Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Mechanics of Plotting a Novel

(News! I can't stand it! I just have to give away another copy of Latter-day Cipher! God is blessing it with keeping it on the Amazon best-seller list for its category (Christian Mystery) and I want to send it to someone who has not read it yet. So -- I'll randomly choose someone who comments on this post.)

Now, on to the subject at hand: plotting a novel.

Recently I spoke at the University of New Mexico’s annual Writer’s Conference, “From Start to Sales V."

Though I’ve been asked many questions about the writing of my novel, Latter-day Cipher, I was approached about two issues new to me. One (and this one greatly dismayed me) was the question that was asked by several people in different forms. It was, “How can I take a WIP (or completed novel) and make it Christian so I can offer it to a Christian publisher?” The implication was that the Christian market was a place for what you might not be able to sell to a secular publisher, but if spiffied up with what one contest judge on Twitter wryly called “clunky Jesus insertions.” Ask any of us here at Novel Matters – is the Christian novel marketplace an easy target?

Secondly, the audience wanted to know how I plotted Cipher. I think I surprised them when I told them what I did: I took a class in novel writing about 15 years before beginning Cipher, and started a first novel which I never finished. However, when I began Cipher, I did two things. First, I bought a workbook called The Marshall Plan Workbook : Writing Your Novel from Start to Finish. I tore the pages out, put them in a binder, and did exactly what the author said to do in terms of number of pages assigned to characters, pacing, placing of “surprises,” etc. Then I took a paperback copy of what I consider to be one of the most effective and well-plotted suspense novels I’ve ever read (though I was ambivalent about the content, you understand), The Silence of the Lambs.

I outlined the whole book, noting when the POV changed, when surprises were introduced, what number of pages were used in scenes.

It felt like a wonderful protective armor, a kind of framework within which to be creative but still satisfying the reader.

Later, I learned of Randy Ingermanson’s “Snowflake Method” for writing a novel. I love it, and along with Marshall’s workbook and my notes from Silence of the Lambs, I’ll use it in refining the plot of the novel I’m now working on.

What works for you?

Monday, April 27, 2009

Roundtable Discussion: Layers of Meaning

In 2006, when asked about a popular novel, Madeleine L'engle told Newsweek, "It's a nice story but there's nothing underneath it. I don't want to be bothered with stuff where there's nothing underneath."

We've talked about those wonderful tales that "draw you in with language, imagery, character insight and a sense of place." I'd like to add to the list that "something underneath," that quality of layered meanings.

Bonnie and I talked about this on our way home from the conference at Mount Hermon, and I was surprised to discover the layers were one thing to me and something very different, something I'd never considered, to her. Since I clearly have much to learn, I'll start off by explaining my take on the subject, then let the other ladies chime in.

In The Feast of Saint Bertie, my main character observes that the pomegranate has historically been used to symbolize both life and death. That symbol plays into the things Bertie learns along her journey.

I love novels that entertain and enrich on the level of story, but that reward with deeper meaning that reader who lingers over the nuances and symbols planted within the narrative. Even if the reader doesn't linger,

these elements still work an unarticulated magic over the story by lending it an ambiance that corresponds to the spiritual dimension we feel in our own lives even if we can't explain it. A friend quoted a lady preacher she heard once, who said, "It ain't what's goin' on, honey. It's what's really goin on."

I remember that conversation, Katy. And it was amazing to learn how you viewed the various layers of a novel compared to how I saw things. I love learning from colleagues! We both agree that great novels are complex things - layered with meaning, intent, subtext, and, of course, story.
For me layers happen on at least three levels. First is the story level. This level gets all the benefit of the story and its meaning –and often much of the subtext. It's the polish of the book, the finished face that looks so good.

The second level explores the social issues the book focuses on as well as secondary issues that are mentioned and explored through sub-plot, or by some other means. It provides the context and "meat" of the book. This is the book club level – where the discussions go deeper and are often applied to the reader’s life or experience.

Third is the literary level – This is the writers tool box at work - Voice, subtext, characterization, and how she breaks the rules, or simply makes up rules to best suit her story. This is where you'll discover symbols and over arching metaphors. It is how the author used sensory details to draw the reader into the story or how he used the smaller, focused story to talk about a much larger issue. This is the engine of the book –created to be felt rather than noticed.
All these layers (and their many strategies) work together to tell, as Katy's friend's pastor said, "What is really goin' on."

I know I was driving that day, girls, but honestly I wonder where was I during that conversation?!?

I admit I feel lost in these discussions at times. I'm not sure I could hold my own in a conversation about subtext, nuances, symbols, over-arching metaphors, etc. But I know when they're there, and I know when they're not.

