Tuesday, November 29, 2005

JK: Lewis and Clark

Historical stories help us discover a part of our past we never knew we lost. In the process of writing or painting or taking a photograph, we recreate memory and so recreate experience. Experience. A word defined in the dictionary as “the present.”

In my historical novels, I’m not trying to rewrite history but to explore a history I didn’t actually live to see what it might have to tell me about my life now. Consider what we know of memory into the journals of Lewis and Clark and weave it into the historical accounts. Most of the notes were written while on the trail but compiled later, after their return. We have commentaries of their journey. People who had access to the actual notes of Lewis and Clark and others who made recordings of the Corps adventures wrote a few of those books. Yet one thing is consistent throughout: that of all the encounters they had with Indian people, with rare exception, the foreigners – Lewis and Clark -- were met in kindness, with dignity and grace. They were treated with dignity and respect. I termed it being met as “family” a word that comes from the Latin word famalus, meaning servant.

Almost every aspect of the Lewis and Clark journey has been written about in these 200 years since. Except this one: the memories of the native peoples. These have gone unshared until now. Their memory of events looks quite different.

I suppose that’s one reason why my novels explore the lives of native peoples as well as settlers; of those of mixed blood as well as blue-bloods: because I want to see a wider story and to consider what those stories have to tell me about my own history.

No, such stories and explorations will not change the past. But it can change the memory of the past and in so doing, change the present, our experiences today.

As we approach this season of Thanksgiving, another time when Indian people acted as servants and family to foreigners in their land, this thought comes to mind: Writers of historical fiction will tell you that it is not just through the “facts as we know them” that richness and texture of story are told, but in transporting readers to their own stories, to their own lives, to answering their own questions of meaning and memory. How do we behave with our neighbors today? How can we stand by while the food bank grows empty? (Have I taken anything in to the collection site yet this month?) How will those still living under the bridge keep warm in this winter? Who will extend dried salmon to a foreign people as the Wasco and Umatilla and Yakima and Nez Perce people did? And what does it say about me and my memory of who I am and who I wish to be whether like them, my hand is extended out or stuck inside my pockets, jingling change?

In this season of giving and thanks giving, may you be surrounded by family, by being in service; and may all your memories be those you care to share.

Jane Kirkpatrick, www.jkbooks.com

Friday, November 25, 2005

JC: A Gift Unshelved

She trembled in the shadows clutching the vase to her chest. Should she do it? She wanted to, but it wasn’t easy for her to walk out there in front of everyone. What would they say? Maybe now wasn’t the right time. She could do it later when there weren’t so many people around.

Somewhere deep inside herself the woman tapped a vein of courage. Without a word she carried the vase into the middle of the party, mindful that everyone was looking at her. She knelt before Jesus, broke the vase, and anointed his feet with oil.

You know the story. You’ve probably taught it in Bible study. The woman was at the home of Simon, the leper. (Actually—compliments of Jesus—Simon was a former leper. We know he was a former leper because if he was still a leper nobody would have come to his party.)

The contents in the woman’s vase were pure nard imported from India at great expense. The jar was alabaster, a costly vessel uniquely suited to preserve the fragrance of the perfume.

Together, the two items were probably the most expensive possessions Mary owned.

You also know what happened next. The woman’s worst nightmare played out just as she feared it would. The disciples’ reaction was swift and critical.

How typical. So typical, in fact, that based on this text and a lifetime of service in churches I have formulated a maxim: No good work goes uncriticized.

And finally, you remember Jesus’ response. He chastened the disciples for criticizing the woman.

Then, he said something rather curious. He said, “Leave her alone. She did what she could.”

She did what she could.

Does that sound anti-climatic to you? It’s not exactly a phrase worthy of a T-shirt or inclusion on a quote of the day calendar, is it? Do what you can!

To a world that eats amazing tales and superhuman stories for breakfast, doing what you can is about as exciting as taking out the garbage. She did what she could. So what?

But look at Jesus’ reaction. He’s ecstatic. Maybe we’re missing something.

Literally, Jesus said, “That which she possessed, she used.” Hmm. Still not something that would sell a lot of T-shirts. Alright…how about looking at it a different way? What were her alternatives?

That which she possessed, she withheld. That’s certainly a possibility. Nobody forced her to do what she did.

Or, how about this—That which she wished she possessed, she wished she could use. This is the empty boast, “Imagine what we could do for the Lord if we had fifty million dollars!” Which usually calls attention away from the fifty dollars we do have and aren’t using.

She did what she could. Is this all it takes to get Jesus excited? To use what we have? In a word—Yes.

God never expects us to do what we cannot do. First, he equips us with a gift and an opportunity. Then, he waits to see what we’ll do with them.

All right, writers…you can see one this coming a mile away. But it’s too late to duck now.
God has given you a gift. He didn’t have to give it to you. He chose to give it to you. The question is…what are you going to do with it? Might I suggest the following…

1. Give your gift priority.

How easy it is to let your gift get buried under a landslide of e-mail and a to-do list posted magnetically on the refrigerator door that stretches down to the floor. In other words—shelved.

The only gift worthy of the Master is a gift unshelved.

2. Ignore the critics.

The gathering at Simon’s home was not a vase-breaking party. The woman took a risk doing what she did. The critics shot her down. The Lord lifted her up.

President Teddy Roosevelt was dead on target when he said, “It is not the critic who counts. Not the one who points out how the strong man stumbled or how the doer of good deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena…who, if we wins, knows the triumph of high achievement; and who, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”

3. Do the best with what you have.

Stop comparing yourself to Dickens or Twain or Cavanaugh. (Ha! Couldn’t help myself.) The Master reserves his praise for those who serve him with what they have. Somebody ought to make a T-shirt: Do what you can with what you have.

Today, take your gift down off the shelf.

Dust it off.

Bring it to Jesus.

Ignore the critics.

Break the jar.

Spill its contents.

And may the sweet fragrance of your act fill the room.

Jack Cavanaugh is as sweet in person as he is in his blog posts. Check out his books at your favorite bookstore (--Ed).

Thursday, November 24, 2005

JK: Harvest and Yield

Harvest. One definition is “the product of any effort,” meaning one’s efforts can yield strain and pain as well as gain. I just spent a long weekend at a book event, caught a terrible cold, and don’t really know how many new people I introduced to my work. But I had a harvest, I believe, in meeting new people, sharing stories, adding to my mailing list, letting myself be encouraged by the words of readers who find strength for their own lives inside my stories.

Samuel Johnson once noted that “to be happy at home was the result of all ambition.” I think he spoke of a writer’s harvest.

Another word for harvest is “yield” and it seems to me that sometimes, in order to have a harvest, we do have to yield, to let another go ahead of us, to step aside while another merges into life before us. We haven’t lost our goal or our plan to move ahead; we’re just yielding for a time. This happens in the lives of characters I write about, one story rises over another or falls back for a time .

