Get a Free Ebook

Five Inspirational Truths for Authors

Try our Video Classes

Downloadable in-depth learning, with pdf slides

Find out more about My Book Therapy

We want to help you up your writing game. If you are stuck, or just want a boost, please check us out!

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Saturday Poll

This week I read a statement that claimed last year more e-book sold than regular books. I don't know if that's true or not, but I thought I'd see what we're buying.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Guest Blog ~ James Landis ~ Novel Inspiration

Novel Inspiration

by James Landis

Several years ago I sat down one morning at my computer and wrote the words, “I meet Jesus on the day I get home from the war.”

Up until that moment, all I knew, in sitting down that morning, was that I wanted to try to write a novel about Jesus in a contemporary setting.

I also knew the title of that novel.

Jesus in the Air.

That title comes from an Emily Dickinson poem. I had quoted from that same poem in my previous novel, Artist of the Beautiful. There, my narrator (a young woman) calls that poem “a prayer to end all prayers.”

Indeed, I trace the inspiration for The Last Day to my near obsession with those words of Emily Dickinson:

At least to pray is left, is left.

O Jesus in the air

I know not which thy chamber is,

I ’m knocking everywhere.

It was not until I began to think seriously about writing my new novel that, in my research, I came to realize that Emily Dickinson must have come upon her image of Jesus in the air from 1 Thessalonians 4: 16-17:

For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first:

Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.

To meet Jesus in the air is to confront him on your way to eternal life. To be taken up and away by him. To be at the beginning of being forever with him.

Jesus in the Air. What a great title for a novel! I loved that title.

So I wrote the novel, starting with the line I put down that morning several years ago: “I meet Jesus on the day I get home from the war.”

About two years later I wrote the final words of that novel: “The couple will honeymoon on the Isles of Shoals.”

It took me almost another two years to find an agent who wanted to handle the novel and for her, bless her, to find a publisher, bless him, who wanted to publish the novel.

The novel now published and known as The Last Day.

Too many people—too many knowledgeable and important people—had said, “You can’t publish novel with Jesus in the title. No one will read it. Or too few people will read it. And no one will want to carry it around.” One person said, “A big audience for your novel will be young men, and young men will think the title means that Jesus is flying around on a skateboard!”

I still loved my title, and I fought and I fought. But finally I had to give in. And after several other (frankly) peculiar titles had been put on the book, one of my own alternative titles (I always have other possibilities among my notes), The Last Day, gave “the shivers” to an enormously influential person in the book business.

And so--reluctantly at first, most gratefully now--I learned to live with The Last Day as a title.

What didn’t change were those first words I wrote those several years before: “I meet Jesus on the day I get home from the war.”

I knew nothing about where this book was going when I wrote those words. I didn’t know who was speaking. I didn’t even know I was going to be writing in the first person. I didn’t know I was going to be writing in the present tense. I didn’t know I was going to be writing about the war, any war.

All I knew was that I was going to be writing about Jesus and that Jesus was not going to be in the air but that he was going to be on earth and that he was going to be dressed not in robes but like you and me.

In this, I was inspired by words written by Father William J. O’Malley in a book called Why Not: Daring to Live the Challenge of Christ:

But the real Jesus, when he came the first time, looked just like any other ordinary man. Today he looks just like you….Jesus did not go beyond the farthest star. He didn’t go any spatial distance. He went into another way of existence—and yet remained here.

“Remained here.” So I had always pictured him. On the earth he loved. In the place where, as Jesus says toward the end of The Last Day, “God walked in the body of his son. And where we walk in the image of God. Male and female, as God created us. And blessed us. And named us Man.” It is not the Second Coming. It is the Remaining.

“I meet Jesus on the day I get home from the war.”

How unusual, for me or any other novelist, to have the first words written of a novel remain the first words of that novel when it is finished and published, however many years later. (I count in my Last Day folder eighteen drafts of this novel. All of them begin with these same words.)

As I said, I knew nothing about where this book was going when I wrote those words. And most important among all the things I didn’t know was that Jesus, in the course of my writing this book, was to emerge not as a fictional character—not as a product of my imagination—but as a reality.

I mean, I had nothing to do with his creation. All the other characters--Warren, the narrator; Bethie, his girlfriend; Dodie, their daughter; Warren’s father; his dead mother; Ryan, his best friend—all of them came out of me.

But Jesus—I don’t know where he came from. He sprang wholly from…well, let us say, from the air. Jesus in the air.

And so he became a reality. For me. I can’t speak for how a reader might consider Jesus. But I would love to know.


James Landis lives in New Hampshire.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Author Interview ~ Sandra Byrd

After earning her first rejection at the age of thirteen, bestselling author Sandra Byrd went on to publish more than three dozen books including her widely-acclaimed adult fiction debut, Let Them Eat Cake and it’s sequels Bon Appétit and Pièce de Résistance. Keep an eye out for her forthcoming young adult fiction series, London Confidential. A former textbook acquisitions editor, Sandra is also an accomplished non-fiction writer and author. Her articles have appeared in numerous publications such as Radiant, Focus on the Family's Clubhouse Magazine, Christian Parenting Today, Today’s Christian Woman, Pockets, Decision, and Guideposts. During the past eight years Sandra has mentored hundreds of students through the Christian Writer's Guild. Sandra resides in Seattle, Washington with her husband Michael, a chaplain, their two teenagers, and a circus dog named Brie.

Sandra Byrd Online:

Hi, Sandra. Welcome to Novel Journey. Why don't you start by telling our readers what made you start writing?

When I was a kid I wanted three careers: to be a hair stylist, to be a waitress, and to be an author. After I mohawked my Barbie I knew I wasn’t cut out for the hairstylist career. I actually was a waitress in a Jewish deli when I was a teenager, and I worked for a caterer. Writing, however, was the real passion. And it stuck!

We're very glad it did! What's the most difficult part of writing for you (or was when you first started on your novel journey)?

The hardest part of anything is getting started. Getting started with a new book, a new chapter, a new page, or just sitting down at the computer and staying there till I've done my word count. Once I get about 300 words down on paper, I'm on a roll and I can stay in the zone. Those first 300 are hard, though.

Those are tough for me, too. Especially when I'm struggling to get the story idea down on paper. So, at what point did you stop juggling suggestions and critiques and trust yourself (as a writer)?

I have a pretty well-established process: I think through the concept and ask a few questions of my focus group, which consists of likely readers. Then I outline and then I write. I send the manuscript to the focus group and when it comes back I make corrections. My rule of thumb is that if one person suggests a change I may or may not do it depending on how I feel about it. But if two people mention something, I clearly need to address it, whether I feel like it or not.

After this rewrite I am comfortable sending it to my editors. I think too many "voices" giving direction can be confusing and undermine a writer's confidence. So I have a very few people I trust to read. I listen to them. But I also listen to my "gut."

Tell us a little about your latest release:

Piece de Resistance is the third novel in the French Twist series. Having earned her chef’s hat, Lexi Stuart bids au revoir to her glamorous and deliciously satisfying pastry mentorship outside of Paris and returns to her hometown of Seattle, Washington.
There, she finds life unexpectedly complicated.She’s put in charge of a high-end catering bakery called Bijoux, which should be her dream job, but there’s a catch: She has to make this lavish bakery into a successful business in just a few, short months, which will require more than her ability to make an amazing wedding cake. Stir in a complicated relationship with her French beau Philippe and his daughter, Celine, then add a dash of romance with down-to-earth lawyer Dan, and life suddenly contains more ooh la la than Lexi can handle.

