Friday, July 31, 2009

Happily Ever After

Remember that today is the last day to get your entries submitted for our 'Audience with an Agent Contest.' Please see our 'Promotions' section for details. We can't wait to read your entry!

Some people won't read a book if they learn beforehand that the ending is not a happy one. In fact, I once had it explained to me this way: "It's fine to give your story a down ending, so long as you are ready to accept that you are writing to a smaller audience. A much smaller audience."

I get it. It's a great feeling to turn the last page of a book knowing all the characters you've come to love are safe and sound. Our day to day lives are fraught with uncertainty, so when we enter a story, we like to know that in the end, all our worries will be put to rest, that everything is going to work out fine.

The only problem with a happy ending is that we know what it will be, generally by the end of the first chapter. The boy will get the girl. David will triumph over the giant. It can be fun learning how he triumphs, but really, at some point toward the end of the book it will no longer be necessary to continue reading. You could write the ending yourself. In his wonderful book, Story, Robert McKee tells us, "Anyone can deliver a happy ending. Just give the characters everything they want."

But there are more ways than one to write a happy - or let's say a sort of happy - ending. Last night I finished reading a novel that ended very differently from the way I'd imagined it would. (I'd give you the title, but I hope you will read this one someday, and I don't want to spoil it.)

I'd thought the character would ultimately mend the troubled relationship with his father. Instead, just when things looked hopeful, he did the one thing that would smash that relationship all to bits, and was thereafter separated from his family and all he loved, perhaps forever.

A terrible ending.

And yet...

And yet he walked away with a new understanding of his own power to wound. He walked away a wiser, better man.

A bit more from Story by Robert McKee:
"In Aristotle's words, an ending must be both "inevitable and unexpected." Inevitable in the sense that as the Inciting Incident occurs, everything and anything becomes possible, but at Climax, as the audience looks back through the telling, it should seem that the path the telling took was the only path. Given the characters and their world as we've come to understand it, the climax was inevitable and satisfying. But at the same time it must be unexpected, happening in a way the audience could not have expected."
The ending I described above was unexpected, but it was also inevitable. The fact that the story remained true to itself to the last was what made the novel different from a million lesser novels that have given me the endings I wanted.

How about you? Do you demand a happy ending, will a "sort of" happy ending do, or are you fine with any ending that rings true? We love to read what you think.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Salty Stories

I hear it all the time – it’s the big debate in Christian fiction, the one that writers and readers buzz about, the one that makes us stop typing and ask, “Is this passage preachy?”

I think it’s a good discussion, one we should continue to have because it helps us shape the industry of Christian books. However, it is a mistake to think that Christians are the only ones who need to ask if our literature is “preachy” and packed with messages that hammer rather than whisper.

General fiction has just as much reason to worry as Christian fiction does that it’s preachy.
I read broadly, as I suspect the vast majority of us do. In my fictional travels I’ve come across general market fiction that was so preachy it made me put the book aside. The adage that “no one likes to be preached to” is one mainstream writers need to heed every bit as much as religious minded writers do.

I’ve been reading The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson, a book I wanted very much to like for many reasons. First, the author is Canadian (from Winnipeg). I read vast amounts of Canadian fiction (and I recommend you do too – there is a delectable “otherness” about Canadian fiction that is at once familiar and foreign), and I was happy to add Davidson’s name to the list, especially after I heard about the large advance he secured for this, his debut novel. The premise is so strong and compelling, it’s no wonder publishers snapped him up. So, I bought the book.

Remember – I wanted to believe. I wanted to love this book.

There are two things that keep me from falling in love with The Gargoyle. First, the writing – with a wobbly voice that never finds its track, to Davidson’s habit of writing in a way that minimizes emotional impact, to his lack of knowledge of the psychological, the writing left me feeling – well…cheated. Still, there are moments in the book that shine, and I would have overlooked (on tip-toe, mind you) the writing if only he would have refrained from his preaching.

But the real reason I couldn’t love the book was because several times I had to check the front cover to ensure I had not, by accident picked up a book titled “I am atheist, hear me roar” or something of that nature. He spoke his beliefs loudly and from the soapbox on the corner street Christians are so often accused of standing on. He didn’t let the story just tell the story of a man who didn’t believe in God yet couldn’t explain the things that were happening to him.

I don’t mean to pick on Davidson and his book. But, for the sake of blog post brevity, I wanted to highlight a concrete example of what I am talking about. All of us, regardless of the religious/political/ethical messages we wish to incorporate into our fiction, need to remember to respect the reader, and respect the story.

For the Christian, that means creating salty stories – fiction that is flavored throughout with the truth of God and His character. You would never sit down to a meal and drown it with salt, covering your plate until all you saw was white. We use salt in measure and allow it to bump up against the rest of the ingredients, soak in, and change the flavor of the entire meal for the better.

