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Monday, March 31, 2008

James Scott Bell ~ Revisiting Plotting

James Scott Bell studied philosophy, creative writing, and film, acted in Off Broadway theater in New York, and received his law degree with honors from the University of Southern California. He's also a bestselling novelist and screenwriter. A former trail lawyer, he's a winner of the Christy Award for Excellence in inspirational fiction, and is a three-time finalist for that award.

He is a contributing editor to Writers Digest magazine. His book Plot & Structure (Writers Digest Books) is one of the most popular books on the market for novelists and screenwriters. He serves on the board and faculty of Act One, the Hollywood screenwriting program, and is an adjunct professor of writing at Pepperdine University in Malibu. He was recently hired to adapt a bestselling Christian novel for feature film production. In addition, he works as a script doctor, specializing in faith-themed scripts. Jim lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Cindy.

We asked Jim to answer some questions about plotting.

What are the pros and cons to plotting vs. seat of the pants?

As I explain in Plot & Structure, there are NOPs (No Outline People) and OPs (Outline People) and hybrids. The OPs love the security of knowing where the story is headed. The trade off is a resistance to the story taking on organic life, having the characters head in a direction you didn't plan on.

This is what the NOPs love, the act of daily discovery. But the trade off here is that it may be a lot tougher getting to a coherent ending.

I am somewhere in the middle (NOOP?) I do like to know where I'm headed, but I always allow my characters some breathing room.

What is a common plotting mistake many fledgling writers make?

Perhaps it's in thinking that plot is about incidents only. But without great characters, deep and multi-faceted, there's no blood in it. Nothing pumping. Readers bond to plot through character.

Can a plot be as simple as knowing where you want to start and how it ends, but not quite knowing how you're going to get there?

E.L. Doctorow once likened writing to driving in the dark with your headlights on. You know where you started and where you're going to end, but along the way you can only see as far as the headlights. Then you drive there, and can see a little further.
What you need is a functioning "story engine." In my book I talk about the LOCK System, which provides that. Then you have enough "juice" to fill a novel.

What makes for an engaging plot?

The LOCK elements are Lead, Objective, Confrontation and Knock-out ending. Every one of these must be pressed to the max to make the plot work. When I teach writing, I tell the students that if they master only these four elements, they'll never write a weak plot. From there, it's all a matter of growing as a writer.

I've heard a novel should have three major set-backs for the Protagonist. Can you elaborate?

Set backs are good, and the more the merrier! I always try to follow what I call Hitchcock's Axiom. Alfred Hitchcock once said a great story is "life, with the dull parts taken out."

No trouble = dull. So I want lots of setbacks for my Lead, little ones and big ones, interior and exterior. I do like to have a major one in the middle somewhere that raises the stakes.

How does the plot differ between a plot-driven book and a character driven book?

It's a matter of feeling. You feel in a character driven book that the interior life of the Lead is the most important thing. The pace is more leisurely. But a great plot won't work on all cylinders if the characters don't engage, and have some change happen.

I was thrilled to see the ending of my WIP fits into one of your ending theories: the Protagonist doesn't get what she wants, but the result is good. Talk about endings for a moment.

There are five basic endings. Lead wins, Lead loses and we don't really know (the ambiguous ending is found mostly in literary fiction). Then, Lead wins but at a moral cost; and Lead loses, but with a moral gain.

One of the most famous endings of all, Casablanca, is of the latter type. Rick wants one thing above all, Ilsa. But if he takes her (wins) it will be at a moral cost. He will be taking another man's wife, and also harm the war effort, as the husband is a great resistance leader.

So Rick sacrifices his own want at the end. He loses Ilsa. But his moral gain is that he's found himself again. He's found a reason to live, to rejoin the war effort, not to mention the "start of a beautiful friendship" with Louis, the French police captain.

Now why is this so powerful? Because it's the central story of our culture—sacrificial death and resurrection. For my novel, Presumed Guilty, I re-wrote the ending about 30 times, even getting to the point where I was changing just a few words. Nobody said writing was going to be easy…but it's worth it.

I've always said, "Beginnings are easy; endings are hard." Work and sweat over it.

Darlene Franklin ~ Writer's Pride

Award-winning author and speaker Darlene Franklin resides in the Colorado foothills with her mother and her lynx point Siamese cat Talia. She has two grown children and two grandchildren. She loves music, reading and writing. She has published one book previously (Romanian Rhapsody, Barbour, 2005), as well as numerous devotions, magazine articles, and children’s curriculum. Gunfight at Grace Gulch is the first book in the Dressed for Death series. Visit Darlene’s website.

The first glossy magazine that published an article of mine made a mistake. They sent me a hundred copies. I gave them to my family, my friends, and my friends' friends. I pressed copies on total strangers! I still have twenty-five left in a box. I was proud, I tell you. Not only did they print my article, but photographs I took as well. Breaking into the market as a writer and a photographer at the same time sustained my love of writing--at least until the next rejection slip arrived.

A few dozen articles and one published novel later, I still thrill to see something I've written in print. I no longer give copies to all and sundry, but you can bet that I share my copy until it's dog-eared.

Such pride flees like the last rays of sunset into the darkness of night. It lasts until a magazine assigns MY idea to someone else or until another writer has more published than I do. That kind of undesirable pride is an addiction, needing constant fixes of praise from friends or acceptances or even kind rejections. Anything less leaves me shaking my head. "Why do I write? Why do I put myself through this?"

Less than a year ago I was flying high. My contest entry, three chapters of a romantic suspense novel, qualified as one of three finalists. I had half a month to polish the remainder of the manuscript. For those fifteen days I worked day and night, rewriting it once, then twice, then three times. The pot o’ gold at the end of the contest rainbow? Publication! I was certain my book was worthy. I counted down the days until the winner would be announced. The bottom line: I “only” placed third. I was crushed.

I felt the same way when my first published book “only” earned me a third place vote as favorite new author of the year in a reader poll.
Ridiculous, I know. Many people could envy my accomplishments. But I can’t seem to stop myself.
At the same time, I castigate myself for wanting recognition. Yes, I should seek publication. As one of my friends says, "God didn't give you that story to keep it in a drawer." But I shouldn't hope that people begin to recognize my name, should I? After all, Solomon listed pride as one of the seven deadly sins. I vacillate between craving recognition and hating rejection.

I was at a promising point in my writing (two assignments completed and accepted for publication), but already wanting the next fix, when I read an interesting statement on pride. In her classic Out of Africa, Isak Dinesen said, "Pride is faith in the idea that God had, when he made us . . . . Success is the idea of God, successfully carried through."

Pride as faith?

Pride, faith. Faith, pride. Hmm, that reminds me of a verse from the Bible. Paul says, "Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you . . . We have different gifts." (Romans 12:3, 6, NIV) To myself I add, "Don't think of yourself lowlier than you ought to, either."

