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Friday, August 31, 2007

Novel Journey Interview with Maggie Anton

I had the pleasure of reading Maggie Anton's work and speaking with her via telephone during an interview for Novel Journey's first podcast. After our interview, Ms. Anton and I chatted about her journey to publication. Our conversation surprised and interested me, so much so, that we arranged to finish our conversation later that day. She sold an impressive 26,000 books running her own independent press.

When I learned that her second novel, Rashi's Daughters, Book 2: Miriam was releasing, I jumped at the chance to interview her on how she went from her own independent press to publishers a bidding war on the remainder of her series.

MAGGIE ANTON is an award-winning writer who studies Talmud and medieval history. She is at work on the third novel in the trilogy, about the youngest daughter, Rachel.

Tell us about your newest release Rashi's Daughters, Book 2: Miriam.

The historical series about three sisters in 11th-century France resumes with the tale of Miriam, the middle child of the great Salomon Ben Isaac (aka Rashi). Having no sons, Rashi continues to teach his daughters the intricacies of the Talmud in an era when educating women in Jewish scholarship was unheard of. Miriam, emboldened by her knowledge, is determined to become not only her community's midwife but also their mohel. While she was able to study Talmud and wear tefillin in the privacy of her home, hidden from those in her community who object to women observing these traditional male rituals, once she begins doing circumcisions, the controversy threatens to split her close-knit Jewish community.

As devoted as she is to her chosen path, she cannot foresee the ways in which she will be tested and how heavily she will need to rely on her faith after the death of her betrothed. This is especially true when a shadowy new suitor arrives in Troyes, an exceptionally learned and handsome young scholar who struggles with a secret that, if revealed, would expose them both to ruin. Yet somehow, the formidable and independent Miriam must decide if they can forge a life together.

What motivated you to stop seeking traditional publication?

I was working with a literary agent for the first book in the trilogy, but I was determined to get it published in 2005 for the 900th anniversary of Rashi’s death. When no traditional publisher showed interest by mid-2004, I decided to take matters into my own hands.

Tell us about your decision to create your own publishing company. What were the advantages and disadvantages you weighed?

I decided immediately to create Banot Press rather than going through a subsidy press like iUniverse or Author House. The only disadvantage to forming my own company was the extra time it took to learn how to do this professionally and then to keep the enterprise running. The advantage was that bookstores and reviewers were more likely to take Rashi’s Daughters seriously if it came from a small press that wasn’t obviously connected with the author. I doubt that I would have been able to find a distributor if I’d used one of the vanity presses.

How did you get your first novel edited?

I hired a freelance editor, Beth Lieberman (, who used to work for one of the big houses until it started downsizing. Even though I was hiring her, she was the one interviewing me. A good freelance editor has plenty of work and doesn’t want to waste her time on a book she won’t want to be associated with later.

What is a book shepherd? How did you find out about yours? Will you walk us through the process you went through with Sharon Goldinger?

The short definition of a book shepherd is someone who guides, instructs, cajoles, and sometimes even commands the small publisher on how to produce a superior book. I learned about the profession from reading several books on self-publishing, and when I asked Beth about hiring one, she suggested contacting Sharon Goldinger of Peoplespeak (

Very briefly, this was my process. First of all, I wrote a good book and made sure it was well edited. I hired Sharon and followed her detailed (10-page) instructions to the letter. I checked the bookstore for other books in my genre and made sure that mine looked like them, plus had similar front and back matter (which is how I ended up with bookgroup questions).

Then I formed my own small business (got license, new bank account credit cards, and phone number, etc.) I filled out and submitted copyright, ISBN, PCN, and other mandated forms properly. I interviewed, evaluated and then hired great designers for the cover and interior. I made a million decisions about cover and interior design – I was the publisher so the final say was mine. I got quotes from printers and chose the paper stock. Then I obtained distribution and arranged for shipping.

In order to pick up distribution, you had to have a strong marketing plan. How did you put that together?

I identified my target market early on — Jewish women. I figured out where they were (rabbinic schools, synagogues, JCC’s, book groups, organizations like Hadassah) and what about Rashi’s Daughters would interest them (strong Jewish heroine, fascinating historical time period). Then I started contacting them about speaking about my research at their meetings and events. In addition, I set up a web site and wrote articles for target publications (Hadassah Magazine, Golda, Judaism). Sharon helped me compile this information and experience into an application for distribution.

How did you choose your publicist?

Sharon normally does the PR for her book shepherd clients, but she thought I would be better served with someone who specializes in the Jewish market. So we both did some research and came up with Carol Fass Publicity and Public Relations in New York ( Like Beth, Carol was very particular about her clients, but once she saw a copy of the book, she didn’t need much convincing to accept Rashi’s Daughters. With Sharon’s help, I chose the most productive and cost-effective of Carol’s many services.

How many copies (printings) of your first novel did you manage to sell on your own?

Joheved went through six printings, for a total of just over 26,000 copies. I have about 500 left in my garage.

How did the leap come about from owning your own press to being picked up by Penguin? Did they purchase the entire series?

[Sorry Guys, but the answer to this is an exclusive found only in our newsletter. If you haven't already signed up, you still can! Just look above, in the left-hand column.]

Was it strange seeing your first book redone?

Not too strange. Plume didn’t change the interior at all, and the new cover was very similar to the original. I had insisted on cover consultation, and they were very good about getting my approval. I agreed that it was important that Joheved be more clearly labeled “Book I” now that there was also a Book II. I miss the bold red cover, but it wouldn’t have worked with the new design. And I love having the women’s faces on the spine.

What changes have struck you the most working with a traditional publisher verses your own company?

I have no control over the size of each printing and I have no easy way to find out how many copies have been sold. Plume’s PR people make their own marketing decisions, and I find out what they’re doing when it happens. Of course, Plume does things I never could have done before, like getting Rashi’s Daughters into Costco and onto special tables in the big chain bookstores. I know that Plume’s promotion will stop in a few months, but I’ll still be plugging away at speaking engagements and book signings until it’s time for Rachel in 2009.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of going the traditional route?

The main disadvantage is the lack of control, the main advantage is that big advance; only a little of my own money is on the line.

What advice would you give to others wanting to start their own publishing company?

Have a well-written book with a clearly defined audience, and hire all the appropriate professionals to help you make it a reality. Have reasonable expections about how many books you’ll sell and how much money you’ll make.

What's happened to Banot Press now that you've taken your series to Penguin?

I haven’t closed it down. I might want to publish someone else’s work or perhaps another book of my own. Right now I’m too busy writing Rachel to take on anything new though.

Do you have a dream for the future of your writing, something you would love to accomplish?

When I first decided to write Rashi’s Daughters, I had in mind another possibility, a historical novel about a woman mentioned many times in the Talmud, Rav Chisda’s daughter, who was married, in turn, to scholars who headed the two great Talmud academies in Babylon. I think the time period when the Talmud was redacted (500 CE) is also a fascinating one that few people know about. So I still want to tell the story of Rav Chisda’s daughter. Of course, if my trilogy is really sucessful, I might have to write Rashi’s Granddaughters.

Parting words?

This entire Rashi’s Daughters phenomenon was a surprise to me; I never intended to be a novelist, let alone write for the publisher of Girl with a Pearl Earring. I feel like I’m on a long escalator – I have no idea where it’s going and I can’t easily get off. But so far I’m enjoying the ride and eager to see where it takes me.

Columnist/Entertainment Writer - Joanne Brokaw

Award-winning freelance writer and columnist Joanne Brokaw covers entertainment and current issues for dozens of Christian and community publications in the U.S. and Canada, including The Christian Examiner newspapers, The Minnesota Christian Chronicle, and The Ozarks Christian News. Her humor column, This Life, appears in The Desert Voice of Southern California and at; she also writes a slice of life column for the Christian Voice Magazine. She pens a column on The Writing Life each month for ByLine Magazine, and has sold humorous greeting cards to American Greetings.

Her other writing credits include Breakaway and Brio Magazines, OnCourse Magazine,,, Release and SevenBall Magazines, and She's currently working on several book ideas, including Missions for Chickens; 101 Ways To Love Your Neighbor; and Everything I Need To Know About Faith I Learned From My Dog.