Jesus said we were to be salt and light to the world. These two things are perfect examples of how God wants us to write as well as live. Salt and light both are, in and of themselves, overpowering elements when taken in large quantity. Salt burns the tongue, light burns the eyes. But used wisely and in measure they are indispensable. Keep in mind though, it isn’t the salt or light that matter most, but the effect the salt has on the food, and the effect that light has on a darkened room that make them transformative elements.

What have you been reading or writing lately that uses salt in proper measure? How did the writer accomplish this?

Monday, July 27, 2009

Roundtable: Spirit and Muse

Someone once advised me to find a picture of my muse and put it near my desk. I actually did this. In my office there hangs a carved wooden figure that somehow seems right. When I read William P. Young's novel, The Shack, I imagined that Sarayu looked a bit like this. Later I read George MacDonald's The Back of the North Wind, and thought this being looked like the North Wind.

The thing about this figure that really struck a chord was that little bit of wavy stuff beneath her. To me it looks like water,
and water has for some time represented, in my mind, the mysterious depths of the human soul. The Bible says it was the Spirit who moved over the face of the waters. So there you have it. My "muse" is the Holy Spirit.

I love Vinita Hampton Wright's take on this, in her book on writing, The Soul Tells a Story:
The spirit will require tougher things than the Muse ever will. The spirit will not be satisfied when you merely embrace your personal darkness and write an astounding poem about it; the spirit will push you beyond that to whatever healing or understanding is necessary in your life.

This spirit will stare at you until you make your art honest... The spirit will require that you push through the despair and get to the hope, that you push past the comfort and embrace the confession.
A muse I have not. Or, if I do, it is a shifting thing that doesn't move with me from project to project. I don't look to or at any one thing to find inspiration. Mostly because my brain doesn't work that way. I'm a self-proclaimed "projects person". Once I have turned the last page on a project, I'm finished with it and look ahead to the next. The trappings, ideas, even the magic of the last project is gone. (Don't get me wrong, Talking to the Dead stays with me - but not as a project to be worked on. Rather it stays with me, I think, in the same way it lingers with readers, as ideas to be explored).

I've started a new novel I'm very excited about. I can't give details at this point because of some still unanswered questions. But I can share this picture of the journal I am using for my handwritten notes for this book. It feels "muse-ish" to me. It makes me smile when I reach for it and when I write in it, I feel as though I'm recording something very important - even if it does look like plain old chicken scratch- including spelling mistakes and words crossed out. It is the place that holds my ideas for this book and it is very much a place I meet with God to talk things over.

By definition a muse is "the spirit that is thought to inspire a writer; the source of genius or inspiration." As a Christian, I simply capitalize the "S" in Spirit, and there's my Muse, backed up with my favorite Scripture regarding the call of writing in my life: "For it is the Lord who works in you both to will and to do his good pleasure" (Phil. 2:13). As the Source of inspiration, He gives the desire and the ability to accomplish the thing He's called me to do. That doesn't just apply to one thing in my life. For He's called me to do many things; writing just happens to be one of them.
There are times when I feel His leading in a very particular way as I write, and there's no doubt where the inspiration comes from. I love those little surprises -- serendipity or happy accidents as Jim Scott Bell shared recently: Other times, the inspiration is more subtle, but it's just as important.
I don't have a physical or mental image of my "Muse." I just know that I need His presence in my life for all that I hope to accomplish in the name of the Lord, which includes writing the stories He plants in my heart.

"By living well and observing as you live, by reading well and observing as you training yourself in writing, in repetitious exercise, imitation, good example, you have made a clean, well-lighted place to keep the Muse. You have given to move around. And through training, you have relaxed yourself enough not to stare discourteously when inspiration comes into the room."

This is from Ray Bradbury's Zen in the Art of Writing, a book he freely admits has nothing to do with Zen but a title that has everything to do with marketing. This quote is from the chapter "How to Keep and Feed a Muse" which discusses how inspiration comes from being fully engaged in life.

As Christian writers, we know that inspiration comes from the Lord. Each one of us has a fertile history that God draws from for our unique stories. We are the only ones who can tell these stories from the perspective He gave us and He expects us to keep the soil tilled and prepared to help those new ideas to sprout.

Until I began posting on this blog, I never acknowledged to myself or anyone else how great a role dreams have in my spiritual life.

Once I had a colleague who was very discouraged and thinking of leaving his ministry. At that time, I had a very vivid dream of a vast field of mud that stretched out as far as I could see. One at a time, people began emerging from the viscous mud and struggled to get free. My friend stood at the edge and began pulling people from the mud.

Imagine my surprise when I attended the estate sale for a late neighbor/artist. There was a chalk portrait of someone leaning over a wall and reaching for the hand of another. It so precisely portrayed the spirit of the dream I had. I keep it in front me as I write.

