Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas from us all...

With love to all of you from Bonnie, Debbie, Katy, Latayne, Patti and Sharon:


(acrostic poem)

Christ, come softly: the uneven way

Has been prepared. Though angels

Rampant crowd the skies, each one

In his own way praising Thee-- Softly,

Softly come. Through tribulation and joy,

This night whispers hope.

(In exultation, my heart's own voice

Sings! And even the voiceless and deaf rejoice!)

But silvered silence sighs. The skies are emptied now, and

Only for now, this Logos-Child speaks not.

Remembering vows, and veils, and the cup to come, He

Now sleeps. Softly, softly: Christ.

--Latayne C. Scott

Monday, December 21, 2009

Twelve whatever doing whatever....

We have a winner for the twelfth day of Christmas... and not without some merry ole' yuletide confusion.

The contest was to find an author or title in "Twelve Lords a-Leaping" which sounds suspiciously like the previous "Ten Lords a-Leaping..."

The lyrics site I consulted had those fellows leaping on the twelfth day.

But I think it reflects what we all knew -- by the time you get to the end of this song you don't really care why they're doing whatever they do on what day. I lost interest when I was 12. Or maybe it was 10. While I was leaping or drumming or....

ANYHOW... the winner of Shout of the Bridegroom is Carmen Sandman. Please email us your snail mail address, and congratulations, Carmen!

Novel Matters Celebrates!

When our agents contacted us, just over a year ago, to suggest we come together and team blog, I'd never heard of Bonnie Grove, Patti Hill, or Latayne Scott. At first - can you believe it, with each woman so different? - I had trouble remembering which was which. On our first conference call, we had to state our names every time we talked.

Sharon and Debbie I already knew and loved, and Wendy assured us we would all get along extremely well, and that the blog would be a great way to encourage the reading and writing of up-market fiction. It seemed a smart idea.

How little I knew. This blog - my friendships with these ladies, as well as the opportunity to enter into your reading and writing lives and to invite you into ours, has been an extravagant gift.
Today we are looking back on a great year, and looking forward to an even better 2010.

I came to the blogging world kicking and screaming. How in the world did I expect to fit another writing assignment into my already FULL schedule? And honestly, who cared a wit about what I had to say?

Then I met my blogging partners.

Of course, there was room for Debbie, Bonnie, Katy, Sharon,
and Latayne! If my schedule required slicing and dicing--and it did, fine. Anything to make room for these wonderfully talented, gut-splittingly funny, and precious-to-Jesus (and me) ladies.

I need these ladies. They cover for me and teach me things about writing I didn't know I should know. They walk faithfully with the Savior, mimic Him in His love. They pray for me. Encourage me. Love me.

No more kicking and screaming here.

And to all of you who drop by to share, thank you very, VERY much. I've learned so much from you, been challenged to look at writing from a new vantage and been encouraged by your thoughtful observations. You are so generous! I appreciate the precious gift of your time in this world that pulls us all from hither to yon.

As for looking down the road, I'm excited. I have a novel to finish and friendships to cultivate through NovelMatters and SheReads. Coming to this blog on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays is like opening a present. That's 156 presents in 2010! And I like presents.

Merry Christmas, dear readers! Emmanuel! God is near!

~When I began in the world of publishing I quickly learned I was in over my head. I remember saying to my agent, "I need a mentor." I began praying, and God sent me five godly, gifted women. It is a lavish gift (I comfort myself in the knowledge that God is lavish in His giving and not that I have a particularly astounding deficit that requires the faithful attentions of no less than five women in order to tame it). Not a day has gone by that I have not thanked God for the gift of these amazingly talented, intelligent, women.

The blog itself has been a massive blessing. The community built here (and the numbers are growing) has offered so much more to me than I can ever hope to return into it. Help, laughter, a true sense of belonging - I have found it here with you.

A highlight for me was the Audience with an Agent contest we held this fall. We were blessed to read the hearts and hard work of so many writers. You should have seen the flurry of rejoicing e-mails that flew between the six of us when Sharon told us Wendy requested two manuscripts from the top six. I'm looking forward to the next Audience with an Agent Contest (this time Janet Grant is the reading agent!) to be held VERY soon (get those novels polished!).

