Friday, June 30, 2006

KB: Enter the Dragon . . . Er, Editor . . .

Okay. I have a confession to make.

I am an editor.

Yes, yes, I know. It’s shameful. Frightening, even. But there you have it. I am an editor. One of those dreaded people about whom so may writers have said, “Editors! Can’t live with ‘em, can’t shoot ‘em!” As hard as writing is—and we all know that’s HARD—most editors understand it’s harder and more painful to be edited. But here’s the deal: writers need editors.

Yes, you do.

Now hang on. Before you string me up, let me explain. Yes, I am, first and foremost, an editor. But I’m also a writer. A novelist, even. (How’s that for schizo? Some days I wanna string me up, too!) So you’d think, wouldn’t you, that being an editor, my writing would be remarkably clean and succinct, that all the characters would make sense and be consistent (those who started out blonde on p. 1 would still be blonde on p. 325), that there wouldn’t be any loose ends or leaps of logic, and that there certainly wouldn’t be any misspellings or grammatical errors…

Uh…not. SO not.

My writing, just like everyone else’s writing (yes, yours too), isn’t perfect. Not because I don’t know what I’m doing (at least…I hope that’s not the reason!), but because you can’t write and edit at the same time. Not outside of a rubber room, anyway. Like almost every other writer out there, I’m too close to the story or characters to see the challenges.

It’s really pretty simple. Creative minds do wonderful, amazing things. They form worlds where they didn’t exist; they birth people from the dust of life experience and imagination; they bring the murkiness of life and faith and relationships into crystal clarity for one brief, shining moment; and, God willing, they change readers’ perception. Maybe even their lives. That’s a lot for anyone to do. Accomplishing all that means you have to let the creativity FLOW.

Now you and I both know there’s no greater creativity crusher than editing. Not that editing isn’t a creative process (I’ll get to that in a minute), but it’s primarily detail-focused. Whether it’s big picture details (show vs. tell, characterization, plot, pacing, word choice, etc.) or the minutiae (spelling, grammar, etc.), you have to use a different part of the brain to edit. And while some writers can do that, and do it well, I don’t know of many, myself included, who can do it on their own work. Not the way it often needs to be done.

Enter the editor.

Wait! Don’t run away! I promise, it won’t be as painful as you might think. But just so you can catch your breath and calm your heart, let’s take a break and let the editor enter in my next entry.

Okay, relax. You’re safe for now.

Everything you want to know about Karen Ball (and probably way more) can be found at

Thursday, June 29, 2006

DR: Found: A Long-Lost Friend

A few months ago, a long-lost friend appeared on my doorstep, delivered in a cardboard box by the UPS man.

For close to forty years, I had been searching everywhere for a book I read and loved as a child. The book was part of the small library in the two-room country schoolhouse I attended from first-sixth grade, and I checked it out again and again. The trouble was, all these years later I could not remember the author, the title (save for the word “village”) or any other identifying information about the book, except the wonderful story and the way it made me feel when I read it.

I had posted queries on various e-mail boards and entered the few bits of info I did have into every search engine I knew, all to no avail. Unfortunately, my faulty memory kept telling me to enter “Andes Mountains” in the search. I finally gave up.

But one day, I was doing some research for a novel, searching for some information about the Pyrenees Mountains. And suddenly, there it was: "my" book! I was ecstatic! I truly felt like an old and dear friend had just knocked on my door when I’d all but given up hope of ever meeting again.

Unfortunately, my book was long out of print and there were only three used copies available on the Internet. The cheapest of those was selling for $65! Ouch! Nevertheless, a lovely copy of that book now sits in a place of honor on my desk, and it didn't cost me a penny. In fact, I made money on the deal!

To make a long story a little shorter, a friend for whom I’d done a critique a while back had sent me a gift certificate to an online bookstore as a thank-you. I had somehow lost the original copy, but my friend kindly forgave me and replaced the certificate. The new copy arrived the day after I discovered my book. (Thank you again, Gina!) Then, one of the merchants offering my book for sale agreed to lower the price to less than the value of my gift certificate! I still smile thinking about it.

The Village that Slept is the story of two young teens who survive an airplane crash in the Pyrenees mountains. After wandering through the wreckage for a while, they discover a tiny baby who has also survived. They name him Tao and the little makeshift family cares for each other, living for a while in an abandoned village (the village of the title) as they make their way down the mountain back to civilization. The novel is by Monique P. de Ladebat, translated from the French, and it is every bit as magical as I remembered.

What are the books you treasured as a young reader? Are there any you’ve “lost” along the way? What books sealed your love of reading—or maybe prompted your longing to become a writer?

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

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

AG: The Tail--er, Tale--of the Three Legged Dog

Lessons come in the strangest places and at the oddest times. Today, I slipped out of the office early to get a haircut and buy one of those gooey-frosty-juice-things with names like “Mellon Madness” that are supposed to be good for me. The haircut went fine with no ears injured and the juice was everything I hoped it would be. As I drove through the parking lot, my mind on the day’s work and a straw of tasty juice permanently glued to my lips, I had to slow for a dog trotting over the asphalt—a dog with three legs.

Now, I’ve seen three-legged dogs before. I even tell a joke about a three-legged pig (don’t worry, I’ll spare you), but the image of the dog stuck with me through the day. First, the dog appeared as happy as any I’ve seen. He didn’t mope across the macadam, he moved with brisk motion as if he were late for an appointment (maybe he was out for a haircut, too).

Second, he trotted as if he had all four legs, apparently unperturbed by the missing limb. Whatever cost him his leg hadn’t taken his doggy-zeal for life.

Last, he used what he had and used it well.

“If only…” Have you ever heard the phrase? “If only I had more time. If only I were younger. If only I hadn’t wasted my youth. If only I had chosen a better college (or any college.) Many people utter this phrase, allowing it to become their mantra of failure. Budding writers say, “If only I had more time.” Hesitant entrepreneurs mumble, “If only I had started sooner.”

“If only…if only…if only….”

And what does the three legged dog do? He keeps moving as if nothing was missing.

That is a wise dog. Good boy.

Alton Gansky writes and blogs and looks for life lessons from his home in California.

Monday, June 26, 2006

JC: A Line Well-Blurred

Let’s get down to some serious writing. Writing that counts. Writing that makes a difference.

I’m not talking plot or storyline. I’m not talking characterization. I’m talking about your author bio. Sooner or later, you’re going to be asked to write one, and you’d better know what you’re doing.

Not long after signing a contract, you can expect to be contacted by the publisher’s marketing department. They’re going to want two things from you: a publicity photo and an updated bio. If there is ever a place where the line blurs between fiction and reality, it’s in the area of publicity photos and author bios.

We’ve all seen publicity headshots. The professionals who create these works of art are more skilled at crafting fiction than I’ll ever be. I’ve seen some publicity photos that are so far distant from reality, you couldn’t pick the author out of a police lineup if all you had to go on was the photo.

Author bios are no better. Maybe worse, considering that in our industry the author writes his own bio. He has no accomplice to blame.

