Thursday, August 31, 2006

Ask the Authors: Thursday

Ask the Authors: Thursday

If you have questions you’d like us to ask during a future “Ask the Authors” week, send it to As always, thanks for joining us!

Today’s question: What is your biggest frustration about the writing life?

My biggest frustration is deadlines. There just never seems to be enough time to finish a novel the way I want it finished, never enough time for rewrites, no matter how much time I have. --Hannah Alexander

The speed with which it is necessary to produce novels in order to write fulltime. One of my favorite authors writes a book every seven years. His books are well-researched and about 250 thousand words in length. I’m a deliberate craftsman, and while I don’t think I’d want to take seven years to write a book, I'd love to be able to slow down to one book a year. — Jack Cavanaugh

The way regular life intrudes upon it. I have my schedule and my week planned out, and then so many other things seem to crop up that need immediate attention. It's a constant battle to prioritize correctly. -- Robin Lee Hatcher

Often the business side of writing encroaches on the creative side. It's a very difficult balance, because both matter. I find myself longing for uninterrupted time to get lost in a story, even as I'm fiddling with promotional materials and what have you. The only solution is discipline. Oy. --- Liz Curtis Higgs

First drafts! Hate ‘em, hate ‘em, hate ‘em! Give me a sloppy, disorganized, pitiful manuscript and I can fix it up good as new. But getting those words down on the blank screen is like pulling teeth, giving birth, murder—whatever cliché you want to fill in the blank with. ––Deborah Raney

(1) Time. There's never enough of it. And (2) The ever-present, usually banal chatter about the inferior quality of Christian fiction by those who "almost never read it," yet for some reason always seem to be writing it...and critiquing it. -BJ Hoff

That I can’t take volumes of time to write a book. I have to attack it every day. Then I have to have the same attack skills to keep my name in front of the public. I have to be my own publicity agent. I know of an author who hired a publicity agent. She spent most of her time driving the agent to work as hard for her as she had done. It can be a little daunting to realize that when your book is finished your work has just begun. --Patty Hickman

Patience. I have none. The writing process is a slow one in every area. Beginning from the start, through the sale, the editorial process, marketing, building a solid fan base. It all takes time. –Lori Copeland

Sales Figures. Period. They can absolutely lay me flat. --Lisa Samson

The solitude. It is essential to the writing process but also counter-productive to it. One cannot write authentically without rich life experiences, yet those kinds of experiences are impossible to get while sitting alone in a room with a keyboard, yet the actual writing can only be done alone. Also, because of the solitary nature of the writing process the feedback from those one hopes to reach is often too little, too late. Other art forms provide the artist with more immediate reactions. Singers, musicians, actors and dancers have the audience right there, but just as writers write alone, readers typically read alone. It’s hard to know what resonates and what does not until many months of work are already done. Often the best feedback comes after the work is bound and on the shelf and it’s too late for adjustments. One must trust one’s instincts all the more and instincts are often so untrustworthy. In the end, you have to write for just yourself and hope enough people will understand to allow you to keep getting published. —Athol Dickson

Writing. ~Brandilyn Collins

The long time between finishing a novel and seeing it come out. This is a reality of the sales process, but I'd much rather have books hit much sooner. -- James Scott Bell

The fact that it's so STINKIN' hard to get started! Don't know why, but getting started on a story is like pulling teeth for me. With double shots of novocaine. (And if you knew how much I HATE dentists, you'd understand just how bad that is!) It's something I've prayed about, asking God to help me overcome it. Because once I get into the writing, it's much better. But getting in there...just hate that. --Karen Ball

Hearing the prejudice that abounds against Christian fiction. Romance writers face the same kind of attitude, but that doesn’t make the caustic comments sting any less. –Angela Hunt

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Ask the Authors: Wednesday

Ask the Authors: Wednesday

If you have questions you’d like us to ask during a future “Ask the Authors” week, send it to As always, thanks for joining us!

Today’s question: Did you sell your first novel over the transom, through an agent, through a conference contact, or some other way?

I was going to self publish my first novel because I didn't think anyone would be interested in the crazy thing (The Darwin Conspiracy). So I came to my first CBA Convention to talk to publishers about the business of publishing. But one of them said "Why don't you send us the manuscript?" So I did and they published it, and that's what got me started. -- James Scott Bell

I have no idea what "over the transom" even means! Is that an unsolicited manuscript? Ha! I'm such a loser! I was able to have my first manuscript read because of a personal contact in the industry. --Lisa Samson [Yes, Lisa, that’s what we meant. ]

My first contract was for four books. Having established a friendly relationship with an editor over several years of conferences, at one conference she told me her new publisher was looking for someone to write a historical fiction series. I asked what they were looking for in the series and custom made a proposal to suit their needs. — Jack Cavanaugh

Over the transom. I sent out 20 manuscripts and got rejected 17 times. I broke all the rules, sending my entire manuscript, no query, no name a rule, I probably broke it. I wouldn’t advise that method, but sometimes the Lord blesses us in spite of our ignorance and arrogance. I ended up with three contract offers for that first novel and here I am. ––Deborah Raney

Slush pile (over the transom). Sold it, then withdrew it because I was hearing horror tales about some bad stuff happening on the "inside." Then I decided I didn't even like the thing, so I shredded it. Wrote another book. Also sent it over the transom (to a different publisher). It got lost, then got found. Then got sold. -BJ Hoff

I sold it myself. But that was in the early 90’s. I recently polled the head of a very large publishing house for my website Q& A and he said that all writers need an agent. He doesn’t look at any manuscripts except through an agent. There may be one or two publishers now who will still look at author-sold manuscripts. --Patty Hickman

I sold over the transom. I sold the first 15 books without an agent but I wouldn’t recommend it in today’s competitive market. You need a champion, but I’m also aware of the can’t-get-an-agent-without-a-contract syndrome. Agents are always looking for saleable manuscripts so if you’re constantly getting rejections from agents and houses it’s time to call in someone with professional knowledge that can advise you about your work. –Lori Copeland

My first novel was nearly sold twice, both times through an agent. The first time an agent in New York managed to get an offer letter from Simon and Schuster (an offer email, actually). Unfortunately, this was before secular publishing houses understood the size of the Christian readership, so they made their offer contingent upon modifications to the novel that included changing references from “Jesus” to “God.” I refused, and they withdrew their offer. The agent felt I had been unreasonable and dropped me. A friend, hearing this story, suggested that I contact his agent, which I did, and that agent (who is the same man representing me today—Greg Johnson) sold the novel to Zondervan. —Athol Dickson

First book (a true crime) by proposal, via an agent. First novel via an agent. (Reference yesterday’s question and answer.) ~Brandilyn Collins

Our first manuscript sold over the transom. Our next, to a different publisher, sold via a conference contact. Actually, Mel and I had to use teamwork to sell via conference contact, because once we were at the conference, I suddenly developed a horrible case of shyness and ended up sitting behind a ficus tree at a "meet and greet" party. Mel had to make the contact with the editor. It developed into a great relationship with that publisher, so perhaps I should hide behind trees more often, and let Mel take care of the business side of things. --Hannah Alexander (Cheryl's answer)

By 1998 I was already successful as a nonfiction writer, so two houses were willing to take a look at what I had in mind with fiction. God bless Karen Ball for signing me with Multnomah for my contemporaries and Lisa Bergren for signing me with WaterBrook for my historicals! The scary part was being an established author in nonfiction and taking the leap to fiction. Would the writing be good enough? Would I find a readership? Those are fears we all share, of course, previously published or not! --- Liz Curtis Higgs

I sold my first novel over the transom. I queried 21 publishers, and sold it to the first publisher who requested the full. -- Robin Lee Hatcher

I had been writing children’s books and nonfiction when my editor suggested I try an adult novel. I thought, I guess I can do that. My next question was: “So . . . what kind of novel do you want?” I was so clueless. –Angela Hunt

"Some other way." Lisa Bergren, who was editor for Multnomah's Palisades line at the time, overheard me at the big Christian Booksellers' trade show when I was talking with Francine Rivers. I told Francine if I was ever going to write, it'd be something like the Palisades romances. Lisa contacted me a few days later, telling me she'd overheard me and was I serious? If so, she wanted me to send her a proposal. I've always believed if God opens a door I need to at least check it out, so I sat down and put a proposal together. That became my first novel, Reunion, and I've been going ever since. --Karen Ball

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Ask the Authors: Tuesday

Ask the Authors: Tuesday

If you have questions you’d like us to ask during a future “Ask the Authors” week, send it to As always, thanks for joining us!

