Saturday, October 31, 2009

Movie Night, Featuring Lying On Sunday

Welcome to Movie Night on NovelMatters. Today's feature is Sharon K. Souza's Lying on Sunday. Leave a comment to be entered into the NovelMatters movie-night giveaway. And have a fun and safe All Hallow's Eve.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Nightmare on Creative Street

Congratulations to Connie Reece, the winner of our book giveaway this month! Connie, you have won a copy of Patti Hill's latest release Seeing Things
, so shoot us an email with your address please and we'll get it in the mail to you.

Since Halloween is Saturday, I thought I'd blog about the things that go bump in the writer's night. Things that kill creativity. Kill it dead.

How do we create life from lifeless tissue? The fact that I had to ask for my husband's help to think of a title for this post only confirmed my urgent need to figure this out. (Thanks, honey) Most writers experience dry times when the ideas just won't come. What are the causes and what are the cures? Let's button up our lab coats and pull the third switch!

I brainstormed a list of causes for lack of creativity and came up with: fear of failure, fear of transparency, feeling restricted by guidelines/formulas/word counts, burnout, real or imagined criticism, anxiety over deadlines, worry, feeling overwhelmed and stress about life in general. I'll admit that for me, stress is the worst culprit and maybe yours is listed, too. Maybe recognizing it is the first step toward overcoming.

The good news is that we swim in a rich gene pool. Our Creator gave us the desire to write and it's part of what makes us tick. We don't create alone. Here are some ideas for cures:
  • Read widely. Feeding your mind with interesting and thought-provoking material results in interesting and thought-provoking writing. These new ideas can blossom into a story idea or influence the direction of your WIP.
  • Write at the same time every day. This creates memory triggers that can flip on the power switch.
  • Enjoy beauty. Find a quiet place that you love and take time to meditate. Don't write or think about your WIP. Take your lunch to the cemetery. It's quiet and peaceful, and no one knows you're there but God. Or listen to your favorite music without distractions, or take a scenic detour home from the grocery store and listen on your car stereo. It can help you get perspective.
  • Practice ten or fifteen minutes of free style writing. Write about whatever comes into your mind. It's okay to write with abandon and flourish. That's how I picture the Lord pitching armfuls of stars into the galaxy at creation. Or choose a topic like your favorite childhood vacation or your favorite Christmas. The point is, do not stop to rewrite! No one else will read it but you.
  • Write someplace new. Sometimes the same old ideas sit in my office, fish-eyed and lifeless. Taking my laptop to a different environment helps me get away from them and makes room for new ideas.
  • Read about the lives of famous authors. They, too, suffered from periods of dryness and thought their writing was lifeless at times, and they overcame. You will, too.
  • Get out and do something. If you spend all your time in your office bent over your laptop, you will not gather rich experiences that your characters can share. They don't want to be dull.
  • Ask God to refresh you. Ask fellow authors, family and friends to pray. If God calls us to a ministry, He will equip us for the task.
This is just a short list of suggestions. What robs you of your creativity and what have you found helpful? Please share it with us!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Behind the Stacks - Judy Gann Explains Marketing to Libraries

Novel Matters is thrilled to host Judy Gann, a librarian with over twenty-five years experience, Judy Gann selects Christian fiction for a large library system in Washington state. She has presented "Behind the Stacks" library marketing workshops at writers conferences throughout the United States, including the Oregon Christian Writers Conference, Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference, and the annual ACFW Conference. Judy is the author of The God of All Comfort: Devotions of Hope for Those Who Chronically Suffer (AMG Publishers). Visit Judy at her website.

Judy is here to talk books - library books. She knows the ins and outs, the dos and don'ts of marketing your book to the library system. She's here today, answering frequently asked questions about the nuts and bolts of marketing Christian fiction to libraries.

Behind the Stacks: Marketing to Public Libraries

Why should a writer even consider marketing to libraries? After all, if people borrow our books from the library, they won't buy them at a bookstore.

This is the number one misconception authors have about marketing to public libraries. To me, the key is to think of libraries as an additional market, not instead of bookstores, but as another piece of your marketing plan. As independent bookstores close at an alarming rate and chains stock mostly bestsellers, we need to find new venues for connecting with the audiences for our books.

The public library serves an entire population that doesn't frequent bookstores, reaching a new audience for your books. This is especially true during tough economic times. Library use has skyrocketed during the current recession. Library users are also great word-of-mouth promoters. They'll check out a book and tell a friend about it, possibly resulting in an additional sale. Many people borrow a book from the library, discover a new author, and then purchase the author's other titles.

For those of you who like statistics, a 2008 U.S. News/CNN Poll revealed Americans make 3.6 billion visits to libraries per year; 57% of adults visited the library in the previous year; and 80% borrow from the library. In addition, libraries spent $1.9 billion on books in 2007, and 60% of midlist book sales go to libraries.

There are a lot of libraries out there, Judy. Where should we begin?