Now, I don’t want to downplay the author bio. A good bio blurb can sell a book. The opposite is also true. If I were to write a “truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God” bio, not even I would want to read my books—

Jack Cavanaugh is the original polymath who in his spare time translates Homer from the original Greek, takes college classes for no credit, and has a reputation for preaching long sermons.


So when I was asked by the marketing department to provide a bio, I decided it would be wise to do a little legwork and see how other authors portray themselves. I went to the local bookstore and pulled book after book from the shelves and read nothing but author bios.
What I discovered was…well, here…judge for yourself:

Highly acclaimed author Ellen Grenwald is a graduate of William and Mary University with a combined degree in Literature and Quantum Physics. Her first novel, Forever and Ever, Amen, won the Pulitzer Prize for literature, edging out her dear friend Nelson Mandela. In her spare time, Ms. Grenwald reads to the blind, is a caregiver to her invalid mother, and runs a farm for abandoned kittens.

I put Ms. Grenwald’s book back on the shelf. Clearly, I wasn’t worthy to read this woman’s novel.

And then there are the attempts to portray the author as someone who could be your next-door neighbor:

Gladys Scribner wrote So This is Life while her infant daughter, Erika, was teething; the family dog was giving birth to a litter of puppies; and her Chevy minivan was giving up the ghost on Highway 95 while carpooling her son’s soccer team. According to Ms. Scribner, the inspiration for her novels comes from hours on her knees—picking up toys, cleaning the bathroom bowl, and chasing Cheerios that have rolled under the refrigerator.

I also found authors who swallowed the marketing myth that in order to be a successful writer you had to have a brand, and you had to live your brand:

Morgan Black wrote the spine-chilling Death of a Telemarketer after documenting 2,154 unwanted calls from telephone solicitors. His previous novel, Death of a Banker, was penned after arguing for ninety-seven hours with his bank manager over charges that weren’t his. While Mr. Black’s first two novels, Death of a Tailgater and Death at the Gas Pump, had modest sales, his publisher assures him that his latest thriller will slay readers in the aisles. At present Mr. Black is working on his next book, tentatively titled, Death of a Publisher.

For better or worse, author bios influence sales. If you write for publication, sooner or later you’re going to be asked to write your own bio. When that time comes you will find yourself standing on that well-blurred line separating fiction from reality.

Jack Cavanaugh, together with Bill Bright, is the author of Storm and its sequel Fury, to be released in September.

Friday, June 23, 2006

RLH: What's the Big Deal?

On the Thursday morning after Taylor Hicks won American Idol, someone on a Christian email group posed the question: "...wondering if ... it is possible for me to care any less about who the new (or used, or future) American Idol is, or where it can be explained why this announcement was on every TV news show..."

There followed a lively discussion.For many of the novelists (including me), the answer is easy. Human drama. Having a dream and pursuing it for all your worth. Taking it on the chin and getting up again; even more, taking it on the chin and smiling into the camera. Watching American Idol is a wonderful character study.

And as a writer, how can I not appreciate the guts and the bravery, what it takes to offer up the talent one is given and wait for others to take potshots at it? Publishing isn't for wimps. When my books are released, they are fair game. Yes, I've won awards and get heartwarming letters and emails from readers who have loved the stories I've told. But I've also been trampled on by professional reviewers and readers and writers. I've held up my "baby" and had people call it "ugly."

I've got to tell you, knowing what it feels like to have my baby called ugly was in the forefront of my mind when I commented on the AI performances in my blog. I've tried to always avoid dissing someone, especially if I knew it was a matter of taste. i.e. Chris Daughtry has an amazing talent, but his style wasn't for me; doesn't mean he isn't talented, just that his singing didn't float my boat. I'm a believer in "truth and grace." I think we can speak honestly without being cruel. (Simon, take note.)

Anyway I've watched these kids (from where I stand, they are kids!) on American Idol for the past two years and admired them for their courage and hurt with them when they blew it and rooted for them when they did well. I've loved watching them grow more polished over the course of the competition, and I've also admired those who have remained true to who they are.

And for a moment, let's forget those singers who make it to the final 12. There is nothing more painful, funny, and occasionally inspiring than those first weeks of tryouts. One friend said, "How many times over the past three years of following this show have I heard from a really bad singer, 'But Simon’s wrong!! People have always told me I could sing!!' Well, honey, people lied. And they didn't love you enough to tell you the truth..."

So true!!! Talk about grist for a writer's mind.I am unapologetically an American Idol fan. And now that the season is over until next January, I'm feeling cut adrift and unsure what to do with myself on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. Pitiful, isn't it?

When not watching American Idol and LOST, Robin Lee Hatcher uses her character studies to write women’s fiction and romance novels filled with human drama. She hopes you won’t call her babies ugly. In October 2006, she will celebrate the publication of her 50th release, A Carol for Christmas (Zondervan). For more information, visit Robin’s web site at and her blog at

Thursday, June 22, 2006

PH: Faith and Character Development

My bookcase holds a few really meaty titles on character development. Ann Hood, in Creating Character Emotions, gives spectacular advice on restraining from the temptation to write like other writers, but rather to write from life. She says:

“When we copy a writerly voice, we put up a barrier between us and the emotions of our characters.”

As we develop faith as a thread in our fiction, we can fall into the same trap, only instead of copying a writerly voice, we might copy a “spiritual voice.” By that I mean that we might harbor ideals about what a spiritual person is supposed to act like. Therefore, by the story’s end, the writer that’s reaching for an easy faith element might fall into the same sort of device and paste in an ideal Christian value. This type of device serves only to flatten your story and eliminate any sense of expansion you were trying to create. But even worse, what that practice creates for the reader is a barrier to understanding the journey of an authentic life in Christ. I fell into that practice early on, so this is as much a confessional as anything else.

Some Christian writers know exactly where the faith element is going to fit into their plot. Every Christian writer has a different method for developing the faith thread. Mine changes with every new story. But knowing my story’s faith elements in advance is like trying to figure out when God is going to cause my life to change lanes. I plan for the big picture, but I’m always aware that conflict or good news or deals falling flat will throw a cog in my plans. And so it is with our story characters. The faith element in each story is as much a surprise to me as the reader. Allowing it to happen naturally comes with a lot of practice. But if you haven’t had the chance to put a lot of words into print, I’ll offer an exercise. Assuming you have a character laid out on a railroad track somewhere on your hard drive, try these considerations:

• Faith does not fix every detail of our lives, so it shouldn’t fix everything for the character. Using memory, write a time in your life when you prayed and things seemed to get worse. What emotions did you feel? As you write down these feelings, what subtext rises from the expository thread? Now show in a scene either disappointment or anger juxtaposed against what should be a “spiritual” or “saintly” tone. This is a good exercise for eliminating the temptation to write easy sentimentality.

• Think of a conflict that happened recently. Did you handle it perfectly? Write out how you responded. If you are perfectly happy with your response, then it still might have churned up an inner unexpressed feeling. Write out the unexpressed feeling as interior monologue.

• Imagine an object that has spiritual or perhaps even sacred significance to you, something very personal. If you died, would anyone else notice that object or would it get thrown out? What feelings bubble up when you think of that object either getting salvaged or thrown out? Now try writing that scene you just imagined into finely specified exposition in your story.

