Monday, November 30, 2009

Novel Matters and She Reads Partner to Create a Wonderful Reader/Writer Community

We're ringing in the 12 Days of Christmas on Novel Matters. (for full contest rules, click the link.)

"On the fourth day of Christmas my true love gave to me...
four calling birds

I'll send a signed copy of Raising Rain to the person who can find an author's last name in the phrase: FOUR CALLING BIRDS and name a title by that author OR submit a book title with one of the words from the phrase and the author. Submit your entry using the "Contact" button above. See complete details for the contest on the November 23rd post. Good Luck! The winner will be announced on Wednesday, December 2nd.

She Reads and Novel Matters – Bringing Writers and Readers Together

Proverbs 15:22 says, “Without consultation, plans are frustrated,

but with many counselors they succeed.”

That’s collective wisdom.

The authors of Novel Matters (Sharon K. Souza, Debbie Fuller Thomas, Latayne C. Scott, Patti Hill, Kathleen Popa, and Bonnie Grove), together with the authors and brilliant minds behind
She Reads (Ariel Allison and Marybeth Whalen) announce a partnership designed to bring writers and readers together in a new, dynamic way.

She Reads blog is all about “Discovering Great Fiction Together.” Their motto is "The proper care and feeding of readers." Since their inception, She Reads has reached out to the reading community and provided a place for discussion, book clubs, events, contests, and arranged ‘close encounters’ for readers and writers to connect. Each quarter, She Reads chooses three “picks” to share with their readership. They are part of Proverbs 31 Ministries – an important and dynamic ministry to and for women.

Novel Matters blog is a community that celebrates the creative process of writing. We explore what matters in novels. We are six published authors – our combined books number 27. We have teamed to build a community populated by authors, writers, hopeful writers, readers, and people interested in the different ways of expressing creativity, language, and ideas.

The partnership between these two groups opens new opportunities for readers and for authors. To paraphrase author Kevin Crossley-Holland, we hope to create a "room with big windows" where readers can come into the lives of published authors who struggle daily with words and authors can partake of the privilege of meeting and sharing with readers.

What the partnership will look like:

Each site of course will maintain its own identity, as a readers' community and a writers' community.

Twice a month, an author from Novel Matters will post on the She Reads blog, giving insight to the creative process, answering reader questions, and revelling in our shared love of books and reading. Yes, Novel Matters is populated with authors, but each author is also an avid reader. We devour books and love to talk about our reading experiences.

Once a month, an author from She Reads will post on Novel Matters – bringing a wealth of insight on how authors can reach readers. This goes beyond marketing tips. The instruction they bring will help authors build trust with readers, and touch their hearts.

She Reads and Novel Matters are dreaming big dreams -- of glimpses into each others' worlds -- a place of community where you Read Novels -- where the She of each of you truly Matters to authors who care about their craft and their readers.

Please welcome Ariel and Marybeth!

~She Reads, Of Course!~

It’s funny how the best friendships are often started over a cup of coffee and a great conversation. Or, in the case of the She Reads Directors, Ariel Allison and Marybeth Whalen, an e-mail that basically said, “Hi, you don’t know me, but we will be friends!” (Ariel’s fault – she’s long been in the habit of plucking her friends at random with a gut feeling and a bold invitation).

Yet even in friendship, there must be commonality and for these two women it boiled down to books (and children – they have ten between the two of them). They love to read, they love to write, and they love to recommend books to others. Over the course of countless sessions of Gmail chat they came to the conclusion that book clubs are rather elusive entities. They are scattered, independent, and numerous. Yet book clubs are the heart of the publishing industry, and the key to reaching readers on a large scale. Thus the idea for an umbrella organization, specifically designed to meet the needs of book clubs and individual readers, was formed.

As a long time member of the Proverbs 31 Ministries speaker team, Marybeth suggested the idea to the organization as a way to expand the reach of their ministry. There are countless women who would never darken the door of a church or attend a Bible study but would go to a book club and discuss a Christian novel. It was only a matter of weeks before Proverbs warmly pulled She Reads into the fold. And here they are, just four months later reaching thousands of readers each month. Dozens of She Reads book clubs have formed, and many existing clubs have come under the She Reads umbrella. Women hunger for novels that matter and for authors that are approachable. She Reads exists to bridge the gap between the two.