Cotton candy was always a disappointing treat when I was a kid. It looked so good on the outside, but when it got right down to it there was nothing to chew on. That's what a book without all the layers of meaning you're talking about is like -- just so many words without the stuff that satisfies.
That's what I love about all of your books: the care you take with the stories you craft, that leads to the satisfaction I get when I read a passage where you've used just the right word in the place of any number of words that would have sufficed, but would not have sung.

I have a growing list of novels that touch me in deep places, that incorporate the elements, as Katy so beautifully stated, that work an unarticulated magic over the story. Please leave a comment and share a title or two from your list of favorite books.

Okay, from now on, we drive together! I wish I'd been a part of that conversation. Although, truthfully, I would have been nodding my head in simpleton assent from the luggage department.
The books that layer meaning in a satisfying way, do so seamlessly. I'm rarely aware of the craft the author expended until I put the book down and immediately want to pick it back up again. My metaphor for a deeply satisfying read is a pan of brownies. I can't resist going back for another corner! (Love the crunchy edges!) I flip through the pages, looking for the secret.
I have to agree with Bonnie's notion of layering with only minor differences, mostly semantics. The story evolves out of the characters. Who are they and what's the worst possible thing that could happen to them? Answering those questions, along with focusing on their motivations and desires, builds the story, so I have to know my characters well. And the least like me they are, the more fun they are to play with every day.
Settings are characters in my stories, and this parallels Bonnie's social layer. In my first novels, creating beauty in a barren wasteland mirrored the main character's motivation to bear fruit in her pain. The setting for The Queen of Sleepy Eye was a cauldron of conflicting needs on which my character discovers grace, just like we must in our world. Indeed, this is where the book clubs dance, Bonnie.
And I so agree with Bonnie's take on the literary toolbox. Only, for me, knowing when to choose fine-grain sandpaper when I'm tempted to pull out the hammer is my area of growth these days. Craft must propel story, not be so conspicuous that story in buried.

And as Sharon encouraged, please let us know fine examples of layered meaning in novels. I desperately need to add to my TBR pile. Ha!

I racked my brain to try to come up with an example of a book with the aforementioned layers of meaning and I thought of many books (such as The Great Gatsby) that I've already mentioned before. But the one book whose layers of meaning keep unfolding for me is the Bible. I read, for instance, the Song of Solomon when I was a teenager and understood very well what it meant to be faint with love; but not until I was married did I understand "I have taken off my robe--must I put it on again? I have washed my feet -- must I soil them again?" --and then the despair in finding the opened door, the vacant threshold.

I don't think it is just the age at which I read it nor my own stage of life. I believe the Bible is unlike any other book ever written, with constantly-budding, ever-new blooming, bough-heavy fruit-laden treasures each time I open its pages.

I still gasp when I read it.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Our New Movie Saturday

We have decided that everyone needs to see a little movie on Saturdays.  At least once a month.  Free. 

So we'll be bringing you our book trailers -- little mini-movies -- on Saturdays. Since my book, Latter-day Cipher,  is the most recently-released, we bring you its trailer today!

Yes, it's graphic.  Yes, it's not your usual Christian book trailer.  But -- and the other gals made me say this -- the novel is #16,000 in the rankings on  (Grace of God, grace of God, all the way.)

So -- here it is!

Friday, April 24, 2009

Audience, Purpose, and Voice

WE HAVE A WINNER!! Connie, please contact me with your full name and mailing address at Empty your calendar to read Latter-Day Cipher!

Oh my, this is the last Friday of the month! It's time to give something away. Earlier this month, Latayne gifted five of her debut novels, but she's too generous to stop there. At 4 pm MT today, I'll draw a name from today's commenters for yet another copy of Latter-Day Cipher. So, if you've been lurking, now is the time to speak up. This is an amazing book. I would love to be reading it right now, but first my blog...

We'll get ourselves into trouble (What's new about that?) if we forget how wide a spectrum of readers turn to CBA for fiction. I once followed two women into a local Christian bookstore. I don't know what their particular hangups were with fashion, but let's just say they wore sensible shoes and kerchiefs on their heads. I followed behind in shorts and sandals. They walked a bullet-line to the fiction section and filled their arms with six to eight novels each. I remember thinking, I'm in big trouble if that's my target audience. My characters shave their legs and wrestle with God. Would these women be interested? I had my doubts.

Enter the neglected Christian fiction readers, men and women who prefer their fiction to deal with questions that the author is content to leave unanswered--full of beautifully crafted stories and populated with characters straight from life, only a bit larger, in a personality way, than folks we're likely to meet.