• If you have come to live a life of faith, you might have had an immediate conversion, leaping and excitedly telling everyone you met about your conversion. But assuming that, like most people, faith came into your life more like little plots of real estate slowly being surrendered, write out a timeline. Create those little dots that show either progress or delay in spiritual growth. You are the only one that’s going to see it, so also include the times you took one step forward only to take three jumps backward. Now put one of those backward-jump times into immediate scene. That scene will speak volumes to some reader one day.

• Have you ever imagined yourself standing up against a foe courageously, your faith as your scabbard, God’s Word as your sword? Then did you wake up in the middle of the night to hear an unnerving sound inside your house? Or have you walked into a public setting only to come face-to-face with a disruptive stranger who makes you feel threatened? Did you respond either time as you imagined? Write out how you responded in narration, in other words, a scene that shows action, and then develop a scene of interior monologue juxtaposed against an opposite reaction.

One scene I return to often is found in John Updike’s novel In the Beauty of the Lilies. The minister Clarence has an awful epiphany that he no longer believes in God. His realization is one of sheer terror. Updike orchestrates scene so well you can sense the setting eroding as Clarence’s entire life is wrapped up in the material security of the church parsonage. A similar exercise would be to write a scene that shows your character attached to material things, believing God has provided them with a happy material life. Then allow a shockwave to challenge the character’s resolve. What is the continuum that will follow? What discoveries will the character make and what elements of life will the character now have to hold onto?

These are the sorts of writerly games Christian novelists play to develop faith in their character’s lives. The organic exercise is an excellent way to get away from the computer when your brain is no longer coughing up the story elements you need to build realistic texturing.

Patricia Hickman is the author of Whisper Town and Nazareth’s Song.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

JK: Last Chance Detail, Part 3

Once I know what the story is really about, then each scene and each detail is evaluated for whether it helps move the story along or just gets in the reader’s way. In the second book of the series that I just completed called A Tendering in the Storm, Emma waits for letters from home and her younger sister tells her much about what’s happening in the colony she left behind. She may learn through her sister how the roles there are changing now that a quarter of the colony has moved west with the charismatic leader, while three quarters of the colony remains behind, planning to come out “sometime” just not when. Through her sister’s letters, I’m hoping the reader will see what Emma might have faced if she’d remained behind.

Yet the mere mention of such letters can set me thinking for hours about the details. How often would Emma have responded to her sister? How much would she have shared about the struggles going on in this newer colony in the West? How long did it take for a letter to arrive from a lonely Pacific Coast community back to a family member in Missouri? Who carried it? (That is, when did the Pony Express first bring letters from Sacramento to St. Louis and would Emma’s missive have traveled that way or some other route?) With what did Emma write (lead, blackberry juice ink?). What kind of paper: vellum or parchment or the backs of delivery labels? Was the supply short? Did each woman write “between the lines” or diagonally to make more room, or with a pencil so it could be erased and the paper used again?

The answers to those questions might result in a single comment from one sister to another about how the blackberry juice ink fades, and so Emma’s sister couldn’t understand everything Emma wrote to her. Or perhaps she complains that Emma doesn’t write often enough even though now the “Pony Express would deliver a letter in less than a month,” with her reference telling us about their relationship more than the Pony Express.

Alas, it’s in revision where I find a detail I was certain a reader would want to know must be cut because it fails to show the reader anything about the relationships, the characters' work, their spiritual journey or the landscape. It was just an intriguing fact and it must be cut. That’s the worst.

Lately though I’ve been saved by the inclusion of an Author’s note or reader’s guide sections of the book! It’s a great new place to add a detail that can help the reader stay inside the story.
What matters about revision and detail and history is how a reader is invited into one’s story. Part of a prayer I have attached to my computer says “Help me enter and live my story” so a reader will enter and live there too. A mention of an inappropriate writing tool for the time period can take the reader back out to present day life, the laundry that needs doing, or the dishes that should be washed. That’s the last thing we writers want them to do. We want readers to stay in the story, and the kind of detail we fashion, shape and feign through our fiction helps do just that.

Jane Kirkpatrick's award-winning historical novels can be found at

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

JK: Detail and Revision, Part 2

Ivan Doig, a contemporary Montana writer, once said that his favorite part of writing was revisions because that’s when he found out what the story was really about. Before I started to write, I wondered how an author could not know what their story was about until they’d written it.

After 13 novels (I just finished the 13th though it hasn’t been published yet) I understand. I start out telling the story I planned to but as I allow my characters to change and grow I realize at the end that the story is more than what I thought. Often, I discover what the story has to tell me, why it was that a particular person or event in history wouldn’t let me go until I wrote down how they affected me and our history.

With the story I just finished, A Clearing in the Wild, I thought I was writing about the only woman who was sent west from a religious colony in Bethel, Missouri, along with nine men, to the Pacific Northwest in the 1850s. I thought it was a book about courage, about what it was like for one woman to be with those men in a strange place, pregnant, with her husband but also within a culture where women were to be seen and not heard.

Since the colony had started other off shoot colonies and never included a woman as a scout, why did they do so this time? That was part of the unanswered question that began my research.

When I finished writing the book I realized it was about finding one’s voice in a community that doesn’t always recognize our uniqueness. I think we can all relate to that challenge at some time in our lives. As an adolescent I was sure I was strange and no one was like me at all and I remember feeling discounted and alone. How I came to terms with that – did I silence my voice or did I learn to embrace my differences – is part of what I think my character Emma had to face. She lived 150 years ago but we share something I think. It’s that “something” I hope my readers will discover as well. And it’s that “shared something” that helps guide my revision.

Jane Kirkpatrick's books are found at

Monday, June 19, 2006

JK: Fiction and Historical Details, Part 1

Because I write historical novels, I’m often asked to speak to historical societies who want to know what I’ve “imagined” and what “facts” are true. I’ve really appreciated theologian and novelist Frederick Buechner’s account of fiction to help explain that. He notes that the word comes from the Latin meaning to “fashion, shape or feign or imagine.” Fiction may not tell the truth the way a photograph does; but we can “feign” truth the way a good painting does, offering depth and insight into the character or experience of that person. That’s what I try to do when I write historical fiction, offer a pair of glasses through which a contemporary person might gain wisdom from the lives of those who’ve gone before us.

I do write about actual people and that might make how I work a little different than those who imagine all their characters and events and historical plot. Some of my plot is worked out for me within the historical context; many of the characters are people who lived and breathed and whose ancestors have shared with me letters and family Bibles and stories handed down through the generations. I have what I call “shared knowings” but then I have to fill in the blanks.

Those who imagine all their characters and their movement through their lives still have to pay attention to the shared knowings. If they start the Civil War at a different time than historically agreed upon, readers will look at their work with a skeptical eye and might question other aspects of the history – and the truth of their feigning—as well. As writers, we want those readers to trust what we’re telling them so they stay in the story.