I was sorry to leave Lexi and all the rest after three books. But I believe I've left all of the characters in a good place, so I can peacefully move forward knowing they are okay. :-)

Sounds like a great book! Your main character is struggling to find some direction for her life. Did you put yourself into this character, and can you share a time when you found yourself facing some of the same struggles?

I think we each struggle with this from time to time. First - what to study in college. Next - what career. Marriage? Kids? Career change? I always wanted there to be one, big gut wrenching decision in life and then be done with it, have everything settled. But it doesn't work that way. I've had to return to the Lord time and again for wisdom as new situation crop up. And I've come to have peace with that process. Part of the trick is to be careful about making a decision, but once you do, don't second guess.

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

I'd been writing for teens for years and many of them kept in touch and shared with me their "quarter life crisis" moments. I felt for them, and identified with them. I melded that with my love of baking and love of France et voilà! A series is born.

Much of this story revolves around food. Do you like to cook? What kind of research did you have to do while writing this book?

I do like to cook and bake! I got my first serious cooking instruction book, by Jacques Pepin, when I was 17 years old. La technique. My first "real" job was for a caterer, and I've been a home cook and baker every since.

For the book, I went to France, of course. You feel bad for me, don't you? I also job shadowed a baker at a French bakery here in town. And I visited a baking school for a day. It was great fun, but I also so how very hard they work. The physical endurance required of bakers and chefs is amazing. Something we lay people don't often think about.

Now that's research. Maybe I need to write a book set in France...:-) Tell us what you enjoyed most about writing this book? Least?

I loved everything about writing this series - France, baking, testing recipes at home (over and over again!) with my family. I had an amazing editor who helped the books be the best they could be. Least enjoyable was that I was very sick for months, even in bed for weeks, while writing Piece de Resistance. It took my OWN endurance to finish on time. But I did!

This book is geared toward the Chick Lit crowd, right? So what message do you hope this target group of readers takes from your novel?

I'm not sure it's geared toward Chick Lit crowd, though it definitely has many elements that would qualify it for that. I hope women of all ages take away that God has planted dreams in your heart, prepared good works in advance for you to do, and HE will fulfill them if you'll rely on faith and not fear. I want them to see that life is fun. Enjoy it!

What does your writing space look like?

Just reorganized, with a little help from The Unclutterer. I have one big, bare wall that is eagerly waiting for my trip next spring to London. I'm going to bring something back for it.

What kind of activities to you like to do that help you relax and step away from your deadlines for a bit?

I tend to work in pulses. When I'm writing, I'm really writing, and I write fairly fast because the story comes so quickly once I'm ready. I don't like to step away from it for too long because I drop the threads. But then I take a couple of weeks to rest : cook, read, garden, spa, hang out with my husband and my kids and my friends. Then I start in again!

I listen to music while writing, too. It both soothes and energizes. I'm glad I live in the ipod age!

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

I dream for a few months and let things knit together in my head and heart, jotting down notes as necessary. Then I throw some queries to my focus group readers and close friends. Then I outline - religiously. Next, I write, a word count per day, every day, till the first draft is done. I send it off to the focus group readers and beg them not to give me any comments for at least a week while I gather my marbles back together and take a long nap.

When the comments come back, I tweak the manuscript. Then it's off to my editors, where I await round two!

What is the first book you remember reading and what made it special?

I read the Bobbsey Twins books at about age 6, I think, and loved them. I read all of the Little House on the Prairie books as a girl, too. When I first earned some royalties, I bought all of the Little House books in the first edition. It was a real treat to myself!

I've also been/am a huge historical reader. As a teenager I read everything by Victoria Holt and all of her pseudonymns. Each of theses books has definitely influenced me to enjoy reading, and writing, character-driven, popular fiction. I want to like the people I'm reading about, I want to be able to get wrapped up in their world. I like romance. I like fast paced. I like happily ever after. I read for pleasure, so I hope to write for others' pleasure.

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 most writers aren't rich. And most writers aren't going to get rich. That writing is emotionally difficult and intellectually challenging but satisfying in a way that nothing else ever will be. You have to be, as Eugene Peterson once said, ready for a long walk in the same direction.

Tell us what we have to look forward to in the future. What new projects are you working on?

My next series, London Confidential, is for teens and tweens and will debut next spring. After that will be my new series for adults, Ladies in Waiting. The books each take place during the Tudor Time period, are historical fiction based on fact. The first book is about Anne Boleyn and her best friend, from childhood till just after Anne's death.

Do you have any parting words of advice?

Here are some lyrics from a song my kids called "Remember The Name," by Fort Minor (clean version, of course!). They were written about a kid who writes rap, but honestly, I think the same percentages are true for all writers. Of course in the case of Christian writers, the Name we're interested in people remembering is not our own.

You ready?! Let's go!Yeah, for those of you that want to know what we're all aboutIt's like this y'all This is ten percent luck, twenty percent skillFifteen percent concentrated power of willFive percent pleasure, fifty percent painAnd a hundred percent reason to remember the name!

As a special treat, Sandra has included a recipe card from her book, Piece de Resistance. With the holidays approaching, we can all use some new recipes, right? What are your favorite holiday recipes, and do they have a special memory attached? We'd love to hear from you!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

9 Secrets to Giving a Great Interview

Cindy Woodsmall is a New York Times best-selling author whose connection with the Amish has been featured on ABC Nightline. Her ability to authentically capture the heart of her characters comes from her real-life connections with Plain Mennonite and Old Order Amish families.

Cindy is the mother of three sons and two daughters-in-law, and she and her husband reside in Georgia. Visit her Web site.

Interview Tips I Wish I’d Known Beforehand

I love writing! I love long
days and nights in my home office with the window open and research books all around me.

I’m an introvert. I’ve heard that most fiction writers are. Being introverted is not the same as being shy, although shy people are introverted. An introvert draws strength from quietness and solitude. An extrovert draws strength from get-togethers and other people-oriented events.

The first time I realized how much of an introvert I am, I was seventeen and on a first date. I was young and athletic, and had taken the time to straighten my lengthy hair, do my nails and make-up, and had even bought an especially nice-looking outfit. Our plan was to meet up with a group of friends at someone’s home and have pizza. When my date asked if we could go to a drive-thru for dinner instead, I felt RELIEF wash over me. Right then I understood something about myself; I was a true introvert.

Until then I kept thinking that I avoided going out because I wasn’t “pulled together” enough. But it became clear that even when at my best, I preferred quiet seclusion. After going to the drive-thru, we went for a long, quiet stroll in a nearby park and tossed bread crumbs to the ducks. The only way I would have enjoyed that night any better was if I’d been alone with a pen and journal. (Too long ago for laptops to have been a part of the scene, man.)

So writing sounds like a good career choice for me, right?