The key is knowing your audience or who you are as an audience. I can't remember where I learned this, but I keep this simple truth in mind as I write: According to Aristotle, there are three crucial elements to writing. Audience. Purpose. Voice. I find this to be especially true in the CBA market. Depending on the audience subset of the CBA market, purpose and voice are modified.

For instance, if the audience is looking for validation, a writer would avoid story lines with uncomfortable scenarios, language, or characters. These books are the Louis L'Amour books of CBA. Sure, L'Amour tackles issues of loyalty, hard work, and the value of a quick draw, but nothing any red-blooded, wannabe cowboy would question. We're not making a value judgement here, just identifying audiences. And CBA caters to these readers, no apologies required.

Another audience in the CBA market wants to read--and the genre doesn't matter--fiction that asks questions that aren't necessarily answered. They aren't afraid to look at faith matters in fresh ways, although they're sticklers for theological rectitude. They still want to be entertained, but they're willing to follow the writer's lead through snaky cognitive hoops. This kind of fiction requires the author to trust her audience to participate in the journey. Hopefully, the story and characters stay with the reader long after the last page has been read.

These are just two CBA audiences. There are many more, like those who want fiction they can hand off to their non-believing friends, or character-building reads with strong moral lessons for young readers, or fiction that encapsulates an important faith lesson--think end times or spiritual warfare. Recognizing that we have varying subsets of readers may help us to value what each artist brings to the table, but I'm with Anonymous. Schlock is never appropriate. (I hope we talk someday soon about why schlock, beyond the fact that there's a vast audience for this "genre," is among our biggest sellers. Hear my heart deflating?)

For readers, do you fit in one of these CBA subsets? Which one and why? For writers, who is your audience? How do you write to meet their needs? Care to define a CBA subset I missed? Anyone? Anyone? Is there a subset you consider inappropriate?

Speak amongst yourselves. I'm going to read Latter-Day Cipher. I'll be dropping by.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

From Comic Books to Savvy Reader - How Readers Changed Christian Fiction

Two things to keep in mind this month: Latayne is giving away five copies of her debut novel Latter-Day Cipher! You'll want to get in on that! And, I hope you are all working hard on those manuscripts for the Audience with an Agent contest. Wendy Lawton commented just the other day about how she is looking forward to reading your work. That has got to be a motivating factor! Don't forget to check out the submission details in the promotions section of Novel Matters. Formatting your submission correctly counts. Remember, you want your work to reach the desk of a literary agent. Professional standards for submission applies. Also, keep in mind you are submitting your work to us at Novel Matters first - so be sure to address your correspondence accordingly. We are all very excited to read your submissions. We're pulling for you, and praying for you too!

Debbie asked a wonderful question on Monday - What do you love about Christian fiction? My answer started me down memory lane, and I'd like to share my thoughts with you today.

My introduction to Christian books came early in life in the form of comic books. At first, this was largely a non-fiction foray. Comics like The Cross and the Switchblade, The Hiding Place, and God's Smuggler captivated me. I read In His Steps as a mini-graphic novel long before I heard of the classic version (the one without pictures). I read a comic book about missionaries who were killed by the tribe they were trying to reach for Jesus. Even the life of Jesus first came alive to me in the form of Christian comics.

Then came Christian fiction! Via Archie comics (yep, there really were Christian Archie comics). I read and re-read these stories so often that even now I can recall vast portions of them. To my eight to ten year old mind this was Christian books.

When I was eleven or twelve, I read my first Christian novel, one I borrowed from my older sister. called The Substitute (I can't recall the author's name, and I can't find the book online, any help would be appreciated!). It was biblical fiction - the story took place during the time Jesus walked around teaching and healing. I loved the book - and to this day I can recall several scenes. To my young mind, biblical fiction was Christian fiction.

In my twenties, I read a gentle, old-fashioned sort of novel - about a girl moving west to the untamed Alberta foothills - and I was confused. It wasn't biblical fiction, but it wasn't modern either. Ah, historical fiction. So, somehow I got the idea that Christian fiction should either be biblical fiction, or historical fiction. This notion wedged itself in my mind and became stuck. I decided I didn't like Christian fiction.

A few years later I walked into a Christian store (Christians were half price that day), and discovered shelves of fiction categorized by genre. Weren't there only two genres? I cracked a few spines (book spines that is) and began to build on my limited experience with Christian fiction. What I've learned since then is that hope-filled fiction lingers far longer than I imagined.

