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Sunday, July 31, 2011

Sunday Devotional

Proverbs 30:18-19
There are three things that amaze me—
no, four things that I don’t understand:
how an eagle glides through the sky,
how a snake slithers on a rock,
how a ship navigates the ocean,
how a man loves a woman.

Are romance novels wrong for Christians to read? Are romantic songs wrong for Christians to listen to? Since God is love, I'm of the humble opinion, that He might be okay with a good many of them. This is my husband's birthday present to me. Nowhere does he mention the name of Christ, but can you hear God's heart beating inside his chest as he sings it?

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Last Day of Forever Sale

Today's the last day to take advantage of our Forever Sale. August 1st, the Forever Sale will be forever gone.

Friday, July 29, 2011

A Taste of 11 Secrets: Honest Answers about Editors

This is an excerpt from my latest publishing endeavor, The 11 Secrets of Getting Published. The ebook is only $2.99 and contains over 60,000 words of everything I know about writing and publishing. You can order it in any e-format you like. Find details about 11 Secrets here. 

This excerpt comes from Secret # 8: Understand the Key Players. I pray it lights a fire under you! 

Editors: how to know them

Here are some questions I commonly get asked about editors and publishing.

How do you approach a new editor for the first time? E-mail? Cover letter? Send clips? What?

I usually try to make the most of my conferences by meeting as many editors as I can—both in magazines and books. I bring high quality chocolate and hand it out. This hearkens back to the adage of doing unto others as you would have others do to you. If I’ve had a memorable conversation, meaning the editor has asked for a manuscript or seem to be interested in what I’ve pitched, I’ll write a hand-written thank you note before I follow up with a query letter or proposal.
If it’s a cold call, I’ll write a professional query letter, listing the articles and books I’ve published. I almost always query by email, but I’m sure to keep it professional. Just because my follow up involves email doesn’t mean it should be lax or casual communication.

What if you send a manuscript and don’t hear for a long period of time? How long is too long? When and how do you follow up?

I would give it at least four months. After that time, drop a quick email that’s friendly and inquiring. “I’ve not heard from you and wanted to check on the status of my proposal.” If you don’t hear back after 8 months, consider your proposal as free game and resubmit elsewhere, but let the editor know.

If an editor rejects a manuscript with a form rejection, is it okay to ask them to explain why?

No. I wouldn’t do that. Editors are very, very busy. They have a form for a reason because they simply can’t write handwritten, personal responses. Chalk it up as a no and leave it at that. If you’re truly curious, ask your critique group why it might have been rejected, or hire a professional to give you pointers.

If an editor rejects a manuscript with suggestions for improving it, is it OK to make those corrections and resubmit it?

Only if the editor says this is okay. If an editor says no and is kind enough to give suggestions, use that as an impetus to improve the proposal. I would not resubmit unless they specifically asked you to.

Is it ever okay to send a manuscript back to the same publication if you have revised it and enough time has passed?

In my opinion, no. Once the book has been passed over, it’s been passed over. An editor will most likely not be happy to have the same (albeit reworked) proposal again. However, I will say that if a house has changed editors, you may consider resending, 

Another thing to consider. My first novel was rejected by a house within a few months. A year later, an editor remembered it, read it again, and acquired it.

Are there ways to follow-up with editors you have met at a conference?

As I mentioned earlier, a nice hand-written thank you note is appropriate.

At what point do you start calling editors by their first name?

I’ve always done that, but that’s because I usually meet editors at conferences, which goes to show just how important conferences are.

Author Update ~ Gayle Roper ~ Revisited

The three P's -

perseverance, preparation, and prayer...

Gayle Roper is the award winning author of more than forty books. She has been a Christy finalist three times for her novels Spring Rain, Summer Shadows, and Winter Winds.

Gayle enjoys speaking at women's events across the nation and loves sharing the powerful truths of Scripture with humor and practicality.

Gayle is married to to Chuck Roper and has been "for more years than seems possible!". Gayle and Chuck live in southeastern Pennsylvania where they enjoy their family of two great sons, two lovely daughters-in-law, and the world's five most wonderful grandchildren.

When she's not writing, or teaching at conferences, Gayle enjoys reading, gardening, and eating out every time she can talk Chuck into it.

I know you'll credit God with your long career in Christian publishing...but....what do you believe are key characteristics to develop to stick around for the long haul?

The three P's - perseverance, preparation, and prayer.

Perseverance is necessary because it is the long haul, and it isn't a straight path. In the more than forty years I've been involved in Christian publishing, I've had thirteen different publishers depending on the topic, genre and what was selling at the time. Before Christian fiction became such a powerhouse, I wrote nonfiction and children's fiction. All that time I considered mysel
f a novelist, but novels were still a hard sell. So I persevered.

And I became involved in Christian writers conferences. First I just attended. Then I became a volunteer. Then staff. Then a teacher. It was through conferences that I both prepared and persevered. After I sold seven books, I had a five year fallow period where I couldn't place anything. It was writers conferences that kept me going. And I couldn't think of anything else I'd like to do.

Of course I've prayed hard through the years. And I'll tell you, my main prayer has been, "Lord, do whatever you want to do with this manuscript. I'd love it to be a best seller, but that's Your choice. Do as You will." For me, an achiever, this prayer is gut-wrenching, but as a Christian, I didn't know how else I could pray.

Do you still struggle in an area of writing? You teach, you publish, but is there one area that really is challenging for you?