Today’s Question: Do you use an agent? Why or why not?

I don't use an agent. When I started in CBA, agents were rare. So I did my own deals and still do and know the results are as good as an agent would have garnered. Thus I can't justify the 15%. But this approach is not for most writers. I'm all for a good agent, and someday may have one myself. However, know this: a bad agent is worse than no agent. -- James Scott Bell

Yes. Because I'd still be getting really low advances if I didn't. Also, an agent can help shape your career, offer advice, and obviously, they have their foot in doorways you don't even know exist. --Lisa Samson

I’m presently without an agent. The author/agent relationship is indeed like a marriage, and I haven’t been able to find the perfect ‘mate’. I have come to realize that I have false expectations when it comes to an agent, but I’ll share what I feel an agent should do and be. An agent is not expected to work miracles. An agent can only advise and move you forward in your career; in a new author’s career they can open doors that might not otherwise open. In a seasoned writer career (ironically) they need more. They need a constant and vocal champion, one that believes fully in their work and is aware of their goals, always working to help the author achieve that goal, and give sound advice at all times. I suppose my perfect mate would be like the husband that always heard what I said. --Lori Copeland

Always have, always will. I don’t want to be the one negotiating my contracts, and a good agent will do it far better than I ever could anyway. ~Brandilyn Collins

I agented myself for the first nine years of my career and feel I was quite successful at it, but there came a point when I really wanted and needed to spend less time on the business aspects of writing and concentrate more on the writing itself. When I heard Steve Laube had hung out his shingle, I knew I’d found my agent. (Steve was an editor at Bethany House when I submitted my first novel to them and he had championed my work there.) I have no regrets about those years serving as my own agent, but I’ve been with Steve for three and a half years now and I’ll never go back. ––Deborah Raney

Yes--but only after the fifteen years or so that it took me to discover that I hate negotiating and hate "sticky situations" even more. I continue to realize that working with a good agent (emphasis on good) is well worth the commission you pay out, for any number of reasons--not the least of which is that it allows me to concentrate more on the writing than the headaches. A good agent does much, much more than handle contracts and hold your hand. -BJ Hoff

Mel and I signed on with an agent when we changed publishers, because this particular agent has a lot of publishing expertise, and could guide us in the transition. Also, our present publisher requires an agent for the women's fiction line. -- Hannah Alexander

I do. Sara Fortenberry and I have been together for 10+ years. She handles the sticky-wicket things that invariably come up in a publishing relationship and checks out my contracts thoroughly. Yet her greatest gifts to me are feedback on my works-in-progress and direction as I plan what's next. The best agents understand all sides of things--publishing, retailing, marketing, and writing. I'm really blessed to have someone in my corner who gets the Big Picture. --- Liz Curtis Higgs

Yes, I use an agent. I sold my first seven books myself, but then obtained my first agent. My agent negotiates my contracts, sells foreign rights, handles problems when they arise (bad covers, marketing issues, etc.), verifies my royalty statements, and much more. But the primary reason I have an agent is that she is my champion. -- Robin Lee Hatcher

Yes, because I need one. I recommend to any emerging author that she/he spend as much time trying to find the right agent as is spent on writing. Once, when I lost an agent who had left the agency, I thought it was no big deal. I had a new writing contract and three years to shop for a new agent, or so it seemed. Then I noticed irritating issues popping up all of a sudden that left me feeling really uneasy. It was if the once purely joyful relationship between the publisher and me was suddenly tainted. Once I found new representation, suddenly the troubled waters were stilled. You have no idea of the PR work that goes on behind the scenes on your behalf by your agent. A good agent does more good than simply landing you a book contract. They take care of many issues without ever telling you. They’re your advocate, keeping your work and your concerns ever in front of the publisher. If they don’t, you need to shop for a new agent. --Patty Hickman

Yes—I sold 17 books without an agent, but wouldn’t be without one now. I want to concentrate on writing, and my wonderful agent helps me do that. –Angela Hunt

I do have an agent, Greg Johnson, whom I tend to think of as a partner, just as I think of editors as partners. My agent believed in my work and has encouraged me from the beginning, so one thing he brings to the table is a sense of loyal support which is much needed during spells of creative drought. He also serves to keep me at arm’s length from the business side of things, which removes the more prosaic sub-currents from my relationships with editors, and therefore makes the editorial process much more effortlessly creative and constructive than it might be otherwise. —Athol Dickson.

Yes. Because I like to focus on the fun part of being a writer, which is writing and being in touch with the readers and editors. I leave the rest, such as negotiations and dealing with conflicts, to my wonderful agent, Steve Laube. Also, Steve helps me keep my focus in my writing world. I need someone like that, to act as a sounding board of voice of reason. --Karen Ball

For years I didn’t have an agent, then I did, then I didn’t, now I do. When I got started in the business no one had agents and sometimes I still have trouble with having a go-between. I’ve always enjoyed having direct relationships with publishers. So why do I have an agent? With a ministry background, I can’t look a publisher in the eye and say, “Jack Cavanaugh’s worth more than that.” My agent can. — Jack Cavanaugh

Monday, August 28, 2006

Ask the Authors: Monday

Ask the Authors

We thought we’d try something new this week at Charis—and if it goes well, we might do this on a regular basis. This week we will pose five questions to our contributors, and you’ll find their varied answers to a single question each day.

If you have questions you’d like us to ask during a future “Ask the Authors” week, send it to As always, thanks for joining us!

Today’s Question: Do you always write in the same genre? Why or why not?

I have written both contemporary and historical thrillers, as well as one long stand alone historical (Glimpses of Paradise). I build suspense into every book, so I'm a suspense writer. Right now I'm concentrating on contemporary thrillers. -- James Scott Bell

Yes. Killing off a person by page two is a hard habit to break. ~Brandilyn Collins

I write in two genes: historical and contemporary. I prefer historical because I like the spiritual values of the 1800’s, yet I love to address today’s problems when writing a contemporary story. –Lori Copeland

I always write in the genre that I grew up reading, which is romantic suspense. Because I write with Mel, who knows medicine, he and I now incorporate medical into our work. Of course, now that I write in this genre all the time, I prefer to read other genres for pleasure. Chick lit and fantasy fiction make it possible to suspend disbelief, because I don't catch myself automatically editing these genres. In other words, they aren't work for me. --Hannah Alexander

For the last decade I’ve written historical fiction. Beginning with Death Watch last year I branched out to contemporary suspense and am currently contracted for three more contemporary suspense novels. Why? One, I enjoy both genres and wanted to try my hand at contemporary suspense. Two, a breather from research. With contemporary fiction when my characters put on their shoes I don’t have to wonder if they buckle, tie, or Velcro them. — Jack Cavanaugh —

Sort of. :) All my books share certain traits, regardless of genre: they show family relationships; they include animals in some way; they feature some aspect of nature; and there's always some element of romance and of humor. But as for specific genres, I've written romantic adventure, humor, and suspense; contemporary relational; and suspense. --Karen Ball

My first novel was a simple murder mystery, but I seem to be drifting toward a type of fiction people have some trouble labeling. For lack of any more accurate descriptor my publisher still calls it “suspense,” and I understand their reasons, but I don’t think of it that way. All good fiction must include some form of suspense, so I find that label pretty useless except for marketing purposes. To me, my stories are just stories. There are consistencies in them, which include: a sense of magical realism, settings (usually natural) used as a “character” or a force within the plot, a vigorous use of metaphor and allegory, physical conflict, and a thematic concern with man’s relationship to God. —Athol Dickson

