Monday, February 27, 2006

JSB: Something Worth Worrying About

Confrontation is the lifeblood of fiction. Unless you have opposition, from outside and within, there's not going to be any worry in the reader. Hitchcock's Axiom applies from page one: Great stories are life with the dull parts taken out. No confrontation, no tension, no story.

You want readers to worry about the characters in your story. That’s really the underlying draw of good fiction. It presents a story world to the reader not as an end in itself, but as the arena where characters are drawn into trouble. And if the reader bonds with the characters, especially the main character, then she’ll be happy to worry about the trouble these people are going through.

Writing suspense, of course, I want the reader hooked from page one. But every genre can do this in its own way. In mythic structure, it's called "the disturbance to the ordinary world." Anything can work, any sort of change, anything out of the ordinary. The midnight phone call is one example. No good news ever comes from a midnight phone call. Dean Koontz always has something in the first a police car pulling up to the curb.

I'm reading You Live Once by one of my faves, John D. MacDonald, who had this incredible string of paperback originals in the 50's. I love this one. It begins with a disturbance--an early morning knock on Clint Sewell's door. Groggy, he finds two cops there. It seems one Mary Olan has not returned home, and Clint was out with her the night before, having a few drinks in a local watering hole. Clint tells them he put her in her car and sent her home around 2 a.m. They ask a few more questions and leave.

Clint thinks about Mary, she's from a well to do family, but likes to run around. He takes a shower and shaves, then goes to his closet, opens it--and finds Mary Olan in there, strangled with his own belt.

Knowing how bad this looks for him (his behavior with Mary has been noted, her reputation is as a tramp and a tease, there are cross currents with other characters, and anyway how do you plausibly explain to the cops that a body was planted in your closet while you were sleeping? etc.) he decides to dump Mary's body in a remote location.

End of Chapter One. Of course, from here on out everything is tense, even the most innocuous conversation, as any minute the whole thing may unravel. The Act One turning point is the discovery of Mary's body by chance--a troop of brownies camping in the woods; one wanders off and finds Mary. Now it's murder. Not only are the cops on the hunt, but Mary's family hires a PI to snoop around, too, and he has his eye on Clint from the start.

The book becomes unputdownable after that. It feels similar to Scott Smith's A Simple Plan, another book where a normal guy makes one bad decision, which leads to this downward spiral. You have to keep reading, thinking No! Don't do that! Ack! You did it! Now don't do THAT! Ack!
It's fun to be in the hands of a master craftsman, isn't it? You all know the feeling. So don’t worry about your writing. Concentrate on making the reader worry about your characters!

James Scott Bell
"The Suspense Never Rests"

Friday, February 24, 2006

DR: A whole new world…A new fantastic point of view

I recently had the opportunity to take a book I wrote in 1994—my first novel—and update it for re-release. I thought I would mostly be updating the medical information, since this book deals with a character suffering from Alzheimer's disease and much has changed in the treatment and diagnosis of Alzheimer's in the past twelve years.

I also thought it would be a nice opportunity to fix some of the novice writer mistakes I made with that first book. What I didn't count on was needing to bring my characters out of the dark ages and into the 21st century by "purchasing" cell phones and computers for them! As I read through the manuscript, at key plot points I found myself screaming at my heroine to "pick up your cell phone and call him, you idiot!" or "Good grief! Look it up on the Internet! Are you stupid?" Well, of course my poor characters weren't stupid, they just happened to have been created in that no-man's-land of the 1990s just before every home acquired a computer and every human between the age of 8 and 80 suddenly deemed it a necessity to carry a cell phone.

It made me realize how much technology has changed the face of contemporary fiction. In this rewrite of A Vow to Cherish, there were scenes when it did not serve my plot well for my characters to have these high tech devices! More than once I had to resort to the ol' "out of service," "forgot to charge the battery" or "the Internet service is down" tricks just to keep my plot on track!

On a writers loop I’m on, we’ve had a recent spate of questions about technological terms. What do you call that little gizmo you store computer files on and carry on your keychain? (USB flash drive, keychain drive, cigar drive, thumb drive, etc.) What do kids listen to music on now that the Walkman is pretty much passé? (An iPod…with earbuds.) Is a Palm Pilot still called a Palm Pilot? (Yes, but there are other versions of it. PDA—personal digital assistant—is the generic term.)

I do have a cell phone now, and my beloved iBook is attached at the hip, but I’ve yet to succumb to the desire for a PDA or iPod. However, a couple weeks ago, I discovered the coolest bit of technology I’ve ever encountered: Google Earth. Oh. My. Goodness! If I wrote suspense, I’d have a hundred plot ideas!

If you write contemporary fiction, how does technology play into your plots? How do you avoid overusing the my-cell-phone-won’t-work plot device? More importantly, how do you write in such a way that your story isn’t technologically outdated the minute it comes off the press? I wonder if Jane Austen or Leo Tolstoy had to deal with this problem?

Deborah Raney is the author of A Vow to Cherish (Steeple Hill June 2006). Work in progress: Remember to Forget for Howard Publishing, now an imprint of Simon & Schuster.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

JK: What is Success, part 3

How does being published fit into your definition of success?

Being published allows a greater opportunity to express my spiritual connections. I am humbled by the comments people make about how the stories have affected them, the changes they have chosen to make from losing 50 pounds to starting a new career to deciding to adopt a child or leaving an abusive relationship. One man told me because he read my book he would be a better father and a better man. Most of the time the stories they say inspired them to make those changes did not contain from my perspective the insights they received. To me, this means that what Madeline L’Engle wrote in Walking on Water is that we co-create with readers and with God. Being published affirms for me that I am where God wants me to be at this time. I think if I was no longer published, I might reconsider what God has in store for me though I’d look at my definition of success again. And if I was still experiencing the connections, the intensity, the passion of writing and living with spiritual congruency, still learning, then I might say that publishing isn’t the only outcome God wants for me. Maybe it’s the joy of writing or who I encounter while researching or trying to get published that is part of what He wants for me.