So who are these two crazy women who’ve shouldered such a massive undertaking? Just two mommies, befriended by words, and a passion to help the world understand the power of story:

Marybeth Whalen is the wife of Curt and mom of six children. The family lives outside Charlotte, NC. Marybeth is a member of the Proverbs 31 Ministries speaker team and a regular contributor to their daily devotions. She served as general editor of For The Write Reason and The Reason We Speak. She and her husband Curt co-authored Learning To Live Financially Free and her first novel, The Mailbox will be released in June 2010. Marybeth speaks regularly to women's groups and enjoys sharing stories from her daily adventures as a wife, mom, writer, and, most importantly, a follower of God.

You can find her online at

Ariel Allison is first and foremost the wife of Ashley, and mother of London, Parker, Marshall, and Colby. She has a penchant for adrenaline-infused madness such as rock climbing, running marathons, and jumping off bridges – as if raising four pre-school boys were not adventure enough. Her first novel, Eye of the God, released in October 2009, from Abingdon Press. She is the co-author of Daddy Do You Love Me: a Daughter’s Journey of Faith and Restoration, and Jesus: Dead or Alive. When not immersed in a book, changing a diaper, or rescuing her dog from the death-grip of a toddler, you can find Ariel loitering in her little corner of cyberspace at She and her family make their home in Texas, which is, according to her husband, the greatest state in the union.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Motivating Tension

We have a WINNER:
Day three of our 12 Days of Christmas contest, chosen randomly by Studly Steve Grove is: Karen Schravemade! E-mail me, Karen at novelmatters@gmailcom with your snail mail address and I'll get those books to you in time for Christmas!

We're ringing in the 12 Days of Christmas on Novel Matters. (for full contest rules, click the link)

"On the third day of Christmas my true love gave to me...
Three French Hens!"

I'll send signed copies of Talking to the Dead, Your Best You: Discovering and Developing the Strengths God Gave You, AND a signed copy of the anthology Hot Apple Cider where my short story The Stuckville Cafe appears, to the person who can find an author's last name in the phrase: THREE FRENCH HENS and name a title by that author OR submit a book title with one of the words from the phrase and the author. Submit your entry using the "Contact" button above. See complete details for the contest on the November 23rd post. Good Luck! The winner will be announced on Friday, November 27th.

A handy quick tip reference for creating tension in fiction is to have characters with clearly defined - and opposing motivations interact with one another.

I've seen lots of definitions of what writers think is character motivation. But I'm not satisfied with most of them. Probably because, as a student of psychology, I'm not satisfied with the current theories of motivation out there (but we won't get into that here - whew!) I think it's helpful to look a bit deeper at the concept of motivation and how it can be applied to character creation.

1. Motivations are not goals. A goal can serve as motivation, but it cannot be the single thing that drives a character to behave. This amounts to your character singularly serving a lone goal. This isn't realistic, and it isn't interesting reading. Instead, a goal needs to be understood as a character's ideal outcome - and not necessarily the outcome of the story. It should be complex, and should have clearly worked out acceptable compromises.

2. Motivation cannot be judged by behavior alone. One thing I've learned in my years working with families at risk: you cannot know what a person is trying to accomplish just by watching what they do. As an introduction to Chaos Theory, an instructor drew horizontal line on a chalk board. A volunteer held one end of a string and the instructor held the other. The instructor asked the volunteer to ensure the string remained parallel to the chalk line on the board - no matter what. The instructor proceeded to move his end of the string, up, down, side to side. The volunteer worked to keep the string parallel to the chalk line. The movement of the string forced her into all sorts of positions, climbing up on chairs, kneeling on the floor. The instructor then called in a second volunteer who was in the hall, and didn't know what was happening inside. The second volunteer was asked to explain what the first volunteer was trying to do. After observing for awhile, and several incorrect guesses, the second volunteer conceded - he had no idea what the first volunteer was trying to accomplish, and couldn't tell by watching the behavior. It adds interest for the reader if a character behaves in ways that do not, at first, seem to tie into the stated goal.

3. Motivation is not passive. It can be shaped and refined over time. It is always in movement. Excellent character arch includes the characters ability to redefine his or her goal based on what has happened in the plot (plot should mess with motivation - it's another way to create tension).

4. Motivation works differently for different people. There is the story of two brothers, raised by an alcoholic and abusive father. One brother becomes a lout, a playboy drinker who can't keep a job. When asked how he arrived at his current state, he replies, "With a father like I had, how else could I have turned out?" The other brother becomes a business man, marries, raises a family, abstains from excesses. When asked how he came to be such a success he replies, "With a father like I had, how else could I have turned out?" Try to avoid drawing straight lines from a difficult past as motivation behind a characters bad habits. It isn't always so cut and dried.