Joanne is the recipient of an Evangelical Press Association Higher Goals Award, and has successfully taken her Border collie, Scout, through his good citizenship obedience class, enabling them both to walk through their neighborhood with a modicum of enjoyment.

She is the co-founder of the Ink Spots and Coffee Grounds writing group, which she hosts with mystery author Phillip Tomasso, III, and is the founder of the Wonder Dog publicity and networking group, connecting and supporting Rochester, NY Christians involved in the music industry.

Share your favorite and least favorite parts of interviewing and profiling musicians.

My favorite part: meeting new people, interviewing up-and-coming artists, and occasionally connecting with an artist and developing a friendship. I meet some of the neatest people.

My least favorite part: dealing with the occasional ego, having to work around tour schedules to get an interview, and feeling like I’m really bugging someone when I’m deadline and need information. And transcribing interview tapes. I hate transcribing interview tapes more than I hate housework.

What one interview has touched you the most?

Wow, there have been a few. But the one band that I will never forget is a long disbanded group called The Combat Junkies. I interviewed them at my first GMA. Hardcore, tattooed, totally out of my comfort zone, and they were the most tender-hearted, kindest young men I’ve ever met. When everyone else went to bed during GMA week, they’d go out on the street and sit with the homeless, just talking about Jesus. They really had hearts to minister to the unloved. Like a thousand other bands, they just couldn’t make it in the business financially, but they remain to me a shining example of what Christian music should really be about. Pray, serve, then play.

You've attended GMA (Gospel Music Association) Week. Do you feel that opportunity has been a valuable career booster? How?

Absolutely. You interact with other journalists, get access to the artists, learn how the industry works, and see the good (and bad) of Christian entertainment. I’ve developed lifelong friendships with people I’ve met at GMA and I’ve made industry contacts that have helped me do my job better. If you want to write about or for the Christian music industry, you really need to go. What I do during that one week keeps me working all year and the contacts are priceless.

Give our readers hints on writing humor…the best hints you've got. The golden eggs and all that.

Wow, that’s a whole book. In fact, if you want to write humor I suggest you check out the book, “The Comic Toolbox” by John Vorhaus, and attend the
Erma Bombeck Writers Workshop.

But a few hints? There are rules about writing humor. Here's a
link that gives more help. The comic equation is Comedy = Truth + Pain, and if enough time hasn’t passed to face the pain, then Comedy = Truth + Exaggeration. Land on the funny, which means don’t give the joke away too soon. Words that start with a hard “g” or “k” sound make people laugh more. (Don’t ask me how, but someone studies these things. “Gerbil” is apparently funnier than “hamster.”) Remember the “Rule of 3”, which is “blank, blank and blank.”

Depending on what you’re writing, the formula will be different. Cards are different than stand up gags which are different than columns which are different than a first grader’s book report.

I could give away more secrets but then I’d have to kill you, and since I faint at the sight of blood, I’d probably just maim you before I passed out, leaving you with a gaping head wound and no one to drive you to the hospital.

Where do your column ideas come from? How do you keep your columns fresh?

My columns come from stupid things I do, stupid things other people do, or stupid things I think about doing but catch myself before I do. Since I am continually doing or saying something stupid, I’m never at a loss for material.

Share some wisdom you've earned while working as a columnist.

Use as few words as possible. Column space is usually limited, so I can’t stress enough the importance of learning to make every word count. Remember that scene in “A River Runs Through It”, where the kid writes an essay and the father keeps telling him to do it again, using half as many words? Learn how to do that.

You've begun writing greeting cards. Do you find your writing style changing through the exercise of telling tiny stories? How? Has it helped in other writing?

Well, humorous greeting cards aren’t really tiny stories. They’re one line gags with very little room for the joke set up. If you were doing a stand up routine, for example, you’d do a few giggle jokes that lead up to some chuckles and pay it all of with the guffaws, because you have time to do that and the goal is to make people laugh. With a card, you have about 20 words to not only make someone laugh, but to convey a sentiment. It’s a “knock knock” joke with a message.

Has it helped in my other writing? Only in that is pays enough to keep me from having to get a real job.

Share the most valuable thing you've learned through writing greeting cards.

That I’m better at buying humorous cards than writing them. I actually spent a week in freelance training at a major card company and I learned that writing humor cards is very hard work. When I asked the in house writers what their favorite cards were, they opened their reject files. Only about 20% of the cards they write actually get used. If you have a problem with rejection, writing humor cards is definitely not for you.

Would you care to share details about any strange writing habits you might have?

I can go for days without seeing anyone except my husband, so I frequently talk to my Border collie, Scout. In fact, I just asked him if he had any thoughts about what strange habits I might have and, much like my husband, he’s ignoring me.

I do take frequent breaks to go outside to play with Scout. In the winter I throw snowballs and he chases them. In the summer, I blow bubbles and he chases them. In fact, he heard just me type the word “bubbles” and is now pulling at my sleeve to go out and play.

My desk is a bit strange. I have a dozen or so toys and photos on my computer top and around my desk - like my quacking stuffed duck and peeping chick, a wind up chicken that lays gumballs, my Buzz Lightyear and Prince Charming Happy Meal toys, pictures of my family, and a “grow your own therapist” toy, which I haven’t opened but am saving in case of emergency. I also have a tea bag tag that says, “If ignorance is bliss why aren’t there more happy people?” and a key chain propped up in front of me that says, “It’s amazing how long it takes to finish something you’re not working on.” So I guess that I’m surrounded by silliness, which begets more silliness.

Any insecurities when it comes to writing – expand on that if it's a yes. If it's no, just skip the question…

Yes. That someday everyone’s going to realize I can’t write.

Favorite authors?

I hate when people ask me this question because I could never list all of my favorite authors (mostly because, now that I’ve turned 40-something I can’t remember their names). But next to my bed are books by David Sedaris, Bill Bryson, Jane Austin, Charles Dickens, John Steinbeck (I just read “Winter of our Discontent” for maybe the 8th time), Alexander McCall Smith, Amy Tan, Sandra Kring, Flannery O’Conner, Maya Angelou, Jon Katz, and about two dozen more, including a humor anthology called “May Contain Nuts”, the Bible, and C.S. Lewis’ “The Great Divorce”.

Columnists who've inspired you.

I grew up reading Erma Bombeck, Ann Landers, and Art Buchwald in the daily paper. I enjoy Bruce Cameron’s columns and Tim Bete is pretty darn funny. I love USA Today’s Craig Wilson. When I get the paper, I read the editorial columnists like Cal Thomas; in fact, I read them all, the ones I agree with and the ones I don’t. And I like to read the My Turn column in Newsweek.

Favorite writing-how-to books.

Making A Literary Life, by Carolyn See
On Writing, by Stephen King
Bird by Bird, by Anne Lammott
The Comic Toolbox, by John Vorhaus
Those are the ones I remember reading ... there are probably more ...

Comedians who've influenced you.

Mary Tyler Moore, Marlo Thomas, and Lucille Ball, of course. I love goofy, funny, insecure, women. (Am I the only one who remembers when Ann Marie served peanut butter on Corn Flakes as party appetizers? My kind of hostess.) And I love Ellen DeGeneres. But growing up, I really, really, really wanted to be like Carol Burnett. When I was maybe 10 years old I dressed up like her washer woman character for Halloween and won a contest. She is the master of the comedy sketch. The “Eunice and Mama” bits still make me laugh until I cry. Yeah, that’s what I want to do when I grow up. Be Carol Burnett.

Do you think the humor market is easier to slide into or columns?

I don’t think either is easy. Like anything writing-related, they both require talent, hard work, natural ability, hard work, and God’s hand guiding you the entire way. Oh, and a lot of hard work. Humor is not easy to write. For every funny joke you hear the writer probably wrote 10 that he threw away. Most people don’t realize that.

How does column writing differ from humor column writing?

A column takes many, many forms - advice, how-to, political, opinion, Q & A, devotional - and any can incorporate humor. But an outright humor column can be a just for the sake of the laugh columns, like Dave Barry. Or you can write an amusing, slice of life columns, like Erma Bombeck. I would never put myself in the same category as Erma Bombeck, but I write more slice of life columns than outright humor.

I’m teaching a class on writing columns this fall at Writers and Books in Rochester, NY for any readers in the area who might be interested.

Do you lean toward humor writing or is it a challenge for you?

