Monday, March 30, 2009

Upmarket books – what are they and why are they hot right now?

I recently sent an article to my agent, Janet Grant. It was about a type of book called “upmarket.” Since I had never heard the term, I thought I was giving her a heads-up to a new market trend. To my surprise, she replied, “Yeah, I heard this term at the San Francisco writers' conference in February; every editor was touting it.” And then she added,“So now you know how to talk about your novels...”

So what is an upmarket book? Here’s a quote from the article I read by Chuck Sambuchino,
an editor for Writer's Digest Books :

Simply put, it's fiction that blends the line between commercial and literary. To further examine this, let's break down those two terms. Commercial fiction, essentially, refers to novels that fall into a typical genre (thriller, let's say). Commercial fiction can sell very well because it usually has a tight premise/logline ("Someone is trying to kill the president!") and people like reading a category like thrillers because it's exciting. Literary fiction refers to novels that don't fit into any standard genre classification - romance, mystery, sci-fi, for example. Literary fiction requires the highest command of the language. Not pretentious, over-the-top purple prose - just simply excellent writing. . .

It has commercial potential. It has the ability to infiltrate lots of book clubs and start discussions and take off as a product. It's a win-win for everyone. I've heard a lot of agents say that they are looking for "literary fiction with a commercial appeal," or something like that. Well, one word that does the job of those six is "upmarket," and that's why you hear it so much. If you're writing narrative nonfiction or upmarket fiction, chances are, there are a ton of agents out there willing to consider your work.

Some examples of upmarket fiction (just my opinion): Water for Elephants; Jodi Picoult's books; The Lovely Bones; Michael Chabon's books.

Read the whole article here:

I can say that each of us Novel Matters writers aspires to literary excellence. We all think that something worth saying is worth saying in a memorable way, reveling in words, using to the fullest extent the precision of language and the shared delight of unexpected insight. (Oh art, we do indeed love you..)

Francine Rivers has called our own Bonnie Grove “the Jodi Picoult of Christian fiction.” Sharon Souza's careful, penetrating descriptions of heartbreaking dilemmas and the people caught up with them are masterful. Katy Popa makes desert places into characters and embues the people she writes about – some exotic, some earthy, some everywoman – with something pungent, beyond words. And I know why both Debbie Thomas and Patti Hill were nominated for Christy Awards: Each of them befriends the reader and then takes them on an adventure of wonder, a landscape of words with luscious surprises.

What do you think of this concept, upmarket fiction? Who are you reading now who qualifies for this term?

Friday, March 27, 2009

Writers Can Have Friends

Before I tell you exactly why writers can have friends and how, and where, and whether they really should... let me announce that we have a winner for this month's giveaway promotion.

Who, you ask?

Melinda Walker, dear heart, you have won the Patti Hill library of books! Now all we need is your address. Would you please contact us by clicking the contact tab above, and let us know what it is? You're in for some happy reading hours, and we can't wait to send you your gift.

"Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness, but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day." ~ Ernest Hemingway

Ahem. We should note that Hemingway took his own life. In all due respect to the great icon of Western literature, um, well, we can do better. At least in one way. At least we can palliate our loneliness and feel just fine about it.

I remember too well how it felt. I had some notable encouragers, but they were up against formidable foes, both inside and outside my skin.

You've heard the inner voices: "Look at your work: it's amateur stuff. Why waste your time on it when you could do something useful? Something profitable? Something practical? Something normal? Anything, anything else would be better..."

Then there were the outer voices, notable not so much for what they said but for the way they said it. I remember telling people I wanted to be a writer, and they'd get this wonky look on their faces and say, "oh, really?"

I must be fair. Perhaps those folks were giving me encouraging looks, and it was those voices, those endless voices in my head that turned the whole thing ugly.

But it was ugly. I faced eternity, or the lack of it, each day. And nothing got written.

Then I met a friend, Sharon Huffman, who talked about literature and thought as though they were the most important things to talk about. One day I ventured six timid little words: "I want to be a writer." And she took me seriously! She told me I had to get myself to The Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference.

My husband, who also took me seriously, gave me money we couldn't afford to waste, and pushed me out the door.

When I got there, I met hundreds and hundreds of people of my own species. I didn't know I had a species, but there we all were, pecking for sustenance among the words, ideas and dreams growing low to the ground beside the blossoming cherry tree.

I tried to start a short story and found a mentor, Gayle Roper, who said I'd goofed and started a novel, instead.

I found a friend, our own Sharon Souza, who had made a similar mistake, so she and I began pacing each other, all the way to finished, published manuscripts. Two of 'em apiece, so far.

I found other friends, among them, Debbie Fuller Thomas, who shared the journey.

And most recently, my agent, Janet K. Grant and her partner, Wendy Lawton, introduced me to Bonnie Grove, Patti Hill, and Latayne Scott, so that the circle of friendships could expand to include each other.

And to include you.

And what is the good of such friendships? Let me haul out my Bible, and turn to Hebrews 10:24 (WEB): "Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good works..."