For many of us, writing is also a job -- is a certain amount of success absolutely necessary?

OK, let me just say that I worked for 17 years on that reservation I mentioned earlier. I had nine books published before I quit that day job to write – and speak – full time. We have ranch income which helps pay the bills but we also have ranch bills! So yes, I do see writing as a job that requires income unless you have wonderful support from some other source. But even keeping our day job doesn’t mean we aren’t writing successfully. If we’re following our hearts and doing what we believe we’re called to, I honestly think we can claim success. The French have a word, Métier, that I believe means “finding work to which one is best suited, work that the world needs doing.” For 17 years, I worked in mental health with Native children. I believed it was worthy work and needed doing and I was called to be there. I wrote early in the morning and on weekends. I had two jobs I felt God gave me. I think sometimes writers constrict themselves into believing we are only successful writers if we are full time writers. There’s an old German Proverb: Begin to weave, God provides the thread. I think it has something to say to us as writers.

Visit Jane at Look for A Clearing in the Wild, coming in April, the first book in the Change and Cherish Series from WaterBrook Press

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

JK: What is Success, part 2

How have your views on success changed over time?

I once wrote a long definition of success for a course my husband and I took about setting goals etc. Even now, 13 years after having written it I realize that it is still the process of having the privilege to write that I find successful. Ok, I’ll add it here then you can see what I mean.

“Success to me is plunging headlong into a pool of intensity, emerging
energized and wiser on the other side, seeking applause for my achievement and for being unique. Success is connecting with others in relationships that are intimate and disclosing, engaging and vibrant, growing and changing, tender and supportive. It is embracing without reservation my
spiritual beliefs and living congruently with them. Success is also being
inspired and challenged by the world around me to use my writing, speaker,
humor, caring and leadership abilities to creatively touch the lives of

I might change a word or two but basically this captures how I feel about my life still. I should add that that before I started writing for other people to read my work, I was in my mid-forties. I’d had another life as a mental health professional and received some nice honors during my career. I cherished those honors but the day came when there was work I knew I should do but I no longer had the energy to do it. And some of the passion of administering a large clinic had gone out of me. When that happened, I felt very unsuccessful. I had not allowed God to be much of a part of that career when I left that work to begin to write (I did feel God was not only a part of writing but the passion for writing).

Because our ranch wasn’t very successful, I found myself working in mental health on an Indian Reservation. That experience inspired my life and my first novel combined that love of writing with Native American interest and story-telling as healing. Truly simply writing that first story down, knowing it was this combination of my career paths and God’s guidance with that, was one of the most successful moments of my life. Having the book published was icing on the cake. Having that book receive some awards lit the candles that haven’t blown out yet!

Find Jane at and look for A Clearing in the Wild, coming in April, the first book in the Change and Cherish Series from WaterBrook Press.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

JK: What is Success?

I was recently asked to respond to questions about success and I thought it might be of interest to share those answers and hopefully engage you in a discussion about success as a Christian writer. Here’s how I defined success.

Success to me means keeping my commitments, those I made as a faith-based writer, to show up, to assume the position of a writer and to tell the story I’ve been given the best way I know how and to trust that I’m not alone in the telling. The word commitment comes from a banking term meaning “to make a deposit against which one can later draw. When I trust that I am somehow called to write and I honor that on any given day, then I feel successful. When I start to panic, I return to that deposit I made to draw on it so I can move forward, not be paralyzed by the challenge of the writing.

Are you -- or have you ever considered yourself -- successful? Why or why

Given the above, I can allow myself to feel successful every time I keep those commitments. That said, there is the worldly definition of success that has to do with getting published, having a best seller, getting Oprah to know our names. I can always find a new step on the ladder of success, and I often don’t fee as successful as I might.

But in recent years, as people whose thinking I respect have told me they think I’ve “made it” I realize that it is all right to admit that I have a measure of worldly success. Yes, there are more goals to accomplish but I do no one any favors in denying that God has indeed been good to me and my family through the years. When I want to discount that worldly measure of success I’m reminded of a Leonard Cohen lyric: Ring the bells you still can ring/forget your perfect offering. Everything has cracks in it; it’s how the light gets in.” When someone offers me a compliment about my writing I’m going to try to remember that I am letting the light come in through the cracks I can still see inside of me.

Jane Kirkpatrick, . Look for A Clearing in the Wild, coming in April, the first book in the Change and Cherish Series from WaterBrook Press.

Monday, February 20, 2006

JSB: Writer, Examine Thyself

I have a Chinese doctor. Thirty minutes after he examines me, I want to be examined again.

Ba dump bump.

At least it's a healthy relationship. Which is not to say I enjoy the process. But I know that regular examinations are called for in life, and that goes for writing, too.

Fortunately, you can give yourself a regular writer's checkup in the privacy of your own home.

When I first started writing I realized very quickly that the one person who could motivate me toward constant and never ending improvement was me. No one else was going to do it, even though I was getting some encouraging rah-rahs from the sidelines. A few razzes, too. "Writers are born, not made!" was one such raspberry. Piffle. I wasn't listening. Neither should you.

Instead, one thing I started doing, and have never stopped, is collecting, reading and highlighting books on writing. I use the R2A2 formula—Read and Review, Assimilate and Apply. Try stuff. See if it works.

Then, periodically, I design a writing improvement course for myself.

