Wednesday, September 29, 2010
Monday, September 27, 2010
Sweet because it marks the culmination of all your hard work to get published. Sweet because you can share your excitement and encouragement to others who aren’t quite as far down the path. But after the first few, they can become yet another thing to juggle as you work on edits for your contracted manuscript and write toward the deadline for your newest novel. Add in family and friends, social engagements and soccer practice, and you’ve got a problem. A big problem. So it’s easy to feel justified in serving up pat answers to the questions you’ve been asked to answer.
Don’t do it.
Interviews are important. They are a way to connect to your intended audience and gain new readers. To the question, “How long did it take for you to get published?” go ahead and answer, “Six years.” I dare you. Six years.
How profound. How inspiring. How. . .absolutely dull.
After reading the first question of an interview submitted for posting here at Novel Journey, I can tell whether the author has really put their heart into the answers or if the interview was approached as a necessary evil. Really good interviews will reward the time and effort you put forth in answering the questions. People will recognize the passion and feeling with which you craft responses. It will make them more curious about you as a writer and about your books.
Here are some suggestions to make your interview more memorable.
Target your audience.
Put personality into your answers.
Use a conversational tone.
Good questions = good interviews. If a question doesn’t intrigue you skip to the next one. (Like the time someone asked me if I were an inanimate object, what would I be--huh?)
Check your spelling and punctuation. Nothing screams, “I’m an amateur” like poor grammar skills, and it is not the interviewers job to edit.
Just as in your writing, use strong verbs, colorful similes and metaphors.
If the problem is time, pace yourself. Choose the toughest question and answer it the first day. Edit that answer the next day, then answer another question and repeat the process until the interview is finished. Procrastination is your worst enemy. When you’ve completed all the questions, shoot them to your critique group and ask them to let you know if anything falls flat, doesn’t make sense, or needs to be expanded upon.
You want people to click with you on that first question and stay with you through the entire interview. By then, hopefully, you’ll have won over a new fan. Or two. Or ten.
Sunday, September 26, 2010
If you're an author aiming for the Christian market, it is far easier to write about one character shooting another than cussing them out. Better a bucket of blood than a pinch of expletives. Just peruse the Christian fiction section of B&N and you will find your share of serial killers, hit men, assassins, abusers, and wannabe anti-christs plying their trades.
But I dare you to find one character who ever says “damn.”
Why is this? Why do Christian publishers tolerate violence more than profanity?
Now, by being "tolerant" of violence, I am in no way suggesting that there is a glorification of violence or an excessive amount of it. Indeed, in relation to the general market, violence and gore in Christian fiction is probably minuscule. Cursing, on the other hand, is non-existent. So somehow, somewhere along the way, a concession was made for violence and against profanity. But why?
I have two theories about why, in Christian fiction, violence is more tolerable than cussing.
First, the presence of violence and bloodshed in the Bible allows us to condone the presence of violence and bloodshed in our stories. The world is a violent place. Christians aren't immune to death, disaster, and criminal behavior. So why should we scrub our stories of it? Likewise, Scripture corroborates, telling of wars, dismemberment, hellish torment, and grisly crimes. Of course, the Bible does not go into graphic detail. We are told that David removed Goliath's head, without a play-by-play of the hewing. Likewise, the "mass drowning" of Noah's neighborhood is left to our imagination.
Furthermore, the Christian life is often viewed as a fight. We are described as soldiers and warriors; our lives are a real struggle against real spiritual opponents. The inclusion of violence in our fiction is an expression of our struggle to follow Christ in a dark, evil, world.
So my first guess is that Christian publishers tolerate violence because the Bible contains bloodshed and violence, the Christian life is a battle, and Christian aren't immune to the evils of our fallen world.
But why is there a more liberal approach to violence than profanity? Why show a hit man stalking his prey and a serial killer fulfilling his sadistic urges, without so much as a single expletive? I'm sure there's several possibilities, but the one I keep returning to is this:
Contemporary religious fiction is tethered to Fundamentalist roots. Much of the Christian art industry -- Christian film / fiction / music -- is a reaction against secularism. This posture can be traced back to early Fundamentalism's withdraw from many American institutions like politics and entertainment. Holiness, for Fundamentalists, came to be defined in terms of "negatives" -- no smoking, no drinking, no movies, no makeup, no dancing, etc., etc. Much of the evangelical counter culture was rooted in this cultural separation. Christian art became an alternative to "worldly" fare. As such, it was defined as much by what it didn't have, as what it did. I think that's still true today.
In this Fundamentalist "hierarchy of holiness," some sins are just worse than others. Homosexuality is worse than gluttony. Smoking is worse than envy. Drinking is worse than gossip. And dancing... well, let's not go there.
Consumers of Christian fiction appear to employ this "hierarchy of holiness." Thus, we've come to see the presence of profanity in our fiction as worse than the presence of violence. In the same way that we inflate certain sins like homosexuality or smoking, we have inflated certain words. (Which is why it is far easier to decapitate an antagonist than have him utter the dreaded "dammit.")