This blend of yield and harvest describes my writing life of late. I yield to the needs of my family and their health and mine as well and try not to feel guilty that I haven’t sat to write for several days now. I yield computer time to my granddaughter while we seek scholarships so she can attend an art school she wishes. Her grandfather and I have discussed what we’ll “yield” in the years ahead so that she can have this chance to go to go on to school. Except for these contributions to the blog, I haven’t written much at all this month except letters and brief emails. I’ve been promoting instead, attending writer’s fairs and book signings, recovering from bronchitis, reading to research the time period of the book I’m “writing” (read “thinking about”), the one I’ll begin putting on to paper before this year is out. I’ll await the copy-editors comments on the manuscript I turned in last month, have agreed to read colleague’s works with an eye to endorsement. I consider that part of my writing life even though I’m not actually “writing.” But I’m home, stepping back into my space on Starvation Lane, sitting like a frog on a lily pad surrounded by books and notes and timelines and photographs and letting my imagination roll me into another place and time – when the time is right.

For me, there is always a level of guilt about writing. If I write all day long and enjoy it, then I feel guilty for neglecting my family, the dogs, cooking meals. If I don’t write all day long, I feel guilty for neglecting a gift, a ministry, my passion for storytelling, for pushing aside the lives of these characters, perhaps not listening to what God wants me to do.

My only hope is that this kind of guilt can be addressed by confession AND by making a personal change.

So I’ll yield this month, pray, set sleep aside and start rising early to write so I won’t feel guilty of neglect of either family or passion. As the sun rises, I’ll have devoted some hours to what I love and believe I’m called to do and can then spend the rest of the day on the harvests that make me “happy at home.” It seems to be my rhythm of harvests and yields.

Jane Kirkpatrick, www.jkbooks.com.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

PH: Playing in the Mud—How Those Pesky Peripheral Characters Arise to Shape the Central Character’s Universe

When I was a new writer, I enjoyed inserting the peripheral characters into my story because I thought that it was a matter of making up a list of names from The Writer’s Digest Character-Naming Sourcebook, picking out a hair color, and pasting on a list of characteristics--from how they pronounce “darling” (dahling, dalink, darlin’), to how they dress. Kind of like adding the Midges and Kens to Barbie’s world. Easy. But not necessarily effective.

Developing essential side characters is as important to the plot as the expanding development of the central character’s story. That is true because properly developed characters provide a good deal of the universe that surrounds the central character, often becoming the cause and effect, the tipping point that sends the central character’s world wobbling off course. I say often because the protagonist can also be his/her own worst enemy, serving the plot through well-meaning yet disastrous choices.

As I give my central character breath through both internal and external devices, I’m also building in outside forces that will intrinsically wreck and sometimes offer temporary reprieve for that character’s life. The reprieve is the place in the story where you’re giving the reader a chance to catch her breath. She could be a mentor who gives the CC the piece of information or advice she needs to move a little closer to her driving desire or the character who comes delivering good news that two pages later disintegrates. But many of the side characters will serve to create tension, the page-turning devices that rivet the reader to her seat.

I like to be able to see this on the page before I begin writing. This method can be developed through whatever means works best for you. I’ve long used Randy Ingermanson’s outline table once I’ve developed those one or two line scene summaries. But even before that, I play in the mud of imagination for a while developing a universe of what-ifs.

First off, here’s our main or central character, the name written in the middle of a page in my notebook that by the novel’s end has become four or five notebooks, all full of many ideas that I either accepted or rejected as important to the plot. The first chapter will find the CC in one particular state of being, the last chapter will find him/her in another state, having been changed forever by circumstances. It may ease your mind to know that I usually have a pretty good idea of the outcome that will be played out in the final chapter, but not always. If you’ve nailed down at least a general idea, though, it will help speed up your plotting of scenes. Deciding who and what provided those causal changes are the kinds of choices that will either rivet a reader to her seat or cause her mind to drift away from the story. Even unexpected circumstances involve people who usher change into the story, so building those characters around the CC involves quite a lot of mud, if you will, some of it useful, some not. These change agents may block the CC’s way, inflict pain either intentionally or unintentionally, disagree with the CC making her question what she thought she knew, spread lies or gossip, tempt, make empty promises that send the CC off course, hover annoyingly or threateningly over the CC’s life, humiliate, badger—the list of conflicts that usher in change is as limited as the imagination.

When I’m finished making mud pies on those pages, I take a look at all of the side characters and assess the importance of each character’s life to the CC. Is one character similar to another? If so, I try combining those two, assimilating them into one character, because, after all, they are created to serve the protagonist’s story, not each other. By the novel’s end these characters are much more fully fleshed out than was evident in those early trial notes because each rewrite takes the book deeper into the protagonist’s psyche. The universal truths that I thought I might use have also either shifted or deepened.

I’ve had to learn to let go of characters that were providing little meaning to the CC’s story. I think of the central character as the fully formed planet—no longer imaginary mud--that on page one has gone off course either through circumstances beyond his/her control or through choice. If one planet’s axis tilts it can affect moons and other planets. If other planets get off course, it will affect the CC’s planet. They all start to wobble and quiver off course because they all share the same universe. I imagine them quivering and wobbling with fear or anger or manic delight that change has finally come into the universe. I’ve handed the central character a cosmic force that either repels or draws the other planets into her orbit. If those side planets, those peripheral characters, do not impede, or with great profundity, help her along her orbital path, then I carefully aim my delete key at them and blow them out of the sky.

I can do that because it all started, after all, in my mud hole.

Stay faithful and true, as Christ your Lord has done for you.
Author of Whisper Town and Nazareth’s Song.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

JSB: A Writer’s Prayer

Sometimes I still have to pinch myself when I realize I'm doing the Writer's Digest fiction column. When I was learning to write I read that column every month, underlined, clipped and studied them. I still have five binders filled with those old mags.

That was back when the great Lawrence Block was writing the column. It was, for me, a sacred page. Which is why I take my responsibility so seriously. I know there are others out there hanging on my words, so I try to make each of them count, the way Block made them count for me.

Fortunately, much of Block's material from those days is available in book form. Telling Lies for Fun and Profit; Spider, Spin Me a Web; and Writing the Novel. I recommend them all.

In that first volume is a little piece Block called "A Writer's Prayer." I always liked it, and asked him recently if I could post it to this blog. He gladly consented. After you read it, give a visit to this Grand Master's website. It has a great little opening animation.

Here's the prayer:

Lord, I hope You've got a few minutes. I've got a whole lot of favors to ask You.
Basically, Lord, I guess I want to ask You to help me be the best writer I possibly can, to get the most out of whatever talent I've been given....

For starters, help me to avoid comparing myself to other writers. I can make a lot of trouble for myself when I do that, sliding into a routine that might go something like this:

"I'm a better writer than Alan, so why don't I have the success he has? Why don't I get the book-club sales? Why wasn't my last book optioned for a TV mini-series? How come Barry gets so much more advertising support from his publisher than I do? What's so great about Carol that she deserves a two-page review in The New Yorker? Every time I turn on the TV, there's Dan running his mouth on another talk show. What makes him so special?

"On the other hand, I'll never be the writer Frank is. He can use his own experience with a degree of rigorous self-honesty that's beyond me. And Gloria has a real artist's eye. Her descriptive passages are so vivid they can make me aware of my own limitations. Howard's a real pro--he can knock off more work in a day than I can in a month, and do it without working up a sweat. Irene spends twice as much time at the typewriter as I do. Maybe she has the right idea, and I'm so lazy I don't deserve to get anyplace in this game. And as for Jeremy..."