Some might argue that the reason I've found a haven in Christian fiction is because it has "grown up" over the years from a fledgling industry to a true literary force. And that would be correct. Others say that the introduction of 'edgy' story lines and 'gritty, real-life' characters has helped readers to connect with Christian content fiction. True enough.

But in reflecting on my experience with Christian fiction, I've learned more about myself than I have about books. I've come to understand that not every book on the Christian shelf was written with me in mind. That there are audiences of readers who like different things than I do, and that over the years, I've been part of a different audience at different times. My fiction wants changed, and so did the books. And, they will change again. Me, and the books.

One thing I believe Christian fiction has going for it more than general market fiction is that it asks itself the question: What is is the people care about? That is a far cry from only asking "what will sell?"

How has your taste in fiction changed? What do you see your fiction needs becoming in the future?

Monday, April 20, 2009

What do you like about Christian fiction?

I would like to send a big 'Novel Matters' welcome to our newest friends and hope that you will feel free to comment on anything which catches your interest in our posts.

Remember our "Audience With an Agent" contest which will result in six lucky writers having their manuscripts read by agent extraordinaire, Wendy Lawton of Books and Such Literary Agency. See our "Promotions" section for guidelines. The contest closes July 31, 2009, but we encourage you to submit your entries as early as you possibly can without compromising the integrity of your submission.

I recently received an email from a wonderful reader who apologetically confessed to viewing Christian fiction with a critical eye. She wanted to value Christian fiction, but was afraid that it might alienate non-Christians, or that the writing would not be as strong. She dreaded reading about 'supernatural conversions' that seemed unrealistic. But most of all, she was concerned about "preaching at people who need to see stories of hope and grace played out in a way that is more tangible and understandable to them than direct Scripture." I wondered how many other readers felt the same way.

I greatly appreciated her comments, especially in light of last week's topic about edgy fiction, or 'addressing the tough issues with honesty while upholding the Christian standard.' Christian fiction has certainly evolved and expanded since its conception. Today, there are many different genres and sub-genres, and they are often in a state of flux. For an industry that began modestly, the Christy Awards now recognizes anywhere from six to nine different categories of fiction each year. As the demand for genre variety continues to be met, the challenge is to reciprocally raise the bar in demand for quality.

My question to readers is, what do you like about Christian fiction and what suggestions do you have for authors? For authors, what impact, if any, might this reader's comments have on your writing?

Friday, April 17, 2009

Fine Line or Green Belt?

I was intentionally quiet on the comments this week as I prepared for my post on this topic. Ethics in Christian fiction covers a broad range of ideas with very subjective opinions covering both ends of the spectrum and everything between.
We've talked about Christian conversion and violence in CBA fiction, but other issues that fit the topic are sex, profanity, the fear factor -- how far to go with disturbing or frightening material -- to name a few.
I've racked my brain this week trying to recall a conversation I recently had with someone about edgy fiction in CBA. I can't remember who the conversation was with, but I remember the essence. The person I spoke with said she doesn't believe getting as close to the edge of the cliff of decency is what defines "edgy." Rather it's addressing the really tough issues with honesty while preserving the Christian standard. That's the finest definition of "edgy" I've heard and it's given me a new way of looking at things.
Debbie and Katy mentioned a Mount Hermon keynote speaker from a few years ago who said if we soft-pedal darkness, we diminish God's glory to overcome it. (Yes, Katy, it was Ted Dekker, and his address was amazing.) I completely agree, but there's a way to do that without crossing the line. Which brings me to the title of this post. Is it a fine line between the standards of CBA and ABA fiction, or is it more of a greenbelt, a span between the borders? Do we come as close to the line as we can possibly get, falling within Christian publishing guidelines by a hair's breadth? Or do we leave a gulf fixed between us? After that conversation with my elusive friend, I'm not so inclined to think of it as a fine line anymore.
I just finished the latest novel of a best-selling Christian author, who most definitely addressed several tough subjects -- and came as close to publishing profanity as I've seen in CBA. First letters followed by the appropriate number of dashes left little to the imagination. The publisher might as well have spelled out the words and been done with it. In my opinion, it wasn't edgy it was gratuitous. The same novel also talked about sex in a way I've not read in CBA, yet I didn't have a problem with it, because it was germane to the story. It wasn't there to titillate.
There are so many gray areas when you get into a topic like this and countless opinions as to how they should be addressed. I think Lori Benton said it best in her comment: "That niggling voice was telling me I'd crossed a line." As Christians we answer to God, so it's best we listen to Him. There's a world of difference between believers and unbelivers, and I think it should be clearly evident in our writing. Do you agree or disagree? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

We Want Your Opinions

This is bonus giveaway month at NovelMatters! First there’s the extraordinary opportunity to have your own novel in the hands of a top literary agent – that’s the point of our fantabulous big contest. Though it will run for several months, your best chance is to submit early so that you will get a thorough, non-deadline-bleary-eyed look from the six of us who will pre-qualify the finalists. Click here for the rules.