The biggest area of challenge to me is sales--or lack of numbers I'm happy with. I've won numerous awards for my stuff including a RITA, two Carol Awards, and I've finaled for a Christy three times. But my sales numbers have never been what I want. I think this is the story of most writers, but that doesn't make it hurt less. It's my dismal numbers that make that "Do what You want" prayer so hard to pray. But somehow, is spite of this disappointment, I've been able to continue publishing. It's truly a God-thing.

Do you have an area that used to trip you up that you have finally conquered? What is it and how did you wrestle it into submission?

I hate self-promotion. As the industry has changed through the years, authors are expected to do more and more of their own promotion. The thought of it makes me shudder. I'm sure I drive my publishers nuts. I've a new title just releasing, SHADOWS ON THE SAND, and I've tried a couple of new avenues of promoting the book. We'll see if they make a difference. Wouldn't it be nice if we knew what it was that made a book catch on? Then we'd have a plan that, while painful to writers like me, would at least work.

If you didn't put the effort and heart and soul into your writing, where would you invest it?

Do you know, I don't know the answer to this question. Back when our sons were getting ready to go to college, my husband and I had several discussions about my going back to teaching school. Regular income and all that, you know. The thought of going back into the classroom made my stomach hurt. I knew I wouldn't have the emotional energy to teach every day and still write anything much. Not that I don't like teaching; I love it. I'd just gotten used to teaching at writers conferences where people came on purpose and actually listened to you. He and I both decided I was a writer and teacher of writing through and through, and we needed to honor that calling in spite of the financial cost.

What are the top three things you think newcomers need to know about publishing today? Why?

1. It's a highly competitive field, so be prepared for the emotional cost of competing.

2. Learn the craft. Study how-to books. Sit under established writers. Read like crazy in the genre you want to write, both general market and Christian. Listen to audio books of good writers to hear things like rhythms and tone. Never stop learning how to write better.

3. Take the time to do it right. Anyone can slap up something as an ebook, but is it worthy of your name? How embarrassing to have to send out corrected versions because you jumped the gun. How sad to blow your chance by showing an editor or agent a book that's not ready.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Who You Know or Who You Are?

Publishing is often considered an “It’s who you know” industry. And it often works that way.

But in many ways it’s not “who you know” as much as “who you are.”

You think:

  • “I’m no one. I’m not published. I’m still adding to my (growing) file of rejections.”
  • Or, “I’m no one. My first book didn’t do well and I can’t even get my agent to return my calls.”
  • Or even, “Sure my series sold well, but I’m still waiting for that big break that will make me the next Jerry B. Jenkins.”
Whatever goal you have yet to accomplish, do you feel you’re constantly dodging the next obstacle? Maybe you see yourself as George Jetson, walking his dog on that moving sidewalk outside his space bungalow—walking, walking, walking—but never getting anywhere.

Maybe it’s who you are

Are you the kind of writer who:

  • Bristles when someone suggests edits you don’t like?
  • Doesn’t use standard manuscript formatting?
  • Never follows up when an editor requests your proposal—with changes?
  • Always asks for deadline extensions?
  • Pushes ahead of others to get the seat at the editor’s side at a conference meal? (Think of Kenneth Mars’ role [right] as Hugh Simon in the 1972 movie, What’s Up, Doc?)
  • Brings every conversation back to you and your project?
  • Believes you know it all, but no one sees your brilliance?
If you see any of these traits in yourself, can you see how you are sabotaging your career? What changes can you make to be the kind of writer editors want to work with?

Editors prefer writers who are partners in the process—writers who have a long-term vision not just for their own careers, but for where their work fits into the larger picture. Be that writer and you’ll come to know and be known by the right people.

Michael Ehret is the Editor-in-Chief for the Jerry B. Jenkins Christian Writers Guild. He has written for newspapers and other print and online outlets. He edited several nonfiction books, was the senior editor for a faith-based financial services and insurance organization, and is the ezine editor for American Christian Fiction Writers.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Ultimate Journey with Jim Stovall

Jim Stovall has been a National Olympic weightlifting champion, the President of the Emmy Award-winning Narrative Television Network, and a highly sought after author and platform speaker. He is the author of the best selling book, The Ultimate Gift, which is now a major motion picture starring James Garner and Abigail Breslin.
Steve Forbes, president and CEO of Forbes magazine, says, “Jim Stovall is one of the most extraordinary men of our era.”
For his work in making television accessible to our nation’s 13 million blind and visually impaired people, The President’s Committee on Equal Opportunity selected Jim Stovall as the Entrepreneur of the Year. He was also chosen as the International Humanitarian of the Year, joining Jimmy Carter, Nancy Reagan, and Mother Teresa as recipients of this honor.

Tell us about your new release, The Ultimate Journey:

The Ultimate Journey is the third book in a series that began with The Ultimate Gift, followed by The Ultimate Life. The Ultimate Gift was an international bestseller and was made into a major motion picture by 20th Century Fox starring James Garner, Brian Dennehy, and Abigail Breslin. The Ultimate Life movie is scheduled to go into production next month and should be out late this year or in early 2012.

The series is about a billionaire, Red Stevens, and the effect that his money and fame has on several generations of his family. In The Ultimate Journey, readers who have enjoyed the first two books or those who are following the story through the movies will have an opportunity to meet Red Stevens and his contemporaries when they were young people and follow them throughout their lives, including The Great Depression, World War II, the assassination of JFK, etc.

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

I had a colleague at my company, the Narrative Television Network, who was facing terminal cancer. She made me the guardian of her teenaged daughter and spent many days sharing lessons with me she wanted me to pass along to her daughter at the appropriate points in her life. The thought of someone passing on their values, in addition to their valuables, emerged in The Ultimate Gift and subsequent books and movies.