Lord, help me remember that I'm not in competition with other writers. Whether they have more or less success has nothing to do with me. They have their stories to write and I have mine. They have their way of writing them and I have mine. They have their careers and I have mine. The more focus on comparing myself with them, the less energy I am able to concentrate on making the best of myself and my own work. I wind up despairing of my ability and bitter about its fruits, and all I manage to do is sabotage myself.

Help me, Lord, to write my own stories and novels...Help me to grow as a writer....When I read a writer who does things better than I do, enable me to learn from him. When I read another writer who has serious weaknesses, allow me to learn from his mistakes.

Give me the courage to take chances....Don't let me forget, Lord, that acceptance and rejection aren't all that important anyway. The chief reward of any artistic effort (and perhaps of every other effort as well) is the work itself. Success lies in the accomplishment, not in its fruits. If I write well, I'm a success. Wealth and fame might be fun (or they might not) but they're largely beside the point.

Let me accept rejection, when it comes, as part of the process of gaining acceptance. Let me accept dry spells as part of the creative process. All across the board, Lord, let me accept the things I can't do anything about, deal with the things I can, and tell which is which.

And let me always be grateful, Lord, that I am a writer, that I am actually doing the only work I've ever really wanted to do, and that I don't need anyone's permission to do it. Just something to write and something to write on.

Thanks for all that. And thanks for listening.

James Scott Bell, in addition to writing the fiction column for Writer's Digest, writes novels. He's got fifteen out there, and number sixteen arrives next April, Presumed Guilty from Zondervan. www.jamesscottbell.com

Monday, November 21, 2005

AH: Make the Words do the Work

Oh? That's me dancing with my daddy at my debutante ball in 1975. Being Baptists, I'm afraid we didn't do much more than step on each other's feet out there.

If I were a beginning writer, I might write the following as a caption for that picture:

The night was a beginning and an end!! A farewell to childhood, a welcoming of new horizons!! An occasion to put on my best, invest in a few formal manners, learn how to curtsey!! If I'd been a little less giddy, I might have appreciated these things!!!

What's wrong with the above? You guessed it,the exclamation points. Nothing marks a beginning writer faster than an overdose of punctuation--specifically, exclamation points. Take them out...and the bit is improved 100 percent.

Consider a president's ability to launch an air strike--you should use exclamation points with the same amount of deliberation and reserve, and you'd better be darn sure the effect will be worth the big guns. WORDS are supposed to do the work of evoking emotion, not punctuation! (tee hee).

And when you choose words, choose hunky nouns and adjectives--don't opt for those spindly little verbs that require an adverb to prop them up. (I teach my writing classes to say "Boo, hiss" every time I say the word "adverb." You might need them on occasion, but they should be, like calling in the military, a reluctantly-used option).

One of my favorite Seinfeld episodes (yes, I'm a junkie) is when Elaine is dating/editing Jake Jarmel. When he takes a phone message about a friend having a baby and DOESN'T use an exclamation point, Elaine is understandably peeved that he doesn't appreciate how important the baby is to . . . well, to women everywhere. To demonstrate her displeasure, she peppers his manuscript with exclamation points, bombing the thing to smithereens. Ker-pow! Ka-boom!

Her boss is less than amused.

So--do yourself a favor. Go through your WIP and eliminate almost every exclamation point you can find. Unless, of course, it is an appropriate target.

Angela Hunt, www.angelahuntbooks.com, is hard at work on a first draft . . . and not really worried about punctuation yet

Friday, November 18, 2005

JK: Attitudes

Someone once said that daily news reports make us cynical and rob us of our sense of humor (truths children still understand). Living is risky. But dwelling on it, thinking only of the awfuls, is the ultimate energy vampire, sucking each of us dry.

We don’t control very much in life, but we do control our thoughts and our attitudes, both of which can be changed (despite country western music that suggests that once you’ve lost your truck and dog you’ll never be the same!). And there are always two things we can do when we’re feeling like a victim – of the publishing world, our jobs, our spouses and kids. One is to get clear about what matters – find that focus, that passion, the “hearth of our heart” and second, have the courage to act on it.

When those around us say we make victims out of them, ranting or raving, holding them accountable for what we say we want and accusing them for standing in our way, there are also two things we can do: we can increase our curiosity, about what we’re doing, about how we’re being received, and about why they’re suggesting we’re at fault. Do I come on too strong? Am I sighing or snapping instead of sharing a thought, taking action on my own desire? And secondly, we can increase our compassion. Not just toward the other person, who like us is mostly likely doing the best they can; but increase the compassion we have for ourselves.
We don’t need editors or readers to reject and criticize us because we do it so well ourselves! We’re so creative! We come up with negative thoughts that far surpass what anyone else could say to us. (Why else would there be all those “diet-now-buy exercise-equipment-fast” infomercials on TV during the morning hours when we’re up getting dressed? Marketers know we’re telling ourselves how bad we look. No one else has to!)

Being kinder to ourselves and others is how I’m choosing to deal with difficult news days. Getting clear, having courage, being curious, increasing compassion. Those words come right out of mediation work, but I read them in books about over-eating, about depression, about social justice, about family relationships, theology, writing, social work, life. It’s what we can do when we think we can do nothing to make a difference. Each of us matters. Our writing matters whether it sees publication or not.

My choice, how I want to name myself, is to allow tragedies to remind me of the choices that I do have, to help me live inside the moment more, to love the ones I’m close to and tell them so.
Author Madeline L’Engle once said, “We’re named by the choices we make.” I like that thought and leave it with you. Today and everyday, we get to decide what our name is: clear, courageous, curious and compassionate. They’re all great names to choose as a name of our own; they all reflect the light of Christ in the writing world. And it’s our choice how we let that light shine during this season of gratitude.

Jane Kirkpatrick, www.jkbooks.com

Thursday, November 17, 2005

PH: The Art of Milling: Reduction vs. The Expositional Lump

Imagine that you have been engaged in a discussion at a party by a guy who you’ve been told is a great storyteller. You don’t know much about his topic but you are listening and gleaning so that you can understand and get the same satisfaction out of his tale that he seems to be getting. As he explains the story to you, he appears to be in a hurry, a little giddy, and he seems to be cuing you to feel what he is feeling, wanting you to understand in a hurry so that you will also agree that he is, after all is said and done, a good storyteller. He seems to know exactly what he is thinking but wants you to make the leap into knowing what he knows. So all at once, he throws out this statement: “And you of course know what I mean and where I’m going with all of this so I don’t have to explain it to you. They lived happily after that.” If you don’t know him too well, you might shrug in bewilderment and excuse yourself to another part of the room. If you know him all too well, you might tell him that you really can’t agree because he hasn’t shown you enough information. More likely than not, you may feel manipulated because he did not earn the right to make that statement. He has thrown a lump of information at you and expected you to “believe it.”

When plot is trapped inside the dreaded expositional lump, it becomes the clogged artery in the story. The expositional lump is the narrative statement that is pregnant with too much undeveloped information that assumes the reader will draw the conclusions the writer intended. The expositional lump serves the summarized scene well because you as the author know where you will eventually take it. So it is a device that can serve the author. But once you’ve launched your story the lumps must then be subjected to your critical reduction so that the beauty and mystery that unfolds as narrative craft will take your readers where you want them to go. I see it as a milling process, grinding the lumps down into all of the specific sensory details the writer will integrate into that particular scene. “Making the information part of the story is a learnable skill,” says novelist Ursula K. Le Guin. “The trick is to tell us things without appearing to tell us.”