I think humorous writing comes naturally for me. I don’t write ha-ha laugh out loud, Dave Barry, aliens are running the IRS kind of humor. I write mildly amusing takes on everyday life. I tend to say things other people only think about, and a lot of my humor comes from admitting my flaws and goof ups. Most people comment on things that strike a chord with them, like when I admitted that I wouldn’t go on a mission trip because I didn’t want to be without my hair dryer for a week. (Apparently I’m the only one willing to admit to being so shallow.) And one column I wrote, “Mind Reading Mommy,” really resonates with moms who are being systematically driven insane by their children.

Writing jokes or stand up comedy? I don’t know if I could do that.

You also freelance for several well-know publications. What is your favorite thing to write about?

I love to tell people’s stories, especially when they might be stories that are otherwise overlooked. At GMA, I tend to interview unknown artists, who have all the time in the world to talk and who have interesting stories that have nothing to do with music. Those are the artists who will hang out with you for hours and that’s always when you find the story. I love writing about missions and serving God, and also about my dog and my cat. I would write more about my husband and daughter but they might never speak to me again, and while the dog and cat are great listeners they don’t give much feedback and I still need someone to tell me when my pants make my butt look big.

Who would you most like to see interviewed at Novel Journey? And do you have any questions you'd like us to ask them?

OK, here’s one. I know he died in 1984, but I’d ask author Philip Van Doren if he liked what Frank Capra did with “It’s A Wonderful Life” and if he ever felt jealous that no one knew the film was based on his short story, “The Greatest Gift”.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Welcome Guest Blogger ~ DiAnn Mills

DiAnn Mills does some of the most intensive research of any author I know. We sat down at the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference last May and chatted about this book and her trip to the Sudan. I asked her to tell us about it.

Experiencing Sudan

Excitement with a twinge of apprehension settled in my spirit as the plane from Kenya eased onto the runway of Juba, the southern capital of Sudan. I glanced out the window to a mass of rolling dust and desolation and an airport that more closely resembled a metal warehouse, except for the camouflaged-clad soldiers with MK7s slung over their shoulders.

This was the site of my research for When the Nile Runs Red.

I took a deep breath. What have I gotten myself into? Lord, this is going to be an adventure I’ll never forget.

Someone said “TIA.” This is Africa. I smiled and tugged on the straps of my back pack, more for security than a need to adjust its position. My little Bible was inside and about to be covered in Sudan dust.

Several moments later, after soldiers had gone through my baggage, and I was on my way to the ACROSS compound, an interdenominational, international Christian organization. I was thankful to be staying within the walls of a compound, knowing that otherwise I’d be crammed into a tent along the Nile River. I didn’t want to think of the possibility of encountering two-legged or four-legged predators. Taking in every bit of my surroundings, I realized the days ahead of me would stay in my heart forever.

What I saw, heard, tasted, smelled, touched, and intuitively sensed would place the reader in the heart of Sudan - right where I wanted the reader to be. On this research/mission trip, I planned to take pages of notes, snap photos, and conduct personal interviews with the people I met. More importantly, I wanted them to know that Jesus loved them, and I would take their plight back to the States so others would know firsthand about their critical needs. The burden of the job ahead settled like a heavy yoke on my shoulders. Could I do the job entrusted to me?

The sights moved me, sometimes to almost tears. I saw poverty that I will never forget: women drawing water from the Nile and using it without the benefit of boiling it, a lack of sanitation, and thin bodies. I saw a mixture of hope and pain in the eyes of the Sudanese, children at play, and colorful African clothing. A weathered sign indicated an Islamic children’s hospital where before the war ended, boy babies never left the building alive. I saw more goats than I ever wanted to see again.

I heard children laughing and the pop of a gun firing at night. I heard praise and worship to God and witnessed frustration in the voices of those who wanted more for their country. I heard government officials talk of their commitment to southern Sudan and their faith in God. I asked questions and listened to stories of survival and dedication.

I smelled a city with little sanitation, and I longed for them to embrace fragrant flowers and the sweet scent of true freedom. I witnessed men and women pounding goat dung into the ground of their “church” so they could hold services.

I tasted the dust and dirt and noted the Sudanese diet of ugali (cornmeal), vegetables, goat, and fish. Malaria was a part of life, and cholera broke out in the more poverty stricken areas.

People touched me with their joy and their sorrow. I once heard someone say: talk to me and I will get to know you; touch me and I am forever changed. For me, this meant brushing my finger across the vegetation, petting an animal, or embracing someone different from myself. The power of touch pulled me outside of my comfort zone and into the world of the Sudanese. Sometimes it was difficult, but it was never without reward. Instead of my ministering to them, I was blessed beyond imagination.

True research meant giving of myself to benefit others. Sudan will always be a part of my heart, and I look forward to a return trip. I challenge you to step out of your comfort zone and beyond the page to ensure your manuscript receives the research it deserves. Experience your story – and lift your readers above their world into an unforgettable story. And you, like me, will be forever changed.
To view a promo clip of When the Nile Runs Red, click here

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Author Interview ~ Christy AwardWinner Cathy Gohlke

Cathy Gohlke’s writing has appeared in a variety of publications. She lives with her husband in Elkton, Maryland, where she has worked as a school librarian, drama director for adults and young people, and director of children’s and education ministries. Cathy is the mother of two grown children. “William Henry is a Fine Name” is her first novel.

Plug time. What new book or project do you have coming out?

“William Henry is a Fine Name” won the Christy 2007 Young Adult Award. It is the story of thirteen-year-old Robert, who in 1859 is torn between loyalty to his abolitionist father and his mother’s slave-holding family.

After his best friend, William Henry, is trapped in a deadly scheme to protect secrets of the Underground Railroad, Robert vows never to get involved again. But when he discovers his grandfather’s plan to sell his own son, born of a slave woman, Robert must decide whether to stand by or risk everything to help him escape.

“William Henry is a Fine Name” is a coming-of-age story, a tale of friends, a family, and a nation caught in the chaos of slavery, forced to take a stand.

I’m currently working on a Civil War sequel to “William Henry is a Fine Name.”

How did you come up with this story? Was there a specific 'what if' moment?

From the moment in childhood that I learned of the Underground Railroad I’ve been fascinated by that daring race to freedom and inspired by the courageous runners, conductors, and stationmasters. I’ve wondered if I would have had the courage to step up to the plate, to help others when the risks were so high. Writing this book helped me explore that, and count the costs in saying “yes” to whatever the Lord calls me to do.

The “what if” moment came when I imagined two boys—best friends, one black and one white, caught in the chaos of those times.

Tell us about your publishing journey. How long had you been writing before you got a contract? How did you find out and what went through your mind?

I’d written features for newspapers, periodicals, essays for two books, poetry, short stories, and several skits and dramas for years before I attempted to write a novel. Once I completed the novel I submitted chapters and synopsis copies—whatever each publisher required—to several publishers.
One publisher asked me to rewrite the book for a younger audience—which I tried, but neither of us was happy with the shortened, younger audience story.

So I listed the manuscript with “The Writer’s Edge.” Within a few months three publishers contacted me, asking to see the manuscript. I signed a contract with Moody Publishers on my 50th birthday—which felt like the gift of the century and the start of a brand new life!

Do you ever struggle with writer's block? If so, how do you overcome it?

Some days new writing flows. Some days it reads like a travelogue. Some days just getting a paragraph on paper feels like I’m pulling teeth with a wrench but no Novocain. I persist because I know that once I have words—any words—on paper I have something to work with. I love rewriting, cutting, honing and polishing—if it makes my work better. So, even if I must throw today’s work out tomorrow, writer’s block is not an option.

What is the most difficult part of writing for you (or was when you first started on your writing journey), i.e. plot, POV, characterization, etc?

Plotting was/is my most difficult part of writing.

How did (or do) you overcome it?

It is something I struggle with in each new piece. Outlining the plot helps tremendously, as long as I allow my characters to tell their own story, and as long as I don’t feel married to my outline.

Where do you write? Do you have a dedicated office or a corner or nook in a room?

