Wednesday, March 31, 2010


There are only 15 days left to submit your chapter and synopsis to our Audience-with-an-Agent Contest. Lori Benton was just offered a contract for representation from Wendy Lawton as a result of our first contest. Don't miss out!

Patricia W. is the winner of Blue Hole Back Home from Monday's drawing. Patricia, please use our contact button to supply your snail mail address. Congratulations!
Before a manuscript becomes a book it will, or should, go through a series of edits, some by the author and some by a publisher's in-house editor. On Monday, Patti talked about macro-editing the first draft of her WIP. That's where you look at the manuscript as a whole for continuity, loose ends, POV or tense problems, etc. I love her octopus-in-a-jar analogy, and I'm super impressed with her color-coded outline. Arguably anal? Not if it works, Patti. Ideally, it helps to take a break between completing a manuscript and starting the read-through for the macro edit. It gives you a fresh look at the story. I know FIRM deadlines like Patti mentioned can make it difficult to let the manuscript sit for a while, but when possible put it aside for a couple of weeks before starting the read-through.
Another type of edit is the micro edit, where you look at the manuscript line by line to make sure every word is the right word, that the meaning comes through loud and clear. This is the time to replace passive verbs with active, and ferret out superfluous words, phrases, sentences, even paragraphs. William Brohaugh in his excellent book Write Tight (which I recommend), says, "The goal is to deliver 60,000 words with 60,000 words of value ... Whatever the length, you must deliver value." In other words, every word must count. Go through the manuscript and delete as many adjectives and adverbs as you reasonably can. Leave in only the ones that add something unique or surprising, or that are absolutely necessary. Often, adjectives or adverbs are crutches used to make up for a weak noun or verb. When you find the right noun or verb the modifier can usually be cut. And when you come across a noun modified by two or more adjectives, in most cases you should select only the strongest and eliminate the others. When I finish a manuscript I do a search from a list of words I've compiled that I tend to use and overuse: really, very, quite, some, just --it's a growing list -- and send them packing.
Adjectives and adverbs aren't the only culprits in our writing. Redundant words and phrases make for flabby prose. Consider the phrases absolutely certain or follows behind. When you're certain about something, there's no room for doubt, so absolutely is redundant. And when you follow someone, you don't do it from the front, so behind is another wasted word. Little things like that clutter what might otherwise be a good manuscript. This may seem trivial or nitpicky, but consider this: The typical proposal consists of a summary, a synopsis, author bio, promotion ideas and three sample chapters. But the editor or agent who picks up your manuscript may not get through three paragraphs if the writing isn't crisp and above par.
Long passages of narrative can be a problem as well. I'm not saying there shouldn't be passages of narrative. I have a favorite author whose fiction is 80% narrative. But the narrative needs to serve a purpose beyond describing the landscape or weather, unless the landscape or weather contributes to the plot. Use just enough to establish the setting of a scene, then get on with it. As author Elmore Leonard said, "... leave out the parts that people skip." I know, that's easier said than done, but take note of the expendable passages in the books you read for pleasure, the passages you're tempted to skim, then try to leave those out of your own writing.
In chapter 2 of Write Tight, "Sixteen Types of Wordiness and How to Trim Them," Brohaugh says this about "weed words ... the stuff that grows so hardily in your manuscripts. Trouble is, like some weeds, these parasitic undergrowths can deceive you. They're pretty, and they don't look like weeds. Wordweeds, prunable leaves and branches ... fall into these general categories:
  1. The redundant
  2. The already understood
  3. The empty
  4. The evasive
  5. The passive
  6. The weak, the noncommital and the hesitant
  7. The affected
  8. The circuitous
  9. The self-indulgent
  10. The overkill
  11. The inflated and the deflated
  12. The invisible and therefore unnecessary
  13. The imprecise
  14. The clever and the show-offy
  15. The nonsensical
  16. The beautiful
Whew! Seems like a lot to eliminate. What's left, you wonder? A stronger, tighter manuscript that rises above the slush pile. I know, I used two adjectives, and sometimes that's alright. But tell me, what one word would you use to replace the two I used to get the exact meaning across? Do you have your own list of words you search and destroy in your manuscript?