Any writer can do this. And if you do, and set it up as a regular deal – like going to the doctor – you'll see immediate and large scale improvement in your writing.

For example, about four years ago I decided I needed more work on my characterizations. I went to my bookshelf and pulled out half a dozen books that I knew had good stuff on character work. Like Maren Elwood's classic, Characters Make Your Story; Robert Newton Peck's Fiction is Folks; and Nancy Kress's Dynamic Characters.

Then, I chose some novels I'd read with unforgettable Leads. Gone With the Wind, The Catcher in the Rye, Midnight (by Koontz) and Eight Million Ways to Die by Larry Block.

I gave myself six weeks to read and review and analyze. I did writing exercises to try things out. My writing markedly improved as a result. And it was fun.

Try it. Take an honest look at your own writing and ask what area you need to work on most. Then design a little course for yourself. Find some how to books and some novels that handle that aspect well. Get out a highlighter or pencil and start digging. When you find something that works—and you will—write some scenes that utilize your discovery.

Another thing I've done is arrange my writing books on my shelf in a loose order of importance to me. The books that have been most helpful over the years are at the top. If I get to a point where I need some inspiration, I'll take one down and flip through it, reading the portions I've highlighted. Almost always I get a terrific reminder that gets me back to the keyboard.

BTW, my #1 book is Writing Novels That Sell by Jack Bickham. There's a new edition from WD Books, re-titled Writing and Selling Your Novel. It was while I was struggling as a screenwriter that I first read this book, and in the middle of it had a literal epiphany. Lights started going off, sirens sounded, fireworks crackled and a chorus of heavenly angels burst into song (perhaps I need to examine my prose style next).

Anyway, I still look back fondly on that happy moment when so much fell into place. From that point on I started to sell.

Give yourself the chance to set off some fireworks. Systematically study your craft. There is a business consultant I admire who tells CEOs and entrepreneurs that they must read one hour a day in their field if they want to get ahead.

Can you do the same? Of course. Every time you read a novel, read with an eye to the craft. Listen to audio books when you walk or drive. Join the Writers Digest book club and treat yourself to a new book on writing every so often.

That's the prescription for a healthy writer. And unlike my visits to Dr. Yeh, you'll be more than happy to repeat the process, over and over again.

James Scott Bell is the author of Write Great Fiction: Plot & Structure (Writers Digest Books) "The Suspense Never Rests"™

Friday, February 17, 2006

DR: A Room of Her Own

Photo: Deb's Room

Men have always had studies—a den or office to which to retire at day’s end. A place to conduct the business of life, to read, write and reflect. A place to escape. Designer Chris Madden, in her book A Room of Her Own, explores the physical sanctuaries modern women have begun to create for themselves within their homes. But British author Virginia Woolf touted the need for “a room of one’s own”—especially for the novelist—as early as 1929 when she wrote these words in her book titled A Room of One’s Own: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction…”

While I agree the combination would certainly be nice, I must respectfully disagree with Woolf’s suggestion that these are necessities. I’ve written a dozen novels with a conspicuous lack of money. And as for that “room of her own,” my first ten books were written in various rooms of our house that were certainly not my own. My first novel took shape at a desk in the tiny eat-in kitchen of our cramped duplex. That was in the days before I was connected to the Internet, so the research books stacked around the desk (which also served as the telephone station) and overflowing onto the kitchen table (which was also the “dining room” table) were far more copious than you’ll find on my desk today. Worse, everything had to be put away before supper could be served.

Before I began my second novel, I moved my writing space to a corner of our bedroom—because we now had four children running around the duplex. I could close the door on the noise when I was at my desk, and close the door on the mess when I wasn’t writing. What I couldn’t do was kick my husband out of bed when the muse struck at 3 a.m., but the click-click of keys and the harsh light of the computer screen kept him tossing, turning and grumbling, “someof us have to go to work in the morning.”

So for my next eight novels, I settled my desk in a corner of our living room. It was a lovely space and I found I enjoyed being in the hub of family life. When the second of our children left for college, freeing up a bedroom that could have been a real, live office, I opted instead to turn it into a TV room, effectively getting the kids and their friends out of my writing space and out of my hair on a regular basis. It worked so well, that I started saying emphatically in interviews that even if we moved to a mansion, I’d still choose to write in the corner of our humble living room.

It’s a good thing it is a woman’s prerogative to change her mind. We moved into our present home last summer. It’s not a mansion by a long stretch, but it did give me another chance at that “room of her own” and I grabbed it. How wonderful to have my very own space—a place to write any time of the day or night; and even though now much of my research material is neatly catalogued in a Word file or at my fingertips simply by clicking on a bookmark in my browser, it’s nice to have a place to scatter my things and leave them for months on end until I finally type “the end.”

I write solely on a laptop now, and for a change of scenery I still often carry my computer to the living room, the kitchen table, or in springtime, out on the deck. Time will tell whether a dedicated office improves the quality of my writing one iota. But oh, I do relish the privilege of having my very own writing studio. A room of my own.

What does your writing space look like? Have you found a creative way to carve out a place of your own in which to write?

Deborah Raney is the author of Over the Waters and A Vow to Cherish.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

PH: Wounded Literature: What is its Place in Faith-Based Fiction?