I wish you all a Merry Christmas and a healthy, happy, New Year. Peace.

Like Patti, I was reticent to enter the world of blogging -- for two reasons. One, I was afraid it would take too much time away from writing -- as if blogging weren't writing!
And two, I wondered what I might have to say on a consistent basis that would be of interest to anyone. And yet, when my wonderful agent Wendy ran the idea by me of participating in a group blog with authors she thought I'd have a lot in common with, the idea was more than intriguing. For me, it was a way to enter the blogosphere without having to carry the ball completely on my own.

A few weeks later when Latayne, Patti, Bonnie, Katy, Debbie and I had our first conference call to begin working out the details, I couldn't believe how much fun we had, how much we laughed, and hit it off. It was -- to quote one of my favorite lines from Sleepless in Seattle -- magic! When several of us met at a writers' retreat, I thought, no, this wasn't magic, this was inspired. A week with the six of us together at Mt. Hermon Christian Writers' Conference only confirmed that.

This has been a wonderful year at Novel Matters, not just with my five compatriots, but with all of you. You're the reason we do this. Your contributions make all the difference. We're looking forward to our affiliation with SheReads in the new year, and pray that we will be a blessing to you, as you are to us.

May God bless you richly, may you have the best Christmas EVER, and a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year. Thank you for hanging with us!

It's been a wonderful year at Novel Matters getting to know Sharon, Katy, Bonnie, Patti and Latayne. They have become much more than friends - they are mentors, confidants and prayer partners. Each brings a wealth of knowledge and experience, and a humble, willing spirit. I feel honored and blessed to be among them.

The highlight for me was the privilege of being together at the Mount Hermon Writer's Conference last spring. It has also been a privilege to be part of the Audience with an Agent contest, to read the heart of writers and hopefully help someone move toward representation.

I wondered initially about the commitment involved in blogging regularly with seasoned bloggers, but we have a great support system in each other. When one is overwhelmed by deadlines and/or family stuff or forgets to post, someone steps forward with the perfect post. God always provides.

But the best thing about Novel Matters has been connecting with so many wonderful writers and readers. Thank you for the opportunity to get to know you better. Merry Christmas, and keep writing in the new year!

Well, I'm bringing up the rear of this discussion because I posted something previously and the internet dog ate my homework. Really. And it was an A+ post.

In it, I described how reticent I have always been to share anything with other readers and writers about the writing process as I've experienced it. Such a thing felt pretentious to me.

But with this unaccustomed exposure here on NovelMatters has come a commensurate feeling of satisfaction when people who comment on this post say, "I feel that way too," or, "That's the way it works with my writing," or (best of all), "here's a suggestion for that."

This marvelous partnership with our brilliant agents and the extraordinary other authors has been a great gift to my life. And instead of you readers being faceless emails or elusive postings elsewhere, you have become real personalities to me.

It takes a village to raise a writer, I guess. And you've raised this one up to great heights of praise to a God who has brought us all together.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Yearnings

You know the drill by now -- for our final day of the Twelve Days of NovelMatters Christmas Giveaway: Find a title and/or author in Twelve Lords a-Leaping!

The winner will receive my book, The Shout of the Bridegroom (what? you didn't know I wrote a book by that title? Well, not all by myself--) and will be announced on Monday.
As we begin to think about a new year, and new beginnings, I want to share with you the poem that won me a scholarship to college. Now, years later, it seems, so, youthful. It was written when I was 16 years old, and although I normally don't publicly explain any poems (they should stand on their own, I believe), I will this one.

My mother was a professional musician, and at the time of the writing of the poem, I was dating a young man who played over a dozen musical instruments. Though I love music (and even took clarinet lessons and singing lessons for a while), I am tuneless, toneless, and incompetent in every sense of the word as it pertains to music. Yet as I sat watching my mother and my boyfriend playing one song after another on our piano, I knew that was a world I would never share.

I would never and can never produce music. But my soul yearns for it. In my mind, I can produce melody. It just never comes out. I hear it echoed and perfected in the music of others, and I deeply love it.