Monday, March 29, 2010

Wrestling the Octopus

If you haven't read Blue Hole Back Home by Joy Jordan-Lake, Novel Matters wants to give you that opportunity--free! Comment on today's post to be eligible for the drawing. You will simply fall in love with Joy's beautiful story.

Months and months of showing up at my computer are paying off. The end is in sight! I’ve followed the outline for my WIP—more or less—throughout the first draft. Still, and this happens every single time, getting to the end is like wrestling an octopus into a mayonnaise jar.

I’m so immersed in the story that I’ve lost sight of the big picture. Where is this story headed? There are loose ends whipping around in my head, dropped story-lines littering the plot, and characters who have gone AWOL. Will the story ever end?

It must.

I have a deadline, for goodness' sake.

A FIRM deadline.

No time to panic. Take a step back— think and pray.

To regain my equilibrium with the story, I must remember where I’ve traveled in my story world. I’m
a visual thinker. And so, I need to see the story. To do this, I go back through the manuscript, scene by scene to take notes on what happens. It’s laborious, arguably anal, but I create a new outline with color-coded scenes for the POV character and each character in the scene description is highlighted with their own color. It’s very pretty, very map-like.

Now, to get that octopus into the mayonnaise jar…I print out my colorful chart. I can see where one character is too dominant or where another has been forgotten. I note storylines I’ve left dangling. Weak motivations become obvious. Pretty scenes that don’t move the story along stick
out like, well, a sore tentacle.

It’s tempting to charge ahead, but this is a time of serious prayer for me. Where my characters end up reflects my view of who God is and how he loves and interacts with his creation. I want to get this right. Once I’ve prayed and bounced ideas around with people I trust—poor hubby; he’s so handy—I build a new ending (and shore up mid-story issues), making sure there is resolution and a few questions left for the reader to wrestle. After all, I wouldn’t want to deny them the challenge of swimming with an octopus.

How do you keep track of the big picture of your novel? Do you find resolving all of the plot lines messy? Do you know the ending of your novel before you begin?

Friday, March 26, 2010

Dejected Rejected Suggested

Katy’s post about having your work rejected brought back a memory.

(Now, let me begin by saying that I really wish I weren’t so weird.)

About 15 years ago I was going through one of those famous re-assessments of reality that lesser women call depression, and I decided to clean house. Literally.

I started with a bunch of papers in my office. One set of papers was the original manuscripts of my first book: written by hand on every other line of 20 spiral notebooks. (I was a terrible typist – though I typed the second draft on what I regarded as the result of direct inspiration, that others called erasable bond. The third and fourth drafts were typed at my expense by a professional.)

Those went in the barrel first. After all, wasn’t it prideful to think that anyone would ever be interested in the first draft of my first book? You’d have to be famous for that to matter to anyone, and there was no reason to suspect anyone would ever care. (Told you I was, um, re-evaluating.)

The second set of papers that went into the barrel was a fat, fat folder of papers. It would be prideful as well to assume anybody would be interested in how many times my work had been rejected. You see, I’d kept all my rejection slips, starting in high school; and yea, verily, there were a LOT of them. And I used to think everyone would be amazed at my success when they saw how many times I had been unsuccessful. So keeping them, I reasoned, was a kind of hubris. (Did I mention that I was low?)

So I found a great use for rejection slips. Firestarters. They burn really really fast and hot.

See, rejection slips can have many uses. Here are some more:

1) Origami practice.

2) Packing materials.

3) Office basketball.

4) Office volleyball.

5) Aerodynamics study.

6) Emergency fingertip surgery.