The flip-side, however, is that by cultivating this hierarchy we inevitably "deflate" or "diminish" other evils. Like violence. Either way, we have come to believe that it's worse to read an expletive, than to read about murder. That's why, for the Christian author, it is much easier to portray a drowning, a strangling, an electrocution, an assassination, or a mafia-style execution, than to simply show a character cuss.
Anyway, I'm interested in your thoughts. Do you think Christian publishers tolerate violence over profanity, and if so, why?
* * *Mike is a monthly contributor to Novel Journey. He is represented by the rockin' Rachelle Gardner of WordServe Literary. Look for Mike's debut novel, "The Resurrection," in stores February 2011. You can visit his website at www.mikeduran.com.
The document’s white space mocked me as my fingers hovered over the keyboard. For the second day I’d sat at the computer for several hours. Nothing flowed.
“Lord, shouldn’t I work through this passage of Scripture?” I only had three days to write the remaining twenty-two devotionals for my book before editing it and sending it to my critique group. “Would I make the deadline? Would the publisher grant an extension? Was this the book God had led me to write?” Heaviness took over.
“Sounds like warfare. I’m on it,” promised a writing friend when I explained what was going on.
I sank to my knees that afternoon in desperation and surrender. “Lord, You’ve brought me this far. Help me trust You to see this project to the end.”
The next morning, a freedom took hold of me as never before as my fingers danced over the keyboard. I made my deadline with a day to spare.
When I tackled laying out the devotions over the year, I had no clear idea where to place each devotional. My new laptop restarted on its own every few minutes. Then it slowed down so much I could have cooked and served my family a gourmet meal. On the third morning I clued in. I prayed over my computer, manuscript, and the index cards that covered my dining table. A gentle peace took hold of me. A few days later the book was laid out.
I’m not one to see spirits behind every event or to blame the evil one when things go wrong, but I couldn’t get away from the timing of the two episodes. Spiritual warfare is real for Christian writers. Paul, in Ephesians 6, lists an array of weapons of warfare. Prayer was my offensive weapon. In the first episode, the breakthrough was miraculous and exhilarating. The second answer, while no less miraculous, only came through persisting.
Paul underscores the importance of prayer by mentioning the words “pray” three times, “praying,” and “prayers” once each in verses 18-20. He encourages us to pray in the Spirit (verse 18). I had no idea how to pray against “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (vs. 12), but God’s Spirit within did, interceding on my behalf (Romans 8:25-27).
In verse 18, Paul urges us to “be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.” We don’t know when the enemy will strike, but constant prayer keeps us alert. Constant prayer during the attack empowers us to get through. The breakthrough, whether immediate or over time, always comes when we’re on our knees.
Paul’s request for prayer in verses 19-20 resonates. It’s a prayer for writers of faith: “Pray also for me, that…words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel…Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.”
Saturday, September 25, 2010
Contemporaroy Novella -
The Great Christmas Bowl by Susan May Warren
Tyndale House, Karen Watson, Editor
Historical Novella -
Christmas Bells for Dry Creek by Janet Tronstad
Steeple Hill, Tina James, Editor
Short Contemporary -
A Texas Ranger's Family by Mae Nunn
Steeple Hill, Melissa Endlich, Editor
Short Contemporary Suspense -
Evidence of Murder by Jill Elizabeth Nelson
Steeple Hill, Emily Rodmell, Editor
The Unfinished Gift by Dan Walsh
Revell, Andrea Doering, Editor
Young Adult -
So Not Happening - Jenny B. Jones
Thomas Nelson, Amanda Bostic/Jamie Chavez, Editors
The Familiar Stranger by Christina Berry
Moody Publishers, Paul Santhouse, Editor
Long Contemporary Romance -
Just Between You and Me by Jenny B. Jones
Thomas Nelson, Natalie Hanemann/Jamie Chavez, Editors
The Case of the Mystified M.D. by A.K. Arenz
Sheaf House, Joan M. Shoup, Editor
Intervention by Terri Blackstock
Zondervan, Sue Brower/Dave Lambert, Editors
Long Historical -
Stealing Home by Allison Pittman
Multnomah, Alice Crider, Editor
Long Historical Romance -
Cowboy Christmas by Mary Connealy
Barbour Publishing, Rebecca Germany, Editor
Eternity Falls by Kirk Outerbridge
Marcher Lord Press, Jeff Gerke, Editor
Women's Fiction -
Never the Bride by Cheryl McKay and Rene Gutteridge
Waterbrook Press, Shannon Marchese, Editor
Debut Author -
The Unfinished Gift by Dan Walsh
Revell, Andrea Doering, Editor
Friday, September 24, 2010
New York Times and USA Today Bestselling Author Brenda Novak has three novels coming out this summer-WHITE HEAT, BODY HEAT & KILLER HEAT. She also runs an annual on-line auction for diabetes research every May . To date, she's raised over $1 million. Brenda considers herself lucky to be a mother of five and married to the love of her life.
What two or three things would you do differently if you were starting your publishing career today?