That's what we're here for, all of us friends. To provoke each other to love for our readers, for our craft, for the God we write for. To provoke each other to good... well, ultimately, to good books.

Now, some footnotes:
  • Garrison Keillor has a great page about famous literary friendships.
  • Perhaps you are a writer looking to find more of your own species. Please consider attending The Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference this coming April 3-7. There is still time. All six of us Novel Matters ladies will be there, and we would love to meet you. (Let us know if you're coming so we can share a meal together.) Not only that, but the place will be crawling with authors and agents and editors, and you need to acclimate yourself to their presence if you ever want to take your writing seriously. If money is an issue, contact us by clicking the tab above. We may have an idea that will help.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A Writer's Community

As writers we are always seeking support. First we should notice that we are already supported every moment. There is the earth below our feet and there is the air, filling our lungs and emptying them. We should begin from this when we need support. There is the sunlight coming through the window and the silence of the morning. Begin from these. Then turn to face a friend and feel how good it is when she says, "I love your work." Believe her as you believe the floor will hold you up, the chair will let you sit.
Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones

But you must choose this friend wisely. Test her mettle. Can she give you the bad with the good? Does what she say match or exceed objective observers, like reviewers, editors, and your readers who will definitely e-mail you?

My friend Muriel guffaws at my misplaced modifiers. She notices everything, and she's brutal. She quotes the Oxford English Dictionary in the margins of my manuscripts when I misuse a word. I love that about her. Always the teacher. I'm her student. That's how I know she loves me too. So when she does say, "Patti, I love your work," my soul sighs.

When a workshop critiqued my first short story, speaking one by one around a large circle while I sat swallowing down my breakfast, forbidden to speak until the last person, the professor, gave his critique. All they said was true, at least the critique partners I trusted. Forget that guy who thought an epiphany required gun powder.

Nonetheless, when the time came to start my writing life in earnest, I went it alone, until the loneliness and self-doubt all but ate me alive. I went searching for a writing community.

I live in a smallish town. Writers can be hard to find. I attended a romance writers seminar just to peruse the crowd. I'd prayed to find a critique group (AKA writing community) that day. I sat at a table with three other ladies. After the lecture, I pleaded for a critique group. The room went silent, but the ladies at my table gave me their phone numbers, and we've been together for over ten years.

I'm also fortunate to attend a church that organizes small groups around special interests as well as deeply spiritual activities like Bible studies, which I host, and trusts that the Holy Spirit will show up. I meet with The Lord's Write Hands on the first Saturday of each month. A broader community offers the opportunity for more writers who will bolster my flagging spirit with their tales of contracts or the glossy pages of a published article. The bigger this circle is, the better the chance that someone has something wonderful happening in their writing life, even if it's a goal to type the title of their novel on a blank screen.

I belong to professional organizations, like American Christian Fiction Writers, to broaden that circle even wider. I learn so much from those who have gone before, and I'm finding I have something to offer those just starting. We're all on the same side as Christian writers. I'm not saying jealousy doesn't happen or feelings don't get hurt. This is the Body of Christ after all! We confess our sins, do our forgiving, and for the Lord's sake, we continue loving and supporting. Mostly.

And what an amazing gift the wonderful ladies of Novel Matters have been for the four years we've been meeting here every Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. I feel like God gave me the Barbie Doll House and pony for Christmas with these gals. They cheer. They pray. They exhort with gusto. My writing life has taken on a new spark with the girls behind me.

And that's one of two bottom lines. No, I'm not an accountant, but I know about the importance of a community of writers. The first bottom line is this: Don't expect your writing to improve until you submit your heart and work to a writing community. The second bottom line won't surprise you. A writing community is a faith community for the believing writer. Expect God to show up in big ways.

How has being a member of a writing community changed your perceptions about the writing life?

Monday, March 23, 2009

Round Table Monday: If I Were a Christy Award Judge. . .

If I were a Christy Award judge? Well, let's just say I'm glad I'm not. It has to be a difficult job. Too many great choices and too many great books. But - to dream a little dream. . .

Christy Awards go out to books that are written from a Christian worldview, so that "shelves" a whole range of books I've read this year. Oh, and that's another caveat. Christys go out to books that were published in the last year. I'm woefully behind in my reading, so I can only comment on books I've actually read. And so I will, books I've read that are on the list, and a few I loved that didn't make the list for whatever reason. Joy Jordan Lake rocks the house with her book Blue Hole Back Home. Believe me, to get a Canadian to love a book about racism in the American South (that isn't To Kill A Mockingbird) is no small feat.

I second Bonnie for the nomination of Blue Hole Back Home for debut novel. It's an amazing story and one of the best constructed novels I've ever read. In fact, I just read it again and am studying its construction to guide me in the book I'm working on now.

Tuesday Night at the Blue Moon by our own Debbie Thomas is another excellent novel. It's a well-told, touching story, and though it too is a debut novel, it has been nominated for Contemporary Standalone fiction. I'm pulling for both Joy and Debbie, big time! Those are the only two nominated books I've read, but I've just moved some of the others to the top of my to-be-read pile.