But what rejection slips cannot, must not be used for is to define who you are. Like the cresting waves of labor, each one brings a dedicated writer closer to a shoreline of achievement. Through them you learn what is marketable and what is not -- for that particular editor, for that particular publication, for that particular time.

"No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it." -- Hebrews 12:11, one of the foundational verses of my life.

Come on, help me out. What other uses can you think of for rejection slips?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

No, No, No....

I am still smiling over Monday's news. I love reading the comments from well-wishers, here and on Lori Benton's own blog about her new contract with literary agent Wendy Lawton. I am thrilled to know that something we did on Novel Matters has made a tangible difference for an exciting new author. To think of those whose kindnesses have meant so much to each of us, and then to know that we have carried that spirit forward... Wow!

But what of those worthy authors among our entrants who didn't win? To think of the times we have all been rejected: "No we don't want your manuscript, no we don't think you have potential, no please do not re-submit - ever. No, no, no. "

And now, however gently, we have said "no" to some of you. Ouch.

Discouragement is going around. You know the dreary economic stuff already. I've seen writers collapsed on benches, slumped over pieces of paper that seemed to pronounce final condemnations on their writing careers.

I said "seemed." Now let me tell you the truth.

1. Even established authors get discouraged. Sometimes they find themselves with book contracts, up against tight deadlines - and discouraged - all at the same time. It sounds strange, but they look at the stuff they're writing and think, "this is no good; the publisher's going to send it back." Once in a while the publisher does send it back. Contracts provide for this.

Sometimes their books get taken out of print. Sometimes they get bad reviews. Almost always they find the life of a published author is a lot like the life of an unpublished author, and this can be disheartening. They're not better looking. They're not more intelligent. They don't suddenly have their act together. In fact, I think my personal act has gotten somewhat less together since I became an author, because my right brain has decided it's going to run things from now on, and my right brain is a mess.

Not only that, but even in good times, few authors make much money, writing. Please tell me you're not doing this for the money.

2. Even with all of that, if you're a writer, then writing is the best thing you can do. Not for money. Not even just for publication. Yes, you want an audience. But your best chance of finding that audience is to write for joy - for the sheer joy of seeing that what you have written is very good. There is no better feeling in the world.

Meanwhile, if you, the unpublished author, want readers, then go out and get some. They're called friends.

Remember The Inklings, the writing group that first heard C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia, and J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings? Make your own Inklings. Find some writer friends of like mind, meet with them in a cozy place, and read your stuff.

Bear in mind that people read books, even in bad times. Therefore publishers must publish them. And as Randy Ingermanson once told me, "Those big-deal authors who sign contract after contract? Even they get old and die. They have to be replaced." Doesn't that make you feel all warm and gushy over the possibilities? If you keep writing and keep improving, one day it will be your turn.

Meantime, try to make your writing a sort of prayer, something you do because it pleases God. I've learned - or more accurately I am trying to learn - a lot from The Way of the Heart by Henri Nouwen. He says we tend to take our identity from what we have, what we accomplish, and what people think of us. But when we view our lives and each other through those lenses, it separates us from one another and from our true selves. It's one of my favorite books.

Let not your heart be troubled. Sit down and write.

Monday, March 22, 2010


There was something inspirational--magical if Katy were telling the story--behind the creation of Novel Matters and the union of the six of us who co-author the blog. It was the brainchild of Books & Such agents Janet Grant and Wendy Lawton, though the specifics of who, what and when would come later. When I received the phone call from Wendy, who wanted to run the idea of such a blog by me, I was immediately interested. And when Wendy mentioned the names of two authors I knew well as possible blog mates, I was sold.
Initially, seven of us were introduced to each other via phone conference hosted by Wendy and Janet. The rapport was instant and dynamic. Three months later, after another phone conference or two between the seven of us, Novel Matters was launched. Almost immediately one author opted out, and it's been the six of us ever since. We have developed a strong friendship and support system in the year and a half since we first came together. For me, these women have become my closest friends.
One of our top goals has been to provide a support system, a teaching venue, and a network of assistance to aspiring authors. So last spring we decided to host a contest for un-agented fiction writers, the grand prize of which would be a reading of the winning entry by Wendy Lawton. Thus, our Audience-with-an-Agent Contest was born. We spent 3+ months promoting the contest and accepting entries, and another few weeks carefully judging each one. Then we sent six finalists to Wendy. She ultimately selected Lori Benton's Kindred as the winning entry. That was exciting in itself, but this past week Wendy offered Lori a contract for representation with Books & Such Literary Agency! We here at Novel Matters feel like we've given birth! We're all thrilled for Lori, and deeply appreciate Wendy's participation in the contest.