Did anything strange or humorous happen while researching or writing your book?

The Ultimate Gift was my first novel. I had written six other nonfiction books previously but decided to try fiction. I had no idea how to do it or what to do, so I began telling a story as it flowed out of my mind. I wrote the entire book in five days and, unlike my other 15 subsequent books, there was never an edit or a rewrite. The Ultimate Life and Ultimate Journey flowed approximately the same way through the creative process.

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

I am rather unique among novelists in that all of my books were sold or committed as I was writing them, or shortly after. Fortunately, it has given me the freedom to stretch a bit creatively into areas publishers might not typically go.

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

I write a weekly syndicated newspaper column and a full-length book once or twice a year. I typically don’t write until I feel like I have the motivation and the creativity in place; however, it does become more difficult in that several of my series have taken on multiple books which creates limitations in the settings and plots.

Do you consider yourself a visual writer? If so, what visuals do you use?

As a blind person who dictates all of my books to a very talented colleague named Dorothy Thompson, people would find it ironic that I do, indeed, consider myself a visual writer. I have the scenes pictured in my head as I write them. I have an advantage in that I am not limited by things I have seen. I can create anything I want in my mind’s eye.

Novelists sometimes dig themselves into a hole over implausible plots, flat characters or a host of other problems. What's the most difficult part of writing for you?

The most difficult part of writing, for me, is dictating books that I can’t read that are made into movies that I can’t see. Even though it is a mental process for me, it transfers to my readers visually.

How do you overcome it?

I have my own colleagues that I trust to edit and proof my work as well as coordinate book covers, publicity artwork, etc. with publishers and our publicity people.

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

I dictate my books, columns, screenplays, correspondence, and interviews like this one in Dorothy Thompson’s office down the hall from my own.

Some authors report writing like watching a movie and they record what they saw. Others tweeze scenes out. What's your MO?

I create characters in my mind and then let them go to see where they will end up. If you know your character and their basic traits, it is relatively predictable to chronicle what they will do next.

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

The best writing advice I ever heard came from James Michener. He said, “The average aspiring writer is filled with seven volumes of garbage [garbage is paraphrased for your readers]. Unfortunately, they won’t write through this garbage to get to the goal.” We all aspire to write because we enjoy reading. We compare our worst efforts in the beginning to Mr. Michener and other great writers’ polished efforts, which have the benefit of many years of experience.

Do you have any parting words of advice?

Always be a reader. Enjoy being a writer. And don’t forget to go to the movies. As you know, The Ultimate Journey is the third book in the series. The Ultimate Gift was already made into a movie by Fox, and The Ultimate Life is scheduled to go into movie production next month. Click here for a preview.

The Ultimate Journey

In The Ultimate Gift, Jason Stevens learns to appreciate the value of his life, while in The Ultimate Life, he learns the value of love. Now, in the touching conclusion to the trilogy, Jason learns that life’s journey is all about traveling well—not about the destination.

In The Ultimate Journey, readers will discover the secrets of a successful life, including:
• Money helps pay for the trip, but should never be a destination …
• Friends make the journey worthwhile …
• Laughter lightens the load of any rough or rocky uphill road …
• Time may be allotted in small or large portions but the moment is what counts …
… and so much more.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Dreaming of a Contract?

UPDATE: Due to overwhelming response, the contest has recently been closed. However, pop on over to their website... Risen Books ...and vote on the fabulous entries that have already been submitted. Thanks, everyone, for your response!

Risen Books is about to make your dreams come true! Polish off your pitch and submit it to Risen for the chance to win the ultimate writer's pay-off.

First Prize: Publishing contract with Risen Books
Second Prize: Amazon Kindle (with special offers)
Third Prize: Free books from Risen authors

Now that your heart rate is novel-rocketing and your palms are all sweaty, here are the details...

Your entry must be in one of the following genres: mystery (but not cozy mysteries), suspense, thriller, sci-fi/fantasy, historical (but no romance) and young adult. The first 40 entries submitted between July 21 through the 31st will qualify. A submission form can be found here.

The general public will vote on the entries, narrowing the field down to 20, then current Risen authors will select the best 5 based on originality, strength of plot, and quality of writing. Final decision will be made by Risen's editorial committee and winners will be announced on September 30th.

It's the chance of a lifetime but you've got to act fast. Send in your entry soon because this opportunity won't last long.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Beneath the Ordinary

It was with great anticipation that I stepped into the lobby of the post office. We were waiting for important mail, a letter that could set the direction of our lives for the next few years. When I opened our box and saw the card telling me we had a registered letter, I was thrilled. I shifted from foot to foot in the line at the counter, anxious to receive the news.

When the clerk handed the envelope to me my heart sank. It was not the letter I expected, but something from the Yukon government. We had received these plain brown envelopes before, containing updates on union negotiations related to a job my husband had held several years before. Often the envelope would be tossed in the trash without being opened. Disappointed and disgruntled, I grumbled about governments wasting money to send something so insignificant by registered mail. I tossed it onto a pile of other papers at home and almost forgot to mention it to my husband.

When he opened the letter, however, he gave a whoop that brought me running. The envelope contained the first installment of a retroactive payment for work done on that long-ago job. The union negotiations had been settled and further payment was on its way. The money was a direct answer to prayer. After three years of Bible college, our finances were depleted and we were facing starting out in a new career, new community, and new home, without the resources to do it. Over the next few weeks we received enough to sustain us through that transition. We learned a great deal about the faithfulness of God in the process.