My husband and I love to grind coffee beans each time we make a fresh pot of brew. We have become spoiled to the fresh taste. But if I dropped the beans straight into his cup, poured over hot water, and handed it to him, well, he’d think I was kidding. The same is true of the expositional lump. In order for the reader to digest all that the writer intended, the telling narrative has to be reduced to its finest specificity.

Now it is true where, for the sake of time, we transition from one scene to the next because the details that we would have to add in are not intrinsic to the story. Time passing would not be a pregnant lump but a natural transition and is the perfect place for an achingly beautiful piece of summary or a natural beat in the story’s rhythm. We’re not leaving behind any handholds.

The art of reduction can also be misunderstood in the course of story movement. I don’t want to mislead the new writer into believing that every single detail she envisions happening in scene has to be told such as “standing up, glancing into every eye,” showing every hand movement. When I see a new writer reduce details to this point, I blame it on the video age that has replaced our former reading habits. The writer becomes a puppeteer, trying to literally embody the character and walk and move for them. Story movement takes on speed in pregnant elements, but that can be as small as an important key that has turned up or a family secret that has accidentally come spilling out. It can be as large as the character flying halfway around the world or as vertical as a lunar landing. Reduction played out in the mere physical movements of the character would only serve to weaken scene, of course, unless that movement has meaning. The point of reduction is that we are not asking the reader to “see” a universe of compelling information unfold without having had it explained through the sensory details in an immediate scene.

You’ve heard of sentimental writing. Sentiment is simply unearned emotion. The writer who is in a hurry to make us feel something, like our storyteller at the party, will give gratuitous emotions carte blanche in a scene, forming an emotional clot in the narrative.

And she knew that his feelings for her from that time forth would be forever changed because she could read it in his eyes, feel it in his touch, and she knew that God had given him to her, fulfilling the desires of her heart because He loved her and wanted her to be happy; unlike those who don’t know God. (cue the sunset, release the doves, yada, yada, ad nauseam)

The reader has not had the chance to extract that laundry list of conclusions because she has been told how she is supposed to feel and what to believe. It is writing sin. The contemporary reader will close up that story and hurl it into the sea. The central character through immediate scene has to be allowed to react and respond along the lines of a carefully drawn arc that not only builds tension but also believability. When ground down to its finest essence, that is when the story takes on its potency. Superficial emotional writing is traded for convincing literature.

What is mysterious to me is when the writing surprises me by revealing its secrets, undisclosed details speaking to me from deeper places telling me things that I had not realized were trying to surface. These are often when the universal truths of the story come into focus, those intrinsic human elements that will hook your reader because they are so true of life and of humans. I nearly gasp when that happens because it feels as though the story has taken on a life all its own and now I’m the mere observer taking dictation. Some writers call it The Muse, but I credit God for whispering those things to me. But it happens when we have taken time with that scene to allow all of the mysteries to unfold.

Milling down the expositional lump is how the writer discovers things about her story that even she didn’t know. Reduction gives sway to potency over emotionalism. Potent storytelling persuades the reader to follow your trail all the way to the last page. And we want that very badly.

Author of The Millwood Hollow series and Sandpebbles

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

LC: A Spell Chequer is A Good Thing

Not every author is an English major. Often writers struggle with mechanics on the final manuscript draft. One highly useful tool is the spellchecker that comes with my Microsoft XP software (but not without its problems).

I discovered long ago that the program has limits. For instance, it can’t distinguish “your” from “you’re” or “been” from “bin” from Ben”. I’m contemplating purchasing a second checker and running both programs to catch the big stuff but I will always hire someone to go over my final copy for grammar and continuity before I submit the manuscript---because even then errors occur.

To provide the cleanest copy you can produce you need to do several things: Readers are good—friends who have the time and the willingness to read the story and find mistakes. Some authors are blessed with mothers, husbands, sisters who can fill the niche, but if you’re like me and don’t have family available, then find a critique group and trade favors. Always read on hard copy; the eye is tricky and you won’t always catch the error on the computer screen. Don’t ever (unless you are an English major) submit the book without a second eye and even then a fresh read is invaluable. Authors are so busy with the creative work that often the technical is inadvertently overlooked. Make sure the word used is what you intended to say.

Though I don't know the author, I keep this little poem pinned to my computer:

Who wood have guest
The Spell Chequer would super seed
The assent of the editor
Who was once a mane figure?
Once, awl sought his council:
Now nun prophet from him.
How suite the job was;
It was all sew fine…
Never once was he board
As he edited each claws,
Going strait to his deer work
Where he’d in cyst on clarity
Now he’s holy unacceptable,
Useless and not kneaded…
This is know miner issue,
For he cannot urn a wage.
Two this he takes a fence,
Butt nose naught watt too due.
He’s wade each option
Of jobs he mite dew,
But nothing peaks his interest
Like making pros clear.
Sum will see him silly
For being sew upset,
But doesn’t good righting
Go beyond the write spelling?

Happy writing!

Lori Copeland is the author of more than sixty novels.

Monday, November 14, 2005

JSB: Writing for the Joy of It

I recently received in the mail a complimentary copy of the audio version of my historical novel, Glimpses of Paradise (Bethany House). A full 17 hours, unabridged. It is an honor to have the whole book recorded, and the actress who did the reading, Alexandra O'Karma, is wonderful. As I listened to the first tape, I almost forgot I wrote the thing. In fact, I was thinking it sounded great, not at all like I remembered as I wrote!

We writers never think our stuff is as good as we want it to be. Writing Glimpses was hard work, because of all the research and the length. I'm was actually relieved it sounded so good on tape.

It's an odd disconnect. Among my many novelist friends, I find this to be almost uniformly true—the more we publish, the harder we are on ourselves.

One reason, of course, is that we know more the more we write. Our standards get higher. We see how other great novelists do it, and wonder if we are anywhere near that. We start to build a reader base, and hope we don't disappoint. Most unpublished writers think, Gee, if only I can get pubbed, get in the club, all will be well. I'll be happy, and life will become a series of interviews in leading magazines and websites. Maybe I'll chat with Katie and Matt, and tell them anecdotes that'll charm their socks off (does Katie Couric wear socks?)

Well, getting published is indeed a milestone, but it's not the holy grail. When one is published, there are plenty of challenges that come with it.

The happiest time I ever had writing was when I was unpublished. I wrote for the sheer love of it, and produced a crazy collection of Christian poetry, "The Night Carl Sagan Stepped on My Cat," and a novel I wrote entirely for myself, The Darwin Conspiracy. The latter was a satirical-historical-novel of ideas. Ever see that section in Borders? Me neither, so I thought I'd self-publish. Through an odd set of circumstances, it came to the attention of a small publishing house and they wanted it. So I let them. No brainer.

That started me in the book world, but I've never been quite as gloriously carefree in my writing since. I love what I do and seek to get better with every book. But now it's what I do for a living, so there's no going back to the age of innocence.

Yet every now and again I try to write something just for me, without thought of being published. I wrote a long poem recently, in the style of Shel Silverstein, which begins:

I once knew a fellow named Fergus McBean
Who built a perpetual lawyer machine—
A gizmo that argued and bickered all day,
Bullying all 'til it got its own way.
And then, when it did, it would chuckle and say,
"I’ve won the contention, and now you must pay!"
Fergus McBean grew quite wealthy that way.