For the most part I write contemporary fiction aimed at women. Although I do have some faithful male readers and I try to keep them in mind too. Why? Because I can. Oh, wait, that's Flannery O'Connor's answer. The Lisa Samson answer is, because it's what comes naturally! --Lisa Samson

Historical fiction is where I fit. It's always been my first love among the novels I read, so I suppose it was just a natural place to go when I began writing. (It had nothing to do with the huge sales and big bucks, despite what you may have been led to believe. Choke.) -BJ Hoff

All my novels are contemporary women’s fiction, and usually include some social issue and an element of romance. Those are the type of books I most like to read, so I guess that’s why I write the same. My one historical novella left me with a deep appreciation for those who do the research to write historical fiction. ––Deborah Raney

I write out of a personal aesthetic and mostly for women. (although I seem to get email on occasion from male readers) Not really genre writing. But for critics and sales people who need to drop me in a slot, I’m usually branded as a southern novelist. That gives me a lot of latitude, and when you’re working on expanding your readership, you need numerous character situations to offer a broad appeal to mainstream readers. My protagonist can be female or male, a criminal, or a saint, living in the present world or the past, yet all having some sort of ties to the southern region of the U.S. My stories are all character-driven, and usually promise a horribly matched romantic conflict. Oh, and I use humor in all of my books. I get quite a lot of reader mail expressing appreciation for the elements of humor.Your readers expect a certain type of book once you’ve hooked them with the first one. There are a few writers that take forays outside of their name-brand fiction and are successful at it. I think that kind of change has a lot to do with the demographics of your readers. --Patty Hickman

Definitely not! I write the books God whispers into my heart, and they've landed me in several genres. When my children became readers, I was compelled to write children’s books (lots of mothers have this urge, I’ve discovered!). In the late ‘90s, my hunger for God’s Word continued to grow and out of that came the Bad Girls of the Bible series, combining fiction and nonfiction, storytelling and Bible study. Writing contemporary romantic comedies gave me a chance to incorporate humor and my love for small towns. But it's Scottish historical fiction based on biblical characters that really makes my heart sing, so that's where I've settled down for this season of my life. Unless God leads elsewhere, of course! :>) --- Liz Curtis Higgs

Well, yes and no. I always write what can be described as women's fiction, but sometimes I write contemporary and sometimes I write historical. And sometimes the stories fall into the romance genre and sometimes they don't. But they are always about relationships and have deep emotions at their core. -- Robin Lee Hatcher

I write historical fiction, women’s fiction, and speculative fiction . . . and some of my books (e.g., The Immortal) are a blend of all three. Why? These genres just seem to fit the stories the Lord gives me. –Angela Hunt

Friday, August 25, 2006

RLH: The Epiphany

I'm an intuitive writer. Rather than "seeing" scenes in my head, like on a movie screen, I "feel" them in my gut. I am not the least bit analytical about my own writing or the novels I read. I "feel" if they work, but describing why or why not is a difficult task for me.

I learned years ago why I resist outlines, synopses, plotting, and/or over-discussing my story ideas. It's because writing, for me, is all about "the discovery." Just as a reader reads a book in order to learn what happens to the characters, I write my books to see what happens to the characters. When I work out an entire story on paper in advance of writing it, when I analyze and scrutinize, I quit wanting to write it. I get bored and restless. Hey, I now know the beginning, middle, and ending. Why bother with writing it? My imagination says, "Let's come up with a different story where we don't know how it all fits together."

For a long while, I thought this meant I was a bad plotter, but eventually I realized that wasn't so. It's just that I plot through my characters. I plot in little bursts, just enough to get me through the day. My subconscious is working way ahead of that, but I'm right here in today, enjoying the discovery.

I remember an epiphany I had a number of years ago at a writers conference. I noticed that I (a character-driven, intuitive storyteller) attended all the workshops on plotting. In the meantime, those writers who plot their books from beginning to end on little scene cards were sitting in workshops on characterization or putting more emotion into their stories. I thought we were trying to improve our craft, focusing on areas of weakness.

But then I realized something. While improving our craft may have been a side benefit, I believe we were actually trying to find an easier way to write our novels. If characterization is my strength, but writing is still so hard (which it is), then if I become better at plotting, writing will surely get easier. And I imagined that left-brained, analytical, plot-driven writer who is blessed with the ability to see her story from beginning to end thinking, "Plotting comes naturally, but writing is hard. If I can master characterization, writing will surely get easier."

The epiphany: There is no easier way to write a novel. They are written one word at a time, and those words become sentences and those sentences become paragraphs which become scenes which become chapters -- and suddenly it all becomes a book.

From then on, I began to accept who I am as a creative person. I create the way I create. You create the way you create. There isn't a right or wrong way to create a novel. It's the end result that matters.

Even after more than 50 books, I still sometimes think I must be doing it all wrong, that there must be some better and easier way to write than the way I do it. If I could just figure it out...

When that negative committee in my head starts tossing those feelings of inadequacy at me, I remember the epiphany at that writers conference. I apply the seat of my pants to the chair and my fingers to the keyboard, and I create as God created me to create.


Robin Lee Hatcher does her creating from her home in Idaho. Her upcoming releases include A Carol for Christmas (Zondervan, Oct 2006) and Trouble in Paradise (Steeple Hill, Feb 2007).
Web site:

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

JSB: Type Hard, Type Fast

My friend Athol Dickson recently made a case in this space for writing slow(ly). A good case, too. I’ve never known Athol to render a half-hearted opinion or write a half-hearted novel. Nor bring anything but the pursuit of excellence to any enterprise. That’s why I love what he writes. Yet as a recovering trial lawyer, and in the true spirit of literary dialogue, I would like to present a slightly different view.

I begin by noting that our central concern is the same—great writing and stewardship of the gift God has given us. This should always be the goal of the writer. The difference is I don’t see speed as the key issue.

Concentrated effort is, I believe, the more important virtue. This means great work can be done relatively quickly, and not only by “geniuses.” Further, I contend that many young writers would actually improve their craft -- and chances of getting published -- if they would write faster, especially at the beginning of their learning curve.

First, a few facts. Some of the best novels of the past century were produced at a rapid clip by authors who found writing time each day, and simply went at their task with singular resolution:

-- William Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying in six weeks, writing from midnight to 4 a.m., then sending it off to the publisher without changing a word.

-- Ernest Hemingway wrote what some consider his best novel, The Sun Also Rises, also in six weeks, part of it in Madrid, and the last of it in Paris, in 1925.

-- John D. MacDonald is now hailed as one of the best writers of the 1950’s. Within one stunning stretch (1953-1954) he brought out seven novels, at least two of them – The Neon Jungle and Cancel All Our Vows – brilliant. The others were merely splendid. Over the course of the decade he wrote many more superb novels, including the classic The End of the Night, which some mention in the same breath as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Also Cry Hard, Cry Fast, which is the basis for the title of this blog entry.

So prolific was MacDonald that he was needled by a fellow writer who, over martinis, sniffed that John should slow down, ignore “paperback drivel,” and get to “a real novel.” John sniffed back that in 30 days he could write a novel that would be published in hardback, serialized in the magazines, selected by a book club and turned into a movie. The other writer laughed and bet him $50 that he couldn’t.

John went home and, in a month, wrote The Executioners. It was published in hardback by Simon & Schuster, serialized in a magazine, selected by a book club, and turned into the movie Cape Fear. Twice.

--Ray Bradbury famously wrote his classic Fahrenheit 451 in nine days, on a rented typewriter. “I had a newborn child at home,” he recalls, “and the house was loud with her cries of exaltation at being alive. I had no money for an office, and while wandering around UCLA I heard typing from the basement of Powell Library. I went to investigate and found a room with 12 typewriters that could be rented for 10 cents a half hour. So, exhilarated, I got a bag of dimes and settled into the room, and in nine days I spent $9.80 and wrote my story; in other words, it was a dime novel.”