There's no place like home. Begin with your local library. I recommend becoming acquainted with your library and staff while writing your book. The library has fabulous new online databases for writers doing research for their novels - far beyond what you'll find through general internet searching - and far more accurate. Introduce yourself to the staff. We love to help local authors, and take a vested interest in their book projects.

After you sign a contract, work with your publisher to submit your novel to the key reviewing journals used by library acquisitions librarians. These include Publisher's Weekly, Booklist, and Library Journal. These journals require ARCs well in advance of publication date. Partner with your publisher. See what they are doing to market to libraries and build on their efforts.

When your book releases ask your local library to consider purchasing your book. (See additional information about how to approach libraries below.) Libraries are supportive of local authors. Partner with your library to do a reading or event, or offer to teach writing workshops for the public.

How should an author select the libraries to market to?

Begin with your home state. If your book is set in a particular state, also target libraries in that state. Virginia Smith has successfully targeted libraries in Kentucky - the setting for several of her novels.

There are approximately 16,000 public libraries in the United States. Obvioiusly, you can't target all of them. Use public library locators - online databases of public libraries in the United States. I recommend Library Technology Guides ( and State Library Web Sites (

Beyond your local library, you want to target library systems rather than independent libraries. Library systems are made up of branches, and their book purchasing is done at a central location. They may include as few as one or two, or as many as eighteen to twenty or more branches, with the potential for purchasing multiple copies of your book. Independent libraries are their own entity with small budgets. They may purchase one copy of your book. This is a general rule and there are exceptions, depending on the topic of your book, reviews, etc.

What I like about the Library Technology Guide site is that it lists library systems and branches. For example, under "Texas," you'll find an alphabetical list of libraries by city and county. If the library is a system, branches are listed. A word of warning: this site hasn't been updated in a while. Check the State Library Web Sites guide for updated information about a particular library system or library.

Your own Sharon Souza is becoming a pro at using these locators to target public libraries with good success.

Who do you target at the library and what do you say to them?

Target the purchasing decision makers. These librarians are usually called acquisitions librarians or collection development librarians. In a large libary system they work at the main library or administration building.

Watch your wording when you approach staff with a copy of your book. Never use the word "donation." Donated books end up in our Friends of the Library book sales. Tell the staff you'd like them to "consider this book for purchase." Ask the staff to send your book to the librarian who makes the purchasing decisions for the library.

Before my last "Behind the Stacks" presentation I surveyed acquisitions librarians to see whether they prefer receiving e-mails or snail-mails. They overwhelmingly preferred snail-mail. Acquisitions librarians are inundated with e-mails from publishers and authors. A well-designed, professional flyer sent through the mail will stand out in the crowd.

Is there a particularly good time of year to approach libraries?

A library's purchasing of materials is tied to its budget year. If the library's budget year is from January-December, key buying seasons are late January to March - when we have new monies - and September to November - when all funds must be spent before the end of the budget year (usually money must be spent by Nov. 30).

What other thoughts would you like to share with us about marketing to public libraries?

A word of caution. Like other public agencies, public libraries are facing budget cuts. Yes, libraries continue to purchase books. But they are being far more selective. Sound like publishers and bookstores? We as authors must write the best books possible, work with our publishers to garner reviews from the key library review journals, and carefully target libraries, beginning with those in our local area.

On a more positive note, CBA fiction is "hot" in public libraries right now. Just as Christian fiction maintains a growing presence in general market bookstores such as Barnes & Noble, it's also gaining in popularity in public libraries. Librarians realize the quality of Christian fiction has improved greatly in recent years. Our library patrons, like bookstore shoppers, are searching for books that offer a good read coupled with hope. Where better to find this than in Christian fiction?

Ladies, thank you! It has been a joy to visit with you and your Novel Matters audience.

Thank YOU, Judy, for your wisdom and generosity. It is a rare thing to find someone so willing to share her knowledge and experience with others. You are a treasure!

Monday, October 26, 2009

ROUNDTABLE: Starting with the Basement

As a teacher, I loved introducing my students to Jane Yolen's books, especially "Owl Moon," a story rich in figurative language and evocative illustrations. After story circle, I would send my students back to their seats to write their own "Owl Moon" stories about outings with people they loved.

Imagine my delight when I discovered Jane Yolen had written a book for writers--Take Joy, A writer's Guide to Loving the Craft.

Okay, so it's not a new book (published in 2006), but it's new to me!

The book is full of practical insights into writing that do indeed re-spark affection for a craft that's keeping me indoors on a perfectly fabulous fall day. And with a deadline looming, some affection is truly needed.

Yolen likens developing theme for a novel to building the basement of a home during a Rocky Mountain winter. The ground must be warmed with heaters and fans to allow for digging. And
by the time the ground is artificially thawed, chances are the snow is flying. The holidays draw nigh. The price of lumber goes up. The contractor tightens the schedule, works on Saturdays, bribes the subcontractors to come at all.

However..."A story does not begin with the impulse to build a basement."

And so, most stories do not begin with the theme either. I've started with titles, characters, and a snippet of an idea. Never theme.