5. Motivation is a deeply felt need tied to basic instincts - motivation is emotional. Touch the motivation button in a character and you should see fire works of emotion (emotion - not melodrama). It is a character's hot button and when he comes up against an opposing motivation he will take it personally.

I hope this is helpful to you when you begin to plot a book, or when you pick a book up to read. Looking for those building tensions between opposing motivation can add to the enjoyment of the book. It is said that fiction is tension. Do you agree? What have you noticed about tension and motivation in some of your favorite reads?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


Thanks to all for playing our Twelve Days of Christmas game on Thanksgiving Eve. As for me, the house is clean. The table is set. And yep, the cooking is done. Let the blessings begin!

Steena Holmes is today's winner, drawn from a hat by my hunky husband, Dennis. I'll be sending Steena the 3-book series: The Garden Gate. As soon as she contacts me with her mailing address, I'll put the books in the mail.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

TENSION in Dialogue

"On the second day of Christmas my true love gave to me...

I'll send the complete 3-book Garden Gate series, signed as you like, to the person who can find an author's last name in the phrase: TWO TURTLE DOVES and name a title by that author OR submit a book title with one of the words from the phrase and the author. Submit your entry using the "Contact" button above. See complete details for the contest on the November 23rd post. Good Luck! The winner will be announced on Friday, November 27th. You'll have the books by Christmas!


Love. Light. Hope. TENSION!

Kohls and Kmart want me to go Christmas shopping at 4 AM. This isn't going to happen. No way. No how.

I will try my hardest (during civilized shopping hours) to find low-cost, eco-friendly, functional, surprising, life-affirming, unique gifts for 30 people. Sure, I could give gift cards, but I feel like I'm cheating, like I'm not willing to tremble the synapses to find the just-right gift. I know some of you will think I'm obsessive-compulsive. Please don't scold me. I'll only feel worse.

And that brings us to tension in dialogue. You must have it. I'm not talking about angry, arguing voices. I'm talking about two characters with conflicting motivations and needs conversing, purposefully.

Tension is what holds a reader in a story. They're wondering what will happen next for the characters they've come to love. Tension in fiction happens best in dialogue. I've selected three examples for your consideration. In each example the characters want something in conflict with what the other character wants.

In this first example from The Persian Pickle Club by Sandra Dallas, Queenie and her husband, Grover, are talking about a family who is camping on their land as they journey westward to California during the Depression.

“I hope you shooed them right off. You know how I hate tramps.”

“They’re not tramps, Queenie.”

The way he said it made me look at him. “Well, gypsies, then. It’s almost the same thing.”

“No, they’re not gypsies, either. Not these folks. They’re just people, hill people, down-and-out. They’re pretty near as broke as anybody I ever saw.”

“You told them to move on, didn’t you?”

“No,” he said, rubbing the little port-wine spot on his chin.

“We can’t have people like that camping on our land.”

“What do you mean, ‘people like that’?” Grover asked. He moved his hand away from mine and picked up a hermit and bit it in half, spilling crumbs on the table. “They’re people like Ruby and Floyd. People like you and me.”

Queenie wants the travelers to move on. She's uncomfortable with their presence, maybe she's frightened. Grover, on the other hand, sees these folks as people having a difficult time, like some of the people he knows. Dallas demonstrates the tension in the probing questions of Queenie and the resoluteness of Grover. Also, she uses dialogue tags masterfully--rubbing of the chin, the moving away of a hand--to show tension. Delicious! (BTW, hermits are a baked good.)

This next example is from Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. Camel is a circus worker and Jacob is a fresh-faced kid joining up.

Camel squints up at me. “What did you say your name was?”

“Jacob Jankowski.”

“You got red hair.”

“So I’ve heard.”

“Where you from?”

I pause. Am I from Norwich or Ithaca? Is where you’re from the place you’re leaving or where you have roots?

“Nowhere,” I say.

Camel’s face hardens. He weaves slightly on bowed legs, casting an uneven light from the swinging lantern. “You done something, boy? You on the lam?”

Camel wants to know something about this kid he'll be sharing a boxcar with. Jacob doesn't want to be known. Gruen uses short, choppy sentences and questions meant to rouse and some that aren't answered at all to create story-driving, reader-hooking tension. I love it.