I would join a writers group first thing. The networking and support of being part of a large group, all actively seeking publication (or working to stay published and build a career) is invaluable. I wrote my entire first novel by myself, completely unaware that these writing groups existed (naïve, I know-LOL). The manuscript for OF NOBLE BIRTH (published in November 1999) came in at 800 pages-well beyond the market, which was a mistake I wouldn't have made if I'd started networking sooner. Then I found Romance Writers of America and realized that all the market info I needed was readily available through them (also realized I needed to trim that first book down to 400 pages, which is what I did in order to sell it)-as well as opportunities to meet agents and editors.
What one issue makes you struggle the most as an author? How do you handle it?
Achieve balance between my work life and my personal life. As a writer, you can work from home, which is fabulous. That makes you more available to your family. And yet...the work is never done. There's always something you can be doing to promote your work (doing all the social media, preparing content for your web site, dreaming up a new contest or promo item), or sell something else (a book in a different genre, a short for Amazon or whatever). It's tough to know when to call it a day and focus on something else. Fortunately, I have five kids that sort of force the issue. But I'm worried about what will happen when they all move away. Maybe I'll sit at this desk 24/7. LOL
What is the best writing (or life) advice you have ever heard or wished you had followed? Why?
The best writing advice I've never heard has been attributed to Nora Roberts (I'm not sure if she was the first to say it, however): "You can fix a bad page, but you can't fix blank one." This gives you permission to write without editing before it ever hits the page, and that's so important to getting those pages out there, where you can refine them.
The advice I always give to new writers is very simple: Believe. If you truly believe, you'll do whatever it takes to research the market, learn the craft, finish the book, get it out there, etc.
What one issue ignites your passion? Does your passion fuel your writing? What would you do with your life if you didn't write?
Love ignites my passion. I'm a true romantic at heart. Last night I watched A WALK TO REMEMBER (for the millionth time) and realized how excited I get over two people falling in love. I especially enjoy seeing love create a metamorphosis in people who were previously angry or bitter. It's such a healing balm.
Tell us a bit about your current project.
I have three books coming out this summer-WHITE HEAT, BODY HEAT and KILLER HEAT. These books revolve around a private security contractor based in L.A. called Department 6. The operatives specialize in undercover operations here in the U.S. and take on some pretty challenging and dangerous cases. For instance, in the first book due out July 27th, two operatives (Rachel and Nate) have to infiltrate a dangerous cult located in the middle of the Arizona desert, where they are completely cut off from outside help.
We are all about journeys...unique ones at that. How convoluted was your path to your first published book? Share some highlights or lowlights from your path to publication.
Highlight: Finding Romance Writers of America and all they can offer to an aspiring romance novelist.
Lowlight: Learning my first manuscript, OF NOBLE BIRTH, was twice as long as the market would bear and would need to be rewritten.
Highlight: Finaling in the Golden Heart after rewriting OF NOBLE BIRTH and securing a reputable agent, who sold the book to HarperCollins.
Lowlight: Being orphaned before the book ever came out (which means my editor was fired and I was cast adrift).
Highlight: Meeting my current editor, Paula Eykelhof, at a regional conference and selling her a contemporary manuscript for the Superromance line.
Lowlight: Not being able to place another historical.
Highlight: Building a readership in Superromance and crossing over to Romantic Suspense with TAKING THE HEAT.
Lowlight: Nothing comes easy. Lots of hard work to build a career writing both.
Highlight: Three new RS books coming out this summer and three more on the way for next summer!
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.
Of course! I don't think I'd be human if I didn't have doubts. There are times when I think I've lost my touch, or that everything I write is drivel. Writing is an emotional business, filled with highs and lows (a bad review/a new sale; a difficult manuscript/a Rita final, etc.). I try to do my best to keep it all in perspective. I think it helps to be grateful for the good and to remember that "into every life a little rain must fall."
What mistakes have you made while seeking publication? Or to narrow it down further what's something you wish you'd known earlier that might have saved you some time/frustration in the publishing business?
I wish I'd known about those who take advantage of the unpublished. Before I found RWA, I met up with a literary agent who told me that I had "promise." He said that I just needed a professional editor to refine the work and then my book would be ready to submit. Not surprisingly, he had just the gal. So he charged me $75/hour and his editor took a whole year to go through my manuscript. When it was finished, it was no more fit for market than before, which meant I'd wasted $5000 at a time when my family desperately needed the money. It was one of those "live and learn" experiences, but definitely an expensive wrong turn on my part.
What event/person has most changed you as a writer? How?
I'd have to say my editor, Paula Eykelhof, has been the biggest influence on me. She's such a warm, moral individual, who has always encouraged me to make my books deeper and richer. I think it's her feedback that has help shape my career and even the types of books I've ended up writing.
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 particularly proud of the Christmas novella I have coming out in an Superromance anthology this November ("A Dundee Christmas" in THAT CHRISTMAS FEELING). I've written other Christmas novellas, including "On a Snowy Christmas" in THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS, which is up for a Rita this summer, but they all turned out to be stories set at Christmas. I think "A Dundee Christmas" is my first true Christmas story, and I love it.