I have the feeling that a lot of readers feel this way. They yearn to express some of the deepest and purest emotions within them, but simply cannot --no more than I can reproduce any of the music I feel within me.

What an honor and blessing it is for me -- and I'm sure I speak for Patti, Bonnie, Sharon, Debbie, and Katy -- to be given words to do that for others. What resonates with you is because you've felt something similar. What gives you insight is because you have a God-shaped hole in your heart that He longs to fill, and we get to be the carriers of words to salve that yearning.

Oh blessed, blessed privilege we have! Oh, thank you, readers, for letting us do that!


I watch his fingers

Teasing the piano

As he caresses the ivory teeth

It purrrrrrrs

Harder now – he strikes

A glancing blow off the black fang

An answering roar

ah Rachmaninoff

just because my soul is not in

my fingertips does not

mean I do not have


Thursday, December 17, 2009

Our Eleventh Day Winner

Is Ruth Ann Dell!

Merry Christmas, Ruth! We're going to send you a copy of Lying on Sunday and A Heavenly Christmas in Hometown, both by Sharon K. Souza.

You lucky lady, you.


We Love Our Sharon!

Latayne here -- and unabashedly asking for the greatest power on earth: that of prayer. Our quiet strength Sharon is in the hospital with a recalcitrant infection in her foot, and I ask you to pray for her speedy recovery so that she can spend Christmas with her loved ones. We are thanking God in advance for hearing our prayers for full, fast healing.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

True confessions and Sisterhoods

Congrats to Carla Gade - you have won a copy of Tuesday Night at the Blue Moon. Please email us your snail mail address.

The 12 Days of Christmas Book Giveaway Contest

We're ringing in the 12 Days of Christmas on Novel Matters. (For complete contest rules, click the link.) The winner of Lying on Sunday and A Heavenly Christmas in Hometown will be announced Thursday afternoon.

On the 11th day of Christmas my true love gave to me ...

11 Pipers Piping

I love the women here at Novel Matters. Love and respect them tremendously. When I consider the gifts the Lord has given me this past year, they're among the dearest. They're talented, compassionate, funny, supportive. They're my prayer partners, critique partners, my friends. I've never been part of what I'd call a sisterhood --- till now. And in this sisterhood I have access to women who really know their stuff when it comes to writing. I've learned and will continue to learn so much from each of them.
Debbie's post on Monday about journaling is just one example. She's drawn on her journal entries time and again to recapture the details and emotions of one event or another to infuse into her writing, and it's served her well. Like Debbie, I had several diaries in my early to mid-teens. I got them as gifts mostly, and I loved them. Loved the pretty covers and the tiny satin-ribboned key, loved the smell of them, loved the lined pages, loved the idea of keeping a diary. (And speaking of lined pages, here's a bit of trivia about myself. I'd do just about anything to avoid shopping, and I mean anything. I. HATE. IT. But I could spend an entire day in Staples poring over pens, paper, Post-It notes, you name it. For me, there's nothing like a stationery store.)
But while I loved my diaries, did I fill those lines with my deepest secrets or longings? Not so much. The truth is I've never been one to journal. With one exception. Two and a half years ago when we lost our son, a very close friend who had lost her husband only three months before gave me a journal and said, "Do this. Really." And I have. I've journaled extensively in all things related to losing Brian.
So no, for the most part I'm not a journaler, but I am a jotter. When I'm working on a novel -- which is always -- consciously and subconsciously I'm ever in the story. I walk side by side with my protagonist day and night, through every ordeal she suffers. I listen when she speaks to me, I take note of scene ideas as they come, and I write it all down. Rarely is the material not used, so I've learned to trust the voices I hear. I used to keep stacks of scribbled notes by my computer where I write, things I would jot down on scraps of paper, on napkins, on ticket stubs, whatever was at hand, then search through them for just the right note as I wrote one scene or another. While I still have scribbled notes at my work station -- which is the ONE messy place in my house, this stack of organized chaos (Hmm. Maybe I'll ask Santa for a a stack of 5x7 note cards and a little box to keep them in. Yes, indeed.) -- I've begun the practice of entering my notes at the very bottom of my WIP document so I no longer run the risk of losing them. Yeah, I still have to sift through the notes as I write, but at least I know they're safe and secure. Unless my computer crashes.
Do I wish I had a journal from my days as a 15-year-old runaway in 1968, living on Haight-Ashbury? Or from the moment I felt the first flutter of life in my womb four months into my pregnancy with Brian? Or when I stood at my brother's gravesite listening to Taps? You bet. All I can do now is draw on memory for the things I failed to write about, but I do believe I'll take this journaling thing more seriously, thanks to Debbie.
And as we soon draw this first year of Novel Matters to a close, I want to say Thank You from the bottom of my heart to Bonnie, Debbie, Katy, Latayne and Patti for all the ways you've enriched my life. I look forward to the fun things we have planned for 2010. And I want to thank you, our readers, for spending some of your precious time with us. I hope we bless you as much as you bless us.
So whether you're a writer or not, do you journal? And if you are a writer, how do you keep track of the ideas that come to you? If you're organized, please SHARE! You know we love to hear from you.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Dear Diary

