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Friday, February 29, 2008

Falsipidia ~ Leap Year Fun

Admit it.

There are times when the perfect turn of phrase or startling brilliant metaphor just isn't happening. Some turn to drink. Some to caffeine. Even more of us likely turn to computer solitaire or mahjong.

Is there something that could stretch our writing muscles while we wait for our muse to slap us upside the head?

In honor of Leap Year, let's talk about our favorite yet valuable time-wasters.

Read through the following interview and prepare to comment on this post for a chance to win an exclusive Novel Journey contest.

The rules: the winning comment will likely be high in creativity. The coveted prize may also go to the comment containing a link to something fun and educational. Sucking-up never hurts.

The prize: The lucky winner will receive the dubious honor of an award created for them and entered at Falsipedia. The writers of said entry will use much sarcasm when titling the award and creating the honor and the link will appear in the next Novel Journey newsletter.

Ready? Go to it. This chance might only come around every four years.

NJ: What is Falsipedia?

Falsipedia is primarily a humor site that presents itself in the framework of an online encyclopedic container of knowledge. There are a few other sites out there that have a similar concept, however, under guidance of the founding members of Falsipedia, our site will highlight a sense of humor that is a little drier and much less ham-handed than other sites.

The entries of Falsipedia may include anything from ridiculous nonsense to subtle manipulations of fact and many will contain both of these and any number of other variations.

The key to an entry working and meeting our standards is that it is funny. If an entry is not funny, we might edit the piece, delete it or mock the person who wrote it. We think part of the fun of a monitored community project like this is the "critique" process. Of course, the final say lies with the founding members and anyone we elevate to similar position.

NJ: How long have you been brewing this idea and how did you begin the process of putting it into concrete, er cyber?

Well, that depends on how you want to count it. If you are asking how long have I been making stuff up to confuse others for my own amusement, that'd be almost three decades. If you are asking how long has Falsipedia specifically been floating through my head, that's been since mid-October of 2007. Several people in my office at were discussing things we could do with ToolBarn to attract new customers and build more of a buzz around the brand. Being a bit sarcastic, I suggested doing really incorrect how-to articles or something similar. The idea kind of grew out of that idea, which is obviously not something we would do with, nor would the higher-ups allow us to do so. The discussion was obviously sidetracked and shortly thereafter I was registering domain names with a fairly solid idea in mind.

It took until the beginning of December for us to determine the best framework for our site and to start posting articles. We ended up picking the free and open source MediaWiki engine for the site, as it does a good job of presenting data in a readable way for search engines and as a wiki, there are a large number of people who are familiar with working with wikis. Plus the number of tools and extensions that are compatible with MediaWiki is a benefit and overall it is pretty easy to maintain.

Obviously, the biggest challenges we are facing are being funny, adding content regularly and finding our audience. So far, we laugh at what we write, as do most of our guinea pigs so the first is looking ok. The second is a bit harder, but like almost all writing if you just keep those keys (or that pen) moving eventually you will produce something that will work, though it may not be what you planned. The third part is really all about putting up quality content and getting it in front of people.

NJ: How are you marketing Falsipedia? Is there anything you want to try but haven't yet? Have you found anything that has worked better than you expected? Something you'd avoid doing because of disappointing response?

Right now, we are working through word of mouth. Of course, we know some people with big mouths, and we are involving them as it becomes appropriate. Currently, I still consider us in the early stages of building the site. We're sitting at just about thirty articles (not counting things that are still funny, but not the primary focus of the site, like our disclaimer, events catalog or all the brief introductory text on the letters and category pages), which means there is about umpteen million things we haven't even come close to writing about. Once we come up on about 250 quality articles, then we'll start making a concerted push to get incoming links and work towards organic rankings in the major search engines.

The core people involved in the site all have varying levels of experience in marketing websites, or marketing in general. Right now, with this currently being an expense rather than a money making venture, it's all about the content. If the site is funny enough, people will start sending links to their friends and eventually people will link stuff in their blogs or vote for an article on sites like Digg. We think we can build a market by making a people laugh and want to read more. If we become profitable someday, we'll work on ways to reward contributors, but that is still quite a ways off.

As far as what to avoid in marketing a site like this really comes down to making sure that anything you invest in (whether it is a financial or energy investment) will turn in to momentum for the site. It does very little good to write great content if the framework of your site makes it harder for search engines or visitors to find the content. You don't want to buy pay-per-click advertising if your site won't engage the visitors you attract. A real rule of thumb to keep in mind is "how does what I am doing make my site of more value to my customers?"

NJ: What can writers gain from your website?

I think the greatest thing writers can gain from contributing to Falsipedia is practice, both in writing and using your imagination in new ways. Beyond practice there are other benefits... as a community effort there is the opportunity to see what direction other people might take your writing. If an article gets the axe or goes off in an entirely different direction, it could be an indication that you aren't communicating your ideas effectively. A clever or good writer could also quite easily pick up new fans. As a reader, there may be inspiration as you see new and unusual writing styles and subtle differences in the way people provide humor. You could come across a turn of phrase or a rough concept that could turn into a character motivation in other writing. In short, exposure, inspiration and engagement.

NJ: Your ultimate goal? ( You can't use taking over the world, it's been done to death.)

My personal goal for Falsipedia is to find out that someone referenced the site in a report or scholarly paper without realizing the information was suspect. I would find that extremely satisfying.

Other than things that would make me laugh maniacally, I would like Falsipedia to become a place where really funny people provide their take on all of human knowledge. I'd like it to be relatively tasteful, but primarily hilarious. I'd like to entertain a large audience of clever people. Hopefully that would allow us to have a revenue stream capable of sustaining the site, giving a little back to both the founding members and other valuable contributors. Eventually, the idea of publishing a collection of the "greatest hits" or quasi-text book parodies would be fantastic as well.

NJ: How can our readers get involved with Falsipedia? And should they?

Answering the second part of the question first... If you have a sense of humor and can write, we'd love to have you as part of our community. If you have a sense of humor and can't write, check us out anyway! If you have no sense of humor, can't write and are otherwise unpleasant, I'd really rather you spend your time somewhere else... no offense. Lawyers who sue at the drop of a hat are honorary members of that last group.

If you want to get involved go to Falsipedia, use the link in the top right corner to register for an account, and then edit existing pages or add new pages as you see fit. Be sure to read our disclaimer and About Falsipedia and be sure you are ok with the idea that what you write on the site becomes the property of Falsipedia. Since this is a community effort and there could be dozens of changes made to an article by different contributors, this is the only approach we feel is workable... we're not going to go out and publish one article to make a buck off our contributors' work.

Matt Griffith is 36 years old. He spends his day hours as the Director of Information Technology for, Inc, an Internet Retailer Top 500 Company and an Inc 500 Fastest Growing Privately Held Company. Matt has been with since 2001 and has worked to help the company grow from obscurity to being a multi-million dollar online retailer. Past activities which might be worth mentioning include "singing" vocals for a punk band called Pope Mahone, having a small indie rock record label LandPhil Records and a brief stint in a professional wrestling school. He has been known to tell stories about how he broke his toe making toast and how he has almost lost his eye six times (Flaming Marshmallow, Exploding Potato, Cat, Cat, Glasses Shot Out by Brother, Sledding Accident).

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Melanie Wells ~ Author and Licensed Psychotherapist, Part I

A native of the Texas panhandle, Wells is a licensed psychotherapist, business owner, musician and author of the critically-acclaimed Dylan Foster psychological thrillers.

She attended Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, on a musical scholarship as a violinist. After graduating with a degree in English, she went on to obtain graduate degrees in counseling psychology from Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio and biblical studies from Dallas Theological Seminary in Dallas. She has taught at the graduate level of both universities.

Since 1992, Wells has been in private practice as a counselor. She is the founder and director of LifeWorks Counseling Associates, a collaborative community of therapists, in Dallas and is a clinical member of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.

Growing up in a musical family where one’s identity was determined by the art they portrayed, Wells was constantly surrounded by creativity. She began her literary career because she wanted to funnel this creativity and her everyday observations into a good book. She believes that the natural creative rhythm of music can be extended to the natural rhythm of the written word. Her own musical background and life experience as a psychologist has prolifically impacted her writing throughout the years.

Her debut psychological thriller, When the Day of Evil Comes, released in 2005 and sold more than 25,000 copies in the first six months. The Soul Hunter, her subsequent book, followed in 2006. Her newest book, My Soul to Keep, releases Feb. 5, 2008, from Multnomah Books, a division of Random House.

Wells currently lives and writes in Dallas.

Time to crow: What new book or project do you have coming out?