God’s answers to prayer often come packaged in ordinary things. His blessings often come through everyday occurrences and each one holds the treasure of God’s character hidden inside. Too often, we miss them. We toss them on a pile with unwanted clutter and go on looking for what we want from a different source. We miss seeing God’s blessings and we miss seeing Him.

The woman at Jacob’s well almost missed seeing Him. When Jesus asked her for a drink she was shocked. He was a Jewish man, she a Samaritan woman. The two should not have acknowledged one another’s presence, let alone spoken. Jesus tells her – “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” (John 4:10) The woman did not ignore His remarks. She questioned Him and brought others from her town to investigate His claims. Because she saw the depth of His offered gift, hidden in the reference to common water, she and others were saved.

God’s gifts may look ordinary. They may come wrapped in what is common. But as Christian writers it is our responsibility to look again, to observe and to see the treasure beneath what is ordinary, then reveal it to the world through our writing. It's the concept of "write what you know." Write what God has placed right before your eyes.

Let's be like the Samaritan woman, seeing the deeper things, acknowledging that God is there and encouraging others to share in the discovery.


Marcia Lee Laycock writes from central Alberta Canada where she is a pastor's wife and mother of three adult daughters. She was the winner of The Best New Canadian Christian Author Award for her novel, One Smooth Stone and also has two devotional books in print. Her work has been endorsed by Sigmund Brouwer, Janette Oke, Phil Callaway and Mark Buchanan. The sequel to One Smooth Stone will be released in 2011. A collection of devotionals for writers has just been released here. Visit Marcia's website

Friday, July 22, 2011

A Taste of 11 Secrets Meet Deadlines

This is an excerpt from my latest publishing endeavor, The 11 Secrets of Getting Published. The ebook is only $2.99 and contains over 60,000 words of everything I know about writing and publishing. You can order it in any e-format you like. Find details about 11 Secrets here. 

This excerpt comes from Secret # 2: Develop Discipline. I pray it lights a fire under you!

What you can control: meeting deadlines

I enjoyed lunch with a new writer friend. As we progressed in the lunch, I asked her what her goals for her writing were, especially since she quit her job to freelance full time. She had some goals, but I could tell the question had piqued her interest. 

If you want to go anywhere in the business of writing, it is imperative you set goals and then meet them, particularly when you’re starting out. Here are some examples of types of goals you can set:

1.     A weekly (daily, monthly) word count goal. Or it could be a chapter goal.
2.    A financial goal (usually monthly). Pretend your goal is $1,000 a month. If you set this, you’ll have to logically think through how you will make that. If you write books, this is a difficult goal because the book writing business is sporadic. You might get a $7,000 dollar advance one month, then make nothing for a year. So if you would like consistent income, you need to flesh out the goal more. How many magazine or newspaper or online articles will it take to make that amount of money? This will force you to go after new options, and if they arise as a result, will give you the opportunity to meet a deadline. Yesterday I sent in four queries because I could see I wasn’t making enough money this month.
3.   A production goal. If you want to make consistent income, you must set a production goal, particularly in the query department. Make a goal to write 5 queries a week (one a day). Whenever you get a rejection, recycle that query to another publication. If you don’t query, you won’t land assignments. If you don’t land assignments, how can you practice meeting deadlines?
4.   Make an integrity or hard work goal. For instance, because I am concentrating on making more consistent income this year, I am working hard on developing my relationships with periodical editors. Last spring an editor had to scrap one of her stories. She asked if I could turn around an article in one day (1000 words). I said yes because I knew one of my goals was to develop positive relationships with editors. I worked hard, gave her the article. We have a good working relationship now and she asks me for stories (instead of me asking her through a query). This entire relationship began with one query that eventually sold. I proved myself consistent over time.
5.     Make a professional goal: go to the conference you’ve been pining after. This will force you to create that book proposal you’ve been postponing. Or decide to take a risk and attend a critique group, and ask them to hold you accountable to your own deadlines.
6.    Make a project goal. Finish that novel. Write that proposal. Really learn how to make stunning query letters. Start a blog or website. Give yourself a date you must complete this. That’ll strengthen your deadline muscle.
So, don’t be shy. Set a writing goal for the month (or the year). Then meet that deadline! I mean it!

Writing Romance When Your Marriage fails ~ Kit Wilkinson

Kit Wilkinson is a former Ph.D. student who once wrote discussions on the medieval feminine voice. She now prefers weaving stories of romance and redemption. Her first inspirational manuscript won the prestigious RWA Golden Heart and sold to Harlequin’s Love Inspired. She is currently working on her fourth novel.

Besides writing, she loves hanging out with friends and family, cooking for lots of people, and spending time in the sun. She, her two children and one extremely energetic Border Collie live in central Virginia.

Writing Romance When the Real Romance Fails

How do you write a happily-ever-after when your own story has turned into a tragedy?

When I landed my last novel contract, frankly, it was the first bit of good news I’d had in a long while. I’d prayed to be able to write this book for a few months, thinking it would be just what I needed to take my mind off of what was going on in my real life—a divorce.

I was so thankful when it came through. I read through my editor’s notes immediately and sat down at the computer. I couldn’t wait to bury myself in this new story. But instead of pouring my energy into the new book, I found, for the first time ever, that I couldn’t write at all. Not only could I not write, I loathed sitting in front of the computer. I found myself doing anything else—bathing the dog, painting rooms, cleaning the garage, all sorts of things I REALLY hated to do. And, if I did happen to get in front of the computer, I was emailing my lawyer, trying to negotiate the sale of my home or figuring out whose weekend it was with the kids. Even emails I feared would be full of bad news. And I especially avoided staring at the blinking cursor on the white page of my very incomplete manuscript. The document sat minimized on the dock of my desktop.