Well… so far this year I’ve done segments for ABC’s Nightline and Fox 5’s Good Day Atlanta, plus multiple i
nterviews for newspapers. I’ve done numerous live radio and television interviews. I spent about eight hours with a journalist from the Wall Street Journal and four hours in my home with a journalist from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Live interviews are especially difficult because you often don’t know what the person is going to ask, and if your mind goes blank, you still have to say something.

At this point you should feel sorry for my husband, who loves my quiet temperament, especially during football season. If I can’t sleep because of an upcoming interview, or I’m walking around mumbling to myself because I’m displeased with how an interview went, he’s the one who has to deal with my angst and try to help me through it.

Whether you’re introverted or extroverted, interviews are part of being an author. I’ve been doing them for the last thirty-six months, two weeks, and eight days. I’ve had some truly great interviews and some really embarrassing ones. Here’s the good news: I survived. And along the way I’ve learned things that are equally valuable to both personalities. These tips will help the introverted prepare for things that are as tough for them as a month in solitary confinement would be for an extravert.

There are many things that can cause an interview to go badly, but here are some tips that will help you be as prepared as possible. I don’t get it right nearly as often as I’d like, but following these suggestions helps me focus on my goal.

1.) Write out the most likely questions to be asked and write out several answers—keeping in mind that the response needs to be less than thirty seconds. Practice giving an answer with a timer in hand or your eye on the wall clock’s second hand. If your answer is too long, rework it.

2.) Remember that the transition from the interviewer’s question to your answer is the most important part to get right. Your first sentence that follows the interviewer’s question is your topic sentence for that question. Remember topic sentences from your days in high school and college? You need a topic sentence, even for a thirty-second answer.

3.) Practice the questions and answers before every interview. A live radio show does not allow time for searching your thoughts. Know the answers, but then lay your notes aside and talk as if you’re on a live stage. The idea is to give responses in a fresh and energetic manner. So study like it’s a test, and then trust that you’ll know enough to sound spontaneous. Practicing for radio interviews will not only help to prepare you for television interviews, it makes your voice sound real and personal as well as professional.

4.) Write out the questions you hope an interviewer never asks. Think of several questions you absolutely do not want to be asked, and plan for how you’ll respond if the interviewer asks those questions. Practice answering the unwanted questions in a succinct manner and with the most positive view possible.

5.) Use nouns instead of pronouns. As you do interviews, you’ll discover all sorts of issues about your speech patterns that you weren’t aware of before. For example, I hadn’t realized how much I overused pronouns. I would say “the Amish” at the start of the interview and then use the word “they.” That can be confusing for those who come in during the middle of an interview or when I’ve also spoken about the non-Amish. Don’t be afraid of using a noun too much.

Most interviews are brief and listeners don’t want to feel lost during what should be a clear and concise talk. Using nouns as much as possible is especially important during an interview that is being taped. Most producers cut out certain parts. If they find a great line they’d like to keep but you used a pronoun instead of a noun, they’ll have to either toss that segment or hope the audience can follow.

6.) Practice good diction all the time. I used to have great pronunciation of words. I even won recognition for it once. But that was thirty-something years ago, before the ways of my beloved new home in the Deep South took over. Now I often forget to put the g on the end of an –ing word. I’m not sure when that little colloquialism became my friend, but after I spoke at a women’s event, one lady approached me and brought that quirk to my attention. I sincerely appreciated her telling me that. Now I put effort into adding that elusive g and listening to my speech patterns.

7.) Practice agreeing with statements you don’t agree with. During one of my first interviews, moments before going live on a television broadcast, an interviewer heard something about me from her producer that piqued her interest. The issue was not related to my writing at all, but at the top of the show she tossed out a statement, expecting me to agree with her. I didn’t. I could either say I agreed with her and go against what I believed, or I could disagree with her on air, which would probably embarrass her and would certainly start the interview off on the wrong foot.

Unsure of what to do, I shared that I’d seen wonderful successes come out of the public school system. She felt affronted, and needless to say, it wasn’t my best interview. I don’t know that we ever talked about my books. After the interview, I asked my publicist what would have been a better way to respond. She told me to fashion a sentence that would start out with affirmation for the interviewer and end with an “on the other hand” statement. In this case, I could have said, “Yes, homeschooling has merit, and I enjoyed years of it with my own children, but I’m thankful we have the right in this country to choose what’s best for our children, because many times public school is the best route to go.”

8.) Practice getting an interview back on track. Sometimes an interviewer, like the one above, will start off on a topic unrelated to your book, expecting to bring it back around later, but that doesn’t happen. Think about phrases you can use that will help accomplish what you’re there for: to talk about your book. Using the example above, after I made my statement about homeschooling versus public school, I could have added something like this: “You know, it’s interesting that we’re talking about schooling, because the Old Order Amish have school in a one-room schoolhouse with grades one through eight, and the children begin school not knowing the English language.” With that transitional phrase, I would’ve agreed with the interviewer, shared my personal sentiments, and moved on to talking about what I came to the interview to talk about: my book.

9.) Use key phrases to turn a conversation back around. “You know, it’s interesting that you mentioned (use a word or phrase the interviewer just used), because in my (name of the novel being promoted) there is a character who is struggling to…” Or, “I love the concept of (use a word or phrase the interviewer just used), because in (name of the novel being promoted) there is a real sense of…” Or, “That reminds me of…” Or, “That’s a great point. It’s similar to (mention a character or plot thread in your book)...”

The above devices may sound too self-promotional, but I believe the audience and the interviewer will appreciate your getting to the real topic: your book. Just don’t be too quick to use them. If the interviewer is at the top of the show and wants to mention the weather, give him or her a chance to bring the topic back around to your book before you step in with a “key phrase.” If the interviewer doesn’t bring it back around within the first few minutes, be prepared to jump in. This will not only ensure that the interview goes well, it will also increase your chances of being added to their list of authors to invite back on their show. Sorry, introverts, but our aim is to do as many interviews as possible and to end with the interviewer saying, “Let’s do this again for your next book!”

Keep in mind, interviewers want their shows to go well and be entertaining to their audiences. So ask them beforehand what types of things they would like to know (request a list of questions if they have them). Ask about their demographics (if you don’t already know) so you can structure your interview to their audience. I haven’t had much success with a request for a list of specific questions. I think that’s due in part to the spot interviewers are put in. They don’t have much prep time and they want to keep things fresh as opposed to sounding well rehearsed and staged.

As much as interviewers may want a few minutes to prepare, they usually don’t get that luxury. Many don’t even have the chance to read your book. As the person with the most at stake in this interview, you need to help them be prepared. I once heard that I should prepare a fact sheet to send the interviewer beforehand, listing facts about my books and me. But by the time the interviewer thinks about needing one, it’s often too late. I’ve found a better answer is to have a well-organized, easily maneuverable Web site. You may even want to dedicate a page of your site specifically for interviewers. List the books you’ve published, any awards earned, personal information about yourself that you’re willing to share with the audience, a brief synopsis of your current book, and a list of sample questions.

With practice using tools that connect with your audience, it won’t matter whether you’re a nervous introvert who’s uncomfortable in a crowd or a nervous extravert who loves crowds but feels unsure of yourself in an interview.

Authors usually spend six months to a year writing a novel that will connect with readers, but that connection often begins with an interview that lets people know there’s a new book on the market. Being prepared for an interview is as important as writing the book.