The third book in the Dylan Foster series, My Soul to Keep, just came out a couple of weeks
ago. I’ll crow about that, if you don’t mind. I’m proud of this book. It’s the best of the three, I think, probably because I’m still a bit green as a writer and I’m improving with each book. The book is doing really well. Getting great reviews. And I really do love the story and characters. It’s the third of a series, so I’m not sure if there will be a fourth. I get asked about that a lot. That will be determined by the numbers and by the higher ups at Random House (hint).

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

In every story I write, I start with the opening scene or situation. The first two books, When the Day of Evil Comes and The Soul Hunter, naturally lead up to the beginning of My Soul to Keep. It’s become obvious by the end of The Soul Hunter that the evil Peter Terry wants the little boy, Nicholas. So it seemed natural to have Nicholas snatched away in the first scene of this book. Child abduction (and the often terrible things that follow) turns my stomach, so in that way, it was a difficult and emotional book to write. Since I don’t plot my stories out, my characters decide what happens. I was worried about little Nicholas the entire time. I choked myself up in several scenes. I should probably go back to therapy. After all, I did make these people UP. Why am I so emotional about them??

Every novelist has a journey. How long was your road to publication? How did you find out and what went through your mind?

I started writing in January of 1996. I was living in Steamboat Springs, Co, and it snowed 15 feet in ONE MONTH. Read that sentence again. 15 feet. One month. Do the math.

I had also been battling a serious illness for a few months, so I was house-bound and was reading a lot – really terrible books. I kept thinking, “I could do better than this.” Which, of course, I couldn’t. But I started a story, which eventually became a novel called The Permian Game, and which has still to see the light of day. I’m re-writing it right now, as a matter of fact. But that manuscript found its way – through a series of odd events – to an editor at Multnomah named Rod Morris. Rod liked my voice. He encouraged me to keep writing. For Multnomah, he would need something with more overt spiritual themes. Would I be willing to write something like that? Sure. So one night, I had a surreal dream which became the first chapter of When the Day of Evil Comes. It took me years to finish that manuscript. Partially because of the difficulties I was experiencing in my life, which were genuinely apocalyptic at that point. So I just wasn’t motivated. I was working hard to rebuild my life, to build a practice and a business called LifeWorks counseling associates ( and I didn’t have the time to goof around writing a novel on spec.

A friend read the partial manuscript, though, and sat me down and told me firmly that I should finish it. So I did. I sent it in the day before I was left for a vacation in Paris with that same friend.

And then I made myself forget about it. Entirely. Until one day, I checked my email – this was months later – and there was an email from Rod Morris (who is now with Harvest House and to whom I still feel indebted for his commitment to me and my work). The email said, “I like it. I want to publish it.” I started to cry. I called that same friend and read the email out loud and we both were just stunned. Those two sentences. Every writer lives for that moment. It’s something I’ll never forget. Never take for granted.

Do you ever bang your head against the wall from the dreaded writer's block? If so, how do you overcome it?

I do. In earlier days, when I had no deadline, no contract, I’d just quit writing until I felt like it again. That could be months. But if you’re writing fiction on a deadline, you can’t indulge yourself that way. I usually get stuck around chapter 10, which is the turning point between Acts I and II, if you will. One trick I’ve learned is that, when I finish a chapter, I always make myself start the next few sentences of the next one. No matter how late it is or how badly I want to quit. I do the next few lines. And then I’ve got a start and I’ve obliterated the natural stopping point. That one trick alone has helped me immeasurably.

Where do you write: In a cave, a coffeehouse, or a cozy attic nook?

I have a beautiful study at home. I mean… really beautiful. It’s funky and artsy and the colors are rich and there’s modern art on the walls and a big strange stained glass door I’ve got hung sideways over a daybed. It could not possibly be more groovy. It has great writing mojo. But I find that if I spend too much time alone, I don’t do well. I can’t write, and more importantly, I can’t function as a human being. So now I use that study mainly for business and do most of my writing at one particular Starbucks. I’m such an extrovert, I’m energized by the chaos of people around me. For some reason, I can tune all of it out and write like no-one’s business when I’m there. When I’m at home, I just get stuck and cranky and even more irritable than usual. No one needs that going on!

What does a typical day look like for you?

Depends on the day. I own a large counseling practice, which involves me running the practice (everything from writing payroll checks to finding disability insurance, to hiring a real estate agent to find space for our expansion office to … the list NEVER ends). And I have a full case load of my own. AND I’m the clinical director for the group, so I’m the supervisor of record for all the trainees and am thus responsible for their work. Three days a week, I’m there until about 8:00 in the evening. I come home whipped, have supper, and then go upstairs to the groovy study and keep working – usually on administrative tasks.

Two days a week, I take off to write. On those days, I try to sleep in to replenish myself (because I’m a night person, I often work until 1 or 2 a.m., then have to get up at 7 the next morning on LifeWorks days). I work out, I eat, I put out fires at LifeWorks, and then I head to Starbucks sometime in the afternoon and start writing. And I stay until I’ve gotten somewhere.

So my typical day involves work. And when I’m not working, I’m spending time with friends. I have a whole group of people who keep me breathing. I invest in those friendships. No TV at all in years and years. I can’t imagine where people find the time.

Some authors report writing 5-10 thousand words a day. Do scenes flow freely from your veins or do you have to tweeze each word out?

Scenes flow freely for me. Especially if I’m at a place in the story where the characters are making the next step clear. Sometimes I get stuck, but mostly, I sit down, I get in touch with the characters and the situation, and it flies out. I edit obsessively as I write – trying to get rid of every extra word, honing the rhythm and the timbre of the words. But I keep moving. Always, I keep moving. It’s an extension of my life philosophy. Never go down without a fight.

Briefly take us through your process of writing a novel—from conception to revision.

I start with a scene. One scene only. Nicholas gets kidnapped at a park. First scene of My Soul to Keep. So I ask myself – what are they doing at the park? I think backwards from that moment. Ah. Christine’s birthday. Dylan’s trying to improve her abysmal social life. She’s throwing a party for Christine’s birthday, and while they’re all at the park, Nicholas is snatched away.

And then, when it’s time to write again, I listen to the characters and they tell me what happens next. Which at times can be quite unnerving. Why is there a scream coming from behind the bedroom door? What is happening to Christine? Why can’t she breathe? These questions compel me forward. The story evolves from there, depending on how the characters respond to the situation at hand. My mind spins for the entire year or so it takes me to write a story. I’ve said before – it’s like being constipated for a YEAR. Brain constipation. Very uncomfortable, and unfortunately, no Ex-Lax!

When I’m finally done, I send the whole thing in and contemplate quitting my writing career RIGHT THIS MINUTE.

Then I hear from my editor and he or she says something encouraging, and my agent calls me and says, “Hey, do you realize what you have here?” or something like that. And then I re-enlist and hunker down for the editing process.

The whole thing is difficult for me, though. The story flows, but the time, the mental and emotional energy, the constant mind-spinning preoccupation. It’s not digging ditches in Alabama in the summertime, I realize. There are harder ways to make a living. But it is taxing. It takes every ounce of energy I have to do it and to keep the rest of my professional life moving along.

I’m lucky to have wonderful supportive people in my life. Including my best friend Trish Murphy, who is also a writer and who gets the whole crucible. And other close, dear friends, who willingly listen to me whine, often do my laundry, and the kick me in the rear and tell me to get back to it.

And then there are the fans. An email from somewhere – God knows where – Japan, Minnesota, Calgary – will come just in the nick of time. And I’ll think, oh, okay, one more chapter…

Coming in March...Part II of this fascinating interview with acclaimed author, Melanie Wells!

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Melody Carlson ~ Faking It

Melody Carlson is an award-winning, best-selling author of more than two hundred books for teens, women, and children, including her most recent Payback. She and her husband enjoy an active lifestyle of hiking, camping, and biking in the beautiful yet mysterious Pacific Northwest, where she says, “A new story seems to lurk around every corner.”

Faking It

I never trained to be a writer. Not in the academic sense anyway. I wasn’t an English major, I never took a writing class beyond high school, I’ve only attended a couple of writers’ conferences (as a conferee). And although I’d always admired authors, I never imagined I could be an author. In fact, despite having published around 200 books, I rarely use the word “author” when describing myself.

If anything, I say I’m a writer, probably because it sounds less presumptuous. Because the truth is I always have this underlying fear that someone is going to say, “You’re not really a writer, you haven’t been trained as a writer, therefore you must be faking it.” And maybe I am.

But I suspect that, from the very beginning, life was training me to be a writer. I could never really make up my mind about what I wanted to be “when I grew up.” As a result, I sampled a lot of jobs. I taught pre-school for a while. I spent a year in a third world country as I considered missions work. I worked for an interior designer as well as an international adoption agency. I dabbled at several other varied and unrelated jobs. But like shopping for jeans, it took a lot of trying on before I found what fit just right.