Have you ever wondered why some of us have a higher tolerance for the gut-wrenching truth in literature? I was recently involved in a discussion involving stories about martyrs and also wounded central characters. Some gentle readers in our market may avoid such stories in literature. I respect that we all have been informed by a very different past. I’d like to have known such a gentle perspective. I was a very sensitive and artistic child who grew up under a brutal mother and father. I was also the repeated victim of incest. The circumstances surrounding my tortured childhood were covered up and I was left to figure it all out after my parents’ death. (the perp was not my dad) While that all left me with a taste for the dark side, artistically speaking, it is only because that through Christ I’ve learned to not be afraid of the dark. I can stand in the middle of chaos fully at peace. Well, at least stand. I will admit that molestation themes such as are found in books like The Kite Runner, The Prince of Tides, and The Lovely Bones are very difficult to read. Not Mitford, those places. But for many women and some men, they are all truthful settings that help the deeply wounded come to terms with their pain and move on as they see the character moving on.

So I have learned to stop and listen to the artists who need to tell their stories because their story can only be told by them. And that is why we have a need for unique and truthful literature woven with the hope of God’s love. When my life is informed by the truth, even painful truth, I receive an expanded grace. Compassion becomes a fountain in me. The wounded person senses in that type of literature a benevolence for how they’ve also suffered, often in silence and alienation. I can read the martyr’s story as well and rejoice instead of recoiling. When I read it, their humility is poured out on me, an undeserving reader.

Martyrs have much to say about how their souls were enlarged as did almost all of the apostles. If it is difficult for you to look on man’s inhumanity to man, maybe it will help to think of how much more difficult it was to have to bear that pain and then continue the journey bearing such scars. And then realize this: When a martyr goes to his or her rest, ah, what precious reward awaits! No more humiliation, no more words to make you feel less than human, no more an alien, all pain vanished under the Father’s watchful eye. And then there’s His sense of justice. Think of the martyrs in Revelation crying up from his feet, “When will you avenge us?”

Imagine this sound as a holy cry for righting things that have been made wrong; also a fear that the evil persons who perpetuated this harm on the innocent feel they’ve gotten off scott-free. But then imagine a deep rumble of thunder coming from God’s nostrils. He is roused from that holy chair and rises to set right the wrongs. Heaven quakes, the angels fall prostrate, the earth’s foundations are shaken, the mountains split open, and the martyrs weep for joy that the Father of all those orphaned by the darkness will now witness their adoption papers signed and sealed by the Blood of the Lamb. Justice personified in the sight of all. I think I will feel twice His.

Would you care to share a title from your favorite piece of wounded literature? How do you think it helped you or another?

Coming summer of 2006, Earthly Vows.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

BC: Tattling On Titles

Here’s an interesting Web site, brought to you courtesy of Lulu, the large print-on-demand publisher. The site rates book titles, with this provocative lead-in:

The Lulu Titlescorer has been developed exclusively for Lulu by statisticians who studied the titles of 50 years' worth of top bestsellers and identified which title attributes separated the bestsellers from the rest.

You type in your book title, answer their short list of questions, and voila, the results, given in percentage of chance that the title will be a bestseller.

The site is quick to say the data scores aren’t perfect.

However, giving them the benefit of the doubt, I found an intriguing pattern when I logged in each of my suspense novels. After typing the title, you must first choose whether the title is “literal” or “figurative.” Help buttons guide you through your choices. Here is the site’s explanation for which to choose:

Literal--Example: Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger. The novel largely consists of dialogue between the two main characters, Franny and Zooey, making the title completely literal. The Harry Potter titles are good examples of literal titles.

Figurative--Example: Kane and Abel by Jeffrey Archer. The story's two main characters are named William Kane and Abel Rosnovski — simple, Kane and Abel. What makes the title figurative is the parallel to the Old Testament Biblical story of Cain who kills his brother Abel. To a reader familiar with this story, the plot of Archer's novel takes on an additional layer of meaning due to both the contrasts and parallels with the biblical story.

By this definition, all of my novel titles are figurative because they refer to the underlying spiritual theme as well as a concrete aspect of the story. However, I was curious. If I left all other answers the same, what difference would calling my title “literal” vs. “figurative” make in the score?

Answer: a big difference. Most of my titles scored a 41.4% when I listed them as literal. But when I changed the same title to figurative, the percentage jumped to 69%.

Hm. No difference in the actual title. Which would mean no difference in the book cover. Which would mean no difference in swaying that bookstore browser to buy the novel—unless the back cover copy explicitly states the figurative meaning of the title. Barring that scenario (which I don’t think happens very often), the only difference a figurative title would make is after the person has read the book—then recommends it to friends and family. If these data are true, inferred logic tells me that recommendations for the figurative title book are stronger because the story has more depth of meaning.

Either this, or a book with more depth of meaning somehow does attract more bookstore browsers. Maybe the cover somehow reflects the “figurative” appeal? Maybe the back cover copy alludes to a more substantive book?

Maybe these titles statistics are pure schlock?

Here’s the Web site. Experiment away.

~ Brandilyn Collins,
Seatbelt Suspense™
Don't forget to b r e a t h e . . .™

Monday, February 13, 2006

AG: The Right Question

In the most recent issue of Discover Magazine appears an article about Amory Lovins (as told to Cal Fussman). Haven’t heard of him? Neither had I, but he’s made a name for himself by having innovative ideas about energy, oil, and the like. He’s a physicist, economist, inventor, automobile designer and several other things to make mortals like me feel like gross underachievers. In the article he discusses ways to deal with the world’s energy problems, but that’s not why I mention him. Although I found his thoughts interesting, I found his way of thinking even more so.

He made a point by describing a man who walks into a hardware store to buy a drill bit. Lovins asks, “What does the man really want?” My knee-jerk response: Um, a drill bit? But no. The man wants a hole. Okay, that seems pretty basic but how many of us think that way? Much of creativity, innovation, and artistic endeavor comes from asking the right question.

Maybe another example.

At the turn of the last century one of the first (maybe the very first) woman business consultants, Mary Parker Follet, was working with a company that made lamp shades. She asked a question that at first stumped them. “What business are you in?” Like me they went for the obvious, “Um, lamp shades?”