The 12 Days of Christmas
Book Giveaway Contest~

Today's Giveaway:

Tuesday Night at the Blue Moon


Ten Lords a-Leaping

From November 23 to December 21 we are hosting "The 12 Days of Christmas" book giveaway contest. You're right, there are more than 12 days between November 23 and December 21 ... but there are exactly 12 posting days on Novel Matters.
Here's how to play. Find the last name of any author in the day's clue (ten lords a-leaping) (letters can be used in any order). Email us at with the author's last name and a title of a novel by that author --- OR --- email us the title of a novel that contains one or more words from the clue.
To be entered in the drawing, email us your answer. One winner will be drawn from the qualifying entries every Monday, Wednesday and Friday from now until December 21. Have fun!

Do you remember your diary? Mine was red with gold designs and had a lock with a hasp and a tiny key with a satin ribbon. Its pages held my secret desires, like my infatuation with Bobby Sherman, Mickey Dolenz, and "Bill" from school who was a shy boy with a pretty girlfriend and no eyes for me. Recording the ups and downs of adolescence in my diary was a valuable coping tool which helped me to deal with changing schools and being a seventh grade nobody. As an adult, I turned to using a journal which didn't have dated pages and didn't leave me feeling guilty if there were big gaps in time between entries, but was still there for the upheavals in life. It turns out that it's also a valuable tool for writers.

Journaling can provide scenes and details for a story.
The stories we write often spring from our own experiences, so it follows that we could mine our journals for ideas. While writing Raising Rain, I found an entry from the time that our son left for boot camp which became a scene. It was from my encounter with a young Marine in his dress blues at Starbucks who reassured me that my son would 'do fine.' Yes, I blubbered just like Bebe (my protagonist) that my Heavenly Father loved me so much that our paths would cross when I needed it most. By writing that nugget in my journal, I was able to give a glimpse into Bebe's spiritual life. Journal entries can also provide details that lend authenticity to the story and offer answers to an editor whose job it is to verify the facts.

Journaling can provide motivation and insight for a character.
Even though the story varies from your journal entry, it can still be used to give readers a look into the inner struggles of your characters. Sometimes, just reading over your entries during a certain period of life can help you write about your characters' feelings. I have never lost a child to terminal illness, as did Marty in Tuesday Night at the Blue Moon, but I have experienced the fear and mourning involved in a breast cancer diagnosis. In one of my journal entries from that time I wrote that I felt I was 'alone in a dark hallway and all the doors were closed to me.' When I wrote about Marty's loss, I revisited that dark place to try to connect with her. It was hard, but it also reminded me that God was with me in that hallway all along, a truth which Marty needs to realize also.

This is not to say that I've been particularly diligent in keeping up with my journaling. When I skim my black Moleskine, I see months and sometimes years between entries, but they are always written at times of intense emotions - and full of the stuff that drives story. If you really want to know your character, write her journal entries for significant events such as watching her parents drive away after moving her into her new college dorm, sleeping in her old bedroom on the night before her wedding, the day she gives birth, or the day she discovers a lump. You may discover more about her and her motivations than what appears on the surface.