Now that's the kind of prideful faith - or is it faithful pride? - that I want. Pride recognizes the unique gifts that God has given to me, and single-minded faith pursues the work he has set for me to do.
Norman Vincent Peale agrees. "Believe in yourself! Have faith in your abilities! Without a humble but reasonable confidence in your own powers you cannot be successful or happy."

Writing can bring me joy. I enjoy listening to people; and I share their stories through the written word. Other stories inflict pain, not happiness. Surely God doesn't want me to write about a childhood filled with abuse, including incest, does He? False pride tells me to ignore that story. But maybe God wants me to share that story to help others in the same pain. So by faith and with pride I write my story.

Other people's success won't dim that kind of pride. If anything, it shines brighter. Their success doesn't change my calling. My faith can grow through their accomplishments. Since God realized his idea in their lives, he will in mine as well.

God tests me on that through my critique group. I joined an online critique group with three other cozy mystery writers. We each developed our ideas and compared notes. Our stories—one set in a Colorado resort, one on a remote Maine island, one in a small Tennessee town, and mine, in a condo community—showed promise. First the Colorado resort story sold. A few weeks later, the editor accepted the island story and the one set in Tennessee. I waited, certain mine would make it four out of four. The editor’s decision? My cozy sounded like a romance. She invited me to submit a second proposal. I did; she rejected that one too. She is looking at my third proposal while my group mates have gone on to multiple book contracts.

I believe that God will realize his idea in my life. It may not be a “cozy.” Maybe that isn’t my calling, although I love reading mysteries. Maybe it’s one of the other proposals waiting on editors’ desks even as I write. Maybe it’s something new that I haven’t tried yet.
Faith sustained me through that dry period, when words seem as sparse as water in the desert and no one wanted my work. My calling doesn't come from the market, but from God. If an article never sells, I have still succeeded.

So I will write. Write out of pride that God has words to deliver through me. Only me. Write out of faith that what God has called me to do is worth doing. By writing, I please my greatest audience--the Father who gave me the gift. His delight strokes my soul with all the encouragement I will ever need.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Being Bleak

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 and contributes monthly commentary at Novel Journey. He and his wife Lisa live in Southern California, where they have raised four children. You can visit him at

“What branches grow out of this stony rubbish?”
T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

This year’s Academy Awards ceremony was one of the least watched in recent years. Variety reported that Oscar ratings fell to an all-time low, with an alarming 20% falloff. While some speculated it had to do with the writer’s strike, most believed it was the Best Picture nominees, a decidedly dark bunch. Of the five films, only Juno carried much levity (and even then, it involved a pregnant teen contemplating abortion and the dysfunctional adults in her life). The rest, including Best Picture winner No Country for Old Men, were not nearly as optimistic about the state of humankind. Whether it was a robotic serial killer, a ruthless oilman, a corrupt attorney, or an adolescent liar, Hollywood rendered a cinematic unfurling of human depravity at its best. Where is Frank Capra when you need him?

Really, it’s not that surprising. Bleak is becoming fashionable these days. The last several decades have witnessed more music, films and books with an unapologetically grim streak. Cormac McCarthy's The Road, for instance, is about a father and son trekking across a post-apocalyptic wasteland, fleeing marauding gangs and resisting
the urge to cannibalize. The exceedingly cheerless book only won the Pulitzer Prize. Children of Men, one of the most critically acclaimed films of 2006, portrayed a world of infertility, withering under the weight of its physical and existential barrenness. And somewhere along the way, Batman became The Dark Knight and the Joker went from Jack Nicholson's clownish caricature to the late Heath Ledger's sinister psychopath.

Even a cursory survey of pop culture reveals a bent toward bleak, a trendy morbidity that infuses our worldview and lifestyle.
Gothic culture revels in black and our philosophers accommodate by fashioning nihilistic wardrobes stitched with the thread of despair. Perhaps Thom Yorke, lead singer for the band Radiohead, sums up the Zeitgeist of our generation best when, in the song Bodysnatchers, he intones,

Has the light gone out for you?
Because the light's gone for me
It is the 21st century

Maybe more than any other, the 21st century is about the light going out.

This trend towards bleak creates an interesting dilemma for the Christian artist and author. On the one hand, Christian art has come to mean anything but bleak. Allen Arnold, Senior Vice President of Thomas Nelson Fiction, in a
interview on Novel Journey this weekend, was asked to define Christian Fiction. He said,

By and large, Christian Fiction has its own man-made, restrictive rules for content and character development. Much of it forces a "precious moments” or G-rated worldview that isn't comfortable with the mystery of God…or with many other things.

Sadly, this “‘precious moments’ or G-rated worldview” is fairly prevalent in the subculture of Christian art. Like a twisted rendition of Groundhog's Day, we reincarnate happy endings ad nauseam, unable to break the cycle, no matter how disconnected from reality they are.

Nevertheless, even the most buoyant believer must admit that the world is a bleak place. The nightly news is full of stories about terrorist bombings, celebrity overdoses, global warming, corporate corruption, political scandal, senseless crime, genocide, infanticide and suicide. Real life, as opposed to the Precious Moments version of life, does not always have a happy ending.

Furthermore, the Bible pulls no punches about the corrosive state of human depravity and the dismal future of our own making. The apostle Paul wrote:

But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God… (II Timothy 3:1-4 NIV).

Terrible times. Brutal people. Geez, what a gloom merchant!

But Paul’s not the only negativist. Jesus used similar language in describing the end of the age when He said,

“…there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equaled again. If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive…” (Matthew 24: 21-22).

Sure the Bible ends with a celestial city wherein the saints go marching in. But along the way, it describes a society in collapse barreling toward a realm of hideous torment, a spiritual sanitarium where human souls exist in perpetual agony. Hell is as much a part of the Scriptural record as is Heaven, and without it the Story is incomplete.

And who better to write about Hell than those who know the whole Story?

But while Rome burns, many of us are busy fiddling about Shangri-la, sanitizing our stories with the utmost care, bleaching them of the bleakness that is so intrinsic to human experience, drifting further and further out of touch with a world grappling with its own moral and spiritual disintegration.

Contrary to the self-help gurus, Jesus was not a "positive thinker," a first-century Zig Ziglar with a briefcase full of feel-good witticisms. In fact, many of Jesus’ tales did not have a happy ending. The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) is one such story. The poor man has his sores licked by dogs and yearns to eat the crumbs from the rich man’s table. He dies and is carried to Abraham’s side. But the rich man is hardly so lucky. He dies and dwells in a place of torment, longing for just a droplet of cool water. When that is withheld, the rich man begs
Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brethren of this place of inexhaustible anguish. Jesus ends the story with Abraham’s grim assessment, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (vs. 31).

That’s it? No redemptive summary? No Precious Moments denouement? Alas, the curtain closes on a man in perpetual agony, with brothers probably on the way to meet him.

It appears Jesus purposely did not lighten the tone of this story. He forgoes the G-rating in hopes of scaring the hell out of His listeners. Whatever redemptive interpretations occur happen outside the actual parable; the Lord appears content to simply illustrate a very grim reality.