In addition, to celebrate with you wonderful readers the release of my first novel, Latter-day Cipher, I would like to offer five of you (who don’t already have it) a copy of my book. Plus I’ll send those winners some “Fiction Samplers” from Moody Publishers for your friends, as well. The samplers contain the first chapter of my book and also the first chapter of Debbie Fuller Thomas’s Tuesday Night at the Blue Moon.

Here’s what I ask you to do:

1) Send me an email at consult at (You know the drill about where the @ sign goes.) Put “NovelMatters Cipher Contest” in the subject line.
2) Copy five friends who are not NovelMatters readers on that email.
3) In the email, tell me what you think of my book trailer. The first five people who do this will receive an autographed copy of the book.

Now, one reason that I want you to look at the book trailer – and have your friends look at it – is that I’ve taken some substantial risks with it. It’s not your usual Christian-book trailer. I told a friend that the book – and the trailer --are probably PG-13. It’s well-produced but admittedly jarring.

Katy Popa wrote a very insightful post on Monday about ethics in writing. Specifically she referred to the dilemma faced by Christian writers in depicting the way that their characters come to faith.

But there are other ethical decisions to be made as well. One of them is the decision about how much – and how graphically – to depict violence. Of course, Christian publishers have parameters they enforce. Yet many of us want to acknowledge some of the gritty issues that our readers face, from the perspective of a Christian worldview – when contemplating those disturbing issues.

What is your “compass” in determining how far to go in reading or writing Christian fiction depicting disturbing issues?

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Christian Ethic in Fiction

Dear readers, please keep in mind our very exciting, truly amazing Audience with An Agent Contest, and your chance to slip your manuscript past the slush pile into the hands of literary agent, Wendy Lawton. Read here for full details.

Is there such a thing as a Christian ethic of fiction writing, a way to show Christlike love to our characters, and, through them, to our readers?

One evening at the Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference, while we six ladies relaxed in our cabin, Bonnie said to me, "You love the slow turning, don't you?" She'd observed that neither of my novels contained what I would term an "altar call:" a sudden dramatic transformation of a character from a state of doubt to a state of faith.

There are authors who do altar calls well, who draw their characters through a story that builds to a seemingly instant metamorphosis that has in fact developed through the crysalis of a well drawn story. (Bonnie is one of these, as is Latayne, whose Latter Day Cipher released just this month.) But it's true: I love a character who does not eat her salvation whole, but instead digests it bite by bite.

It crossed my mind some time ago that, rather than the Damascus Road experience of the Apostle Paul, I would rather give my readers the desert experience of Hagar the slave woman. I'd read the passage in Genesis 16, about the servant given to Abram by his wife, Sarai, so that he could have a child by her. A familiar story, but this time I stared at the word, "slave," and let myself absorb its meaning. Had anybody asked Hagar if she wanted to bear a child by Abram, to sleep with him? Perhaps not. When Sarai began to resent the girl and said as much to Abram, he replied, "She's your slave. Do what you want with her."

So Sarai mistreated Hagar. And Hagar ran away to the desert, where she met an angel who reassured her, who made promises and predictions, some comforting, some... not so much.

But the thing that allowed her to return to the camp was the new way the angel caused her to understand God. He was no longer the God of Abram. He was, she said, "the God who sees me." Had anybody ever really seen her before?

That's the story I remember when I write my fiction. I remind myself that if I develop my characters well, then some of my readers will see themselves in my story, and perhaps they will feel themselves to be seen, to be understood, as never before.

Please tell us about your experiences. Have you read any novels where a conversion scene was well-written? Do you prefer a sudden surrender, or a slow turning? Have you ever read a novel that made you feel deeply understood?

If you're a novelist, how do you express the ethics of your faith in your fiction? Please share with us how you prefer to write your stories, and why.

We do love your comments.