Being a recovering lawyer, that made me happy. And just writing for fun was a pleasure.

So if you are yet unpublished, don't give up writing for the sheer joy of it. Do some free writing every day. Check out Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones or Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way.

Write, as Brenda Ueland suggests in If You Want To Write (a very inspirational book), "Freely and rollickingly, as though talking to a friend who loves you."

Or as Ray Bradbury says, "In a great surge of delightful passion."

In doing so, you won't be writing for a market or according to false expectations. You'll be writing from what makes you unique. And in doing so you may just find the voice that someone, somewhere, will want to publish.

James Scott Bell is the author of Write Great Fiction: Plot & Structure (Writers Digest Books). Visit him at http://www.jamesscottbell.com

Thursday, November 10, 2005

RLH: Failure and Success

For a week or so in October of this year, the email devotionals I receive daily from Insight for Leaders covered the topic of Failure and Success. The one for October 31 was about not competing with other servants of God. What Dr. A. W.Tozer, a pastor, wrote in The Price of Neglect, pages 104-105, was about comparing pastors and congregations to ones own, but the words certainly apply to other things.

Because it is so hard not to play the comparison game when one is in the writing business (where numbers and sales—her own and those of others—are constantly thrust at a writer), I've taken Dr. Tozer's prayer and made it my own. The changes I've made are bracketed.

Dear Lord, I refuse henceforth to compete with any [Christian novelist]. They have [readerships] larger than mine. So be it. I rejoice in their success. They have greater gifts. Very well. That is not in their power nor in mine. I am humbly grateful for their greater gifts and my smaller ones. I only pray that I may use to Thy glory such modest gifts as I possess. I will not compare myself with any, nor try to build up my self-esteem by noting where I may excel one or another in Thy holy work.

I herewith make a blanket disavowal of all intrinsic worth. I am but an unprofitable servant. I gladly go to the foot of the class and own myself the least of Thy people. If I err in my self judgment and actually underestimate myself I do not want to know it. I purpose to pray for others and to rejoice in their prosperity as if it were my own. And indeed it is my own if it is Thine own, for what is Thine is mine, and while one plants and another waters it is Thou alone that giveth the increase.


Robin Lee Hatcher is the Christy and RITA Award winning author of over 45 novels. Learn more at her web site (http://www.robinleehatcher.com/) and on her Write Thinking blog (http://robinlee.typepad.com/).

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

BJH: Accepting Responsibilty As a Writer ... and As a Reader: Part Two

What kind of a reader are you? It's not the easiest thing in the world for a writer to think like a reader--although it's probably a safe conclusion that most writers are also avid readers. I'm one of those avid readers; nevertheless, I tend to think like a writer, no matter what I'm doing. I found this entry a challenge, because I really needed to shut down the writer in me to avoid interference.

Yesterday I talked about the responsibilities of the writer. At times, the responsibilities--and the expectations from which some of those responsibilities take root--almost seem to be too much. Yet in truth the entire burden of the reading experience isn't--or shouldn't be--solely that of the writer.

There are certain things a reader should, ideally, bring to a book. The word "responsibility" probably isn't a good word for what I mean here. I can only explain what I bring to a book, as a reader, certainly not what another reader is required to bring.

Most of us know that readers fall into different categories. Some read only as a last resort, when illness or extreme boredom might send them looking for something to pass the time. As soon as wellness returns or a more interesting activity presents itself, the book is put aside and forgotten.

Another group may read frequently, but read only for the purpose of escapism or entertainment. Often what they read--no matter how fine a work of literature it might be--is forgotten almost as soon as they close the book for the last time. They read much, but what they read has little, if any, effect on them, and that's why it's so easily dismissed from mind and memory.

To others, however, reading is a great love, a source of indescribable pleasure, an event, and they absorb what they read so deeply that in many cases it's never lost to them--and they're changed from the reading of it. Among this group you will usually find those who read their "favorites" again and again, and each time discover something new, something moving, something to remember. I belong to this group, as I suspect many of you do. But no matter which group may be the best fit for you, the important thing is to read.

C. S. Lewis compared the act of reading, to some extent, with that of the way one appreciates art: "Some buy pictures because the walls 'look so bare without them; and after the pictures have been in the house for a week they become practically invisible to them. But there are a few who feed on a great picture for years."

Two people (besides my favorite authors) heavily influenced my own attitude toward books and reading. One was an overworked and certainly underpaid elementary school teacher. I spent nearly two years as a shut-in before I was nine years old, unable to attend school, walk up the steps, go outdoors, or do anything else ... except read. Unfortunately, we lived in a very small town with no public library. But because the above-mentioned teacher saw to it that I received a fresh stash of books from the school library every week, a love affair with the story took root, one that I’ve never outgrown.

When she took it upon herself to supply me with a weekly bag of books, she apparently made the decision as well to provide me with the best books available for children, which often included a few meant for older readers. Because of her, I grew to be a hungry reader (which I still am today). I was also fortunate in that I cut my teeth on good books, in many cases the classics. To this day, I still remember waiting at the front window, heart pounding, scarcely able to control my excitement when I finally saw her drive up and step out of her car with the weekly supply of books. And also to this day, it takes a deliberate effort not to abandon everything else I need to be doing (including my WIP) and plunge into a new book.

It's not likely that this dear lady ever thought she might be planting seeds or bestowing a lifelong gift. I'm sure she merely meant to help an ill child survive the world of a shut-in--and keep me moving through my subjects so when the time came that I could return to school, I wouldn't be too far behind the other students. I wish somehow she could know the long-lasting fruit of her generosity and sacrifice.

I met the other "book lady" in my life during my early teens. She was an unlikely heroine; in fact, I was just a little afraid of her. A stern, elderly spinster lady partially crippled by arthritis, she needed some help on a weekly basis getting her groceries in and doing a few other chores. My mother volunteered me. Until the day I was sent upstairs to find a sweater "for the chill," I didn't know about her bookcases. Glass-enclosed bookcases on every wall, filled with old, well-cared for books. All novels. All novels--except for one shelf, which held biographies. (My favorite books today are still novels and biographies.)

By the time I retrieved her sweater and made it downstairs, I was probably wild-eyed and tongue-tied. But I was able to voice my awestruck reaction to her book collection, and for the first time ever, after a long, piercing look, she smiled at me. To condense a very long story (and it's a colorful, rollicking good story, too), she became my own private lending library--and a benefactor of sorts. I was allowed to borrow one book at a time. I had to promise to handle it with the same care she had given it herself--and to read it from beginning to end, no skipping--and then to give her my opinion of the author and the story. Kind of like a book report without a grade. I learned a lot about books and authors during those "opinion sessions," even more about the woman who had opened her bookcases, and eventually her life, to me.

She had no family, no close friends, and was unable to leave the house. But she had a knife-sharp intellect and, I later discovered, a keen, if dry, sense of humor that often surprised me. It never occurred to me at the time, self-centered teenager that I was, that Miss Marian might be lonely, that she might be as hungry for human contact as I was for her books, that a weekly dialogue with a younger person might be as much gift to her as her books were to me.