We both must tend to details. I love the research and discovery. But I have to work to manage details as they can overwhelm a story (and me!). That’s why I don’t describe everything I know about my character or how they look or dress within the first few pages or chapters. I give just enough to anchor the reader but I don’t want them to bog down in the frilliness of their petticoat or the height of the antagonist’s hat unless it has something to do with later action.
Yet enough details are critical to create the context and ambiance wanted for the characters to move and grow and change within. Which detail to leave out and which to include often takes up much of my revision time. What were they talking about over dinner? Did they call the evening meal dinner or was it supper or something else entirely? How did they get their news?

Did a 1860s family in the west know about the impending war in the East? What of their prejudices and biases and faith had they brought with them and how did it change once they arrived?

Sometimes I have a character comment on an historical detail as a way of cementing it in a reader’s mind. Sometimes the detail is in her action such as when she pounds the butter churn so hard the lid on the salt box falls off from its shelf. The reader knows the character is upset, can see the salt box (not a salt shaker as we know it) and gets a glimpse of the character at work. All details that expand the story and the character, I hope!

Jane Kirkpatrick writes historical fiction from her home in the west.

Friday, June 16, 2006

LC: What We Can’t Do

First, we survived being born to mothers who smoked and/or drank while they carried us.

They took aspirin, ate blue cheese dressing, tuna from a can, and didn't get tested for diabetes. Then after that trauma, our baby cribs were covered with bright colored lead-based paints. We had no childproof lids on medicine bottles, doors or cabinets and when we rode our bikes, we had no helmets, not to mention, the risks we took hitchhiking. As children, we would ride in cars with no seat belts or air bags.Riding in the back of a pick up on a warm day was always a special treat.

We drank water from the garden hose and NOT from a bottle. We shared one soft drink with four friends, from one bottle and NO ONE actually died from this. We ate cupcakes, white bread and real butter and drank soda pop with sugar in it, but we weren't overweight because...... WE WERE ALWAYS OUTSIDE PLAYING!! We would leave home in the morning and play all day, as long as we were back when the streetlights came on. No one was able to reach us all day. And we were O.K.

We would spend hours building our go-carts out of scraps and then ride down the hill, only to find out we forgot the brakes. After running into the bushes a few times, we learned to solve the problem. We did not have Playstations, Nintendo's, X-boxes, no video games at all, no 99 channels on cable, no video tape movies, no surround sound, no cell phones, no personal computers, no Internet or Internet chat rooms..........WE HAD FRIENDS and we went outside and found them.

We fell out of trees, got cut, broke bones and teeth and there were no lawsuits from these accidents. We ate worms and mud pies made from dirt, and the worms did not live in us forever.

We were given BB guns for our 10th birthdays, made up games with sticks and tennis balls and although we were told itwould happen, we did not put out very many eyes.

We rode bikes or walked to a friend's house and knocked on the door or rang the bell, or just yelled for them! Little League had tryouts and not everyone made the team. Those who didn't had to learn to deal with disappointment. Imagine that!! The idea of a parent bailing us out if we broke the law was unheard of. They actually sided with the law! This generation has produced some of the best risk-takers, problem solvers and inventors ever! The past 50 years have been an explosion of innovation and new ideas. We had freedom, failure, success and responsibility, and we learned HOW TO DEAL WITH IT ALL!

They said we couldn’t write Christian books—we didn’t have a master’s in English, seminary training and we couldn’t quote Bible chapter and verse, but we did! And God blessed our faithfulness! We took God’s love to many who needed it, to those who were hurting and to those who needed encouragement yet they said we couldn’t do this without the above.

Our work didn’t garner rewards, acclimations, Christys or Gold Medallions—not here anyway, but still we toiled.

Go write your book, tell your story and let God decide who’s right and who’s wrong.

Much love,

Lori Copeland lives and writes in Missouri. Check out her zillions of books at

Thursday, June 15, 2006

DL: Why Learning Technique Is Important

My dad has always, as long as I can remember, possessed two traits:
1. He loves reading fiction.
2. He views higher education as a necessary evil. Sure, his kids and grandkids need it to get ahead, but…if only you didn’t have to pick it up in institutions filled with the Ph.D.’s he calls “educated idiots.”

So it’s not surprising that, when I began studying the writing of fiction at California State University at Long Beach, he suspected I was doing a good thing but getting the wrong instruction from a bunch of eggheads. When he heard about a book on writing—highly praised by a bestselling but abysmally reviewed novelist—he strongly suggested I pick it up. “This writer says that he never sold a novel until he read this book and started doing what it says,” my dad argued. “You can sit around in your college classes all day and wax eloquent about similes and metaphors, but this book tells you what you need to write if you want to sell it—and if you can’t sell it, why write it?”

I, of course, with the arrogance of someone who’d never had to pay his own bills, scoffed at such crass commercialism. I didn’t want to write that shallow commercial fiction anyway! I wanted to write…literature.

Even now, looking back more than thirty-five years, I can still applaud my high standards and my commitment to quality. I was partly right. Wanting to write novels and stories that speak the truth about the human condition—that’s a good thing. Wanting to write well enough, and to connect with the psyche of my readers powerfully enough, that my stories would still be read years after my death—that, too, is a good thing.

But my dad was partly right too. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to get published, and there’s even nothing wrong with wanting to sell enough copies of your book to pay the bills. And there are books, like the one my father pointed out to me years ago, as well as many writers’ conferences, that specialize in guiding you in writing the kind of things editors like to publish, and then finding those editors and presenting your stories in a winning way.

There are conferences and books, too, that guide one toward writing…well…literature.
Oddly, it wasn’t until I was in grad school that I realized what was missing in the tug-of-war between the artistes and the commercial hacks. (Not that there’s anything wrong with being a hack. When I was a bureau chief in state government, two of the writers in my bureau made a sign that they proudly hung in the hallway over their office door: “Mark Nicholson and Peggy Todd: Hacks.”) What’s missing is: Neither tradition sufficiently encourages young writers to study and master the techniques of writing winning, powerful fiction.

Both give lip service to technique—the commercial side will talk for hours about plotting, and the literary side will extol the merits of and investigate the means of characterization, and occasionally delve into the mysteries of POV or voice. But it’s a valid generalization to say that neither side presents (at least not in any widespread or generally available and applauded manner) a systematic or complete approach to learning the techniques of fiction—not in the same way, for instance, that a painter, whether in an MFA program or a program for commercial artists, is expected to learn the techniques of painting, and to practice them, again and again, until mastered. Nor in the way a singer is expected to practice, for hours a day, not how one approaches getting a manager or a recording contract, but the myriad subtle and necessary techniques by which one vocalizes with beauty and power. Nor in the way an aspiring dancer is expected to spend hours daily building muscles and gaining flexibility and practicing moves and technique until they become second nature, so that they can be performed almost without thought, and without apparent effort (no matter how much concentration and energy those moves actually take).

Singing, playing an instrument, painting, sculpting, writing fiction—like all artistic endeavors, what these things have in common is that, for hundreds of years, generations of artists before us have spent their lifetimes discovering what works best, and what doesn’t work. The body of that knowledge is the canon of technique for our particular field of artistry. And the artist who ignores that stored, tried-and-true knowledge dooms himself to a life of trial and error, of re-discovering truths he could have learned from the start by studying Chekhov or Hemingway, or by reading one of the myriad of excellent books on fiction technique (many of which, happily, fall about midway between the two camps), or by studying with a qualified mentor.