What did you write in your first diary? Do you journal? Besides being therapeutic, how does it help you breathe life into your characters? We'd love to hear!

Friday, December 11, 2009

What to do with Inspiration

Congrats to Karen! You won a signed copy of Talking to the Dead!

The 12 Days of Christmas
Book Giveaway Contest~
Today's Giveaway: Talking to the Dead~
"Nine Ladies Dancing"
From November 23 to December 21 we are hosting "The 12 Days of Christmas" book giveaway contest. You're right, there are more than 12 days between November 23 and December 21 ... but there are exactly 12 posting days on Novel Matters.
Here's how to play. Find the last name of any author in the day's clue (A Partridge in a Pear Tree) (letters can be used in any order). Email us at with the author's last name and a title of a novel by that
author --- OR --- email us the title of a novelthat contains one or more words from the clue.
For example: There's an author named (Lauran) Paine, who wrote Tears of the Heart. This would be a qualifying entry because all the letters in the last name PAINE are found in the day's clue --- OR --- Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns qualifies because the word TREE is found in the title. It's that easy.
To be entered in the drawing, email us your answer. One winner will be drawn from the qualifying entries every Monday, Wednesday and Friday from now until December 21. Have fun!
I grew up as an oblivious reader. I read all the time – but no one took me by the hand and said, “Here is a list of great
books all young people should read.” Mine was a journey into the shelves of the library, always feeling clueless, judging books by their covers and wondering how on earth people decided which books to take home and read.

But I read. And, I wrote, too. But for some odd reason I didn’t put the two together in my head until I was an adult.

I remember reading the opening paragraph to Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees and feeling the whoosh of inspiration. Something about it cracked open an eye of the sleeping writer within me. Inspiration whispered in my ear. It has taken me years to begin to reap the harvest from the seed of inspiration. Years of stumbling, bumbling, quitting, starting, and trying again. But that moment lead to other moments of reading inspiration – and soon, I learned to be intentional, to go looking for inspiration and then to turn inspiration into action.

First: Look deeper

Ask yourself:
1. What is it about this that grabs my attention? – Something precise is at work when we are inspired. A certain chord is hit, an emotion, memory, or hope is stirred. What is it? Be as specific as possible.
2. What am I feeling? Awe? Assurance? Hope? Happy? Pinpoint the emotion you are experiencing. Inspiration works in many ways – it can even cause feelings of melancholy or yearning. Put your finger on the pulse of the emotion and follow it to the heart of meaning.
3. Where is the beauty spot? God hardwired us to respond to beauty. Many people are able to find soul-stirring beauty in the seemingly mundane. What a gift! In moments of inspiration, you may be responding to deep beauty – even hidden beauty. Be the archeologist and dig deeper to uncover the total story.
4. Where have I felt this before? Our life purpose is written on our hearts. When we pay close attention to the stirrings of inspiration over time we can piece together our hopes and dreams – what it is we really want to accomplish and be in our lives.

Take inspiration and make it your own. Imitation is not the goal. I was inspired as a writer by Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, but I don’t try to write the way she does, or about the things she loves to write about. I have learned to look for my own stories and write with my own voice. You can do the same.

Ask yourself:
1. What is the essence of the inspiration? Use as few words as possible (like a synopsis!) to explain the germ of inspiration. For example, with Kingsolver’s book The Bean Trees, I was inspired by how she used words to create immediacy and intimacy in only two sentences.
2. What does it mean to me? This is getting into application – we are on the ledge of action. In my example of Kingsolver’s novel, immediacy and intimacy meant I felt welcomed and wanted when I started reading the book. It spoke to my love for chatting with friends, sharing our hearts. I’m all about the conversation – the closeness.
3. How does it express itself in my life? Now we are moving! How has the inspiration we felt taken shape in our lives? What have I done in the past that has produced this feeling?
4. Where can I take it? By understanding what inspires us and why – then how it works and what we can do with it, we can turn our inspiration into our dream come true. Understanding myself as inspired by immediacy and intimacy helped me decide on a career in the helping arts – it pointed to a need for community. And it has led me to a new career as a writer – someone who can share ideas and stories with a large community of readers and writers.

