Friday, May 29, 2009

Timing is... Everything

Announcements! We have announcements!

First of all we are all so proud of our own Sharon K. Souza. Her wonderful, provocative book, Lying on Sunday, is a finalist in the RWA Inspirational Readers Choice Contest. Winners will be announced in July and we are certainly pulling for her –because this excellent book deserves it!

Another announcement is of our latest winner here on Novel Matters. Our first-time poster, Elizabeth McKenzie, has won two copies of Zora and Nicky by Claudia Mair Burney (one for you and one for a friend) – compliments of Cook Communications. Elizabeth, come on down! Or better yet, send your snail mail address to us and we’ll send them off to you posthaste. Or media mail☺

Today’s topic is timing. Not comedic timing. Not the little belt on your car’s engine that gives out to the tune of thousands of dollars in repair bills. Not labor pain timing (though it often feels like that.) I’m speaking of how to pick up writing after you’ve been interrupted.

Now, up until recently that has never been an issue for me. All twelve of my nonfiction books, and hundreds of magazine articles, were written from 3x5 cards that I arranged in logical order. It was a system that worked perfectly for me. If a child screamed bloody murder out in the yard, I could attend to that emergency and all its circumstantial tendrils (‘oo killed ‘oo; the overboiling pot on the stove, the escaping cat, the leaking diaper and on and on) – and come back to my desk and know exactly what should come next.

But ah, fiction….

I absolutely must have extensive, uninterrupted blocks of time to first travel to, and then reside in, a fictional world. I can’t write a novel in short spurts.

The absolute worst writing advice I ever acted on was that of an unnamed woman who said that the best way to resume her writing when she had to take a break was to stop in mid-sentence. She said that helped her get going for the next writing session.

I remember doing that. Trouble is, I had no idea where I was going with the half-thought on the screen the next morning. I spent half a day trying to figure out what the heck I must have been thinking. I could have strangled that woman.

How about you? What’s the worst advice you ever got regarding how to keep the flow going?

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Moral Of the Story Is...

"Write to Entertain... If you want to preach, get a soapbox."
~Stephen King.

"All lasting books are (message books). Period."
~Ian Beckwith

I've heard the first one before, haven't you? It's one of those cardinal rules of story-craft, an especially troublesome one for those of us who write faith based fiction. How to write in such a way that acknowleges the presence of God in the story, without seeming to deliver a message? We've all known novels that read like 300-page Bible tracts, and even Christians don't like them.

So what to do? Shall we write stories that begin and end like millions of others out there? Boy meets girl, loses her, gets her back again. The butler killed the maid, and he did it with the pipe wrench. Shall we write our stories all the same, except that we parent our characters, insist that they pray once per plot point, watch their language, and keep their clothes on?

Not that I'm itching to write a bodice-ripper, but somehow that whole idea leaves me cold. The fact is, I don't like stories that merely entertain.

To our rescue comes Ian Beckwith. You know him, don't you? He's the handsome college professor in Sharon's latest novel, Lying on Sunday. To prove his point, he suggests that people who read Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird only for its entertainment value are like people who eat carrot cake for its vitamin A. (Don't you love it that he equates the book's message to the sweetness in the cake?)

Turns out, Stephen King actually agrees with him. Here's what he really said:

Write to entertain. Does this mean you can't write "serious fiction"? It does not. Somewhere along the line pernicious critics have invested the American reading and writing public with the idea that entertaining fiction and serious ideas do not overlap. This would have surprised Charles Dickens, not to mention Jane Austen, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Bernard Malamud, and hundreds of others. But your serious ideas must always serve your story, not the other way around. I repeat: if you want to preach, get a soapbox.*

So there's the thing that distinguishes Mockingbird from a 300 page Bible tract: The serious stuff serves the story, not the other way around.

Now I wonder: what are some of your favorite "message books?" Did the message serve the story? Did the story change you or inspire you in some way? As always, we love to read what you have to say.

*You can read the rest of Stephen King's advice here.

Monday, May 25, 2009

True Confessions...or not

For all of those serving in the armed services, today or in the past, and to the families who support their loved ones who go into harm's way, our deepest gratitude. Happy Memorial Day.
Before starting the round table discussion, we want to remind you of our May giveaway. To win two copies of Zora and Nicky by Claudia Mair Burney (one for you and one for a friend), just make your first comment on Novel Matters and tell us it's your first time. That will put your name in the hat, and the hat is empty! You are amazingly brilliant and articulate people but a little shy about admitting this is your first time to comment. Come on, we don't
bite. And if you're a little shy, this book is worth stepping out of your comfort zone. You'll love it. And thanks to the people at Cook Publications for providing the books. BTW, the giveaway is this Friday. It really is time to speak up.

I'm preparing to speak at a library event. The organizers were especially interested in the origins of my storytelling life. I know what they want to hear, that I checked stacks of books out of the library every week. Yes, I certainly did that, but the deeper I dug for the truth of my storytelling roots, the library faded in importance.
I told my first story while standing in my mother's sunny kitchen. She asked, "Patti Ann, have you been in the strawberry patch?" How did she know? To admit such a crime meant punishment. As she scrubbed at my face, I told her that I was wearing wipstick. (I was only three years old!) "Really?" she said. "Yes, I'm going to church, and I want to look pretty, just like you." I don't remember if the strong arm of the law came down on me that day. But this wasn't my last "story." All through school, I embellished my humdrum life to school chums and strangers. I also used my storytelling skills to stay out of trouble, and sadly, I was very, very good at it.
This is just one of the reasons I love Jesus so much. He took something from my life that kept me dangerously close to disaster
(you know, sin!) and redeemed it. He turned my ashes to beauty!
Okay girls, now you know. My storytelling origins are dark indeed. What's your story?