My deadline came and went and I’d barely squeaked out half of the story. I started wondering if I could finish. I started wondering, if I could even write romance anymore. I mean let’s face it I was a failure. I’d failed as a wife. And now I was failing as a writer... What next? I was afraid to think about tomorrow.

Desperate for inspiration, I pulled out writing books and plotting outlines. I went to my favorite writing spots. I tried using Scrivener, thinking something new to look at would inspire me. I set little daily word count goals and failed at those. I even tried to use some of my confused feelings to “get into” my story, but while sorrow and depression might inspire some artists to abandon themselves into their work, I was stuck with the worst case of writer’s block ever. My ability to focus on anything had vanished and I didn’t know how to fix it. Depression hung like a cloud in my mind and my fingers were paralyzed at the keyboard. Even with great family and friends and a whole lot of prayer, there were days when I wanted to crawl in a hole and come out in a year or two when all the difficult stuff was over.

It was in the midst of all this that I found myself at a writer’s conference sitting on a panel of “pro” writers (something I’d agreed to do a long time before all the other life turmoil began). I looked out into the audience at other authors and even at my editor who should have been pointing at her watch and glaring at me for the late manuscript I owed her, except that she’s way too nice for that. I was feeling like a total fraud when someone in the audience asks, “What are inspirational romance readers looking for?” Great question. I repeated it for recording purposes then promptly passed the microphone to the author next to me because...well, I had no idea... I couldn’t write anymore.

It was author Margaret Daley who sat next to me. She leaned up to the microphone and without a second of hesitation said, “HOPE. Our readers are looking for hope.”

Hope. Now there was a nice little four-letter word that I’d forgotten about. A romance story needed hope. Or wait...maybe I needed hope. Because how can I give my readers hope when I have none of my own? If I wanted to finish my story—and I did—I had to find a way to remember my hope. I was determined.

But it didn’t happen overnight. It was slow—one minute, one hour, one day at a time, I stole back that hope that sorrow taken. I’d find hope in my children’s eyes. I’d find it in a friend’s voice. I’d find it in God’s promises. I’d find it in doing something for someone else. And the hope began to trickle over into my work...

I quit trying to write the story as fast as I could. I’d find a few quiet minutes here and there and I’d write a page. Many times that was it—one page. But then two or three and slowly, so slowly those characters worked their way to a happy ending. In some ways, I felt like I was healing along with them.

Of course, real life doesn’t stop at page 385 like a storybook romance, so I won’t end here by saying I got my own happy-ending. But I do have all I need to expect many more happy chapters. I have God’s promises and perfect love. I have friends and family and two beautiful children full of life.

And soon I’ll have more stories to tell of romance and love and hope.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Writing A Series

My next fiction project may be the first novel in a series. I started my career as a novelist that way years ago with two stories about the same protagonist. The third novel didn't work out. I haven’t tried to write another series since then but I still like the idea for several reasons, so recently I asked some of my author friends for advice on doing it successfully this time around. Here’s what they told me:

I need to begin by deciding if my series will be open-ended, or self-contained.

A true series is “a number of things or events of the same class coming one after another in spatial or temporal succession” according to Webster’s. That means each novel is independent of the others in terms of plot and the series as a whole has no end in mind. The Sherlock Holmes novels are a good example of the open-ended series. Each Holmes short story or novel is independent of the others. There’s no theme or character development which grows across the series.

This open-ended approach may have more potential financially, because a successful run can last for dozens of titles spanning decades. Plus, they’re easier to write for two reasons. First, they usually involve a formula which readers come to expect and love. Second, the lack of over-arcing character or thematic development makes it easier to produce individual novels that stand alone, which is very important to readers. But because novels in an open-ended series do tend to be formulaic, writing them could become boring after a while.

The self-contained kind of series should probably be called a “serial” to be technically correct. Webster’s defines a serial as “a work appearing (as in a magazine or on television) in parts at intervals.” So this kind of series involves several novels each of which tells part of a single, over-arcing story. The serial type of series has more potential for character and theme development than the open-ended series. In fact, one could argue that the self-contained serial approach has more literary potential than most stand-alone novels, because the author can take a thousand pages or more to explore a character or idea, whereas the days of reader acceptance for thousand page standalone novels are mostly gone.

Of course, with all the character and thematic developmental potential, the self-contained serial type of series is more difficult to write. They require a complicated plotting effort, because the story must develop over multiple novels to reach a satisfying conclusion in the last installment, while each novel must also have its own fully self-contained plot and resolution, in order to avoid “cliffhanger” endings which leave readers frustrated. So I’d have to first think through the long-term story arc, then divide it into stages, each of which would be a separate novel, and then on top of that I’d have to think through short term or self-contained story arcs for each of the novels. Fortunately, I do tend to plot and outline my novels before beginning the first draft anyway. A “seat of the pants” type of author probably shouldn’t try the self-contained kind of series.

Next, I need to decide what’s going to hold my series together.

There seem to be four options: using the same protagonist in every story, using the same setting, the same event(s), or the same secondary characters. Many novels use more than one of these possibilities.

If I go with the same protagonist, my choices will be guided by the open-ended versus self-contained decision I already mentioned. In an open-ended series, the protagonist usually won’t change very much from book to book. Readers expect him to be a strong character with little or no apparent need to grow (think of Holmes again). In fact, part of the fascination of this kind of series is the main character’s nearly super-human ability to rise to any challenge and win the day unfazed.