Oddly enough, once a story is started--and that can mean in the first through third draft--the foundation must be strengthened.

To find your theme, ask yourself what your story is about. It's that simple. The answer may seem boring, but if you've built a home, the foundation while critical, was probably ho-hum. Here are the themes of my stories:

A young widow must choose to live well after her husband dies.
A young woman (same widow, next book) learns to trust God in the midst of "storms."
A young woman (same widow, newly married) must commit to her new life while honoring her old life.
A mother and daughter come-of-age during turbulent times.
A mother seeks forgiveness and reconciliation with a grown son.

These are NOT pitch statements (Not one of these books would have sold!) and neither is a theme.

Once the draft is finished (whichever you choose), it's time to comb through and make sure that everything aligns itself with the foundation/theme with care that you haven't beaten your reader over the head with said theme.

Be subtle, yet consistent.


When thinking of theme, the line from A Christmas Story comes back to me when Ralphie's teacher announces to the class, "I want you to write...a theme." All the kids groan, but Ralphie lights up! He knows exactly what he wants - a Red Rider BB gun with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time. I wish my characters were so focused. It would be so much easier to pin down the theme if only I knew what they wanted.

Sometimes I start with what I imagine my characters want, only to discover that a bigger, better theme has risen from the building materials. I start out with a root cellar with bare walls and a door and expand it, digging away the hillside and framing the open space. I also have to make sure the story and theme are in proper balance by not building an 8 bedroom mansion on the foundation of a summer cottage. If the theme is out of proportion to the story, it may not support such a heavy treatment, or if the theme is weighty, the 'house' must not disappoint.
Here are the themes for my stories:
A mother moves beyond tragedy to win the heart of her estranged daughter.
A woman overcomes the past in order to help a young woman close to her.

I'm married to a man who's been a builder since he was 21 years old. I've been on a lot of his job sites, and even helped him stand the first wall of the home we live in, so I know a bit about foundations. I love the quote from Jane Yolen, "A story does not begin with the impulse to build a basement." So true, and like Patti, I've never started a novel with a theme in mind. Instead, I've started most with a "what if ...?" My WIP began with a "what if ...?" followed closely by the working title, the significance of which is woven through the story.
The theme, for me, always arises from my "what if ...?" What if a woman discovers that everything she thought she knew about her marriage turns out to be a lie? The theme that emerged from that "what if ...?" A woman faces hard truths to move beyond her husband's infidelity. Or, what if a woman who chose not to have children decides to help her best friend have a child when the friend is unable to conceive on her own? Extreme friendship knows no bounds.
But I have to confess, themes aren't always so easy for me to identify, even in my own books. I find it difficult to reduce three or four hundred pages of story to one line. But really, discovering theme is part of the pleasure of reading -- or writing -- for me. Never, during the course of reading a novel do I think, "Ah, so this is the theme," but once I close the final page I like for the theme to settle over my mind like a gentle snow. No hail storms for me, thank you very much. I know, that's a terrible mix of metaphors -- foundations and hailstorms -- but you get the point. I don't want to be bludgeoned with theme. I want to reach my own conclusions, as I think most readers do. And it's very likely my conclusions might differ from yours, because everyone reads a book with a different life experience, and that will always affect the impact of the story on the reader.

Theme? We're supposed to think about theme? I have to confess that I'm plot and agenda driven. I want to tell a good story. I want someone to take action, to think differently after reading what I write.

I want to create a world that someone won't forget and that will stand like a boulder in the road of their thoughts -- that will require them now to negotiate with, or climb over, or intentionally and inconveniently walk around every time they think about a congruent situation.

I may start with a controlling image, or I may have a nagging question about "how things work in the real world," but my thinking about theme doesn't come out in sentences. I must be theme-defective.

My hand is up. I confess. I'm a theme junkie. I stuffed Talking to the Dead with themes that interest me - themes I see in life around me, some I wrestle with myself, and none of which I have answers for. I guess I build my house upside down, but themes come first for me.
I'm a concepts person. I never understood math; numbers refuse to speak to me, the turn their spiny backs to me and tilt their fractions in the air. But algebra? Ooooo baby. Loved it. Give me theoretical conceptualization any day of the week.

In addition to the overt themes of a young widow fearing her sanity because she hears the voice of her dead husband, I explored themes such as:

The Waiting Room - Kate spends a fair amount of time waiting in reception areas, lobbies, foyers, and waiting rooms. Each waiting room experience marks a new phase of her journey. There are many meanings and conversations readers could have about the waiting rooms.

Obsession - the ultimate anti-love emotion is obsession. The theme of obsession runs through the book and is expressed in different character's action. It's a dark theme, but it fascinates me.

Idolatry - Hand in glove with obsession is idolatry. Kate had idols, Kevin did, so did Heather and Donna. This was a theme nearly as strong as the main theme.

Emotional vs. Rational Responses - There is a tension in the book between the emotional and the rational. Neither one comes out a clear winner - but there is a discussion that can be found in the book about balancing the two in a third arena.