Though the deceased artist was African-American and thus most of her portraits were those of people with dark skin, I prefer to see these two people as both covered in the mud I saw in my dream. It reminds me that anyone who thinks to help draw people from the mud of this world must remember that each of us in ministry was also once in that very mud.

(Please excuse the largeness of the image. I was afraid the details of the painting might not be visible in a smaller size. )

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Saturday Night at the Movies

Now Showing:

Every Good & Perfect Gift

We just learned that Debbie Thomas's Tuesday Night at the Blue Moon and Sharon K. Souza's Every Good & Perfect Gift are finalists in the ACFW Book of the Year contest. Debbie's is a finalist in the Women's Fiction category, and Sharon's is a finalist in Women's Fiction and Debut Novel. Enjoy the trailer for Every Good & Perfect Gift. Leave a comment to be entered into a drawing for our movie-night giveaway.

Friday, July 24, 2009

What I Wish I'd Known - Robin Jones Gunn

Just seven more days to get your contest entries in for our "Audience With An Agent" contest! The entries are coming in daily now.
Congratulations to Sharon Souza for being recognized as a finalist in both the Women's Fiction and Debut Novel categories for the American Christian Fiction Writer's Book of the Year contest for her book Every Good and Perfect Gift! At the risk of sounding like I'm 'tooting my own horn' I will add that my book, Tuesday Night at the Blue Moon is a also a finalist in the Women's category, but I bow to Sharon's incredible book. You go, girl!

I had the pleasure of dining with Janet Grant and Wendy Lawton along with the Books and Such Christy Award finalists at ICRS several weeks ago, where Robin shared some things she wished she'd known when she first began writing. Robin has published 70 books, has 3 Christy Awards, is a finalist in the Gold Medallion and was awarded Mount Hermon's Pacesetters and Writer of the year awards. Her books have sold 4 million copies worldwide. So I scooched a little closer to hear her better...

1)Keep a list of all your characters' names. After writing so many books, I run the risk of repeating names and readers will definitely recognize them. It's a major task to go back and try to do it later.

2)Be content. Regardless of the number of rewrites and improvements, no book ever feels "done" to me. (after 70 books!) I always think it needs a little more or an adjustment here or a change there. Just as Paul said that he "learned to be content" in whatever state he was in, after 24 years at this I'm trying to learn to be content with the finished book and not fret over what I would have done differently if I'd had more time to rewrite it.

3) Observe the Sabbath. When the opportunity comes to get away, I must getaway. It's the law of the sabbath. Stop once a week and several times during the year in order to do something different than what you do for your work. God gave us this law so that our spirit, mind and body can be restored. One day a week I must not do anything that has to do with writing or emails or interviews. I must rest and in that rest be restored to a place of worship in my spirit. So, if my husband and I have a getaway weekend scheduled and I'm planning to take the laptop along to met a deadline, it's better to postpone the getaway, finish the work on deadline and then getaway sans laptop.

Thank you, Robin, for sharing these pearls of wisdom with us! Please check out Robin's website and see her many fabulous books at

Now, we'd love for you to share your wisdom with us. What have you learned that would have been helpful to know from the get-go?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Dreams of Writing

Only days left to enter our "Audience with an Agent" contest, and the entries are pouring in. Don't miss this chance to get your very best work in front of a top agent.

The Bible discusses several ways that God communicated His will to human beings. To some, He spoke directly. To others, He provided visions. Others heard only a voice. But to some, He communicated through dreams in the night.

Many people describe the experience of holding their first published books in their hands as being like a dream come true. Or they will say, "I've dreamed of this moment." But I wonder, how many people can recall an actual dream depicting -- or predicting -- such a situation? Have any of you authors had such an experience?

In a previous post I described having a dream of a situation that became a scene in my novel, Latter-day Cipher. I know of another circumstance in which a dream became a novel, too. Carole Whang Schutter (who had never written a novel) describes a dream she had of a little girl, dressed in 19th century prairie dress, all alone. She began to wonder what episode of U.S. history would have corresponded to that image, and discovered the story of the Mountain Meadows Massacre. That let to her writing the book, September Dawn.

I'm wondering -- is that an experience that other authors have had?

Questions, I have questions.

Dreams, I have them too. Do you?

Monday, July 20, 2009

Setting as Character

Happy Monday morning.
A few things to tell/remind you: Something new and cool! Love Twitter? Books & Such agency is hosting "Writers' Night Out" on Twitter!
Log on to Twitter on July 22, between 7-9 CST

hash tag is #wno

You could win books (including copies of books by NovelMatters authors), critiques (award winning authors offering to read your ms!), coaching (award winning authors chatting with you about your writing, your hopes, and how to make it happen!) & MORE!