To carry reader interest over multiple titles, this unchanging protagonist had better be much larger than life. Also, it helps if there’s something mysterious about his backstory. How on earth did this person end up this way? A glimpse of the answer in every novel is usually enough to keep fans reading.

Without occasional hints of something deeper in the background, it’s possible this kind of character will become boring for readers after a while, since a big part of the fun in reading most novels is watching characters grown and change in response to conflict. Also, writing this same of character over and over could become boring. (Of course if I’m called upon to write about a character so often I get bored it’s because readers want more books about him, which is a nice problem to have.)

On the other hand, if I go with the self-contained, serial kind of series, my protagonist should start with serious personal issues that need to be addressed as the series goes along. Frodo in the Lord of the Rings trilogy is one example. Harry Potter is another. In Frodo’s case, there’s the mystery of why he was chosen, and the question of whether he’s up to the challenge. In Harry Potter’s case the issues are much the same. Both Frodo and Harry have intermediate goals which they achieve in every novel, but the biggest questions aren’t answered until the end, and by the time they get there, they are much changed from who they were at the beginning of book one.

The one drawback I can think of to writing a developing character in a self-contained series is the fact that it’s very difficult to continue if the series is a big hit. Once the ring is destroyed and Frodo is back in the shire, what’s left? And once Harry is all grown up and graduated, his young readers may lose interest. There are always prequels and spinoffs, of course, but they are much more risky than simply continuing a series that was intended to be open-ended in the first place.

Of course, it’s also possible to bundle novels into a series without following a single protagonist from book to book. Successful series have been unified by settings, such as an Amish community. Others rely on secondary characters for continuity. I’m told this approach is particularly helpful in the romance genre. In that case once the girl gets her guy readers lose interest, so the girl’s best friend might pick up the lead in book two, with the girl stepping back to a supporting role, then the best friend hands over the lead position to yet a third girl in book three, and so on.

Events, such as a war, historical episode or a significant tragedy have also served to unify a series. Deborah Rainey is currently working on a number of novels which revolve around a single fire, for example. She tells me the fire appears early in some of the novels, and later in others, but in each case the lives of characters in the same small town are changed by that one event. It’s a fascinating concept.

No matter what kind of series I write or how I choose to tie it all together, I’ll have to be very careful to keep good records.

Continuity is going to be hard, because a series will always have many more details to keep straight. So I’ll build files on every character, with a photo from a magazine which I can use for descriptions, plus a defining backstory so I can keep track of motivations, a family tree, and a list of habits, personality traits, preferences and tastes. On top of that, I’ll need to draw maps of all the primary settings so I can keep the geography straight.

If I’m writing a self-contained series I’ll need a time line to remember what season of the year it is so I’ll get the weather and holidays right, and to be aware of how old everyone is getting to be as time goes by. If it’s an open ended series timelines aren’t as important. Some “strong” protagonists are virtually ageless, such as Robert Parker’s “Spencer”.

One thing that concerns me about this idea is the fact that many of my author friends report declining sales for the last few titles in their series.

From our discussions, I think this is due to a couple of factors. First, readers who were there at the start may lose interest after a few books. Not everyone has the attention span required to stick out Frodo or Harry’s entire journey. (I gave up on Harry after book three.) Second, new readers who might be willing to try an unfamiliar author’s stand-alone title aren’t interested in getting involved in the middle of an ongoing series. They assume they’d have to read the prior titles to get up to speed.

This is one advantage to an open-ended series. The cover copy usually makes it clear that each book stands alone with language like, “Athol Dickson’s lovable Joe Blow is at it again in this newest installment in the series.” It’s tougher to convince prospective readers of the stand-alone merit of novels in a self-contained series with cover copy like, “In this third novel of the Smith trilogy, Jane Doe once again faces big trouble.”

Still, the success of long-term series authors like Robert Parker, John D. MacDonald or Sue Grafton proves it’s possible to retain readers if the author avoids over-complicating the character’s relationships and avoids a large, confusing cast of characters. It’s also important to explain necessary backstory details as organically as possible. This is where “show, don’t tell” becomes extremely important. I think it’s best to just leave out as much backstory as possible. And it can’t be overstated that every novel in a self-contained series needs a particularly strong plot-driven reason to read that one novel, something which doesn’t rely on understanding all the inter-relationships and backstories from prior titles. Finally, one thing I’ll never do is leave my readers with a cliffhanger at the end of a novel. A reader who isn’t satisfied when she finishes the last page of a novel won’t want to repeat the experience with the next title in the series.

There’s no doubt writing a series involves a lot of work and thinking that doesn’t apply to writing a stand-alone. But if I can create a fascinating world with characters my readers will learn to love in book after book, it will be worth the effort. And if I manage to pull it off, it will be largely due to the fantastic advice I’ve gotten from my fellow authors and friends who helped me think through this decision. If you’re interested in reading a great series, please click on their names below to visit their websites:

Deborah Raney

Mindy Starns Clark

Sibella Giorello

Hannah Alexander

Bonnie Leon

Robin Lee Hatcher

Beth White

DiAnn Mills

Dorothy Love

Erin Healy

Athol Dickson is a novelist, teacher, and publisher of the popular DailyCristo Christian news and information website. His novels transcend description with a literary style that blends magical realism, suspense, and a strong sense of spirituality. Critics have favorably compared his work to such diverse authors as Octavia Butler (Publisher's Weekly) and Flannery O'Connor (The New York Times). One of his novels is an Audie Award winner and three have won Christy Awards including his most recent novel, Lost Mission. His next story, The Opposite Of Art, is about pride, passion, and death as a spiritual pursuit. Look for it in September, 2011. Athol lives with his wife in southern California.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Introducing Debut Author Pam Hillman

Award-winning author Pam Hillman writes inspirational fiction set in the turbulent times of the American West and the Gilded Age. Her debut book, Stealing Jake, won the American Christian Fiction Writer’s Genesis contest and was a finalist in Romance Writers of America’s prestigious Golden Heart contest. She lives in Mississippi with her husband and family.Contact Pam at her website,

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

I honestly can’t remember how I came up with the exact idea for the pickpocket theme, but it was the old adage of opposites attract. If she’s a thief, he’s a lawman. Okay, she’s a reformed thief…or is she? Livy is short for Olivia, which came from Oliver Twist, so that was my jumping off place.