Congratulations to Lori for being signed by one of the best agents in the CBA (I'm not biased!). It's exciting to play a small part in your success. It didn't surprise me one bit to hear how you have been working on your craft for years now, and how dedicated you are to continuing to learn as you go. All signs of a excellent writer - ones who understands this is a journey.

I can't think of a more valuable kind of contest anywhere for unagented fiction writers. The publishing industry is in constant flux, and a great agent is critical in order to transverse the sudden peaks and valleys.

Sharon mentioned how our agents put us together on this blog. That is what all writers need - a home team ro
oting for you, coaching you, cheering you on, calling your bluff, and offering you a tissue and a shoulder to cry on when things don't turn out the way we expected. That's part of what an agent will do for you. Thinking you're ready to make the leap to publication? Enter the Audience with an Agent Contest!

Oh boy. This is what it takes to make me happy.

Lori, CONGRATULATIONS! And welcome to the Books & Such clan. (We call each other Bookies, btw.) I want you to know, you are signing with an amazing literary agent.
Wendy will take excellent care of you, and I'm going to love watching you blossom.

Now, all you other writers: let me remind you that we have another contest going now just like the one that brought us to this happy event. We want to read your manuscripts! So hop over to our promotions page, and get to work.

That's good advice, Katy! If you're unagented and you have a polished manuscript looking for a home, stop reading this and head on over to the promotions page. Publishing houses aren't taking unsolicited manuscripts these days, so you must make an impression at a writers conference or query agents to represent you. It's a long and arduous journey. Our Audience-with-an-Agent contest may be your shortcut.

Lori, congratulations on writing a beautifully crafted story. I'm not one bit surprised Wendy signed y
ou. What Wendy can do for you that you can't do for yourself is this: She knows who's looking for a manuscript like Kindred. She also knows who will provide strong editorial support, and who will market Kindred in a manner worthy of its potential. In short, she knows which publishers are most likely to say yes to Kindred, and those are the houses she'll present to, raising your chances of getting a contract.

We'll be on the sidelines, cheering you on!

We are so happy to have been part of the chain of events that brought Lori in contact with an agent. The truth is that it's hard to send a manuscript out into the world - sometimes even for published authors. There is always the chance of rejection. We write what is on our hearts and we strive for excellence and we take risks for our dreams. Our stories will languish untold and their spiritual truths will lay fallow unless we take action. We applaud the courageous writers who have and will submit entries to our contest, and we wish you all the best

Congratulations, Lori!

I believe in contests! My first earnings for writing (a whopping $5) came from an essay contest in grade school. My first publications in magazines were from winning contests. And my scholarship to college was from a writing contest.

So now I know that Lori is a true believer in contests -- and you can be too! Congratulations to Lori for an excellent story, and for being an excellent storyteller. May God bless you, Lori, with a long and successful time of ministry of words, a service to the Lord!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Don't Be a Writer.

What a week we've had on Novel Matters. Patti kicked us off by helping understand how important it is to protect our writing time. Writers write, right? Sharon blew our minds with the
ethos of writers - multi published authors who were universally slow to wear the badge. Both posts got me thinking about being a writer. And it occurred to me that maybe being a writer isn't the point.