--Jack London was anything but promising as a young writer. He could hardly string sentences together in a rudimentary fashion. About all he had was desire. A burning desire. So he shut himself up in a room and wrote. Daily. Sometimes 18 hours a day. He sent stories off that got returned. He filled up a trunk with rejections. But all the time he was learning, learning. When he died at the age of 40 he was one of the most prolific and successful writers of all time.

--John O’Hara wrote fast, and well, turning out books, stories and plays over the course of his long career.

--Charles Dickens wrote fast. He had to. He had ten children. And he wrote many of his novels in installments for literary magazines. He had to keep the chapters coming.

--But even Dickens pales when compared to Anthony Trollope, author of some 47 novels (thrice the number Dickens wrote). Yet Trollope wrote a good many of these while working full time as a civil servant.

How did he do it? He produced a quota of words every day. If he got to the end of a novel and hadn’t reached his daily quota, he pulled out a fresh sheet of paper and wrote “Chapter 1” on it and kept going.

--Stephen King says he used to write 1500 words a day, every day, except his birthday and the 4th of July. A prodigious output – and the prestigious National Book Foundation Award for Distinguished Contribution to Literature – are the result of this steady pace.

One could go on, but the lesson is clear. Writing “genius,” like any other kind, is 99% perspiration. These authors all worked extremely hard early in their careers to learn their craft. By writing fast they virtually forced themselves to learn. Their books were not the product of small bits of inspiration, but rather steady, dedicated, intense work, day after day.

Now, I think many young novelists would do well to write faster, especially early in their literary journey. First, you learn most about writing a full length novel by actually writing a full length novel. It is much more valuable to do this repeatedly than to hover too long over one unfinished (or unpolished) manuscript.

Second, you become a professional in the best sense of the word (well, maybe second best, after getting paid). A professional is someone who does his job, every day, even if he doesn’t feel like it. A surgeon can’t refuse to operate because he’s upset over the Dodger game last night. A criminal defense lawyer can’t ask for a continuance so he can go to the beach and dream of someday getting a client who is actually innocent.

And a professional writer can’t sit at the computer playing Spider Solitaire, waiting for a visit from the Muse. A pro is someone who writes, whether inspired or not, and keeps on writing.

I’ve counseled many writers at conferences who have come with a single manuscript yet haven’t got another project going. I tell them, “That’s wonderful. You’ve written a novel. That’s a great accomplishment. Now, get to work on the next one. And as you’re writing that next one, be developing an idea for the project after that.”

You see, publishers and agents are not looking for a book. They are looking for solid, dependable writers. They invest in careers. They want to know you can do this over and over again.

The best advice I ever got as a young writer was to write a quota of words on a regular basis. I break my commitment into week-long segments (anticipating those days when I ride a bike into a tree or some such). I believe this discipline has made all the difference in my career. The testimony of so many other professional writers attests to its value.

One such testimonial comes from Isaac Asimov, author/editor of 500+ books. He was once asked what he would do if were told he had but a week to live.

“Type faster,” he said.

James Scott Bell has written 17 published novels in addition to short stories, screenplays and a volume of poetry entitled “The Night Carl Sagan Stepped on My Cat.” The latter title is available exclusively from the author, who may be contacted via his website,

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Flash Fiction First Runners-Up

As we mentioned yesterday, the position of first runner-up in the Flash Fiction Contest was a tie. Congratulations to Michael Snyder and Kelly Klepfer! Here are their entries, in the order they were received in our email box:

By Michael Snyder

They say the surgery was a success. I’m not so sure. My new heart chugs along, filling my vascular network with warm, sustaining ooze. But I don’t look at Stacey or the kids the same way anymore. And it terrifies me. I gave my heart—the one I was born with—to Jesus decades ago. He knocked, I let him in, then relegated him to the crawl space.

As a boy, I habitually ignored my father’s sermons by imagining my church pew was a lifeboat. This one creaks under my dwindling weight as I take up a position at the stern, avoiding the stained glass gaze of my former Savior. Whispery footfalls interrupt my feigned prayers as a shadowy figure rises to light a candle. Makes me wonder who’ll light mine when I’m gone.

I try to stand, but the pew lists to one side, capsizing. I blink at the queer scene, convinced I’m hallucinating again. Yet the pew’s bow keeps rising and we’re taking on water. I drop the anchor but the line never goes taut. The chain is too short, pulling me under.

Panic is replaced with liquid surrender, an underwater calm, a most unholy baptism. I hear the footfalls again, but they’re coming from above. I look up to see the shadowy footprints on the other, sunnier side of the water, pausing above me.

My lungs teem with firewater and…what else? Hope?

I scan the surface, waiting for a hand to plunge through, praying to see scars.


Michael Snyder is the husband of one lovely wife, the father of four kids, and the writer of too little fiction. He’s had the good fortune of publishing some short fiction. He’s been blessed with an awesome agent. And he’s hopeful about his current novel. He is also not very comfortable referring to himself in third person.

Contact info:

Let There Be Life...Always
by Kelly Klepfer

Tiny rosebud lips, ten fingers and toes. Perfect.

Except for one thing.

One microscopic kink in the chromosome chain, and I cradle twisted perfection.

Shielding my fragile baby from the world, I bend over and inhale her scent, soft powder with a hint of milk. My heart breaks and hot tears baptize her tiny face.

In defiance I've named her Zoe, life.

Will she know real love? How can I ever let her venture from my protection? Who will care for her when I'm gone?

Well-meaning friends either shy away and avoid the bittersweet birth altogether or pump me full of information and success stories.

Special Olympics, science advancements, Romans 8:28, I've heard it all. My head accepts this. I know I can do it, with Him. Still, my spirit grieves my faux pre-memories of what could have been. For both of us.

Newborn grunts accompany the wriggle of baby against my breast. My body responds, releasing life-sustaining milk. She struggles with direction, too many sensations at once, then settles in and begins to suck.

She'll wear pink ribbons. Prom is in Zoe's future. Life will become her.

As my body gave her life, my milk will nourish her, and my heart will carry her. Always.

My Zoe Zyana. Life Always.

Kelly Klepfer has published short fiction and non-fiction articles in several periodicals. She lives in Iowa, works in the medical field, and has three kids, a wonderful husband and a house that's been in the process of being remodeled forever.


Monday, August 21, 2006

Flash Fiction Contest Winner!

There were numerous entries, and you didn't make our job easy! An experience like this demonstrates again just how subjective art can be. Four judges spent some time scratching heads and doing some shuffling before we arrived at a winner.

We hope this was a good experience--a fun experience--for you. Your participation was appreciated, and we enjoyed the opportunity to read your entries.

And NOW, the winner of the first Charis Connection Flash Fiction Contest is Karen Robbins. Take a bow, Karen. Great job!

We had two people tie for the position of first runner up: Michael Snyder and Kelly Klepfer. We're going to post their entries tomorrow. Congratulations, Michael and Kelly!

And now, the winning entry:


One foot found the bottom step hidden just below the water’s surface. He paused, peeked around the ladder for assurance and then began the climb. Each step took him closer to the top and further from the security he knew.

The water below was dark, foreboding. He swallowed hard. Would his racing heart pound its escape through his chest?

He stopped at the pinnacle. It looked a lot higher from here. Carefully he positioned himself atop the warm metal and sat down. He hugged the bar next to him, arms aching from the pressure.

This was the moment. One last thought surged through his mind. He could return the way he had come. But, no. They were all there. Waiting. Watching.

His eyes turned to his father who stood waist deep in the water.

It was okay. Daddy had his arms open wide.

He let go.

Karen Robbins is a writer and speaker. She is currently the grandparenting columnist at and Over 200 of her articles and essays have appeared in Christian and general periodicals. Two of her stories will be released this fall in The Bad Hair Day Book (J Countryman, Sep. 2006) and Ho Ho Ho (Elm Hill Books, Oct. 2006).