“No, you’re in the light control business.” Seems too subtle to make a difference, but then the, well, light went on. “You mean we can make window shades, too?” The ideas began to flow. The failure to ask and properly answer this question almost doomed the railroads that had difficulty seeing that they were in the transportation business, not the railroad business (which meant they missed out on many opportunities).

Now, what business are writers in? Are novelists in the fiction business? Are periodical writers just in the magazine business? Are editors in the word refining business? What about publishers? Are they just in the book business?

And what about our man in the hardware store? He’s there to buy a bit, not because he likes the design and feel of the bit, but because he needs a hole bored into something. What’s your real need; your real desire; your real goal? If everything worked perfectly, what would your writing business look like and how would you measure its success? The man with the drill bit measures his success by the holes that he drills. Those holes are evidence of achievement. What is the writer’s proof of accomplishment?

What business are you in? What is your real goal?

Instead of me providing an answer, let’s hear from you. Later I’ll give my opinion in the comments section.

Alton Gansky,

Friday, February 10, 2006

JSB: Raise Your DQ

In his syndicated column, Marvin Olasky, editor-in-chief of World Magazine, writes that success in writing is not related to IQ, but DQ. "Determination Quotient." Says Olasky:
Tom Clancy isn't the greatest stylist around, but he presses toward his goal, so his advice is worth remembering: "Writing is most of all an exercise in determination." So are the high-DQ words of two other craftsman-authors, Michael Crichton ("Books aren't written. They are rewritten") and James Michener ("I'm not a very good writer, but an excellent rewriter"). One of America's top stylists, E.B. White, noted that, "A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word to paper."

A book of interviews with top non-fiction writers, Robert Boynton's The New New Journalism (Random House, 2005), lays out more evidence of the relation of inspiration to perspiration. For example, Richard Ben Cramer (author of What It Takes) comments that he once read Tom Wolfe and thought, "God touched you and made you a genius, and that's the end of it." Then he saw Wolfe toiling at a desk, writing: "I looked in his eyes and saw the haunted, hunted animal look."

And here's the testimony of Moneyball author Michael Lewis: "The most common pleasant thing people say to me about my writing is that it looks 'effortless.' ... It is the opposite of effortless. ... I probably do 20 drafts of each chapter. I write something over and over. It's like Groundhog Day.
I agree with Olasky. When I teach at writers conferences, I sometimes give my top 10 characteristics every writer needs. Number one is Desire, which leads to discipline and perseverance. Bottom of the list is Talent, which I believe almost everyone has to some degree.

So don’t worry about your IQ or compare your talent to others (that way lies madness). Instead, check your DQ. If it’s low, you can ratchet it up. The easiest way to do this is set a quota of words you will write each day or week. Then get to it.

And here’s a little tip that I’ve found quite helpful: Have more than one project going at a time. When you get stuck on one, you can move over to another. Isaac Asimov had several typewriters around his apartment, each with a page in it from a different book he was working on. Sue Grafton does this, as do many other writers.

And don’t limit yourself to novels. Work on short stories, articles, essays, commercial jingle. . .whatever! You’ll be stretching your writing muscles. Moneyball author Michael Lewis says, "At any given moment, I have at least four projects underway. I write short columns ... I'm usually working on a book ... I'm usually at some stage of one of the long articles I write. ... I don't know whether it is a character flaw, or just comes with the life of a freelance writer."

You want to live the life of a writer? Then write. Show us your DQ!

James Scott Bell,, writes novels and unpublished songs, among which "My Brother Esau is a Hairy Man" is his most famous.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

LS: The Writing Life is Such a Dream

I woke up this morning 45 minutes before the alarm was due to broadcast its utter annoyance into an otherwise perfect setting: darkness, the noise of my beloved fan, warm blankets, my pillow.
Rarely do I awaken to an alarm. A few months ago a switch up occured at our house. The kids came down to the kitchen before school one morning and a hushed yet resonant voice from nowhere said, "The part of Morning Mom will now be played by Dad."

This morning, however, Will sprung out of bed at 5:15 to go meet a friend in our faith community, so it was up to me to bravely proceed into that hideous space of dark, early morning.

Now all that means little. I just wanted to pad things a bit, something you don't want to do in a novel. Considering this post concerns a dream I had about writing, the aforementioned doesn't matter. I figure the best way for anybody to learn is to see real life examples of what not to do.

In short: I was in that on-again off-again stage of sleep and in the final on-again stage, I found myself at a table in a hotel complex restaurant, complete with patty melts, fries, club sandwiches, chips and coconut creme pie . . . and Robin Jones Gunn, Athol Dickson, Melody Carlson, Angie Hunt and Janelle Burnham Schneider. The decor was yellow.

We were all having a lovely time, them waiting for a bus to take them onto better, cooler things, me still staying at the hotel. (And it sure doesn't take a rocket science to interpret that part, does it?)All of a sudden, this man appears who is with some publishing house or other. He's actually a character actor you'd surely recognize but can I remember a single thing he's been in?


And this fellow takes it upon himself to start talking about The Church Ladies.

"You know, it's ratio of 'description to other' is extremely low."

By description to other, he meant 'real happening' to 'inner dialogue'. I just sort of knew that in the dream.

He cleared his throat. "Yes. By my calculations, there's only one word per chapter of 'other' in The Church Ladies. That's just too low. Too . . . slow."


Of course, I'm sitting there defending myself like a kid caught shoplifting at the BP Mini-Mart, my words tumbling over themselves. He stuck to his guns, pulling out Songbird for reference.
And thank you, God, the bus pulled up. And there they went. And I was wondering how I was going to carry two computers, a stack of books Angie left behind, loose papers and more books.