If you have an interview that goes badly, console yourself by watching televised interviews of politicians—local or national. Look for their bobbles, losing a train of thought, and poor word choices. Those things happen to even brilliant people, so of course it’s going to happen to regular folks like us. Knowing you’re in good company is guaranteed to help put your own interviews in the right perspective.

The Sound of Sleigh Bells

Loneliness echoes inside Beth Hertzler from the life she once had. Children’s whispers and laughter call to her from a life she only dreams of. A gifted carver holds the answer to both within his hands—but can Beth step beyond yesterday in order to embrace tomorrow?

The Sound of Sleigh Bells is a heartwarming Christmas novella where lack and abundance inside an Amish community has power for good when it’s tucked inside love.

Romantic Times 4 ½ stars for The Sound of Sleigh Bells ~ This is a wonderfully written, transformative story of two Amish families at Christmastime. It will bring sleigh-riding memories to life as readers vicariously join in this jolly and exciting holiday tradition.

To read a review of Sleigh Bells, click here.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Gina Holmes Suggests You Become a Fan of Gina Holmes

Gina Holmes is the founder of Novel Journey and Novel Reviews. Her debut novel, Crossing Oceans, is set to release with Tyndale House -May 2010. To learn more about her, visit:

In the last year, I must have recevied dozens upon dozens of requests through Facebook that look something like this...

"John Doe suggests you become a fan of John Doe."

What goes through my mind when I read

1. Who?

2. I don't think I've ever read a book by him.

3. Oh wait, yes I have. Wasn't my thing.

4. Is he the president of his own fan club? Wierd.

5. How presumptous of him to think I'm his "fan". I mean "fan" is a pretty strong word. I'm a fan of maybe a dozen writers throughout history and time, and not one of them has ever suggested I become their fan. I just was.

6. Note to self: Don't make up your own fan page and suggest people become your fan.

I'm not trying to be mean, honsetly. I just don't think many folks are getting how these suggestions may be interpreted.
But with most everything, there is a right and wrong way. Here are my thoughts, (and yes subjective opinion), on a better way:

1. Have someone else put up your fan page and send out the invites. (Suggesting someone become your fan page on Facebook comes across as suggesting someone join your real life fan club. Would you walk up to someone and say, "Hey, I've just started a fan club for myself and I think you should join?"

They'd probably wrinkle their nose and avoid eye contact for at least the next few run-ins with you.

2. Don't call it a "fan page" if you're setting it up yourself. Call it a "reader page" or "reader circle" or "friends of author John Doe" or "people who can get through John Doe's books without falling asleep" or something along those lines. It just sounds less presumptous.

I'm curious. What are your thoughts on this? Did I hit or miss the mark on how most of you feel about these fan requests?

Nothing deepens a stream like a good rain . . . or makes it harder to cross.

Jenny Lucas swore she’d never go home again. But life has a way of upending even the best-laid plans. Now, years after she left, she and her five-year-old daughter must return to her sleepy North Carolina town to face the ghosts she left behind. They welcome her in the form of her oxygen tank-toting grandmother, her stoic and distant father, and David, Isabella’s dad . . . who doesn’t yet know he has a daughter.

As Jenny navigates the rough and unknown waters of her new reality, the unforgettable story that unfolds is a testament to the power of love to change everything—to heal old hurts, to bring new beginnings . . . even to overcome the impossible.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Tracey Bateman on "Christian Vampire Fiction"

An award-winning author with close to one million books in print, Tracey Bateman is no stranger to readers of Christian fiction. But her latest novel, Thirsty, traverses new, rather controversial, territory. As part of the CBA’s growing collection of vampire lore, Thirsty joins the ranks with Eric Wilson’s Jerusalem’s Undead Trilogy and John Olson’s Shade blending vampire mythology with Christian themes. An unholy marriage? Tracey graciously allowed me to explore the subject with her and ask a few nosy questions along the way. And I'm happy to inform you: She doesn't bite...

* * *

Mike: “Thirsty” seems like quite a departure from your previous books. What compelled you to jump into a genre that is so controversial and so different from your previous books?

Tracey: I find the concept of the vampire to be intriguing and find it really difficult to pass up a good vampire book, movie (a GOOD one) or show like Buffy. If I had thought I could get by with writing a vampire book ten years ago when I started in the publishing industry I’d have written one back then. But the doors weren’t open yet. It’s not so much of a jump for me personally. Just for me in terms of genre. But I’m something of a genre jumper anyway. So it’s a natural leap.

Do you worry about alienating some of your longtime fans with this new work?

When I wrote chicklit, it was a brash departure from the third person, prairie romances I’d written. Chick was in your face reality, subtle spiritual themes rather than salvation prayers and bible reading. So I was a little concerned with that jump in readership. And I lost some readers and gained others. This one wasn’t as much of a problem for me in terms of my readers. I hope not to offend, but the cover and publicity are pretty clear about what type of book Thirsty is, so if my fans don’t want to read a vampire novel, they won’t pick it up. If I alienate them, I am not the writer for them to be following. Bottom line is that I have to write what I feel passionate to write.

Some have labeled “Thirsty” as “Christian vampire fiction.” Many Christians vehemently resist the inclusion of vampire mythology into Christian fiction. While some see it as antithetical to the aims and spirit of Christian lit, if not directly satanic, others see huge possibilities for redemptive storytelling. How do you answer those who say vampires should stay out of Christian fiction?

I am reminded of the late 70s and early 80s when my sister brought home a “Petra” album from Bible college and I wasn’t allowed to listen to that so-called “Christian” rock music. Bottom line, Christian vampire fiction IS here. Eric Wilson’s Field of Blood preceded mine by a year. Time will tell whether it should stay. If Christians don’t want it, we’ll stop providing it. The market determines what stays. We could talk about Amish literature all day.

Can you walk us through the conceptualization and selling of this project? Where did the idea originate? Was it initially met with skepticism or enthusiasm? And is it true that the publisher asked you to tone down your vampires and requested no scenes of blood-sucking?

I didn’t pitch a vampire story. Not that I wouldn’t have if I’d thought I could get away with it but honestly it never occurred to me that such a beautiful opportunity would present itself. I had books to write but was coming to the end of a contract, and got a call from an editor who wanted to do a vampire story. So she asked me to propose something. It took me a few tries to get the right story and then we had to sell it to the committee. The skepticism came more from my family and friends. But they know that above all I want to run the race I was called to run. And if that means breaking ground in the Christian vampire genre then so be it. And if that means it totally fails, well, I’ll bounce back from that too. ☺ Who knows what will be?

As far as the publisher asking me to tone down my vampires? What they asked me to tone down was the caricature of a vampire, dripping fangs and compulsion. And it was editing I appreciated and agreed with as I sort of found my footing in writing this genre without being overly offensive. For instance, we can write about hard subjects like rape and child abuse without detailing these events. The same is true of the vampires. I can allude to the vampire lore without detailing the actual events of murder, and disturbing my readers. I’m not out to offend.