Friday, April 10, 2009

A Good Friday Poem

From my childhood, I have written poems.  Here is one for your Good Friday meditation:

John 19:38-39

What a disheveled heap
This bled-out bone bag makes
Crusted with spit and sweat
Entrusted with threats to the two of us

The workman’s wiry muscles, now slack
Are pitiful as they break through the flayed skin
But the blood – it is all gone, tired of flowing
Clotted and forgotten at the dirt footer of
The flogging pole
And of course
That cross

We avert from each other
But we cannot stop our own tears
Squeezed out between our eyelids
That should shield us from what we see here:
The candlewax pallor

The shamed nakedness we wash and cover first
To give the modesty the audience denied
Our towels dipped in the pots
We lugged down the stairs

The water pinks now
In the lamplight

Part by part
Limb by limb
We dampen and rub away
All the vestiges on
The shell of a delivered-over spirit

One of the winding cloths rolls below the ledges
We reel it in and wrap his arms
From the swaddles on our grizzled forearms

We have grown wrinkles under our tears
The weight is almost beyond our old-men strength
We heft and lean
Balance and wrap

The acrid spices
The confined space
Bring more tears
More tears

We find we do not need
The water any more

Copyright 2008, Latayne C Scott
May not be reprinted without written permission

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Making Friends, Building Community at Mount Hermon

Our Novel Matters group went to Mount Hermon Christian Writers' Conference, and it was incredible. For all of us it was a wonderful chance to sit with people we didn't know at mealtimes and serve and minister to those who are not as far along in the publishing journey as we are blessed to be.  We attended eye-opening classes about the intricacies of this brave new world of publishing --  a world that has changed radically just in the past year. 
Then, in the evenings, we reveled in each others' company -- what a unique group of women I am privileged to know.  One of the greatest treasures of my life are the women whose writing talent takes my breath away.  And since Katy and Sharon won the Mount Hermon Writer of the Year awards, four of the six of us are award-winning authors now!

And, because I am a total technoidiot and cannot put my picture and post at the end of this blogpost, I have moved myself to the top.  I certainly don't deserve to be here other than to demonstrate that I have not yet learned to post last.  

Greetings from not-so-sunny California. Brr! I'm exhausted and exhilarated at the same time. You'll understand after you read the following round table blog. The six Novel Matters gals just spent five days together for the very first time. Here are our reactions.

So encourage each other and build each other up, just as you are already doing. I Thessalonians 5:11

Women get to know each other by telling stories.

Stories about home, hearth, and vocation.
Stories that send us running to empty our bladders.
Stories that crush our hearts.
Stories that tell us we are not alone.

We sacrifice sleep, but not chocolate, to tell our stories, sometimes with threads that weave together and some that embellish with startling clarity.

For the last five days, the Novel Matters girls--all six of us!--have been together at Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference, talking, talking, and more talking. Even though I was assigned to the early-to-bed cabin of the two we occupied, getting to know these ladies proved irresistible. Sleep will happen when I arrive home today. Sitting here with bags under my eyes as big as duffel bags, I don't regret a moment.

Before spending this time together, from my point of view, a newcomer, we were a collection of writers working for a common cause--the growth of upmarket and/or literary fiction in the CBA market. Each woman had become dear for what they offered and the talents they so graciously shared.

Now I have sisters.

They know things about me. I know things about them. And I love them. I ache for their company. I can't wait to be with them again.

We are a community.


Sharon here, and Patti's absolutely right. We had the most amazing, amazing time at Mount Hermon this year. There aren't enough superlatives to describe how much fun we had. Since October, when we came together to discuss the possibility of a doing a blog together -- even though some of us had never met -- a friendship has developed, first at the Books & Such retreat in the fall, then through conference calls putting together our ideas for the blog, and then through the fellowship of writing our posts.

But nothing, nothing, could top the 5 days we just spent together. I didn't know it was possible to laugh as much as we laughed -- truly, until it hurt -- and to go from acquaintances to close friends in such a short period of time. Most of us got by on about 5-6 hours sleep a night in order to spend as much time together as possible. There were many highlights at the conference, but nothing topped the sheer pleasure the 6 of us packed into our time together. My favorite part was the evening we spent reading our works in progress to each other. My cohorts are incredibly talented women and I'm honored to be associated with them, no longer just as a colleague, but as a sister-friend. I can't wait till we're together again!

This past week has been pure joy. I've known for some time what great company I've happened into, what intelligent, talented women I've found to be my friends and partners on this blog. But now I know so much more.

Such as:

If we ever get in serious trouble, it will be Bonnie's fault.

If we ever get in serious trouble, Latayne is smart enough to get us out.

Patti can make anybody laugh any time without saying a word.

If you ever want to keep a secret, Debbie is the one to tell. Because she was the only one of us who knew ahead of time that Sharon and I would be co-winners of the Steve Laube Agency Writer of the Year Award at Mount Hermon.

That was my favorite moment.
They say it takes great intelligence to play the clown. If this is true, then the Novel Matters women must be geniuses. Yes we laughed until we nearly lost consciousness. I might have blacked out once or twice - it's hard to say.
Several things hit home for me this week: Writing is not a competition, but a complication. None of us, not one, should believe that writing must be a solitary pursuit. And, when allowed to soar untethered, the imagination has no boundary.