I've always had an artistic streak. From as far back as I can remember, my free time was spent with a drawing pad and pencil, and, typically, 17 Magazine, because I always drew the models' faces. Then as a high school senior I added oil painting, again always painting faces.
I loved reading, and I wrote typically bad 60's poetry in high school. But I think my storytelling came from my love of music. Music has always been a huge part of my life, probably because my dad was a singer/musician. I was always touched by the stories told in the songs he sang.
In 1970, Joni Mitchell came out with "The Circle Game," one of my all-time favorite songs, which tells a beautiful story about the cycle of life. Then in '75 Janis Ian's "At 17" was released. I was already married with 2 babies, but I related deeply to that song, felt like it was my story, and was impressed with how Janis could tell such a moving story with such an economy of words.
Those two songs more than any others stirred a desire within me to be a storyteller. I'm not a musician, so songwriting was out, but 11 years after I first heard "At 17," I began to write my first novel. I fell in love with writing then and have yet to fall out. I may never be as effective a storyteller as Joni and Janis, but they certainly give me something to shoot for.

Want my full attention? Just tell me a story. I'll sit dreamy eyed, at attention until you tell me "the end". From what I can tell, I've always been that way - pulled in by story. When I was about nine or ten, my best friend, Tracy, turned to me and said, "You should be a comedian." At first I was insulted because I didn't know what a comedian was, but it sounded close to custodian, and I knew what that was. But she was the first person to tell me I was funny.
I married my love for telling stories with acting. Even as a kid, I could memorize huge swaths of dialogue. I acted out movie parts and plays in front of my bedroom mirror. By the time I got to high school, acting was the central theme of my existence. With it came writing. I wrote scenes, monologues, stage directions, you name it. Around that time, my parents bought a typewriter. I hogged it for weeks, pounding out a very bad romance novel my mother adored.
I suppose what I lacked in skills I made up for with enthusiasm. I simply loved story, in all it's forms. It is the best vehicle we have to transmit understanding, to share ideals, to give voice to our fears and, in the end, banish them. To this day, I use story in everything I do. When counseling a family in crisis, or speaking to a group of women, or playing with my kids, the I use the power of storytelling to help us all understand our lives a little better.

Funny you should ask. I just attended an excellent local musical production of one of my favorite childhood stories, The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint Exupéry. My mother bought me the book when I was nine. We had just read together Winnie the Pooh, and I still think A.A. Milne is one of the best ever at using language to enchant the reader. But The Little Prince was my first exposure to a tale with a level of depth and significance. It offered all the story-stuff I was used to: outlandish characters, fantastical adventures, and a moral ("It is only with the heart that one can see rightly..."), sitting nicely on top so I pluck it up and go outside to play. But when I got outside, I had this feeling that there was something more the story was saying, something just beneath the surface. So I read it again, and again, and again. I'm still reading it. Each time I do I come away with something more, and each time I have the feeling that there is more still to be found, if I just keep looking.

That book had a lot to do with the kind of writing I would love all my life, and the things that I would value most in my own writing.

You want confession? I'll give you confession. When I was newly married and we were eating barbequed chicken backs because that was the only cut of meat we could afford, a fellow writer told me you could make good money writing -- are you ready for this? Confessions. The kind that go in true confession magazines. Well, I had nothing lurid or racy to confess, I told that person. Didn't matter. All you had to do was write a really lively story in the first person (with a pseudonym) and if it was accepted you had to sign an affidavit saying that something like that had actually occurred to someone in real life. Somewhere. Of course my research-hound nose started twitching and I unearthed articles about women who'd done what I considered really shocking things. One article was entitled, "My Neighbor, the Welfare Queen." Thank goodness nobody ever bought a single one. It was decades later before I decided to try my hand at fiction again.

Funny, though, how Latter-day Cipher has become as much a confession of my heart as the non-fiction I have written all my life.

Okay, two confessions. The first is the horrible, terrible, no good speech I wrote for my high school graduation on the topic of scholarship. I mean, who thinks up these topics? The worst part is that I thought it was pretty good until I got up to give it in front of my whole graduating class. You know how your house can look perfectly clean until you have company, and then you see the cobwebs and feel the grit under your feet - maybe I should stop. Well, as I gave the speech, it occurred to me how truly bad it was. 'Nuff said.

The second one is that the very first thing I toyed with writing was Lord of the Rings fan fiction, before there even was fan fiction. I'm talking YEARS ago, before the movies came out. I had finished reading them and just didn't want to give up the characters and the magic of the place, so I wrote alternate endings. They are destroyed - more really sappy stuff. I hope my storytelling has moved on significantly since then.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Creating All Those Character Names, and Descriptions - A day in the life

We've been talking about the writing process this week - talking characters! Sharon kicked us off by sharing her wisdom and insight about character description, Debbie helped us understand the richness and depth that can be found in a well chosen name.
Maybe you're like me and thinking, "If I need to put so much time and effort into just a few aspects of my book - how long and how much effort does it take to write an entire book??"

Well, jump in my dune buggy and I'll take you along with me as I struggle with concepts, wrestle with words, and fights to get each sentence to behave itself!