What with the continued proliferation of vampire stories, some have accused Christians of jumping on the bandwagon. The AP report from the ICRS in Denver this summer noted, “...the marketing material [for Thirsty] mentions 'Twilight,' the hit vampire book series and movie whose abstinence message resonated with many evangelicals.” With your book, are you attempting to reach Christian readers who also happen to be intrigued by “Twilight”? And how would you answer those who say Christian writers and publishers are just jumping on the vampire bandwagon?

Normally, I wouldn’t answer them. I would let them think whatever they want. But since you asked so nicely I’ll give you my very best answer. I think writers have been trying to get Christian vampires to sell for a while and for whatever reason publishers have hesitated to buy it for the Christian market. Sue Dent, for instance, has one that is self-pubbed, I think. And Eric Wilson was shopping his series before Twilight became the phenomenon it became. But to be fair, Christian romance came about because we first had secular romance. Hymns were originally written to the tune of bawdy house songs. As our society evolves, Christians traditionally take from the world and suit our own purposes. The world has the Shining, we have Ted Dekker’s Adam. It’s not a matter of bandwagon, as much as it is that we each have a different approach to take with similar subject matter. (shrug). It is what it is. We didn’t set out to make a Christian Twilight and in no way is Thirsty like that series. Any more than Twilight is a Buffy rip-off or Underworld is a Blade rip-off. It’s just another vampire novel that just happens to be written in such a way that offers hope and healing. It’s fantasy. Vampires aren’t satanic because there ARE not vampires. They’re a literary creation and as such, I have no problem writing in this genre.

Why do you think the Twilight saga has become so popular? And do you think the story holds any notable value for Christians?

It’s just a really great story and kids ate it up. IF there is notable value, it might be the message of purity, which is refreshing even in YA novels. But parents can draw their own conclusions. I don’t know that Stephanie Meyers was trying to bring a message. I think she was just writing a story that she was passionate about and it paid off.

I will say that it’s unfair for Christians to jump on the fact that she got the story from a dream and call the books satanic for that one reason. I’ve gotten stories from dreams and I think a lot of writers do—Christian or secular.

"Thirsty" is being used as evidence that the boundaries of Christian fiction are being stretched. In your opinion, is this a good thing? How far should Christians go in pushing the envelope?

Frank Peretti stretched Christian fiction with his supernatural thrillers back in the 80s. Ted Dekker has stretched it more. Francine Rivers stretched sensuality with Redeeming Love and even the Mark of the Lion series. But these weren’t done for the sake of overt pushing. It’s not like “Lets see how much we can write our books like secular books and get away with it.” The books that stretch, stretch for a reason. They have to be written a certain way for believability. I don’t think we should “push the envelop” for the sake of edginess. I think we should strive for things that follow the Phil 4:8 model. Having said that, the world isn’t going to be reached by us preaching to the choir. And not all of us are called to do that. The argument could be made that the world probably isn’t going to be reading Christian fiction at all and the point is valid when it comes to light romances and prairie fiction—and we wouldn’t expect them to for the most part. However, they MIGHT pick up a vampire novel. Especially one that deals with alcoholism, like THIRSTY. The truth is that I write what I like to read and I write it from a Christian world view which means the vampire doesn’t get to drink blood, get the girl, and sit in church on Sunday. If he drinks blood, he’s a sinner and in the depths of desperation and obsession. All human and all monster. As we are without Christ.

Apart from selling a million copies, what is your ultimate hope for Thirsty?

Two million copies? ☺ Ultimately, I hope it will open the doors for a horror genre that is more than demon possession and exorcism. More fantasy, werewolves, etc. I don’t know if that’s a realistic goal, though. Mostly, I just want God to do something with it that is real. For every book that is published in the genre, no matter how many that may be, I hope that book’s purposes will be realized. Entertainment? Definitely. But there’s a purpose beyond simple entertainment for the Christian writer, whether we’re writing for the ABA or CBA. I want to make a difference. For one person that might be to immerse themselves in an entertaining story and forget about their fear as they fly from one state to another. For another person, the actual story message might touch them in such a way that they are able to face addiction or face their parents’ addiction or whatever. I don’t presume to know why God would allow me the honor of speaking into lives, let alone to know what this particular book will do, but my prayer is that God will use the words on the page for His glory and to further the cause of Christ. And if I offend, I hope my reader will forgive me as I truly am doing my best to obey God as I believe He’s leading me.


Marcia Laycock won the Best New Canadian Christian Author Award for her novel, One Smooth Stone. Her devotional book, Spur of the Moment has just gone to second printing. Visit her website -

The room settled into a low hum as the group of women took their seats. I could hear the fire in a large stone hearth crackling behind me. The worship team had just taken us into the presence of God and I listened as the MC of the women’s retreat introduced me. It was testimony time. Again. I’ve done it so many times I don’t need my notes anymore, and every time I do it I realize how thankful I am for the grace and mercy of God. Looking back has its benefits.

But as I told my story that night I realized it isn’t a good idea to stay there. That story happened almost 30 years ago. The Lord has done a lot in my life since then. I’ve overcome obstacles and ploughed through rough ground, all with His help. Each milestone seemed like a stopping point. I would think, okay, now I’ve got it. I’ve arrived at that point called Christian maturity. But then something would happen and I’d realize, well, maybe I have a bit more to learn. Maybe I’m only half way up the mountain after all.

I loved rock climbing when I was young. My brother and I did it often, on the cliffs on the north shore of Lake Superior. That was so long ago that no-one bothered with things like ropes and harnesses and crampons. You just picked a spot and started to climb. The views from the top were amazing. But there was usually a point, about half way up, when we’d hesitate. The climb ahead looked formidable. Should we stop, should we go back? Author Billy Coffey talks about this same moment in his post on Rachel Gardner’s blog. I guess anyone who has climbed knows how that moment feels.

And anyone who has written knows it too. Coffey writes – “… maybe the climb never really ends for a writer. Maybe we are perpetually stuck in the middle, daily facing the choice of whether to stay where we are or chance a few more steps ahead.” I’ve known that moment too, of being “stuck in the middle.” When I signed my first contract and saw my first novel, One Smooth Stone, on a bookstore shelf, I thought, wow, I did it. I’m an author. But, as Coffey states, it wasn’t long before I realized it wasn’t a stopping point. I was sitting on a comfortable ledge admiring the view but then realized I was only half way up the mountain. I wanted to bask in the glow of getting there and keep looking back, but I knew I had to take a deep breath and keep climbing. There was more that God had for me to do, more to teach me.

The Apostle Paul wrote – “…I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.” (Philippians 3:12b)

It thrills me to know He has taken hold of me. That knowledge gives me the courage to “press on,” as Paul says. There is a wider view awaiting, perhaps a wider audience, or perhaps just an audience of one, waiting for me to write the words that will change his or her life. That's the "for which" part, the purpose God intends me to fulfill to help build His kingdom on this earth.

As writers we all reach that half way point. It’s not the moment to stop and be content with what we’ve accomplished.

It’s the moment to ask, “Lord, what’s next?”

Friday, October 23, 2009

E-Wars --Revenge of the Nook

This week, Newsweek had an interesting article called: Barnes & Noble Wants to Crush Amazon's Kindle. And It Just Might Work

The article suggests that Amazon made some critical mistakes that B&N fixes with their upcoming Nook.