You'll also be able to chat with authors, agents, and just have a fun time. We hope to hear from you!
I'd like to remind you of our great book giveaways this month, compliments of David C. Cook Publishers: Christy-Award winning Blue Hole Back Home by Joy Jordan Lake and Safe at Home by Richard Doster. Leave a comment for a chance to win one of these excellent novels.
And don't forget our incredible, one-of-a-kind, Audience with an Agent contest. July 31 is the last day for you to get your synopsis and first chapter to us. The winning entry will be read by agent Wendy Lawton of Books & Such Literary Agency for possible representation. This really is an amazing opportunity. Go to our Promotions page for contest guidelines. We look forward to reading your submission.
One of my favorite books on writing is Elizabeth George's Write Away: One Novelist's Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life, which is obvious by the ridiculous number of various-colored sticky tabs jutting from the margins. On some I've written notes like "Yes!" "Absolutely!" and "Whole Page!" The colored tabs had some significance once upon a time, but I've long forgotten what pink signifies, or orange, or green. And I add more tabs and colors each time I go through it. I suppose I should just highlight the whole thing and be done with it. As I read through it again, I've made a vow to at least skim the chapters every time I get ready to start a new manuscript. It's that good.
What jumps out at me this time through is the need to treat setting as though it were a character. "Any reasonable student of writing would ask how on earth a writer does this. How does anyone ever make a place come to life in such a way that it becomes an unforgettable part of the reading experience?" The answer is, a setting must be as well fleshed out as any other character, by the use of specific and telling details. It can't be selected on a whim, with no purpose in mind; but it must feed into the story if it's to accomplish what Ms. George suggests.
The classics are full of examples where setting becomes an unforgettable part of the novel. The old curiosity shop in Dickens' novel by the same name, Manderley, Treasure Island, Tara, Middle Earth. These settings are as important to their stories as the characters who haunt them.
But how many contemporary novelists write as though they really understand the importance of setting? I can think of a few off the top of my head. Ted Dekker masterfully uses setting as character in almost all his books. The bayou in both Athol Dickson's River Rising and Tim Downs' First the Dead are an unforgettable part of both stories. And Pisgah Ridge and the swimming spot in Blue Hole Back Home are as integral to the story as Turtle, Jimbo, Emerson and the New Girl.
Novel writing is a complex endeavor. A good work of fiction must be constructed layer upon layer if it's to resonate with the reader and become a memorable piece of literature. And to be effective the end result must seem effortless. No small task, that's for sure. The more we learn about what goes into a good novel, the better equipped we'll be to excel at our craft. With this chapter from Write Away fresh in my mind, I'm making it my goal to develop the setting in my WIP as though it were a living character, as important to the story as my protagonist and plot. Because, in fact, it is.
What examples can you share of setting as character in your favorite books? Would the story have been the same with a different setting or a less-developed one?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Pope and Harry Potter

As reported this week in USA Today, the Vatican praised the latest Harry Potter film for making the battle of good vs. evil 'crystal clear' and for affirming that 'sometimes this requires cost and sacrifice.' In these days of movies that blur the lines into shades of gray, the film gave a black and white no-nonsense depiction of the dark side = Evil is scary stuff that leads to bad consequences.

I found this to be a bold stance taken by the Vatican, considering the controversy that has surrounded Harry for many years now. Perhaps conservative readers will be influenced to take a second look at the books. After all, the Pope is a pretty influential guy. But then again, maybe not.

To follow up on Patti's post on Monday, how much responsibility do Christian authors carry for the words they write? We certainly pray over our ideas and scenes and story lines. But having done that, and being unable to predict or control the reader's response, do we boldly go and trust God to lead, or do we soft-pedal the evil or tone down the sin for fear of offending? I'm not referring to the use of swearing or sexuality or gratuitous violence. I'm speaking of story. The Bible doesn't merely suggest that David and Bathsheba were engaging in heavy necking. It was a clear case of sexual sin and wrongful death with no happy ending. I doubt that their story would make it through a committee today without at least the suggestion of a different, more redemptive resolution. And we might ask, who would want to read it? We look for positive, uplifting stories in these stressful days. But it was an important story that needed to be told.

As writers, we play our stories close to the vest and rely on God's leading. We take our calling seriously. But if - or when - He asks us to color outside the lines, to depict evil clearly and consequences fully, will we argue with Him, or will we grab a brand new 'Hot Magenta' crayon and have at it? What do you think readers would have to say about it?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

For the Love of It

Tic. Tic. Tic. Yep, that's the clock running out - You have until July 31 to polish that manuscript and get us your first chapter and synopsis (e-mail your entry to in order to qualify for the Audience with an Agent Contest. Want Wendy Lawton to read your work? Well chop-chop! Get your work in before the deadline!