Tyndale House Publishers used to publish 2 Heartquest anthologies a year. Tyndale has been my dream publisher from the beginning, and I submitted novella proposals several times trying to break in. Stealing Jake (then Stealing Jake’s Heart) was one of those submissions. Tyndale put out guidelines for a Cowboy Christmas anthology, so the story had to involve Christmas and have a historical setting. Stealing Jake didn’t make the cut for the anthology, but I loved the idea so much that I went back to it later and turned it into a full-length novel. It just happened to be the novel my agent and I were shopping when word went out that Tyndale was launching the Digital First Initiative.

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

I’ve been writing most of my life, but seriously started pursuing publication a little over 15 years ago. I found out about the offer through an email from my agent, Steve Laube. Honestly, at that point, the business side of me kicked in. Old habits are hard to break. I didn’t get the giddy feeling everyone talks about, until Seekerville hosted a first sale party for me and we had over 400 comments. Now, that was fun!

Do you ever bang your head against the wall from writer's block? If so, how do you overcome it? 
I’ve heard some people say there is no such thing as writer’s block, but there are times when I am not productive. Whether that’s because the plot hasn’t gelled, the characters aren’t fleshed out enough, or I ate too many burritos for lunch is debatable. I just read my notes, brainstorm with the Seekers, or write the scene from a different pov, or go online and research something. When all else fails, I write through it, and come back and fix it later.

A romance starts, “Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl.”

I can build off of that.

Do you consider yourself a visual writer? If so, what visuals do you use?

I don’t use a lot of external visuals to get motivated. Most of what I see is in my head. But every so often, I’ll find a picture that speaks to me. I have picture of a grape arbor on my desktop that plays an important part in another manuscript I’ve been working on. I can look at that breezy arbor and imagine all sorts of scenes with my hero and heroine.

Novelists sometimes dig themselves into a hole over implausible plots, flat characters or a host of other problems. What's the most difficult part of writing for you?

The most difficult part is digging myself out of the hole you mentioned! I get my characters and my plot into a blackberry briar patch all the time. I know what I want to happen, but realize it’s going to be pretty difficult getting from A to B, and almost impossible to jump to Z.

How do you overcome it?

I wrestle with it for awhile. Plot, brainstorm, research a bit. Try a few rabbit trails. Bring in reinforcements if needed. Eventually, I fight my way out of the briars, scratched and bleeding, dragging my characters with me. But the resulting blackberry cobbler is just as good as I dreamed it would be. And when I get to share it with others, as I have with Stealing Jake, it’s even better!

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

I write on my laptop at home in the den, or at the dining room table. Sometimes I hole up an empty Sunday school room at church. An attic nook sounds so inviting!

What does a typical day look like for you?

Like many authors, I have a day job, so a typical day is to hit the ground running. Write, check email, do a little ACFW business, go to the day job, check email on my lunch break, then start the whole process over as soon as I’m off work. I have to structure my days off very carefully to get everything done.

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

It’s amazing how I can visualize a scene, but when it comes time to write it, getting it down does feel like pulling hair off a caterpillar with a pair of tweezers. But then sometimes I’ll get in the zone with a scene that just flows like a mountain stream, and after an hour or two, I’m amazed at the amount of work I’ve accomplished. So, bottom line, my production is fairly unpredictable!

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

Write every day. Better yet, finish one manuscript and start another one, don’t just keep working on the same manuscript forever and a day.

Do you have any parting words of advice?

Find a group of writers who are serious about publication, and stick to them like glue. The Seekers formed in 2005 with the goal of praying all fifteen into publication. We met our goal in May 2011 when I became the last one to receive a contract. We cheer successes, and bemoan failures, then we prop each other up for the next round. Find a group or form one. It might take a while to find just the right fit, but you’ll be glad you did.

When Livy O'Brien spies a young boy jostling a man walking along the boardwalk, she recognizes the act for what it is. After all, she used to be known as Light-fingered Livy. But that was before she put her past behind her and moved to the growing town of Chestnut, Illinois, where she's helping to run an orphanage. Now she'll do almost anything to protect the street kids like herself.
Sheriff's deputy Jake Russell had no idea what he was in for when he ran into Livy--literally--while chasing down a pickpocket. With a rash of robberies and a growing number of street kids in town--as well as a loan on the family farm that needs to be paid off--Jake doesn't have time to pursue a girl. Still, he can't seem to get Livy out of his mind. He wants to get to know her better . . . but Livy isn't willing to trust any man, especially not a lawman.Interwoven throughout is a group of street kids arrested in Chicago and sold as child labor. Leading this band of ragamuffins is young Luke, a scared, determined orphan intent on rescuing his little brother at any cost. To read the prologue and first chapter, go to http://http//

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

My Time at ICRS and the Christy Awards

Left to right: Jessica Dotta,
Gina Holmes, Ane Mulligan
The Christy's were great this year. It was my second time coming and I have to be in honest in saying, I had a lot more fun as an interviewer than I did as a finalist.