In the category of books I wish I'd written is The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig, a story about loyalty, tradition, and family--all in a one-roomed schoolhouse in Montana. In this example of tension in dialogue, Doig builds tension by having the characters interrupt one another. Listening is the toughest thing to do when you want to be the boss of everything.

Eddie Turley was one thing Carnelia and I could agree on. We both knew what an incurable pain in the neck Eddie could be when he wanted to. Panic starting to show in us, she and I faced each other with the breeze-blown rope between us. We had to invent together or else.

“I think we first of all have to put that through there and then—”

“No, dummy, that’s backwards, we to need to—”

“You’re not the boss of everything. Let me—”

“Will you just not be so grabby and–watch out!”

It was not clear who had been in main possession of the flag and who hadn’t. But there it lay, dumped in the dirt between us.

I didn't experience one lick of trouble finding dialogue with tension, some more subtle than others. That's because good writers always keep their character's motivations--wants and needs--in mind when they write dialogue.

Monday, November 23, 2009

We Have a Winner!

We at Novel Matters are pleased to announce that we have a winner for this morning's contest.

But maybe we'll wait and tell you tomorrow...

Or we could give you a clue: her name is hidden in the phrase, "Loch Noborosine," which is not the name of a lake or a book, but is a very good hint, don't you think?

You don't, huh?

Oh, all right, we'll tell you: It's...

(Envelope please.)


Nichole Osborn!

Nichole, we've sent you an email. We have a signed copy of The Feast of Saint Bertie ready to drop in the mail, just waiting your word (and your address).

The 12 Days of Christmas

The 12 Days of Christmas
Book Giveaway Contest
Today's Giveaway: The Feast of St. Bertie
"A Partridge in a Pear Tree"
From November 23 to December 21 we are hosting "The 12 Days of Christmas" book giveaway contest. You're right, there are more than 12 days between November 23 and December 21 ... but there are exactly 12 posting days on Novel Matters.
Here's how to play. Find the last name of any author in the day's clue (A Partridge in a Pear Tree) (letters can be used in any order). Email us at with the author's last name and a title of a novel by that author --- OR --- email us the title of a novel that contains one or more words from the clue.
For example: There's an author named (Lauran) Paine, who wrote Tears of the Heart. This would be a qualifying entry because all the letters in the last name PAINE are found in the day's clue --- OR --- Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns qualifies because the word TREE is found in the title. It's that easy.
To be entered in the drawing, email us your answer. One winner will be drawn from the qualifying entries every Monday, Wednesday and Friday from now until December 21. Have fun!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Elusive -- But Essential --Rhythm

The presence of rhythm is one of the greatest contradictions of my life.

One of my earliest memories as a child was riding in a car, listening to the only radio stations that broadcast at night in Shiprock, New Mexico: those that played traditional Navajo music.

Traditional Navajo music has an insistent rhythm, as you can hear in this video:

I believe that listening to that music as a toddler imprinted on my mind a need for rhythm. (I say it’s a contradiction for me, however, since family and friends will tell you I cannot dance or even clap on beat to a song.)

But rhythm is an essential part of good writing, I am convinced of that. While I cannot reproduce it with my body, my ears and my mind crave it.

I see this need in the eyes of children when I present poetry programs to elementary school students. One of the poems I recite to them is in Spanish, “Rima Siete,” by Bequer. They don’t have to understand a word of the poem to be entranced by it. Never in all my years of reading that poem to wiggly children have I seen a single boy or girl move during the reading. The rhythm alone captures their minds and creates an urgency. And when I tell them that the poem is about a harp sitting alone in a room, waiting for someone to play it, they audibly exhale with relief.

Similarly, in music, the “cranking up” of notes creates yearning in the listener’s mind that is only relieved when the “tonic” is achieved.

One of the ways that novelists can incorporate rhythm (and oh, this is such an inexact quality of writing!) is through repetition. Another is by choosing words that by their short length convey haste or choppiness; or iambic multiple syllables that convey insistence or compulsion. A third way is by creating parallel structure in phrases or sentences.

Satisfying rhythm is best identified in its absence. You hear that absence, feel that absence, in a string of words that are blunt, thudding, wracked, when describing grace.

It troubles the tympanum of your soul when rhythmic, wave-like writing depicts violence or chaos or injustice.