I write wherever I am. I am blessed with a wonderful home office with windows that look out into woods and down along the banks of the Laurel Run. I do some writing and most of my writing business there. But I often find I need to leave home to write new material—just to get away from the siren song of laundry, dirty dishes, floors that need mopping, closets that need cleaning, phones. . . I can write in the midst of a noisy restaurant or seated in my car in a parking lot or at a table in the park by the river—anywhere I feel no responsibility to interact or do anything else at the moment.

Do you have a word or page goal you set for each day?

A good day is 5 manuscript pages or a scene.

What does a typical day look like for you?

Prayer and Bible reading come first. That is the only typical part of my day. I usually write as long as I can before and after breakfast, then attend to the business part of writing later in the day. Sometimes I write late at night when the house and my mind have stilled. Some days are dedicated to outlining or writing new work, some to research, and some to preparing talks. Some days are slated for volunteer work or for the needs of my family and friends. Some days are dictated by deadlines. Most days are a combination of these.

Take us through your process of writing a novel briefly—from conception to revision.

Something intrigues or fascinates me: it could be a snippet from history, the expression on someone’s face, a conversation I’ve overheard, that morning’s Bible reading, or a twist on something I’ve read in the newspaper. I explore that picture in my mind and people it with story characters. That exploration might include research, people watching, or relaxing enough to watch the mental movies my characters create.

I see parts of the story as movie scenes or stage dramas in my head, and sketch scenes or dialogues from those. Though I don’t know the entire story, I begin a flow chart, and imagine how those scenes might link together. That is when I begin to see the story as a whole, form a general plot, and create an outline. I’ve written with and without a chapter by chapter outline and have found that an outline keeps me on task.

Now I’m ready to write the story. If I get stuck I go back to my outline. If I’m really stuck I’ll skip ahead to a scene I see more clearly in my head and pick up there. I can always go back and fill in what I’ve missed. I read over what I’ve written for the day before I go to sleep at night. My mind sometimes resolves problems as I sleep.

Each new writing day begins with prayer, then editing what I wrote the day before. Editing allows me to dip my feet into the story and regain momentum.

Once the first draft is written I read the entire manuscript, cut, revise, rewrite, and hone. I tighten each chapter’s beginning and ending, edit line by line, working with the arrangement of words, and make certain my characters remain in character and maintain their voices.

When the manuscript is as polished as I can make it I give it to a group of critical readers. I take their comments into consideration, rewrite where I think best, polish, and send it to my editor. That is when the editing process with the publishing house begins, and I realize how much I don’t know.

What are some of your favorite books (not written by you)?

“The Holy Bible”
“In His Steps”--by Charles Sheldon
“To Kill A Mockingbird”--by Harper Lee
“The Mitford Series”--by Jan Karon
“The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”--by Mark Twain
“Ahab’s Wife”--by Sena Jeter Naslund

What’s the best writing advice you’ve heard?

Don’t quit. Write. Write. Write.

What do you wish you’d known early in your career that might have saved you some time and/or frustration in writing? In publishing?

Believe that your book will be a success and prepare accordingly: Plan your next book and begin writing it as soon as you send your first one out. Create a website with appropriate links and updates. Prepare notes for book and related talks. Simplify your life because you will be busier than you’d ever imagined.

How much marketing do you do? What have you found that particularly works well for you?

I’ve done several blog and some media interviews. Book signings and related talks are my main form of marketing. Being willing to speak to various groups: schools, libraries, clergy, youth groups, writing or book groups, storytelling, Scouts, re-enactors, etc., builds community relations and readership. Those talks lead to other invitations and almost always include opportunities to witness for the Lord.

Do you have any parting words of advice?

Give back. Encourage and help other writers. Don’t be afraid of competition. There will never be too many pen warriors to bear the light of truth in this world. Ask the Lord to guide your mind, surrender your desires to Him, and make yourself available and open to His leading. Faithfully hone the gift you’ve been given. Write. Write. Write. Rejoice that you can do the thing that makes your heart sing.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Interview with NYT Best-Selling Novelist, Sandra Brown

(Photo credit: Andrew Eccles)

Sandra Brown is the author of fifty-five New York Times bestsellers, including RICOCHET.Brown has published sixty-eight novels, most of which remain in print.

Ms. Brown now has seventy million copies of her books in print worldwide, and her work has been translated into thirty-three languages.

A lifelong Texan, Sandra Brown was born in Waco and raised in Ft. Worth, attending Texas Christian University, majoring in English. Before embarking on her writing career, Sandra worked in television - including weathercasting and feature reporting on the nationally syndicated program "PM Magazine."

Sandra and her husband Michael Brown live in Arlington, Texas.

What book or project is coming out or has come out that you’d like to tell us about?

“Play Dirty” goes on sale Aug. 14. It’s about a former Dallas Cowboys quarterback, who’s just been released from prison after serving a five year sentence for racketeering. (He threw a game.) He gets a very unusual job offer from a multi-millionaire, which has the potential of getting him into even more trouble.

Tell us about your journey to publication. How long had you been writing before you got the call you had a contract, how you heard andwhat went through your head.

I’d been writing for a little over a year. I’d submitted manuscripts that had been rejected. Then I met a bookstore owner who offered to read my next manuscript. She liked it, and on my behalf called an editor at Dell who was launching a new line of romances, Candlelight Ecstasy.

Upon the bookseller’s recommendation I sent the manuscript to this editor, who was watching for it. About a week later she called and offered me a contract on “Love’s Encore”. She asked if I’d written anything else. I had written another romance, about the same length, in the same style and the same level of sensuality. I sent her “Love Beyond Reason”. Thirteen days later she bought it, too.

When you started out, you wrote under several pennames (Rachel Ryan, Laura Jordan, Erin St. Clair). Why?

I was writing for several different publishers. Each had a pseudonym.

You write one book a year. Is this by design and if so, why?

Writing one book a year is a comfortable pace for me. If I had a couple years to write one, I think I’d get bored before I was finished. I’d get lazy, and still probably do the work in the same amount of time. If I wrote more than one a year, I’d feel rushed and pressured. Also, it’s a good schedule for my publisher. They have one new hard cover each year, along with the paperback edition of the previous year’s book.

You’ve hit the NYT bestsellers list over fifty times. What in your opinion are the key ingredients for this type of success?

If you study the bestseller lists, you’ll notice that the only thing the books have in common is that they’re on the lists. Every author on there has found a niche for him or herself. They write their “thing” and they’ve found an appreciative audience for it. I think success relies a lot on tenacity and just plain hard work. To be a success at anything, you’ve got to work at it. So far, I haven’t found a shortcut to writing a book. It can only be done one word at a time.

What are your thoughts on branding? Does it hurt sales to write in multiple genres?

I can only speak to my own experience. In the early 90’s I made a career decision to pursue the suspense market, so I stopped writing genre romances. It was a tough decision because that was a very comfortable arena for me, but I’ve never regretted it. It enabled me to devote all my time, energy and creativity to the bigger, more mainstream market. It was a matter of focusing on where I wanted to go rather than where I was.

What mistakes have you made while seeking publication?

I once tried to follow a publishing trend. It wasn’t a good fit for me. My editor at the time advised me to follow my impulses and gut instinct, to write with my voice and not try to adapt to a fad. It was excellent advice.

What’s the best advice you’ve heard on writing/publication?

Read, read, read everything. And write, write, write every day.

What’s the worst piece of writing advice you’ve heard?

“There’s nothing wrong with popular fiction, but you might want to try to write a real book some day.” That’s not exactly “advice,” but it’s the most condescending, obnoxious statement I’ve ever had said to me -- by a man who confessed that he doesn’t read because he doesn’t have time.

What’s something you wish you’d known earlier that might have saved you some time/frustration in the publishing business?

[From time to time we'll be holding back particularly insightful answers to bring to you in our Newsletter, along with other great stuff. (This is one of those times). You will sign up to the left to read Sandra's eye-bulging, heart-twisting, bone-grinding answer ... er, you SHOULD sign up to the left ... um, COULD sign up? Pretty pretty please with a leather-bound thesaurus on top?]

What are a few of your favorite books? (Not written by you.)

“Testimony of Two Men” by Taylor Caldwell
“Magnificent Obsession” by Lloyd Douglass
“Mila 18” by Leon Uris
“Resistance” by Anita Shreve
“The Flame and the Flower” by Kathleen Woodiwiss

What piece of writing have you done that you’re particularly proud of and why?