Later, she gave me my first typewriter. A manual Underwood, on which she had once written her own "little stories" and correspondence, but which she'd grown unable to use in her later years because of the arthritis. After that, came a small desk--my first desk--which I kept until it literally fell apart and collapsed. It was a true "lady's desk"--even though in her youth she had painted it a blazing fire-engine red.

She's long gone, of course, but I tried to capture her spirit in one of my books. For those of you who have read Cloth of Heaven, she's "Jane," Terese's employer in the Claddagh.

What did these two women teach me? How did they help to shape the kind of reader I became? What did they give me that I still bring with me to every book I read?

Respect. To approach a book as a caretaker of something precious. To approach it with high expectations, to choose only books worthy of those expectations, and to handle them with the greatest of care.

They also helped me to see that reading is in its own way a creative experience, not a sideline observance. When we read, we experience. We learn. We envision. We work through problems and fears and failures with the characters. In some cases, we become a little more than what we were before.

The act of sharing. As much as anything else, I suppose they taught me that books should never really belong to only one person, that the experience of reading is a gift, and a gift that by its very nature is an experience to be shared and passed on and made available to those who might otherwise never know what they're missing.

An inexplicable sense of reverence and the gift of remembrance. A good book is a treasure, one created by someone who cared enough to spend months, sometimes years, in the preparation and the crafting of it. Someone who likely loved what they did and did his best to express what he dreamed and imagined. A novel well-written opens a new world to the reader, offers an invitation to experience that world, to meet new people--some who will be unforgettable--and to undertake new adventures that may remain in memory for a lifetime.

Anticipation. I have never lost--and I hope I never lose--that sense of expectation when I first discover that I'm reading a good book, a book that I'll almost certainly savor and take my time with and won't want to put down. It's that feeling that I've just been handed a gift, a cup of contentment.

Whatever I might bring to a book--a good book--it will never be as much as I take from it. And that's what I would wish for every reader. Like you.

BJ Hoff is the author of the American Anthem and An Emerald Ballad.


Tuesday, November 08, 2005

BJH: Accepting Responsibility As a Writer ... And As a Reader: Part One

Most of us who write fiction have heard, at times to the point of weariness, the "responsibilities" of the novelist: To study and learn well our craft. Aspire to excellence in everything we write. Fulfill the "contract" made with the reader at the beginning of a book. Avoid misleading the reader. Do as much research as necessary, and do it as thoroughly as possible. Always meet our deadlines. Do everything we can to help promote our work. And on and on and on ....

A less often discussed but equally important list would include the following (caveat-- this is by no means a comprehensive list, but just a sampling):

Create a realistic, authentic setting that allows the reader to step into the time and place of the novel and be at ease, at home, there. Tolkien said that the story-maker "makes a Secondary World [for the reader] which your mind can enter." This requires more than research, although that's a part of it. It also demands a huge involvement of all the senses, the emotions, and at times the unmasking of our own secret fears and failures.

Be willing to confront all of human life, not merely the pure and noble elements. For the one who writes from a Christian worldview, this need not be the problem we might first believe it to be. In fact, whether the writer is Christian or not, to show what is sordid and low and depraved doesn't require that we exploit it or force the reader to wade through it. In fact, exploitive, explicit fiction is often lazy fiction. A character doesn't need to let loose a stream of profanity to let the reader glimpse his tendency toward the profane. The violence of a rape doesn't need to be played out in detail. Khaled Hosseini in The Kite Runner created a chilling horror of the deed more through the terror and sickness of the observer and the threatening mood of the scene, than through the violence inflicted upon the victim. Then, too, the carnage of war can be grasped by the reader if the writer creates a kind of still-life, a tableau in which the horror is more sensed than graphically depicted.

What the careful writer intent on creating a "world" can not afford to do is avoid reality. Flannery O'Connor said that "The sorry religious novel comes about when the writer supposes that because of his belief, he is somehow dispensed from the obligation to penetrate concrete reality." By pretending evil doesn't exist, or evading confrontation with evil by masking it in superficial stereotypes, we take the lazy writer's easy way out. To confront the reality and truth of life, the novelist will at times be called upon to bleed from deep within–to hurt.

Attempting to slap a Band-Aid on the ugly wounds, the malignancies and horrors of the world destroys the integrity of a work of fiction ... and the author's integrity as a writer. I can think of no other novelist working today who more deeply explores her characters and life itself, psychologically, and theologically, yet still manages to give her readers a suspenseful, intellectually and emotionally satisfying read, than Susan Howatch. Every novel she writes grapples with the ageless battle between good and evil, and she manages it all without the gore and explicit ugliness too often seen in the work of some other contemporary novelists. The deep spiritual dimensions and grace that permeate Howatch's novels take nothing away from–but rather add to--her brilliant storytelling.

Write in a way that invites the reader to search, to explore, to think. Don't underestimate your readers. You don't have to fill in all the blanks or paint by number to tell a worthwhile story or provide a satisfying read. Not all readers want to be spoon-fed. Some want to investigate a story, its world, and its characters for themselves. Don't be afraid to be subtle on occasion. Far too often, the Christian writer, especially, tries to give answers–when what we need to do more of is ask questions, to write in a way that provokes questions from our readers.

John Gardner said: "The temptation to explain should almost always be resisted." It's not our responsibility to instruct, but merely to tell a story. In that regard, we need to learn to subdue the teacher (or the preacher) in ourselves so that the storyteller may more fully emerge.

Respect the language. If the writer's attitude toward language is careless or indifferent, his fiction will reflect it. His work will be mundane and weak, since he's neglected the primary quality that will give his writing grace and lavishness and rhythm–and power. The storyteller needs more than a functional command of language. It's not that the novelist should be a slave to language: to the contrary, he should be its master. We need to grasp the truth early in our writing life that the greater our command of language, the greater our potential to write with authority and even elegance.

Don't feel that, as a Christian writer, every work you develop needs to be religious. Look around you. The beauties in nature were created by God, yes. But do you really feel that in writing about those beauties you need to imbue them with a "religiosity?" Music is another gift stamped with God's handprint. But for music to be beautiful, must it also be "pious?" And when you stand transfixed before a painting of evident genius and universal appeal, must it be "religious art" in order to move you?

Sometimes I think we Christians in the arts need to loosen our halos a little. As followers of Christ, yes, we're to live Christian lives, paying heed to His example, with God's Word as our handbook. We're called to be thankful, to be humble, to be reverent, to pray, to praise, and to please Him. But we're not called to impose upon every act of our own creation a religious overtone.

And by the same token, if an artist who isn't a Christian is responsible for a monumental work of art–be it a novel, a painting, a sculpture, a symphony–should we judge it as inferior simply because the artist doesn't share our faith? More than likely, all of us have read numerous excellent novels over the years that would be considered "moral," but that weren't necessarily written by Christians. Naturally, we need to be discerning. "Great art" can, and often does, express immorality, deception, and even depravity. (By "great art" I mean art conceived and executed by an artist of great ability.) The Christian is obligated to choose the objects of his recreation and entertainment and interest with wisdom and sensitivity to the Spirit's guidance. But so long as art isn't immoral or irreverent or depraved, don't we have the freedom to enjoy it for the sake of its artistic value–without feeling guilty?