When it comes to writing fiction, there are six billion things to know and learn. I counted. Stayed up all night once just counting and counting.

Inevitably, the question arises: What is the most important thing? What matters most when it comes to fiction. It's a good question, one I've been thinking about for awhile now. And I'm going to share my answer with you.

Yes, I have an answer.

Really. I do.

Stop smiling, I'm serious.

In order to tell you my answer, I first need to tell you a story.

Once upon a time I was sitting at a kitchen table reading part of a manuscript. Across from me was the author of said manuscript. She watched me read, picking her nails, crossing and uncrossing her legs, trying to be quiet while I read.

All the time I was reading I was thinking this writer wanted my opinion on the quality of her writing and what I thought of her work in general. I was wrong. She wanted something very different. Very impossible. But I didn't know that at the time, so I put the manuscript down and started talking to her like a writer. She nodded, yes, yes, all well and fine, good, good, I agree with you.

I pushed the pages across the table. She pulled her hands back fast, like the papers might be poisoned. She wouldn't touch them. "Should I keep writing?" she asked me. "Am I good enough? Or should I just forget it?"

I pulled the pages back and glanced through them again. I understood what she was asking. Her writing was good. Technically, nearly perfect. Her transitions were smooth, her characters well defined. She had nice, clean descriptive and her grammar was enviable. Nicely done.


Hmmm. What was missing? Something.....oh......something like - a plot? No, no, that wasn't missing. She had a plot all plotted out with plot points and pointed plotting. That wasn't the issue. Some else, less tangible, but important. More important than anything else.

The story. Something about the story itself. No, no, it was a good story.

Hmmm. What then? Why was I so willing to put the manuscript down and not pick it back up? Let's go over that again:

Writing skill ............... Check!

Clean manuscript ......... Check!

Good plot ................... Check!

Yet, the thing just laid there, like a dead mackerel, staring up at me with its one good eye.

Then it hit me! (the answer, not the dead mackerel)

She was a skilled writer, not a skilled story teller.

I grinned at her. "You are the only one who can decide if you should keep writing. My advice is to stop writing and start telling stories."

Have you ever picked up a latest bestseller and thought, "Jeepers, this isn't the best writing I've ever seen?" If you have, you're probably a writer - because no one else is worried about the writing. Readers want a great story told in an interesting way. They want to be engaged, have fun, get lost, fall in love, feel something new, and forget time and place.

But doesn't great writing help all of that to happen? Yes, of course it does. But good writing means seamless writing - writing that is so good the reader can forget about it and just have a ball in the story.

What's the most important aspect of writing? Storytelling. How you tell the story matters more, carries reader further, and, in the end, sells more books than technically great writing ever could.

Want to test my theory?

Find a familiar story to tell. Could be Goldilocks and the Three Bears, could be an old fashioned ghost story, could be a famous work - something you like. Get a friend or two or three gathered around. Then tell the story. I mean tell it, all hands on deck, no holds barred, tell the story. Make mental (and later concrete) notes on the people's reactions. Did you hold their attention the entire time? Did you hook them with your opener? Did they laugh when you thought they would? Did they smile at an unexpected time? Did they cry?

Later (say, in a week or so) ask your friends what they remember about the time you told them that story.
No one is going to say, "I remember that you used just the right words at just the right time and your characterization was spot on, oh, and when you got to a tricky part in the plot you made it so easy to follow!" Nope, they won't say that. They'll say, "Oh, that was so fun! I love that story."

Writing is the means. The story is what matters.

I wonder what would happen if we stopped trying to be writers and just worried about being story tellers?
Tell me a story.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

When is a Writer a Writer -- and not an Alcoholic?