The alarm went off.

Now what could be the point of all this? I'll tell you. If you're already a published novelist with the hope of future contracts, it's too late for you. You're probably already having these dreams.

If you're aspiring to be a published novelist . . . GET OUT WHILE THERE'S STILL TIME! Or you too will be privy to these angst-pitted dreams for the rest of your life.

Unless . . .

That's got me thinking. Anybody want to go in on a lottery ticket with me? We might just be
able to blow this popsicle stand yet!

lisa samson is still bucking against the tide and writing anyway. She's sick that way. Find her thoughts at Find her books at Find her in Lexington KY.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

LC: A World of Our Own

Audrey, my soon-to-be five year old granddaughter, has a flare for the dramatic. Grandpa was late getting her to church last Wednesday night for Mission Friends. When I picked her up I asked how things went, she heaved a theatrical sigh, threw her palms upward and said, “We were TEN minutes late. I had to RUN to my room and when I got there I was ALMOST fired!

She’s going to make a good writer.

Every once in a while I come across stuff too good not to share even through they’re not my words. These particular observations come from Ralph Keys in The Writers Book of Hope. Keyes compares publishing-type folks with writers.

Pub People ----Writers

Up early ----Up whenever
Nap seldom ----Nap often
Dress up ----Dress down (if at all)
Work well with others---- Work best alone
Office politics ----No one to politic
Lunch a lot ----Lunch a little
Behind the scenes ---- On stage
Seldom-driven ----Vague sense of time
Could get fired (watch out Audrey) ----Already unemployed
Paycheck, benefits ----Irregular income, no benefits
Can read a P&L sheet ----What’s a P&L?

Happy writing!

Lori Copeland lives and works in the Ozark Mountains. Visit her website at

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

PH: Being Yourself

As I thought of how to word this blog, I imagined the reversal it might cause if I don’t say first of all, that I approach the matter with fear and trembling. But a dear friend has recently informed me that she thought that I thought I considered myself, well, not genre. It was a surprising revelation.

As we say in good Christian circles, can I just share?

I brand my writing as set in the South—broadly speaking, from-Oklahoma-to-the-Atlantic-Ocean-kind-of-South. Yet transcendent enough to keep to the mainstream. When I did that, I found my tribe. My readers found me, many far above the Mason-Dixon Line, and we love one another so much because we love regional settings, small-townishness, quirky humans, outlandish situational humor, but most importantly, big hair.
Having returned to school this year to deepen my craft, I was elated to find that most writers, like me, simply want to be better writers. There is a healthy mix of those who write for a genre and those who aim for a personal aesthetic, and some call that literary writing. That latter description is probably why it is so difficult to define what is literary, because the writer is reaching for something outside of convention. I’ve not met any writer who wants to diminish a reader through words but many who strive to engage, to inform, to enlighten, through genre writing or otherwise.

The fact is that whether within the framework of genre or through your own aesthetic, you can do whatever you want as long as you are being yourself.

There’s a good chance that if you strive to communicate story, whether you are pubbed or unpubbed, you have a story beating its way out of your very soul as we speak. We all have those few writers that we highly esteem, but under no circumstances would we want to try and tell their stories. There is no need in the book market for two Anne Tylers or a half-dozen Barbara Kingsolvers. I learned this simple maxim during my short and wobbly decade in business—if two of you agree, then one of you is unnecessary; the point being that what we bring to the world be it a business sense or our art, ought to be uniquely ours. No one can tell your story like you. Nobody’s seen the trouble you’ve seen. Or in the words of novelist Bebe Campbell, Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine.

How you frame out your story authentically whether it is penned within the gutsy language of a secret underworld or set in the magnolia-strewn woods of Georgia, will be informed by your own life. I do disagree with those who say you should only write about the situations in which you are already firmly rooted. If that were the rule then what would we do with books like The Remains of the Day? To tell the story that only you can tell is to reach into your own life and pull out the things that transcend and help us reach more deeply into our own humanity.

Anna Quindlen in her wonderful little book Being Perfect thoughtfully suggests that if we were going to gauge our writing by other great works that we could conclude that there is no need to write another novel. All of the good ones have been written. “Except that each writer brings to the table, if she will let herself, something that no one else in the history of time ever has. That is, her own personality, her own voice. If she is doing Fitzgerald imitations, she can stay home. If she is giving readers what she thinks they want instead of what she is, she should stop typing.”
“But if her books reflect her character, the authentic shape of her life and her mind, then she may well be giving readers a new and wonderful gift. Giving it to herself, too.”

You are free to explore as a reader all of the genres and aesthetics while remembering that each story is merely a note to self—your story is waiting to be unleashed. When you are yourself, your readers will find you.

Patricia Hickman writes aesthetically quirky stories set in the South, but asserts that she can be herself without the big hair. Coming summer 2006, Earthly Vows.

Monday, February 06, 2006

BC: Tangled in the Eyes of an M&M

I am a diehard fan of the mixed metaphor.

There’s something so fresh, so invigorating about blending two wildly disparate bits of description. Oh, the visions that arise. The provocative new understandings of our world.

“You’ve buttered your bread; now lie in it!” (Jiminy Cricket.)

Sometimes such phrases slip from one’s mouth unintentionally, craftily created by the subconscious. (You’ve got to wonder about the subconscious. Methinks they’re sleeping giants ready to explode.) One of my faves blurted from a friend of mine during a discussion of a decision she faced. “But that would be putting the cart before the egg.”

How profound. Can you envision the scene? The little red cart, the bridle lines, the dragged egg, now worn and cracked? 'Tis the ultimate picture of poor planning.