Though I personally cringe at the authors suggestion we should be able to share libraries with e-readers, the article is a fascinating read for anyone following the momentous shift happening within the publishing industry.

What was interesting, is not many days after I read this article, Amazon announced its intentions to create shareware that would allow PC users to download and read Kindle formatted books on PC's.

The war is on . . . and with Christmas just around the corner . . . this could get interesting.

For anyone else, wanting ring-side seats, here are a few articles that might be of interest:

Nook: Don't Call It A Kindle-Killer Just Yet

Author Dorothy Howell ~ Interviewed

Dorothy Howell has written for two decades, selling 25 novels to three major New York publishing houses. Her books have been translated into dozens of languages, with sales reaching 3 million copies worldwide.

AND POISON, the latest mystery featuring fashion sleuth Haley Randolph, is available in hardcover from Kensington Publishing.

HANDBAGS AND HOMICIDE, Dorothy’s debut mystery, received a starred review from Publishers Weekly and is now available in paperback.

Foreign rights to the series have sold in the U.K., France and Thailand. The books are also available in Large Print and on the Kindle.

Dorothy has sold
23 historical romance novels, most under the pen name Judith Stacy. Her titles include a No.1 on the Barnes & Noble Historical list, the line’s Top Seller of the Year, and a RITA Award Finalist.

She’s a member of the Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and Romance Writers of America.

Visit her Web site.

Tell us a bit about your current project.

PURSES AND POISON is my newest book, just released in hardcover in July from Kensington Publishing. It’s the second book in my Haley Randolph fashion sleuth mystery series. Haley is an L.A. sales clerk with a passion for handbags and a knack for solving murders. She’s also got a bit of an attitude.

We are all about journeys...unique ones at that. How convolu
ted was your path to your first published book? Share some highlights or lowlights from your path to publication.

I’m one of those lucky authors whose first book was published. I say I was lucky because I’d never been to a writing class, workshop or conference. I’d never heard the terms “plot point,” “point of view” or “character arc.” I just wrote from my heart and it sold.

But that’s where my luck ended. Seven long years passed before I sold another manuscript. During that time, I realized I’m somehow stumbled on the right “formula” in that first book and now I needed to learn the craft of writing.

I joined a critique group, writer’s organizations, attended conferences and workshops. I wrote two books that never sold. Finally, at a critique session at a San Diego conference an editor from Berkley liked my submission and asked the see the complete manuscript. She bought it! Then she bought another one! Things started happening quickly after that.

That was a really long, hard, frustrating seven years. Once – only once – I actually thought of giving up, but I couldn’t. Somehow I knew I was meant to be a writer and that if I just kept trying, I’d make it. I’m glad I stuck with it!

Currently I’m writing for two major houses, in two genres, under two names. I’ve sold 23 historical romance novels, most under the pen name Judith Stacy, and am writing the Haley Randolph mystery series under my own name, Dorothy Howell. I just accepted another 3-book deal from Kensington to continue the mystery series, bringing my sales to 29 books. My novels have been translated into dozens of languages and have sold nearly 3 million copies worldwide.

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.

Thanks to my extreme good fortune selling books, I’ve gotten a clear picture of what writer’s block means to me. First of all, I never sit at the keyboard and stare at the screen unsure of what to write. If I find myself doing that, I walk away.

This tells me that I’ve either put something in the wrong spot in the story, or I don’t know my characters well enough. I’ll go someplace quiet, maybe take a drive or sit on the beach, where I can think. Thankfully, the answer always comes to me and I can start writing again.

What is your favorite source for finding story ideas?

My story ideas come from everywhere. Something I see, overhear, or read about. I’ve gotten ideas while washing dishes, waking up from a nap, going to the doctor. The idea for HANDBAGS AND HOMICIDE, the debut of the Haley Randolph series, came when my daughter, a college student, started working part time for a department store. She came home with the worst stories of how bad the customers treated the employees, how awful management was, how terrible employees treated each other. It was so bad I thought, “Hey, this would make a great book!”

With the clarity of experience what advice would you offer up to the wet-behind-the-ears you if beginning this writing journey today?

Be flexible. Be willing to throw away your words and start over. Listen to writers/agents/editors who are more experienced than you. Keep learning. And don’t ever give up.

What event/person has most changed you as a writer? How?

It took me three years to write my first book. Not because it had a complicated or intricate plot, but because I’d work on it for a while and become overwhelmed with self-doubt. Who was I to think I could be a writer? If it hadn’t been for my husband, I probably never would have finished that book. He told me one day, “Get that book out of the closet and work on it, Dorothy. You can do this!” For some reason, he had faith in me, though he’d never read a word of the manuscript. I’m so lucky to have him.

What piece of writing have you done that you’re particularly proud of and why? (Doesn't have to be one of your books or even published.)

I’m extremely proud of all the books I’ve written, and thankful to have so many people who helped make it possible.

Crossing genres from romance to mystery was a big event for me. Making the jump, entering uncharted waters was scary. But when I learned that Publishers Weekly had given my debut mystery HANDBAGS AND HOMICIDE a starred review, I thought that maybe, just maybe, the change had been a good one.

Share a dream or something you'd love to accomplish through your writing career.

Having one of my books made into a movie would be the icing on my cake!

What gives you the greatest writer buzz, makes the trip worth the hassles (besides coffee or other substances, or course )?

All the smart, funny, knowledgeable people I’ve met. Readers, booksellers, librarians, authors, the staff at my publishers and literary agency – everybody has been fantastic and made this journey better.

What is one of the more unique or strange life experiences that has really given you an extra oomph in your writing?

I don’t believe I’ve ever had a unique or strange life experience. I wish I had! I’m a one-foot-in-front-of-the-other kind of person. Slow but steady. I just keep plugging away, getting things done.

The oomph I’ve received is through the joy of getting published. Success breeds success, as the saying goes. It gives me confidence that I can do it again, that I can keep living my dream.

Describe your special or favorite writing spot.

Wish I could say that I can write in Starbucks, or on the back of a bus, or in a food court. I can’t. I need total silence and complete solitude to write. Our family circumstances changed a few months ago and I had to give up my home office. Right now I’m squeezed into a spot in my bedroom at a desk that’s barely wider than the keyboard. But that’s okay. It’s quiet!

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

Definitely pacing. Rolling the story out slowly was difficult for me at first. Like most new writers overflowing with great characters and backstory, I rushed to tell it all as quickly as I could. It was so good I had to get it out there!

Then I began thinking of my plot from the readers point of view. How much, and in what order, should I reveal to keep the reader interested? Once I figured that out, it was much easier to hold back.

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

Oddly enough, I start out with notebook paper. I use a sheet to list characters’ names, descriptions, places, locations, and anything else I need to quickly reference. I also keep a log of the date I start a new chapter and the page count.

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 like to write a chapter per day. My chapters run from 10 – 15 pages and I can write that in four or five hours. If I’ve done that, I feel I can take the rest of the day off.

Plot, seat of pants or combination?

I think of myself as a “destination” writer. I never start a book unless I know how it will end. I always have a fairly detailed synopsis that I work from. My goal is to finish the book so I can get started on the next one, so I don’t spend time trying to figure out what happens next when I’m writing. I know what’s going to happen and I simply write it down.