Thirty! That's how many days you have left to enter our Audience-with-an-Agent Contest. This is your opportunity to have your manuscript read by premier agent Janet Kobobel Grant of Books & Such Literary Agency. To enter, go to our Promotions page and carefully follow the guidelines. We look forward to reading your submission.
Patti struck a chord with me Monday in the first paragraph of her post when she said, "I hadn't convinced myself that I was a writer." For Patti, it took a dedicated schedule to make her feel authentic as a writer. I certainly relate. It took nearly two decades before I could seriously call myself, or even think of myself, as a writer. I could say, "I write." And that I "hope to be published." But even though I spent 20 years working hard at the craft, and produced several novels, I didn't consider myself a real writer until I held Every Good & Perfect Gift in my hands. Not that I thought what I was doing all those years was make believe. But my hard work hadn't produced results, and I needed results to feel validated.
In preparing for this post, I put these questions to a group of Christian authors: Before you were published, was there a time when it was difficult to seriously consider yourself a writer? If so, did it take publication to change your feelings, or was there a point prior to publication when that changed? Here are portions of their responses. I hope you'll forgive the length of this post, but I wanted to include something from each one who responded.

"I have approximately 20 books published. Until recently, if a writing group was divided by pubbed and unpubbed I automatically aligned myself with the non-pubbeds ... being published hasn't changed my insecurities." Linda Ford

"I wasn't able to call myself a 'writer' without feeling inwardly doubtful about was I 'putting on airs' until I received my contract for my SECOND 3-book series ... I didn't feel comfortable telling people 'I'm a writer' until I was published in a way that looked like I'd achieved a promising career." Stephanie Whitson

"... during the five months it took me to write the first draft of my first novel, my husband was the only soul I dared to tell. I didn't call myself a writer until I sold my first book ... While I now claim 'writer' for lack of a better way to describe what I do all day, it still feels presumptuous to call myself a novelist." Deborah Raney

"I remember the first meeting of Georgia Romance Writers when I stood up and told them I was a writer. I felt like an alcoholic at an AA meeting! But it was a freeing experience to confess my secret life, hovered over a keyboard on the weekends!" Mae Nunn

"... it was hard to seriously consider myself a writer before publication... I continued to believe publication was too big of a dream and my prayer wouldn't be answered the way I wanted it to be. Wrong -- prayer answered and I suddenly had a four-book contract." Tamara Leigh

"It not only took publication for me to consider myself a writer, but multiple sales! Always in the back of my mind I thought I had just gotten lucky." Shelley Shepard Gray

"It took me a couple of books, at least, before I'd say out loud that I was a writer. I had such respect for books and writers that it was hard to put myself in that category." Gayle Roper

"I published so quickly that I absolutely didn't feel like a writer before or after my first book released. And to be honest, I still sometimes struggle with confidence and feel like I'm getting away with something by claiming to be a writer." Bonnie Leon

"I knew from the time I was in my teens that I wanted to be a writer, but even after publication, I wasn't convinced I'd made it." Veronica Heley

"I always wanted to be a writer but I didn't tell everyone that ... Then one day ... I went to the local library and sat in on a discussion that featured Flannery O'Connor ... [Later] I walked up to [my husband] and said, 'I'm a writer.' He smiled and said, 'Yeah, I know.' I said, 'No, I'm really a writer.' And from that day on, whenever people would ask me what I did for a living, I'd say, 'Well, I'm a writer.' Then the next question would always be, 'Oh, are you published?' And finally, the time came when I could say, 'Yes, I am.' I'm a writer." Lenora Worth

I find it amazing that someone with 20 titles to her name still feels awkward calling herself "writer." But I find comfort in it, too, as I discover I'm not alone in my insecurities. I haven't "arrived" and maybe never will, but I'm in excellent company and I shouldn't take that lightly. Above all, as Christians we must never forget that we're responsible for using the gifts the Lord gives us, but He's responsible for the results.
So, work. In spite of your insecurities, in spite of your doubts, work. Practice may not make perfect, but it does make better. I close with this quote from Jodi Picoult: "The advice I give aspiring writers is to JUST DO IT. Sit down. It's not inspiration, it's hard work ... There are days you won't want to write; there are days you won't write well --- well, too bad --- you just do it and edit the next day ... If you continue to believe you can make it as a writer, eventually someone will look twice at you and wonder why you believe that so strongly. And sometimes, that second glance is all you need for a starting break."