Somatic Experience of Emotions - Kate's feelings were overwhelmingly strong. All emotion is felt somewhere in the body as well as in the mind.

These are some of the themes in the book. I told you, I'm a theme junkie. And the way I understand theme is, I guess, different than that of my amazing blog mates. But that's okay, it all works out in the end.

How about you? What themes do you like to explore in your reading? Your writing? Are there themes you find yourself going back to time and again? Or do you enjoy a buffet of themes, never the same morsel twice? Have you found a sure fire way of identifying the themes in works you love or are writing? We're all ears.

Friday, October 23, 2009


When I was a child, I thought as a child, I spoke as a child, I read ghost stories under the blanket as a child, I watched every vampire movie that came to town as a child. I adored Halloween as a child. But now that I am old(er) I have put away childish things. Most of them. Well... a lot of them.

It's of no significance that I married a man whose family - both sides - hearkens from the mountains of Transylvania.

Imagine my surprise to learn, upon giving my heart and life to Jesus, that the people in his church (at least the church I landed in) considered Halloween to be evil.

Evil? Honestly, it had never crossed my mind. And no sooner had I pursed my lips to utter the word, why? than somebody handed me a cassette tape on the subject by Mike Warnke, and he had been a Satanist High Priest in his pre-Christian days, and so he had the scoop on all things evil - only he didn't. We later learned he'd made up his whole life story.

But I didn't know that then, and everything Mike said made a kind of sense to me. So, a bit sadly, I gave up Halloween. Or I didn't give it up so much as I gave up liking it so well. There were still Harvest parties where we celebrated vegetables by eating candy.

A confession: there is still, for me, a particular cozy, anticipant joy associated with October. I love the electric chill to the air, the numinous cast to the light. The inscrutable sense that the veil between the physical world I see and the spiritual world I feel has worn quite thin, and anything - anything at all might happen.

I still love stories that lift the hairs on the back of my neck.

One of my favorite passages comes from The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis, something the lion Aslan says to young Shasta who has just complained about the ghoulish time he has had:

"I was the lion who forced you to join with Aravis. I was the cat who comforted you among the tombs. I was the lion who drove the jackals from you while you slept. I was the lion who gave the horses the new strength of fear for the last mile so that you should reach King Lune in time. And I was the lion you do not remember who pushed the boat in which you lay, a child near death, so that it came to shore where a man sat, wakeful at night, to receive you."

I hope you're relieved to find I haven't made friends with the devil. It's just that I realize that his is not the only (or the most powerful) camp in the spirit realm. And the remembrance that there is a spirit realm gives me such comfort. Imagine if the physical world, the beauty yes, but also the violence and sorrow - imagine if that was all there was?

I'm reminded of something Walter Wangerin Jr. wrote in Swallowing the Golden Stone, about the safety of writing monsters into stories for children:

"Adults who write to their image of a child, rather than writing to genuine children, do in a real sense utter baby talk. And they miss the mark of a child's intense experience. They make a conventional assumption of pastel innocence, angelic goodness, fresh unsullied souls ("trailing clouds of glory do we come/from God who is our home") and in consequence their language lisps, their menu of topics is reduced to to the sugar cookie, and their attitude is offensive. Even as they presume to know better than the child, they present a teller and a tale too simple and simply less than a child can (and ought to, and wants to) experience. Simpletons tell simplistic tales."

Am I the only one who finds in his words deep wisdom for those of us who write for grownups? Let me tell you no simplistic tales.


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Life in the Third Person

It would be accurate to say that I spent most of my childhood in the third person.

Growing up in a household where there was mental illness, violence and uncertainty led, not surprisingly, to fear and distrust. I began to fear my surroundings (and with good cause) but often did not directly interact with them because much of the mistrust, I think, was of my own view of reality.

To escape, I hid under the weeping willow tree and read books. From the time we moved to Albuquerque when I was 10, I lived only blocks from a small branch library. I began by reading the “colored” fairy tale books –The Rose Book of Fairy Tales, The Red Book of Fairy Tales, etc., all the Wizard of Oz books, all the Nancy Drew books, many of the classics – and then devoured every single book, for a child or adult, about American Indians and Egyptology.

To my recollection, every book I read (except Black Beauty and that narrator was a horse, of course) was written in the third person, so I began to think in the third person. Though I kept a sketchy diary (a couple of lines a day, mainly speculating on family situations or that unknown territory of teenage boys), my real writing output was poems and stories.

In many cases, I would view situations around me with some degree of literary dispassion, as the recorder of a scene. It provided safe distance.

Perhaps that’s why I have been so reluctant to focus on personal experience in my own non-fiction writing. Writing my first published novel, Latter-day Cipher, was challenging but at least it was in the familiar native tongue of third person.

But it’s real problem for me in my present WIP, which is a first-person narrative.

Now, since it’s fiction, every reader will pick it up knowing it’s me supposing the first-person view of someone else. And that person is a real historical figure whose unknown history I am, well, supposing. I have to fight the sense that I am being presumptuous or even fraudulent.