There are dishes in my sink, kids to be picked up, laundry to be washed, friends waiting to hear back from me. . . but, I’m busy thinking.

My husband, Steve, rushes in the room. “I’m taking the van in to be serviced, Ben needs to be picked up at school and Heather has swimming lessons.”

“Hmm?” I say, not looking up from my computer screen. “Do you think zinnias grow well this far north?”

“What are zinnias?” says Steve.

I flip to another screen. “Would you describe this color as ‘gun metal’ or ‘stainless steel’?”

“Bonnie,” he sighs. “We really need to get going.”

“Where?” I ask, as I follow him out the door. We climb into the van and I say, “Have you ever picked a lock with a pencil? I mean, do you think it can be done?”

“What are you doing in the van?” says Steve. “You have to take the car to get Ben. And where is Heather?”

I get out of the van and walk around to the driver’s side. I tap on the window. “Do you think people eat bunt cake at funerals most often, or are brownies more common?”

“Finger sandwiches, and don’t forget to pick me up at the garage when you are done at Heather’s swim lesson,” Steve hollers as he drives off.

Pretty good. I fish for the notebook I always keep on me and write ‘fgr sands’. I’m sure I’ll know what it means when I read it later. My daughter, Heather, finds me standing on the driveway scribbling in my notebook. “I’m ready,” she says.

“For what? Hey, Heather, do you think someone could climb up that lattice?” I say, pointing to the structure leaning against the house. “Or do you think it would break?”

“Sure. You could do it, Mommy.” She climbs into the backseat of the car.

I hesitate. She could be right, but she’s only four, and I doubt she knows much about it. I write it down anyway. I’m walking back to the house when I hear Heather call, “Mommy? I have swimming lessons.”

“Oh yeah, uh, I know. I was just going to call Ben.” I holler into the house, “Ben!”

“Ben is at school,” Heather says.

I check my watch. 3:45. I’m fifteen minutes late picking him up.

“How was school?” I say to Ben when I finally reach him.

“We had a substitute teacher. He had a big nose,” He says

“How big,” I say. “Big like a ball of dough, or big like a ski slope?”

“Big like a pickle,” says Ben.

“Wow. That’s really good Ben.”

“It is?”

“Yes. Big like a pickle. Good for you,” I jot it down in my notebook, put the car in gear, and head it toward the pool.

I leave my daughter with a girl I'm reasonably sure is her swimming instructor and sit by the poolside. Soon, I'm transfixed by the movement of the water. I mumble to myself and scratch in my notebook. “Hey Ben, what do you think that water looks like? Besides wavy. You can’t say wavy.”

He thinks for a moment, head tilted to one side. “Bumpy.”

I roll my eyes. Six year olds. But I write it down anyway.

After swimming, I head to the library. The kids run for the children’s section while I get lost in the instructional books. I’m immersed in a passage detailing the invention of toilet paper when my son pokes his head around the book shelf. “I’m hungry, when are we going home?”

“Soon,” I mumble as, once again, I hear the theme song from The Pink Panther playing loudly. “Why on earth do they keep playing that song over and over again?” I say as I write down the name Joseph Gayette.

“Mommy, your purse is playing that song,” Ben says.

Oh, yeah. Steve downloaded it as a ring tone for my new phone. Rats. “Hello?”

“Bonnie,” says Steve. “Where are you?”

“The library, of course. Did you know the ancient Romans used wool soaked in rose water as toilet paper?”

“No. I’ve been waiting for over an hour. I’ve called and called.”

“Waiting for what? Hey, Steve, only fourteen percent of households had bathtubs in 1907.”

“Good to know. Please come and pick me up at the garage.”

“The garage? What are you doing there?”

Later that night, I lay in bed exhausted. I lean over and kiss my husband goodnight. “I’ll be glad when this book is done,” I say. “You don’t know how consuming writing is.”

He smiles and says, “Oh, I think I do.”

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

What's in a Name?

As I begin a new book proposal, I remember what it's like to open a fresh can of Playdough. The odd kid-scent of it. The vibrant colors. Hefting it in my palm and digging my fingers into the soft, yielding medium. The possibilities for creativity are endless. I can make a hot pink pizza with neon yellow pepperoni, or I can roll it out and make hot dogs or french fries or 'bisghetti'. (Can you tell I taught preschool?) I think new beginnings for writers are a bit like fresh Playdough. You can take your idea, work with it, reshape it and toss it 'back in the can,' and no one's the wiser.

One part of the creative process that Sharon posted about is how important it is for the writer to have the character's appearance firmly in mind when discovering that character's story, but not to 'paint a portrait' for the reader. Other attributes may say more about the character than a physical description could. This was brought home to me when I received the book cover art for Raising Rain. As I wrote it, I found headshots for everyone except for Rain as a child. When I saw her on the front cover standing apart from the women who raised her, my heart filled with compassion. Her part of the story came alive for me, and I yearned to pick her up and comfort her, though I never saw her face.

While physical attributes are important, names can also give insight into a character. Willy Loman, in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman is a 'low man' who comes to a bad end (oops, spoiler alert!). To Kill a Mockingbird's Boo Radley is the perfect name for a character who starts out with an ominous air about him. The name 'Whiskey Priest' describes the troubled state of Graham Green's character in The Power and the Glory. Hannibal (rhymes with cannibal) Lechter is pretty self-explanatory, and Dorothy Gale's name (Wizard of Oz) is descriptive, though not overly subtle.