There's more to this issue of the writer's responsibilities, obviously, than can be explored in a blog entry. We can't possibly look at them all, because some of us may have defined responsibilities for ourselves that don't necessarily apply to every writer. Besides, readers have responsibilities, too.

That's for next time.

BJ Hoff is the author of The American Anthem and An Emerald Ballad

Monday, November 07, 2005

JSB: Like a Running River . . .

Recently, I spoke to the Glorieta Christian writers conference, and one thing I said was there is such an opportunity and need now for Christian writers, because people are hungry for connection to Truth (even if they don't know it).

And so, as we provide stories that bridge this gap, the ancient enemy will try to bring us down. It is, therefore, essential to go back to our spiritual base. Tozer wrote:

"There are two spirits in the earth, the Spirit of God and the spirit of Satan, and these are at eternal enmity. The ostensible cause of religious hatred may be almost anything; the true cause is nearly always the same: the ancient animosity which Satan, since the time of his inglorious fall, has ever felt toward God and His kingdom.

Satan is aflame with desire for unlimited dominion over the human family; and whenever that evil ambition is challenged by the Spirit of God, he invariably retaliates with savage fury....It is the Spirit of Christ in us that will draw Satan's fire."

I finished my talk at Glorieta by saying we must write with our passion for Christ coupled with dedication to the craft. It is not enough to want to reflect the light of Christ; we must work to be the finest crafts-people we are capable of becoming.

In the not too recent past, Christian fiction was known for being clumsily message driven. While there is nothing wrong at all with message (another word for this is "theme"), in fiction it MUST be woven into the fabric of narrative, like the warp and woof of a tapestry. An author can stick the unvarnished message into a character's mouth, so it comes out leaden even though true:

"Now Norm, even though your brother was killed, you have to remember that God is in control and works out everything for the good of those who love him. And even though you grieve, you just need to remember that God has a wonderful plan for your life. Have you heard of the four spiritual laws? Let me share…"

Or, one may do it the way Norman MacLean does it:

"Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.
I am haunted by waters."

Christian fiction can be a river that runs through culture. Audiences can be drawn to the sight and sound of it, thrill to the white water, find peace in the gentle places, be refreshed, cleansed and renewed. A novel can be the sound of the river, an invitation to drink, to jump in.
Let us write with the craft held high. And then (I told the gathered writers) let us give up the TYRANNY OF RESULTS. God will find the hearts that need to connect to the words. The enemy wants to keep the words bottled up. Our reliance on God, true surrendered reliance, will keep that from happening.

James Scott Bell is the author of Glimpses of Paradise, Sins of the Fathers, and Write Great Fiction: Plot & Structure. Visit his website: http://www.blogger.com/www.jamesscottbell.com

Friday, November 04, 2005

BC: My Kingdom for a Plot—Part 3

The word was: WORTHY.


Often what God tells me to pray for someone makes no sense to me. Like the time I was praying for someone’s healing after double knee surgery, and God impressed upon me to place my hands on the person’s throat and pray for that. Only later did I hear that this person was having health issues with the throat as well.

God knows.

So I didn’t doubt that worthy was coming from God. I just didn’t have a clue what it meant. I told the young woman what I’d heard. “Does this mean anything to you?” I asked.

This is the moment that absolutely clenched my heart. This sweet-faced Christian gal looked up at me with an anguished expression and whispered, “I’ve never felt worthy since the day I was born.”

Whoa. How awful that must feel. What a weight! My eyes filled with tears. God wanted to take away this terrible burden. And so prayers went up that God would heal.

As I continued working through my wacko spider plot, that scene would not leave me alone. I began to think of other people I’d prayed for with emotional/spiritual issues, and God opened my eyes to just how huge this problem is among Christians. It’s rampant. Satan spins his web of lies among us all the time. He wants us to believe these lies. And he spins them so quietly, so subconsciously, that we Christians don’t realize where they’re coming from. Lies such as: I’m not worthy, I’m not really forgiven, I’m unlovable, I can’t do this task God gave me, I’m no good at this or that, I’m not smart enough, I’m not appreciated enough . . . Whatever. The topics are endless.

We as Christians have the mind-boggling authority to go before God’s throne and claim His help and power in our lives for anything. As the Bible says, “If He is for us, who can stand against us?” But so much of the time, we Christians don’t do that. Instead, we begin to listen to these lies. Then we begin to believe them. Then we begin to walk in them. And then we can’t do all that God has called us to do.

These thought processes and revelations were going through my mind as I needed to start writing Web of Lies. I realized that this was the spiritual thread God wanted me to weave in. We Christians cannot walk in the lies of Satan. That’s unacceptable! God had used that time of prayer at the conference not only for the young woman, but for my writing as well. (God’s very efficient that way.)

I began writing in November. I had three months. The writing would not come easily. From first page to last, I struggled with that book. But as I struggled, I rested in the knowledge of what God had already done—totally backwards, no less. First, the title that I just had to come up with. Then the plot begin to come—the story to fit the title. Then the spiritual thread—again to fit the title. A book about spiders . . . and not listening to Satan’s web of lies.

Hm. That is one crazy combination. Only God, with His sense of humor, would impress upon me to write a story about walking in His truth—via a menagerie of arachnids.

Well, hey. The last book used a serial killer to tell folks about the power of prayer. So why not?

And so my suspense plotting goes. Kinda nutty? Yeah. Challenging? You bet. I could not do it on my own. But book after book, God shows me His way and pulls me through.

As King Arthur said when crossing the bar in Morte d’Arthur: “And that which I have done, may God within Himself make pure.”

~ Brandilyn Collins, author of Dead of Night and other “Seatbelt Suspense”

Thursday, November 03, 2005

BC: My Kingdom for a Plot—Part 2

A title. Hm, let’s see. The first three in the Hidden Faces series were Brink of Death, Stain of Guilt, and Dead of Night. I needed another “Hm of Hm” title. Had to be punchy. I started writing a list of possibilities. Out of Time . . . On the Edge . . . Web of Lies . . . Stroke of Fate . . . whatever came to mind. I thought and prayed on this for a couple of days. Lord, which one speaks of the story You want me to write? In the end, Web of Lies stood out as the one I should use. What this had to do with a skull reconstruction was beyond me.I happily e-mailed the Zondervan marketing director with my title.

Now for the plot. It had to be intense and full of twists. And time was seriously ticking.Let’s see. I had Chelsea with her visions and Annie doing a skull reconstruction. And the title that must speak to the very core of the story. That was it. God, help.

Meanwhile in the back of my mind a poignant memory from that September writers’ conference kept pulling at me.

Over the next few days, my brilliant line of plot-thinking went something like this.

Okay, Web of Lies. “Web” could be used figuratively. What kind of metaphorical “web of lies” can I come up with that’s scary?After much mulling on this, I yielded a big, fat nothing. But wait . . .A literal web means spiders. Spiders can be scary.A light bulb went off in my head. I know! I shall write meself a book about spiders!

Bada-boom, bada bing!

I basked in the glory of my immense creativity for a moment.

Next: so who would have the spiders? Not the protagonist.

No, silly. Definitely the bad guy.

Spiders aren’t scary in terrariums.

No, but they’d be scary if people are threatened with ’em. ’Specially if they’re big, bad poisonous spiders.

Oooh, I know. I could put ’em in a room.

That would have to be one crazy bad guy.