And then there are the mechanics of recording someone else’s words. Anne Rice, in Interview with the Vampire, used the device of interview. Others have used the device of a long-lost last manuscript written by the first-person narrator.

Man, this is hard.

Does anyone else struggle with any such issues regarding writing in the first person?

Monday, October 19, 2009

The e-Reader Changing the Way You Read?

Just a reminder: this month we're giving away Patti Hill's fun new novel, Seeing Things. Leave a comment on one of our discussions for a chance to win.
How has the emergence of e-books changed the way you read? Michael Miller, Executive Publisher at NavPress, which published my last two novels, wrote on his blog the road ahead . . . , "Consumers are moving away from retail stores and to virtual retailers ... The e-book and e-reader world ... will have an impact." Undoubtedly that's true, but how much of an impact? A recent NexGen Research study predicts that the global market for e-readers such as the Kindle and Sony Reader will exceed $2.5 billion by 2013. On the other hand, Steve Jobs discounts the potential of the e-book market because, he says, "People don't read anymore." Ouch. I can't begin to fathom that. My husband and I are voracious readers, as are our children.
So, if NexGen Research is correct that the e-reader market will turn into a multi-billion dollar industry in a very short time, I can't help wonder, will it be a generational thing, where younger generations embrace the e-reader phenomenon, while the aging Boomer generation by and large clings to the familiar book format? Or will there be a blending of the two? Can a die-hard book lover be wooed into the world of the e-reader? Will a generation deeply submerged in the technology age eventually find traditional books obsolete?
My book club discussed the subject this past week, and to a woman, everyone agreed they would not trade a "real" book for an electronic one. Granted, most of us fall into that aging Boomer category, but the two 30-somethings in our group were as adamant as the rest of us. We all love the smell of paper and ink as we crack open that first page, and the feel of a "real" book in our hands.
And yet, as unappealing as the e-reader concept is to me as an exclusive way to read, I can see its merits in selected situations. Travel, of course, tops the list. How convenient to load a book or two onto a Kindle and save space in your suitcase for an extra pair of shoes. Textbooks are a close second on my list of the merits of an e-reader. I'm sure every middle and high school student on the planet would gladly trade a backpack full of books for one small reading device. Not to mention the savings college students could realize every semester if they could purchase textbooks for e-readers at a remarkably reduced rate. If you ask me, buying college textbooks is much like buying concessions at a movie theater or ballpark -- as close as you can get to legal extortion.
Alright then, I'm curious. Can you see a world where books and ebooks find compatibility, or will traditional books eventually go the way of the vinyl record and 8-track cassette? And, of course, the looming question on the minds of writers everywhere is, "What will that mean for me?"
I'd love to hear what you think.

Friday, October 16, 2009

I spent all of Thursday on a very long flight from Sacramento to Los Angeles to Nashville on the way to a family reunion. But what an interesting position
for a writer to be in! Three airports in one day. I took advantage of the downtime between flights to people-watch. It's a great place to collect details about people which can tell a story of their own. Here are some of my observations:

A family of four, dressed in shorts, sandals, and sleeveless shirts & t-shirts, checked in their bags on the sidewalk in the chilly pre-dawn hours in foggy Sacramento. From this I deduced they were a happy family headed for Hawaiian Airlines. Aloha!

While waiting to board, I saw a young woman feed a medium-sized Chihuahua eyedroppers of what appeared to be medicine. I saw no kennel. How did the dog travel? She only had a carryon that did not look like it would accommodate an animal, and our flight was four hours long. I wanted to hang back to see how she managed to get her pet on board.

Sitting in Los Angeles, I saw a tall 30-something man with a flowing beard wearing a long black dress coat and a quirky Eastern European style hat. He carried a briefcase and looked solemn and unapproachable.

One of my seatmates was very pleasant older woman with a round face and a thick Romanian accent. When she returned from the restroom and squeezed past me, she reeked of cigarettes. I wondered if she'd found a way to thwart the smoke detectors in the restroom and tried to imagine how it might be done.

I realized that the simple act of taking off your shoes and standing in your bare or stockinged feet in front of others at the bag check area can be a great leveler of persons. Suddenly that polished professional in the suit with the big briefcase is just a guy in saggy socks.

It's amazing how a small detail can alter appearances or create dissonance when creating characters. If that businessman in the expensive suit wore mismatched socks or his toes stuck through, or if the solemn guy in the beard suddenly began blowing Bazooka bubbles, it would have been totally at odds with their appearances. At her age, my seatmate who smelled of cigarettes didn't have a smoker's voice or cough so maybe she wasn't the smoker. Perhaps she'd been married for 40 years to a chain smoker and unknown to her, a small cluster of abnormal cells insidiously multiplied in her lungs. Could the eyedropper have held the equivalent of doggie Dramamine so Fifi would sleep the flight away tucked in a comfy bag beneath the seat at her owner's feet? What if the dad in our happy Hawaii-bound family found out quite by accident while checking his email that he would be laid off from his job when they returned?