Even when I got the irresistible urge to begin writing, I had no idea where it would take me. I only knew that I had to write or burst. Sort of like my grandma’s old pressure cooker. She’d leave it on the stove for too long and too high and the next thing you knew green beans all splattered all over the ceiling. That’s how I felt. Like all these words and stories and sentences and characters and settings were boiling inside of me. The pressure was growing and I needed to loosen that release valve and get them out.

And so, without any real direction or (as aforementioned) real training, I began to write—on a yellow legal pad since I had no typewrite or computer at the time. Why would I have authentic writing tools when I wasn’t an authentic author? Then I joined a critique group of “real authors.” Naturally, that made me extremely nervous. Not only had these women been properly trained they were published as well.

I remember feeling like a total fraud in their midst. I even tried to “appear” more author-like by wearing tweed jackets (but hadn’t I always liked tweed?) and then I added dangly earrings (didn’t that make a person look more creative?). And although I loved being in this creative group, I couldn’t help but feel that I didn’t belong. I figured that eventually these genuine bona fide authors would figure me out and cast me from their midst.

Instead, they were encouraging. And they were amazed at how quickly I could “spit out” a story and then another and another. What they didn’t realize (and I probably didn’t either) was that those stories had been bubbling and percolating inside of me for years. But even as I completed several novels (three for teens and one for women) I didn’t feel like a real author.

Perhaps that was because “real authors” got published. And all I seemed to get was rejection letters. And so I began to think if I got published, I would become a “real author.” To my stunned amazement an editor became very interested in my work. She even presented my novels to her publishing committee, but for one reason or another they “declined” every one, which only seemed to prove that I wasn’t really an author.

But then she challenged me to write a nonfiction book, saying, “I think I can get that published.” So, feeling even more like a fake (since I was a fiction writer) I threw together a proposal for a nonfiction book. And they contracted it. But even a contracted book didn’t make me feel like an author. And then I began to work for a publishing company, interfacing with REAL authors (ones with BIG names) and I knew for sure that I wasn’t one of them.

Even as I began contracting more books (novels this time) I questioned my authenticity. I didn’t consider myself part of that elite group—real authors. After all, I didn’t know the secret handshake. I still don’t. Even if I got a good book review, I simply assumed I’d dodged a bullet. If a book sold well, I thought I’d just slipped beneath the radar. Even when I began writing full time, I was pretty sure the gig would soon be up…I’d get caught eventually. The Book Police would show up at my door and say, “You’re under arrest for impersonating an author.”

But then I discovered something that’s helped to change my thinking. Lots of other “authors” feel the same way—like they too are “faking it.” So maybe it just comes with the territory. After all, I am a fiction writer. Most of what I write is “made up” so I guess I am faking it.

Payback - available now.

If your vision asked you to risk your life to save others, would you have the courage? When Samantha McGregor tells her friend Detective Ebony Hamilton of her disturbing visions of a brutal murder at a high school, Ebony asks her to go undercover to help identify the shooter before it’s too late. The stakes are raised when Ebony discovers that the potential crime may be connected to a larger terrorism threat!

Meanwhile, Samantha realizes that her mother’s new boyfriend is a little too good to be true. Her unsettling visions, combined with Ebony’s investigation of Steven’s past, reveal him to be more interested in her mother’s money than her heart.

To make matters worse, Samantha has been having visions of an unknown boy who is mercilessly being bullied by his peers. Who is this teen? Can she help him?

This fourth and final installment in The Secret Life of Samantha McGregor series brings Samantha her biggest challenges yet, as she works against the clock to stop a mass murder, help a troubled youth, and save her mother from making a terrible mistake!

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Interview with editor, Susan Downs -- Part 2

An Oklahoma native, SUSAN K DOWNS is a descendant of Land Run pioneers. But life as a minister's wife has taken her far beyond her roots. While living in Texas, Susan frequently traveled to Russia as an adoption coordinator. Though now settled in Canton, Ohio, this mother of five and grandmother will always be an Okie at heart.

Describe the qualities of a perfect author?

I like authors who make me feel like they're happy when I call/email. A perfect author is one who is open to suggestions. . .no matter how many books they've published. I am not saying an author can't disagree about suggested revisions but there is a WAY to do that without acting put out. Basically, the perfect author is much the same as the perfect editor--there when you need them and not when you don't.

What are some of the pressures of being an editor launching a new line?

Heavens, I feel like so much of the responsibilty for the book club's success rests on my shoulders. Of course, I know the marketing department is responsible for promotion
but if the finished products don't measure up to the consumer's expectations, I'm to blame. So quite a bit of pressure, particularly since the decisions as to what books we publish is left up to me. And then there is the perennial pressure of deadlines of every sort, from manuscript deadlines to content review deadlines, to copy edit and typesetting, proofing and galley deadlines. . . I have to make sure every project is flowing smoothly down the pipeline
and make adjustments where needed, but let me hasten to say I absolutely LOVE my job.
I thank God for it every day. I mean, how many people are blessed like I am. . .to get PAID to read great books and to work with Spirit-filled authors?

What is your favorite moment as an editor?

My favorite moment as an editor may have come just last week when the finished product of our first cycle of books arrived. I pasted cover flats of the first eight books all over my office door. :) Some of the other department folks walked by and laughed at my enthusiasm, but it was almost like holding my own published books. There's no feeling like it! Years of work finally coming to fruition.

Another favorite moment has to be ACFW conference when I'm surrounded by all my mystery authors at the dinner table. I felt like a mother hen with her chicks. Oh, and offering the first contract to Cynthia Hickey was a huge thrill.

What are some of your pet peeves being an editor?

Pet peeves? Well, I'm really not much of a peevish person. Well, maybe one thing. Getting phone calls from authors who want to check on the progress of the proposal they submitted two weeks ago. Send me an email if you must, but don't call me. I don't like losing my place in a reading project to pick up the phone.

If a book doesn't sell well and has already been contracted for a sequel, is the solution to simply not contract for further series?

If we have already signed contracts, then we will fulfill those but not contract others. Many times we will contract the first with an option for subsequent books and wait to contract others until we see how that first one is received. I can only speak for myself, but I like to feel the author's personality coming through, rather than seeing a sterile, formula presentation Especially since cozy mysteries require a certain amount of quirk, I want to see that an author can express the quirky side of his/her own personality

What happens to a manuscript after it is contracted?

Once a contracted manuscript is received, I process it and send it to Candice Speare, who serves as my freelance content reviewer. As the title implies, she checks for accuracy issues in police procedurals and plot discrepancies or character issues. She will also look at the overall plot and characterization. She then interacts with the author directly to suggest revisions

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Rethinking Writing Rules -- Pt. 2

By Mike Duran

Mike’s stories have appeared in Relief Journal, Coach’s Midnight Diner, Forgotten Worlds, Alienskin, Infuze Magazine and Dragons, Knights and Angels, with articles in The Matthew’s House Project, Relevant Magazine and 316 Journal. Mike is currently part of the editorial team for the Midnight Diner’s second edition. He and his wife Lisa live in Southern California, where they have raised four children. You can visit him at his website, deCOMPOSE.

After my last post, one commenter called me "a brave, brave man." I couldn't help but translate that as "brainless buffoon." Sure, "I Fought the Law (and the Law Won)" was my theme song in high school. But now having raised four children (none of whom are incarcerated, addicted to illegal substances, atheists or liberals), I can attest to the necessity of rules.

However, so did the Pharisees.

I recently submitted a story to a Christian writer's contest. The judges follow a checklist that contains 20 categories, with a maximum of 5 points per category. Some of those categories include these items:

  • Has the author observed the required manuscript format? (Courier or Times New Roman 12 pt double spaced) Is the type neat? Does it have 1 inch margins all around?

  • Is the point of view consistent? Are POV changes smooth and logical?

  • Does the writer utilize showing and telling skillfully?

  • Is there an opening line or paragraph that immediately hooks the reader into the story?

  • Are character motivations powerful enough to create sufficient conflict?

  • Is the dialogue between characters natural and not stilted, revealing plot and emotion in a way that narrative cannot?

No doubt there are rules that govern good stories, not to mention rules that govern good contests. I mean, who would argue that "sufficient conflict" and "natural dialog" aren't essential to a well-told tale? But do these types of checklists ultimately help or hurt storytellers? Dotting our i's and crossing our t's is necessary in a court of law. Yet in the court of public opinion, how important is a consistent POV? Does the “checklist mentality” place style above story, and potentially produce Pharisees whose primary aim is to follow the rules rather than spin yarns?

I recall submitting a piece to my writing group once, and a moderator pointed out my repeated use of “was,” a dreaded passive. "It was shrill." "She was dwarfish." "The prosthetic leg was really a telescope." In the throes of frustration, I submitted this post to the entire group as penance:

was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was,was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was

There. Now I’ve got it out of my system.


