weren’t even on our radar the day before. If He has called you to write, then you know that He expects you to obey, and that He is capable of bringing it all to fruition. If He has blessed you with children, then you understand the eternal gift you have been given and how quickly the years you have with them go by.

To be called “Mom” blesses me to the depths of my soul and to be called “Writer” gives me understanding of what my life experience and talent must be used for. Then to be called “Christian” gives me purpose in both.

Rene Gutteridge hangs out in cyberspace at .

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Writers' Spaces: Robin Lee Hatcher

I can't believe I'm going to let people see all the clutter in my office. But here goes.

About eight years ago, I hired a company to come in and install built in cupboards and file cabinets around the walls of my office. The teal counter seen in two of these photos runs around two full walls plus a bit of a third. Lots of room to spread out. Lots of room for more clutter! The paper blizzard never seems to go away, no matter how hard I try.

I had shelves built just to hold my vast CD collection. I write to all kinds of music. This collection began before the advent of the iPod and iTunes. Now most of these CDs have been loaded onto my computer and the only place I use the CDs is in my car.

As I write this post about my writer space, I am getting my house ready to go on the market. I'm looking to downsize the square footage, plus go from a two story to a single level home. I know I am going to miss this office (and another room that serves as my library) a lot when it's gone, but I will find a new space to clutter up. No doubt about it.


Robin Lee Hatcher's first writing space was lying in bed on her stomach, scribbling on a yellow pad, pages that she would type the next day at the office. She bought her first computer the month her first book was released (Feb 1984). Her 2007 books are: Sweet Dreams Drive (April), Return to Me (June), Trouble in Paradise (July), and Hearts Evergreen (November).