Must rosy resolutions always follow bleak stories? Apparently not. But the Gospel is about hope, you say, the salvation of sinners, the promise of Heaven. Amen and amen! But against the promise of Heaven is the possibility of Hell. And in some ways, until we are willing to elucidate the horrific consequences of life without God, we cannot hope to accurately persuade the reader to appreciate the impossible Other. The Christian artist must do both.

In his poem, The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot writes,

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock...

Depicting despair -- the “stony rubbish,” the “heap of broken images,” and “the dead tree” -- is as much a part of the Christian artist’s calling as is portraying hope. And, in some ways, until we grapple with the wasteland, we cannot ponder "what branches grow" or invite one into the “shadow under this red rock.”

Sunday Devotion: Thanks to Teacher

Janet Rubin

My daughters and I have just finished reading a book about Helen Keller. The biography took us all through Helen's life: her babyhood bout with scarlet fever which left her deaf, dumb and blind; her lifetime friendship with teacher Anne Sullivan, who opened up the world of language to Helen, teaching her words by signing them into Helen's hand; the determination that enabled Helen to learn to write and speak and even attend Radcliffe University; her friendships with famous people like Mark Twain; and her extensive work to raise money and awareness to help provide education and opportunities for the blind. We followed up our reading with a viewing of the 1962 film "The Miracle Worker," starring Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke. My daughters and I were utterly amazed, trying to imagine a life without sight or sound, and wildly impressed at the things Helen was able to accomplish with neither.

One part of Helen's story impressed me like no other. After Anne Sullivan's death, Helen wanted to write a book about her. Teacher had invested her life completely in the endeavor of being Helen's eyes and ears, even going to college with Helen, spelling the professors' lectures and the words to all the required reading into her hand, doing hours of reading for Helen even as her own eyes failed. Helen was deeply thankful and wanted to document all that Teacher had done, so she began writing, which for Helen meant using a typewriter. She'd done a great deal of work on the manuscript when it was destroyed in a fire. There was no back-up disk, no extra copy. Only ashes. I couldn't begin to imagine the sense of loss. Yet, seven years later, Helen began work again on this book she eventually titled simply, Teacher, and it was published in 1955. Helen wrote many other books and articles, about herself and her passion for helping the blind.

And I'm left thinking, what have I to whine about? What are my excuses? I have eyes that see and ears that hear. I have a laptop, a myriad of writing resources, and an on-line network of contacts to help me. I have no physical limitations. I don't need to be desperately dependant on another person to help me understand what is going on around me. However, spiritually, I am dependant. And I do have a teacher. The Holy Spirit is the one who enables me to see spiritually. Without His guidance, I am just as blind and deaf as Helen was. But with His guidance, I have understanding and I am able to share what has been revealed to me through my writing.
God didn't give Helen Keller the gifts of sight, hearing, and easy speech, but He gave her a sharp mind, a strong and generous spirit, and a sense of determination that enabled her to do great things..and a great teacher. He gave us each whatever we need to do what He has called up to do. Am I limited if my computer crashes? If my writing ability doesn't equal that of the best-sellers? If I lose my sight? No. I have my life and I have my Teacher.

Lord, Thank You for my senses. Thank you for the life of Helen Keller and her example of a great attitude. You have given me much, the greatest gift being spiritual sight. You are my Teacher, and without you I am lost in the dark. Forgive me for trying to do this without You sometimes. Please help me to be thankful and diligent in using the tools you have given me to share the truth I have been so blessed to see with others. Amen

"Death is no more than passing from one room into another. But there's a difference for me, you know. Because in that other room I shall be able to see." Helen Keller

"Faith is the strength by which a shattered world shall emerge into the light." Helen Keller

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Allen Arnold on Christian Fiction

For our November e-zine, we featured Allen Arnold, Senior Vice President of Thomas Nelson Fiction. During our interview we asked him to define Christian Fiction and saved his answer to feature on Novel Journey.

Here's what he said:

By and large, Christian Fiction has its own man-made, restrictive rules for content and character development. Much of it forces a "precious moments” or G-rated worldview that isn't comfortable with the mystery of God…or with many other things. Protagonists or primary characters often can’t be imperfect, smoke, drink or do much else that tends to reflect real life (unless they are “saved” by the end of the story). Simply read a few Bible stories and you know God is much more honest in his stories and in showing people warts and all. His stories aren't safe or predictable or sanitized. Neither were Jesus' Parables. In fact, Christ was never content to play it safe. He didn't live in a glass bubble. He dove into the real world with gusto and hung out with sinners and was quite revolutionary. In contrast, most Christian Fiction has a long list of things that each story should include and a longer list of what each story cannot include. It's billed as safe (as if "safe" is the primary Christian virtue). But it's often “safe” at the expense of being culturally relevant or high quality. It's kind of like medicine - it's hard to take and either bland or artificially sweet - but good for you.

Thomas Nelson Fiction offers a unique and very attractive alternative.

In years and centuries past, Christians were often leaders in areas of art and entertainment. They told great stories from their worldview - but the novels weren't labelled Christian Fiction. Thomas Nelson Fiction is reclaiming that ground.

We only work with great storytellers who write from a Christian worldview - but from there we let the story be the story. We don't try to retro-fit more Christian content in nor do we try to soften it. The whole story can take place in a church or at the scene of a crime. God is present in both settings.

True fiction lovers are first and foremost looking for a great story – yet the writing in many Christian Fiction is formulaic, a copy of a general market hit, or agenda-driven with one-dimensional characters and a lesson to teach the reader. On the other hand, most novels from the general market are often over-the-top in sex, language and violence and hard to stomach no matter how good the writing may be.

That's why we seek a higher standard for fiction. C.S. Lewis said it best: "We must attack the enemy's line of communication. What we need is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects - with their Christianity latent."

More than semantics, that's a unique publishing model. We don't follow the crassness of most general market novels or the man-made rules of Christian Fiction. Rather, we find great writers who are Christian and then free them up to tell whatever story God places on their heart.

For us, the criteria is "Great Writing” and the talent pool is comprised of Christian storytellers who have the potential to reach a broad audience…a small but powerful group of novelists who want to tell stories seasoned with salt and light to the world at large.

Allen Arnold is Publisher and Senior Vice President of Thomas Nelson Fiction. A veteran of the publishing industry since 1992, he's overseen the marketing and branding of many best-selling Christian authors including Max Lucado, Ted Dekker, John Eldredge, and Frank Peretti. Prior to that, Arnold promoted some of the top consumer brands while working with some of the country's leading agencies - including Ogilvy & Mather and The Richards Group.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Author Blaize Clement ~ Interviewed

A native Texan, Blaize Clement has been a stay at home mom, dressmaker, caterer, family therapist, and writer, some of them all at the same time. She has never been a pet sitter, but has shared her home with dogs, cats, birds, fish, and neurotic gerbils. No snakes. She has a thing about snakes. She has written several parenting books, numerous essays, op-ed pieces, literary short stories and a play. Now writing the Dixie Hemingway Mystery Series, she lives in Sarasota, Florida. Visit her "Kitty Litter"blog.