Can you provide an example of writing that used rhythm in a way that was satisfying to you?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Truth About Fiction

There are many dichotomies in the writer's life, not the least of which is the fact that we spend hours, months, even years creating our stories in private, only to have them read and judged by the public -- most of whom we'll never, ever see or meet. Yeah I know that's the point, to have people read the pages we so carefully craft. Still, when you put yourself out there it's a lot like standing naked in Times Square. Not that I ever have, mind you, but I've felt just as exposed by my writing.
As a reader of fiction I often wonder where a story comes from in relation to the author, because as a writer I know I put much of myself and my experiences into my stories. But I also know that the greater portion of what I write comes from my imagination and a conglomeration of things I've heard and seen. My books are not and never will be autobiographical. Yes, Every Good & Perfect Gift is based on events in the life of a close friend. But only the parts about the illness are real. Everything else is pure fiction. But even people who knew Evie as well as I did ask if it's all true. The answer is no, not even close.
While I never had to protect myself from the writing police the way Debbie wrote about on Monday, I did have my own run-in with the "law" if you will, which kept me shackled in my mind for a very long time. A few years into my writing life, after I'd finished two or three manuscripts, I began to rack up the rejection letters in a serious way. Cold and impersonal, often nothing more than a form postcard, they were disappointing for a day or so, then I'd pick myself up, brush myself off, send out my proposal again and get back to writing. And that was in the days when publishers frowned on multiple submissions and spent 3 or 4 months to get back to you.
But as the years passed and the rejection letters increased, discouragement set in big time. I questioned myself, I questioned God, and seriously began to pray that He'd remove this "thorn in the flesh" that my writing had become. "GOD! Why did you give me this desire if You're never going to open the door?!? Make it go away!" Oh, the drama.
And that's exactly how I felt. Like I was standing in front of a brick wall with no windows, no doors, no way over and no way around. I just kept banging my head against it. And after a while it hurt. A lot.
Enter Job's friends.
Only in my case it was friend. Singular. One well-meaning friend and mentor, the women's ministries director at our church and Bible teacher extraordinare, who regularly told me that I should be writing non-fiction because fiction is a waste of time. That if I'd write non-fiction God would surely bless it. And after a while I almost believed her. Almost believed the desire I couldn't get away from was self-imposed, almost believed I was opposing the "real" call God had on my life.
But a thought came to me one day that settled the issue in my heart once and for all. When Jesus wanted to get a spiritual truth across, He told a story. And those stories have never been forgotten. Not that I have anything against non-fiction. I read and enjoy inspirational non-fiction regularly, and respect those who can write it well. But the thing that drives me to spend hours alone with my hands on a keyboard is storytelling. The ideas that wake me up at night or keep me from sleep spring up from a place deep, deep inside. I can't change that anymore than I can change my dna.
What about you? Where does your passion lie? Has anyone ever tried to snuff it out? How do you deal with it?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Eluding the Writing Police

Just a reminder to enter a comment if you'd like to be entered in this month's drawing for a copy of Hot Apple Cider, an anthology containing Bonnie's short story, The Stuckville Cafe. And "welcome" if you're stopping by for the first time!

There is a stretch of highway between Reno/Lake Tahoe and Sacramento where you can find the California Highway Patrol out in force on any given afternoon - especially on Sundays. Locals know that you're more likely to be ticketed when speeding westbound than eastbound, and which highway exits offer the best spots for patrol cars to hide. Four cars were pulled over today on a mere half-mile stretch of road. Just knowing they are being observed is enough to make the most cautious driver keep the speedometer down a few miles below the speed limit.

It reminded me of how I used to feel the 'writing police' were watching me when I first started writing. Feeling as though you're being watched or that someone is looking over your shoulder as you write is enough to slow your progress and put the brakes on your creative processes. It can stifle the way you write, the topics you write about and undermine your confidence. It can pull you over and make you explain yourself.

While I was working on my first novel, my husband was a senior pastor at our church. I struggled with my writing because I imagined the entire church crowded in the room looking over my shoulder. In truth, I can't think of anyone who would have had a problem with my writing. It was a good story without any offensiveness, but I couldn't shake the feeling of disapproval. I didn't finish it until a year after we'd moved away, at which time I felt such relief - such a sense of freedom - to know that I didn't have to meet their expectations. Maybe I had been afraid of disappointing them.

I think that simply completing that manuscript bolstered my confidence. And even after completing two more, I sometimes still remind myself that our God does not give us a spirit of timidity. He will equip us for whatever ministry He has called us.