Well. . . I liked the Texas! Trilogy: Lucky, Chase and Sage. I liked “Envy.” It’s impossible to say because I can’t be objective. A book that I don’t like so well is the favorite of the next fan who writes me.

Do you have a pet peeve having to do with this biz?

Authors who talk trash about other authors, especially in public.

Take us through your process of writing a novel briefly—from conception to revision.

I get the idea and work with it until it lets me know it wants to be a book. (Some ideas don’t.) Then I write a 10-15 page synopsis for my editor, in which I let her know who the main characters are, what the big problem is, how that problem is going to get worse, and how it will be solved.

This is a road map, nothing more. I know where I’m going, just not how I’m going to get there. After I begin writing, I rarely consult the synopsis again. I put the characters in place, get them into big trouble, and then let them show me where this scene or that scene will take place. Some of the best plot twists, even I didn’t see coming until it was right there. Some of the best characters weren’t even in the synopsis.

I do four drafts: the first is the plotting draft, the second is the crafting draft, the third is for pacing and to make sure all the loose threads are tied up, the fourth is for polishing.

Do you have a dream for the future of your writing, something you would love to accomplish?

I’d love for each book to become #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. I’d love a feature film done right and with a great cast.

What is your favorite and least favorite part of being a writer?

My favorite – writing the books.
Least favorite – the business side of it.

How much marketing/publicity do you do? Any advice in this area?

It varies from year to year. Sometimes I do a lot, then I taper off. In my opinion, the best you can do for your fans is to sit your butt in the chair and write the best book for them you possible can.

Have you received a particularly memorable reader response?

The letters I receive from service men and women are especially touching. They tell me how my books provide escape from the danger they face daily. These letters never fail to bring tears to my eyes.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

In Praise of Bad Reviews

Mike’s stories have appeared in Relief Journal, Forgotten Worlds, Alienskin, and Dragons, Knights and Angels, with articles in The Matthew’s House Project, Relevant Magazine and the forthcoming 316 Journal. He is included in the upcoming Coach’s Midnight Diner anthology and was one of ten authors picked for Infuze Magazine’s Best of 2005 print anthology. Mike is an ordained minister, has led numerous small groups and developed discipleship-training curriculum for several churches. He and his wife Lisa live in Southern California, where they have raised four children. You can visit him at

By Mike Duran

Disclosure: The opinions below are not necessarily those of Novel Journey. We haven't seen the movie and therefore offer no kudos or criticism. (No Ted, we won't disclose Mike's address (unless you provide five autographed box sets of the Black, White, Red trilogy... and let us interview The Mask.)

"In the arts, the critic is the only independent source of information. The rest is advertising." -- Pauline Kael, U.S. film critic. Newsweek (New York, Dec. 24, 1973).

If anybody should tell the truth, it’s Christians. So why is it so hard to find one who does reviews?

Next to a 1-year subscription to Netflix, the best thing for a financially challenged movie lover is an objective, trustworthy reviewer. I learned long ago not to trust Larry King. (Does this guy like every film ever made, or what?) Trying to build a book, movie and/or music library can be costly. So the last thing I need is for someone to tell me “Norbit” is a “must-see.”

But when it comes to honesty and objectivity, many Christian reviewers deserve a thumbs-down.

Take for instance the film version of Ted Dekker's novel, “Thr3e,” released earlier this year. Christian bloggers had been pumping up the film for a while, and there were genuine reasons to be excited. For one, it recognized a terrific Christian author who has effectively bridged the gulf between the ABA and CBA. But the film also marked the launch of FoxFaith Movies -- a division of Fox aimed at "faith friendly" fare. So “Thr3e” was an important event.

But was the movie any good?

I strongly believe in supporting Christian artists. But endorsing mediocre work often perpetuates a stereotype that "Christian art" is really just second-rate propaganda. We are viewed as an insular fraternity whose sole aim is to further our cause -- whether through film, literature or music -- often at the expense of those mediums. As such, Christian reviewers of said works tend to be myopic cheerleaders for their creative counterparts, implementing a radical double-standard and eschewing objectivity in favor of four stars.

I'm afraid that double-standard was at work with “Thr3e.”

After visiting half a dozen Christian blogs and e-zines that praised the film and gave it resounding endorsements, I was excited. Perhaps “Christian art” was making inroads. Until I went to Rotten Tomatoes which gives the film an overall 8% out of a possible 100% on its "Critics Tomatometer."

Here's a sampling of what some critics said about the film:

"This is one of the most confusing, horribly written movies I've ever seen..." Thom Koschwanez Seattle Post-Intelligencer

"Ultimately aimed at a Christian audience looking for genre entertainment with a certain sense of propriety, the film tries to serve two masters and doesn't quite deliver for either." Maitland McDonagh TV Guide's Movie Guide

"Suspenselessly directed by Robby Henson, Thr3e commits the eighth deadly sin -- boredom." Lou Lumenick New York Post

If Thr3e is any indication of what we can expect from the emerging trend of studio-funded faith-based movies, we may find ourselves wishing The Passion of the Christ had been a box-office bomb." Jeff Shannon Seattle Times

"Thr3e is r3ally, r3ally aw4ul." Phil Villarreal Arizona Daily Star

So whom should I believe, secular critics or Christian bloggers? For me, the answer is a no-brainer.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, you say. Art criticism is a subjective affair. Just because a book or movie gets bad reviews, does not mean it’s worthless or unredeemable. God used a jackass, for heaven’s sake. Why can’t He use “Norbit”? But someone who can't tell the difference between “Norbit” and “Citizen Kane” is either dense or biased.

And when it comes to “Christian art,” Christian reviewers are far too biased. Don’t think so? Then why do so many “Christian reviews” feel like puff pieces? An occasional thumbs-down goes a long way in my book. And maybe that’s why so many amateur reviewers seem so irrelevant -- They don’t give enough bad reviews. Instead, most Christian reviewers seem to feel obligated to give good reviews to their brethren.

I have some theories about this apparent lack of objectivity in Christian reviewers:
First, there’s a fundamental confusion about love and approval. Somehow, we think that a negative review is unloving. Yet Scripture commands us to “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15). Speaking the truth can be painful, and is sometimes interpreted as vindictive and mean. But as long as we maintain the right spirit, we should be permitted to say a book/movie is boring, anti-climactic or uneven without being viewed as a mud-slinger.

Second, I believe Christians are so eager to see the Gospel advanced that we’re willing to wink at mediocre presentations of it. In other words, as long as a “Christian film” gets in theaters or “Christian book” is published, we’re happy. Meanwhile, artistic standards are supplanted by the god of saturation.

Third, many Christian reviewers are trying to break into/stay in the industry they’re reviewing. No doubt, this is a tightrope. I’m required to “speak the truth,” but if I’m hoping to sign with or stay with Publisher X, then giving X’s authors a negative review could be career suicide. So as a result, we’re left to bury bad reviews, abandon objectivity, and bequeath five stars when two-and-a-half would suffice.

About now I’m on everyone’s hit list. Hey, I want to see Christian artists succeed and a Christian worldview proliferate. But let me suggest that we would get more respect and, ultimately, produce a better product if the faith community was more critical of her artistic representatives. We need more bad reviews – not for the sake of being mean, but for the sake of being honest. Sure, we’re going to disagree about books and movies. It’s the nature of art appreciation. After all, “Norbit” probably does have some inspired parts. Just don’t try to convince me it’s the next “Citizen Kane.”

I’d love your feedback on this issue… especially if it’s positive.

If you have access to a radio or computer tomorrow, you can support Christian fiction

Best-selling Navy JAG novelist, Don Brown, will be on the nationally-broadcast radio talk show Truth Talk Live with Stu Eppeson, this Monday, August 27th at 5PM Eastern Standard Time, to discuss his Naval Justice series.

His novels include: Treason, Hostage, Defiance, and upcoming Black Sea Affair, all published with Zondervan.
If you'd like to listen, you have two options.

You may, (1) can either listen live via the internet or satellite radio, or
(2) you can do a Google search for your local station carrying the program in your part of the country.

Here are your links for the web and satellite radio, if you’d like to listen online.
You can listen live, at 5PM Eastern Time on the internet at This is a 100,000 watt FM Station in Dallas, Texas, with a very strong signal. If you've got a decent computer, this station is great. Click in the upper right section of the main screen to the box entitled “Listen Online Live.” Or you can listen on satellite radio, on the Sirius network, Channel 161.