What is your current project? Tell us about it.

I just finished the fourth book in my Dixie Hemingway Mystery Series, and will soon be starting the fifth. But before I do that, I'm polishing up some essays and short stories and working on a thriller that's about two-thirds finished. I find that I need to "cleanse my palate" between Dixie Hemingway stories by writing entirely different kinds of works.

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?

Oh my, this will be a long answer! I began as a ghost-writer while I was a single mom in graduate school (psychology). Later, under my own name I wrote a couple of parenting books, a gazillion essays and some short fiction, but I didn't begin to write book-length fiction until I closed my 20-year practice. You'd think all that previous writing would have been a help, but it took a few years of almost non-stop writing and lots of rejections to get into the rhythm of fiction.

I wrote a mystery based on the goofy idea of a man drowning in a cat's water bowl, and had more fun writing it than anything I'd ever done. I finished it just as the Florida MWA Sleuthfest conference was coming up, so I sent the first ten pages of the manuscript for an editor's evaluation. The editor was Marcia Markland, senior editor of Thomas Dunne, a division of St. Martin's Press. At the conference, she asked to see the rest of the manuscript. I came home from Sleuthfest on Sunday and was at the post office early Monday morning with the manuscript in hand. Marcia called on Wednesday and offered me a three-book contract.

My reaction? To tell you the truth, even though I was thrilled, I also had a sense of it being inevitable. I had paid my dues, put in my internship, and learned my craft. Anybody who does that will eventually be published.

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.

If I compare my work with the very best, I conclude all kinds of useless and unproductive crap — how I'll never measure up and who do I think I am to even try, etc, etc. But if I keep my comparisons to my own work, and only judge it by whether I'm growing and improving, I'm happy.

As for writer's block, if I hit a blank wall in a story, I know I've taken a wrong turn and that my "inner writer" is refusing to go any farther. So I go back to whatever I most recently wrote and find the place where a character did something that I imposed rather than something that grew organically from the story. I can always recognize the spots because they make me feel vaguely uncomfortable and dishonest, so I take them out. Once they've been cut, something better always presents itself, and then I can move on.

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?

This will sound hopelessly impractical and noodle-headed, but I don't have any regrets about my writing career, and I'm glad I was a psychologist first. In spite of the fact that publishing is a hard-nosed business, I still see writing as an author's way of making personal contact with other people. I never think of sales when I'm writing, I think of directing energy from my heart to a reader's heart. Every time I sit down to write, I breathe a silent prayer that every word I write will bring pleasure to my readers as well as heal old hurts. The responses I've had tell me that's happening. I leave the marketing stuff to my publishers.

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

I think the worst advice being given to beginning writers is to go the POD route or to self-publish novels that have been rejected by agents or editors. That instant gratification is almost guaranteed to keep a writer from growing.

What is your favorite source for finding story ideas?

Story ideas are all over the place, but an idea isn't as important as what we do with it. In the weekly writing workshops I hold around my dining table, I throw out an opening word or phrase and everybody writes like crazy for five or ten minutes. Then we read aloud, and we're always blown away by the fact that no two people ever come up with stories even remotely similar.

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.

I live in Florida, land of the weird, so asking questions like that wouldn't seem unusual.

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?

The most painful experience was when I foolishly entered into a verbal agreement with one of the people for whom I had ghost-written other books. Our agreement was that my name would also be on the next book and that I would share in the royalties. It wasn't and I didn't. The book turned out to be a best seller with numerous reprints, and the author was a guest on several national TV shows. I don't think he'd ever actually read the book, and watching him take credit for my work was devastating.

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

Like most avid readers, I like anything well written, no matter what the genre, and my favorite is often the one I'm reading at the moment. I love all the Greek and Hindu classics, and reread them whenever I'm working on a manuscript — I don't want to read contemporary fiction then because I fear I'll absorb it and reflect it in my own work. Of current writers, I love anything by Margaret Atwood or Barbara Kingsolver. Loved Alex Berenson's "The Faithful Spy," Gruen's "Water for Elephants," Hosseini's "The Kite Runner," and "The Time-Traveler's Wife" by Niffenegger. I could make a list a mile long.

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

Two inspirational essays about my own non-traditional healing experiences had significant and positive impact on many readers. That kind of writing is like tossing pebbles into a pond and causing harmonious ripples to spread. I can't think of anything more rewarding.

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?"

To me, the idea of "the writer's sacred duty" means always writing from one's personal truth. I don't mean confessional writing, but paying such close attention to each word that the writing is right and true for that particular story. Whether it's a heavy literary tome or the lightest chick lit, the more a writer connects with his or her own unique self and expresses it, the more universally will the work connect with readers. I can't see any other reason to write.

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

Unless it's a house of prostitution, there's no other business in the world that has so little regard for the people putting out the product. Publishing is a highly profitable business, but except for a handful of arbitrarily chosen stars, those who create the profit don't share in it.

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

Well, sure. If you don't have dreams, you'll be static. I don't tell my dreams though, because I don't want to jinx them.

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

They're the same. Writing at home is a lot more fun than going off to a job every day. On the other hand, writing at home is a solitary business just one step removed from being a hermit.

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

Structuring a novel was the most difficult thing I had to learn, and from what I've seen in evaluating other people's manuscripts, I think it's a common problem. We writers love words so much that we tend to depend on them to take us through a story. But words are like bricks laid on a pathway; they're not the path itself.

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

I usually begin with an opening line that has dropped into my mind. The third Dixie Hemingway mystery, for example, spun off from a sentence that came from nowhere: "Christmas was coming, and I had killed a man." I play around with the opening, thinking about what kind of scenes might be in a book about whatever the opening suggests, and I write the scenes that occur to me. Not with the idea that I'll absolutely use them, just with the idea that I might. As I do that, characters pop up, and I wallow in name possibilities for a while. I don't begin serious writing until I have a sizable collection of possible scenes and the right names for characters.

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 don't impose any rules on myself, but I need absolute silence when I write. I can't even have music playing.

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?

Building a novel is like building a house; you have to have a framework to hold them up. Action scenes are the framework of a novel. Once you have action scenes that tell the story, you have something to work with. If you don't get those key scenes, it doesn't matter how much plaster or paint you slap on it, the thing won't stand up.

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

This probably seems weird, but I'm so steeped in a psychologist's taboo against breaking confidences that I hold those special reader responses as almost sacred. Sharing them would seem like a violation of a reader's trust.

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

A truly effective PR campaign costs more than my annual income, so I haven't done one. Also, while I realize some promotion absolutely has to happen, it seems to me that a lot of time and energy expended in self-promotion would better be spent in writing. If the day ever comes when I'm the hottest writer on the market, I'd prefer it be because of word-of-mouth advertising. On the other hand, if Oprah calls, I sure won't turn her down.

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

I think you've covered every topic, and it’s given me food for thought. Thanks for interviewing me!