A character's name can be an outright attempt at description, or a very subtle tag. It can suggest a character's situation in life, including where they are in the birth order (Jr.?), the time period in which they live (Fitzwilliam Darcy), the country (Madeline) or even the section of the country where they were born (Ma & Pa Joad). In fiction, it's not advisable for two characters' names to begin with the same letter or to sound similar unless a relationship is implied, such as with twins or siblings. A strong character might have a shorter name with harsher consonants (Captain Kirk) and a softer character might have something more flowing (Buttercup). Some authors choose names for the cadence (Inigo Montoya) or for an unusual quality (Spock). Most authors steer clear of hard to pronounce names, such as Hermione in the Harry Potter series. The author finally cleared it up by having Hermione explain the pronunciation of her name to a visiting Bulgarian student with whom there was a language barrier. Smooth. Maybe I should have thought of that. One of my new characters is named Roberta - Bebe for short - and people are already mispronouncing it. I should have had her explain "Bebe, as in BB gun" to someone. The author should always avoid anything that causes an interruption of the story by the reader stumbling over words or names.

While many name generating online sites are specifically for people searching for fantasy game names, there are also websites specifically for authors. One such website is, but the names are chosen randomly and this doesn't really give any insight into the character or take into consideration your story. I prefer to take the time to choose just the right name for my character to live with. Work that Playdough a bit longer.

Does a name come to mind that describes a memorable character for you? How do you go about choosing names for your characters? We'd love to hear!

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Face Behind the Name

I'd like to welcome our new followers, and remind everyone of our amazing, exclusive Audience With an Agent contest. Six winning fiction entries will be read by Wendy Lawton of Books & Such Literary Agency. Click on the "promotions" tab for submission guidelines. Please read and follow the guidelines carefully, and get your manuscripts to us by July 31.
As I sit at my desk writing my latest novel, I have a collage of my main characters before me. When I create characters for a new book, their names have to be just right. I experiment with different names, as if they were a taste to be savored, until I hit on exactly the right one. I always know when I've found it, for it's as if someone has just introduced me to that "person."
But not until two books ago, when I wrote Lying on Sunday, did I spend as much time searching for the right faces to go with the names. Now as I develop my character profiles I spend a day or two navigating through "headshot" sites until I find the perfect image that correlates to the one in my mind for each of my main characters. The benefits are that I feel I know them better than ever before, and it's easier to keep track of their physical attributes, so I don't give someone green eyes in Chapter 1 and brown eyes in Chapter 12. For me it's added another dimension to the discovery process. And after all, that's what a novel is all about--for the reader and the writer: becoming acquainted with someone new and learning as much of her story as she's willing to share.
But that doesn't mean I have to paint a portrait for the reader. In fact, the more I write the less inclined I am to give details about physical appearance that aren't necessary to the story. It may be far more important to know that my protagonist has a scar on her ring finger than that she has blond hair or dimples. Here's a perfect example of germane description from Joy Jordan Lake's Blue Hole Back Home:
"I watched the new girl swing her leg out from under her red skirt--a brown leg, darker at the knee than the thigh, and darker still more at the calf. And I watched the boys watching the brown, or maybe the shape--I wouldn't know what boys see when they watch--of first one leg then the other, and not a one of them . . . able to talk . . . Me, I had a spasm of wanting to stay put myself, of fear that tripped up my feet and made me wish desperately I could miss this one trip to the Blue Hole with our mangy pack and the new girl. Because I was beginning to think what a bad, what a truly remarkably bad idea this whole thing might be." Trust me, it only gets better from there.
Here are some passages from my talented Novel Matters colleagues that tell us more than outright physical descriptions ever could:
"Laura-Lea marched to the center of the room and, hands on her oh-so-slim hips, she planted her feet far apart on the floor. I wouldn't have been surprised if she'd produced pom-poms and broke out into a catchy cheer" from Bonnie Grove's Talking to the Dead.
"But Jane isn't a paralytic, and she isn't a child at rest in my lap. I may lower her through the roof to Jesus' presence, but chances are she hops off the mat and elbows through the crowd toward the door" from Patti Hill's upcoming novel Seeing Things.
"'I really didn't know I had an audience, or I might have spent more time on my costume . . . You know, something with veils. Orange and pink and red ones, I think. Maybe a belly button ring.' She lifted her shirt and tugged at her waistband to regard a freckled stomach. Like a sack of Jell-O, Dara thought" from Kathleen Popa's To Dance in the Desert.
"Kirsten Young lay on her back, a serence Ophelia in her dusky pond of blood . . . No, no, she wasn't Ophelia at all, he thought. She was Eve, temptress and sinner cast from the garden of Utah, wearing a hasty apron of cottonwood leaves heaped around and across her plump belly" from Latayne C. Scott's Latter-Day Cipher.
"If my life was a made-for-TV movie, it would start this same way, with the monster truck pulling up in front of Grandma's and this Barbie-wannabe getting out" from Debbie Thomas's Tuesday Night at the Blue Moon.
As a writer, what methods do you use to create your characters? How detailed are you in their development? And as a reader, how much information do you want to know about a character's appearance? Does too much or too little affect your enjoyment of the story?