Share a dream or something you'd love to accomplish through your writing career.
This one is easy for me! When my son was diagnosed with Type 1 (insulin dependent) diabetes, I wanted to do something to fight back. I dreamed of raising a million dollars for research. I even felt this driving need, this urgency and couldn't get it to quiet down and leave me in peace, despite the fact that I had more than enough on my plate already. I had five little kids, was just launching my writing career and had no time or resources. But then I came up with the idea of inviting my publishing contacts and fans to help raise money. I launched Brenda Novak's Online Auction for Diabetes Research at www.brendanovak.com six years ago. The first year, we raised only $35,000, but that figure has grown steadily from year to year and...drum roll, please...this year we broke the $1 million figure I'd dreamed about from the beginning.
I know this would not have been possible without my writing career, because it's fellow authors, industry people and loyal readers who've made it happen.
What gives you the greatest writer buzz, makes the trip worth the hassles (besides coffee or other substances, or course )?
Having a career to call my own gives me the biggest buzz. When I married, I expected to be a stay-at-home mom, always providing support for my husband and his business. That I've created a successful business of my own is a wonderful feeling and has provided so much joy and fulfillment-and opportunities to travel and meet people I never would've met.
Plot, seat of pants or combination?
I'm definitely a pantser. If I outline, I feel as if I've already told the story and get bored with it. I believe my subconscious writes the book before I do, if that makes any sense. So if I use my intuition and am careful as I go, I typically don't have to do a lot of rewriting-and yet I can let the story carry me away and go with the creative flow.
Have you received a particularly memorable reader response or peer honor? Please share.
The fan mail that touches me most deeply are the letters and emails I get that tell me my book carried them away during a difficult time in life (while they were going through chemo, while they were taking care of their aging grandmother, etc.). Those really make all the effort I put into my books worthwhile.
Have you discovered any successful marketing/promo ideas that you'd share with us?
I think have a fabulous web site is the best marketing tool available. It takes a great deal of work to keep the content changing and to make it reader interactive, but I'd recommend being creative in the use of a web site as the best marketing tool available today.
Thursday, September 23, 2010
You want to get published. You want to control the future of your manuscript and your writing career.
In this fifth edition of a self-publishing classic, best-selling author Marilyn Ross and publishing expert Sue Collier empower writers to publish their own work with minimal risk and maximum profits.
Inside The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing, writers will find step-by-step guidance on publishing and marketing a book. From print-on-demand publishing to subsidy publishing to true self-publishing, the book provides a thorough explanation of how to decide which option is best.
Marilyn and Sue then help writers jumpstart a publicity campaign with a detailed marketing plan and timetable, as well as appendices filled with marketing contacts, organizations and vendors. Writers will also benefit from valuable case studies and examples of how other publishers have found success.
This expanded and revised edition of the bible of self-publishing also offers the latest information and cutting-edge advice on e-publishing and Internet marketing, with a chapter on ways to leverage social media marketing to create buzz and stand out from the crowd.
With an in-depth discussion of exclusive distributors, plus coverage of the most recent changes in bookstores and the book-selling industry, The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing equips writers with everything they need to publish and promote their books and take control of their writing career.
Wednesday, September 22, 2010
Tuesday, September 21, 2010
Welcome to Novel Journey, how long did it take you to get published?
Thanks for having me. As to how long did it take for me to get published, I’d have to say the majority of my life. I’ve been writing since I was around twelve – I’m considerably older now. I began to work seriously toward publication in the mid-1970’s, had an agent with a big New York literary agency for five years during the 1990’s, quit writing for almost seven years, joined ACFW around 2003, and got my first book, The Case of the Bouncing Grandma, published in 2008.
Do you think an author is born or made?
I believe it’s a little of both. God hands out the gifts/talents, but it’s what we as individuals do that either enhances those gifts or not. We can’t just expect everything we need to be handed to us – at least I don’t think we do. I’ve had to learn a lot, and figure there’s even more left to learn.
What is the first book you remember reading?
I had some books that were accompanied with records where you would follow along in the book and when a “ping” sounded, it was time to turn the page. One of those that really stick out in my mind is CINDERELLA. I think I was about five years old, and remember listening to it while I was sitting at the kitchen table. Awesome memory!
What common qualities do you find in the personalities of published authors?
We’re always learning, always striving to improve our craft.
What is the theme of your latest book?
I’m not sure there is an actual theme. It’s a mystery/suspense written with the hope that it will entertain the reader, make them feel happy about the time and money invested in reading it.
At what point did you stop juggling suggestions and critiques and trust yourself (as a writer)?
In the mid 90s I took a class called Creative Writing in Fiction at a nearby university. One of the things I walked away with was that if you truly wanted to write, if it’s what you felt you were called to do, you had to trust your gut. Sometimes relying on critiques and such can stifle you---but that’s something each individual has to decide.
Are takeaway messages (in your book) important to you?
Like I said, my biggest hope is that the book entertains.
When do you know you’ve got the finished product and it’s your best effort?
When I read back through it and I get that “Ahhhhhh” feeling.