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Author Interview ~ Joy Jordan-Lake

Born in Washington, D.C., Joy Jordan-Lake’s first vivid childhood memory was watching her mother weep in front of the television, where newscasters were just reporting the shooting of Martin Luther King, Jr. Later moving south with her family, she was raised in the East Tennessee mountains, where she learned to observe the ways in which communities respond to racial prejudice with justice, hope and reconciliation --or fail to do so--and also to appreciate the beauty, the painful history, the humor and the storytelling gifts of the South.

After earning a masters degree from a theological seminary, Joy re-located to the Boston, Massachusetts, area where she earned a masters and a Ph.D. in English and American Literature from Tufts University. While in New England, she founded a clothes and food pantry targeting low-income and homeless families, served as a minister of a multi-ethnic church, worked as a free-lance journalist, and taught writing. Her first book, Grit and Grace: Portraits of a Woman’s Life, was a collection of stories, poems and essays, followed several years later by Whitewashing Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Nineteenth-Century Women Novelists Respond to Stowe, a reworking of her dissertation on literature, theology, and race in American culture.

During this period, life for Joy and her husband, Todd Lake, was becoming increasingly chaotic with two careers, numerous re-locations for Todd’s work, two young biological children and the adoption of a baby girl from China. Joy’s nearly-manic need to ask everyone around her about how they managed--or not--to balance kids and career led to her third book, Working Families: Navigating the Demands and Delights of Marriage, Parenting and Career. Joy’s fourth book, Why Jesus Makes Me Nervous: Ten Alarming Words of Faith was published last fall, and her first novel, Blue Hole Back Home, will be released this spring.
Having taught at universities in Massachusetts, North Carolina and Texas, she currently teaches part time at Belmont University in Tennessee. Joy and her husband share life with their three children, as well as the family’s menagerie of pets.
Time to crow: What new book or project do you have coming out?

On March 1, my first novel, Blue Hole Back Home, arrives in bookstores, and I’m so excited. I’ve had two nonfiction books come out earlier this year, but this novel feels entirely different from the release of the other books--maybe because it’s based partly on actual events from my own past--racial conflict and reconciliation in the small town South--and at a time when our country is talking a lot about race and about hope.

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

The story is based loosely on events from my own teen years in the late 1970s. There was one particular incident in which a girl my own age moved to my all-white mountain town in Tennessee, and we became friends. Then, although she was welcomed by my little, all-white church and by many people on the mountain, the KKK came out of dormancy and began to agitate, eventually burning a cross and terrorizing her family--and driving them out of town.

I’d written a short story about it ten years before in my first book, and a reviewer commented at the time that I should consider turning it into a novel. That immediately struck me as, “Yeah. I’ve got to do that.” Writing about it more fully became a journey not just into telling a story about fictional characters, which these are, but also about trying to work out in my own mind how the South of my childhood and teen years, which was a sweet, loving, beautiful and safe place to be growing up for a middle class white Protestant girl like me could have had--even by the late 70s and early 80s--a terribly ugly, dangerous side.

In fact, one of the incidents that became part of the novel was my learning while I was living as an adult in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and watching the movie Ghosts of Mississippi, that Byron DeLaBeckwith, the assassin of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers, had lived, safe and unmolested after his acquittal by an all-white jury, on my mountain all those years of my growing up. My horror in learning that, and in beginning to add up other racial incidents from those years--like three white young men riding through an African-American part of Chattanooga, at the foot of our mountain, and firing a rifle all up and down the streets--had to get worked out somehow, I suppose, and writing a novel was cheaper than therapy.

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

I’ve actually found getting nonfiction published relatively easy--emphasis on the relatively. But a novel--oh, my goodness: now that has been a long and winding road. I actually began my first novel, still unpublished, in 1996, and assumed it would be the first thing in bookstores. My first book turned out to be an odd little collection of stories and essays in 1997, followed by three other nonfiction books, all entirely different from one another. All the while, though, I kept writing fiction, and getting rejected, and making myself hear the critique that a few kind and encouraging editors or agents would drop along the way (in hand-scrawled notes on the rejection letters, for example) and learning from novelists whose work I admired.

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

I have plenty of irritating hang ups, but writer’s block is not one of them. I have three kids and professional responsibilities, so writer’s block strikes me as a luxury of those who have extra time on their hands. That’s not to say I don’t struggle with getting focused when I do sit down to write. And that’s not to say that everything I write is worth keeping. But I never allow myself a block of time I’ve set aside for writing to simply get diddled away because I couldn’t think of anything brilliant to put on the page. It may often not be brilliant, these words I pound out, but it’s funny how often the mere act of putting my fingers on the keyboard begins to loosen up the cogs in my brain, and every now and then, something surprising happens that I’d never planned or seen coming.

Novelists sometimes dig themselves into a hole over implausible plots, flat characters or a host of other problems. What's the most difficult part of writing for you (or was when you first started on your novel journey)?

Plot for me has definitely been the biggest hurdle. Even early in my fiction efforts, editors would comment positively on my characters or dialogue or sense of place. But often, these lovely characters with their clever comments would simply sit and talk…for pages upon pages. I did a doctorate in 19th-century fiction, so maybe that’s partly where my problem comes from, or maybe it’s partly an unwillingness to have anything bad happen to the characters I like. Or, maybe I’m just hopelessly boring left to myself--without an editor or trusted reader to tell me the brutal truth about what parts of the story drew them in, and held them in another world, and what parts they found incredibly easy to set down, yawn, and go get some ice cream out of the freezer.
How did (or do) you climb out (overcome it)?

I’ve had to force myself to pay attention to contemporary fiction in which things actually HAPPEN, and at a good clip. And I don’t mean just car chases and grisly murders, but also substantive change in character development. I’m guessing that in an effort to be subtle and literary and intellectual, my plots were mostly extended musings by a character on what they believed, or didn’t, and how awfully full of anguish they felt. I knew I was at an all time low when an editor from The New Yorker, which at that time was doing mostly stories of existential angst, complimented my “beautifully sustained comic Southern voice,” but added that there really wasn’t much of a story there. Ouch.

I was hugely blessed with an editor on this novel, Blue Hole Back Home, who heard me when I said that even though the publisher had accepted this manuscript, and even though I’d revised it countless times, I still felt like things lagged terribly in the middle. She agreed with me, and we began shuffling scenes, and I added some and re-envisioned others, and cut lots. It was the world’s best tutorial on better plotting--that is driven by characterization, not just something super-imposed.

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

In a coffeehouse actually works best--one in which I’m friendly with the people behind the counter, and we exchange familiar banter, but I don’t actually see people I know well who might want to sit and chat. I can sometimes write from my home office with my big dogs at my feet, but I have to be careful not to see the clutter or tumbleweeds of dog hair around the house, since that knocks all the creativity out of my head and replaces it with guilt for not reaching for the vacuum right that very minute.

What does a typical day look like for you?