Friday, May 15, 2009

Smokin' Hot New Trends in the Christian Fiction Market

As promised, our esteemed friend Sally Stuart, compiler of The Christian Writers' Market Guide, is here as a guest blogger today. In one of her Q&A responses, she tells below how to get the attention of an agent and/or editor. We here at NovelMatters remind you of our now-running contest, Audience With an Agent. Six winning entries will be read by Wendy Lawton of Book & Such Literary Agency. Submission details under the "promotions" tab. So get those manuscripts polished until they shine, and listen to the wisdom of Sally Stuart as she tells us what impressions and data she gleaned from the new edition of the Guide which just went to press.....

Question: What are the most significant changes you've seen in this upcoming Christian Writers' Market Guide, as compared to the previous one?

Sally Stuart: It seems that most of the changes this year are somehow connected to the advancement of technology. For years I have stressed the importance of submitting material to an editor by name, but every year it seems like more and more publishers are not naming editors in the guide and are asking that submissions be sent by e-mail to a generic e-mail address, or not even supplying an e-mail address but requiring the use of an online submission form.

Of course, one of the most significant changes is the drop in the number of markets. Although there are 18 new book publishers for 2010, the total number is 384--34 less than last year. There are just under 600 periodicals listed (35 new), but 54 fewer than last year. I am hearing of more publications going out of business every week now.

Question: You have your finger on the pulse of Christian publishing. What's hot in book-length Christian fiction right now?

Sally Stuart: Although Amish books seem to be all the buzz these days, I checked to see which genres increased in interest based on publishers' responses in the topical listings in the next edition. The Teen/YA category actually went up the most with 14 new publishers. The next batch tied at 13 new publishers apiece: biblical, frontier, and novellas. Frontier/romance was up 11; followed by historical, mystery/suspense, and historical/romance up 9. The rest ranged from 1-6. Science fiction was the only one not to gain any, and a new genre this year is cozy mysteries with 24 publishers showing interest.

Question: The Christian book industry, like all book industries right now, is suffering. Are editors willing to take chances on first-time novelists?

Sally Stuart: I think publishers are always on the look-out for the next great novelist. But they want really great fiction. Your best chance for making that agent or editor connection is to attend conferences where there are a lot of them present. That's where they're out there looking.

Question: What's the most important thing you would convey to aspiring Christian novelists?

Sally Stuart: The best thing a novelist can do is work on polishing his/her craft. Strive to be exceptional--to stand out in the crowd. Be sure the book is not only well written but well edited. Publishers these days are short-handed and they want books that will require little or no editing. But if an editor sends the book back for rewrites, do it. I'm amazed at how many authors just ignore those requests and just drop it or try another publisher. If a publisher is willing to invest their time to make you a success, you owe them your best.

Sally E. Stuart
Christian Writers' Market Guide (order the market guide here) (marketing info here)

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Opening Paragraphs I Have Loved

Patti's post on Monday reminded me how much I love that delicious moment when I spot a new novel in a bookstore, pick it up, and turn to the first page. Will this story fascinate/frighten/enchant me? Will I find something transcendent?

I loved the excerpt Patti gave us from Elizabeth Berg's The Promises We Keep. You too? Did you want -yes, oh yes!- to keep reading?

Today I searched among my favorite novels to find examples of Les Edgerton's ten components of a great opening. The result is a longish post largely made up of other people's brilliance - indented so you can tell their words from mine.

1) The Inciting Incident

My friendship with Sharon K. Souza began with the opening paragraphs of her novel, Every Good and Perfect Gift. You may have read that we became friends at a fiction critique clinic at the Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference. Before the clinic began, while we were reading each other's manuscripts in preparation, Sharon sent me an email. But before she did that, I'd already read the following, and knew she had both my respect and my friendship:
“Gabby, I want a baby.”

I choked on my soda, grabbed the tissue DeeDee offered as I coughed up the liquid I’d inhaled, then looked to see if she was as serious as she sounded. She was.

“I want a baby,” she said again, looking for all the world as if she’d uttered nothing more than, “Look at that, a hangnail."
2) The Story-worthy Problem

I met Debbie Fuller Thomas while she was writing Tuesday Night at the Blue Moon. When she told me the concept, I thought it sounded like a good story. Then I read her intriguing first paragraph, and knew that it was much better than good:
We weren't strangers to this courtroom. The first time we came, it was to petition to have Ginger's hospital birth records opened. When you lose a child to a genetic disease that doesn't haunt your family, you want to know why.
3) The Initial Surface Problem

Ever find a passage so good you have to read it aloud to someone else? When I shared the opening lines of Bonnie Grove's Talking to the Dead, my husband said, "I like her already."
Kevin was dead and the people in my house wouldn't go home. They mingled after the funeral, eating sandwiches, drinking tea, and spoke in muffled tones. I didn't feel grateful for their presence. I felt exactly nothing.

Funerals exist so we can close doors we'd rather leave open. But where did we get the idea that the best approach to facing death is to eat Bundt cake?
4) The Setup

One of those delicious bookstore moments happened when I picked up The Book of Fred, a novel about a young girl raised in a religious cult, by Abby Bardi:
When Little Freddie took sick, I knew things would change, and change fast. We sat next to his bed all day, laying our hands on him and saying the Beautiful Prayer, but he just got hotter to the touch and more shivery. His skin looked yellow, like he was turning into old paper. I laid my hand on his forehead and said "Get thee hence" a bunch of times, but it didn't help. That night I had a dream that the Archangel Willie came to me and said, "Lo, Mary Fred, thou wilt be traveling down the road. Thou wilt be somewheres else when the Big Cat comes. So look to yourself and say Ho."

When I woke up, I said Ho a bunch of times. Then I went to see Little Freddie, but he was already gone.