Then there’s this one: “I’m going to stick my neck out on a limb.”


And others:

“If that were true, why are such sanguine voices shrugging it off?”

“This job is a real albatross around my neck.”

“Yeah, yeah, but an open mind can be a double-edged sword.”

“That’s a lot of baggage for a sitting duck.”

Other times M&Ms slip into writing—and unfortunately, past the editor’s eye.

In the chasm between them, his belated apology made not a single dent.

The bonfire of his desire could not quench the fear in her heart.

In the sea of life, there are many crossroads.

Hey, even Shakespeare managed an M&M: take arms against a sea of troubles.

When I need some serious procrastination, I’ve been known to make up a few M&Ms of my own. In fact, such pursuits can entertain me for hours. (Somewhere along the way the budding wires of my emotional development must have knitted when they should have purled.)

The tracks of her empathetic tears cemented their friendship.

That politician is too lame-duck to take this hot-button bull by the horns.

Her cheeks blossomed with color, erasing the fire in her eyes.

He’ll take you down a rosy path, then turn it on its head!

That white elephant in the family living room is the ball and chain of his existence.

The stain of his guilt sank talons into his soul.

The sputtering engine of his wild choices hung him on the wrong side of the fence.

A diamond in the rough can’t afford to spit into the wind.

Okay, enough already. I’d better cut this off or I’ll be at it all day. The call of my wip gestures for my attention. And the weight of my responsibilities smoke-signal me back to work.

Oh, no. Too late, I’m feelin’ the pull. This is not good. Not good at all. A caravan of M&Ms now sails through my head, lifting me to greater nonsensical heights. I ride the wind of their Siren song, drift their ocean of tempting word morsels. Their magnetizing power pulls the rug out from under me. I am awash in their blazing hypnotism, captive to the tide of their fiery darts, crushed beneath the heat of their—

No, no! Fingers of panic scream at me to stop!

Somebody. Please. Help.

~ Brandilyn Collins, Seatbelt Suspense™
Don't forget to b r e a t h e . . .™

Friday, February 03, 2006

DL: The Problem of Evil

I am a metaphysician working on the concrete. I try to make the Catholic universe of evil perceptible, tangible, odorous. The theologians give us an abstract idea of the sinner. I give him flesh and blood.
—French Catholic novelist François Mauriac

Someone asked me once who my favorite Christian songwriter was. “Paul Simon,” I said.
“Paul Simon? He’s a Christian?” my questioner asked, wide-eyed.
“Not as far as I know,” I said.
“Then how can you call him a Christian songwriter?”
“Many of his songs so perfectly describe the futility and anguish of life apart from God,” I said. “They’re like the musical equivalent of Romans chapter seven, or Romans 3:23. But not many Christian songwriters echo those verses with any power. I wonder—do they just think that part of the gospel sounds too negative?”
Many years ago, my friend Carol was signed by a Christian publishing house to “write” the story of her life. I put the word write in quotes because, like many people whose life is worth reading about, Carol was not a writer. So the publisher chose a writer to work alongside Carol, translating her memories into autobiography.

And what horrible memories she had. Carol had been five when her mother ran out on her family—and Carol’s father installed her in his bed to satisfy his sexual longings. A Fagin-like figure, he established a ring of boys in his neighborhood to steal for him—and he offered them Carol as inducement and payment. He rented her as well to his adult friends. When she was fourteen, she bore her father’s child. He was arrested after that, convicted, and sent to prison.
But that’s a very ugly story for a Christian publisher to publish. Afraid of a harsh reaction from readers if they told that story in its horrendous completeness—and afraid, frankly, that no one would believe it—the publisher urged the writer to keep the details implicit and to keep the evil off the page. And she did. So completely, in fact, that more than one reader of the book approached Carol afterward and said, “I don’t understand—why did your father go to prison?”

He went to prison because he was an evil man who not only broke laws but also inflicted unimaginable evil on his own daughter. And as truth-tellers, we should not be afraid to say so. It is, after all, part of the gospel message to say that we live in a grossly fallen world. But that’s a problem, isn’t it, if we publish with Christian publishing houses. There are undeniable market constraints. Editors are under pressure to eliminate anything that might result in getting the book “banned.” Bookstore managers are protective of the conservative tastes of their customers. No one wants to write or publish a book that lasts only a week on the bookstore shelf before it’s pulled and shredded.

All true. And yet, as writers of fiction, we need to be able to name the evil. Like Mauriac, in the quote that began this essay, we need to make the universe of evil “perceptible, tangible, odorous.” That doesn’t mean that we need to pepper our stories with four-letter words or names of body parts, or to slather blood and gore on the walls. But it does mean that our descriptions of evil should leave no doubt that this is why the world is without hope of redemption apart from Christ.

Perhaps this is why many Christian novelists I know seem to feel such affinity with writers of secular horror stories—Stephen King, Dean Koontz—or writers of fantasy—J.R.R. Tolkien, J.K. Rowling: Those writers are free to name the evil—to show it, rather than simply tell it. Always a difficult task for writers who oppose evil and have no wish to glorify it. But then—those are the people I would most trust with the task.

I’m sure I’m not the only writer who, careful of words, sometimes pauses in choosing them—for instance, do I say, “Have a good day,” or “Have a nice day”? But I’m rarely puzzled, these days, over which of those two words to use; I see them as very different. There’s nothing wrong, necessarily, with being nice. But neither is it enough. Good is much larger, and much more powerful. Good is what opposes evil. And sometimes, to be good, you have to discard niceness. I try to be nice—when I can. But, in writing fiction and in life, there is a time to forget niceness and become a warrior for good—a warrior who has no time for distinctions about nice.