I'm going to cheat a little, because otherwise, I will only tell you that I third Bonnie and Sharon's votes for Tuesday Night at the Blue Moon and Blue Hole Back Home. (I am so amazed to be associated with Debbie Fuller Thomas, and I am in awe of Joy Jordan-Lake.)

But this Sunday night as I write this, I've been reading an Advance Reader Copy of Patti Hill's novel, Seeing Things, and I have to say, I am completely charmed by the character Patti has created in this story, a hallucinating grandmother named Birdie. Can I make a nomination? I'm completely enthralled with the story, and the dialogue is just amazing, both for Birdie and for Huckleberry Finn, the storybook character come to life, that only she can see.

I know you all think I'm promoting this book because our own Patti wrote it, but nope. It's that good. Look forward to Seeing Things.

Katy! How can I scold you? You're so sweet and generous. Thanks, darlin'.

The only nominated book I've read this year is, you guessed it, Debbie's smart and daring--she speaks from the point of view of an adult and a child!--Tuesday Night at the Blue Moon. But I do have favorites from previous years, like River Rising by Athol Dickson and Levi's Will by Dale Cramer. These men can't be rushed. They write until every word is inspired. I hope this is true of my writing someday. And can I make a nomination? For next year, The Passion of Mary-Margaret better be up there among the nominees. I'm reading this book now, and I'm completely envious of Lisa Samson's command of story.

Intrepid reader Latayne here. I, too, absolutely loved Debbie's Tuesday Night at the Blue Moon. It starts out with a punch -- an incredible situation that goes far beyond "switched at birth" and keeps you deeply involved.

I bought Zora and Nicky: A Novel in Black and White by Claudia Mair Burney (and paid full price for it, something I never do! Hope she appreciates that!) because I read an excerpt from it online and thought, "This is a terrific writer!"

And I'm in the middle of Bonnie's Talking to the Dead. It should be on next year's list. It is wonderful!

The most wonderful part of being associated with the Novel Matters gang (apart from enjoying their sparkling personalities) is to be able to read their books before they hit the shelves. What wonderful new fiction we have to look forward to! My reading list is in constant flux and growing. I appreciate the kind words from my fellow bloggers here. I stand scratching my head at finding myself included with awesome novelists as a Christy finalist, and I'll bet Patti Hill felt the same way when her book Like a Watered Garden was a Christy finalist in 2006. I predict that next year we'll be celebrating with more Novel Matters authors.

Your turn, dear readers. We'd love for you to share your reviews on the nominated novels.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Christy Awards - Good news for readers

The Christy Awards
The Christy Award was named in honor of Catherine Marshall’s novel and of her contribution to growth of the fiction Christians love to read.

How They Work
Every year publishers are invited to submit novels written from a Christian worldview and copyrighted in the year preceding the awards. Each category of novels are read and evaluated against a ten-point criteria by a panel of seven judges composed of librarians, reviewers, academicians, literary critics, and other qualified readers, none of whom have a direct affiliation with a publishing company.

The nominees:

Contemporary Romance Category
Beyond the Night by Marlo Schalesky (WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group)
Finding Stefanie by Susan May Warren (Tyndale House Publishers)
Zora and Nicky: A Novel in Black and White by Claudia Mair Burney (David C. Cook)

Contemporary Series, Sequels & Novellas Category
Sisterchicks Go Brit! by Robin Jones Gunn (WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group)
Summer Snow by Nicole Baart (Tyndale House Publishers)
You Had Me at Good-bye by Tracey Bateman (FaithWords)

Contemporary Standalone Category
Dogwood by Chris Fabry (Tyndale House Publishers)
Embrace Me by Lisa Samson (Thomas Nelson)
Tuesday Night at the Blue Moon by Debbie Fuller Thomas (Moody Publishers)

First Novel Category
Blue Hole Back Home by Joy Jordan-Lake (David C. Cook)
Ran Song by Alice J. Wisler (Bethany House Publishers)
Safe at Home by Richard Doster (David C. Cook)

Historical Category
Shadow of Colossus by T.L. Higley (B&H Publishing Group)
Until We Reach Home by Lynn Austin (Bethany House Publishers)
Washington’s Lady by Nancy Moser (Bethany House Publishers)

Historical Romance Category
Calico Canyon by Mary Connealy (Barbour Publishers)
From a Distance by Tamera Alexander (Bethany House Publishers)
The Moon in the Mango Tree by Pamela Binnings Ewen (B&H Publishing Group)

Suspense Category
By Reason of Insanity by Randy Singer (Tyndale House Publishers)
The Rook by Steven James (Revell)
Winter Haven by Athol Dickson (Bethany House Publishers)

Visionary Category
The Battle for Vast Dominion by George Bryan Polivka (Harvest House Publishers)
Shade by John B. Olson (B&H Publishing Group)
Vanish by Tom Pawlik (Tyndale House Publishers)

Young Adult Category
The Fruit of My Lipstick by Shelley Adina (FaithWords)
I Have Seen Him in the Watchfires by Cathy Gohlke (Moody Publishers)
On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness by Andrew Peterson (WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group)
Our warmest congratualtions to our own Debbie Fuller Thomas for this amazing (and well deserved) honor. All of us at Novel Matters are doing the happy dance with you!