Contact Karen at

Karen Robbins's Wanderings, Encouragement Emporium,

Friday, August 18, 2006

BJH: Icons in Fiction

An element found in fiction that’s not often discussed is the icon. I’m not referring to the small images we use to decorate desktops or to provide shortcuts to software programs, nor to religious symbols. The icon I’m thinking of is an object or a motif in novels that occurs repeatedly. It's similar to a recurrent theme in music, but not quite the same in fiction.

Especially in series fiction, an icon can provide an element around which several continuing stories are developed. For example: in my Emerald Ballad series, the Kavanagh harp (the "Harp of Caomhanach") represents an ancient covenant between the Kavanagh family and God that was established when a clan chief decreed that the harp was to remain silent in times of exile, that it should "sing only for a free people." The harp is passed down from one generation to another and appears in the Prologue of each book of the series. It seldom makes an appearance, other than in the Prologues--and yet it provides a kind of "symbol" for generations of the Kavanagh family. There’s actually more than one harp in the Ballad series: Morgan Fitzgerald, the "anchor" of the entire series, often plays a small minstrel’s harp. But that particular harp isn’t an icon--it simply defines a part of Morgan’s character and personality.

Another example: in my American Anthem books, the icon is actually the musical suite Michael Emmanuel is composing--the "American Anthem"--and represents not only the significant commission given by God to the composer, but also the idea of the diversity among Americans of all races, nationalities, and walks of life. When the suite is finally performed, it also serves as the finale of the series...and the prelude to the future of the series characters.

In both Cloth of Heaven and Ashes and Lace, the Claddagh itself and a Claddagh ring are icons. It’s no accident that they appear on the covers and were used in the marketing of the novels.

In my novella, The Penny Whistle, the story of which has been much expanded and appears in A Distant Music, the icon is the penny whistle itself. It represents the need...and the power...of God-given hope in an individual’s life--and in the life of an entire community.

Use of the icon is a device I often employ in my fiction because it somehow seems to bring a meaningful symbol of continuity, cohesion, and endurance to a book or to a series. The icon can reflect tradition, custom, aspiration, and even romance. It can represent faith or hope or steadfastness. Sometimes an icon can be a landmark: a mountain, a river, a carousel, even a town. Musical instruments, family Bibles, pieces of jewelry, such as watches or rings, artifacts, and other enduring items are only some of the objects that appear as icons in fiction.

A savvy marketing department will often pick up on the icons in a work and use them in cover art, packaging and publicity. Icons also make good topics to raise in interviews or teaching discussions.

The next time you’re reading a favorite author’s work, especially if you’re caught up in a continuing series, try looking for icons used and think about what they might represent. And look for new icons you can use in new ways in your own fiction.

One more thing--it’s a good idea to mention the icon (or icons) you’ve used and their significance--to your editor and the marketing folks. Make them aware well ahead of time of any symbol or object on which they may be able to hang some of the promotion and marketing of your work, so they can plan accordingly.

BJ Hoff loves music and novels, family, friends, and Golden Retrievers. Visit her web pages at and

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Reminder: Entries are Due by Saturday for the Flash Fiction Contest!

The clock is ticking!

If you haven't yet sent in your entry for the Flash Fiction contest, you still have time. All entries are due no later than Saturday, August 19. The winner's entry and name will be posted on Monday, August 21.

There are four judges--two guys and two gals--selected from the regular contributors listed on the Charis Connection sidebar. As we believe to be appropriate, the judges shall remain nameless. (This will protect them from flying apple cores and rotten tomatoes.)

*We've had some questions about the rules for the contest. If you'll go to this post you'll find them listed:

In brief--

1. 250 words maximum.
2. Submissions must be received by August 19, 2006.
3. Email your submission to:
4. Include: Your submission, a bio paragraph, and an email address for us to contact you.

Write on!

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

AD: Writing Well—Writing Slow(ly)

My friend Angie is at it again. I sent the following list to a few writer friends with whom I am discussing the importance of taking one’s time to produce excellent fiction, and she thought they’d make an interesting blog entry. Being pretty new to the blogosphere (is that how you spell it?) I had no idea. Well, here’s hoping she’s right (she usually is):

If I had more time, I would write a shorter story. - Mark Twain

What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure. - Samuel Johnson

A perfectly healthy sentence, it is true, is extremely rare. For the most part we miss the hue and fragrance of the thought; as if we could be satisfied with the dews of the morning or evening without their colors, or the heavens without their azure. - Henry David Thoreau

I can't write five words but that I can change seven. - Dorothy Parker

To be a writer is to throw away a great deal, not to be satisfied, to type again, and then again and once more, and over and over. - John Hersey

Books are never finished, they are merely abandoned. - Oscar Wilde

Books aren't written—they're rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn't quite done it. - Michael Crichton

The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is that you really want to say. - Mark Twain

First drafts are for learning what your novel or story is about. - Bernard Malamud

When something can be read without effort, great effort has gone into its writing. - Enrique Jardiel Poncela

Our admiration of fine writing will always be in proportion to its real difficulty and its apparent ease. - Charles Caleb Colton

The strokes of the pen need deliberation as much as the sword needs swiftness. - Julia Ward Howe

Like stones, words are laborious and unforgiving, and the fitting of them together, like the fitting of stones, demands great patience and strength of purpose and particular skill. - Edmund Morrison

All writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives lies a mystery. Writing a book is a long, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. - George Orwell

Athol Dickson, author of:
River Rising
The Gospel According to Moses

The Charis Connection congratulates Athol on the Christy Award for River Rising!

Monday, August 14, 2006

DR: A Good Review--Honestly

We’ve been discussing honesty in book reviews on a writers’ forum I’m part of. It’s made me consider some things I hadn’t thought of before. When I’m on the “reviewee” end of the equation, I tend to favor critics who only review books they loved. And that does seem to be the norm in the Christian publishing industry. The majority of magazines and review sites where Christian books are routinely reviewed carry lightweight, mostly glowing blurbs about the books they choose to highlight. I’m beginning to realize that this is probably because so many reviewers are fellow Christians who would feel guilty hurting a flea’s feelings. But also because they are likely aspiring writers themselves, and they realize how small the CBA industry is and how quickly we close ranks around our own. As writer Ruth Logan Herne said on the writers’ forum, “In a small industry, each word weighs heavily. Creating enemies isn't cool, nor is it conducive to your career.”

Sadly, it is probably wise and in the interest of self-preservation, for any reviewer desiring a career as a writer in the CBA to only review books they can honestly give a good review. Because in truth, when you review a book, you are making a judgment not merely on that author, but on his editors, his critique group if he has one, his agent, his publisher, maybe even his family members! Authors have loyal followings and close-knit groups of writing friends. I've often seen writers come to one another's defense—sometimes publicly—over a bad review.

I’m all for the Scriptural exhortations to be ye kind to one another, consider others better than yourselves, and to think on “whatsoever things are good.” But in some ways, it would be good to see more honesty in Christian reviews. Wouldn’t it be helpful to readers if a reviewer could say, "this book really fell short of what this author is capable of" or "this book was shallow and lightweight" or even "frankly, this author’s work has declined since he/she started writing twenty books a year."

Of course, I’d only want such forthright reviews if they were about someone else’s books!

The same concepts apply to endorsements. Authors are often called on for endorsements and because of our close-knit connections in the CBA, more often than not, it’s a friend, or at least a professional acquaintance, we’re being asked to endorse for. In spite of my best intentions to be fully honest, on a couple of occasions, I found myself writing a complimentary blurb about a book I was less than impressed with. Yes, I made sure the essence of my words was truth—the book actually was “well-written” or “heartwarming” or whatever adjective I was able to employ truthfully—but I might have given my sister or best friend a very different opinion.

There is one factor, however, that makes me hesitant to wish for brutal honesty in reviews and allows me to excuse less-than-candid endorsements: personal taste. Sure, someone knowledgeable about the craft of writing might be able to attest, "This book was very poorly written." And yet the message and story of that book might have an incredible impact on the lives of ordinary readers who don't know or care about head-hopping, correct grammar, plot inconsistencies, or overused adverbs and adjectives. With books that make such mistakes of craft, should the blame lie first with the editors and publishers who allowed those books to hit the shelves in such a state?