Any anecdotes about the research or writing of your books?
I honestly hate researching – though I’ve learned the necessity of doing it. Since I’m a seat-of the-pants-er, I love the thrill of discovery as I write.
How would you pitch this book to your intended audience?
By using the one-liner : Their faces were the same. Will their fates be as well?”
If you like mystery/suspense, romantic suspense, you’ll enjoy MIRRORED IMAGE.
Thanks for having me today. I’ve really enjoyed it.
Sunday, September 19, 2010
In the ruins of a place once known as North America lies the nation of Panem, a shining Capitol surrounded by twelve outlying districts. The Capitol is harsh and cruel and keeps the districts in line by forcing them all to send one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a fight to the death on live TV.
Suzanne Collins began her series two years ago with epic-level action and suspense. As I wrote then, "Games is full of promise for sequels that will equal--perhaps even surpass--it in conflict, development and satisfaction." The YA trilogy's final installment hit shelves last month, and even before its release, Mockingjay was one of the most talked about books of 2010.
It's tempting to embrace a story, any story, that pours so much water on the Twilight fire, but don't leap before you look. Remember that Collins is writing for adolescents, pliable minds, who, more than any other target audience, are actively building the beliefs that will shape their future lives.
"Because it presents the child with a portrait of a world he is, in real life, only just coming to know, every book teaches a new way of thinking about that world. The question is not whether a book teaches but what and how and whether its intent is to humanize a child or merely to socialize him." John Goldthwaite, The Natural History of Make-Believe.
So what does Mockingjay teach?
It's realistic, in that it doesn't try to paint rainbows. But the ending lacks any hint of a redemptive future, which is what makes tragic novels truly meaningful and inspiring. Instead, we see a listless fate that just stretches on and on. A husband, sure, a couple of kids, sure, and yet you can almost hear the heroine heave an impassive sigh as she narrates these developments.
Ever-after life is not always happy, not always exciting, very true, but the worldview that shines through hardly humanizes Collins' readers. Post-war life in Panem is empty, and her main characters seem almost dead inside. Which is absolutely the reverse of, say, the early Christians, who lost everything they loved, were persecuted almost to death, and yet still counted life worth living. "To live is Christ, to die is gain."
Compared with that mindset, the atmosphere of Mockingjay is nihilistic, a world where there isn't much point to anything, no reality except love (perhaps). Not quite the kind of satisfaction I anticipated two years ago.
For sure, Collins didn't take an easy Twilight out, where "everyone gets everything they want, even if their desires necessitate an about-face in characterization or the messy introduction of some back story. Nobody has to renounce anything or suffer more than temporarily—in other words, grandeur is out." (Publishers Weekly)
There is plenty of suffering and renunciation in Mockingjay. More than enough. However, that last line definitely rings true for both series finales--"grandeur is out."
As John Goldthwaite would add, "Such a belief [that the world is Sustained in its travels] is the one just warrant for inflicting pain in a children’s book—for only by its felt presence can the pain be borne.... The only lasting justification for make-believe literature is the redemptive grace of agape, through which the world, with all its perils and squalor, may be revealed to children as a comic arena socially and a terra incognita invested with true mystery and true light."
"You are merely a player about to deliver a soliloquy on the septic system to a couple dozen poplar trees and a patch of pale blue sky.” "Gravity" by Louis Jenkins from Just Above Water.
If I believed that I’d quit writing. But I don’t. I believe God designed me, talents, warts and all, “to do good works which he has prepared for (me).” That includes writing the stories from my life that will touch the lives of others, the poems that creep up on me and arrive unbidden on the page and the articles about other people who have allowed me to tell their stories so that others may be inspired. It includes, too, the fiction I struggle to release from my brain and heart.
As I look back at my writing career, which spans (gulp), almost a quarter century, I see God’s hand guiding and directing. Some might say it was all coincidences but really, who but God could have done this –
Not long after becoming a believer, a friend asked me to go with her to a seminar called Speak Up with Confidence. The teacher, Carol Kent, talked a lot about writing as she taught about speaking. And the burning desire to write, which had been simmering in me all my life, suddenly ignited.
A few weeks later we arrived at the small church where my husband was taking over as senior pastor. He was told he had to write a weekly column for the local paper. Feeling overwhelmed he asked if I would do it. That was the beginning of six years writing a faith column for that paper. When that one closed I approached the other newspaper, but they declined the offer.
As I was leaving the office, I felt a strong nudge to tell the editor my husband and I were about to leave for a year-long mission adventure in Papua New Guinea. “Would you be interested in a couple of articles from there?” I asked, pretty sure he’d say no thanks. Perhaps he felt sorry for me, since he’d turned down the column, but he shrugged and said I could send him one or two and maybe he’d run them. I sent him two and he requested more, with a short note, “Ever considered a career in journalism?” When we returned home he called and asked if I’d not only be interested in writing the column but also doing some other work for him. That was the beginning of almost 15 years of writing for that paper.