5) Backstory

The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells is all about backstory, about the way our past plays with our present.
Sidda is a girl again in the hot heart of Louisiana, the bayou world of Catholic saints and voodoo queens. It is Labor Day, 1959, at Pecan Grove Plantation, on the day of her daddy's annual dove hunt. While the men sweat and shoot, Sidda's gorgeous mother, Vivi, and her gang of girlfriends, the Ya-Yas, play bourrée, a cut-throat Louisiana poker, inside the air-conditioned house. On the kitchen blackboard is scrawled: SMOKE, DRINK, NEVER THINK--borrowed from Billie Holiday. When the ladies take a break, they feed the Petites Ya-Yas (as Ya-Ya offspring are called) sickly sweet maraschino cherries from the fridge in the wet bar.
6) A Stellar Opening Sentence

The first sentence in Walter Wangerin's The Book of Sorrows is wonderful, as are all of his sentences, especially in this novel, and in its companion (which should be read first), The Book of the Dun Cow:
Two Hens, white in a yellow field, walking with that thrust of the head which suggests that they are going secretly, on tiptoe, as spies, or comic exaggerations of spies, placing their claws with infinite care.
7) Language

The thing about Latayne Scott's suspense novel, Latter Day Cipher is that it is more than suspenseful. It is also thoughtful and graceful. Witness the eerily beautiful scene of the crime that begins the story:
There on the damp pine needles, Kirsten Young lay on her back, a serene Ophelia in her dusky pond of blood. The dark irises of her bloodshot eyes stared unseeing into the branches above her. The sun had burst through the clouds after the sudden downpour and now blazed above the canopy of conifers and aspens in Provo Canyon. Deep in its recesses, the light filtered down in vertical sheets of champagne dust that played across the body.
8) Character

I think it's Patti Hill's instinct for humor that allows her to create such wonderfully dimensional characters as we find in The Queen of Sleepy Eye. She knows what makes people simultaneously funny and poignant, what makes them real:
I was no bigger than a bug in my mother’s womb when the two of us drove away from Sleepy Eye, Minnesota, toward our lives as a duet.

Mom had no destination in mind. The Kaskaskia River wound through the trees like a silver ribbon. The scene reminded her of a photograph that had hung over her parents’ bed, so she parked the Pontiac and slept for the first time in three days. Months later I was born at St. Margaret’s Hospital within a stone’s throw of that parking space.

9) Setting

Ron Hansen's Mariette in Ecstasy won my heart forever on the first page, not because I had any idea what might take place in the novel, but because, whatever the story, I wanted to spend time in this world where the sentences ticked away the moments like the quiet swing of a pendulum:
Upstate New York.

August 1906.

Half-moon and a wrack of gray clouds.

Church windows and thirty nuns singing the Night Office in Gregorian chant. Matins. Lauds. And then silence.

Wind, and a nighthawk teetering on it and yawing away into woods.

Wallowing beetles in green pond water.


Cattails sway and unsway.

Grape leaves rattle and settle again.

Workhorses sleeping in horse manes of pasture.

Wooden reaper. Walking plow. Hayrick.

Limestone pebbles on the paths in the garth. Jasmine. Lilac. Narcissus.

Mother Céline gracefully walking, head down.


Mooncreep and spire.

10) Foreshadowing

Gilead may be my favorite novel of all time. In her first paragraph, Marilynne Robinson lets you taste the gentle wisdom, the affection, the tender story to come.

I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I'm old, and you said, I don't think you're old. And you put your hand in my hand and you said, You aren't very old, as if that settled it. I told you you might have a very different life from mine, and from the life you've had with me and that would be a wonderful thing, there are many ways to live a good life. And you said, Mama already told me that. And then you said, Don't laugh! because you thought I was laughing at you. You reached up and put your fingers on my lips and gave me that look I never in my life saw on any other face besides your mother's. It's a kind of furious pride, very passionate and stern. I'm always a little surprised to find my eyebrows unsinged after I've suffered one of those looks. I will miss them.

Yes, yes Patti. We must keep reading.

Your turn, dear readers. Tell us the opening paragraphs that made you fall in love with your favorite novels. I can't wait to read your comments.

Monday, May 11, 2009


Just a reminder that a wonderful novel, Zora and Nicky by Claudia Mair Burney, is our May giveaway. To be eligible, make your first-ever comment to one of our blogs, mentioning this is your maiden voyage, so to speak. We'll send a copy of Claudia's book to you and to one of your friends. Instant book club! The drawing will be May 29th, so--ahem--speak up!

Back when Melville started his epic novel, Moby Dick, with "Call me Ishmael," his readers knew they were in for a ride. Most would have been familiar with the implications of such a name. Ishmael was an outcast, second rate, a bit of an embarrassment, and he was the chosen narrator. The reader was hooked.

How do you decide which book to read? I read the first sentence. If that tickles my imagination, I continue on through the first paragraph, and I may read through the first couple pages. That's when the smokin' credit card comes out.

It turns out that most people choose novels this way. That makes beginnings crucial. Beginnings must sell the story within the first sentence, a paragraph, or scene--first to an agent or editor and then to a reader.

Enter a whole book on writing the irresistible opening scene, Hooked by Les Edgerton, who identifies ten core components of an effective opening: (1) the inciting incident; (2) the story-worthy problem; (3) the initial surface problem; (4) the setup; (5) backstory; (6) a stellar opening sentence; (7) language; (8) character; (9) setting; and (10) foreshadowing. Edgerton claims the first four are the most important with the others vary by degree, depending on the story.