When I’m not teaching or doing book promotion, I try to write four hours a day, preferably in the mornings. Sometimes, as when facing a deadline, I’ll write more, which I love, but family responsibilities and teaching duties more often than not make even four hours a day really tough to maintain. Sometimes it’s one hour a day--but if that’s early in the morning, even that one hour might produce something with potential. It’s terribly important never to go too long without writing at all. I always begin to convince myself then that I’m delusional to think I’m a writer. It’s a downward spiral.

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?

Totally depends. The tweezing part usually happens in revision stages. If I’m tweezing too early, it’s probably going to be really horrendous writing.

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

From what I understand from my own experience and listening to more experienced novelists, the process for every novel is different. But I do think that any act of writing is an act of faith and of self-discipline. I spent years thinking about the books I wanted to

What are a few of your favorite books (not written by you) and why are they favorites?

I re-read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby every few years, and learn something new every time. Ditto, for very different reasons, for Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River and Bret Lott’s Jewel. I love Southern novels and historical novels. I’ve been reading some Isabel Allende lately. I used to read a great deal of 19th-century novels, but with the exception of Jane Austen, I try to stay away from them now, since my own sentences get longer and longer and my need to describe every tree and gopher hole more urgent at every page.

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

I love Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird on writing, which is full of hilarious and painfully true counsel for those of us nutty enough to try to write and hope someday someone might actually read our writing.

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?

That if you think you can just write your books and they’ll jump right off the shelves into people’s arms, you’d better be either incredibly lucky and become one of the few who get a first novel made into a movie and life-size action figure, or be incredibly nonchalant about the fact that your books will not ever sell well. Most of us ought to start thinking from the beginning like writers AND marketing masterminds. I’ve had to learn that the hard way.

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

I’ve only just recently gotten serious about marketing. And it takes a great deal of time and energy, whether you travel on book tours or use the internet or send out postcards to every living soul you know. I’m taking a financial risk right now by taking time out from teaching to spend more time promoting books. No idea if it will pay off, but there comes a time in any profession when you need to quit griping and being frustrated, and do something about what needs work--even if that means taking a risk.
I’m basically a fairly shy person, but promoting books also means being willing to go out and speak about what you’ve written, so I’m having to edge out of my comfort zone and say yes--and, God forbid, sometimes even drop hints to friends that wouldn’t it just be peachy to have me come to a signing or talk or whatever. The typical writer is not tremendously business-minded--most of us need remedial help. And a willingness to learn from each other, and from our publishers--who are also trying to figure out what works, by the way.

Do you have any parting words of advice?

Really glad you asked. Two quotes by two Churchills:

First, Sir Winston Churchill: “Never give up. Never, never, never give up.”

The second comes from a friend who works for a children’s publisher. Just this week, she sent me a link to an article about one of their authors who’d met only with rejection her whole writing life, and now she’s just won the Newberry medal. The article began with a quote that I’ve found myself running over in my mind--and holding onto: Lord Randolph Churchill once characterized the career of Benjamin Disraeli as "Failure, failure, failure, partial success, renewed failure, ultimate and complete victory."
I love that.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Deb Raney ~ Leaving November

Deb, you are one of the best women's fiction authors in the CBA (and my personal favorite). You're now on your 17th or 18th novel. Women's fiction by definition is women's issues or issues of the heart. There are just so many of those issues. Where do you get your ideas?

Everywhere I turn! Ideas are literally everywhere! But it took me 38 years to come up with an idea for my first novel and one of my biggest fears while I was writing it was that I’d never come up with an idea for a second one (and I desperately needed to, since my first contract was for two books!) But somewhere in the middle of the rewrite on my first novel, the idea was suddenly there—inspired by a brief conversation I’d had with my father-in-law twenty years earlier!

Now that I understand how a tiny seed of an idea can germinate into a full-blown novel, I keep my eyes and ears open. Because I write contemporary stories, the morning newspaper, magazines, talk shows and real life (I’m a talented eavesdropper!) are great sources for stories. Of course I never use a real life story in its entirety. But after I’ve changed all the details “to protect the innocent,” real stories make great backstory for my characters, or great jumping-off points for my plot.

In the Clayburn series, and specifically Leaving November, what issue sparked the story?

In Leaving November, Jackson Linder, the alcoholic gallery owner from Remember to Forget (the first of the Clayburn novels series) is the hero. Jack is fresh out of rehab and trying to stay sober and make up for the disappointment and damage his addictions have caused.

I explored a different kind of disappointment in my heroine, Vienne Kenney, who has just failed the bar for the second time and been forced to move back to Clayburn even though it’s the last place on earth she wants to be.

The issues Jack and Vienne deal with are more similar than they first realize and of course the issues that first divide them, ultimately bring them together.

How do you find a fresh approach to the issue for Leaving November?

I think one of the elements that provides a fresh look at this issue involves the type of counseling Jack came out of. In researching this story, I discovered there are two basic lines of thought in treating alcoholism, and they are often at odds with each other. In a nutshell, one view looks at alcoholism as a disease, the other looks at it as sin and choice. I explored the latter view, while concluding, personally, that the truth is somewhere in the middle.

It was a little risky writing Jack’s story the way I did, and I’m prepared to get letters from counselors who disagree with my conclusions. But I talked to enough real people who have survived the battleground of addictions—not only with alcohol, but with drugs, pornography, overeating, financial issues—and shared Jack’s experience, that I feel very confident in handling this topic the way I did.

WF usually has an element of romance. How do you keep your story within the WF genre and still develop the romance fully?

Quite honestly, when I’m writing, I don’t give that balance much thought. I simply let the story unfold and make sure my characters interact with all the people in their lives. Making certain they are true to themselves (which, I guess does take some forethought on my part) seems to result in a story that satisfies both women’s fiction and romance fans.

Oddly enough, several of my best-received stories—A Vow to Cherish, A Nest of Sparrows, Over the Waters—are written primarily from a male point of view. And yet I think they certainly fit well within the framework of Women’s Fiction/Romance.

How would you describe the difference between plot driven and character-driven?

Interesting you should ask this, since I just returned from Mount Hermon (a fabulous Christian writers conference in California) where James Scott Bell and editor Nick Harrison had a fascinating debate on this very topic. They both argued their cases brilliantly.

My take is this: in a nutshell, a plot-driven novel keeps you turning pages faster and slows down for a peek at the characters’ thoughts far less frequently than a character-driven novel. So-called character-driven novels must have a plot, of course—the more complex the better—but some readers are more content with a novel that’s taken up with the characters’ inner lives as much or more than the external conflicts with which they struggle.

As Nick Harrison argued in the “great debate,” a plot isn’t of much interest to the reader if we don’t first care deeply about the characters. That said, plot does allow a showcase for a character’s traits, so the best novel has a perfect balance of plot and characterization.

WF is normally character driven. In Leaving November, how did you weave the plot and keep it character-driven?

Well, since I pretty much stink at plotting, writing character-driven stories comes pretty naturally and easily. I think your choice of the word “weave” is perfect, because that’s how I write. I spin the story chronologically, but most of the important work comes in the rewrite when I go back and weave in character traits that reflect and reveal who I’ve discovered each characters to be by the end of my first draft.