And where does God come into the picture? Maybe He knew one person would need the message of that book at that particular time. Maybe He doesn't give a hoot about head-hopping, grammar, etc. (Okay...that's another whole subject. I DO think the Creator of the world cares about excellence and about us—also his creation—as professionals in the industry, giving our very best to the craft to which He’s called us.)

Regardless, I don't think we will ever have completely honest reviews or endorsements as long as the reviewee/endorsee is either a friend of the reviewer/endorser, or someone who might have an influence on their future in the industry. I’m not sure reviews and endorsements can be honest yet informed, until the critic is somewhat disconnected from the close-knit Christian publishing community, while still being knowledgeable about the elements and parameters of good Christian fiction. And that's a tall order.

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

Friday, August 11, 2006

AG: Tortoise and Hare

A few years ago life seized me by the ankles a drew me across the threshold of the half century mark. I can still see the deep gouges left by my fingernails. Intellectually, I knew only one year had passed since my forty-ninth birthday, but emotionally—Well, no need to go there.

Passing such mile markers forces me to reevaluate my life and my accomplishments (something I do every couple of weeks but not with the same intensity). Looking back on the fogged trimmed decades that had been my earlier years makes me a tad sad. Being a chronic malcontent about achievement, I often think that I should have achieved much more.

Know the feeling?

Now along comes David Galenson, a Harvard trained economist, and I want to buy the man dinner. I learned of him through an excellent article written by Daniel H. Pink. The article appears in the July 2006 issue of Wired Magazine (the online version of the article appears on July 11th).

What thrills me about this article? It verifies an idea I’ve held for a long time: Genius is not the exclusive domain of the young. When I first toyed with the idea of being an writer I considered writing a short story about a man who goes to bed ordinary and wakes up a genius. The story never ripened, but the idea that someone might be an unknown genius in some field but never realizes it because life gets in the way still haunts me. In other words, how do we know that the woman who could find a cure for cancer hasn’t because she was born to a poor family and forced to menial work as a young teenager?

Galenson compared the successes of artists to their age and discovered that there are two types of geniuses; tortoise and hare achievers who do knock out work but at different times in their lives. Galenson calls the early achievers “Conceptualists” (hares) and the late bloomers “Experimentalists” (tortoises). The first hit their stride early on, but do little meaningful work later in life; the latter start off slow but hit homeruns in the second half of their earthly existence. The article gives examples:

Literature:F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby) at age 29.
Mark Twain (Huckleberry Finn) at age 50.

Art:Pablo Picasso (Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon) at age 26.
Paul Cézanne (Château Noir) at age 64.

Filmmaking: Orson Welles (Citizen Kane) at age 26.
Alfred Hitchcock (Vertigo) at age 59.

Architecture:Maya Lin (Vietnam Memorial) at ages 23.
Frank Lloyd Wright (Falling Waters) at age 70.

Music:Wolfgang Mozart (The Marriage of Figaro) at age 30.
Ludwig van Beethoven (Symphony No. 9) at age 54.

Galenson puts numbers to this phenomenon and in doing so has done a great service for those of us laboring in artistic efforts (or business, or just about anything else). Of course, what he has done is identified trends and not laws. There are those people who achieve early on and continue producing great work all their lives. More power to them.

Pink describes Galenson’s work as “a unified field theory of creativity.” It seems to be just that.

So if you hold a membership card in the Slow Out the Gate Club, don’t lose heart. Your best work may be just around the corner. Genius is not the sole possession of the young, but of the dedicated.

Alton Gansky lives and writes and celebrates birthdays at his home in California.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

PH: Writing is Writing

Bad news. Research has shown that the lecture method for teaching writing is ineffective. But here’s the good news. For those of us teaching writing craft, this kind of nudge gives us even more reason to develop writing workshops that help the writer to workshop his or her piece while in class.

Given the time slot that most workshop leaders are handed, it is a dilemma. The most effective teaching I was given in school was led by an author who gave us actual exercises in our small group. Some of the students groaned, but after plowing through a couple of them, I became hungry for her sessions. I had a book under contract and applied them to my WIP. (work-in-progress) For the emerging writer having difficulty putting word to screen, the exercise is a good tool. I once discounted the workshop exercise as “not really writing,” simply because I wasn’t writing a novel. The fact is that most exercises can be used at some point in some future novel.

Exercises have changed a lot since I was a younger student. They’re more organic, and, in a class setting, more interdependent on feedback from peers. That can go against the grain for the reclusive writer. You have to be around others, allow them to examine what you’ve written and then criticize your work. Painful, yes. But it’s important that others see our work because we’re too close to it to maintain objectivity. It helps to motivate us too. We don’t sit around daydreaming—a terrible excuse for not writing. Instead, we engage the mind to put words on paper.

I think about the scripture that says, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves?” James 1:22. If I spend my life only hearing and not doing, then I’m living under the delusion that schooling is doing. If I only attend Bible study after Bible study, but don’t put what I learn into practice, (look out for the widow and orphan, love others, etc.) I’m like the old fisherman that said to the young fisherman, “You going to cut bait all day or go fishing?” The same is true of writing. Writing is writing, rather than sitting in lectures hearing about it.

It’s the nature of the hungry little monster called writing. As a writing teacher, I’m compelled to stop talking and listen to the learning that’s going on in the room. As a writer, I’m compelled to write and write until I get it right.

Patricia Hickman is the author of Fallen Angels, Nazareth’s Song, and Whisper Town. She teaches writing at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. Please visit her website and blog at

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

JC: Flash Fiction Contest

A few months ago the editor of Crossings informed me that they would be featuring my novel Storm in their summer catalog. She asked me to write a 250-word devotional piece on grace which they would print as a sidebar. Some non-fiction authors were also being asked to write sidebars so I wanted to do something other than the usual inspirational essay. Having recently written a blog about short-short fiction (March 2006, “Flash Fiction”), I decided to try my hand at it.

Here’s what appeared in the catalog:

The Puzzle
by Jack Cavanaugh

Weary of life and living, my world no longer made sense.
A friend noticed. He handed me a gray cardboard box.
I lifted the lid.
“There must be a thousand puzzle pieces in here!”
“Trust me, it’ll help.”
I shoved the box back at him.
“I don’t have time for games.”
“Life is no game. Call me when you’re ready.”
“You mean, when I’m finished.”
“I mean, when you’re ready.”

I dumped the pieces on the dining room table. A montage of images began to appear. Protestors thrusting guns at heaven. Trembling towers on fire. Swollen-bellied children, food for flies. A yellow-taped crime scene. An infant’s funeral.

Compared to these, my troubles paled. Was I to feel better for this?

I called my friend.
“This isn’t helping.”
“Do you see where grace fits in?”
“Grace? There’s no grace in this puzzle!”
“You’re not ready. Call me when you’re ready.”

Weeks passed. A dozen times I moved to clear the table. Something wouldn’t let me. The puzzle took shape, piece by disturbing piece.

And then, it made sense. I phoned my friend.
“I understand!”
“It’s complete?”
“There’s one piece missing.”
“I’ll be right over.”

Together we pondered the turmoil of the images.
In the center of the puzzle was a cross-shaped hole.

My friend said,
“It’s the only way to make sense of this world.”
“The missing piece…do you have it?”
With hand outstretched, he offered me the cross.


The idea of writing short-short fiction—stories that pack an emotional punch or provide a flash of illumination—continues to fascinate me. (So does writing 250,000 word epic novels, but that’ll have to be the subject of another blog.) With the way the Internet is redefining how we read, I can’t help but think that the time is right for short-short fiction to make a comeback.