Egads! That's quite a balancing act!

Knowing the components of a strong beginning is one thing, constructing them artfully and effectively is another. So what gold nugget can I extract from Hooked for you today?

Beyond the components mentioned, Edgerton reveals the true need for a hook-through-the-lip beginning: Novel readers are following the same trend as the rest of society. Groan. Their attention spans have shrunk. It's up to the writer to jump into the story in such a way that the reader feels the story's current and surrenders to the ride. I'm not necessarily talking about Class V rapids, but the writer must respect the reader's intelligence, their ability to catch up to the characters and the story without tons of backstory. And by the way, no fair leaving your reader confused either. It's all a delicate dance, to be sure.

For our discussion today: Readers, what makes you commit to a novel? Writers, what components of a strong beginning shall we open for discussion and questions? Anyone, toss the title of a novel with a strong beginning out for us to snatch up.

Pardon me this indulgence. This is one of my favorite openings from The Things We Keep by Elizabeth Berg:

Outside the airplane window the clouds are thick and rippled, unbroken as acres of land. They are suffused with peach-colored, early morning sun, gilded at the edges. Across the aisle, a man is taking a picture of them. Even the pilot couldn't keep still--"Folks," he just said, "we've got quite a sunrise out there. Might want to have a look." I like it when pilots make such comments. It lets me know they're awake.

Whenever I see a sight like these clouds, I think maybe everyone is wrong; maybe you can walk on air. Maybe we should just try. Everything could have changed without our noticing. Laws of physics, I mean. Why not? I want it to be true that such miracles occur. I want to stop the plane, put the kickstand down, and have us all file out there, shrugging airline claustrophobia off our shoulders. I want us to be able to breathe easily this high up, to walk on clouds as if we were angels, to point out our houses to each other way, way, way down there; and there; and there. How proud we would suddenly feel about where we live, how tender toward everything that's ours--our Mixmasters, resting on kitchen counters; our children, wearing the socks we bought them and going about children's business; our mail lying on our desks; our gardens, tilled and expectant. It seems to me it would just come with the perspective, this rich appreciation.

I lean my forehead against the glass, sigh. I am forty-seven years old and these longings come to me with the same seriousness and frequency that they did when I was a child.

Shall we keep reading?

Friday, May 8, 2009

Can I Tell You a Secret?

A writer writes because she's got something in her craw. Why else would she return to the same motifs story after story after story? And writers do.

I was aware that both my novels were about women who'd run off to secluded houses to be alone. Bonnie pointed out they are also about women whose husbands are dead. (That is a worry, but I promise you, I adore my husband.) A reader suggested they are all about crazy, wild, bohemian women. (Hmmm...)

I take comfort knowing I'm not the only one who does this. In Writing Towards Wisdom: the Writer as Shaman, Robert Burdette Sweet reminds us:
"After all what Hawthorne did was write guilt, guilt, guilt, guilt. And Kafka did write father, punishment, father, father, father and Hemingway did growl cowardice, courage, cowardice, cowardice."
My hunch is that a good novel is the pearl that emerges from the pain that's worked its way into the writers inner life.

In Alone With All That Could Happen, David Jauss suggests that fiction is a lie told in the interest of truth:
"Writing about the secret life is not, then, a matter of revealing actual secrets but of distorting and altering them, consciously or unconsciously, so they tell a larger kind of truth. If you simply reveal a secret-- tell the god's honest truth about it-- you may in fact tell a lie about your real, inner life. At the very least, you will be false to the primary characteristic of the secret, which is that it is secret."
In her excellent blog, My Family Secrets (where you can anonymously post your own), Mary Demuth writes, "In Daisy Chain, many characters harbor secrets, but only a few are brave enough to bring them to the light of day and find freedom and hope." I'm glad there are writers like Mary who are brave enough to obey Emily Dickinson who told us to "Tell All the Truth but tell it slant," so as to offer comforting, hopeful fellowship to her readers.

What about you? Have you noticed recurring themes in the writing of a favorite author? How have your own secrets added power to your fiction?

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Writing and the Rock Star Life.

Can ya hear the crowds chanting your name? Can ya just hear the roar of approval when you step onto the stage before an audience numbering in the tens of thousands - all wearing t-shirts with your picture on them - adjust your microphone and. . . read aloud.

Chances are, no matter how popular an author is, a mosh pit has never opened up at one of his readings. Few teenaged girls have passed out while a poet laureate signs 8x10 glossies. Scalpers rarely appear outside of libraries.

Yet writers, like rock stars, crave feedback. Even the most secure author can, on occasion be caught cruising Amazon, checking her ranking. And it's not an act of pure ego - most often it is in search of an answer to the question, "Has my work touched another life? Does this art in my soul resonate with another soul out there?"

I don't know what writers did before the Internet and all its instant goodness. Want to know how well your book is selling? Just pull up a book selling site and check your ranking. Want to connect with someone who is reading your book right now? Jump on Twitter, or Facebook, or Shelfari, or any number of sites where readers gather to talk books. And let's not forget blogging - my personal favorite. What I love about blogs is the ability to have a long, ongoing discussion between several readers and writers over periods of time.