With a few exceptions like A Nest of Sparrows and Beneath a Southern Sky, my novels’ plots aren’t terribly complicated. I’m more concerned that the inner lives of my characters be complex—and I think that’s the secret to a character-driven novel. Again, the best novel has a nice mixture of complexity in both plot and characterization.

When you read, do you stay pretty much within your own genre? Why or why not?

I started writing women’s fiction because that’s what I loved to read, but I was growing frustrated by the progressively worse morality (or lack of it, I should say) portrayed in secular women’s fiction. Since that was almost 15 years ago, before there was such a wealth of wholesome Christian women’s fiction, I decided to write my own. Now there aren’t enough hours in the day to read all the great stuff that’s being written from a Christian worldview.

But I’m trying to branch out and read some different things. I love James Scott Bell’s legal thrillers, along with John Grisham and Robert Ludlam. I’ve even given two of Brandilyn Collins’ scary suspense novels a try (and I did enjoy them once I was done and realized I survived! I far prefer her wonderful women’s fiction.) As Tamera Alexander’s critique partner, I read historical fiction and truly enjoy it.

I also find biographies fascinating, and I read a lot of non-fiction for research, of course, but yes, when it comes to fiction, my first choice is always contemporary women’s fiction, whether secular or CBA. I mostly read books that I put down and

say “Ah…I wish I’d written that!”

Leaving November
by Deborah Raney

There's one thing she has vowed never to abide in a man. Could the horrible rumors be true? Is her life repeating itself?

Eight years ago, Vienne Kenny moved away from Clayburn and all its gossip to pursue a law degree in California. But now she has failed the bar exam again, Is she destined to be stuck forever, a failure—just like her father—in this two-horse Kansas town?

Nine months ago, Jackson Linder left Clayburn with no explanation to anybody. Now he, too, is back. He isn't sure he's ready to face the rumors and well-meaning questions of the town's busybodies. Yet he's determined, once more, to make his art gallery a success—in spite of the secret that haunts him every day....

Monday, March 24, 2008

Author Interview~Lynn Lurie

Lynn Lurie is the winner of both the 2007 Juniper Prize for Fiction from the University of Massachusetts Press and the Chapter One contest from The Bronx Writers' Center. Lurie is a part-time Humanities professor at Farleigh Dickson University. She lives in New York.

Corner of the Dead centers on a Genocide in Peru and the main characters are outsiders. I know that you did volunteer work in Ecuador 25 years ago, how did that experience influence the story?
My experiences in Ecuador were nothing like what is depicted in Corner of the Dead insofar as I was never a witness to violence. In Ecuador there was no correlative to the Shining Path Guerillas and therefore no counter-insurgency by the government. The terror of the story is based on research, which among other things relied on reading countless first person testimonies as well as speaking with those who had been affected, but the latter wasn't done until after the book was finished. I wanted to make sure I hadn't misrepresented those who had suffered.
That said, the feeling of peace, the love of the Andes and it's people took hold of me when I was a Peace Corp volunteer. I lived in a remote indigenous community where the women spoke very little or no Spanish. I was tutored in Quechua and it was the language I heard everyday for nearly two years. I carried the village of Gatazo Zambrano with me over the next 20 years or so years even though I did not return until I had finished the book. The village I had lived in was nearly the same. I knocked on people's doors and they still lived where they had once lived. The cuyera, a barn for guinea pigs, where I lived was still there as were the remnants of my garden. The stand of the solar showers, built out of concrete blocks, had never been taken down. Many of my characters are drawn from people I knew then.
Of course there are differences between Andean Ecuador and Andean Peru but as I say in the book lines drawn by men across history are artificial boundaries. The indigenous population from both countries are descended from the Incas, speak the same language, although different dialects, have similar farming practices, produce similar crops, live in homes and communities set up in the same manner, so for the purposes of this story the differences of the post conquest history of these two countries was not relevant.
The terror in Corner comes from a very different place, from having had a very sick son. The first draft was not set in Peru but in a hospital. However, I realized no one, including myself would want to read what I was writing. I needed a different setting. To me political terror, losing one's home, not trusting the person in the next town, not believing in anything, losing loved ones, losing your sense of purpose, feeling vulnerable and under attack all the time, never knowing if or when normalcy might return, having virtually no control over the enemy, is how it felt to be a parent of a very sick child. The sounds of children crying in Corner are the sounds of the children in the pediatric neurology ward at a large NYC hospital. I have also heard the children in the Andes cry, I promise you, the voices of crying children are the same. Terror is terror. My son has been well now for six years.
What theme(s) exists in Corner of the Dead that you hope the reader grasps?
Corner of the Dead is an exact translation from the Quechua of the word Ayacucho, which is a department in Peru that was especially afflicted by the violence and political dislocation perpetuated by the Shining Path Guerillas in the early 1980's. So, it is a real place that has a history of real horrors but it is also a metaphor for human suffering quite apart from location or place on a map, referring to the terrain each one of us knows. That internal sadness one feels about the immense quantity of suffering that exists in the world. Yet in spite of what we know, for the most part, we are required to get up and go through all of what it is we do in a day.
What's something you wish you'd known earlier that might have saved you some time/frustration in the publishing business?
This will sound like the kind of advice your mother would give that you would like to dismiss outright but I do believe the journey writing takes you on is the most important part, not to say it isn't wonderful to see a cover and the text displayed in the format of a book. What you learn as you write or as you read is what is most important not the ISBN number on the cover. It's a luxury to be able to write and to be able to read, I wish more people valued reading as one of the few treasures in life.
What's your favorite writing tool?
I have no favorite writing tool. If I'm stuck I look at photographs or paintings, walk through any museum nearby or pull books from the shelves if I am not motivated to go out into the world. I find children inspirational, not just what they say or how they look, but the way they are in the world, it is completely different than adults. Just yesterday in the rain I saw a father in midtown in a great rush trying to get his daughter to walk faster but she was holding an empty styrofoam coffee cup outside the umbrella trying to catch the rain. I was hoping the father would stop tugging on her and realize it was really important that she catch the rain, that maybe he would realize that being five minutes late was worth it if you could arrive with some drops of rain in an old coffee cup.
Do you have a dream for the future of your writing, something you would like to accomplish? A specific them you would like to cover?
I was working on a second novel which also took place in South America. I have a solid first draft but when I sat down to revise it I realized it wasn't the story I had to tell. I took courage from Corner of the Dead to do something entirely different, and number two was more of a continuation. I put it aside and I'm working on a story that takes a tremendous amount of courage to write. It gives me nightmares, makes me sweat, but I think pushing to do what you are afraid you can't do is what I want to do this next time.
What would you tell a person if they expressed a desire to become a published author?
Being a writer is a mandate for me, not a choice. I tell my children you do what you are compelled to do in life and do it at the highest level. If you are lucky enough to know what that is then that is half the war. What one is compelled to do changes over time, a human life is long. You can't start too soon. Writing is the most glorious gift I am able to give myself, to find a reader is the final stage, it means somebody understands, we look for that all the time even if we aren't writers. It is the instinct to be understood and to understand.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

He Is Risen!