Technique is not a substitute for heart—for the emotion at the core of your writing that gives it its power and wisdom. But, if we assume that you have a story to tell and that a grand truth lies at the heart of it, you can deliver that story with more power, you can affect your reader at a much deeper and longer-lasting level, if you have mastered the techniques of fiction. And isn’t that worth the years of discipline necessary to attain that mastery?

David Lambert writes and edits fiction with heart and technique from his home in Michigan.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

JSB: "Dialogue," he said.

"So tell me all about dialogue."
"In one post?"
"Hey, you're the writer. Just do it!"
"Look, let's talk about this later when—"
"Tell me about dialogue!"
"If you'll put that gun down, maybe—"
"Sure. You've just helped. Your dialogue, not to mention your pointing a gun at me, adds to the conflict."
"By arguing with me. Put two characters together who have different agendas. That should be revealed in their dialogue. In fact, that is one of the two primary goals of dialogue—to create conflict."
"Oh yeah? What's the other?"
"To reveal character. And you're doing that, too. Our readers will get the idea you're a rather brusque fellow."
"Says you!"
"See? And you don't talk like me. That's another key. Each character should have his or her own way of speaking."
"So I'm doin' somethin' right, is that what yer tellin' me?"
"Almost. I'd avoid overuse of idioms and accents, like 'yer' and 'tellin',' unless they're absolutely necessary. They're too difficult to read. A mere suggestion every now and again is all you need. The reader's imagination will do the rest."
"So I'm NOT doing it right, is that it?"
"Calm down."
"I AM calm!"
"At least you're a man of few words. Dialogue in fiction should be brief."
"What if I've got a lot to say?"
"Heaven help us. But if you must, avoid long speeches. Break the speech up, using other characters' interruptions and—"
"Perfect. And with little actions that demonstrate emotion."
"Like this?"
"Yes. Waving the gun in my face was just right. You're catching on quick."
"Hey, how about those Dodgers, huh? And isn't it a nice day outside?"
"Hold on. Avoid small talk. You're not trying to recreate real life in a story. Remember, you want to use dialogue to move the story, create tension, interest the reader, reveal character."
"What if my character likes small talk?"
"Good point. If your character is supposed to be a bore, it will work, because that dialogue has a story purpose."
"Thank you. Now give me your wallet."
"Very good! That is a surprise, a twist. It forces the reader to read on. That's often a good way to end a chapter, don't you think?"
"I mean it, give me your wallet, pal!"
"And there's another great tactic, the oblique response. You didn't answer me right on the nose. Work on that angle a lot. Have your characters give slightly off-angle responses whenever they can. That helps makes the scene tense. Listen, fella, why don't you give me the gun, huh?"
"Go ahead, make my day."
"Yech! Avoid clichés like the plague!"
"Is that supposed to be funny?"
"A little humor is always welcome in dialogue, so long as you don't force it. Now hand over the gun."
"Only if you tell me what I should do to make sure my dialogue works."
"Set it aside for a few days. Then read it aloud, in a monotone. Or get a friend to read it to you. Hearing it out loud gives you a different perspective. The gun?"
"Okay. Here. Now what do we do?"
"We figure out a snappy, interesting way to end this post."
"You got an idea?"
"Let's hear--"
"Give me your wallet, pal."

James Scott Bell is the author of the bestselling suspense novel, Presumed Guilty (Zondervan) and the Christy Award finalist Glimpses of Paradise (Bethany House).
"The Suspense Never Rests"

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

RLH: Planning Ahead

Back in December, I received the following request via email: “Would you mind posting something on your blog about how you plan your workload in the future? ... I'm starting my seventh month as a full-time writer (woo-hoo!) and this is my first December to plan a full fiscal year. ... Any example you could provide on how you go about this would be very much appreciated.”

Here was the answer I posted on Write Thinking ( back then:

I’ve been pondering how to answer this so that I’ll sound both organized and intelligent. But to be honest, it isn’t all that complicated. Of course, I've been at this for more than two decades so this planning process has been learned along the way.In general, I know that I need from four to five months to write a novel and from four to six weeks to write a novella. In addition, I must plan time for revisions and edits that follow the turning in of a manuscript.

Most of this scheduling happens at the time I get a contract offer. I sit down with a calendar for the coming year(s) and block out travel time, writing time, editing time. I always try (and often fail) to build in some days, as much as humanly possible, for personal sickness and family emergencies.

I use the calendar creator in my word processor and print the months needed, two months per 8½" x 11" paper. Then I write with a pencil on the days and weeks of the calendars so that I can visualize what the coming year or two will look like.

I write for multiple publishers which means added pressure to deliver books on time, because being late with one book doesn’t just impact that publisher. It could affect all the other publishers and future books, too. I’ve had that happen, and it’s embarrassing and stress-producing.

I keep a daily running tally of pages produced. I also keep track of what else is happening so if my production is down I'll know what "life" was doing to me at the time. If I drop behind on my schedule, I’m very aware of how many pages/words I need to write to catch up. I keep a close eye on my planning calendar at all times. Sometimes I don’t catch up until I’m in a panic as time draws to a close.

The key is to try not to over-schedule (over-contract) yourself. Be reasonable. Be sensible. Don’t sign a contract for more books that you can write in a certain period of time. It may be tempting (we all love to be wanted!), but don’t do it. Contracting into the future isn't a problem. Just don't think you can write faster than you can. Be aware of your own writing pace. Some authors can do four thousand or six thousand or even ten thousand words in a day. Not me. I’ve had to learn what my own pace is and then plan accordingly.

It helps to have quite a few completed books under your belt to know what that pace is.I don’t know if this answers the question posed to me, but I hope it’s of some help to the writer who asked the question. And maybe to a few other blog readers as well.

Robin Lee Hatcher (Diamond Place, Hart’s Crossing Book #3, Revell, April 2006) has been planning her schedule as a novelist for 25 years. In October 2006 she will celebrate the publication of her 50th release, A Carol for Christmas (Zondervan). For more information, visit Robin’s web site at .

Monday, June 12, 2006

PH: Guarding the Freelance Life

I have on occasion the chance to peek into the lives of new writers. It’s given me some time to mull over why some writers break into the full time freelance life at such a speedy pace. There are many factors, like a great idea at just the moment a publisher is looking for such an idea. Then there are those who are brilliant at navigating the publishing network. But some are great at the first factor, lousy at the second, and vice-versa, and still they manage to keep a book contract in tow. The common thread I see in all successful writers is in how they guard their writer’s life.

These are the people that in a circle of friends enjoying coffee might not be adept at chiming in on talk of the latest TV shows or celebrity gossip. (To vilify TV show names in America’s media culture is like picking on someone’s child, so I’ll refrain.) My first mentor who today is still a best-selling novelist doesn’t have cable TV. For the writers that do have cable TV, though, they don’t allow it to dominate their time. You might find them propped up on the sofa with a latte in front of the tube, but in their lap is a laptop, or a pen and page proofs, or research books. But each writer builds the life they want by giving up something.