This past week, I've looked into the eyes of my sister writers and saw there the same creative energy burning unhindered that I feel inside of me. And none of us expresses it in the same way. Katy meanders, unhurried, refusing to bend to the madding crowd - she teaches us to insist on the contemplative, to embrace its fragile arms. Sharon sings songs to our souls, offering healing and truth without reservation - she holds our bruised hands and hums the anthems of hope. Latayne pulls us out of time and space and surrounds us with vivid worlds inspiring us toward knowledge while simultaneously enthralling. Debbie weaves the stories of relationships, leads us into a deeper understanding of ourselves and our place in the world because of who we are and how we treat each other. Patti plants seeds of joy, contemplation and restoration in our minds, nudging us toward embracing our whole lives and all it brings - even when we don't understand it all.

And me? Well, I hope to be an arm around the shoulder, a voice that says, "I understand". A friend for a stretch of your journey.

When all six of us gathered together - in unision with all the others who attended Mount Hermon, we found our strengths made stronger, and our weaknesses diminished in light of true community.

It's a joy to know that this wonderful community not only continues on Novel Matters, but expands daily to include you.

All I can say is "Wow!" What a great time at Mount Hermon. If you've never been, I strongly urge you to make it a priority next year and do everything you can to make it happen. I'm a bit sleep deprived, but filled to the brim and sloshing with renewed energy and inspiration. Not only did I get to deepen relationships with my fellow Novel Matters bloggers, I reconnected with other writers and extended my circle of friends and acquaintances within the writing community. It's wonderful to be able to sit down in a casual environment with an author, editor or agent and see who they are when their author/editor/agent hats sit askewed. We all share the same hopes, fears and dreams, and trust the same Savior to work out His perfect plans in us.

Congratulations to Sharon and Katy for winning the "Writer of the Year" award! It was only fitting that these two friends who met at the same Mount Hermon writing clinic and spurred each other toward excellence should win it together.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Audience with an Agent Contest

It's the moment you've all be waiting for! THE announcement you've been hankering for. Yep, today is the day we announce the first MAJOR contest from Novel Matters.

Audience with an Agent Contest 2009!

Let's all take a deep breath, and steady ourselves. It doesn't get more exciting than this!

You could win an Audience with an Agent!

Who can enter? Novelists in North America.

How does it work? We will post full contest rules in the "Promotions" section of the blog so you can refer back to them whenever you need to - or print them out.

Who is the agent? None other than the amazing uber agent: Wendy Lawton of Books & Such Literary Agency.

There are two stages to the Audience with an Agent Contest:

Stage one: Submit as an attachment a sample chapter of your completed novel along with a one page synopsis to us at by July 31, 2009. (This means you will have until that time to finish your novel if it isn't yet complete, but it is important that your book be finished when you submit your chapter and synopsis. Details of what is expected in a sample chapter and synopsis is posted in the "Promotions" section of the blog).

Stage two: If your manuscript is chosen, it will land on the desk of Wendy Lawton in October, 2009. Wendy will read the sample chapter and synopsis. There will be a total of six manuscripts that will make it to this stage. At that point, it is possible that Wendy will contact one or more of six authors and ask to see a full manuscript. It is completely up to Wendy Lawton's discretion to seek out more information from a writer.

What? Only ONE Chapter?
Yes. Just one.
Latayne shared this story with us one evening: "Once I interviewed several prominent editors from Christian publishing houses for an article I was writing for Christian Retailing magazine, for an article entitled, "What Makes a Bestseller?" One very prominent editor told me of the importance of the first few lines of a manuscript. She said that if the writing didn't "grab" her on the first page -- or conversely, turned her off in those first few lines -- she didn't read further.
All the editors I talked to said that they read manuscripts, proposals, query letters etc. trying to find a reason to reject them. Now, they may not have said it so baldly, but that's what they meant. That's because everyone is inundated with writing. They simply don't have the time to keep reading through boring/illiterate/inappropriately-pitched materials to find something good later on.
When I conducted the interview with this editor, she told of hiring kids from her church youth group to come to her corporate office on Saturdays once a month. She would pay them and buy them pizza just to stuff manuscripts and proposals back into SASEs with form-letter rejection slips. She pictured mountains of materials that deserved a response -- but did not deserve to be published.
Now, that was a decade ago when major publishing houses were all still accepting manuscripts directly from authors; and in the early days of electronic submissions. But I would imagine the story is even more overt today: The ease of electronic submission has made it even easier for increasing numbers of people to send off their projects. Now, if a synopsis or first chapter doesn't compel an agent or editor to read further than the first computer monitor screenful, why would they?"