If you’d like to call in with comments or questions, you can call from anywhere in the United States at 1-866-34-TRUTH or 1-866-348-7884, from 5 to 6 PM, EST on Monday. Also, please feel free to pass the word to other listeners.

Sunday Devotion- The Upside of Trouble

Janet Rubin

“When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while.”
Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt

“Now it is a strange thing, but things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a deal of telling anyway.”
The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien

I love these quotes because they hold such truth, especially for a writer. Those of us who engage in the pursuit of good story-telling understand that a tale is nothing without conflict, and a story with none isn’t much of a story at all.

As we hone our craft, we try to create conflict and increase tension in our stories. We put our characters in terrible positions, emotionally torture them, put them up against great odds. Authors love to write a conflict (both internal and external) and tragedy-filled tale, and people love to read it. However, conflict simply for the sake of conflict is not enough. There must be a resolution or something learned...a satisfying conclusion of some sort. We love to cheer for the character who has beaten the odds, overcome the struggle, or grown in some important way.

However, we only love trials when they are fictional. And, more importantly, not about us. But as it turns out, trials not only make a good story, but also a better person. The Bible tells us that trials develop character:

James 1:2-4 Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

People who have walked with the Lord for a long time will tell you that it was during the hard times in life that they learned to trust and love God, during the worst of times that they grew and learned what really matters in life. Because we know that God is good and that He loves us, we can know that any trial He allows to enter our life is for our good:

Romans 8:28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

As writers, we get a double blessing: greater character and more story material; surely those tough experiences will end up sprinkled into future tales, and they will make our stories even more relatable for our readers.

Thank You that You work all things for our good. We thank You for both the good and bad times and trust You to complete the good work You’ve started in us. May You be in our stories—the stories of our lives and the stories that we write. If trials are needed to make our lives ones worth living and our stories ones worth reading...Your will be done.


Saturday, August 25, 2007

Novel Journey's Newsletter

It's time that Novel Journey had a newsletter. So, we're starting one.

What are we going to put in our newsletter?

Hmmmmm . . . .

Well, parts are a surprise (which either means I don't have a clue, or it's so good we're not risking our ideas being swept out from beneath us). One segment will feature a portion of Q&A withheld from our blog interviews. We'll keep you updated on what we're reading, bits of industry news, and whatever else happens to takes our fancy.

To sign up, please click on the link below.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Writers Digest's Humor Columist - Kevin Alexander ~ Interviewed.

Kevin Alexander is the this Writer's Life columnist for Writer's Digest, a frequent contributor to Boston Magazine and currently finishing his MFA in creative writing at Emerson College. In his spare time, Kevin enjoys watching people work out and text messaging.

For starters, Kevin, let's cut to the chase…did you have to kill someone, sleep with someone, or extract sensitive and damaging, delicate details that should not be made public to land your gig at Writers Digest? Or did you go the traditional boring route i.e. hard work and perseverance? Do share highlights of your story…

Well, Kelly, I'll tell you: as I imagine every young "go-getter" in the writing industry could attest, i've certainly had to kill and sleep with my share of people to try and get ahead, but unfortunately, my gig at Writer's Digest wasn't one of those (many, many) occasions.

The quick boring answer is this: about three years ago, while in journalism school, I produced a satire on how to write a literary masterpiece for my grad school magazine. Naturally, I assumed that said satire was aesthetically and intellectually perfect/hysterical and so I sent it out to all eleven writing magazines found in Writer's Market.

Ten of these magazines rejected me, some of them very quickly and personally, including one very, very small mag with an angry, ugly editor that will go unnamed, who told me my main problem was my satire "lacked any humor, had needless swears, and was all around terrible". That's basically an actual quote.

But about a month or so after I'd started going into therapy to combat the social-emotional strain of all of these rejections, (now editor-in-chief) Maria Schneider called me and said that although they couldn't use my satire due to its high quantity of swears, they thought it was funny and were wondering if I would be interested in writing anything else. So I wrote two more features for them that they didn't hate and then they asked me whether I wanted to have a monthly column following "my writing life". And--as I'm sure my editors could attest-- it's been a honeymoon of glorious proportions ever since.

Tell us a bit about your novel(s) and the status?

I find it excruciatingly boring to talk at length about the contents of my novel, other than to say that it involves sexual assault, a thinly veiled college campus, several friends, two story lines, and nudity. Lots of nudity. As for the status, a (bad) draft of said novel is done. And, actually, I just set aside a block of time to do a severe re-write before my MFA program starts back up in the Fall and then I will spend all of the Fall preparing to defend it as my thesis. And then it will go out to one of my friends who's an agent, my thought process being that it will be too awkward for her to reject me because we're friends, and so she will feel obligated to try and bring it into the world, where it will hopefully fall somewhere in between Catcher in the Rye and The Second Nancy Drew/ Hardy Boys Super Mystery: A Crime for Christmas on the literary scale.

Give our readers hints on writing humor…the best hints you've got. The golden eggs and all that.

I wish I had some sort of golden humor eggs to impart. Or just golden eggs in general. The truth is for me, so much of humor writing is getting an idea or a premise and testing it out. Most of the times it doesn't work and i'll have to put it down or throw it out, but just getting an idea down when it comes to you is key, which is about as unhelpful a tip as I can give. It would probably be as useful if I said just be really, really funny.

The only real tip I have is a phrase I keep above my desk in my plush and expensively decorated apartment. It says: "Just tell the story. Forced humor= Kill Yourself!!" Which, of course, is a direct quote from Strunk and White's The Elements of Style.

Where do your column ideas come from? How do you keep your columns fresh?

I get most of my column ideas from repeated readings of Mitch Albom's The Five People You Meet in Heaven or from my multiple DVDs of that show with Paris Hilton and Lionel Ritchie's adopted daughter.

Would you care to share details about any strange writing habits you might have?

Well, I tend to pace around my room, talking out ideas to myself, which frightens my roommate, who's a dentist. I also wait until the last moment to do everything and then stress about it uncontrollably, which prevents people from liking me.

Any insecurities when it comes to writing – expand on that if it's a yes. If it's no, just skip the question…

I have millions of insecurities when it comes to writing. Probably too many to list, although i imagine they fall within the normal realm of a neurotic writer. But, I will admit, having had to sort of put my personal life out into the open with my column and blog, that I tend to care way too much about how other people are reacting to my work, and when I get negative letters--and trust me, I've gotten my share-- it's still very, very hard for me to shake things off and not let them affect me. I'm fragile, Kelly, very, very fragile.

What might we be seeing in the upcoming months on the pages of Writers Digest from Kevin Alexander?

Just about everything. Like I keep telling everyone, I'm very "with it". I've got a profile of an up and coming novelist named James Boice, a Q and A with Tom Perrotta about his new book, my hilarious yet useful column, and quite possibly a quiz (if i ever get around to editing it) entitled Does Your Editor Hate You? So i'm all over the map, whatever that means...

You work with writing gurus. What is the best writing advice you've heard?

Just do it. Um, actually maybe that was from a Nike commercial, but honestly, it's the best advice. Just write. And write. And write. Like anything, you can only get better, although--who are we kidding--I've probably already peaked.

What is the worst writing advice you've encountered?

My friend and self proclaimed writing guru Casey Hurley once told me that "writing was like going to the dentist except with pens". To this day, I still have no idea what the hell he was talking about.

What is your favorite piece of writing – one you've written?

One of my favorite non-Kevin Alexander pieces is called "The American Male at Age Ten" by Susan Orlean, which is in her The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup collection. It's just the most fantastic piece, funny, informative and so, so pitch perfect; encapsulating what it means to be a boy at that age. She's amazing. Which leads me to my own favorite story, which was the first one I ever got published in a major magazine. It was called "Boys Life" and told the story of what it was like to be a 13 year old boy through the eyes of these three different eighth graders. I completely ripped off the idea for it from Susan Orlean, but I love how it ended up coming out. Plus it won some sort of very minor award, which my mom immediately framed and then lost.

Favorite authors?