Friday, March 20, 2009

Creating Brands that Stick

Today we're continuing our posts on branding and slogans, and I thought I would get the creative juices flowing with some examples, since there seems to be much anxiety and wailing and gnashing of teeth involved in the process (mine included). Now, don't peek, but try to guess which products these slogans represent without looking at the answers below:

Plop, plop, fizz, fizz, oh what a relief it is
The San Francisco treat
Breakfast of Champions
You're gonna like the way you look
The quicker picker upper
Reach out and touch someone
Finger lickin' good
Betcha can't eat just one
It takes a licking, and keeps on ticking
You're in good hands with _______
It's _____ time
The ultimate driving machine
Just do it
It's the real thing
Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don't
A ______ moment

I was struck by the use of strong verbs and the references to the senses (mostly taste) used to make the above slogans or brands memorable. People who are successful in business today often create personal branding statements to include in resumes and they use key verbs. Examples of strong key verbs would be: created, established, organized, revitalized, championed, dominated, leveraged. These are strong verbs rather than passive ones, such as helped, assisted, and maintained. Some slogans are easier to remember because they rhyme, or are just plain fun to say (quicker picker upper!). It's even more memorable if it's put to music. Remember the jingle J - e -l - l - o? Some incorporate the name of the product, and some leave you with a visual instead.

It's probably easier to come up with a slogan or brand for a tangible product rather than an idea, but there are some great examples here. You probably know the last one - 'A Kodak moment.' Kodak is referring to the experience created with their product, not the camera itself. And you probably recognize 'reach out and touch someone.' It humanizes their electronics by recalling friends and family from whom you are separated. These engage the senses and emotions.

Once you have decided on a brand or slogan, it is important to carry the ideas through into the design of your website. Check out these authors' brands and visit their websites:
Rugged faith, radiant God - Karen Ball
Tales of wonder - Marlo Schalesky
Catch the wave - Julie Carobini
Sharing His heart, one page at a time - Pamela Dowd
Honor the past, embrace the future - Tricia Goyer
Seatbelt suspense - Brandilyn Collins (one look at her head shot and you know what she writes!)
And also non-fiction - "Mother of 12 lives to write about it" - Barbara Curtis

Some of the brands are very specific to a genre or topic and some allow for a more liberal interpretation. What are the concrete things or ideas about your writing that could be included in a slogan or brand?

(answers: Alka Seltzer, Rice-a-Roni, Wheaties, The Men's Wearhouse, Bounty, AT&T, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Lays, Timex, Allstate, Miller (time), BMW, Hewlett Packard, Nike, Coca Cola, Almond Joy/Mounds, Kodak)

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Adrift in the Branding Sea

Writing a book is so much easier than promoting one. Put me in my office where I can see the sky through my windows, and hear the birds, my wind chimes and the clacking of my keyboard, and I'm a happy woman.
But navigating the promotional waters of the books I create, now that's a different story. I don't mind going along for the ride, but steering the whole darn ship is another matter. I'd so rather not. But since I don't have the luxury of floating through the process, I'm going to call on all of you to help as I make my way through the (n)oceans of branding, and try to create one of my own.
Latayne got us out of port and into the open seas of the branding issue, and there have been good comments to keep the boat afloat, but here are two questions: What is Branding? What is a Tagline? And are they synonomous? Okay, that's three. In my mind a tagline is like a teaser, for, say, a Steven Spielberg movie. "Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water" for Jaws. "He is afraid. He is alone. He is 3 million miles from home" for E.T. "It's about life. It's about love. It's about us" for The Color Purple.
Taglines, right? That define individual films? But it takes a brand to define the combined works of Steven Spielberg. Something like The Storyteller's Storyteller. Am I right? Oh, I hope I've got it.