Some writers ask, "How can an agent or editor really know if they want my book based only on the first chapter and a synopsis?"

The answer is that while you probably won't be offered a contract from a first reading, there is more than enough information in the first chapter and synopsis to let an agent or editor know she wants more. It shows you've got the chops for writing. And it leads to the next step.

Get your submissions ready to send in. We look forward to hearing from you.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Wish You Were Here

We're sitting here in Sharon's office, Bonnie, Debbie, Katy, and Sharon, in anticipation of a great weekend in the California redwoods where we'll meet up with Patti and Latayne. This will be the first time all six of us have met out of cyberspace, and the first time Bonnie and Latayne have been to the Mount Hermon Writers conference. If the six of us have as much fun as the four of us already are, we're in for a fun-filled five days!

Some of the things we are looking forward to: meeting new friends, connecting with old ones, face time with our agents, the gorgeous scenery, the workshops, good advice, catching up on other writers' journeys, seeing writers get new contracts, discovering new things about the industry, hearing what editors are looking for, sharpening our marketing skills, going to the book signing on Monday night, getting ice cream at the soda fountain, enjoying lattes in the Fireside Room, staying up late, late and laughing together, seeing our heroes, and James Scott Bell doing the "Hairy Man Song," and most of all, being in the same room with like-minded people who love to let their artistic light shine.

We hope to get acquainted with some of our readers from Novel Matters who are attending this weekend. Please come up and introduce yourselves.

Every Novel Matters reader who gives us a card will be entered into the April giveaway drawing, which is Latayne's brand new release, Latter Day Cipher. Please write on the back that you follow Novel Matters.

Be sure to stop by the blog on April 15th for a Speak-With-the-Author chat with Latayne celebrating the release of her new novel.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Upmarket Fiction: The Non-Genre Genre?

Latayne's post on Monday generated much enthusiasm in the writers among us, and not just the six of us at Novel Matters. It was an aha! moment for those of us who had never heard the term, but seem to fit the category with our writing. I had to laugh at Patti's comment (if you haven't read it, please do), because I find myself exactly in that position when someone asks, "What do you write?" Well, it's certainly not Seatbelt Suspense like the one and only Brandilyn Collins, or Legal Thriller, or Romance, or Futuristic. In fact, it's easier to say what it isn't than what it is. And when you try, it invariably loses in the translation. But Upmarket Fiction, well, that's something you can work with.
As a refresher, Upmarket Fiction blends the line between commercial and literary novels. I Googled the term and found pages and pages of literary agencies looking for this genre that really isn't a genre, because genre is, well, more defined. And since we've brought up the "L" word -- which seems to be something we're supposed to avoid -- I'd like to pull back the curtain and talk about it. In the article Latayne highlighted, Chuck Sambuchino says literary fiction has a harder time selling than commercial (or genre) fiction, yet according to Judi Clark of,* literary fiction is a book "that really draw(s) you in with language, imagery, character insight and a sense of place." Call me crazy, but that's exactly the kind of book I want to read -- and certainly what I aspire to write.
I often hear people say, "I prefer plot-driven stories to character-driven stories." Yet when they sink their teeth into a really good character-driven novel, they're easily won over. Not that there's anything wrong with plot-driven books. I like them as well as the next guy. But love? No, I don't love them. I want to know the protagonist from the inside out when I invest time in a book. I want to BE her. I want to ride the roller coaster of her life.
Up until Monday I'd have considered the work of authors such as Jodi Picoult, Maeve Binchy, Sue Monk Kidd, Chaim Potok as literary fiction. Chuck categorizes it as Upmarket, in the case of Jodi Picoult at least. He says Upmarket books do well as book club selections and have the "ability to infiltrate lots of book clubs and start discussions..." In her comment to Monday's post, Judy Gann confirms this when she says, "Upmarket books are exactly the type of books we choose for our book club kits at the library." What writer among us isn't up for that?
The term isn't new. I found articles written several years ago about Upmarket Fiction. But I can't help asking myself, is it a case of a rose by any other name perhaps? If so, I'll take it. Because literary fiction, whatever name you give it, is the mouth watering, creme de la creme of fiction. And this reader/writer longs for more.
I'd very much like you to weigh in on this, particularly readers who are not also writers. Do you lean more toward genre fiction? If so, what type? Or do you prefer more literary books?
Book club members, what are you reading this month?
*Clark, J. (n.d.) a guided tour to, retrieved July 2004, from