The Internet is a great tool for marketing books, but I've found, just as Debbie discovered, that the true beauty of being online is how easily you can connect with someone you love to read. I read a wonderful book on writing called Spunk & Bite: A writers guide to punchier, more engaging language & style by Arthur Plotnik. I loved it (it's the only book on writing I've read all the way through and the only one I recommend on a regular basis). So, I blogged about it. The next day Arthur Plotnik commented on my blog. I 'bout fell over. Then he came back and commented again. I e-mailed him and asked if he would consider appearing on my blog as a guest. He accepted (and wrote a brilliant piece on staging you will enjoy reading), and we have e-mailed back and forth now and again, ever since.

What have I learned about being an author online? I've learned that famous people tend to be regular folks who love to connect with people. I've learned that the best thing for me to do when I'm online is to be professional (I often compare going online to stepping on a stage - people are watching). And, I've been blessed to learn that there are people who are as eager to connect with me as I am to connect with them - and that is a huge blessing.

Are you living the rock star life online? We'd love to hear about it!

Monday, May 4, 2009

Charming Notes of a Guerilla Marketer

Welcome to all who have visited NovelMatters for the first time during the past month! We hope you'll chime in and help to make our discussions amazing.

We have two copies of a fabulous book to give away this month: Zora and Nicky by Claudia Mair Burney. One will be won by a reader who has recently joined our ranks but hasn't yet posted a comment, and the other is for his/her friend who has not yet visited NovelMatters. Just comment on a post this month and mention that it's your first time, and you'll be entered in the drawing. At the time of the drawing, you'll give us contact information for a friend who has never visited NovelMatters and we will arrange for them to receive the other book. The drawing will be on the last Friday (May 29) of the month. Easy, huh?

I had a very eye-opening experience recently. I sent an email of appreciation to a best-selling author in the general fiction market - one whose books grace the window displays of every major bookseller in the nation. I didn't really expect a reply back. At least, not from her directly. Possibly from an office assistant who would follow up with a general acknowledgment in the next few weeks. To my surprise, the author emailed me back within a few hours (at midnight, her time), commenting on something I'd said in my email. It was no auto-reply. The next morning, I sent one more email, mentioning something I'd neglected to say the first time--which of her books was my favorite and to please keep them coming. About an hour later, I got a follow-up reply from her Blackberry. On a Sunday morning, no less! I was very impressed that this well-known author would take time from her family on a weekend to make contact with an anonymous fan.

I would have thought that when an author reached her level of success, they wouldn't need to be quite so hands-on in regard to marketing. Sure, she speaks at different venues, probably all over the world, and does book signings, but to take time to respond to one lone reader? Like I said, it was a lesson in marketing.

In the book, Guerilla Marketing for Writers, the authors state that promotion isn't over when someone buys a book. The point is to make customers for life by a never-ending circle of communication with readers and to "understand the immense potential value of every reader."

In Carolyn See's book, Making a Literary Life, she suggests sending one charming note to a novelist, editor, journalist, poet or agent whom you admire each day as a way of connecting and making your own literary life. I would add 'readers' to her list.

I have to say that a simple, personal acknowledgment from an author whom I admire has made her seem more real--more genuine. I think I'm a reader for life.

How has it impacted you to make a connection with a favorite author? I met Ray Bradbury once, and he was a very genial, interesting man who laughed easily with his fans. As writers, how does receiving notes from readers help to encourage you?

By the way, the author who emailed me back so quickly was Jodi Picoult.

Friday, May 1, 2009

The Plotting Process: No "Right" Way; No "Wrong" Way

Before I talk about the method I use when writing a novel, I'd like to chime in on the first point of Latayne's post on Wednesday regarding a question she was asked by a conference attendee over the weekend. I too was dismayed to hear that an author would think he or she could take a secular story, add some Christian elements, and voila! have something that could easily be sold in the Christian marketplace. Putting aside the fact that selling to a CBA publisher is no easier than selling to an ABA publisher, Christian elements aren't something to be tacked on to a manuscript as an afterthought, any more than elements of horror are tacked on to a story that was meant to be anything but horror. If Christian elements don't emanate from the heart and soul of the author, it will feel as false as it is. That author may get away with it once, but it's unlikely that readers of Christian fiction -- who are a discerning audience -- will buy into it twice.
Now to the question of how we plot our novels. I loved reading the comments to Wednesday's post and seeing that even in our differences there are a lot of similarities. I've just begun my tenth novel (2 or 3 of which were great learning experiences but will never see publication) and until now my pattern was always the same. I had a beginning and end in mind when I launched the project, with a general idea of how I planned to get from point A to point B. Everything else evolved out of that, often surprising me, including most of the supporting characters. I've loved that process, loved the surprises I found along the way, loved the subplots that presented themselves.
But this time I'm using Jeff Gerke's "How to Find Your Story." Jeff will be our guest blogger in June, and we'll talk more in-depth about the process then. It's a method that's easily adapted to the amount of detail the author wishes to develop before the writing begins. In my case I've penciled in more detail about plot, characterization, motives, etc. than I've ever begun with, but less than other authors I know. For me, it's an experiment. I'm hoping the writing comes easier without barricading the detours I find so intriguing. Next time I might try Latayne's method of taking apart a novel to use as a pattern. If I do, I have just the book in mind.
But here's the thing I continue to learn: there is no right way; there is no wrong way. There's only the way that works for the author. And a particular method doesn't have to carry over from one project to the next. That's what's so wonderful about the creative process . . . it's so creative.
Visitors who are readers and not writers, have you learned anything interesting about the writing process in the blog posts and comments this week? We'd love to hear from you.