Author Randy Ingermanson wrote in his Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine: "...the world of publishing has split into two armed camps. One camp insists that branding is vital to the health of an author's career. The other camp says that the whole brandwagon is a load of hooey ... ask six people to define branding, you get about eight different answers." He goes on to state his definition of branding, which I think is very helpful. "Your brand is what other people think when they hear your name."
So, assuming we're successfully navigating the waters of branding here, I'd like to launch my own lifeboat and see how far I get. I write contemporary novels about issues that cause women pain. Using Latayne's lighthouse points, I covered Time and Genre with one pull of the oar, as well as indicating my Audience. Every Good & Perfect Gift is about infertility and catastrophic illness. Lying on Sunday is about infidelity. These are my Topics. (The tagline for Gift is: True friendship is invaluable, but for Gabby Whitaker the cost could be too much; for Lying on Sunday the tagline is: For Abbie Torrington, betrayal and truth are about to collide.) Then like the labor of childbirth, I push through the pain to the point of deliverance. In the process I do all I can to cause laughter. And there is my Unique Tone or Flavor. Combined, this creates my Branding Statement. Have I got it right so far?
To put a fine point on it, I write Heart-of-the-Matter Fiction. Did I just create my Brand? If so, what do you think of it? From my branding statement in bold type in the above paragraph, can you suggest a better brand? If so, I invite you to share it. And for those readers who are not also writers, what does branding mean to you? Is it important? Does it help you decide whether or not to read an author's writing? Or is it, as one camp suggests, just so much hooey?
Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, "theSnowflake Guy," publishes the Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 15,000 readers, every month. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Topic of the Week: Branding

Hello and top of the week to all you stimulating readers! Have we told you lately how much we enjoy interacting with you?

Don’t forget that if you post a comment on any of our topics this month you are in the running to win a Patti Hill library of
four books. This lady was nominated for a Christy Award. She’s a terrific writer!

Our topic of the week is
branding. Patti, Sharon, Katy, Debbie and I all attended a retreat last fall in which Jeanette Thomason gave a terrific presentation on branding. She identified it as 1) identity, 2) positioning or position in the marketplace and 3) distinctiveness.

On Wednesday, Sharon will give some wonderful insights about branding in general, from her own struggles with the concept and from Randy Ingermanson. However, for today’s post I’d like to examine the idea of a branding statement.

Jeanette said that such a statement should include key components (though not necessarily all) from the following list:

place in time
audience or market/s
category or types or genre
unique tone or tribe or flavor
topics or themes

When I wrote my branding statement (found in my January 19th post), I had to try to corral an established career that has covered all kinds of topics in many different genres. (I’m nothing if not versatile.) What did all this have in common? The fact that when I tackle a topic, I attempt to look it “straight in the eye." That idea became the core of my branding statement.

The publicity team at Zondervan loved my branding statement and are using it in publicity for my upcoming non-fiction,
The Mormon Mirage. It had to work equally well, however for my upcoming novel Latter-day Cipher.

How about you? Do you have a branding statement? Or do you know of an effective one used by another author?

Friday, March 13, 2009

Guest Blogger Andy McGuire: The Books I Love

Novel Matters readers, I'm honored to introduce Andy McGuire as our guest blogger today. As you will soon know, Andy speaks lovingly of his favorite books. I first heard Andy on an editor panel at Mt. Hermon Christian Writers Conference. He knows his stuff. He's thoughtful and talented and generous. Currently, he's an editor at Bethany House and the author and illustrator of Rainy Day Games: Fun with the Animals of Noah's Ark, a must-have for any child's read-along library. As for the generous part, Andy is ready to answer your questions about Christian and Children's Fiction at his web site: I was pleased to find some of my favorites on Andy's list, and I will eagerly add more of his favorites to my bookshelf. And now, let's let Andy talk for himself. Take it away, Andy!

Ah…a list of favorite books. The potential to embarrass myself. In my mind I see hundreds of jaws dropping as readers shake their heads in dismay and (perhaps) judgment. “He picked THAT?!? I hated that thing! Where was the plot? And who was I supposed to relate to?”

Recommending books is only slightly less risky than writing them. Both activities require putting your soul on display for the world to see, knowing that some who thought they “got you” didn’t. But alas, if no one recommended books (or wrote them, for that matter), what would we find to read?

So here’s a list for you to consider, then I’ll talk about a few of them. I list them in alphabetical order by author rather than order of preference—I suppose I still feel the need to hide a small part of my soul.

Hey Nostradamus, Douglas Coupland

Eleanor Rigby, Douglas Coupland

Great Expectations, Charles Dickens

Peace Like a River, Leif Enger

The Lord of the Flies, William Golding

The Princess Bride, William Goldman

Soldier of the Great War, Mark Helprin

About a Boy, Nick Hornby

A Separate Peace, John Knowles

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

Gilead, Marilynne Robinson

Straight Man, Richard Russo

The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien

The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton

The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton

All Hallow’s Eve, Charles Williams

The Place of the Lion, Charles Williams

Joy in the Morning, P.D. Wodehouse

Why these? There are two things that I feel are absolutely necessary for any good story and one other thing that can elevate it to a “great” one:

1) characters that I wish to spend time with;

2) a structure that gets me from one place to another; and

3) a point.

These necessities need a short explanation, I imagine. Notice that in requirement #1 I didn’t say “good characters” or “noble characters” or even “characters I like.” I don’t have to like a man, let alone approve of him, in order to wish to spend some time with him. But I do have to be interested. Something about him must intrigue me.