Evil exists. And I mean true evil—not simply lack of niceness, but the true absence of goodness. It exists in hell, on the face of the earth, and in the human heart. Would God have subjected Jesus to the suffering of the cross if our worst sins were that we were rude to each other and cheated on our taxes?

In our own stories, let us leave no doubt why Carol’s father went to prison. Let us make sure our readers feel the horror of it in their bones. Let our stories be good—even when the truth they speak is not nice.

Dave Lambert is a novelist, an editor, and author of the fiction curriculum for the Christian Writer's Guild.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

JSB: Write, Don't Fret

Not long ago, I was in that Rod Serling territory between projects, getting ready to turn in one and get cracking on the next. So I had a couple of days there where I didn't write a lot and felt the Terrier of Doubt (TOD) yapping at my heels. You'd think that pup would've been put to sleep long ago, say after my tenth novel came out. But no, he is the lead dog in Satan's K-9 unit, and kicking him directly in the chops doesn't help.

What helps is writing. So one morning, first thing, before reading the Bible (God understands) checking e-mail or scanning the news, I did something else. I hammered out 700 words on the new project. It felt wonderful to be in flow. And it muzzled the demon yapster. Stephen King talks about writing constantly to keep ahead of the "waves of doubt." Or, as the great Satchel Paige put it, "Don't look back. Something may be gaining on you."

Dennis Palumbo is a former screenwriter (My Favorite Year) turned psychiatrist--a shrink who specializes in writers! Talk about your never ending fount of clients, especially in Hollywood. Anyway, he has a nice little book called Writing From the Inside Out which on the "mental game" of writing. He says in there, "An hour spent writing is an hour spent not fretting about your writing."

So today's lesson is fret not and write on. You'll not only stay ahead of the TOD, but you'll be piling up the words, then the pages, then the books. You'll be a writer, friends.

James Scott Bell is outrunning the TOD as he works on his next thriller. You can read about his others at

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

JK: Balance and Sloth

A question from an online interview:

This is something I struggle with on an almost hourly basis. I am constantly evaluating: What is the best use of my time? Writing my novel or fixing soup for a shut-in? Researching a story that might never sell? Or working on the children's library at church? Editing a manuscript for the umpteenth time? Or volunteering to teach a class at church?

I've managed to complete three inspirationals in the past four years and have found that I love the process of writing and re-writing so much that once I sit down at the computer, the day dissolves at an alarming rate. I frequently get up from my computer feeling disoriented from being too deeply in my story, and with the feeling that I may have just wasted hours of my precious, limited, God-given time on this earth.

My children are happy and nearly grown, my husband loves the fact that I'm writing, I'm organized enough that my home nearly runs itself, our church is healthy and thriving with or without me. But giving myself permission to do this thing that I love so much, seems to be a daily spiritual struggle.

I think you've just said the defining issue here. To be so engaged, to forget time, to find yourself totally engaged in a story is the definition of passion (as far as I'm concerned). I'm convinced that we are never wasting what God has given us in time or effort if we are passionate about what we're doing whether raising children or teaching a class or writing a novel. There may have been a time when you set aside that passion to raise your kids, to tend to your church family in a more intensive way and now, here is God giving you the opportunity to use the talents he gave you and that little voice is saying, opps, feel guilty now for enjoying this amazing gift that inspires you and will inspire others when they read your novels. Yup, best you tell yourself that it's not worth the time. Oh, what a loss for you and the rest of us!

There's a song written by Marv Ross that could be sung by a woman on the Oregon Trail lets say. It says "I'm not afraid of dying nor the wolf at my door, I'm not afraid of dying all alone anymore. But when journeys are ended and there's fruit on the vine, I'm afraid I'll be missing what I left behind." Ok, to me, this says that the woman has gone through it all, been there, tended, lived with her greatest fears and right before her is fruit ripe for the picking and she's afraid to chose it for fear she'll be held hostage by what she didn't do, her past or what might have been or maybe even the future. I truly believe God calls us to live abundantly. Didn't Christ say that? Didn't he promise that? How can we experience that abundance if we deny the very passions of our hearts?

Have I ever dealt with this? Yes. I think because we're somehow programmed not to trust in the joy. I spoke at a writer's conference once and woman said she'd come that night because she hoped I'd have some answers to whether she should continue to write her novel when she'd learned that afternoon that her cancer was no longer in remission and she had just a few months to live. The group was most responsive to her and I found myself asking her what gave her joy? She said writing, that she felt alive then but wondered if she was depriving her family of the last days with her. I shared with her a belief I have that writing can be healing and that if she told her family how she felt they'd probably be pleased beyond measure to see her doing what she loved. We talked afterwards too but I'll never forget her question. If I had only a few months to live would I want to spend the time writing? Yes. For me it is almost like a prayer.
I've made my peace most of the time with the struggle to write or "do something really important" by trusting that God has called me to write late in my life (I didn't publish my first book until the day before I turned 45) and he's given me the resources to serve him in this way.

Obedience can also mean trusting that the good things in life come from Him and acting. The Hebrew word for command means "deed". I think we're commanded to use our gifts and talents and we do that by acting and seeing what God can do with the gifts he's given. Writer Kathleen Norris who is working on a book about sloth says it is not Christian laziness but rather “the perverse unwillingness to accept the possibility of joy.”

Your children are happy and nearly grown; your husband loves the idea of you writing; your house runs itself, your church is well-tended and it is time! You've yielded long enough to those negative voices! Write on! I hope you do for your sake and ours too. Jane

Jane Kirkpatrick,

Award-winning author of 11 novels and two non-fiction books. Look for A Clearing in the Wild, Book One of the Change and Cherish Series (WaterBrook Press/Random House) in April.