Monday, March 15, 2010

Protecting Your Writing Time

Our second Audience with an Agent contest is underway. This is your opportunity to have your manuscript read by Janet Grant -- one of the premier agents in the industry -- of Books & Such Literary Agency. We will accept manuscripts until April 15. Please go to our Promotions page and carefully follow the guidelines. We look forward to reading your submission

The only way to succeed at the writing life is to be able to live according to a schedule that accommodates time to write.” Elizabeth George, best-seller of 20 novels!

It took me a year to start my first novel after quitting my day job. I hadn’t convinced myself that I was a writer, and so, I wasn’t working like a writer. When asked, I was finally able to say that yes I was a writer—without giggling self-consciously—when I dedicated a portion of each day, duh, to writing.

Elizabeth George works five days a week when she’s writing the rough draft and seven days a week for all subsequent drafts. She gets up at 6:00 AM, feeds the dog, takes her vitamins, and exercises for 30 minutes while reading a meditation, something inspirational, and a few pages of a novel. Then she lifts weights for 35 minutes while watching The Today Show. Afterward, she meditates for ten minutes and finally sits down to her desk to—what else?—read a piece of great literature for 15 minutes. Are you tired yet? She’s not! She writes a paragraph or two in her journal before writing a minimum of five pages, even when she is on vacation or touring with a new release.

This is a routine. This is how Elizabeth George accommodates her schedule to write.

Remember, she has twenty—count ‘em, 20!—best-selling novels to her name.

Like Elizabeth George, I’ve discovered the writing life requires sanctifying a time and place for writing. For most of us, such deliberate living doesn’t come naturally. Here are some things that had to happen for me to type “Like a Watered Garden” on the title page and to fill the 320 pages that followed:

Know Thyself I asked myself: When does my creativity peak? What has to happen before I feel free to “play” with a story? What distracts me? I happen to be a morning person who likes to have a devotional time, exercise, and make a dent in the housework before I can play. Everything else is negotiable and everything, absolutely everything, distracts me. (More on distractibility later.) How long can I be involved in a full-on cognitive workout? Old injuries and an even older body limit me to about four hours of sitting at the computer. What motivates me to get a difficult task completed? A party! The minute I finish my writing goal for the day, I’m on the phone or running out the door to see real live people. Sharing a laugh and a cup of tea is my reward for pressing through and staying on my sitting bones. Why do I want to be a writer? Because that’s how God made me. I breathe and I write, not necessarily in that order.

Spread the Word Your friends and family already think you’re crazy to write a novel. Don’t feed their lack of vision by not taking yourself seriously.

There are people in my life who were used to having unlimited access to me. They loved being able to call whenever the fancy struck to chit chat about anything and everything, something I couldn’t do when teaching school. Since I love chit-chatting, no problem, except I wasn’t getting much writing done. And so, I hired myself to work from 10 to 2, Monday through Friday. I called all my frequent gab partners to let them know when I would be working. You will have to remind your mother several times.

Disconnect It’s the rare person (whom I deeply envy) who can write with distractions flying at them. I am NOT one of them. I unplug my landline, close the door, power down my cell phone, and close my e-mail program. My family knows to contact my husband in case of an emergency. He’ll fly home (He’s Superman!) to fill me in. This has never happened in 10 years of writing. This will only work if you are very good at returning phone messages and remember to plug your phone back in at the end of your writing time. I keep a note by my office door: Plug the phone in, silly!