I eventually became so paranoid about using passives that I would spend hours, literally, weeding them from my work. (Remember, I’m a legalist.)

And that legalism eventually robbed me of reading pleasure. Passive tenses began popping up everywhere -- most notably in books endorsed as must-reads -- and I nit-picked them to death. For instance, I happened to pick up Winter's Tale, Mark Helprin's acclaimed novel, and read the first sentence:

THERE was a white horse, on a quiet winter morning when snow covered the streets gently and was not deep, and the sky was swept with vibrant stars, except in the east, where dawn was beginning in a light blue flood. (italics mine)

Four passives in the first sentence! Where were the gatekeepers when you needed them? Here I'm busting my ass to weed out was's, and some dude pops out quadruplets in the first sentence. My writing group would have a conniption.

Do you see a pattern here? I learned the rules and rigorously applied them, only to see them broken. Repeatedly. Something had to give.

There’s no question that:

"The prosthetic leg was really a telescope."

is not as good as

"The prosthetic leg unscrewed to reveal a telescope."

But what’s ideal and what’s acceptable are two different things. The Master of Horror concedes as much. Stephen King, in his wonderful book On Writing, says this:

I won’t say there’ no place for the passive tense. Suppose, for instance, a fellow dies in the kitchen but ends up somewhere else. The body was carried from the kitchen and placed on the parlor sofa is a fair way to put this, although “was carried” and “was placed” still irk the shit out of me. I accept them but I don’t embrace them. (pg. 123)

Well, there it is. Bells, whistles and angelic choirs. "I accept them but I don’t embrace them." The use of passives is tolerable, but not ideal. Just like the rest of the “writing rules,” their bend-ability is in the eye of the beholder.

So I took back a few was’s.

Think about it: If the primary goal of a story is to take us somewhere, then the “writing rules” must be subservient to that end. Much like a map, the aesthetics are secondary to the functionality. It is required first of the mapmaker to know which way North is. A colorful, good-looking map that replaces roads with rivers and cities with salt plains, is moot. Try as I might, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings maps will not get me to the Shire. However, his stories will.

Perhaps this is what we should first teach aspiring novelists, not about passives, POV, and show v. tell, but about getting people to the Shire.

After four years of straining at gnats and swallowing camels, the following observation has been painfully liberating: The majority of readers aren’t writers; they read to be entertained, mystified, scared and inspired, not to be enthralled by style. The style of the story -- and the rules that govern its writing -- are not nearly as important as the story itself. The public hardly seemed concerned that the DaVinci Code was, at best, stylistically pedestrian. They wanted to be transported to a world of religious intrigue, which they were to the tune of 60 million copies worldwide.

The moral: It’s up to the reader to decide how many passives are tolerable.

It’s true that aspiring authors need rules. Just like that 5 year-old who lunges into the street, the author with a propensity for passives deserves a spanking. While the 16 year-old who lunges into the street deserves to get run over, the novelist who overuses the passive tense risks only readers, not life and limb. Either way, the rule is not a magic formula for safety or success, it is simply meant to get one across the street.

Far too many aspiring authors are looking for formulas. I say that as an aspiring author. And sadly, far too many teachers are available to accommodate us. It’s created an echo chamber of sorts, a community of overly-eager authors determined to cross their t’s and dot their i’s, ceaselessly pining for the Holy Grail of publication, ever enforcing and venerating the commandments of their own making.

The writing rules have their place, but they can also blind one to the destination. After all, the ultimate goal of the storyteller is not to obey all the rules, but to get her readers safely to the Shire.

Sunday Devotion- A God-moment at the Grocery

Janet Rubin

Ecclesiastes 2:24-25 A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?

The man whose job it is to gather shopping carts from the parking lot exited the grocery store just as I did. As we squeezed side-by-side through the automatic doors, he remarked, “Next week’s the big two-two for me.”

For a moment he caught me by surprise, speaking to me as if he knew me. But I glanced up and remembered that this familiar-looking man had spoken to me before. We had passed in the parking lot a couple of weeks before Super bowl Sunday, and he’d said, “Greenbay’s goin to the Superbowl. No doubt about it.” He’d been wrong on that count. I frowned, trying to figure out what his current declaration meant. He couldn’t be turning twenty-two; he had to be in his forties or more likely fifties.

Soon enough he cleared up my confusion. “I’ll have been working here for twenty-two years!”

“Wow,” I exclaimed as I shoved my cart through the two-inch deep snow toward my mini-van. “Congratulations. That’s a lot of work you’ve done.” (No wonder the fellow looked familiar; I’d shopped there all my life, which meant I must have been seeing him since I was fourteen!)

I reached my van and opened the hatch, while the man began collecting carts, gathering them together like a cowboy rounding up cattle. “I come here and work hard every day,” he said proudly, “then I go home to a beautiful wife.”

Something stirred inside of me. The man was beaming. “God has blessed you,” I said, meaning it. “You have a good life.”

I piled my Fruit Loops and dog bones and Tide detergent into my van.

“We have a cockatiel named Spike, too. He’s little. Only about this big.” He took his hands off the cart he pushed to indicate the bird’s size.

“That’s cool,” I said. “I have two dogs, named Hunter and Murphy.”

Soon, my groceries were loaded. The man happily took my cart off my hands, and I headed for the driver’s side door, congratulating him again on his twenty-second anniversary. Just before I slammed my door, he hollered, “My name’s Bob, by the way. You’re welcome to visit this store anytime.”

It almost feels like I don’t need to spell out the spiritual lessons here. Does Bob know about Jesus? Maybe I’ll ask him next time I go shopping. Whether he does or not, he’s doing some things the Bible recommends far better than I am.

Bob is content with the life he has been given. He is thankful for his job, his wife and his cockatiel. He’s kind, reaching out to his fellow human beings. He is hard-working and joyful. “I come here and work hard every day,” he said. Can we say that?

I think about how goal-oriented we pre-published writers are. Sometimes it seems that everything is somewhere in the future, the contract-signing day we are living to see. And our happiness somehow hinges on that day coming to pass. My conversations are so often about the books I hope to publish, the degree I hope to earn, the career I hope to have. But God doesn’t want us to store up our treasures in barns or worry about tomorrow. He wants us to be content in every situation, to find pleasure in having worked hard today, and if we are blessed with a family, to treasure them. He doesn’t want us complaining, but rather giving thanks.

I confess that without really thinking about it, I’ve probably always looked down a bit on people like Bob, felt sorry for them. People whose mental capacity relegates them to jobs like grocery-bagging or cart-collecting, without hope of advancement. But as I drove away in my mini-van, I envied Bob. His attitude was so obviously superior to mine. He has acheived a level of contentment that few of us will see this side of heaven. God bless Bob.

Lord, I thank You for putting Bob in my path today. Make me content and thankful like him. Help me to be pleasant and cheerful and helpful. Help me to appreciate the job and family You’ve given me. Thanks for reminding me that it isn’t so much what you do as how you do it. Help me to do my work to the best of my ability, as unto you, and to find pleasure in doing so. Amen

Author Interview: J.M. Windle

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

Betrayed, my newest international intrigue title, scheduled for release by Tyndale House Publishers, March, 2008, is set in the context of U. S. involvement in Central America over the last half-century and the implications of that involvement on the current war on terror. Motivation for this story came through my own international involvement and research as I’ve seen repeatedly the consequences of powerful individuals making decisions for motives of fear or greed rather than right and wrong. We like to blame a universal ‘they’—the government, the system, Western civilization, or on the flip side, the Communists or Islamic jihadists, etc. But in reality it comes down again and again to very specific individuals making very specific decisions for right or wrong. And sometimes those decisions can impact an entire nation or change the course of human history. The United States is, unfortunately, reaping the harvest of some of those decisions. While a fictional story set in one Central American country, Betrayed is a realistic microcosm of patterns repeated around the globe. But Betrayed is far from just a tale of human chaos; rather, of faith and beauty and hope, along with a powerful challenge to individual responsibility.

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 and what went through your head.

I have always written, whether thesis papers, journals, or communication to family and constituency. In fact, I broke into the editorial world during my college years when I graded theses for professors. But I wrote my first book literally out of boredom. My husband and I were the only Americans at the time in the southern Bolivia city where we lived, working with a Christian ministry organization. While my husband was gone traveling through the Andes mountains for two weeks at a time, I was stuck at home with three preschoolers, no car, TV, radio. Once my children were in bed, I had only the handful of English-language books I’d read dozens of times. I finally decided if I had nothing to read, I’d write a book instead. That became Kathy and the Redhead, a children’s novel based on my growing-up years at an American missionary kid boarding school in the Andes mountains of Venezuela.