Have you encountered the 'writing police'? Perhaps you have and you've learned to cope. They could be close or extended family, a husband or wife, your parents or even a member of your critique group. Short of moving away from the real or imagined critics, what helped you the most to overcome? We'd love to hear from you.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Guest Blogger, Literary Agent Janet Kobobel Grant

For all things publishing--wisdom, trends, contractual--I deeply depend on my agent, Janet Grant of Books & Such Literary Agency, and she has never let me down. She's highly regarded in her field as the standard bearer for what makes a great literary agent. Not only does she come to her profession as a published author and editor extraordinaire, but in all things pertaining to life, faith, and friendship, she is a superb role model. Listen carefully to what she has to say. She knows what she's talking about. Also, Janet will be the agent for our spring Audience-with-an-Agent contest.

"You had me at the first line." Every author dreams of hearing readers proclaim that the first line of a book grabbed them by the lapels and wouldn't let them go. Rest assured that not only readers but also agents and editors are suckers for a great first line.

Let's look at some winners and some sleepers and see if we can figure out what makes one beginning work and another makes the reader work to wedge his or her way into the book.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Lest We Forget

Today is Veteran’s Day in the US. In Canada, we refer to it as Remembrance Day. It’s a day to give thanks for the price paid for freedom. A day to reflect on what our freedom means to us, and how we can actively walk toward a future without war.

It’s a day of homage and sorrow, a day to repent and to rejoice.

My Great Uncle Robert served in WWII. He drove a tank. The average life expectancy for a tank driver was ninety days. Uncle Robert drove that tank from Africa to Italy for three and a half years.

He survived and lived to a good age. He rarely spoke of the war, even when asked. He would shake his head and look away. So when he did choose to talk about those dark and dangerous years, we listened.

He told us a story about how his boots saved his life.

The Canadian Army trained all recruits to tie their boots in a specific pattern as part of the uniform. This was drilled into them in boot camp and strictly enforced at all times. If a solider slacked off, he was immediately reprimanded. Uncle Robert was no exception. He learned to tie his boots as prescribed by the Canadian Army. Then he was sent to overseas to drive a tank.

Somewhere between Egypt and Turkey his troop stopped and made camp for the night. Uncle Robert was to take second watch. When it was his turn, he dressed and tied his bootlaces the Canadian way. He grabbed his gun and took up his watch.

It was too dark to see more than a foot in front of him, and he spent a couple of hours staring into the nothingness. As he stood on a small rocky outcrop he suddenly felt a knife at his throat. He had seen nothing, heard nothing, yet there he was, his life hanging on a thin blade. Uncle Robert knew who was behind him, knew it could only be a member of the famous Gurkha fighters, brave, highly trained men from India whose reputation for fearlessness, stealth, and strength were legendary.

The Gurkah solider held the knife at Uncle Robert’s throat and ran his hand down Robert’s leg. He felt the front of one of the boots. After a moment the blade left Uncle Robert’s throat and a man whispered, “Carry on Canada.” When Robert turned around the man had vanished without a trace as silently as he had come.

On this Remembrance Day, on this Veteran’s Day, we remember the ideals and the principles men and women fought and died for. We celebrate the lives given so that we can live in freedom.

As you honor the fallen, spend some time thinking about Uncle Robert’s bootlaces, the identifying factor that saved his life and ask yourself; what about me identifies me with hope, faith, and love? What defining factor in your life can people look at and know without doubt that you have peace, joy, and grace abiding in you?

As we honor and remember today, we invite you to share your stories of the heroes you know who fought for us all. We look forward to reading your stories of thankfulness.

Lest we forget.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Measuring Success as a Christian Novelist

If you choose the riskier path and decide to spend your life as a creator, you have the job of feeling successful no matter what your objective successes look like. You must train yourself to feel successful, despite what your heart and the world tell you about your lack of success.
Erick Maisel, The Van Gogh Blues

I must follow this man's advice.

My readers aren't camping out for first editions or dressing up as my characters for Halloween. Book signings are exercises in humility--or delightful parties. It depends. My royalty statements are reacquainting me with negative numbers. (I'm so grateful I taught 5th-grade math. All that number theory is coming in handy.) And my books have shorter shelf-lives than strawberries. (My husband says this is an exaggeration, but for those who have received out-of-print notices, it sure seems true.)

And so, how can I feel successful in this media-guided, capitalistic, celebrity-worshiping society?

Be a sheep!

Matthew 25:31-46 is a red-letter passage where Jesus is explaining how he will cull the goats from the sheep when he comes in glory. He surprises the "sheep" of his story by saying when they fed the hungry, offered drink to the thirsty, invited in the stranger, clothed the naked, tended the sick, and visited the prisoner, they did these things to him.