We've had some interesting discussions on Novel Matters recently about what it means to put your name out there - to "go public". Last week we touched on the ethereal, smoke and mirror nature of fame, of how difficult a thing success is to measure.

We talked about the dilemma of the Christian writer with a personal mandate to put Jesus first in all things and yet is legitimately called upon to make a name for herself. We discovered there are no easy answers. I enjoyed the discussion and it put me in mind of David Budbill's poem:

David Budbill

I want to be
so I can be
about being

What good is my
when I am
in this

I enjoy the irony of the poem, but I truly appreciate the honesty. How many of us creative types can relate to those secreted thoughts? How many of us, while incubating, sculpting, and crafting our art have entertained, even fleetingly, the uninvited idea that this work of art, this creation could be "the one"? The one that launches me out of the basement of anonymous toiling and into the backseat of the limo of limelight. I can see me now, waving to the crowds, a bashful aw-shucks smile on my face.

They are the thoughts we bat away with impatient hand. I'm not doing this for glory and recognition, we stoutly tell ourselves. I'm doing it, I'm doing it for love that's all.

It's true, of course, that we wrestle with art because of love. God created us with a longing for beauty and a capacity to create (which is a reflection of His nature in us). Most of us who write also pursue other forms of art and creativity. I know many writers who are also musicians - many also writing music - and some who paint, others who knit (Camy Tang knits on a nearly professional level - it's a sight to behold!). My first "career" was acting, and I also sing (can't play an instrument, sad to say). We pursue these avenues of art and creativity because, well, because we love them. We don't necessarily plan to become famous because of them, but we pursue them wholeheartedly anyway.

What do you pursue in the quest for beauty and creative outlet? How does it make you feel? Why doesn't it matter if no one else ever sees your work, or appreciates it the way you do? Share you talents! Share you passions!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Warning Labels for Christian Fiction?

Your days are numbered--18 to be exact!--to enter the Audience-with-an-Agent Contest. Yep, July 31st is the submission deadline for your novel manuscript. Click on the "Promotions" link to see guidelines and rules. If you're the winner, one of our fabulous agents from the Books & Such Literary Agency will review your manuscript, and if your manuscript is stellar, you may be offered representation. Don't pass up this fabulous opportunity!

Letters from readers are the payoff. Nothing offers a pat on the back like hearing that a story has refreshed someone's faith or introduced someone to the Savior.

Some letters do tender interesting objections, however. For instance, an author friend of mine received an e-mail from a reader upset with the Christian content in her novel. The reader wanted the publishing industry to label Christian fiction as such so unsuspecting readers wouldn't be subjected to proselytizing.


My friend was incredibly gracious to her reader, and as a result, the reader no longer seemed offended by the content of the novel. I hope to grow up to be as nice as my friend.

This isn't an isolated issue for writers of Christian fiction. I have a review for The Queen of Sleepy Eye on that complains about the heavy-handed Christian content. True, the main character is a judgmental 17-year-old, but she learns grace the hard way.

Is this the thought police coming to call?

Are novels next on the list for warning labels?

Caution: Reading this book may expose you to ideas, beliefs, or ideologies you may not agree with. To avoid discomfort, locate the thought categorization label on the cover before purchasing. For those with a hypersensitivity to new ideas, watch television.

Forgive my sarcasm.

Here are the questions I would like to discuss with you today: Should Christian fiction be labeled as such? Is it harmful for the cause of Christ to chance drawing readers into a Christian novel unaware and having them resent it? Is presenting a picture of faith to a reader worth the chance that someone might be offended, no label needed?

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Christy Awards, 2009

The results are just in (They haven't even cleared the tables yet), and the Christy Award winners for 2009 have been announced. We at Novel Matters send our applause and congratulations to all of the winners, who are listed below.

But before we give you the list, may we just say, WAHOO! for our very own Debbie Fuller Thomas who was a finalist in the Contemporary Standalone category. Here she is, dressed to the nines, with her finalist medallion. We are so immensely proud of her. Please feel free to leave a comment, and give our Debbie a cyber-hug.

Is she gorgeous, or what?

And now, for the winners:

Beyond the Night by Marlo Schalesky • WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group

You Had Me at Good-bye by Tracey Bateman • FaithWords

Dogwood by Chris Fabry • Tyndale House Publishers

Blue Hole Back Home by Joy Jordan-Lake • David C. Cook

Until We Reach Home by Lynn Austin • Bethany House Publishers

From a Distance by Tamera Alexander • Bethany House Publishers

The Rook by Steven James • Revell

Vanish by Tom Pawlik • Tyndale House Publishers

I Have Seen Him in the Watchfires by Cathy Gohlke • Moody Publishers

To quote Richard Foster's prayer at the awards ceremony: "May you be filled with all the joy of the Lord that you can stand. Amen!"