I say comeback because while Flash Fiction might be the new name for it, short-short stories have been around a long time. I recently purchased a book of one hundred short-short detective stories that includes submissions by Charles Dickens, O. Henry, Jack London, and Abraham Lincoln. Yes, you read correctly. The tall guy with the beard. He wrote a story about three brothers who were accused of killing an acquaintance for his money.

So, let’s assume I’m right about Flash Fiction and the Internet. (Humor me. What’s it going to hurt?) There’s going to be a need for stories. That’s where you come in. And we’re here to help you get started.

Charis Connection invites you to write and submit a piece of Flash Fiction to us. Submit it according to the guidelines below and if it’s selected by our judges, you and your story will be featured on this blog with our congratulations.

(We wanted to offer a cash reward, but after passing the hat among our staff of bloggers were came up with twenty-three cents and a half-stick of gum. Knowing this group, we counted ourselves fortunate that the gum wasn’t already chewed. So instead of insulting you with cash and gum, we thought it in better taste to heap accolades on the authors who wrote the best stories.)

How about it? There’s only one way to become a writer and that’s to write and submit your work. Besides, you won’t find a friendlier or more supportive group of fellow writers. Take a chance. Send us your story.

Rules for submission:

Who may submit stories? Anyone who is not a Charis Connection blogger.
(If in doubt, check the column on the right. If you see your name listed, you’re ineligible. Get over it. Besides, don’t you have a blog to write?)

1. 250 words maximum.
2. Submissions must be received by August 19, 2006.
3. Email your submission to:
4. Include: Your submission, a bio paragraph, and an email address for us to contact you.

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

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

AD: Haste Makes Waste

I recently got into hot water with some writer friends by crying out for a slower, more thoughtful pace. Although I hate it when people are unhappy with me, I’m not backing down. Many popular Christian authors are in the habit of putting out three, four or even five or more novels every year. Such haste strikes me as a risky proposition. It increases the possibility of violating a fundamental principle of the Christian life: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men.” (Colossians 3:23) Since the heart was considered the seat of the intellect in ancient times this verse can be interpreted to mean, “Whatever you do, give it plenty of thought…,” and it seems self-evident that the faster we produce a novel, the less thought it is given.

There are exceptions. Some novelists experience occasional bursts of inspiration, which can produce two or three times the usual volume of work. This does not necessarily mean there is a compromise in quality. On the contrary, some of our best work can come during these rare confluences of free flowing wisdom and creativity. But I am not concerned with an occasional burst; I am worried about a steady, massive stream of words, year in, year out, leaving little time for reflection about the nature and meaning of those words. In the romance genre I am told the readers expect such a pace, and if that is so, then it must be done. One must write within the rules set by the readers, for the readers do rule. There may also be some among us brilliant enough to maintain such a pace while performing at their very best, but such geniuses are precious few and far between.

Other than those three exceptions—bursts of inspiration, requirements of the genre, and true genius—I suspect this publishing pace is driven by naïve over-optimism, economics, and/or a fear of failure. Naïve over-optimism, because some remain perennially convinced of their ability to cram 240 minutes of work into an hour, especially while negotiating deadlines. (Agents and acquisitions editors share the responsibility here.) Economics, because more books usually means more money. And fear of failure because we (wrongly) believe the readers will forget us without a constant supply of fresh reminders on the shelf. Whatever the reason, and with the exceptions above duly noted, such a pace means insufficient thought is given to the work, and let me be clear: insufficient thought given to the work is the concern, not how fast one writes the first draft.

The math can be deceptive. Three to five typical novels means 240,000 to 400,000 words. What most would consider a brutal schedule of 10 hours per day, six days per week and 52 weeks per year yields 3,120 hours. So divide the hours into the words and we have 77 to 128 original words per hour. Sounds easy, right? Some type that many words per minute. But hold on—that’s not counting time for the occasional off day due to illness or weddings or funerals or vacations, and it doesn’t include time for emails, or writer’s conferences, lost files, power outages, answering reader’s mail, going to the bath room, answering the telephone, blogging, negotiating contracts, learning new software, getting up to stretch, being blocked, working bugs out of computers, visits to publishing houses, getting something to drink, correspondence with editors, or rising to adjust the thermostat…not to mention working out creative and original plots, inventing authentic and interesting characters, basic editing and rewrites of your rewrites until you’re morally certain you’ve given the work “all your heart” as the Bible commands.

Still not convinced this is a problem? Still think you can get all that done with enough time left over for a family who needs you, and church, and Bible study, exercise, charity work, yard work, housekeeping, and all the other necessities of life? What about taking a few weeks every year (or at least a few days, for crying out loud) just to think a little, to ponder your experiences, to figure out something worth saying? Still no problem? Then by all means carry on; you’re a genius.

But hold it. You may have noticed I italicized “morally certain” above. That’s because those words explain why this matters. At the risk of moralizing, this is indeed a moral issue. It’s no use saying, “I’ve received awards; I’ve got happy readers; my books sell very well.” Similar things can be said of many popular television shows, and with that I hope the point is made. The question is—with Jesus as your witness—have you done your very best? We Christians of all people have no excuse for doing anything less than that, even if it wins awards and sells. Especially if it sells because that means more unbelievers will see a part of the body of Christ not at its best, but something less, something hopelessly naïve, or willing to trade excellence for money, or operating from fear instead of writing “as if for the Lord.” This is not about sales or awards; it is about the souls of men, the Great Commission. So please, please, please, don’t run the risk of giving anyone a reason to turn Jesus down. You work is an offering to God. Take all the time you need to present it whole and unblemished. Obey Colossians 3:23!

Athol Dickson is the author of:
River Rising
The Gospel According to Moses

Monday, August 07, 2006

JK: Getting Back to Writing

It seems this month I’m writing about “not writing.” I’m waiting for editorial suggestions. I’m doing interviews on the radio and at book groups and making presentations at bookstores. In my mind, I’m sorting through where the next book in the series will take me and the readers. But I’m not writing and it feels as though something is missing.

I am writing for the blog; I’ve provided my monthly essay for my own website; I’ve helped my nephew write a synopsis for his book he just finished (he’s nineteen years old and has already written this fabulous fantasy novel.) My work with Women Writing the West required some promotional writing about the WILLA Literary Awards we sponsor. I’ve written several thank you notes to bookstores. I write brief notes back to visitors to my website if they’ve left their email addresses. This week I wrote responses to requests for retreats, presentations, etc. But none of that writing feels the way I do when I’ve spent the day, well, writing.

Maybe the difference is that when I’m working on a manuscript, I get lost within it. I feel as though I’m praying almost, that my life is where it is meant to be. As Madeleine L’Engle wrote in Walking on Water, when we writers create, we co-create: we create with Spirit and with readers. Maybe it’s the preparation I do before working on a manuscript. I try to calm myself and leave the demands of my everyday life behind. I tell myself that God is in control and believe it. I read the writer’s prayer written by Barry Longyear that I cut out of Writer’s Digest and concentrate on a particular line before I begin to write. “Help me enter and live my story” is one I really like. I’ll be so engaged in my character facing a blinding snow storm that I’m surprised when two hours later my husband steps into my office and he’s sweating because the air conditioner isn’t working and it’s 110 degrees out side. I hope that the satisfaction I receive from having written is mostly because I’m telling the stories I’ve been given the best way I know how and trusting that I’m not alone in the telling. I pray for that for each of you as well. Oh, there’s my editor’s email! Now I can get back to writing.

Jane Kirkpatrick,, who just learned that her book A Land of Sheltered Promise was a Spur Award Finalist for Best Novel of the West (Western Writers of America) and a Golden Quill Finalist for Best Inspirational novel in the Desert Rose Phoenix chapter of Romance Writers of America.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

AG: More Fiction E's, Part 2

In my last post, I shared my “Essential “Es.” Here they are again.