Requirement #2 is probably the hardest to define, but it means that the story has to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Many stories written over the last generation or two move along aimlessly until they stop arbitrarily somewhere along the way. The excuse for this shabby storytelling is that it’s more like “real life” than those antiquated tales that actually have a conclusion. Two objections to this argument. First, who says life doesn’t have conclusions? As Christians we certainly believe that justice will prevail, love will conquer death, and peace will reign. Second, even if you aren’t thinking metaphysically, we still want stories to come to a satisfying conclusion because life, at times, doesn’t feel like it does. Stories shouldn’t imitate the mundane, they should rise above it. This sounds contradictory because of the switch from long-term thinking to short-term thinking. In the long run, all of creation will come to a resolution. In the short run, it doesn’t feel that way, so we need stories to remind us of justice and grace. Perhaps we’re hardwired for this, so stories that go against this drive leave us dissatisfied.

Requirement #3 is hopefully self-explanatory. A story should say something about big things. The meaning of life, the sacrifice of grace, the power of love. More importantly, give it to me in a way I hadn’t experienced before.

So, onto a few of these books. Some of them have fairly obvious Christian themes, like Gilead, Peace Like a River, and the two Douglas Coupland books. Others deal more tangentially with Christian morality and God’s presence in creation. Soldier of the Great War and The House of Mirth would fall into that category. Soldier is one of the best apologies for the existence of God through the witness of beauty I’ve ever read.

Still others on this list don’t seem to have any ties to Christianity other than their being about right and wrong, love, joy, and, in one way or another, truth. Grace seems to be a theme that runs through most of these stories as well. I think grace, even more than redemption, softens us up and changes us. The ending of Gilead did that for me.

And then there’s humor. I love to laugh. I think there is something ennobling about humor. To look for opportunities to laugh is inherently a humble pursuit of wisdom (although it can be twisted at times). Straight Man and The Princess Bride are both “laugh out loud” books, as is anything by Wodehouse. I picked Joy in the Morning almost at random. Anything from his Wooster and Jeeves series would do for this list.

That’s about all from me. Don’t judge me too harshly. Or at least keep it to yourself. Ha! As if that could happen on the internet.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Next Up: Tomorrow's Guest, Andy McGuire


Excuse me?

We all hope you are paying attention at Novel Matters, because frankly, if you read our posts, you are more likely to comment. We love the conversations that take place here, and we really love to read what you are thinking.

But tomorrow's post will be extra special. We honestly think you should wake up in the morning thinking about it, eager to check in at this address. Because tomorrow we will host our first guest blogger, Andy McGuire. We're so proud we can't stand it.

Andy is an editor at Bethany House Publishers. He's also the author and illustrator of a gorgeous, delightful book for children, Rainy Day Games: Fun With the Animals of Noah's Ark.

More than that, Andy is passionate and eloquent about the topic of great literature, and he's going to let us in on the books he loves to read, and why he loves to read them. Do wake up thinking of us. We've got something special for you tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Inspiration Born on Skellig Michael

"I want to believe there's more. That if we could just see everything that goes on in the air that brushes our skin, in the light that shines from the sun and the moon, in the moisture down deep in the soil, in the water... If we knew what travels in the words we speak and the tears we cry, we'd see how much everything matters. We'd be dazzled by meanings we don't begin to... I want to believe that every single step we take falls on holy ground."

That's India Moon, a character in my second novel, The Feast of Saint Bertie. In the story, the title character, Roberta Denys, has moved into an old gardener's shed in the Santa Cruz mountains, to live a life devoted to prayer. It all turns out to be more difficult than she expected, what with a cell phone that won't stop ringing, a son she can't locate, and a string of arson fires hitting very, very close to home.

Bertie’s character was born of my long-time curiosity about the ascetic lifestyle which turned to fascination in 2004, when I planned a trip to Ireland. In one of my guidebooks, I read an entry about an ancient island monastery off the coast of County Kerry called Skellig Michael. To say the place is austere hardly does justice to the utter severity a life there must have imposed, a thousand years ago. The island is a steep, triangular rock jutting out of the ocean, with barely enough soil to support a small garden. It's exposed to the ferocious Irish coastal winds, and surrounded by menacing ocean currents. The monks took their lives in their hands just traveling to Skellig Michael.

Seven hundred and fourteen feet up, past a climb of six hundred stairs, a cluster of eight stone shelters huddle against the precipice. No windows or doors. Little provision for warmth. The monks slept on stone platforms. And they chose to live this way, twelve or fourteen of them. What would possess them to do a thing like that?

They’ve left us only their mute gravestones, but they followed a long tradition of Christians who fled to deserted places, away from the worldly temptations of material wealth and power, so they could find something better. I believe they wanted every step they took to fall on holy ground, and that they were, in that way, the spiritual kindred of Bertie and India.

And me. And you?

When I went to Ireland, circumstances prevented me from visiting Skellig Michael. But the idea, the astonishing beauty of it has followed me ever since. That's how I came to write one day about a woman who renounced wealth and position, and abandoned herself to God.

If you’re interested in reading more about the thoughts behind my stories, I was honored to be interviewed by Angela Wilson, who posted the article this week in Pop Syndicate’s Book Addict column.