About that same time I saw a small ad about a Christian writers’ group meeting nearby. I signed up right away. Discovering that fellowship was a huge encouragement. That year I won first place in their short story competition. The next year I was asked to join the executive. That was the beginning of over twenty years of active involvement with Christian writers.
During that time people started asking me to compile my column into a book. I dismissed the idea, but people kept asking and then someone said that maybe God was prodding those people, so I prayed about it. A few weeks later I met a man who worked for a small independent Christian publisher. A few months later The Spur of the Moment was released, selling out the first edition quite quickly. That was followed by an emailed column that went out to over 5,000 people. Then a second book evolved, along with more articles in magazines, and short stories in journals.
I’d always loved writing fiction and had won several contests and prizes over the years. I’d written five full length manuscripts but had never done anything with them. I’d just finished my fifth manuscript, One Smooth Stone, when a new Canadian publisher launched a contest to find the Best New Canadian Christian Author. I sent my manuscript to a couple of writer-friends to see what they thought. They said go for it so I did. One Smooth Stone won the contest and was published.
Coincidences? There are too many to be called chance, too many to mention. All of them evidence that none of us is “merely a player.” We are Christian writers with value to God and those around us. We are not delivering a “soliloquy to a septic system” but words with heart and meaning that are not floating out to “poplar trees and blue sky” but to people who need to hear them.
Friday, September 17, 2010
Allison Pittman is a Christian author and speaker who watches too much TV, eats too much chocolate, and lives a gloriously flawed life covered by the grace of her savior Jesus Christ!
What was the most difficult part of writing For Time and Eternity?
~~It’s hard to explain, but I truly felt a sense of spiritual warfare almost from the beginning of the project. I had wonky things happen with my computer, and sometimes an absolutely oppressive sense of writer’s block. Not blocked for ideas really, the story just rolled out for me from the first spark. But, a block of motivation. Everything seemed to take precedent over writing. I felt a firestorm of distractions. More than any of my other books, I felt I had to rely on God for both focus and motivation. And, praise be to God, I think the book stands as a victory to that struggle.
What will be your response to those who might struggle with the historical facts and what it does to the modern Mormon church’s reputation?
~~I’ve always said that I didn’t intend for this book to “take on” the Mormon church, or even the practice of polygamy. It’s the story of a woman’s search for a true, deep, sincere relationship with Jesus Christ. She is a woman who rejects Mormon teaching; Mormons reject the fundamental truths of the Gospel. Mormons have largely built their reputation on the fact that their teachings are “different” than those taught in Scripture. Much of what is said by the characters who represent the Mormon leadership in the book comes from primary source texts of LDS sermons, editorials, and spiritual writings. The modern, mainstream Mormon church denounces the practice of polygamy, and that denouncement underscores the fact that it existed. But they also have a reputation for supporting a “gospel” that changes to suit the needs of the Saints. One thing that the Lord put on my heart during the process of writing this book is this: converts to the early LDS church were simply people seeking God. Modern converts to the LDS church are people seeking God. The relationship between Christians and Mormons has never been a smooth one, but I can’t help but think that the growth of the Mormon church might not have been such an exponential burst if Christians had reached out in love rather than pitchforks and torches.
How did this story start? With the doctrinal differences or with the thought of a woman being expected to share her husband? Share how you married the two threads.
~~ The story actually started with the husband character, Nathan. It started with the idea of a man so desperate to please God, so in need of love and acceptance, he would follow any teaching that offered that guarantee. From there came the love story; I always wanted to underscore the fact that these two—Nathan and Camilla —truly loved each other. I was fascinated with the idea that both Nathan and Camilla were facing a choice between following their faith in God, or their love for each other. Both were facing the same sacrifice.
Where did you begin with your research?
~~Hard to say “begin…” I read some books on Mormon history, some of The Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and the Covenants—sacred texts to the LDS church. I spent several days in Temple Square in Salt Lake City, strolling through museums and had an eerily quiet, solitary afternoon at the Great Salt Lake. I also read through several message boards populated by former LDS church members, and that was really chilling. There is so much hurt coming out of that church. Interesting, Christians leave their churches to pursue worship with Mormons, but very few Mormons leave their faith to pursue true Christianity. They are hurt, betrayed, frustrated—so broken and made to feel so unworthy. Such defensiveness against any aspect of faith. They’re taught: it’s this, or nothing. And, sadly, feeling disenchanted with Mormonism, they’ll choose nothing. That is the core of Nathan’s battle in the book. If he pauses for one second to think that the prophecies of Joseph Smith are false, then he has absolutely nothing to believe.
How did you choose which details to include in your story?
~~ I also don’t use this book to hi-light the Mormon trail itself—that laborious trek across the country. Not that the journey wouldn’t make a great story—lots of conflict and drama…disease, death…all that fun stuff. But, face it, for the most part, it was just a lot of walking. And walking. And riding. And walking. For Camilla and Nathan, it was little more than the world’s worst honeymoon. History also tells us that the first few years in Deseret also meant plagues of locusts and other hardships. Again, great stuff—and maybe fodder for future books. With this as the initial book in the series, I wanted to focus on one woman’s very personal choice; I didn’t want the grand historical drama to overshadow this very personal conflict. I’m always a firm believer that great fiction comes from small stories.