From there I began writing Spanish-language material for women and children at risk as well as writing as a journalist for a variety of international and Christian ministry publications. That was followed by seven more children's books, including the six books of the Parker Twins Adventure Series, a young adult mystery/suspense series set in a multi-cultural background. My first adult fiction release, CrossFire, a 630-page political/suspense novel set in the counter-narcotics war in Bolivia, was released in July, 2000. Then came a teen novel, Jana’s Journal, and a second adult political/suspense novel, The DMZ, set in the guerrilla warfare in Colombia, followed by FireStorm, a sequel to CrossFire that explores the Islamic terror ties in Latin America, then Betrayed, my newest release. I am currently writing a novel set in Afghanistan.

My first seven book titles were written in Bolivia and sent off to American publishers from there. It often took months to hear back, sometimes with encouraging comments, but always a rejection. I had finished the first three children’s books of the Parker Twins Series while still waiting and was in the US for a twelve-week tour when an editor actually tracked me down at a conference to ask if my children’s series was still available. The answer was, of course, an ecstatic yes. That editor worked with me on my next ten titles with two different publishing houses.

Do you still experience self-doubts regarding your work?

Always! Every rough draft I am writing looks like junk to me. I’ve learned to push myself through that and just get the story down on paper, because when I’m done and start in on the edit stage, I myself am always amazed at the quality of book that emerges. Then the self-doubts begin again as I’m waiting for the editors to decide if they like the book.

What mistakes have you made while seeking publication?

Blithely mailing manuscript proposals from Bolivia to top-ten lists in the current Writers Market Guide. That I was ever published demonstrates that miracles still do happen.

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

Don’t wait for inspiration; set your behind in that chair and just do it!

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

Nothing comes to mind; to be honest, writing my first few books in Bolivia without any input or writing advice from anyone was a difficult part of my own writing curve.

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

Read contract fine-print carefully, and don’t ever assume, because you are dealing with nice people at the publishing house, that a contract will automatically be fair to you as an author; the editors aren’t the ones writing contracts!

Is there a particularly difficult set back that you’ve gone through in your writing career you are willing to share?

Yes, see the above. Because of some contract and editorial shenanigans as I was writing books 4-6 of my first children’s series, the rug was yanked out under myself and several other children’s authors, leaving all of our recently-launched series stranded with no marketing or future. But that frustration ended up giving me the time gap and encouragement to write my first adult novel, CrossFire, set in the counter-narcotics war in Bolivia where I was then living. I might still be churning out children’s series were it not for that life interruption.

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

I am an eclectic reader and will read anything of any genre as long as it is superbly written. Much depends what I’m currently writing. A few months ago my nightstand was filled with books related to Guatemala, where my latest title, Betrayed, is placed. Now for the same reason, it is filled with non-fiction and fiction related to Afghanistan. I read several books a week and enjoy all the most recent best-sellers as well as re-reading or discovering classics. Because I read so quickly and am constantly out of reading material, I LOVE having other readers inform me of a book they have loved and which I’ve yet to read—so feel free to send me recommendations.

When it comes to inspirational reading, Max Lucado is by far my favorite with beautiful prose and deep spiritual content.

In other areas a few favorites are:

1) historical fiction: M. M. Kaye, Kenneth Roberts, Leon Uris;

2) political/suspense: Frederick Forsyth, Tom Clancy, John Grisham, Alistair McClain, Robin Cook;

3) Science fiction: J.R.R. Tolkien, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Patricia McKillip, Robin McKinley, C.S. Lewis;

4) Mystery: Agatha Christie, Mary Higgins Clark, Mary Stewart, Madelaine Brent, Georgette Heyer;

5) Romance--I must say I'm still a sucker for a good Georgette Heyer, though all mine were tattered years ago;

6) Westerns: Louis L'Amour is the only one I read, but he is good enough to convert even a non-Western fan;

7) General fiction: Chaim Potok's The Promise and The Chosen; When The Legends Die--there too many to even begin to start.

And, of course, the entire range of classics. I still love to read Winnie The Pooh to my kids and chuckle with my teenagers over Eeyore's classic speeches.

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

My last book, whichever that currently is. My goal is to write each book better than the one before, and I think my readers would agree they’ve come a long way since my first children’s novel. In truth, I never look back or even read books I’ve already written. I am always in the process of having finished my last book while writing the next. Due to that self-doubt mentioned above, I’m always astounded at how well the last one has turned out even while I’m pulling my hair out and sure I’ll never do as well on the current project. Different readers have different favorites. What thrills me is when readers write to say that one of my books, whichever one it might be, has impacted their lives and hearts.

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

I’m sure a pet peeve I share with most writers is having to get out there and aggressively market instead of cozying up with my next manuscript. On the other hand, it is in new places and people I find inspiration, and I do enjoy meeting readers, so it is just as well the process is there to force me out of my solitude.

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

That would be an entire book in itself. In brief, the process is supremely individual to each writer. There are best-selling authors who write as though constructing a building with every scene, character, conversation, plot twist set out on three-by-fives before writing the book. Others write as though cultivating a tree, letting the story gradually grow. I tend toward the latter. By the time I've researched my next setting (currently Afghanistan), I have a solid idea of the first part of the story, what political and spiritual theme I want to weave through, and I know the ending (an essential because if you don't know the ending, you end up painting yourself into a corner or wasting months of dead-end writing you have to cut). But the middle is rather broad, opening up in detail as I get to that part of the story.

In rough draft, I will take a week or two brainstorming all kinds of speeches, personal feelings and spiritual thoughts, descriptions of places I've been or researched, thoughts, interviews with DEA, Special Forces, etc. that give me authenticity to those characters, ideas I plan to work into the book, even if I don't know the order they will come into the story. Then as I actually write the story, I can go back and pull those nuggets from my files. I also keep a notebook through each book so that if I think of anything, even if it is for a future part of the book, a conversation, thought, etc., I jot it down so I have it when I get to that part of the story.

As you can see, I do tend to grow a book like a tree. By the time I’m done, I have a great story with terribly messy prose. But I’m an excellent editor, so I start back at the beginning, rewriting, rearranging, filling in plot holes, etc. Then comes one last polish for actual prose and grammar. At this point, I am always surprised and excited at how well it has all come together.

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

As I’ve studied literature and history, I’ve always been intrigued at how books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin dealing with slavery or Charles Dickens’s books that raised the consciousness of the British middle and upper classes to the injustice and oppression all around them, wordy, meandering, unedited tomes that would probably never pass a publisher’s committee today, had such an impact, literally bringing about social, political, and spiritual change in their society and changing the course of history. My dream is to someday write a story that hold up such a light and effect such change in the world in which I live.

Was there ever a time in your writing career you thought of quitting?

Every time I start a new book, looking ahead at the daunting amount of work involved. But I no longer take it seriously because I know once I get too far into the book, I’ll be hooked and won’t be able to quit. I did think of quitting during those early years of rejection letters and even with the ups and downs of those first books, mainly because I was investing so much time that could be invested elsewhere in our international ministry. I prayed often that God would definitively close the door if this wasn’t what I was called to do so that I would not waste more time. Instead at each point when I was most discouraged, a door would open, I would get a call from an editor or a grateful letter from a reader. Now I know beyond doubt that I am called to write and could never be happy doing anything else.

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

My favorite part of being a writer is holding a finished book in my hand. My least favorite is the mind-stretching, heart-gripping, excruciating labor of writing that rough draft. Birthing the story is definitely the hardest work I do in my life and makes everything else seem easy by comparison.

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

I am a typical writer in that I’d rather stay holed up in my attic (figuratively) writing my next book than mess with marketing and publicity. That publishers want their authors out there in the public arena is the constant juggling act between publishers and authors. My current publisher has put together an excellent marketing and publicity team with a publicist who has taken much of the angst out of the marketing process. Best advice: follow the advice of your editor/agent/publicist/marketing team. They really do know what they are talking about.

Have you received a particularly memorable reader response?

I received a phone call at home from a reader (my first alert of just how easy I was to find on the Internet). He was a pastor’s son with military/law enforcement background, and he told me how he’d lost his faith, turned his back on God and his family, and was considering suicide when someone gave him The DMZ, an inspirational novel set in the guerrilla zones of Colombia where I grew up and the Islamic militant involvement there. He was intrigued by a quote from the book that became its theme: “Those who are not willing to bleed and die for what they hold dear will always be held captive by those who are.” He shared how as he walked the journey to faith with the book’s protagonist, he found himself on his face crying out to God and that he had come back to faith and to his family. I could tell such stories with every book; this is why I write!

Parting words?

Perhaps just a few of the themes that have spilled over into my writing from the people and places and heart lessons of my life:

The DMZ: “Those who are not willing to bleed and die for what they hold dear will always be held hostage by those who are.”