I love so many writers that it's very difficult for me to choose, and I tend to separate the magazine writers I like from the novelists, but here are a few of my favorites in both categories: Sam Lipsyte, John Jeremiah Sullivan, David Foster Wallace, Tom Junod, Richard Ford, James Alan McPherson, Bill Buford, Roddy Doyle, Gary Shteyngart, Susan Orlean, Benjamin Alsup, Chuck Klosterman, Jonathan Ames, George Saunders, Zadie Smith, Nick Hornby, Thomas King, Sherman Alexie, Michael Lewis, Charles Portis... I could seriously go on forever.

Columnists who've inspired you.

Everyone always assumes that I love Dave Barry and so they always buy me Dave Barry books and calendars and ask me if I wish I was him. And although the answer is obviously, yes, I wish I was Dave Barry because I assume he's relatively wealthy, I don't really read him. Surprisingly, I actually have a hard time reading humor strictly for humor's sake, unless its satirical or pretty dark. Most of the time, I need it to have an alternative purpose as well. But I'm ducking the question and rambling so I'll just say that I like Chuck Klosterman's column in Esquire and we can move on.

Favorite writing-how-to books.

The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamont, I've probably read On Writing Well by William Zinsser 60 times.

Comedians who've influenced you.

In high school my friends and I used to watch this bootlegged VHS of a David Spade special on HBO over and over and over and over again. Come to think of it, we were pretty lame. But it remains my favorite stand up bit of all time. The humor from that was so infused into my own speech that the first time I played it for my girlfriend in college, she goes, "Oh, I see. You're not actually funny or creative at all. David Spade is funny." So I've stopped showing girls that tape.

Do you lean toward humor writing or is it a challenge for you?

I didn't set out to be any sort of humor writer. I very much just wanted to write books, magazine articles and teach college, and have summers off to sleep in and teach urban dance workshops, but i think I've always been interested in humor and, on a certain level, I can't help it: I have a very hard time taking myself seriously.

You also freelance for several well-know publications. What is your favorite thing to write about?

I think nearly 95% of magazine writers respond to this question with, "I like quirky, irreverent stories about people" but, um...I like quirky, irreverent stories about people. I just like the stories where I can sit back and observe. I'm a dreadful investigative reporter, and I hate calling people I don't know, and I get very nervous asking people things, especially if they're uncomfortable, so just being able to observe is my comfort zone. I'm kind of pathetic like that.

Anything you'd like to leave us with, either about Writers Digest or your other pursuits?

I think if someone actually made it to the end of this Q and A, they should get some sort of endurance award or maybe a free DVD of the final season of One Tree Hill. Sorry for being so damn verbose.

But seriously, if people aren't totally sick of me, they can read my very random weekly blog or check out my "This Writer's Life" columns in the actual magazine. And all of my Boston Magazine articles are up on their website if you just search for my name.

Finally, I'd like to give a "shout out" to the guy who was sitting next to me on the plane, reading most of my answers to these questions over my shoulder, but trying to be, like, subtle about it. So holler at your boy, Patrick Davidson of Burlington, MA! I hope you liked what you read!

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Author Interview ~ Cecelia Dowdy

Cecelia Dowdy has been an avid reader since she learned to string letters together to form words. One of her college professors tried to convince her to get an English degree since he felt she was a great writer. Years later, after receiving her BS in Finance, she took his advice, and started pursuing her literary career. She loves to read, write, and bake delicious desserts. Traveling is favorite hobby, and she's been to ten different countries—so far. She enjoys listening to old tunes with her husband on Saturday nights. They reside with their toddler son in Maryland.

Plug time. What new book or project do you have coming out?

First Mates came out in 2005.

My [third] novel, John’s Quest, is coming out in March 2008.

How did you come up with this story? Was there a specific 'what if' moment?

I thought of the storyline because of my day job. I work for a non-profit physics organization. There are a lot of scientists at my job, and one day I wondered, since they were scientists, if they believed in God. I suppose that was my specific, ‘what if’ moment. John’s Quest is about a science professor who is an agnostic-he’s unsure if God exists.

Tell us about your publishing journey. How long had you been writing before you got a contract? How did you find out and what went through your mind?

I had been writing for five and a half years before I was offered a contract. I found out through an email! When I received my first book contract, all I could think was Hallelujah! Praise the Lord! I’m finally published!

Do you ever struggle with writer's block? If so, how do you overcome it?

Yes, I struggle with that a little bit. I usually put the project aside and start a new one. When I’m not actively working on a project, that’s when I’ll think of ways to fix my manuscript, getting over any roadblocks that may have occurred.

What is the most difficult part of writing for you (or was when you first started on your writing journey), i.e. plot, POV, characterization, etc? How did (or do) you overcome it?

POV! I had no concept of POV. I would head hop like crazy. Although I’d always been an avid reader, I guess I never realized the whole POV issue until I started writing novels. Another difficult part of writing was show, don’t tell. I usually tended to tell more than show, and that would bog the story down with a lot of narrative sentences.
To overcome these issues, I joined critique groups, and I also read books about the craft of writing. One book that really helped me out was Self Editing For Fiction Writers.

Where do you write? Do you have a dedicated office or a corner or nook in a room?

I have an office, and I used to write only in my office. Now that I have a toddler, it’s easier for me to write sitting in a living room chair with a laptop computer. I write like this because my toddler watches TV and if I’m in the same room, he won’t bother me. If I go upstairs to my office, he’ll find me, and tug my hand, begging me to come into the living room and sit with him while he watches his kiddy shows.

Do you have a word or page goal you set for each day?

Not really. I usually try and write at least 20 pages in a weekend, but I don’t always reach that goal.

What does a typical day look like for you?

Since I’m not a full-time writer, I get most of my writing done early in the morning and on weekends. A typical weekday I spend time commuting to work and working my day job. I usually write between five AM to six thirty AM each day. My hours on the weekend vary depending on other obligations (like family time.)

Take us through your process of writing a novel briefly—from conception to revision.

I start with the character sketches. Sometimes I may find a picture in a catalog or magazine that resembles the way the character looks in my mind. I go through a baby name book and a book of surnames to name both hero and heroine. I then go through a detailed questionnaire, where I answer questions about the characters’ backgrounds, occupations, goals, dreams, pet peeves, etc. When I’m doing this the internal conflict may become apparent. I can see how these two characters, based upon their backgrounds, would have a hard time having a long-lasting romantic relationship.

After the characters are developed, I do an outline of the story. The outline is very vague, and consists of about 18-20 sentences in numerical order in an Excel or Word document. Using the outline as a guide, I start writing the book! After I’m finished with the first draft, I go through and read the novel, do some editing, rewording, etc. I’ll usually go through three drafts before I consider the novel to be complete. Before I submit it to the publisher, I read through it aloud, just to be sure the sentences flow smoothly and sound natural.

Also, while I’m still in the draft mode, that’s when I’ll do research about any unique subjects in my novel. I start with Google, and sometimes I have contacted people in certain occupations to ask questions so that the story seems plausible.

What are some of your favorite books (not written by you)?

My goodness, I’ve read so many good books over the years that it’s hard to pinpoint all of them. I guess it’s easier for me to name some of my favorite authors than specific books. I love anything by Robin Lee Hatcher, Tracie Peterson, Janette Oake, Jacquelin Thomas, Sharon Ewell Foster, and Victoria Christopher Murray. I also like a few books by Frank Peretti, Ted Dekker, Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins….the list could go on and on, but those are the ones I like off the top of my head.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve heard?

Keep your day job. Really. When I attended my very first RWA conference in the mid-nineties, I met some authors for the first time. I had stars in my eyes as I asked their advice about making a living writing! I was floored when I discovered that writers are not very well compensated for their novels! I had dreams of quitting my day job, sitting at my house, penning novels all day. I was thinking I’d make enough money to get a nice house, with a swimming pool, and I’d be sitting out there with my laptop, and writing books. I guess I was really daydreaming when I thought like that!

What do you wish you’d known early in your career that might have saved you some time and/or frustration in writing? In publishing?

I wish I had studied the craft more and joined a critique group earlier than I had. I wrote alone for a few years, and I didn’t discover what I was doing wrong until I had been critiqued. I also wish I’d studied the craft of writing more before I whipped out so many pages of useless text. I have several unpublished novels sitting in my basement because I didn’t take the time to study what to do, how to place those words on the page, until I’d been writing for a few years. When I finally ‘got it’ it was like a light bulb went off in my head, and I could finally say, “Eureka!”