Matthew 28:5-6 But the angel answered and said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for He is risen, as He said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Lessons From The Radio

On a Friday afternoon, I tuned into a popular radio station where the DJ explained he wasn’t getting enough hits on his web page. As a result, his performance was coming under scrutiny.

“So,” he said, “I don’t know what else to do except just ask. Will everyone listening please drop by and visit my page today.”

That was on Friday. I nodded because I liked his honesty. Come on, now. Ya gotta like honesty.

On Monday as I drove to work, the morning show informed their audience that the answer to tomorrow’s pop quiz could be found on none other than—the afternoon’s DJ’s web page. Everyone listening could get a head start on tomorrow’s contest by visiting his page.

That was on Monday. I grinned because the boy was getting better.

On Wednesday, I chuckled. Between songs, the DJ said something about a celebrity and then capped it with, “Girls, want to find out how to tell if your boyfriend is telling you the truth? Visit my web page where I have the ten signs he’s lying to you.”

I chuckled, because now he was getting creative! That was Wednesday.

On Friday, I laughed aloud because if you visited his web page, you could sign up to win tickets to Bens Fold Five. Wa-hoo! By gum, he did it! He took a promotion and used it to his benefit. Use the air time to promote and the prize to drive people to your web page. Genius!

That was on Friday, and I laughed, mostly because I had a blog post for Saturday.

Okay, so maybe I was the only one silently cheering on his progress—while not actually visiting his web page—but it really was fun to see his progression.

Some lessons I took:

*Be Creative: We’ve all seen the e-mails. “Please buy my book on such-n-such date” or “Click here to read my interview. . . . “ It’s not a bad start, certainly better than nothing, but it tinges upon desperation. There are more creative, fun ways.

* Use your Resources: Kudos to the Morning Show who likely had their own web page quota to fill. (This tip could also be entitled: Be Friendly to Those in the Business—you might need them.)

*Keep Trying Until You Find What Works: Thank goodness he didn’t come on day-after-day begging us to look at his web page to help him out.

*Make it Worthwhile for Your Audience: That's the real key, right there!
What's in it for them.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Guest Blogger Ray Blackston ~ A Typing Tiger

Ray Blackston is author of the Flabbergasted trilogy. His latest novel, Par for the Course, released in February ’08 from FaithWords.

A Typing Tiger

Hands gripping the golf club, the golfer yearns to hit the perfect shot. Hands resting on the keyboard, the writer yearns to type the perfect paragraph.

Imagine for a moment the golfer. And since we’re imagining, lets make him strong and athletic, then let’s deck him out in black pants and a red golf shirt, with a Nike swoosh across the chest and a second swoosh adorning his black golf cap. Our hero—popular, well-spoken, and rich—deserves a cool name as well. So just for fun let’s call him “Tiger.”

On the golf course, our imaginary golfer is full of confidence; he smashes the ball over lakes, curves his next shot around palm trees, and holes a long putt across an undulating green. Ten thousand fans applaud. Another victory, another million. He tips his caddie big and even gives him the new Ford Mustang convertible that came with the million bucks. Our hero is sponsored by Buick; he could never drive a Ford.

Wanting a break from golf, our imaginary golfer then wanders into his home office, sits before his laptop, and decides to write a novel. Though he dons the same clothes and is surrounded by trophies, something feels wrong, as if the laptop doesn’t care about his red shirt and embroidered swooshes. In fact, the laptop knows nothing of his accomplishments; it only waits for him to type a sentence. He flexes his fingers, eyes his trophies, but confidence quickly wanes. An uncommon bout of nerves invades his body. He thinks, Man, this business of writing novels is more intimidating than the eighteenth hole at Pebble Beach!.

But he is a tiger, so he types away. Five days in a row, he types.

The first chapter is all about golf and a guy who wears red shirts and makes millions from smashing his ball across lakes, curving his next shot around palm trees, and sinking a long putt on an undulating green. Galleries applaud. He tips his cap.

In chapter two he gives a Ford Mustang convertible to his caddie, who wrecks it in chapter three, breaks his leg, and forces the golfer to hire a new caddie. This is drama. This is the best edge-of-the-seat plot our golfer can conjure.

By chapter four our hero is back on the golf course, winning another tournament, although this time the car he wins is a Buick—so he keeps it for himself. But as he begins chapter five, our golfer suddenly stops typing and realizes that he is out of ammo. He has not prepared himself for this job. He doesn’t know what to do, his prior successes do not transfer well to the page, and in frustration he grabs his 5-iron and smashes the laptop to bits. Thus satisfied, he picks up his golf bag and totes it back out to the course. He sniffs the fresh-cut grass, tees up a golf ball, and smiles. Home again. Thwack!

Have you, the aspiring novelist, tried to bring your past vocational expertise to the writing table and found it somehow lacking? I did. Ditto for most people. It can look so easy, this business of stringing words together to craft fine sentences which become fine paragraphs which become fine chapters which become fine books, although be warned that run-on sentences like this one will get you on the A-Train to Rejectionville.

I write these words because many people come at this writing thing unprepared, or, at best, semi-prepared. On the other hand, I can share that it’s not impossible to pen a publishable novel. It’s just hard. Like acquiring an engineering degree is hard. Or like being a full-time mom to four kids is hard. Or like shooting 68 in the final round of The Masters is hard.

What have you done this month to prepare yourself to write publishable material?

Have you squashed your pride and fears to the point where you willingly submit your work to a local critique group—and listen and apply their feedback? Have you identified when you are at your creative best—morning or evening—and structured your schedule to where you apply those hours to your craft? Are you improving your self-editing skills by critiquing the works of others, honing your editorial eye week by week? If you’re writing in first person (third person), are you reading mostly first person (third person) novels? Trust me, this helps.

Such habits, engrained over time, enable us to submit our best work, not our semi-best work, when it finally comes time to let an editor or agent read our stuff. I used to pray, “Lord, please don’t let my work get noticed before it is ready.”

Have you prayed that prayer? Can you pray that prayer?

Consider this: I recently heard that our golfer, this “Tiger” fellow, regularly gets up at 5:00 a.m., straps on a 60-pound lead vest, and jogs around his home golf course.

Why? To build his stamina.

He doesn’t just work on his swing or his putting—he knows greatness requires him to be the total package.

So I have to ask: what is the writer’s equivalent of rising daily at 5:00 a.m., strapping on a 60-pound lead vest, and setting out for a jog?

I’m asking myself that question today, and when I find the answer, I believe I’ll improve as a writer.

And remember, when you’ve prepared in like manner, become published, win every literary prize in existence, are counting your millions, and someone awards you a Ford Mustang convertible even though you already have five cars in your five-car garage, do not keep the Mustang for yourself.

Give it to Gina Holmes at Novel Journey.

I hear she digs convertibles (especially lime green Cadillacs).