Meanwhile, what about you, dear readers? Have you visited places, either in books or with your own eyes, that inspired you? We’d love to hear your stories.

(Thanks to MauronB and DonaPatrick for the images.)

Monday, March 9, 2009

Searching for Gold Nuggets

A heart-felt thank you goes out to all of our new followers. You’re the ones who make Novel Matters a relevant place for readers and writers of great fiction. Won’t you join the conversation?


From now on, the first Monday of the month is Contest Announcement Day! You're right, today is the second Monday of March, but we have a good excuse. We’ve been working behind the scene to make Novel Matters a welcoming and thought-provoking place to visit. This month’s prize is a Patti Hill library, including Like a Watered Garden, Always Green, In Every Flower, and The Queen of Sleepy Eye. That’s four—count ‘em—four novels for your reading pleasure. A winner will be chosen from visitors who comment on any blog topic from now until the last Thursday of the month. You guessed it. The last Friday of the month will be Contest Winner Announcement Day! Aren’t you glad you stopped by?

Researching a novel is like mining for gold nuggets. And gold nuggets are very difficult to find. You’ll end up sluicing a lot of sand to find a few nuggets to add to your pouch. But once you’ve felt the weight of a burgeoning pouch in your hand, a hunger grows in your writer’s soul for more. You’re never satisfied.

Right now, I’m steeped in research for a novel that will be released in 2010. My office is filled with highlighted books tagged with sticky notes. And I’ve paid way too much for back issues of magazines from the forties to take a peek into the lives of WWII homemakers. A notebook filled with transcribed interviews grows fatter by the day. I’ve watched movies and read novels of that time to absorb the cadence of speech and to authenticate vocabulary. When do I have enough nuggets to stop looking and start writing?

I don’t know!

I’ve been here before. Although The Queen of Sleepy Eye takes place in the mid-70s—and yes, I was there—I saturated myself with the time and the small town that became my setting. Since this book has already been written, it’s easier for me to see the gold nuggets, like bread crumbs left on a trail, that lead me through the story.

I talked to a church secretary who told me a story about an older congregant. She had been troubled by the broken stained-glass windows of her church, so she hired a hippie from a local commune to repair the windows, all without the knowledge of the other congregants. This was just the element I needed to build rising antagonism in the story. Eureka, a gold nugget!

I interviewed a retired pastor on the porch of his log cabin home. We chatted for nearly three hours before he mentioned that his home had been the mortuary in the mid-70s. Not only that, but the home included a trap door for bodies to be lowered to the basement preparation room. Perfect. What better place to test the protagonist’s meddle than a mortuary? I moved her right in. And that trap door, well, it came in handy. Woohoo, another nugget to add to the pouch!

My husband and I stopped by Farmer Frank’s on one research trip to Cordial (AKA Paonia, CO). While Dennis tried on work boots, I talked to the proprietor. About the time of the story, he’d moved to the area as a teen . He remembered being the brunt of pranks as the new arrival in a tight community. His struggle to fit in became a strong motivator for a supporting character who befriends Amy, my protagonist. Thanks to Farmer Frank, I created one of my most memorable characters. Hallelujah! My pouch grew much fatter that day.

I spent hours at the Paonia Library microfiche machine, interviewed a hippie-turned-real-estate agent, collected eggs and fended off a rooster with the help of Pick the turkey, who just happens to play himself in the novel. When did I stop researching and start writing The Queen of Sleepy Eye? Honestly? I counted out the days to my deadline. Oh boy, that got me writing.

As a writer, how do you know when to stop mining for nuggets and start tippy-typing on your computer? Who or what have been your best resources? As a reader, do you trust what you read in fiction to be fact? Are you aware of an author who has bent the truth to suit his/her story? Is bending the truth a deal-breaker for you?

I can’t wait to hear what you have to say.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Art, I want you

We're riddled with angst this week - feeling the chill in our bones, wondering if we've got the goods.

This is apt for someone like me - my first book is coming out in 87 days (uh, no, I'm not's guess. Ahem.), and I am in the throes of writing a second book (coming June 2010 - but again, I'm not counting. Ahem), and I'm looking for the magic. Hoping, when I peer into my bag of literary goodies, I will find it - that truth, that shine, that brilliance. Wondering if it was ever in there in the first place.

But the task is to write, and so write I do. Clacking away, muttering to self and computer, wondering - always wondering - if any of this is of any merit.

I'm comforted by the fact that this deep down doubt is universal in the world of art and artists. Let me introduce you to someone who has poured out this artist's angst in a way I simply adore. Tanya Davis is a Canadian, from Newfoundland (which accounts for her accent - she has a true "Newfie" accent I love [no, I don't sound like that when I speak - I sound exactly like Queen Elizabeth]). Her wonderful accent is the reason I posted the words to the song below. She is a poet, singer, songwriter, and more. I included her website at the bottom of this post in case you want to find out more about this wonderful artist.
I love how she expresses the questions all artists feel, deep in their bones.