We all need to pay attention to moments of inspiration. They are the tiny gold keys to our hearts.
How have you put feet to the things that inspire you? Share your experience with us!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009


I'm happy to announce that Adrienne is the winner of a Patti Hill novel of her choice. Thanks to all who entered the Twelve Days of Christmas Contest. The titles and authors are being added to my to-be-read list. Don't give up. Try again on Friday for a Bonnie Grove novel.

Making Friends of Readers

Here's another chance to win a free book!
"On the eighth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me...

Win a copy of The Queen of Sleepy Eye OR Seeing Things, your choice, to stuff into your very own stocking or to give to a friend. I'll drop the book in the mail tomorrow. You'll have it by Christmas. Click here to view the rules.

I loved Katy's post on Monday. She spoke to the profound interaction that can take place between a work of fiction (the author!) and its reader. For Katy, Walter Wangerin Jr. taught her the missing element in her own writing. She learned to love her characters, and she learned her lesson well.

Until I read Elizabeth Berg's novels, I didn't even know I wanted to be a writer.

It was my turn to choose a book for book club. I hadn't been a member of the group for very long. The weight of choosing a book to suit varied tastes made my pits sticky. I wandered around Barnes & Noble for hours reading back copy and first paragraphs, beginning to believe the perfect book didn't exist.

And frankly, I was looking for more than the next book. I was looking for a new direction. We'd read about plague years and dream-seeping violence and horrendous violations. Don't get me wrong, I'm not squeamish when it comes to hard-hitting fiction, but a steady diet of the stuff had left me battered.

And so, the search labored on. My checklist included these requirements: rich language that wasn't syrupy or distracting, a story that valued the small things that tower large in our lives, a story about familiar things portrayed in surprising ways. That's all. Simple. A story that is neither contrived nor soul-crushing.

Why was this so hard?

And then [cue the rapturous music], I picked up Joy School by Elizabeth Berg. My prize! The story is ordinary and extraordinary. Human. Winsome. Transparent. The girl's mother wears Tabu perfume, for heaven's sake.

I read the book quickly and set it down, only to pick it back up again. I read random scenes. Underlined favorite passages. Carried the characters around in my head for days, maybe weeks. Is anyone gagging yet?

I'd read many wonderful books up to this point--classical, popular, and literary. This is the book that made me want to be a writer. But why?

I wanted to spend my days playing with words and writing stories that become friends to the reader. That's my goal, anyway.

BTW, I traveled a thousand miles to attend a writers conference where Ms. Berg was the keynote speaker. I sat in the front row at all her appearances. The poor lady was on the tail end of a long book tour. She looked ragged. Did that keep me from schmoozing my way into a conversation with her? No! Are you kidding? I have the picture to prove it.

So, is there a novel, a book, a teacher, an experience, a person who provided a turning point for you as a reader/writer?

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Winner for the Seventh Day of Christmas...

Is Judy Gann!

Not only that, but I forgot to specify which of my books I would give away. So I'll leave the choice up to the winner.

Judy, please email us your address, and let us know whether you would like a copy of To Dance in the Desert or The Feast of Saint Bertie, and we'll put it in the mail.

If you'd like it autographed to someone besides yourself, please let us know that as well.

Merry Christmas!

Everything Can Change

Dear Readers, today you have another chance to win a free book. If you're unfamiliar with our simple-as-pie rules, please click here.

On the seventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me...

Seven swans a' swimming!

We have a winner of Latter-day Cipher by Latayne Scott--Karen Kukrak! (Latayne said this was so hard because she knew so many contestants -- so it was literally drawing straws!) So, Karen, contact us with a mailing address.

Speaking of winners, do you remember the Audience With an Agent contest we had last summer, in which so many of you sent in chapters of your completed novels? We received entries from a lot of talented writers, but in September we announced six finalists, and sent their chapters to agent Wendy Lawton, so that she could choose a winner.

Have you been anxious to hear who won?

So have we!

All this time Wendy has been reading, and thinking, and reading some more. But at last she has chosen a winning chapter and asked to see the entire manuscript. I am proud to announce that our winner is...

Lori Benton, for her novel, Kindred!