People are so interesting, and in many more ways than just in appearance. As writers, we take time to observe people wherever we go, gleaning bits and pieces of characterization and sifting through the mundane for nuggets of truth and uniqueness for each character we create.

Where have you found the most interesting people to watch? Have you ever made an observation which led to creating a character based on it? Share it with us!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Come and Play

Hey! We held a sneaky book give away contest in September. Kristen Torres-Toro is the winner of a fresh off the presses copy of Debbie Fuller Thomas' Raising Rain! Drop us a line at with your snail mailaddress, Kristen.

This month we are giving away a copy of Patti Hill's latest, Seeing Things. How do you enter to win? Simply leave a comment. It's that easy.


Patti pointed the way on Monday when she referred to an incident in her childhood where her imagination took her to places her Mother would rather they didn't. Ah, the logic of childhood. Remember the freedom you had to play, to become someone else, to transform the landscape (a backyard, living room, bed room, wherever) into a wild raging river, or jungle? Wasn't it grand? When did we stop doing that?

Rather - why did we stop doing that?

I know the bible passage too - 1 Corinthians 13:11 - "When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me." It makes bags of sense, to move out of childhood, into adulthood, leaving childish ways behind us. But where did we get the idea that the application of wild imaginations is childish? Just because it is employed in childhood, doesn’t mean it should be equated with childishness.

As children we used our imaginations to create new worlds – tiny ones, small enough for Barbie and her friends to inhabit, huge ones where all our neighbourhood friends could come and join in. As we imagined and created, we were learning – teaching ourselves the value of things like logical outcomes, fair play, justice, rules, inclusion. We were also fashioning our personal likes and dislikes, giving voice to our true hopes and dreams. We took reality and stretched it to it furthest limits and back again. We were having fun – but we were accomplishing so much more. We were learning how to live in the world by using our imaginations.

As adults, we would do well to remember the imagination of childhood.

I teach seminars based on my non-fiction book, Your Best You. It’s about finding your strengths and using them in all areas of your life. One of my strengths is daydreaming. Another is pretending. I love to daydream. In my daydreams, I’m the star of my own show and nothing happens without my say so. I have lots of fun in my daydreams – but they are more than goofing off. In my daydreams I am working out problems, rehearsing for conversations I’m nervous about, practicing for radio interviews, working out how I feel about a certain topic or issue. I’m having a lovely time, but I’m getting in touch with my real self and exploring a sometimes difficult world from a safe place.

In my pretending and daydreaming, I’m also giving full voice to my creative self. The controls of grown-up rules are less stridently applied. The world of “what if” opens at my feet and I’m free to follow the rabbit trails without fear of “making a mistake” or “getting it wrong”. There is no wrong in the realm of imagination. There is only discovery.

Pretending strengthens my faith too. Anyone who has written a novel can tell you, stories take faith. Writing without a net is the only way to go. Ray Bradbury said it perfectly when he admonished writers to “jump off the cliff and build your wings on the way down”. That is the faith of imagination – knowing with all your heart that when you jump off the cliff, you will, at some point, begin to soar. When I am thinking about a story idea, I spend lots of time thinking about what could go wrong for my characters – what challenges they will face. I never bother to think about how I will get them out of trouble. Pretending has taught me that my characters will find their own way out.

The imagination is a wild place – filled with untamed ideas. But it is not childish. It is a place the storyteller feels at home. It is the place where anything can happen – and should. Let’s embrace our forgotten creativity of childhood and bring it into our lives today. Let’s dance in our underwear, sing a song we just made up, giggle at our thoughts, mentally rearrange our landscape, create places only we know how to get to. Let’s give ourselves full, unbridled permission to play, imagine, daydream, pretend, and scribble on the walls of life.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Sharpen Your Red Crayon

I was five. The line between reality and make-believe hadn't yet been stacked with stones and set with mortar. My mind played with the stories I heard or saw on television. One particular story earned me a spanking.

In the cartoon, a child drew buildings on a wall. When he finished, he stepped back to admire his handiwork. Observing wasn't enough. He opened one of the doors to enter another world.


My sister was playing at a friend's house. My mother peeled potatoes. And I owned a red crayon like the child in the cartoon.

The only wall big enough for my "town" was next to the front door. The clapboard siding made straight lines a challenge, but I've seen my kindergarten artwork, and I had difficulty with straight lines on paper too.

Like the cartoon boy, I stepped back and admired my row of buildings. I'd been careful to draw the doors big enough to walk through and multi-paned windows to look back to my world. My heart plummeted to the basement when a turn of the doorknob didn't open up another world.

I ran to my mother for sympathy.

Mom stood with hands on hips and shaking her head. "Patti Ann! You shouldn't draw on the walls. Those are made-up stories. You can't walk through walls. Now, follow me."


When I sit down to write, there are still voices clamoring to tell me what I can and can't do. If I listen to them, all I'm left with is my rational self who must make sense of everything and squeezes all that is golden out of the imagination. I start second-guessing myself, saying things like, "Is this where I want to start the story?" or "That character would never do that."