Without spilling the plot beans, do you have research details that will make further books in the series even more controversial or challenging to write? Why?
~~ The second book in the series deals with military conflict between the United States government and the Mormons. Current headlines that deal with the government’s role in allowing freedom of religion have nothing on what was happening in Utah just before the Civil War.
On a personal note. I LOVED Saturdays with Stella. Do you plan to write more non-fiction? And what might it be?
~~ Aw, thank you. Miss Stella-Bella continues to bless people—I get emails all the time from readers who love that book, too. I’m excited to be leading a ladies’ Bible study group this fall through Saturdays with Stella. Unfortunately, no, I don’t have another non-fiction book in the works right now. Stella was such an amazing gift from the Holy Spirit, and I’m always keeping my heart and mind open! But, readers who love Stella can still get new stories if they go to my website, www.allisonpittman.com, and sign up for my newsletter!
Which is your preference to write, fiction or non-fiction and why?
~~ That’s tough. I’d have to go with fiction, though. Like I said, Stella was a gift. Whenever I try to flesh out ideas for other books, I find that I have a couple of good paragraphs…and that’s it. So, you know, they become the occasional blog, or newsletter piece, or even just a good facebook post. But fiction? Endless. It’s so consuming—the research, the character building, the dialogue you repeat over and over in the shower until you can grab a towel and try not to drip on your keyboard as you type it out before the voices go away. I love hiding my personal grudges within unlikeable characters and planting seeds of the Gospel in the lives of those characters who are redeemed within the pages.
Thursday, September 16, 2010
Writing a good novel is much like walking a very narrow path. A novelist can fall in one direction by ignoring the audience altogether (call this “elitism”), and in the other direction by pandering to the lowest common denominator in the audience (call this “kitschiness”). The first mistake results in truth or beauty withheld due to a failure to communicate, usually because the author is too in love with her own words to sacrifice them for mere readers. The second mistake results in truth or beauty corrupted due to “dumbing down” the words to suit readers who refuse to think. As with most important things in life, maintaining a good balance between these extremes is not so simple.
Among Christians writing novels, the problem of literary elitism is fortunately rare. Unfortunately however, the problem of literary kitsch is all too frequent in novels by Christians. Recently I got some insight into why this is, when to my very great surprise I heard several published Christian novelists and working Christian painters and sculptors deny that there is anything wrong with pandering to the lowest common denominator in one’s audience.
Clearly, a mistake can’t be avoided if it isn’t seen as a mistake, so it seems worthwhile to explore this problem.
What is a “kitschy” novel?
“Kitsch” in literature involves two closely related ideas. First, it’s the literary equivalent of a politician kissing a baby. It means going for an easy and superficial emotional response instead of doing the more demanding and enriching work required to draw the audience deeply in through genuine connection. The emotion in kitschy work means little or nothing, and most people know it, but the audience so strongly hungers for what it ought to mean that many will pretend it’s real and worthwhile anyway. In other words, kitsch is similar to ideas like “corny,” “cheesy,” or “saccharine.” But that’s only part of the meaning.
Kitschy novels are also the literary equivalent of faking a friendship in order to get something from a person. They place theme or message ahead of everything else. The novelist might devote time to their “friendship” with the audience, saying the things one says to friends, giving gifts and doing favors, so to speak, but if the underlying motivation is to get something from the audience—to get the readers to do something, think something, believe something—then every other aspect of the novel is corrupted and in the end the audience either: a) feels they have been used (if they are smart), or b) is manipulated and doesn’t know it (if they are not so smart). Either way, the reader’s experience is similar to that of a con man’s victim. Even if they do or believe what the novelist hoped, it is not for genuine reasons, not sincere, but only because they were tricked. This is particularly abominable if the novelist’s goal is to communicate the gospel. How could any Christian think God would approve of spreading the Good News through cheap tricks?
Why this is wrong
Since the definition of "kitsch" includes the ideas of mediocrity and manipulation, I assumed all of my more artistic and literary friends would agree that kitschy art and literature is undesirable, but as I mentioned, it turns out that’s not so. Some don’t even agree there is a problem. Fascinated, I asked them a lot of questions and it turns out there are at least four common arguments for why kitschy art and literature should be accepted. Each argument contains the seeds of its own destruction.
The first argument is, “Who are we to say it’s kitschy?”
This is driven by an admirable desire to avoid judgmentalism, or else by a less laudable tendency to make tolerance a virtue for its own sake. Either way, we should return to the definition of “kitsch”. Does the work go for an easy and superficial emotional response? Is it driven by a message to the exclusion of other legitimate artistic concerns? These questions transcend personal taste. One need not like a novel to respect it, to agree that it is sincere, complex or deeply meaningful. To a very large extent it is possible to say, “This is good work,” or, “That is bad work,” based on definable criteria rather than personal opinion. Legitimate literary and art critics frequently overlook their personal opinion to base reviews on these objective standards.