Lori, we are thrilled for you, and so pleased that your beautiful work will be considered in its entirety by one of the premiere agents in the industry.


There is more news.

The prize for this competition was an "audience" with agent Wendy Lawton, so the author she chose is the winner. But serendipity happens sometimes, and it happened here.

Wendy's partner, agent Janet Kobobel Grant happened to catch a glimpse of the chapter we sent from Jean Knight's novel, Broken Arches. Janet liked what she read so much that she has asked to see the rest of Jean's manuscript.

We at Novel Matters are over the moon - two authors have been blessed because of our competition! I hope many more will consider entering the next Audience with an Agent contest in the Spring of 2010.

Now I'm going to turn my attention to all the authors who didn't win, including those who didn't enter.

There's a special brand of discouragement made just for us writers. Before I was published, I didn't need to enter a contest to be disappointed. I only had to read my own work.

Because it was awful. I knew this, because I loved to read excellent fiction. I knew great writing when I saw it, and I looked at my own work and knew it didn't measure up.

When I say this, people sometimes try to defend me, because for a writer, that is a savage realization. They try to talk me down from that embarrassing mix of self-loathing and hubris that says if I'm not as brilliant as Marilynne Robinson I shouldn't call myself a writer.

It is so that all my life people have told me I had talent. But understand: there was something missing, and no matter how much I studied the mechanics of writing, when I read my work, I knew something important was missing! I just didn't know what it was.

I'm saying all this to give you hope. Because for me, that changed in a moment, the moment I read a short story in Walter Wangerin Jr.'s little Christmas book, In the Days of Angels.

The story was titled The Manger is Empty. (Please get the book and read it. And please watch as Wangerin tells the story aloud. When he's done, you will know it is Christmas.)

As I read (again and again over the course of several days) about chain-smoking Odessa Williams, who needed her teeth only when she was angry so she could enunciate each word, as I read about little Dee-Dee Lawrence whose voice could pierce Heaven itself, and about little Mary who triumphed over hard truths about life and death, as I read all of that, something turned over for me. Suddenly I knew what my writing had been missing. It had to do with loving - not intellectualizing - my characters. About deep honesty regarding the darkness of life in a fallen world, and a deeper sense of wonder over the God who created light.

Not the sort of stuff Writers Digest typically puts in its books about writing, but it was what I needed. The next thing I wrote was To Dance in the Desert.

I won't here expand on these lessons, because what I want to tell you today is that frustration can lift in an instant. It's like studying something hard, like Algebra: You don't get it, you don't get it, you really don't get it, and then one day the light goes on. (Okay, the light never did go on for me in Algebra, but you get my point.)

Roll your shoulders. Rejoice because it's Christmas, because the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Because shepherds and wise men and Joseph and Mary learned, and you can learn that everything can change in a moment.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Winner is ...

The WINNER for the 5th day of our 12 Days of Christmas contest is Kristen Torres-Toro! Email your address to me at and I'll send Every Good & Perfect Gift and A Heavenly Christmas in Hometown right away. Thanks so much for playing.

Fretting with Creativity

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

On the sixth day of Christmas my true love gave to me...
Six Geese a-Laying!

I'll send a signed copy of Latter-day Cipher to the person who can find an author's last name in the phrase: SIX GEESE A-LAYING and name a title by that author OR submit a book title with one of the words from the phrase and the author. Submit your entry using the "Contact" button above. See complete details for the contest on the November 23rd post. Good Luck! The winner will be announced on Monday December 7th.

Now, about this creativity bit. I admit to my past sins of thinking that people who write novels don’t have to work as hard as other writers. I had documentation of my work as a writer of non-fiction: every bibliography, footnote, scriptural citation. But novel writers could just pull things out of the air, I thought.

Once I thought two things were over-rated as to difficulty: childbirth and fiction writing. That was before I experienced labor and delivery. That was before plotting a novel.

All writers work, to some extent, with the same “raw materials.” Either imagination or research skills (or both) are essential. But at a more basic level, all English speakers must use the 26-letter alphabet (plus a few other symbols) to write anything, of any genre. I’ll use words that other people have used millions of time in other contexts. If I use foreign words or even if I make up words, they’ll have some tie to known language.