Hey, crazies are the funnest! (Don't tell my mother.)

So how 'bout this? Chelsea has her vision. It’s a vision about a room of spiders. With people in it.

Ooooh, cool.

Wait a minute. Which people?

Shoot. Knew I’d hit a snag sooner or later. And besides that, what does that skull have to do with the spiders? And also, how do I get Chelsea and Annie together when they don’t even live in the same town?

This idiocy aside, I was also thinking a lot about the spiritual thread. That’s as uncommon for me as backing into a story, because usually I don’t think about it at all. I just try to write the best rockin’ suspense I can, and as I write, the spiritual theme begins to emerge. But I couldn’t get that wrenching scene from the conference out of my head. God, You trying to tell me something?

At that conference I’d had the privilege of praying for numerous people and seeing some wonderful healing results. One group of four friends had asked me to pray for them. “Just whatever God tells you,” they said. I didn’t know these four people at the time.

In the prayer room, one at a time, I placed my hands on their heads, and asked God to show me how to pray. Sometimes He gives me a strong answer, sometimes not. For all four of these dear people, God would impress me with specifics as to how to pray.

I came to one of them, a young woman. This is the scene that had tugged and tugged at me. She was sitting, and I stood over her, my hands on her head. I asked God to show me whatever He would . . . and waited.

He answered, all right. Strongly. One word hit me hard in the chest.

Just one word.

~ Brandilyn Collins, author of Dead of Night and other “Seatbelt Suspense”

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

BC: My Kingdom for a Plot--Part 1

I wish stories came easier to me. It’s not that I don’t know what to do. I teach plotting, for heaven’s sake. I just don’t do it very fast. By this time stories should pour outta me like melted butter and hot syrup. They pour more like dried cement.

I try to force the process. Doesn’t help. So I sit at my desk and stare out the window, talking to myself. I kick cabinets, I get up and walk around and rail at the skies. Does no good. I pray a lot. God, help me! What is the story You want me to write?

In heaven, I shall not lack for a plot.

My next suspense novel, Web of Lies, releases in January. I had fits writing this book—from day one of plotting. As often happens, I had a contract and little idea what I’d do to fill it. Herein lies the recounting of my ingenious and highly inventive approach to creating this story.


I can only attest to God’s patience with this struggling author, who wants to write suspense novels and somehow serve Him in the process. I am flawed and weak, but God’s strength and perfect plans pull me through every time.

Necessary backstory: My previous suspense series featured Chelsea Adams, a woman who has visions. My current suspense series is Hidden Faces, featuring forensic artist Annie Kingston.

This book I had to write would be the fourth and final story in Hidden Faces. All I knew was that Annie’s forensic challenge would be a skull reconstruction. The manuscript was due February 1, 2005.

Sometime around August of 2004 a thought came to me. Many readers had asked me when I’d write another Chelsea Adams book. I thought—what if I bring Chelsea into this story, combine the two series into one climactic ending?Absolutely brilliant. Except that I still needed a plot.

September came. I tried to come up with the story. Wasn’t happening. I had a writers’ conference to attend in which I had many responsibilities. Some significant things happened at that conference that God would later use to tug at my heart. Then a book tour started—six weekends in a row (Thurs. through Sun.) of flying across the country and signing at megastores with three other authors. This schedule did not help at all. I got zilch accomplished on the plot.

Halfway through the tour, the Zondervan marketing director joined us. And she started buggin’ me: “I need the title of your next book early for marketing purposes.”

Title? I didn’t even have a story yet.

I pride myself on my titles. They’re carefully crafted. They must work rhythmically, be intriguing, and refer both to the main plot and the underlying spiritual thread. Asking me to name a title when I didn’t have a story was totally foreign to me.

“I have no clue,” I said.

Next weekend—“Brandilyn, gotta title yet?”


Weekend three—you guessed it.

This clueless stuff had to stop—and fast.

By the time the tour was over, October was nearly gone. I had one serious talk with God. Told Him if He didn’t want to give me a plot just yet—to stretch my faith and all that—I really did need a title at least. Then He and I would have to work backwards—weaving a story around the title.

Looking back, I think God had Himself a good chuckle. Little did I know what I was getting into.

Tomorrow: Part 2

~ Brandilyn Collins, author of Dead of Night and other “Seatbelt Suspense”

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

DR: Plotting the Plot

After thirty-one years of marriage, my husband and I recently bought our first house. The day we moved in, my mild-mannered (Clark) Ken peeled off his business shirt and tie to reveal a t-shirt emblazoned with SG—Super Gardner.

As a couple, we’ve always epitomized the old “opposites attract” saw, but never did this become more apparent than when we signed on the dotted line for this little plot of earth with a fenced in back yard.

Here, step-by-step is my landscaping technique:
*Select random pots of pretty flowers from discount store.
*Three weeks later, find sunny spots in yard, dig holes and set plants in.
*Two weeks later, discover some plants need shade to thrive.
*Pull out scorched plants and buy more pretty flowers at discount store.
*Discover some plants just don’t look good in the spot I chose. Pull out and relocate.
*Repeat throughout planting season until all plants are thriving.
Ultimate outcome: Very pretty yard
Total cost: $665.89

Landscaping for Ken, however, began with careful survey of the yard, then transferring those dimensions to the computer to create a precise schematic of lawn and buildings, including position of sprinkler heads, distance of easements, and location of existing landscaping. Next Ken attended landscaping workshops, and studied the makeup of our particular soil and drainage. After a month and a half of preparation, he was finally ready to purchase a few plants, carefully chosen for their size, coloration, blooming season and compatibility with companion plantings.
Ultimate outcome: Very pretty yard
Total cost: $665.89

Typing my technique beside nice, tidy bullet points doesn’t hide the fact that it is haphazard at best. And I confess that I plot my novels the same way I would plot our garden—if my super hero would let me anywhere near it.

I write seat-of-the-pants, knowing only the most basic elements of the plot when I begin, and getting to know my characters as I go. Often I’ll discover midway through my novel that a secondary character is unnecessary and must be killed off. Or a plot point simply doesn’t work and I must toss four chapters and start over from there. A character will often take on a mind of his own and start doing things I never expected and can’t seem to control.

If Ken were a novelist, I have no doubt he would subscribe to
Randy Ingermanson's meticulous snowflake method of plotting, spending weeks on a synopsis and outline before one word of the story was ever written. I’m sure once he finally started putting words to paper, his story plot, like his garden plots, would unfold with amazing precision, never wasting so much as a paragraph.

For $665.89, Ken’s finished garden might have a few more plants than mine, since none of his would have shriveled in the sun. And his plantings might be established more quickly since no time is wasted moving things from one spot to another. If he were writing a novel, I’m sure his first draft would be finished long before mine.

But the point is, regardless of our different creative styles, when we finally type “the end,” whether the project involves a plot of earth or a story plot, I think we’d end up with a similar finished product for a comparable “cost.”

I used to lament the fact that I don’t enjoy surveying or schematics—whether they pertain to gardening or novels. I tried to learn to be more of a “plotter.” But I’ve finally accepted that my slapdash, seat-of-the-pants method—crazy as it may drive Super Gardener types—works quite well for me. I like the journey, discovering my story much the way my readers will.

I guess I’ll plot my books my way and leave the garden plots to my super hero.

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