CrossFire: “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vine . . . yet I will rejoice in God my Savior.” (Habakkuk 3:17-19)

FireStorm: We are not called to safety, but to stand strong in the storm.
Betrayed: ‘Do what is right and do not give way to fear’ (1 Pt. 3:6)

If those themes sound more troubling than joyous or peaceful, let me assure you that they are not because our safety, and the safety of our families and our country, are not, and never will be, in the absence of the storm, but in the presence of a Creator God who rides on the wings of the wind, whose laughter crashes through the thunder and lightning, and who in the midst of any storm cradles His children safely and tenderly in the palm of His Almighty hand. If I did not have that absolute assurance, I would not have the nerve to research, much less write, the stories that I do.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Author Sandra Parshall ~ Interviewed

Sandra Parshall is the author of The Heat of the Moon, which won the Agatha Award for Best First Novel of 2006, and Disturbing the Dead, published to favorable reviews in 2007. A former reporter on newspapers in her home state of South Carolina as well as West Virginia and Baltimore, MD, she now lives in the Washington, DC, area with her journalist husband and two cats. Visit her web site and her blog.

What is your current project? Tell us about it.

I recently finished a suspense novel with new characters. The book is told from two viewpoints, but the central character is the daughter of Vietnam-era radicals who went underground 35 years ago, with murder charges hanging over them. Now they’ve decided to resurface… and people start dying. I hope to have some good news about this book to share soon. I’ve had the idea for quite a while – I came of age in the Vietnam era, and the radicals were my contemporaries, but I began to wonder what it would be like to be the child of two infamous war protesters and how I could tell her story in the context of a suspense novel.

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 and what went through your head?

I’ve been writing stories and living in my imagination since I was a child. I started trying, without success, to get my writing published when I was a teenager. I have several unsold novels stacked on a shelf. The Heat of the Moon was rejected by New York editors, although two loved it enough to want to publish it. For different reasons, neither bought it.) I gave up on it and went on to write other things.

Eventually, at the urging of two friends who loved THOTM, I submitted it to Poisoned Pen Press. It was so different from anything they’d ever published that I was certain they would reject it – so certain that I more or less forgot they had it. After 16 months, I returned home from doing errands one day and found a message from Rob Rosenwald, the PPP publisher, telling me they wanted to publish my book and asking me to call him. It seemed completely unreal. The Heat of the Moon was published exactly as I wrote it – the same book no one in New York would buy – and went on to win an Agatha Award.

I owe a huge debt to Barbara Peters, my editor at PPP, for giving me a chance to have a writing career.

Do you still experience self-doubts regarding your work, or struggle in a particular area such as writers block or angst driven head-banging against walls? Please share some helpful overcoming hints that you’ve discovered.

I have constant doubts. I am never confident that I can finish a book anyone will want to read. All those years of writing without success have left a deep mark that publication hasn’t erased.

I don’t have writer’s block, though, because I concentrate on the moment, on the scene or chapter I’m writing today, and I try not to let any worries about marketing derail me while I’m creating the story. The actual writing is a refuge from all the anxieties surrounding the effort to sell the finished book. I’m usually able to write regardless of what else is going on.

I was writing on 9/11, and every day in the weeks afterward. When I stopped writing, the horror of what had happened overwhelmed me. Writing was an escape.

What mistakes have you made while seeking publication? Or to narrow it down further what’s something you wish you’d known earlier that might have saved you some time/frustration in the publishing business?

I wish I’d found a critique group earlier. I’m sure my writing would have improved more quickly and I wouldn’t have spent so many years making the same mistakes again and again. Some people say they can’t work with critiquers, but I can’t get along without that feedback. I also wish I had developed an interest in mystery/suspense earlier, because I know now that this is what I was meant to write.

What’s the best or worst advice (or both) you’ve heard on writing/publication?

I believe the advice to “write what you know” has been responsible for billions of words of self-indulgent, unpublishable writing. We need to get outside our own heads and our own narrow range of experience if we want to write for a broad audience. We should write about what fascinates us, and if we start out knowing next to nothing about it, there’s a process that will expand our knowledge. It’s called research.

The best advice is what you’ll hear from most writers: READ. An appalling number of people never read a book, and even some aspiring writers read very little. Yet reading a novel will teach you more about writing than any how-to book.

What is your favorite source for finding story ideas?

The world around me. If a writer can’t look around and see more potential stories than she’ll ever have time to write, she’s simply not paying attention. Through newspapers and magazines, television and the internet, we can see more of the world than ever before, but our own families and communities can also be rich sources of story ideas. I would never slavishly try to duplicate an actual event, though. Reality is merely the starting point. Imagination takes care of the rest.

Have you ever had one of those awkward writer moments you’d like to share with us, the ones wherein you get “the look” from the normals? Example, you stand at a knife display at the sporting goods store and ask the clerk which would be the best to use to disembowel a six foot man…please do tell.

To tell you the truth, I don’t pay much attention to other people’s reactions when I’m talking about crime. My husband and I sit in restaurants debating the best way to kidnap and/or murder somebody, and I’m sure we draw some stares, but hey, if people are going to eavesdrop, they should be prepared to hear almost anything.

Is there a particularly difficult set back that you’ve gone through in your writing career you are willing to share? Or have you ever been at the point where considered quitting writing altogether?

I’ve considered quitting many times. If you spend a long time trying to get published without succeeding, you will inevitably begin to feel you’re wasting your life. An especially hard blow was being dropped by an agent I liked very much and wanted to stay with.

What are a few of your favorite books?

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, A Dark-Adapted Eye by Barbara Vine, Mortal Memory and Breakheart Hill by Thomas H. Cook, Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass by Isak Dinesen, Tales of Burning Love by Louise Erdrich.

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

I’m proud of The Heat of the Moon because I was able to get inside the main character’s head and heart more completely than I’d done in any previous writing.

Dean Koontz recently shared his take on the concept on “the writer’s sacred duty.” What comes to your mind at the mention of “the writer’s sacred duty?”

You want the truth? I think it’s more than a little pretentious. Nonfiction writers have a duty to tell the truth, but a novelist’s only duty is to entertain the reader. If your story also moves people, gives them a new insight, and changes them in some small way, that’s a bonus. If all a novelist does is entertain, she has fulfilled her duty.

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

The same one most writers would name – the slowness of it all. Finding an agent will take months, at a minimum, and often takes years. Submissions to publishers can go on for months. Sell a book, and you’ll have another wait for your contract, then your advance check, then your editor’s revision notes. During all this waiting, you have to keep moving forward, writing the next book and the next. Never slow down.

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

I’d like to stay published! That’s not easy. Many good writers with solid but not spectacular fan bases are being dropped by their publishers. If I’m still publishing novels five years from now, I’ll be satisfied.

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

I enjoy the writing itself. I love fan mail (it’s all e-mail these days) from readers who have enjoyed my books. I love knowing my books are in libraries, because libraries were so important to me when I was growing up. I don’t enjoy most aspects of promotion, although I do have fun talking to readers and other writers at events. I’m not a good traveler and would never go near an airplane if I didn’t have to.

What aspect of writing was the most difficult for you to grasp/conquer? How did you overcome it?

Pacing is still my biggest worry. Plotting isn’t easy for me either, and that’s one reason I prefer to write suspense rather than straight mysteries. Plotting Disturbing the Dead, making sure every piece of the puzzle was in place, just about killed me. Writing a mystery is hard work! Suspense has to be plotted too, of course, but it’s a lot more fun. The pacing has to be right, though, or a suspense novel won’t work at all.

How did I overcome this difficulty? I’m not sure I have, but all I can do is pay attention to the rhythm of the story, be aware of when I need to slow down and speed up, and listen to feedback from critiquers.

What is the first thing you do when you begin a new book?

Before I actually start writing, I’ll make a lot of notes about the story and the characters. At some point I’ll feel an overwhelming urge to get on with it, and I’ll start a new book file and begin writing.

Writing rituals. Do you have to sit somewhere specific, complete a certain number of words, leave something undone to trigger creativity for the next session? Some other quirk you’d like to share?

I’m lucky enough to have a room of my own for writing. Although I sometimes jot things down in longhand when I’m elsewhere, the desk in my study is where I write. I don’t set a word count goal for each day. First drafts go very fast. Second drafts, which I enjoy the most, take as long as they take. I might revise a whole chapter in one day or I might work on a single page. I never have any trouble getting back to the book, so I don’t have to trick myself into it, but if I’m trying to create a certain mood I will read passages from favorite books that capture that mood. What I need most of all is peace and quiet. I want to be left alone to write.

Plot, seat of pants or combination?

Combination. I always know how a book will start and how it will end, and those two things don’t change. I try to outline as much as I can, but I can’t outline a whole book in advance because I don’t really know the characters and story until I actually write them.