There will be plenty of time to ask these questions with a WIP. But first, writers must trust themselves and be daring enough to shush the voices. I start this process by praying. This is time to banish fear with some Holy Ghost involvement. And then I give myself a pep talk that sounds something like this:

You're in your play clothes. It's okay to get dirty. Today, you can be a pirate, a snow queen, or a girl struggling to keep her family together. You're bold. Rash. Daring. Afraid of nothing. Sharpen your red crayon. You have worlds to discover!

As a reader, what books have left you breathless by the author's ability to take you to amazing places that were real, imagined, or a little of both? And I'm not talking about geography only. Emotions and events can be destinations too. And for writers: How do you quiet the voices and unleash your creativity? You do hear voices, don't you? I can't be the only one!

Friday, October 9, 2009

Books, Music & Nostalgia

Just a reminder, we're giving away Patti's latest release, Seeing Things, this month. Leave a comment for a chance to win this delightful novel.
I'm writing this post on Thursday afternoon on what would have been my son's 37th birthday. His dad and I, our two daughters, and four of our grandchildren -- including our son's only daughter -- spent time together at the cemetery earlier in the day. As my husband Rick said more than once, it's not supposed to be this way. An 11-year-old girl is not supposed to lose her father, a son is not supposed to die before his parents. But it happens.
I'm sure you'd agree, there's nothing like a visit to a loved one's grave site to induce a sense of nostalgia, and nothing like music to intensify it. And I've been extremely nostalgic of late. I've had Feliciano!, a favorite CD, in my car for several weeks, and listen to it over and over. I first purchased the album as a 16-year-old Feliciano fan in '68, then purchased the CD a few months ago when a favorite song from the album surfaced in my head and wouldn't stop playing. That song, The Last Thing on My Mind, was on repeat in my car all day. The words that touch me so deeply these days are from the chorus: "Are you going away, with no word of farewell ... please don't go, please don't go." (You can follow the link to the song if you'd like to listen, but you have to advance the play list till you see that title.)
I realize this is an off-topic subject for our blog, but it leads me to the question I want to ask. I think everyone agrees, there's nothing like music to take you back. A song, or even just a brief refrain, can transport you to another time and stir up memories that make you feel you're there again, wherever "there" happens to be. You're swimming in emotion, pleasant or not, as if reliving the moment -- the deja vu factor, only you know for a fact you really have experienced the moment before.
While music takes the prize hands down for being able to conjur that nostalgic feeling, books can too in their own way. I know without even asking, The Yearling does this for my husband like no other book. It was a wonderful source of escape for him during a difficult time of his boyhood. So years ago, when he told me how much he loved it, I couldn't wait to read it. But it didn't have even close to the same impact on me. I just didn't connect to the story the way he did.
Maybe that's why you can recommend a book that has touched you deeply, much like my song, only to be disappointed that it doesn't touch the person you recomend it to the same way. We're so certain that if something strikes a chord in us, it will strike a chord in everyone else. Right? But if the connection isn't there, or if it doesn't stir up that sense of nostalgia, it's not going to have the same impact. It may be just another good story, and no more.
So, what favorite book stirs up that sense of nostalgia in you, and why? Can a recently published novel accomplish that, or must it be something you read back in the day for it to take you back to the day?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A Writer's Journal - On Telling the Truth in Fiction

If, as Latayne said Monday, a fledgling novelist might not do best to hone her craft by writing short stories, then where might our poor would-be author begin? Where to gain the credibility, where to build the credits?

My best advice? Write a novel, and make it good. Write something entertaining and adventurous and rich, and above all, make it the truest work of fiction you can muster. Do that, and you'll have all the credibility you need, and soon enough, you'll have the credits, too.

Oh great, I hear you say. Write a good novel? Never thought of that. Thanks! I'll get right on it.

But I didn't just say to write a good novel. I also said to make it entertaining, adventurous, rich... and above all, true.

Because I can get adventure from a comic book. If I'm going to invest my time reading 300 pages of your novel, I want those pages to leave me nodding my head, saying, yes, yes! That's just the way life is, just the way I feel, though I'd never seen it written before.

That special feeling is literary gold. But how to mine it?

I suggest you journal. You need practice in writing the truth.

I hear you again. I'm not in the habit of writing lies. No, but you may not yet have the habit of writing the real truth, either. It's not easy. Because it can't be the sanitized, accepted truth we tell each other every day. It probably isn't even the truth we tell each other in Sunday School and sing in our praise choruses. "Jesus is the answer for the world today." Yes, true, but working him into our questions is going to take some deep soul work. We're going to have to wrestle our angels and come away limping. It's the hardest work we will ever do, but it sure makes for good stories.