When I started writing my first book, the week I received my first contract was also the week my hubby hauled into the living room three sweet children in need of long term care. In addition to our own three, ages twelve to two, three more kids was a load. The baby had attachment issues and a stomach disorder that caused him to cry well into the early morning hours. We had planned and sacrificed to be debt free so that I could come home and build a full time writing career. To have the tables turn on me so suddenly seemed like God was messing with me. I invited a young single woman to move in with us for that season and she took on the task of sitting up with the baby until he fell asleep. But I still had all of the others to care for and a book to write.

I’m not good at writing with any noise at all, not like some writers that peck away with the earphones on. My only choice was to get up at three in the morning when everyone was sleeping. I wrote until dawn and did that for six months, almost exactly the length of time we cared for those children.

It taught me that I didn’t have to have the perfect circumstances to write. It also helped me to build some disciplinary muscles, to be aware of the down time of my family so that I could grab some up time at my computer.

Success is not about having a New York Times bestselling book, but about building the life you want. If you want a freelance life, something’s got to go.

Patricia Hickman’s freelance life includes writing, speaking, teaching small groups and also having one nice sit down meal with her family each evening. Not perfection, but progress.

Friday, June 09, 2006

DR: Birthing a Novel in Less Than Nine Months

Recently a writer friend compared birthing a book to birthing a baby. Indeed, when I first started writing, it would take me at least nine months to write a book from “once upon a time” to “happily ever after,” not counting some major rewriting after my editors got hold of it.

So I was shocked to realize that I’d finished my last novel in just over three months. When I turned it in, I feared I’d given birth prematurely and that my manuscript would require some serious time in the neoliterary intensive care unit. But my editor was pleased—very pleased—and according to her, the quality didn’t suffer one bit.

In exploring how I’d pulled that off, I discovered several reasons why I’ve thankfully become a faster writer, apparently without sacrificing quality.

• After a dozen years of writing and studying the craft of writing, I’m more confident of my ability now. I don’t second guess myself so much, and I now know the conventions of writing, and recognize mistakes much sooner than I used to. Thus many things get fixed in editing-as-I-go mode, meaning my rewrite process is also far quicker than it used to be.

• I’m teaching writing at writers’ conferences now, and as anyone who’s ever taught knows, the teacher often learns more than the students. Every class I teach is a refresher course that benefits my own writing.

• I now have a critique partner (also a published author) who reads my chapters and edits with as sharp an eye as any professional editor I’ve worked with. She edits as I go, which means she catches things early on that might have necessitated a complicated rewrite before. That means much less rewriting from my end before I send my book to my editors. In addition, I have absorbed so much from my critique partner about writing well, especially since she’s strong in areas where I am weak.

• Now that I’ve had a few books published, my family and friends are starting to view me as more of a “professional” and are better at acknowledging my working hours as “legitimate.” Add to this the fact that last summer we moved to a new neighborhood a few miles from where most of my friends live, so I don’t get dropped in on quite so often.

• Now that I’ve had a few books published, I’ve started to view me as more of a “professional.” This means I’m giving myself permission to spend some of my writing income on things that make my life easier—office furniture and storage that work for the way I write, a one-day-a-month housekeeper, sending the ironing out, more convenience foods and eating out more often, etc.

• (This is a biggie!) We only have one child at home now and she’s in high school. The other three are all out of college and living out of state, so my “mommy” time has gone way down, is much less stressful and takes up much less brain space than it used to.

• I’m beginning to realize that much of the story/plot process for me starts before I ever write “once upon a time.” The book I finished in three months was conceived two years earlier when my husband treated me to a weekend at a bed and breakfast to write. I’d been mulling over the idea ever since, so a lot of the story was already inside me, well formed and just itching to get out. I think that’s why I could get it on paper so fast once I finally sat down to write. When I come to the computer not knowing my story yet (because I’m a seat-of-the-pants plotter) it takes much longer. But I’m learning to consistently let my next story incubate even as I work on the current book. Often I’m able to excavate ideas that have been there without me even being aware of it.

• Another big reason I think I’m writing faster these days is precisely because I’m writing faster. When the writing of a novel is condensed into a three- or four-month time frame, when my thoughts are concentrated on my storyline every day, I waste far less time trying to play catch-up, backtracking to refresh my memory about what I wrote the time before. I am steeped in my story and thus all the elements fall into place more easily.

Birthing a book is still a long and grueling process, but I’m happy to report that as the years go by, the delivery itself has become—if no less painful—at least much shorter lived.

Deborah Raney is the author of A Vow to Cherish (Steeple Hill, June 2006) and Remember to Forget (coming from Howard Publishing/Simon & Schuster). She has until July 1 to give birth to her next book.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

HA: Professional Jealousy

I have one thing to say about jealousy. Avoid it. At all costs. I’m talking personal jealousy, professional jealousy, someone else’s jealousy, or your own. It’s just about my least favorite emotion.

Oh, sure, when someone has the poor judgment to be jealous of me—be it my youthful, perky looks or my divine writing style (That’s a joke. You’re supposed to laugh)—it’s tempting to indulge for just a moment. Someone actually thinks I’m worth their jealousy? Wow.

The thrill evaporates when I realize that the unfortunate emotion is making this person miserable, and interfering in a possible friendship between us—or at least a better professional relationship.

Jealousy is often closely connected to pride, of course. But it can be incited with just an innocent comment. Say I’m a struggling mid-list writer who doesn’t know if her next book will sell, or if her latest proposal will be accepted. My best friend is also a writer who has just won a prestigious award. Should she tell me about the award? Or should she keep quiet about it in order to spare my feelings?

That depends on how mature I am. If we’re truly best friends and want the best for each other, she’d better tell me or I’ll be deeply hurt. If we weren’t such good friends, it would be easier for us to meet on the same playing field if I don’t have her sales figures and multiple awards rubbed in my face every time I turn around, especially if I’m struggling.

It helps us to avoid the jealousy of triumphs if we have also been sharing our underbellies with one another. If my friend knows how valiantly I’ve struggled to learn and grow as a writer, and how many rejections I’ve received, how many years I wrote unpublished work before I finally found publication, she will rejoice when I rejoice.

I’ve found that it’s when we open up to one another, share our failures as well as our successes, realize we’re all in this together, and that we’re doing it to glorify God and not ourselves—that’s when we begin to break the power of jealousy.

When I find myself feeling that ugly green monster peer over my shoulder toward a stranger, I go out of my way to make acquaintance with the person who is making me feel intimidated. I learn to care about them personally. And I pray for them.

The power of friendship can break the power of jealousy. Humility can do the same. As I learn to understand my own individual place of service for God, I realize there are certain people who need to read what I write. But there are others who need to read what my colleagues have written. If a colleague has a million readers and I have a hundred, I have to realize those hundred are important to God, too. My service is important to God. I am important to Him.
So why let an unwanted emotion interfere with our true calling? It isn’t all about me. It isn’t about any one person—it’s about God alone.

Whatsoever things are pure...think on these things.