What is the most difficult part of pulling together a book? Ex. Do you have saggy middles, soggy characters, soupy plots during your first drafts…if so, how do you shape it up?

The first draft is always a mess – unfit for human consumption. But it gives me a chance to get to know the characters and develop the plot. It gives me a nice lump of story that I can knead into shape in the second draft. I have to watch out for long stretches without enough action or suspense, and I have to make sure I’m getting the characters’ thoughts and emotions and physical reactions onto the page.

Have you received a particularly memorable reader response? Please share.

I’ve received some wonderful responses to The Heat of the Moon from women who have their own difficulties with mothers and sisters. One woman told me that my book helped her understand and accept her mother and sister. That was extraordinary praise. I can only hope her family life wasn’t quite as dire as that of the Goddards!

Have you had a particularly memorable peer honor? Please share.

Winning the Agatha Award was unforgettable. I was stunned to be nominated, and had no expectation of winning. Going up on the stage to accept the award was a surreal experience. It was also a thrill to be on the Best First Novel nominees panel at Malice Domestic and to hear Margaret Maron, the moderator, read aloud a passage from The Heat of the Moon.

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

I’ve been to Malice Domestic (which takes place in Northern Virginia, where I live), Bouchercon, Deadly Ink, a book festival in Kentucky, the post-Malice Mystery Festival in Oakmont, PA. I’ve done radio interviews, appeared at bookstores and libraries, and in late March this year I’ll be on the program at the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville. I have a web site and a blog, I’ve had bookmarks printed – the usual indispensable marketing efforts.

Appearing at bookstores and libraries can mean a lot of book sales or almost none, and there’s no way to guarantee a return for your effort. These events are worthwhile, though, because you get to know the booksellers and library staff, and the booksellers will keep signed copies of your book in stock after your appearance. My bookstore signings and radio interviews were set up by Breakthrough Promotions, which saved me a lot of time and frustration. Anyone who can afford to hire a publicist should make the investment, at least for the first book.

Parting words? Anything you wish we would’ve asked because you’ve got the perfect answer?

I’m not a fount of wisdom on any topic, but I would advise aspiring writers to learn as much as they can about the current state of publishing and be realistic about the time and effort it takes to sell a book. They should look at what’s being published and ask themselves whether their writing is professional enough yet to compete in a very tough market.

To readers, I would say: If you enjoy a book, let the writer know! You have no idea how much your praise means, and your e-mail might arrive at the very time the writer’s spirits and self-confidence need a boost.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Author Interview ~ Amber Miller

Amber Miller is the pen name for Tiffany Amber Stockton, an author and professional web site designer. Her name is derived from her middle and maiden names, as she was published before she got married in July 2007. She has sold three books to the Heartsong Presents line of Barbour Publishing, with the promise of the first book in a second potential series coming up next. Other writing credits include several writing articles for various publications, five short stories with Romancing the Christian Heart, and nine contributions to the book, 101 Ways to Romance Your Marriage. A born-again Christian since the age of seven, her faith in Christ has often sustained her through difficult experiences. She seeks to share that with others through her writing and always hopes her readers will be touched and inspired.

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

Promises, Promises is my first book. It released on February 15th from Barbour Publishing and is the first of three to release this year, all set during the Colonial times of America, from the Great Awakening to the Revolutionary War, with the focus on the area of what is now known as the state of Delaware. The second, Quills & Promises, releases in July, and the third, Deceptive Promises, releases in November. In 2009, all three will be repackaged into one anthology entitled Delaware Brides.

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

About five years ago, I was driving by a house that I passed almost every day while running my usual errands. This day, in particular, something made me stop the car on the other side of the road. I rolled down the window and looked at the historic marker at the edge of the driveway with a notation that said, “circa 1740.” I thought to myself, “If only those walls could speak.” What a story they would tell!

That started me on a research journey where I learned everything I could about the home, only to learn that not a lot was known or recorded about the actual family who lived there for nearly 200 years before the house and original land was sold at a state auction. So, being the writer that I am, I took a literary license and … made it up!

The ‘what if’ moment came when I tried to develop the story line for the first book. Without a lot of background, I had to rely on the elements I had learned would make a good story. Some excellent advice given to me included the method of taking your character to a point that seems hopeless…and making it worse. So, I asked, “What if a heroine with no siblings also loses her parents, then finds herself as the sole owner of land in a new world where women have no voice, feeling as if God has forsaken her?”

And thus, Promises, Promises was born!

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?

My journey began many years ago. I wrote my first short story in 5th grade with several accolades from both my teacher and my fellow students. It was even entered into a ‘Young Writers of America’ contest and placed but didn’t get selected for publication. Ever since I learned to read at age 3-1/2, I’ve been telling stories, and I could often easily keep a captive audience. Writing seemed to be a natural progression from the verbal.

I wrote often, but it wasn’t until I was a Senior in high school that I got the ‘bug’ to write. My English teacher saw potential, and as an author herself, she encouraged me to pursue the talent further. However, I became more focused on finishing my education and getting my degree, so my writing took up residence on the back burner.
It wasn’t until 1997 when I wrote my first fan fiction and received a lot of encouragement and feedback that I realized I might be able to make something of this ability. It took me another 5 years and encouragement from Tracie Peterson (one of my favorite authors) before I took the step professionally to begin a career by joining a national organization called ACFW (American Christian Fiction Writers), then known as ACRW (American Christian Romance Writers).

I did everything I could to improve my skills and develop my craft. I bought writing books, studied a wide variety of fiction, conversed with other writers and authors, attended conferences, purchased audio recordings of workshops and presentations, and soaked up as much information as I could handle. Almost 5 years later, I sold my first book and took a rather scary step into the world of authorship.

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

Quite often, actually. However, it usually doesn’t last long. I might draw a blank for five minutes or so, but I can get going again not long after that. If I’m completely stuck and cannot find a way to move the scene in front of me along, then I jump to another scene and leave a marker in my manuscript to come back to that scene once I’ve filled in spots further along in the story. Oftentimes, the act of writing something that will happen in the near future to my characters gives me the incentive and inspiration I need to jumpstart the scene that had me stuck before.

I am by no means a stickler to writing a book in order. Movie and TV producers don’t film them in order. Why should I write a book from start to finish?

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?

Thankfully, the general issues like point-of-view or showing vs. telling don’t present as much trouble as they do for a lot of beginning writers. For me, it’s often the lack of description of the surroundings and setting the scene that caused holes in my stories.

Dialogue always comes easy as does the progression of a scene. But establishing unique descriptions or characteristics for my characters to make them individuals in their own right and not cookie-cutter or two-dimensional continued to vex me. So, I went back to studying a variety of fiction books to see how other authors did it. I also asked Linda Windsor (who mentored me through my first book) to point out to me areas where I could develop a character more and to give me an example of one scene before and after.

The Writer’s Digest books on Characters, Description and Setting also were of great help to me. Other than that, I sent my manuscript or troubling scenes to readers and asked them to make comments on what worked or didn’t work for them. Once I received that feedback back, I read it over, then stepped away for a day or two from my book to digest it. When I returned, I had a fresher outlook and perspective that enabled me to do what was needed. Sometimes, it was a small fix, and other times it required multiple alterations throughout the book.

I am still far from mastering this challenge, and it remains the biggest area that requires edits from my rough draft. But every author has a pet challenge, right?

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

I used to. It was my office next door to my bedroom. But, that was before the days of my laptop. Now, my writing goes where I go. These days, it’s the oversized couch in the living room where I can stretch out and snuggle with my blankets while having my ‘comfort foods and drink’ next to me within easy reach. I can be warm and comfortable at the same time, and that gives me the ideal setting in which to write. There are times, though, when I need the ‘noise’ of other people and activity, so I might go to the closest Panera Bread and sit with a cup of green tea or hot chocolate. When the weather is nice, I sit on the deck.

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

No. I find that if I set a goal and don’t meet it for whatever reason, it makes me feel like I’ve failed, and that’s the quickest way for me to lose my motivation. So, I simply make a goal to write every day, even if it’s just 2-300 words. I don’t often stop at that, though, as once I get rolling, the words flow.

On a deadline, though, I divide the days I have left by the words I need to write and do everything I can to meet that goal. I don’t have much of a choice, otherwise.

You also own your own web design business. How do you balance writing and web design?

It is often a difficult balance to strike. Because I get requests all throughout the day, I have to discipline myself not to stop writing in order to check email unless I’m truly stuck or taking a legitimate break. Even then, I have to force myself to stick to my writing and allow the early mornings or early evenings for client work.