The Essential “Es”
· Fiction is exploration
· Fiction engages
· Fiction exemplifies
In contrast....
· Nonfiction is education
· Nonfiction enlightens
· Nonfiction encourages

These are from a note that I refer to from time to time to remind me of what I do. It’s a shorthand way of emphasizing the key goals of fiction and nonfiction. Of course, I should add another E to the fiction section because, at least from the reader’s motivation, fiction is entertainment. I doubt many people picked up Stephen King’s CELL saying, I wonder what new and fresh things I’ll learn from this novel. The book CELL sells (sorry, couldn’t resist), because people are looking for a good and in this case scary, read. There’s a reason novels are not found in the footnotes of academic papers (except those in thesis work for an MFA).

Does this mean that fiction can never be educational? Of course, not. I’ve learned many things from well researched novels. If you want to know how many rivets there are in an F-22 fighter jet, a Tom Clancy novel might just have the answer for you.

Education is not what the novel does best. It’s not meant to. Novels are more visceral and consequently may have greater impact on individuals than nonfiction. For example, sometime ago I read BLIND MAN’S BLUFF by Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew with Annette Lawrence Drew. It’s a finely written work on submarine espionage during the Cold War. I learned a lot. I consider it one of the best books I’ve read. I received an education. But what if someone took the same material (most likely, one segment of the material) and made a novel of it? Through a novel, the reader could explore what it is like to ply the oceans beneath waves, spying on communist countries. The reader is engaged with the information. And if the novel has an admirable hero (not perfect but possessing something to respect), then the work exemplifies a noble behavior. (I suppose the antagonist exemplifies misbehavior and ignominious motivation.)

This idea of exploration, engagement, and exemplification, is what makes a great novel, well, great.

Another memorable nonfiction on my shelf is the superb DAY ONE, BEFORE HIROSHIMA AND AFTER, by Peter Wyden. I read the 1984 book years ago but a particular passage has stuck with me. Wyden writes about the moments after the U.S. dropped the bomb on Hiroshima—and he did it from the point of view of someone on the ground. It was the first time I got weepy in a nonfiction work. Wyden did what novelists aim to do, engage not just the mind, but the emotion as well. A novelist working in that subject could go several steps further, allowing the writer to see through the eyes of a mother, a father, maybe a soldier, or even one of the countless children whose skin was cooked from their bones, still alive and just waiting for an overworked Death to get around to them.

These nonfiction books, and those like them, reach a level that explodes the presuppositions that so confine the genre. Nonfiction educates, enlightens and encourages to action. Fiction explores, engages, and exemplifies.

Now this: Can these terms cross the borders I’ve established. Yup. And that is my little game. In my list above, can we properly substitute “fiction” for “nonfiction.” Can fiction also educate, enlighten and encourage? Can nonfiction explore, engage and exemplify? Of course.

At the heart of things is this: The accomplished writer knows how to be both spotlight and laser beam. In the end, writing, all writing is creative communication. If done correctly, concepts and characters; facts and fallacies; points and plots, do the same thing: They tattoo the brain of the reader. Hopefully, with something worthwhile.

Alton Gansky minds his e's, p's, and q's from his home in California. Visit him at his web page:

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

AG: Fiction's Es, Part 1

I have a note in my office. I come across it from time to time and when I do, I pause to take in its meaning. The note reads like this:

The Essential “Es”
· Fiction is exploration
· Fiction engages
· Fiction exemplifies

In contrast....
· Nonfiction is education
· Nonfiction enlightens
· Nonfiction encourages

As one who not only pens fiction but nonfiction (about 1 book a year now), it became important for me to understand the difference between the approaches.

Why bother with fiction? After all, a novel is just a made-up story, a fabrication that popped up on the writer’s brain one day like a toadstool on the lawn. The characters aren’t real. They might be loosely based on an individual or a composite of several people, but in the end, they won’t be coming for dinner or filing income tax. Their universe is the two dimensional world of the printed page, only becoming three dimensional when a reader comes along and frees them to frolic in his brain for a bit.

Why bother? Some people have mounted their high horses to denounce the merits of the novel. “Fiction isn’t real and therefore it must be a lie.” (Parables, not withstanding.) You think I joke, but those folks are out there, their pharisaic robes tied tightly about them, ready to till at the sturdy fiction windmills created by the likes of me and my breed.

A few years ago, while I sat at a wobbly card table with a stack of my most recent release at my elbow, a woman approached. You should know I have a sixth sense about these things. I can recognize a Baptist minister at twenty paces; find any Starbucks without a map; and the self-righteous. The latter are easy to recognize. They want to be noticed. (The down-the-nose-gaze is a pretty good give away.)

“What kind of books are these?” It was a demand, not a question.

“Wonderful books.” Then out loud I said, “Novels.”

“Are they fiction?”

“No, these are the last of the nonfiction novels.” Then verbally, I replied, “Yes they’re fiction novels.”

“I never read novels. They’re a waste of time. I only read nonfiction.” I bit my lip. I bit real hard.

There I sat, looking up at this…um…woman, listening to her downplay a few hundred hours of my life. Despite the urge to point out the section where she could find the coloring books, I tried to show her the error of her ways.

No good. She had been listening to herself too long to listen to anyone else. She walked away with nose aimed at the fluorescent lights feeling, I’m sure, that she proved her superiority. All I could see was a sad and shallow woman.

Fiction is more than entertainment. It is exploration. It engages. And it exemplifies. It does what nonfiction cannot. Remember, I write some nonfiction, so I speak no evil of it, just that it achieves its different goals in another manner.

Truth be told, most novelist have moments when they wonder about their profession. Does novel writing really have value? Or is it just an exercise in self aggrandizement? Even in my darkest moments, when I sit stewing in a broth of isolation wondering why I left the fire department, left architecture, left the pulpit ministry, to undertake this madness fulltime, I never doubt the power, the influence, the grand history of the humble novel.

It’s here to stay. And we are all the better for it.

More in the next post.

Alton Gansky sips his Starbucks and writes from California . . . and he'll be back tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

JSB: The Villain's the Thing

If you're a history fan, a thriller fan, or both, may I recommend Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer by James L. Swanson. This tale has not been fully told before, and Swanson apparently read every shred of extant evidence to put this together. It's a great read, captures the times, the national mindset, the Southern POV, the extent of the conspiracy.

It's instructive, too, on concocting a villain. Booth is a GREAT villain. He was mesmerizingly handsome, courtly, cultured, theatrical, seductive, narcissistic and megalomaniacal. A villain who had power over people through charm and deviousness, and thought he could get away with being the avenging angel for the whole South. He had reached the pinnacle of his theatrical career, could have gone on in fame and fortune…but that wasn't good enough for him.

Like the Unibomber, he left a long justification in writing for the newspapers. But the man he entrusted it to, seeing the furor over finding Booth and the scads of people being arrested willy nilly in order to get testimony, quietly burned it. Booth, on the run, was following things in the newspapers (provided him by an ally), and was outraged that he had not been granted a forum for his diatribe.

What does this tell us about creating a good villain?

First, that it's essential to a well told suspense novel. Hitchcock often remarked that the strength of his films was in the strength of the villains.

Second, you must give the villain his due. You must actually get into his skin and find the justification for his actions. No, not the moral approval of same. But all villains feel, for whatever reason, that they are in the right. It's a perverse reason, but there nonetheless. Booth thought he was doing God's will for his country.

Third, know how they got to be this way. You have to find a shred of sympathy for them. As Dean Koontz said, " The best villains are those that evoke pity and sometimes even genuine sympathy as well as terror. Think of the pathetic aspect of the Frankenstein monster. Think of the poor werewolf, hating what he becomes in the light of the full moon, but incapable of resisting the lycanthropic tides in his own cells."

Fourth, give them some attractive qualities. Hannibal Lecter is oddly charming. Gordon Gekko in "Wall Street" loves his kids. Villains are all the more dangerous for being attractive.

Jump in here now. Who are some of your favorite villains, from movies or novels? What makes them work? A couple of my movie favorites:

Alan Rickman in "Die Hard." (Charming)

George C. Scott in "The Hustler" (Seductive)

James Scott Bell is the bestselling author of Presumed Guilty (Zondervan) and Write Great Fiction: Plot & Structure (Writers Digest Books). Visit his website at