I wondered what would be the worth of my words in the world
if i write them and then recite them are they worth being heard
just because i like them does that mean i should mic them
and see what might unfurl

i think of the significance of my opinions here
is it significant to be giving them does anybody care
just because i'm into this does that mean i should live like it
and really do i dare

art, art i want you
art you make it pretty hard not to
and my heart is trying hard here to follow you
but i can't always tell if i ought to

so i pondered the point of my art in this life
if i make it will someone take it and think it's genuine
will they be glad that i did 'cause they got something good out of it
will they leave me and be any more inspired

i question the outcome of the outpouring of myself
if i tell everyone my stories will this keep me healthy and well
will it give me purpose, to this world some sort of service
is it worth it, how can i tell

art, art...

Here are my thoughts about self-doubt: better not to dwell on it. Better to write, and keep writing for purposes that are bigger than me, for reasons I don't need to understand.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Story of a Lifetime

Thank you, Laura, for reminding us of Margaret Mitchell's sweeping epic, Gone With the Wind. Ms. Mitchell had little confidence that her story would ever be completed or even considered worthy of publication, and she kept her chapters stuffed in envelopes and stored in a closet. After ten years of writing and painstaking research, she won the Pulitzer Prize for the book and sold the movie rights for $50,000, the largest sum ever paid at that time. The movie set records for winning the most awards, which included Best Picture. Understandably, she was completely unprepared for the resulting fame and the disruption it caused in her homelife.

It is easy to see how an author could be overwhelmed to the point of paralyzing writer's block in the face of such unpredictable accomplishments, and perhaps that is the reason she never wrote another novel. But she has said that her book was about survival, about the people who had gumption and those who didn't. Would someone who wrote so eloquently about fearless tenacity become overwhelmed by success and notoriety to the point that they feared both failure and fame? It is quite possible, since our best writing often comes from wrestling with our own deep-seated fears. Story can empower us to drag our fears out of their dark caves into the sunlight that shrivels them down to a manageable size. Unlike her fearless Scarlett, perhaps Ms. Mitchell saw those yellow eyes gazing out from the depths and just backed away.

Gone With the Wind was the culmination of exposure to her Confederate relatives' constant rehashing of the Civil War at the turn of the century, and of living on Peachtree Street in historic Atlanta. Perhaps everything about her life contributed to one powerful novel. It may have required another lifetime - a different lifetime - to write another.

I wonder, if given the opportunity to write one incredibly authentic story with enduring characters whose names became household words, and of achieving success of this magnitude, would I be satisfied, or would I feel the need to write another book? How about you?

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Fear of Success

If ever there were a riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma -- to borrow from Winston Churchill's famous quote -- it's Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird. I've often said I'd rather write one memorable book -- and one memorable character like Scout Finch -- than a hundred that all run together. And that's exactly what Ms. Lee did. Wrote one incredibly memorable, Pulitzer prize-winning book, which has sold millions of copies worldwide, and has never been out of print since its 1960 release. Wow.

What writer among us wouldn't give her shift bar to achieve what she achieved? And yet, the world is left with the mystery that is Harper Lee. What stories have remained inside Nelle Harper Lee all these years, just waiting to be birthed? Could it really be there wasn't another great novel in her? Many great novels, in fact? Is it that she couldn't find another story as important as this one? Might other great Harper Lee novels have diminished the impact Mockingbird has made on the world for five decades now? Could it be that the bar was set so high with her first novel, that Ms. Lee brushed off her hands, said, "Well done!" and walked away, never to look back again?

Or was there a fear that she might never clear that bar again?

Her cousin, Richard Williams, has quoted her as saying, "When you have a hit like that, you can't go anywhere but down." My research tells me she worked many years on a second novel -- how I would love to see it! -- but never finished it, and certainly never sought publication of it. She lived a reclusive life, never granting interviews, never seeking the accolades her exquisite success would have afforded her.

So is that it? Was Harper Lee foiled by fear? No one, it seems, was more surprised than she by the enormous impact made by her debut novel: "I never expected any sort of success with Mockingbird. I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers, but, at the same time, I sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement . . . I hoped for a little . . . but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I'd expected."

Sort of hoped someone would like it? I'd say she got her wish. Unfortunately, Harper Lee's retiring personality wasn't wired for the kind of fame Mockingbird brought her. But I can't help think Ms. Lee cheated the world -- and maybe herself most of all -- by not having tried to clear the bar again. I secretly hope that when her time on earth is through, that the world will be surprised and gifted with a plethora of unpublished works, an inheritance of the richest kind, from one of the world's greatest literary figures.

As for myself, there's a lot I fear about this writing life. I fear the next story I attempt might be aborted. I fear a lot of what I have to do to promote what I've published so far. But then I hear, Fear not . . . Don't be afraid . . . And I rememer I'm not alone as I try to live out the call.

I'd love to hear your thoughts. What do you fear? Any other examples of an author who quit with one incredible work?