Basically, I work both ‘careers’ in the same way. I set aside certain time for both, and that becomes my focus time. If a client requires an immediate update or emergency, obviously, I bump that to the top of the list. If I’m on a deadline, I usually let my clients know and ask that they hold their changes or requests until after that specific date. If they can’t, then I carve out time to take care of what needs to be done.

The primary thing that helps me is the definitive acceptance that these are my careers and they pay the bills. It takes discipline and self-control to successfully strike the balance. Do I always succeed? No. Is it easy? Not a bit. But, are my clients and editors forgiving as long as there is a valid reason for the delay? You bet. If the delay is due to my own laziness, I sacrifice sleep or give up a movie and computer games to make up for it.

Of course, the best part about my design business is that most of my clients are authors or speakers, with a handful in the entertainment industry. So, quite often, my two careers intertwine and provide me with the optimal enjoyment doing what I do.

What does a typical day look like for you?

Well, since I also work part-time at the local Christian bookstore and run a web design business from home, I don’t have a ‘typical’ day, per se…unless I’m on a deadline, of course! Then, almost everything else takes a back seat or gets shoved to the back burner. However, I rise early (most days) with my husband and send him off to work first thing. Then, I sit down at my computer and go through any email, respond and take care of business, make any updates to client web sites or work on design elements that are pressing in nature, and finally get to my writing.

On the days that I work at the bookstore, I only have a few hours in the morning to write, but I also write at night as a way to unwind after a long day. These days are usually busy until about 8pm, and if I wrote before work, then I sometimes respond to email or do some web work. It all depends on the inspiration or the motivation that strikes.

On days that I remain home with nowhere to go, I try to set a page count minimum and stick to it. And I usually end up doing marketing work, watching a movie or playing a computer game to break up the day as I write. My errands are usually run first thing in the morning.

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

Wow! This is a loaded question. But, since I wrote my very first complete book in 17 days and my second in 23 days, I’ll use those one as the ‘brief’ process. When I get an idea for a book, I usually sit down immediately and dump my thoughts on paper, then save it. That way, even if I can’t write immediately, I’ll have the idea saved.

From the time the idea strikes, I begin planning what types of events and situations I’ll include. I start with my 2 primary characters and build upon them with friends, family and acquaintances. I put at least one of them (maybe two or three) in a situation to open the book by jumping right into the action, then let the story tell itself from there. I don’t often have an exact plan how the story will go, but I have a general guideline and outline to use as reference.

When I really get into a story, the words fly from my fingers. Because I am a bit of a perfectionist, I can’t often progress forward until I’m certain I have the primary bits of the story in place before moving to the next chapter. This means I might stop in the middle of a scene to do a little research or consult a writing book on how to ‘fix’ a problem that’s bogging me down. If I can’t find it within 5-10 minutes, though, I skip it, make a notation, and move on.

This process continues until I type the last word of the book. Then, I take a few days off from the story and come back to it with fresh eyes to do the revisions and edits. Since I am overly detailed in the initial draft, revisions for me don’t usually take too long. Even when I get the edits back from my editor after submission, most of the changes are minor compared to the overall flow and characterization and motivations throughout the story.

My own changes, the ones from my editors, and the suggestions from a couple of select readers who preview my work, all combine and take me a maximum of two weeks of work after the first draft is done. Altogether, it would probably take me 4-6 weeks to write a novel.

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

Aww, shucks. You mean I’m not allowed to list my own books? Actually, I’m not sure I would at this stage in the game. Don’t get me wrong. I love what I write, but there are far more authors out there who have been in this business longer than I and who have had many more years to perfect their craft. I know I still have a lot to learn.

That being said, for the most part, I read historical, but I also enjoy contemporary romantic comedy and women’s fiction (or issue-driven stories). Because my reading time is more limited now that I’m writing, I have to be more selective. What I look for is a good story, well-developed characters and a believable situation where I can relate to what the characters are experiencing or accept why they react the way they do. I want characters to be based in reality, be well-grounded in faith and family and have strong motivations for their actions without seeming two-dimensional. Humor is usually a good thing too.

Some books that I believe fit this bill are (and I’m looking at the few books I’ve actually kept on my bookshelf as I type this):

The Bible
Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers
A Bride Most Begrudging by Deeann Gist
The Ribbons West and Ribbons of Steel series by Tracie Peterson and Judith Pella
It Had to be You by Linda Windsor
Almost anything by Jane Eyre
The Caitlin series by Francine Pascal
The Conviction of Charlotte Grey by Jeanne Cheyney
Mrs. Mike by Benedict and Nancy Freedman

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

Linda Windsor’s advice that, “Rejections are footprints in the sands of your career. If you’re not getting them, you’re not moving,” stands out foremost in my mind.

The other is, “You have to read in order to write. Immerse yourself in a wide variety of writing styles, find your own voice and stick to it. Then, write, write, write.” However, I don’t know who it was that said that. Somehow, I managed to save it without jotting down the originator.

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?

Well, I am not the ‘common’ story, or what appears to be the more popular path taken in the publishing world. I was published before I turned 30 and have books released before any kids have come. So, I have already established a pattern and routine and placed a certain spotlight on my writing that will transition with the growth of my family. What this means is that I won’t have to try to convince my family of the importance of my writing and my career. They will see it first hand and know it from the start.

But if I could latch onto something I wish I had known, it would be the knowledge that being younger in this industry isn’t always better. It just means I have to work twice as hard to be ‘accepted.’ I have often encountered folks who are fifteen or twenty years older or even twice my age and more, who have treated me with the belief that because I have not passed certain rites of passage or earmarks along the way, I don’t ‘qualify’ as a bonafide success or one who can offer any advice to others.

On the flip side, I have encountered others who have been inspired by my goals and determination and have found their own inspiration as a result. They commend me for going for what I wanted early in life, and gain a newfound desire in their own lives. The numbers in this group far outnumber the ones in the first group, but that doesn’t mean the struggle is any easier.

For publishing, it would be knowing just how much work would have to go into marketing in order to spread the word and get yourself known. It often feels like you against everyone else out there, and you have to stay on top of everything in order to keep up with the competition.

However, God wouldn’t have called me to this or provided the tools I needed to reach this point if He wasn’t going to stick with me and guide me through it. I know I still have a lot to learn, and I still don’t know all that I need to know about marketing strategies or pumping out a book that has the potential to become a best-seller, or even about developing a guaranteed story line that an editor will snatch and want to buy within minutes of seeing it. What I do know is that I am remaining teachable and doing all I can to learn from those who have gone before me so that I might one day pass the torch as they have.

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

I am almost always doing some form of marketing, even if it’s nothing more than making a brief note in an email reply or posting a comment on a blog or forum and listing my web site or the name of my current book. Gone are the days when you can write a book and let the publishing company handle everything. They are behind you, yes, but when you partner with them, you go ten times as far!

Some things that have worked well for me were registering my domain name very early in the game and setting up a site as soon as I had something to put on it. That didn’t mean I waited until I had a book. On the contrary, I only waited until I had a bio, a resume of writing credits and some sample pieces of writing.

My site blossomed into including a blog and author interviews on the main page of my site, and eventually I also ended up posting the fan fiction I wrote years ago. Because those audiences are still out there and discovering my stories, I gain traffic. A good number of them loved my writing then and have followed me throughout my career to the point of purchasing my first book.

My web site works 24-7 for me, even when I’m sleeping. Readers connect with me there and learn about my writing. It’s been proven that readers who know more about an author are more likely to pick up a book by him/her than an author that remains virtually invisible.

Adding my web site URL to my signature in my emails and everything you write electronically has helped too. You’d be amazed where visitors might see your site and what might bring them to you.

For non-electronic marketing, I invested in business cards, brochures, flyers, magnets, post-it notes, stationery, etc., and had my web site, contact information and what I do printed on them in various levels of detail. It is always handy to have a business card with me at all times, as I never know when I might encounter someone who becomes interested in my work and wants to know more.

Finally, I try to carve out time to visit and comment on blogs or online journal sites or forums that are connected in some way to what I write and leave my web site URL in those comments. Other readers who might be interested in what I have to say have visited my site and taken a look at what I have to offer.

Becoming familiar with the bookstores in your area is also important. Once you sell a book, start developing a relationship with the manager and employees or the ones in charge of author publicity and promotion.

Bottom line: Do as much as you can yourself. The more you can do, the better your chances are for selling more books.

Do you have any parting words of advice?

Writing is not for the faint of heart. It takes a lot of hard work, determination, patience, perseverance and faith. And it won’t happen overnight. You have to maintain a teachable spirit and be open to constructive criticism, no matter how far along in your writing journey you get. In the end, the rewards far outweigh all the sweat and tears you shed along the way. Most importantly, if you feel this is the path for you, never give up!

Want to know more about Tiffany Amber Stockton? Check out her profile on Shoutlife or visit Eagle Designs at