And so, in Jesus' kingdom, success is belief and meeting the needs of "the least of these." What does this mean for the writer of fictional stories?

I'm just starting to give this topic some thought. Here is my rough draft, open for critique and review:

To feed the hungry, I must offer the Bread of Life, Jesus! There's nothing like the fragrance of baking bread. Stomach juices create a symphony of anticipation as toasted wheat and yeast fills the house. That's what this sheep of a writer must aim for. I want my stories to demonstrate an aspect of Christ the Lord that is so winsome that the reader will hunger to partake of him.

My stories should offer refreshment to the parched soul, a drink of water. Erase any Pollyanna story you have in your head. My readers live in the real world. They need hope. Nothing refreshes like hope.

Not everyone who picks up my stories is "at home" with Jesus. They've come to know a "Jesus" through the media, misguided religious institutions, or family members who is NOT the soul-loving, passionate, holy, mighty, Lamb of God of the Bible. To welcome the stranger, it is my creative challenge to pull back the curtain on the real Jesus to my readers.

And yes, I have some naked readers in need of clothes, but how do I clothe anyone with words? Perhaps this is giving readers a chance through the protagonist's experiences to put on faith, see how it fits, works, and grows.

Some of my readers are heart sick. To look after them as Jesus requires, I can't be afraid of getting too close to their experience, fearing that I'll catch something. That means my stories must be authentic, populated by characters experiencing full-frontal life.

When my stories speak to the imprisoned reader, they should hear: I'm here because I care. There's hope for you. I see it plainly. There are people--lots of people--in the world just like you.

Now, I've never purposely written to these goals, but they seem to emerge organically from a story that is written for the Audience of One who is Jesus.

How do you measure yourself as successful?

Friday, November 6, 2009

Dream Resources for Writers

Perhaps you noticed yesterday, cunningly concealed within Latayne's post (you had to follow the link to her presentation video, and then follow the link to the handout) , an excellent resource list for writers. I was particularly happy to find it, because just the night before, I'd had coffee with a hopeful author struggling with his first novel.

Get yourself to a writers conference, I'd told him, and then wondered where I could find a list of conferences he could refer to.

A writers group would be a great idea, I'd said, and then wondered where he could find information about finding or starting one of his own.

"But how do I format the manuscript?" he asked. Visit Novel Matters, I answered. Then made a mental note to make sure all this information could be found on our site.

And what did I find the very next morning, but Latayne's list. Easy Peasy. All I had to do was insert all her handout goodness into our resource list.

So I did. Today I think I'll beef it up even more, by adding to her excellent list of books some of the titles we mention again and again on Novel Matters. Like Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury - the best, in my opinion, on how to write. Walking on Water by Madeleine L'Engle - the best, again in my opinion, about why to write.

Then, of course:
  • On Writing by Stephen King
  • Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
  • Write Away by Elizabeth George
  • Write Tight by William Brohaugh
  • From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler
To these, I'm going to add one we may not have mentioned: The Writers Book of Hope, by Ralph Keyes. Every writer needs a boost from time to time if he's to spit in the face of despair. It helps to know the setbacks and frustrations he faces are common and expected.

When we ladies at Novel Matters began our blog, we had plans for the resource list. We wanted to find the really cool stuff, the stuff you couldn't find anyplace else. We have some fantastic links on our list, but we need ideas. That's where you come in, all you writers out there. Let us know, please, what sorts of resources you would you like to find. What would really help you? Tell us, and we will do our best to make your dream list.

Because we love you so much.


Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Plot Improbabilities

Recently a secular organization asked me to address their annual conference, on how to write effectively. (You can see the link to the video of the presentation – and the handout I provided to the participants -- here. Small enticement: The handout is a kind of resource list/crash course for effective writing and publishing.)

My two latest books are controversial, and that’s why this organization wanted to hear what I had to say about handling touchy subject matter. In addressing others who might want to write on something controversial, I shared with them the most important element of persuasive writing.

It is this: The first task of a persuasive writer is to anticipate, and address, the objections of the reader – before those objections arise in the reader’s mind.

What does that have to do with writing fiction, you may ask?

Everything. Because, more than any other kind of writer, the fiction writer must convince the reader to care about people who don’t actually exist, in predicaments wholly invented by the writer. Now, that’s persuasive writing!

Here’s an exercise to help you do that.