It was an incredible honor, don't get me wrong, and I did have a good time, but there's something about interviewing folks, just sitting there laughing and asking questions and not really being the focus of the hoopla that's just easy-peazy.

Anyway, so the speaker, Randall Wallace, (screen writer of Brave Heart, We Were Soldiers, Man in the Iron Mask), was AMAZING. He told the all-too familiar, (but always inspiring), story of how he got the call  that Brave Heart sold at a hopeless moment. I LOVE those stories. Maybe because it was my story in a way too. It was/is a lot of ours.

He was a sweet, humble, funny and motivating speaker and since he's now writing for my publisher, (Tyndale House), maybe I'll get to run into him again.

So, I didn't take home the Christy but I wasn't even a little bit sad, (honest). I was just kind of dumbfounded to have finaled. The whole experience surrounding Crossing Oceans has been surreal. I mean I finaled in the Christy's, Gold Medallion and Carol Awards and won RWA's Reader's Choice and an Inspy. I'm not saying that to brag but to shake my head in wonder and maybe some confusion.

Anyway, so when they announce the finalist we go on stage and they put this BEAUTIFUL medal around our necks. Purple ribbon, big, heavy silver medallion. I felt like I'd won the Olympics. Very cool! Heartless, a YA novel took my category. The author was very sweet and gracious and you couldn't help but smile for her.

The funny thing is before they announce the winners, the ribbon and medal around your neck gets congratulations and kudos, afterward it gets you, "I'm so sorry," or "You were robbed."

Note to self: Never do that to someone. I kept saying, "Really, it's cool. I'm just glad to be here." One famous writer told me to buck up and "Keep on writing." Um... I guess I will then. Ehem.

Okay, so that was the Christy's, On to ICRS...

I had a book signing this year just as I had last, but this time we weren't having to yank people into the booth quite so hard and there were quite a few folks who actually heard of me, or rather my book. Woot!

Here's a little secret to those of you who haven't published yet or are getting ready to: People don't really care about the author. They care about the book. As it should be.

So, I had a good signing I think. Met some nice folks. Gave out so many compliments I began to feel like Eddie Haskel. I meant every one of them though. I like to point out good stuff, what can I say. It may not always come out as sincere, but it truly is. (If I compliment your ankles though, I'm searching.)

The show was smaller than the year before, but then we all have heard every year it shrinks a little more. **Afterword here. The CBA reports that in actuality, attendance was up this year, according to Eric Grimm, CBA Manager of Strategic Partnerships.** I saw some author kid who I thought was doing a signing. He was sitting in the booth with books beside him, his big author signing picture which matched his face, so the assumption wasn't totally crazy, but when I went to get a book for my son, the PR(?) guy said, "Come back in an hour and he'll be glad to sign one."

From a PR perspective that might not have been the smartest move for several reasons. I didn't get back due to commitments and I don't remember the kid's name. Just sharing a little thought to ponder as you will. I bet they had books left over and you never know who's who. Not that I'm a who... you know what I mean.

Tuesday afternoon ACFW's Carol Awards were announced. That was cool though Ane got mad at me for not telling her I'd finaled. Finalists got calls the night before and were sworn to secrecy.

Ironic and very tell-tale of the publishing industry that Crossing Oceans didn't final in the Genesis Awards (ACFW's contest for unpubbed writers) but then finals in the Carol's. I only bring that up to hit home the point that this business is SOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO subjective. Take it all, good and bad, with a grain of salt. Half a grain.

During the ACFW press conference we got to listen to a panel of Christian writers: Randy Alcorn (one of my favorites...have you read Safely Home??!!) He talked about the recent trend of Christian fiction writers not using conversion scenes in their books and how his novel Deadline was, in his opinion, poorly written, but led many to Christ. He said we can be "explicit" with our faith so long as it's artfully done, but even when it's not artfully done, fiction can be a powerful tool.

I think since it was a press conference he might have been trying to convince those that don't feel it's right or a worthy use of time that fiction is of value. He was definitely preaching to the choir as far as attendants went, but the Christian media  in attendance was probably another story. I like him and just about everything he has to say.

Christy winner, (two years in a row...oink-oink), DiAnn Mills said we write Christian Fiction to: encourage, inspire, teach and entertain, and that her characters react, respond, and solve their problems according to a Christian worldview. I think that's a pretty good description of Christian fiction or a lot of it.  We also learned Miss Mills is a church librarian. Huh.

Bestseller Terri Blackstock said no time suffering was wasted--that it served a purpose to pass lessons on to readers. She talked about her daughter who suffered from addiction and how her Vicious Cycle series was giving hope to families of addicts. In my opinion, THAT'S what good books do more than entertain or astound us with their beauty--they change us.

I was really glad I went just to hear from others doing what I do why they write and see that it lines up pretty good with why I write. Even with differences here and there, we're all in this together serving the same greater good, humanity, and hopefully-God.

The final thing I'll leave you with is some interesting statistics provided by David Campbell of Pubtrack:

Religion accounts for 10% of total book sales in the U.S, 7% digital.
Active Christians, (church attenders, etc.), represent more than half of Christian fiction readers, 60% of book consumers say they use facebook but only 10% Twitter.

Whew... I thought I was the only one not quite getting the Twitter bug. I tweet, but I know not why.

THIS was my favorite part of the awards: my four very best friends were all there. That in itself was a small miracle!
Right to left: Jessica Dotta, Ane Mulligan, moi, Cindy Sproles (of Christian Devotions)