Hannah Alexander is the pen name of Mel and Cheryl Hodde. You can read more about their books at

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

AG: The Boys in the Basement

“When people ask me where I get my ideas, I laugh. How strange-- we're so busy looking out, to find ways and means, we forget to look in.” (Ray Bradbury, Zen and the Art of Writing)

“There is never a moment when I am not involved in thinking about writing. I can't put it out of my mind entirely, even in the most trying of circumstances. You might as well as me to stop breathing; thinking about my writing is as much a function of my life.” (Terry Brooks, Sometimes the Magic Works)

“The boys in the basement are they guys who actually do my heavy lifting. They're the muses. And we have a picture of muses as being very ethereal creatures, but I think they are nonunion labor. They are hard working guys with Camels rolled up in the sleeves of their shirts.” (Lisa McRee, Kevin Newman, Stephen King's "Bag of Bones", ABC Good Morning America, 23 Sep 1998.)

My wife and I attended a movie the other day. Afterwards, we took seats in one of our favorite restaurants, a southern barbeque place called Lucille’s. Not only is the food good but they play blues music which I occasionally enjoy. We chatted about the movie. We made small talk. We waited for our food. It was a scene we played out before and I expected nothing new.

Then it happened.

Halfway through a B.B. King song everything disappeared and a series of illusions played on the movie screen of my mind. My eyes shifted their gaze to a dark mat on the floor but the mat held no interest for me. Things moved in my brain. I knew the feeling well and I welcomed it. The boys in the basement had broken free.

“Boys in the basement” has become a popular term in writing. Most attribute it to Steven King. He uses the phrase in interviews and I believe he tucked it somewhere in his book, On Writing. The boys in the basement is a euphemism for what writers used to call, The Muse. Except King, as only King can, brought the lofty term down to earth and portrayed the subconscious as grunting, hard-working, sweating laborers who do the heavy lifting in creativity.

That’s what they are to me.

You need some background to understand why this even mattered to me. A few weeks ago, I sent a proposal to my agent. She loved it. Wonderful idea, she said. I felt great. “Just a few things I want you to address….” When I hung up the phone I felt whipped. It wasn’t that bad. Her points are right on the money. Everything she said, I needed to hear. My problem: I didn’t want to hear it. She wants me to rework a few things. I immediately thought of a letter written to James Michener by his editor Joni Evans:

“What we have here is a marvelous adventure story—truly gripping at times—that is not quite cooked yet. It doesn’t feel developed or rich enough or rationalized enough in its present draft. The skeleton needs more flesh in the areas of character, scenery and fullness/motivation of story to capitalize on what is a stunning episode of history.”

Ouch. A marvelous adventure story that is undercooked, lacking development in all key areas?

My problem is similar and my agent told me so. That is why she is my agent.

But another problem arose. I returned to the proposal and came up blank. Nothing. Zilch. Zero. I fiddled. I poked and prodded. I threatened the stupid story, but like a cat it just ignored me.

“So it’s finally happed,” I said to myself. “I’ve lost it. Creativity has fled. I’m an empty walnut shell.” Thoughts of driving a truck for a living entered my mind. Then came dinner at Lucille’s.
The boys broke out of the basement and began to slap me around a little. Ideas dropped like fifty pound hail stones. “Of course…,” I muttered. “Sure, I should have thought of that before…. Maybe…. How about if I….”

My wife’s used to it.

Since then, the boys have been running rampant again, knocking over furniture, leaving the refrigerator door open, and making a nuisance of themselves.

I hope they hang around for awhile.

Alton Gansky lives and writes and entertains his boys in the basement from California. You can read more about his books at

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

JSB: Writerly Wisdom

I collect quotes from writers on all aspects of the writing life. It opens up little windows in my perspective and lets me see things I might have missed. I like to review these quotes from time to time, as it makes me feel I'm in on a big conversation about my profession, with a bunch of very cool and experienced people. The only thing missing is the Starbucks.

Actually not, as I'm typing this right now at my favorite table at my favorite Starbucks. I'll just pretend it was Ray Bradbury who bought me that first cup, as he sits down with me and says,

"I do a first draft as passionately and as quickly as I can. I believe a story is only valid when it is immediate and passionate, when it dances out of your subconscious. If you interfere in any way, you destroy it.... Let your characters have their way. Let your secret life be lived. Then at your leisure, in the succeeding weeks, months or years, you let the story cool off and then, instead of rewriting, you RELIVE IT. If you try to rewrite, which is a cold exercise, you'll wind up with all kinds of Band-Aids on your story, which people can see."

Thanks, Ray. When I read your work that's exactly the impression I get, that your incredible imagination has been frolicking around in the fields and having fun. And by the way, thank you for The Illustrated Man, which was one of those life changing books you read as a kid. When I read that in junior high, I thought, Man, to be able to write that way someday…

Ah, I see that Henry David Thoreau, looking awfully good for a dead guy, has joined us. First thing out of his mouth is,

"How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live."

Right on, Dave. If there's nothing of value inside the writer, how can there be anything of value for the reader? And you can't buy value, like vowels on Wheel of Fortune. You have to earn it by living. Which makes me wonder about these packaged book contracts flowing to teenage novelists, like that girl at Harvard who, it turns out, copied somebody else's value and got caught. Reminds me of something I heard once, that a writer really doesn't have much to write about until he's 40. That may be a bit high, but there's something to it, I think. Live first; write second.

Here's Barnaby Conrad, the man who started the famous Santa Barbara Writers Conference, and a terrific writer himself. As he drags a chair over, he says,

"Remember, almost no writers had it easy when starting out. If they did, everyone would be a bestselling author. The ones who make it are the stubborn, persistent people who develop a thick skin, defy the rejection, and keep the material out there, trolling."

Boy, is that ever true, Barnaby. When I wrote my first screenplay, I thought it was a work of pure, natural genius. The first industry friend who read it said, "You don't have it." I first thought she meant I didn't have any talent (as some of my former criminal clients have averred). But she explained I didn't have it ON THE PAGE. I realized I had a big learning curve ahead of me.

I wrote six full length screenplays over the next two years or so, before I landed with a Hollywood agent and began getting anywhere. Before that, I almost broke a knuckle knocking on doors and getting them slammed in my puss.

Which is why Andre Dubus, who has brought his latte to our table, interjects,

"Don't quit. It's very easy to quit during the first ten years."

That catches the ear of another lawyer-turned-writer, George Bernau, who was busy typing at a neighboring table. Bernau, who wrote Promises to Keep and other novels, was a practicing attorney when he got into a car accident and almost died. In the hospital he took stock of his life, and, as he reminds us,

"I decided that I would continue to write as long as I lived, even if I never sold one thing, because that was what I wanted out of my life."

If you have the God-given desire to write, then make the decision now that you'll write – strongly, passionately, with a commitment to your craft – and leave the results to Him. He will see to it that your words reach the hearts that need to hear it, whether the few or the many. There is no wasted effort in His economy.

And so the conversation continues…maybe you have a favorite writing quote you'd like to share. Or some wisdom you've acquired that has moved or inspired you. Go ahead, let us hear it. Pull up a chair. Just don't spill Ray's coffee.