Friday, July 10, 2009

Guest Blogger Charlene Patterson: Bethany House Editor

It is my great pleasure to introduce Charlene Patterson, my former editor at Bethany House Publishing. I'll never be able to send her enough chocolate (although she would like me to try) in exchange for all the things she taught me about story and characterization during my time under her direction. God knew I needed a tenderhearted genius to get me through my maiden publishing experience, and He gifted me Charlene. I'm deeply grateful. She's a little shy about sharing her picture, but she loves Montana, so this picture represents the size of her character and strength. Charlene is now Managing Editor, Fiction. This means an office with a window, which she soundly deserves.

She agreed to answer a few questions for us. Be prepared for a sneak peek onto an editor's desk.

Patti: What is the job of an editor in the process from submitted manuscript to published book? Feel free to summarize.

Charlene: How about this? Since we have several types of editors—all with different job duties—I’ll tell you the process the manuscript goes through here at Bethany House. First, the author turns in his or her final draft—hopefully somewhere close to the due date. Under the guidance of the acquisitions editor, several people from the editorial department read the manuscript and put together feedback and suggestions. The author usually does rewrites based on those suggestions and turns in a new draft. That manuscript goes to the line editor, who does a line-by-line edit, making sure the plot makes sense, the characters are well drawn, the pace stays on track, etc. After the line edit, the manuscript goes to a copyeditor, who corrects grammar, punctuation, the timeline, etc. After the book is laid out by typesetting, several proofreaders read it to correct any errors that have slipped through.

Patti: Tell us about your dream author. What skills would make that author easy to work with?

Charlene: My dream author has a wonderful natural writing voice, uses words creatively and beautifully, has a great sense for her market and audience, and sells well so that the whole company is happy. Authors who are a joy to work with usually have these things in common: they are thrilled to be published by Bethany House, excited about their characters and story, thrive with editorial feedback, and have about fifty thousand friends who want to buy their book. Grin.

Patti: What advice do you have for yet-to-be published authors on developing craft?

Charlene: Read award-winning authors in the genre in which you want to publish. Make sure a lot of people—people who will tell you the truth—read your manuscript before I do. Find your voice—that’s a hard thing, I know, but you don’t want your book to sound like everyone else’s. Try writing in first-person if you usually write in third, or third if you usually write in first. You may be surprised by how that makes you think differently about your characters and story. Make sure I can tell who’s POV I’m in just by the words the character uses, even if your story is in third-person.

Patti: What makes you jump with glee when reading a manuscript for the first time?

Strong writing paired with an engaging story that I know our company can sell.

Patti: Give it to us straight. What three things (or more) frustrate you about the submitted manuscripts you read?

You’re going to start sensing a pattern here. The three things that frustrate me are 1) A certain similarity. I don’t know how or why this is happening, but a lot of people seem to be copycatting rather than finding their own voice. 2) Lack of awareness of the market. A new writer has to give me something I can clearly sell first to the publishing team here and then to the audience. Spending a little time on our website or in a Christian bookstore can give you a quick idea of where your story fits in. 3) The fourth chapter on. I think a lot of authors spend a large amount of time on their first three chapters, knowing those are the ones they’ll showcase in a proposal. I find that a lot of people can do an outstanding job on the first three chapters of a novel. A lot fewer people can hold my interest for an entire manuscript. Polish those first three chapters, definitely. But then make sure your story keeps moving and keeps the reader turning pages. Sprinkle little mysteries and plot points throughout. Make sure the characters grow and change. Don’t let your characters have long, pointless conversations. Put your characters in some tough fixes so they have a lot at stake. Make sure every scene is leading somewhere.

Patti: Here’s a related question: What do you see too much in proposals? Not enough?

Charlene: Things I see too much of:
1) Inheritances, especially the kind that send you back to your hometown or a random small town
2) Ranches. How many people currently or historically actually live(d) on a ranch? How many people can actually write it realistically?
3) Too-perfect children. Children can be used to great effect in a story, but so many of the children I see in stories are too saintly perfect, too eloquent for their age, or have no reason to be in the manuscript.
4) Memoirs disguised as fiction. Don’t do it. Your life story or your grandma’s life story would be a good thing to share with your family, but it probably won’t make for an interesting novel.

Not enough:
1) First-person. This is my favorite POV type, and I don’t see it often enough.
2) Interesting locations within the U.S. I enjoy stories set in Colorado and Montana, but I’d like to see more variety in locations.
3) Fathers and sons. A strong female character tends to be important to connect with the mostly female CBA audience, but I miss seeing strong father and son relationships.

Charlene isn't soliciting manuscripts or evaluating ideas today, but if you have any questions about what an editor does or wants, please feel free to send off a question.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Measures of Success

Tuesday afternoon, out running errands in the summer heat, still wearing the Capris and T-shirt I'd thrown on for my morning walk, I caught a glimpse of my wilted self in a window, and thought, I'm so glad writers don't get famous.