But the delight is in the insight: the combining of those unadventurous 26 letters and oft-rubbed words to bring that spark of new inner-eyesight.

Here’s a video that shows how a musician, Andy McKee, uses familiar “raw materials” in a fresh and engaging way:

So, enjoy the music. I’m off to write on the neck of my novel, to fret with words, and push them right up to your headstock.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Delayed Gratification ... Gotta Love It

We have a WINNER!
Day four of our 12 Days of Christmas contest is: Nancy January! E-mail me, Nancy, at novelmatters@gmailcom with your snail mail address and I'll get Raising Rain to you.

Five Golden Rings

I'll send Every Good & Perfect Gift and A Heavenly Christmas in Hometown to the person who can find an author's last name in today's clue: Five Golden Rings and name a title by that author -- OR -- submit a book title with one of the words from the clue along with the author's name. Submit your entry using the "Contact" button above. See complete details for our 12 Days of Christmas Book Giveaway Contest on our November 23 post. The winner will be announced Thursday afternoon, December 3.
I can't tell you how many times I've said, "Just one more chapter," while reading a really good book, only to get to the end of that chapter, often in the wee hours of the morning, and finding I have to keep reading. Jessica Page Morrell describes such a novel as "unputdownable" (Between the Lines, pg. 37). For an author to write unputdownable fiction she must know how to create tension, and in fiction tension is vital. Like the proper drag on a fishing line, it keeps the reader hooked.
Continuing with the theme of tension that we've been discussing the past few days, Sol Stein defines tension as "delicious moments of anxious uncertainty" (Stein on Writing, pg. 307). "Delicious moments of anxious uncertainty." What a fabulous definition of literary tension! To create such anxious uncertainty, there must be sharp opposition to your protagonist achieving his or her desires. Determine what would most thwart her objective, then give your antagonist the ability to do exactly that. And make sure there's an equal sense of urgency on both sides (Stein on Writing, pg. 83).
James Scott Bell says, "[keep] in mind that worrying the reader is the primary goal of the middle of the book" (Plot & Structure, pg. 84). That's not an easy task when most of us are wired to solve everyone's problems, not prolong them, and the sooner the better. But as novelists that's exactly what we must do. Prolong, delay, frustrate. What a perfect -- and safe -- opportunity for our dark side to have its way. So how do you worry the reader sufficiently through that middle portion of the novel? By "(1) stretching the tension and (2) raising the stakes" (P&S, pg. 85). In order to stretch the tension there must first be a valid source of tension. Unless you're writing suspense, mystery, etc., it doesn't have to be physical danger. Opposing goals work just as well. Once you settle on a source of tension, Bell says you must "slow down. ... As you write the scene, alternate between action, thoughts, dialogue, and description" (P&S, pg. 86) so that tension is created, not only chapter by chapter, but line by line. Plot & Structure is one of my favorite books on writing. I highly recommend you read and reread it as you construct your novels.
In another of my favorite writing manuals, Elizabeth George says you create tension by "creating scenes in which you lay down -- but do not answer! -- dramatic questions. You do this by making sure that if you do answer a dramatic question in a scene as the novel progresses, you've already laid down another" (Write Away, pg. 43) Overlap sources of tension as you weave your story and spread it around indiscriminately among your characters. This not only achieves the goal of stretching the tension, but it creates depth to your story as well, and really gives the reader something to dive into.
For sure, it takes more than unanswered questions to keep a reader turning the page. There must be characters we care about, a plot line that engages, and dynamic dialogue. But one of the key factors is knowing how and for how long to delay gratification. Resist the urge to "fix" everything for a character who's in trouble. Continually frustrate your characters' objectives. Don't tie up each chapter ending in a perfect little bow. As much as possible, keep the line taut. Don't give the reader a place to say, "Ah, at last, a place where I can close the book for a while." No, no, no. Don't give them space even to catch their breath, not till the final scene. In so doing you provide a good read for your audience, but even more, you create for them a memorable reading experience.
What have you read lately that kept you on the line? How did the author achieve that and keep you turning the pages?
Between the Lines, Plot & Structure and Write Away can be found on our Resources page.