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

I’ve been very touched by the things readers have shared with me. I heard from a soldier serving in Afghanistan, a woman awaiting cancer treatment, someone grieving over the loss of a beloved pet or family member, and so many others, all of whom told me that my books brightened their days. It’s the greatest reward I could receive.

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

Whatever you’re called to do in life – do it! Each person has something unique to contribute. Don’t make the rest of us do without it.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Author Interview ~ Joyce Magnin

Joyce Magnin likes baseball, football, needlearts, cream soda, video games but not elevators. I have three fabulous children and two baby grandsons. And I take care of a neurotic parakeet who thinks she's a chicken. I am a frequent conference speaker/workshop facilitator. You can find me at or

Tell us a little about your latest release:

The Prayers of Agnes Sparrow is the story of an unusual woman, Agnes Sparrow. No longer able or willing to leave her home, where she is cared for by her long-suffering sister Griselda, Agnes has committed her life to the one thing she can do—besides eat. Agnes Sparrow prays and when Agnes prays things happen, including major miracles of the cancer, ulcer-healing variety along with various minor miracles not the least of which is the recovery of lost objects and a prize-winning pumpkin.

The rural residents of Bright’s Pond are so enamored with Agnes they plan to have a sign erected on the interstate that reads, “Welcome to Bright’s Pond, Home of Agnes Sparrow.” This is something Agnes doesn’t want and sends Griselda to fight city hall. Griselda’s petitions are shot down and the sign plans press forward until a stranger comes to town looking for his miracle from Agnes. The truth of Agnes’s odd motivation comes out when the town reels after the murder of a beloved community member. How could Agnes allow such evil in their midst? Didn’t she know? Well, the prayers of Agnes Sparrow have more to do with Agnes than God. Agnes has been praying to atone for a sin committed when she was a child. After some tense days, the townsfolk, Griselda, and Agnes decide they all need to find their way back to the true source of the miracles—God.

The Prayers of Agnes Sparrow has been critically acclaimed and received a starred review in Library Journal.

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

I didn't really have a "what if" moment. Agnes grew out of many conversations and many hours of day dreaming and ruminating.

Tell us a little about your main character and how you developed him/her:

The main character is up for discussion. Some would say Agnes and others Griselda. I think it's Griselda. It's really her story of how she cared for Agnes through thick and thin (no pun intended—LOL) There isn't much thin. Griselda was just as fat emotionally as Agnes was physically. She just didn't know it until the end. And even then, she still has a long way to go. Secret: She will get there in another book.

What did you enjoy most about writing this book? Least?

I love to dream and think about characters and let them take over corners of my mind. Characters, and setting—that's the best part for me. I don't know what I enjoyed the least. Maybe it's the household juggling that goes on to find time. I usually write for fifteen minutes, throw in a load of whites, write for fifteen more minutes, clean up the mess in the kitchen left by my son doing science experiments, write for fifteen more minutes—you get the idea.

What made you start writing?

I knew I wanted to be a writer since I was nine years old. It seems I was always reading and writing stories.

What would you do with your free time if you weren’t writing?

Video Games. I like to play RPGs. But seriously, if I wasn't a writer I'd probably have been a teacher. But I guess I am doing that, so maybe a speech pathologist or, I don’t know, I always wanted to drive one of those giant earth-movers you see at construction sites.

What's the most difficult part of writing for you (or was when you first started on your novel journey)?

Settling down to a plot. I'm what they call an SOP writer—seat of pants. So yes, plotting a story is really hard for me. I tend to let the characters lead and sometimes that can get messy.

Do you put yourself into your books/characters?

Oh, I suppose so. By that I mean when I read my work I see where that has happened but I don't consciously set out to do it.

What message do you hope readers gain from your novel?

Well, I don't really want to give anyone who might not have read it yet a preconceived notion of what to glean from it. But I do hope that folks have a good time reading it, enjoy the story and all that.

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

It generally starts with a character, a name, and then a line. I set down a first line and then try to keep some kind of momentum while I'm discovering the story, researching things that need researching, sometimes brainstorming with friends. I call this my exploratory draft. And then once I know the story I start to write it. About half way through I make my version of an outline, really just a few notes of what I think needs to happen and then I keep going. Once this draft is finished I do the rewrite and that for me is where the real fun begins. I can change things up, perfect (read: agonize over) sentences, change or delete scenes. But I can do all that with the security of knowing the story is complete.

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

The Great Gatsby—it's just a really good book, beautifully written.
The Princess Bride—A perfect story.
Anything written by Fannie Flagg—masterful storyteller.
Huckleberry Finn—Language, story, motion of words, depth
Peace Like a River—Again, beautiful writing.
Flannery O'Connor, Ray Bradbury, Mya Angelou, River Jordan
Too many to keep naming.

For kicks I like Mary Kay Andrews, Joshylin Jackson, Billie Letts, Garrison Keillor

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

I'd like to say, the exact date I would be offered a contract. But I suppose the best lesson I've learned is to be true to my story, tell the story I was put on planet earth to tell, don't write what I think will sell. Be myself.

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

Well, I have no money to spend on marketing so I do what I can on Facebook, staying faithful to my blog, website, book clubs, signings, events, whatever I can do to get out there. I pray a lot.

Tell us what we have to look forward to in the future. What new projects are you working on?

I'm just finishing up the second Bright's Pond Book—Charlotte Figg Takes Over Paradise. It will release next fall from Abingdon and then maybe a couple more Bright's Pond books after that.

Do you have any parting words of advice?

Gee, well if there are writers reading this I guess I'd say to be yourself, write YOUR story. And for everyone I'd say to do good, eat pie and give God the glory. Thank you Novel Journey for including me on your fabulous blog. Soli Deo Gloria.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Guest Blogger ~ Allie Pleiter

An avid knitter, coffee junkie, and devoted chocoholic, Allie Pleiter writes both fiction and non-fiction. The enthusiastic but slightly untidy mother of two, Allie spends her days writing books, doing laundry, running carpools, and finding new ways to avoid housework. She grew up in Connecticut, holds a BS in Speech from Northwestern University, spent fifteen years in the field of professional fundraising, and currently lives in suburban Chicago, Illinois. The “dare from a friend” to begin writing nine years ago has given rise to a career spanning two parenting books, eight novels including the multi-nominated MY SO-CALLED LOVE LIFE, and various national speaking engagements on faith, women’s issues, and writing. Visit her website or her knitting blog

The Chunky Method? Yep.

I’m a student of artistic productivity--I spend a lot of time analyzing how art gets made. I’ve learned a few things over the course of my study that I’d like to share with you--they’re useful whether or not you’ve signed a publishing contract. It’s become affectionately known as “The Chunky Method.”

Know your “chunk.” How fast you write during a typical writing stint is what I call your “chunk.” When you sit down to write, how many words do you get down before you run out or dry up? While tracking it sounds like measuring the ocean (i.e. impossible and useless), it’s a tool to calculate how to meet your next--or your first--deadline. One chunk = words per writing segment. Measure it over about five segments, take the average, and you’ve got your chunk. Most of us are more consistent in this than we realize. If you know your chunk, and you know the target word count, a little simple division tells how many chunks it takes to meet your deadline.