Well they do. Sometimes. But rarely like Susan Boyle. The paparazzi don't wait outside an author's door, hoping to snag a photo of her in her pajamas.

Even the picture on the back of her book won't help folks recognize her in public, not if her photographer did his job. Compare Jonathan Franzen's author photo (left) with the truth (right) and ask yourself if you would notice him in the checkout line at Walmart.

No, you wouldn't, and that's just as it should be. We don't want to be celebrities. We want to be read.

In a comment to Latayne's post on Monday about measures of success, Bonnie brought up the "'blessing the hearts and lives of others' measure that, while important in mainstream fiction, is 'critical' in Christian fiction." She went on to say that "For some writers an e-mail from a reader telling them the book has brought them closer to God in some way is success enough."

So today we're going to share some of the messages we have received from readers. These are our dearest measures of success:

Bonnie Grove:
"I just finished reading Talking to the Dead and it filled me with capital "H" hope on many levels - reminding me that God is with me ... and reminding me that God is always there for those that are seeking. "

Patti Hill:
"Thank you for your wonderful book, Like a Watered Garden. Following my mother's death, my grief consumed me and my faith in God waivered. Your book has encouraged me to open my Bible again and draw near to Him."

Latayne Scott:
"(Latter Day Cipher) quickly becomes much more than it appears. One part murder mystery and one part exposé of the theological flaws in one of the worlds most powerful religions; in addition the book addresses quite well what happens when someone suffers a crisis in faith, when the very foundations of their beliefs are shaken and cracked."

Sharon K. Souza:
"There was something about (Lying on Sunday) that intrigued me. Once I started, I couldn't wait till I had half an hour or an hour to read it. I especially liked the ending. No matter what bad thing happens to us, we can look to Christ to bring us through. Thank you for the incredible ride."

Debbie Thomas:
"Oh, I fully enjoyed Tuesday Night at the Blue Moon! I wish I didn't have to let the characters go. They were so realistic. It is going down in my history as one of my favorites. I loved the paragraph at the end of chapter 41, it has written itself into my heart."

Kathleen Popa:
"The Feast of Saint Bertie is the first Christian fiction I have ever read, and boy did you set the bar high! ... For me it contained pearls of wisdom that left me breathless. Your book was dark chocolate for my soul. I have read, re-read, and underlined passages. The gratitude centered message of the book has blessed me, my children, and my husband."

You writers: have you heard from your readers? We would love for you to share the messages that have blessed and encouraged you.

And you readers: have you written to an author lately? What did you say? Or if you haven't, consider this the place to practice a bit of fan mail for your favorite author. He or she would love to hear from you, and we at Novel Matters would be happy to share your process.

Monday, July 6, 2009

What Makes a Book Considered Successful?

I've read quite a few online "experts" who tell authors how to boost their ratings. People will tell you how to bump up your numbers -- lower is better, you know -- so that you can claim that your book was a best-seller, at least for a while, they say. And since Amazon updates on an hourly basis their sales figures from which they derive the ratings, the numbers can swing wildly from high to low and back again in a day.

Did you know there's a handy site that not only tells you what a book --any book -- is rated on Amazon, not only at the moment, but also over its lifetime of sales, and also over recent periods of time, such as the previous week? It's called

It feels terrific when your book gets under, say, 25,000 on Amazon -- when you consider there are millions of books in total. But how meaningful are those Amazon numbers?

Not very meaningful, says agent Janet Grant of Books & Such Literary Agency. For a book to be considered a bestseller in the Christian marketplace, she says, it would appear on some more reliable lists, such as the CBA list and the ECPA list.

Of course there are other indicators of a book's success, even if it is not a best-seller. For many authors, "earning out" is a goal. That means that an author has enough book sales to have broken even with his or her advance on royalties from the publisher. (Someone told me that 70 percent of books don't earn out. Anybody got a reliable source for that figure?)

Other milestones of a successful book is for it to sell through its first printing.

What other ways do you assess a Christian book as being successful in a material sense?