Choose either the plot of your WIP or an extended section of it. Now, imagine three people you know who just won’t put up with illogical or unbelievable plots. (We’re not talking about the writing, just the plot at this point.) Ah, there’s your snotty Aunt Eunice who points out plot holes in Murder She Wrote reruns. And your teenage son who rolls his eyes when something improbable happens at a movie and groans so loudly that you duck down in your theater seat. And don’t forget your spouse who throws across the room any book with too many coincidences.

Imagine them at their worst. Allow them to morph into avatars. Let them hold court on the plot of your novel. Let them be ruthless. Reason out what they would object to.

Then fix it. Every plot hole, improbable coincidence, silly sequence, gratuitous artifice.

Then ship those three avatar plot critics off to a Siberian prison that swirls in the middle of a perpetual ice storm forever, because they have nothing more to say.

Then take lung-deep, ah!-bright-wings breaths.

And write.

Lavishly, recklessly, write.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Nourish Your Dreams

I'm excited to announce that our giveaway this month is Hot Apple Cider, an anthology that contains Bonnie Grove's short story, The Stuckville Cafe. The title alone makes my mouth water. Leave a comment to be entered in the drawing.
I recently read Home Safe by Elizabeth Berg, an excellent story by this best-selling author. It deals with the ticklish relationship between a mother and her grown daughter, which is a topic I love to both read and write about.
I'm not a reader who typically marks in the margins of a novel or underlines text. I don't dog-ear the pages, or bend back the spine. I leave as little physical evidence that I've traveled through the pages of a novel as I possibly can. The tracks of the novel journey for me are impressed on my mind, and when it's really good, on my heart. I love to leave a book looking as new as possible when I'm through with it for the next person I pass it on to, or for my library if it's one I choose to keep. And prepare yourself: I'm not a fan of used books stores either. I know, that's sacrilege for an author, but it's newness I love. Give me a Barnes and Noble any day.
But on page 68 of Home Safe there's a little asterisk in blue ink next to the lengthy paragraph in the middle of the page. It's from the point of view of Helen Ames, a woman newly widowed, an author whose career has stalled, and a mother who's depending far too heavily on her grown daughter. In the scene I marked, Helen has just concluded a less-than-stellar presentaton at a local library, a presentation she didn't want to make in the first place. This is how the passage reads, in part: "You know, I wonder if---Maybe I could try again another time." She'll share with them the story about telling her father as a little girl that she was going to be a writer someday and how at first he had laughed but then had said, "I believe you." She'll explain how important it is to have someone believe in you, how important it is to nourish dreams, especially your own."
Those few simple words went straight to my heart. I not only stopped to re-read them a half dozen times, I went looking for a pen and marked the margin.
From my earliest memory, my free time was spent with a pencil and drawing pad sketching faces, always faces. Later I dabbled in oils, but drawing in pencil was what I loved best. I thought if I ever accomplished anything artistically, it would be in that art form. Then I got married, started having babies, and somewhere along the line I forgot how to draw. But like many people, I often thought--secretly of course--I'd love to write a book someday. It never occurred to me that one day I might actually try, let alone do it.
I was a shy person, and even more shy about showing my drawings to anyone, never quite comfortable with praise from my family and friends, because my eye invariably accented the flaws. I was sure theirs did too, and that their praise was false and obligatory. So when I began to write my first novel, I did it in secret, sure that everyone--like Helen Ames' father--would laugh at such a silly idea. I'd written 100 pages over the course of a summer before I revealed to anyone what I was doing. Then one night I handed the pages to my husband, and went to hide while he read them. To my amazement he not only didn't laugh; he praised and encouraged. He nourished my dream. Twenty years later he's still doing that.
There's not a doubt in my mind that his encouragement, and that of our son and daughters, is what helped me stay the course on my long path to publication. Hopes were dashed many times along the way, but always I could hear them say, "I believe in you," and it was enough to make me believe in myself.
I'm remarkably blessed to be in the community of Christian writers, where support and encouragment is the norm, where fellow authors rejoice when you rejoice. And of my friends and colleagues here at NovelMatters I simply have to say, it doesn't get any better than this. We truly are a support group, cheering each other on when good things happen and praying when they don't. I respect and appreciate them more than I can say.
So who has nourished your dreams? And whose dreams are you nourishing? Because we're in this together, you know. Your success lends to our success, which lends to another's success, and on it goes. And where would we be without readers? You too nourish our dreams. More than you know. Thank you and God bless.