James Scott Bell is the author of the bestselling suspense novel, Presumed Guilty (Zondervan) and the Christy Award finalist Glimpses of Paradise (Bethany House)

"The Suspense Never Rests"

Monday, June 05, 2006


Here are a few interesting tidbits that I picked up from Merriam-Webster:

Kerfuffle:Kerfuffle earned a place of honor as one of the Top 100 most-looked-up words last month on the Merriam-Webster web site. Why?

At a public event on March 20, President Bush answered a question from an audience member by allowing that his domestic surveillance program "had created quite a kerfuffle in the press"; the Associated Press report of the speech commented on the fact kerfuffle is not "an everyday word.

"Kerfuffle was also featured in a number of news reports describing the reaction last month to Scientologist Isaac Hayes' quitting the Comedy Central hit South Park in response to what he termed its "inappropriate ridicule" of religion.

So what's the story behind the word kerfuffle? Spelled with a "k," it shares a birth year in English with the president (1946), and, at least until recently, it has been considered chiefly British. Kerfuffle is an alteration of the Scottish word carfuffle, which dates to the early 19th century as a noun and means "ruffle; agitation; disorder; flurry." As a verb it is much older, dating to the 17th century and means "to disorder; to disarrange; to ruffle." Carfuffle has Scottish ancestors in car (from a Scottish Gaelic word meaning "wrong, awkward") plus the verb fuffle, meaning "to become disheveled."

It is understandable that there were those who were surprised to hear the word coming from President Bush, as we still hear the word most often in British contexts. Here, for instance, is Hugh Grant's recounting of the first time he met Julia Roberts, as reported in the June 1999 issue of Vanity Fair:"I was a very, very unemployed, pathetic actor at the time," Grant recalls. "I remember being so intimidated by the fact that she was in the room that I got myself in a sort of kerfuffle . . . and missed the chair when I sat down."

That's a kerfuffle.

Merriam-Webster editors are giving the following words serious consideration for entry in a Merriam-Webster dictionary:

* google transitive verb, often capitalized [Google, trademark for a search engine] : to use the Google search engine to obtain information about (as a person) on the World Wide Web
* monkey pox noun : a rare virus disease especially of central and western Africa that is caused by a poxvirus, occurs chiefly in wild rodents and primates, and when transmitted to humans resembles smallpox but is milder
* ponzu noun [Japanese ponsu, ponzu juice squeezed from sour oranges, from Dutch pons, literally punch, from English punch] : tangy sauce made from citrus juice, rice wine vinegar, and soy sauce and used especially on seafood

Okay, let's all try to use those four words (kerfuffle, google, monkey pox, and ponzu) in conversations today. The second will be a piece of cake, but I'm in a bit of a kerfuffle over the others.

Robin Lee Hatcher (Diamond Place, Hart’s Crossing Book #3, Revell, April 2006) has been playing with words as a novelist for 25 years. In October 2006 will celebrate the publication of her 50th release, A Carol for Christmas (Zondervan). For more information, visit Robin’s web site at .

Friday, June 02, 2006

AH: Smoke Solution

Living American.

I am an elderly, friendly mongrel cat.

I’m cinnamon spice.

I am a photographic collection of children.

I’m one of those old ‘50s Cadillacs . . . the ones with the fins.

I’m a flag-waving democratic republic, of course!

I am a child-sized pair of plaster-of-Paris handprints

A traditional, two-story Dutch colonial. With shutters. And a welcome mat on the patio.

I am a heartwarming, feel-good about America daytime talk show.

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Art Linkletter (born Gordon Arthur Kelly on July 17, 1912) was the host of two of the longest running shows in broadcast history: House Party, which ran on CBS TV and Radio for 25 years, and People Are Funny, which ran on NBC TV and Radio for 19 years. He was abandoned at an early age in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, and adopted by the Linkletter family. He is an alumnus of San Diego State University (SDSU) where he was a member of the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity.

Linkletter was famous for interviewing children and has been imitated many times in such shows as Kids Say the Darndest Things.

Linkletter's daughter, Diane Linkletter, died on October 4, 1969, by jumping out of her sixth floor kitchen window. She was 21 years old. Several contradictory stories were brought forward, and Art Linkletter concluded that she committed suicide because she was on or having a flashback from an LSD trip. Several reports claimed that there was no involvement from LSD, but Linkletter still continues to speak out against drugs. Linkletter also lost his son Robert in an automobile accident.

Linkletter recently opened the celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary of Disneyland at the age of 93. He commentated on the opening day celebrations in 1955, and was a good friend of Walt Disney.

He received a lifetime achievement Daytime Emmy in 2003, and is currently the spokesman for USA Next, a conservative alternative to the AARP.

"Confessions of a Happy Man," Art Linkletter's Own Story (with Dean Jennings) was published by Random House in 1960. On the first page, he reports that he has had no contact with his real parents, or his sister or two brothers, since the Kellys abandoned him when he was only a few weeks old. He married Lois Foerster November 25, 1935 and they had five children: Arthur Jack, Dawn, Robert, Sharon, and Diane. It might be coincidence, but Walt Disney's children, who arrived first, were also named Sharon and Diane.

In recent years, the conservative Republican Linkletter has become a political organizer and a spokesman for the United Seniors Association.

Wasn't that fun? Try it "live" with some friends and test your own "metaphorical" skills!

~~Angie Hunt

Thursday, June 01, 2006

AH: Smoke

So I’m in the doctor’s office reading ON BECOMING A NOVELIST by John Gardner (if you haven’t read it, get your copy now! ) Gardner suggests a particular game, and says that writers ought to be good at it.

I certainly hope so, because we're going to play it today. Actually, some friends of mine have already started, so let's see how good I am at metaphoring . . . and how good you are at guessing.

The game is called “Smoke.” A starting person (that’d be me) thinks of some personage living or dead and gives her fellow players a starting clue. Then any willing player asks a question in the form of “What kind of ---- are you?” (What kind of smoke, what kind of vegetable, what kind of weather, building, part of the body, etc.)

As the answers come in, everyone playing the game finds he/she has a clearer and clearer sense of the personage whose name we are seeking. And when someone guesses the right answer, we all will have a mystical revelation.

I hope.

Okay--the first clue is "living American." And here are the questions and answers that came in during round one:

What kind of cat are you? I am an elderly, friendly mongrel .

What kind of spice are you? I’m cinnamon.

What sort of book are you? I am a coffee table book: a photographic collection of children.

What kind of car are you? I’m one of those old ‘50s Cadillacs . . . the ones with the fins.

What kind of country are you? I’m a flag-waving democratic republic, of course!

What kind of art or craft are you? I am a child-sized pair of plaster-of-Paris handprints

What kind of house are you? A traditional, two-story Dutch colonial. With shutters. And a welcome mat on the patio . . . in case I want to throw a house party.

What kind of career are you? I am a heartwarming, feel-good about America daytime talk show.

What sport are you? I'm sure you'd find me on the links.

Helpful? You can guess the person's identity below . . . and we'll reveal the answer tomorrow.

Angela Hunt lives and writes and plays games from Florida . . . but at the moment she's on vacation in Alaska. That's why she's playing games.