Friday, July 3, 2009

Tell me more

I loved Latayne's post on Monday, love talking about writers and the craft of writing. Similes and metaphors, if fresh and unique, can enhance fiction like nothing else. Sol Stein, in Stein on Writing--a book every writer should read and reread--calls them "the wonders of writing...when carried off, especially when a simile is original and a metaphor sings, there is no greater glory in the practice of words." Wow. Quite a boast. And I tend to agree. I know good writing shouldn't draw attention to itself, but I can't help stopping at every great simile I come across, taking a moment to savor it, to praise the author for digging deep.
Whether we're writers, readers or both, we want the words on the page to sparkle, to sing, to draw us in like a temptress and have their way with us. According to Stein, detail is another way to achieve that. But it's not just "detail that distinguishes good writing, it is detail that individualizes." It's detail that tells us more without employing tired adjectives to get the job done. Stein calls this particularity. Here are some examples from the skilled women I share this blog with. I've italicized key phrases that smack oh-so-nicely of particularity.
"...Kirsten Young lay on her back, a serene Ophelia in her dusky pond of blood" (Latter-Day Cipher, by Latayne C. Scott). Pool of blood would have gotten the point across in a tired way most readers would have skimmed right over. But dusky pond of blood, well, that sings. You don't skim over a phrase like that. You read it again, and maybe again.
"Five women as gnarled as driftwood shuffled into the chapel...they smelled of mentholated lozenges and joint ointment" (The Queen of Sleepy Eye, by Patti Hill). What a visual we're given by Patti's particularity to detail. She accomplished more in that first lovely phrase than ten tired adjectives could have.
Here's a description of one of Katy Popa's memorable characters from To Dance in the Desert: "'...there she was with her long gray hair fanned out on the pillow like the Lady of Shalott. And her hands folded on her chest--with a lily! And her face all sunk down like a badly made bed...' Dara cupped a hand over her mouth to contain the revulsion. She saw too clearly the flesh-draped skull sunk into the pillow, the jaw hung open...Dara peeked over her shoulder and there at the door was the bombshell (the very woman we've been reading about), in--for heaven's sake!--white stiletto heels." Masterful particularity!
"I grin back and tug on a piece of tape, careful not to tear the brilliant red paper...I laugh and pull off the wrapper. A white box, the kind you use to wrap the sweater you bought Grandma for Christmas. I throw him a toothy grin that I hope covers my disappointment. I don't want a grandma sweater" (Talking to the Dead, by Bonnie Grove). The use of grandma as an adjective to define the sweater tells us so much more about Kate's disappointing expectation than the word sweater alone ever could. Of course, it wasn't a grandma sweater in the box--not even close! But you'll have to read the book to find out what he gave her.
And this from a courtroom scene in Debbie Fuller Thomas's Christy-nominated Tuesday Night at the Blue Moon. "Dad sat beside me doodling a perfect likeness of Andie on the manila folder stuffed with evidence that argued our right to disrupt her life." That one phrase tells us more dynamically what a whole page of text couldn't, and in a way that packs an emotional punch. But notice the contrast of doodling (a light and whimsical activity) on such a document. That too is a great example of particularity.
Share some of your favorite passages of particularity for a chance to win this month's giveaway novels: Blue Hole Back Home, by Joy Jordan Lake, and Safe at Home, by Richard Doster. And, if you haven't yet read the novels available from the authors here at Novel Matters, I hope this whets your appetite. Watch throughout the summer for opportunities to win our books.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Hot Fun in the Summer Sun

We would like to welcome our new readers and encourage you all to check in and post a comment, even if it's just to say 'hello.' We'd love to hear from you!

There's a great opportunity to win two books from Moody Publishers going on right now on Twitter. Simply follow @Moodypublishers and post your all-time favorite summer read. Simple! One in fifty who follow will win both books, until supplies run out. Those are fabulous odds!

So imagine you are at your favorite vacation spot. You have a whole week to do (or not do) whatever you want. No pressure. Are you on the beach in Maui, with the breeze cooling your skin and the ocean surging and foaming just a few yards from your cabana? Are you on a deck chair overlooking the startling blue Atlantic cruising to some island in the Caribbean? Or perhaps you're sitting on the porch of a secluded mountain cabin, far from phones and wireless, with birds twittering and the tall pines sighing above you. Are you 'stay-cationing' this year, holed up at home in your favorite chair with the phone off the hook, sitting with your cats in your jammies (you're in your jammies, not your cats)? Now, reach into the bag beside you and pull out a book. It's dog-eared and easily falls open to pages with smudges and crimps in the corners. It's the one you've saved like a delicious reward to read again because it's your all-time favorite read, or it's one that always succeeds in transporting you to another place and/or time, even if you only read your favorite parts. What's the title? Who is the author? Do all her (his) books affect you this way, or are there other reasons that this one is so powerful?

Sometimes I reach for my copy of Cross Creek by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, just to read a few chapters of her life in Florida. "Cross Creek is a bend in a country road, by land, and the flowing of Lochloosa Lake into Orange Lake, by water." This account of her life is pungent with moss and marsh, and the culture of the creek and its people. She calls it "an enchanted land" and convinces me of it. When I close the book, I've had a very nice nini-vacation & a distraction from my to-do list. It's not fiction, but it's a look into the private life of an exceptional fiction author. I wonder what book she had by her side as she sat on her porch at the end of the day?

So, won't you tell us the title of the book in your get-away bag? And follow Moody Publishers on Twitter while you're at it for a chance to add to your stack of summer reads.