And so the journal: a book of blank pages on which you will write your experiences, observations, and responses with the goal of drilling past the commonplace, the stuff you tell aquaintances, down to the stuff you rarely tell even God. I like the method Robert Olen Butler suggests in From Where You Dream:

"... at the end of the day or beginning of the next day, return to some event of the day that evoked an emotion in you. Record that event in the journal. But do this only - only - moment to moment through the senses. Absolutely never name an emotion; never start explaining or analyzing or interpreting an emotion. Record only through those five ways I mentioned that we feel emotions - signals inside the body, signals outside the body, flashes of the past, flashes of the future, sensual selectivity - which are therefore the best ways to express emotions."

I think the God we worship is pleased with truth in our fiction, in the way he likes it when we offer a glass of water to the least of his children. Consider the story the angel told Hagar in Genesis 16. just after he asked where she was coming from and where she was going. At this juncture in her life, he chose to offer a spoiler for the rest of the tale: Your son Ishmael will be fine. He'll be stubborn and angry and always getting into fights, but he'll be fine. Not the best news, but look what the woman made of it: "Thereafter, Hagar used another name to refer to the Lord, who had spoken to her. She said, 'You are the God who sees me.'"

I love that verse. How many people had ever really seen Hagar, the slave woman forced to bear Abraham's child? How often does your reader truly feel seen and understood?

Give her that gift.

And let us know about your experiences with journaling and with reading true stories. We always love to read what you have to say.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Short or Long Fiction?

I’ve often told non-fiction writers who want to be published to start by crafting articles. That way they can build up both credibility and credits. Then, when they’ve gained an audience and the trust of editors, they can begin to think about writing a book-length work.

I assumed that one should take the same tack with writing novels: Start with short stories and then write a novel. I must admit that every short story I’ve ever written was literarily flabby and unsatisfying, even (or especially!) to me. I thought I was a failure because if I couldn’t write short fiction, who would ever want me to write something longer?

Imagine my relief and gratitude when I began reading what one of the best short story writers now living said:

“One of the most often asked questions when I’m playing professor is this: Should I start writing short stories and then work my way up to novels? My answer is no. It’s not like starting to ride a tricycle and then graduating to a bike. Forgive my clumsy mixing of metaphors, but short stories and novels aren’t even apples and oranges; they’re apples and potatoes. Novels seek to emotionally engage readers on all levels, and, to achieve that goal, authors must develop characters in depth, create realistic settings, do extensive research and come up with a structured pacing that alternates between the thoughtful and the rip-roaring. . .

“The payoff in the case of short stories isn’t a roller coaster of plot reversals involving characters they’ve spent lots of time learning about and loving or hating, set in places with atmosphere carefully described. Short stories are like a sniper’s bullet. Fast and shocking. In a story, I can make good bad and bad badder and the most fun of all, really bad seem good.”

--Jeffery Deaver, from the introduction to More Twisted: Collected Stories, Vol. II (Pocket Books, 2006.)

How about you, novel writers? Any of you been able to get paid for publishing both short stories and novels?

Friday, October 2, 2009

Can you "Sense" an ending?

On Wednesday, Debbie asked, "How important is it to know the ending of a story before putting it on paper?" But I wonder, as readers, once you've gotten a few pages or a chapter into a novel, do you formulate an idea of what you think the ending will be? If so, how important is it that your expectations are met? If the ending is not what you envisioned, does that negatively affect your opinion of the story?
We often hear about "surprise endings" in movies and books. For me, in order for a surprise ending to work, it can't come out of nowhere. The possibility has to exist, even if it's so subtle I miss the signs. But I need to be able to go back and say, "Ah, it was there; I just didn't see it."
The quintessential model for that in the movie world is M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense. I remember how stunned I was with the ending the first time I saw it, how I sat unable to move or speak for the longest time as I took it all in. Yet I didn't feel sucker punched, just utterly surprised. After I caught my breath I watched the "Special Features" part of the DVD, which I rarely do, so Mr. Shyamalan could take me by the hand and lead me through the minefield of clues I had failed to trip along the way. My fault, not his. Entirely. Then I watched the movie over again, losing track of all the aha! moments as they came and went, and loving the movie even more for its incredible inventiveness.
I can't think of very many novels that have left me with that kind of speechless amazement. But one that gave me a surprise ending I thoroughly enjoyed was The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte. It's by far my favorite Bronte book. I can, however, think of lots of novels that have left me disappointed with the ending. I'm a John Grisham fan, but honestly, when I read the last page of The Brethren I said out loud, "What?! Did you run out of paper?!" It was a terrible ending. And if that had been the first Grisham book I'd ever read, it probably would have been the last. But he'd already proven to me in his other novels he could do a much better job. So I've stayed with him.
Just this week I received a hand-written letter from a woman who recently read Lying on Sunday. She began the letter by saying, "What a joy it has been to 'discover' you!" (Believe me, I'm just as enthused about being discovered!) "I was deeply involved from the first page," she wrote. And as nice as the letter was, I really loved that she closed it with these words: "(P.S.) The ending was perfect!"
What a compliment. There's nothing like being satisfied at the end of a movie or book, even if the ending is completely unexpected. What books have you read lately that gave you that kind of satisfied -- but unexpected -- ending?