Also, we should return to the idea of an artistic spectrum and note that the existence of “gray areas” as we move toward both ends of that spectrum doesn’t mean we can ignore the dangers further on in those directions. Some novels stand in a gray area between the balanced middle and a bias toward elitism on one end, or kitsch on the other. Legitimate differences of opinion may exist about the nature of the work in those gray areas, but that doesn’t excuse a thinking person from standing firm against the general mistakes of elitism and “kitschiness” in principle.
The next argument for accepting kitschy art is this: “Lots of people like kitschy novels, so let’s leave them alone.”
This may be driven by another admirable instinct, which is the desire to avoid causing offense or hurting feelings unnecessarily. After all, if you tell an audience you think their favorite novelist’s work is kitschy, it will likely cause offense. And it is certainly true that “lots of people like kitschy novels.” But for a Christian this is the simplest argument to dismiss, because of course we know the world’s approval is never a reason to define anything as acceptable. Often the truth is just the contrary. In the fallen world, people have a long history of settling for the mediocre. This is what we do when we choose anything but Christ. So as Christians, we know better than to respond by saying, “Well, they seem to be happy, so let’s leave them alone in their ignorance and error.”
Part of our role in life is to shine the light of God’s love and perfect beauty into all the dark and muddled corners of this world. Therefore Christian novelists in particular bear a responsibility to stand against both haughty elitism and the (much more common) easy kitschiness that infects the world of Christian fiction. We have a responsibility to demand instead a kind of literature that respects the audience enough to sincerely attempt to engage them (no elitism), and to engage them in ways that are honest and important (no kitschiness). If the audience is too ignorant to understand that they need this, or too ignorant to even know such a thing is possible, then it is our responsibility to help them see the possibilities they’re missing.
A third argument I’ve heard is, “If it’s the best work a person can do, that’s good enough for God.”
Often the widow’s mites are cited, or the parable of the talents, and of course it is perfectly true that our best (and nothing less) is exactly enough for God, whether our best is excellent in worldly terms or not. But it is a long way from saying that, to saying God doesn’t want us to improve, or God doesn’t care if we are working in the wrong field.
In this case we’re assuming the novelist does not want to produce kitschy work; she just can’t help it because she hasn't the skill or the experience to do otherwise. Skill and experience being two different things, we should look at them separately.
When a writer's level of experience is not up to the task, the proper thing to do is to honor their effort and sincerity—as God does—while honestly critiquing the work for what it is. No good can come from lies or prevarication, from saying the work isn’t kitschy, or the kitschiness of the work doesn’t matter. The novelist is robbed of a potential learning experience, and the suffering public is subjected to yet more mediocrity. If the novelist is young in her genre but appears to have the fundamental gifts required, those who are qualified should explain where she has gone wrong and help her find her way, but we should never pretend a kitschy effort is acceptable.
As for skill, Christians are taught that everyone is given particular gifts. In Exodus for example, it says of Bezalel, “I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of crafts—to make artistic designs...” Clearly then, artistic ability is a gift from God. Although everyone is given gifts, not everybody is given artistic gifts. Unfortunately, many people desire artistic gifts they were not given, or else have become convinced they have those gifts when they do not. Much misery is caused by the pursuit of goals requiring gifts we do not have. Therefore when we encounter someone who seems to be determined to pursue an art form for which they are not gifted, we do them no favors by pretending the results are in any way acceptable. On the contrary, the kindest and most loving thing is to steer them away from the arts and toward the area of their true giftedness, because it is only there that they will be fulfilled.
A fourth argument commonly used to justify kitschy novels is, “God can use it. Many people have been blessed by it. Some people have even been led to Christ by it.”
Here we find yet another good motivation gone wrong. Of course we never want to interfere with God’s work on earth (not that we really could), but it is flawed theology to think God approves of a thing simply because He can use that thing.
Consider Assyria, a nation of idolaters, which God used to punish Israel and ultimately to return them to faithfulness. Think of Judas, used first by Jesus to teach the value of “a beautiful thing” (perfume worth a year’s salary poured extravagantly on the Lord), and then used again to demonstrate that Jesus was not coerced, but instead freely chose to give his life for you and me (“what you are about to do, do quickly”). And above all, think of the cross. What Christian would dare to say God approved of the Assyrian culture, or of Judas, or (heaven forbid) which of us is prepared to say God approved of crucifixion? Yet how the cross was used!
Similarly, we must never make the mistake of approving of kitschy novels—or mediocre work in any part of life—simply because our mighty God is fully capable of using even kitschy things for His good purposes. That would make us guilty of violating the command, “Do not test the Lord.”
Let the light shine
The Bible has a lot to say to novelists. Among them are these three facts: 1) Artistic creativity is a gift from God; 2) We are to bring our very best to God; 3) We are to let our light shine before men, that they may see our good deeds, (our work), and praise our Father in heaven. Given those imperatives, there is no excuse for Christians to approve of kitschy novels (bad "deeds") which reflect poorly on the Lord, just as there is no excuse for the egotistical obscurity of elitist writing. As in so many other areas of life, the Way lies in the balanced middle.
Wednesday, September 15, 2010