How much marketing do you do? What have you found that particularly works well for you?

Since my first book was only available through Crossings (Doubleday’s Christian Book Club) and Black Expressions (Doubleday’s African-American Book Club), there was not much marketing that I could do. The book was not in stores and in order to get the book, you had to be a member of one of those book clubs.

My second novel was a category romance, and I sent postcards to some churches, advertising my book. I also took out an ad in Romance Sells (RWA’s publication that’s distributed to book stores.) Since category romance is only on the shelf for a month, an author is limited in the amount of promotion she can do with such a limited timeframe.

Meanwhile, I try to be active online by doing a blog, and I also do drawings for free books to those who comment on my blog. I also take questions from unpublished authors who seek advice about writing. I publish the questions and answers on my blog, also. I also invite people to join my mailing list, and I use these contacts to promote my novel as the publication date draws near.

Do you have any parting words of advice?

If you want to publish a novel, you need to develop a thick skin, and don’t let rejections affect you. Also, attend writers’ conferences. Writers’ conferences are an awesome way to connect with other writers, editors, and agents.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Author Interview ~ Ruth Axtell Morren

Ruth Axtell Morren studied comparative literature at Smith College, spent her junior year in Paris, taught English in the Canary Islands, and worked in Miami, FL before moving to the Netherlands, where she began seriously pursuing a writing career in historical romance fiction in between raising a family.

Her first book, Winter Is Past, a regency-era inspirational, came out in December, 2003.
Recently, Ruth and her family decided to move back to the Netherlands so their children could learn the language and culture of their birth. This year, Ruth’s third book, Lilac Spring, was translated into Dutch. Winter Is Past has been published in Italian by Harlequin. Ruth’s second novel, Wild Rose (2004) was selected as a Booklist “Top Ten Christian Fiction” in 2005. Currently, she is working on her 8th manuscript to be published by Steeple Hill.

Plug time. What new book or project do you have coming out?

The Healing Season came out July of this year. Right now I’m working on another single title regency for Steeple Hill, tentatively titled The Making of a Gentleman. It’s the story of a fugitive who escaped the hangman’s noose and a Christian woman who regularly visits the prisoners at Newgate, and her attempts to reform him.

NJ: To read a review of The Healing Season, click here.

How did you come up with this story? Was there a specific 'what if' moment?

Quite a few years back, I was researching another regency and I read two small snippets of information. One was about a woman who actually did help prisoners at a time when prison conditions were horrific. The other was about how a man sentenced to be hanged received a pardon from the Prince Regent simply because the prince was touched by the man’s wife pleading on her husband’s behalf.

Those two details became the inspiration for my ‘Pygmalion in reverse’ story.

Tell us about your publishing journey. How long had you been writing before you got a contract? How did you find out and what went through your mind?

I had been writing seriously for fourteen years. About four years into that time, I received my first real encouragement: my second manuscript finaled as a Golden Heart entry for historical romance.

Little did I realize at that time what a long journey I would still have to being published. Shortly after that, the Lord began to deal with me toward a deeper walk with Him. At first that drew me toward writing inspirational fiction. Then I came to a moment of truth, when I realized the Lord wanted it all. He required that I put my writing on the altar, even if it meant never writing another word of fiction again. I put it all aside, including any researching of even an idea.

Instead, this time, which turned two years, became a time of rich spiritual growth. At the end of this period, I woke up with the fragment of a dream. That dream evolved into a story idea for a Christian romance in the regency period. I had never even thought of attempting to write something in the regency period, even though I am a die-hard Jane Austen fan.

With much fear and trembling, (after seeking God’s direction if this was truly from Him), I began researching what eventually became my first published novel, Winter Is Past. The time between idea and contract ended up being four years. But at the end of that period, when I received “the Call” from an editor, it was to offer me a 3-book contract, an almost unheard of deal for a new author.

Do you ever struggle with writer's block? If so, how do you overcome it?

Not so much writer’s block, as just facing that everyday challenge of sitting down at my desk and writing that first draft. Also, what I think is every author’s fear (I recently read Sandra Brown mention it in an interview), “Can I really do this one more time?”

What is the most difficult part of writing for you (or was when you first started on your writing journey), i.e. plot, POV, characterization, etc? How did (or do) you overcome it?

When I first started, eons ago, I think it was plotting. Characterization was the most fun; I loved dialogue (still do). It was just coming up with that story line…
I think reading books on the craft of writing helped; also multiple critiques, judges’ comments, etc.

Nowadays, it’s trying to capture the essence & uniqueness of the story during that first draft stage (Nora Roberts’ comment about treating every book as absolutely your very first one helped a lot with this).

Where do you write? Do you have a dedicated office or a corner or nook in a room?

Until recently when we lived in a huge house in Maine, I shared a spacious office with my husband. Then we moved to the Netherlands, where space is at a premium, so I have a tiny corner of my bedroom. Ah well, as long as the ideas keep coming….

Do you have a word or page goal you set for each day?

During the first draft stage, I shoot for ten pages a day. But I don’t sweat it too much if I don’t make the mark, as long as I write something (more or less five days a week). With 3 children, you can’t be tied too much to a rigid schedule.

What does a typical day look like for you?

Wake up and begin praying (these days usually in bed). Then read the Bible, then breakfast, a few clean up chores, then shower & dress, then on good days, by 9:30 or 10 a.m., sit down at the computer and begin writing. And keep writing until my youngest son comes home from school (in Holland elementary school age children can come home for lunch). Then keep writing some more till they all come home from school around 3 or so.

A lot of the real work, however, doesn’t happen at the computer. It happens in the afternoons when I go on my walk or bike ride and think about what happens now in the story. Or, it’ll come to me at 3 a.m. when I’ll wake up and my mind will fill with scene and dialogue ideas. Or at 5 a.m. I know then it’s useless to try to go back to sleep until I groggily jot as much down (sometimes in the dark) as I can.

Otherwise, by morning, it’ll be gone.

Take us through your process of writing a novel briefly—from conception to revision.

Ideas can come from anywhere, during researching as mentioned above, from dreams, from a secondary character in a WIP. If they’re sustainable, the idea will usually start taking shape into a full story within matter of days, and I have to interrupt the current WIP enough to just go with it and jot down any ideas/scenes/dialogue that come to me.

Then I put that away in a folder until I can come back to it.

When the time comes, I write a proposal (first 3 chaps. + synopsis). If my editors approve it, then it gets contracted & scheduled. When I begin working on it under deadline (trying to allow myself 6-7 months for a single title; 4-6 mos. for a category length), I do the historical research and begin plotting as I do this, and keep sketching out any scenes/dialogue that come to me during that stage.

When I reach some sort of critical mass, I know it’s time to start writing at my computer. That’s when I try to discipline myself to the 10 pp/day. Then once that first draft is finished, I go over and edit it a couple of times, then email it chap. by chap. to my critique partner. When I go over her suggestions, I still read through it a few more times (depending on deadline pressure by this time) before emailing the whole thing to my editor.

What are some of your favorite books (not written by you)?

I just finished the last installment of Karen Hancock’s Guardian-King series, which absolutely blew me away.
Jane Austen (everything, favorites being P & P and Persuasion)
I recently rediscovered Grace Livingston Hill from my high school days
The Curate of Glaston by George MacDonald
Also, recently read The Kite Runner—very good
Pieces of Silver by Maureen Lang, a new author, whose story I liked very much.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve heard?

Only do it if you can’t imagine not writing (regardless of whether you ever sell your work or get any recognition for it)

What do you wish you’d known early in your career that might have saved you some time and/or frustration in writing? In publishing?

Keep the day job. (grin)

How much marketing do you do? What have you found that particularly works well for you?

Very little, having neither the time, budget nor much talent in that area. Recently, I’ve felt that I also have to hand the whole “promotion” thing over to the Lord. It’s up to Him to give my books favor; to open up promotional opportunities, etc. And He has been doing this, usually in ways I didn’t expect.

Do you have any parting words of advice?

I’ve just been reading Karen Hancock’s writing blog and she has some very good advice about keeping it all in perspective—it’s for God’s glory. When that gets out of whack, it all suffers.