If you write in big chunks (over 2000 words in my opinion), pay attention to environment. Get a good chair that won’t invite back problems. Most “big chunk people,” need quiet or seclusion, so take the steps to get them. You’ll probably need an office--sooner if not later. Invest in earphones if you need music--or you need to drown out SpongeBob Squarepants.

If you’re small chunk person, wield that flexibility to your advantage. Don’t go looking for that quiet couple of hours because you likely don’t need it. Write anywhere. Invest in one of those new tiny laptops, see if your PDA can support an attached keyboard, or even use index cards (larger ones will hold 500 words handwritten). Get a little done every day and you’ll be amazed what you can accomplish.

Plan accordingly. Don’t pull deadlines out of thin air, and don’t think you can get a full week of work in right before your daughter gets married. Grab a calendar and plot things out using your valuable new chunky-attitude. If you’re a small chunk person, kidding yourself you can rent a hotel room and bang out the last half of the book in two weeks is just that--kidding yourself. Recognize your own process and know that you shouldn’t pull a literary “all-nighter.” If you’re a big chunk person, plan out the long stretches of writing time you need, even if that means leaving town or hiring a babysitter. Squeezing in an hour after the kids have gone to bed probably isn’t smart.

Don’t wait until you’re published to hone your process. “We want to buy your book,” is usually followed immediately by “when can you have the re-write ready?” and, hopefully, by “when can you have the sequel done?” Knowing and wielding your writing chunks will help you be ready when those important questions get asked.

I teach “The Chunky Method” to writers all over the country. Yes, writing is art, but it’s also business, and productivity is a science no matter if you’re making piping or plot-lines. Get chunky, and get writing!


An Old Fashioned Christmas…

That’s what led new believer Mary Thorpe to start over in quaint Middleburg, Kentucky. As director of the church’s Christmas pageant, Mary’s job is to bring the townspeople together, to remind them what the season is really about. But everyone is all riled up over one very handsome man: the man daring to run against Middleburg’s popular long-standing mayor. Mac MacCarthy wants change. Mary wants things to stay as they are. Is there a happy medium? Both Mac and Mary are in for one very big Christmas surprise.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Trouble With Theme

by Athol Dickson

My wife Sue and I had dinner with Terry and Regina Jacobson a few weeks ago. Terry is a talented architect who specializes in designing churches, and Regina is a wonderful painter who explores spiritual themes. We had a good talk about the joys and challenges of expressing our faith in our work. At one point in the conversation I mentioned the strange fact that there’s no faster way to start an argument among people who write Christian fiction than to bring up the subject of theme.

“Right away, we divide into two camps,” I said, making two fists and putting one on the dinner table to my right, and the other on the table to my left. Lifting one fist I said, “Over here are authors who insist Christian novels have to kowtow to the most prudish people in the pews, and speak about the gospel so plainly it crosses the line into propaganda.” Lifting my other fist, I said, “But the authors over here think being authentic and relevant means we must show profanity and violence and sex realistically, and they’re willing to avoid all hint of Christianity rather than risk being seen as preachy.”

Nodding, my friend Regina zeroed right in on the problem. Pointing to one fist she said, “Too much truth.” Then she pointed to the other fist. “Too much grace.”

Regina knows her Bible. She knows you can never really have too much truth or too much grace. What she really meant was, not enough harmony.

People are like pendulums. We can’t seem to stop swinging from one extreme to the other.

Sometimes this is good. Passion is important. But in addition to passion, all the finest things in God’s creation have a sense of harmony. It’s true in Regina’s world, where the best painters pay as much attention to the background, or “negative space,” as they do to the subject matter, or “positive space.” And it’s true in fiction, where the best writers devote attention to theme, style, setting, plot and characterization without giving any one of those fundamental elements too much emphasis, or too little. Everything works together, harmoniously.

When we swing so far in one direction that we ignore or oppose the other end of the spectrum, it’s a sure sign we are lazy. It’s easier out there on the ends. The gray areas in the middle require much more work. In those middle places we can’t thoughtlessly accept simple black and white ideas; we have to think about everything. This applies to writing, and it applies to Christianity itself.

It’s lazy writing to layer a theme onto a story superficially and it’s lazy to turn one’s back on theme for fear of overstatement. That’s why a good writer will wrestle with a theme, always aware of the dangers of going too far, and always aware it’s just as dangerous not to go far enough. Some wrestle with their theme up front; others let the theme develop as they write and then go back to wrestle with it later. Either way this is a lot of work, but it’s also the only way to write a novel that matters.

Similarly, it’s lazy writing to demand thoughtless compliance with rigid rules simply to avoid causing offense, and it’s just as lazy to break those same rules merely to appear relevant or authentic to the outside world. A good Christian novelist will offend even fellow Christians if there’s no better way to make a point that should be made. A good Christian novelist will also do the extra work it takes to write about the fallen world without contributing to the fall. Jesus ate with prostitutes and “sinners” but not once did he emulate them.

A long time ago I was advised by a Jewish agent and an unbelieving editor to add a stronger spiritual subtext to a plot, only to be told later by a Christian author that the novel was too preachy. More recently, another Christian author assured me that my upcoming allegorical novel about God’s love is a waste of time, because only people who already know God will understand the symbolism. (I could not help remembering that God is not mentioned in the book of Ester, nor does that book contain any commentary on the actions of the characters. Apparently God trusts readers, even if we don’t.)

These experiences are fairly typical of what I’ve found in several organizations where Christian authors discuss writing. We often talk about how to create sympathetic characters, or how to write a page-turner of a plot, but amazingly enough, we almost never discuss how to communicate a theme. When it comes up we tend to flee to separate corners, with those on one side saying, “You abandon the gospel!” and those on the other side saying, “You write sermons, not novels!” The finger pointing is easier than doing the work it takes to speak to readers deep down, between the lines. Although we are all in the business of writing about Christian ideas one way or another, theme is a touchy subject.

Oh, the irony!

Whether the genre is romance, speculative fiction, mystery/suspense, general fiction or chick lit, writing about Jesus means letting go of safe assumptions and easy shortcuts. It also means approaching every novel as if it’s the first one we ever wrote in order to encounter our stories in a middle place where life is gray and complicated, because that’s where true harmony is found. This is only natural, since that harmonious yet complicated place is also where Jesus lives. The apostle
John tells us Jesus came “full of grace and truth.” Jesus never compromised on one for the sake of the other, and He calls us to live our lives the same way. Imagine the power and the glory if our novels did that, too.

“An epic suspense story spanning two centuries and brimming with magical realism.”

Lupe de la Garza, a simple shopkeeper in a mountain village in Mexico , believes God wants her to go to America to preach the gospel.
She is guided on her quest by her people’s greatest treasure: an altarpiece painted by the eighteenth century Franciscan friar who founded her village after fleeing the mysterious destruction of his California mission outpost.
When Lupe is distracted by desire for a young minister who rescues her from certain death in the Arizona desert, and when her preaching in a southern California beach town inspires only apathy and laughter, she begins to lose faith in her quest.
Then the slumbering evil that destroyed the friar’s Franciscan mission rises up again after two hundred years, and Lupe once more looks to the altarpiece for guidance, only to find the true purpose of her quest in the midst of her single greatest fear.