Choose an achievable goal Jane Hamilton, A Map of the World, writes every day, but she only writes two pages a day. She says a day without playing with her children, riding her horses, or tinkering in her garden would mean a rather empty life, not worth the price to be published. But even at this rate, she has a completed novel in less than a year. Another writer I know writes for 15 minutes a day, that’s about three sentences each day or 7.5 hours each month. That doesn’t sound like much, but she accomplishes this goal, and that’s something. FYI: A page a day produces a novel in less than a year, too.

Dabble in routines Lauraine Snelling, who has written about a million novels, says you must choose a routine that fits your level of self-control as well as your personality. This requires some research and experimentation. Authors are frequently asked about their writing routines, so it’s easy to find examples of routines that work for others. Use these as a template, a starting place. Add or subtract elements you know would annoy your muse into rebellion.

Tame the social media monster This is harder than it sounds. It’s incredibly fun to tell people what I’m eating for breakfast. Still, my calling is to write, and personally, that has meant establishing rigid rules for myself about social media (Twitter and Facebook). Because…I. Am. A. Social media-aholic. Usually, I do a quick run-through of my sites early in the morning and don’t return until after my writing goal is met. But lately, the minute I struggle over a word, my mind says: Hey, go see if anyone commented on your breakfast! And I do. I’m considering a limited social-media fast until I complete my rough draft, or is that like an alcoholic saying she can be a social drinker? My throat goes dry just thinking about this fast. FYI: Most mornings I eat vanilla yogurt with wild blueberries and granola

Celebrate the freedom What I love most about my routine is the freedom to leave my office once I’ve completed my goal totally guilt free. Also, I seldom get caught in the panic of a late manuscript. Panic kills my creativity.

Have you developed a writing routine? Share the routines of famous authors! Do routines choke your muse or nurture your muse? Any advice on taming the social media monster?

Friday, March 12, 2010

Hiding in Plain Sight

(I was going to put clues all through today's post encouraging you aspiring novelists to enter our "Audience with an Agent" contest. But I need to tell you plainly: In today's precarious publishing atmosphere, if you can enter a contest where concerned cheerleader-type authors (that's us at NovelMatters) will vet your winning novel before a top agent -- you should just do it!)

As Katy’s stimulating post on Wednesday demonstrated, people love the challenge of a mystery, and they like being led down all manner of misleading paths if they’re rewarded with a good surprise at the end.

We also have a fascination with clues and messages hidden in media. Remember all the uproar over the rumor that “Paul is dead,” supposedly a hidden message in a Beatles album—if you played it backwards? And just this week Carly Simon revealed (also via a “backwards” recording) the identity of the man about whom she sang, “You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you.”

Other creative people have done this too: Al Hirshfield hid his daughter’s name, Nina, in his drawings, Alfred Hitchcock inserted cameos of himself in his films, and computer programmers put in “easter egg” messages in games and other programs. Fans find great delight in locating such elements.

Novelists and other writers include hidden elements in their writing. James Joyce paralleled the Odyssey in one of his books. And the Bible uses structural techniques that often go over the heads of modern readers, such as the acrostics that are clearly marked with Hebrew letters in Psalm 119 and not marked in eight other psalms (9-10; 25; 34; 37; 111; 112; and 145.)

Recently I used an ancient technique known as chiasmus in my WIP (chiasmus is a list that appears forward and then backward.) The point of any “hidden” element is that it doesn’t draw attention to itself, but brings delight or satisfaction when it’s discovered.

Have you discovered what you believe to be an intentionally “hidden” element or structure in a novel? Anybody out there brave enough to have written such a hidden aspect into your own work?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Unexpected

Our second Audience with an Agent contest is underway. This is your opportunity to have your manuscript read by Janet Grant -- one of the premier agents in the industry -- of Books & Such Literary Agency. We will accept manuscripts until April 15. Please go to our Promotions page and carefully follow the guidelines. We look forward to reading your submission

I have a confession to make, specifically to Nicole, who commented on Monday's post, saying:
"I'm really really tired of estranged families at the center of the plot."
Bless me readers, for I have sinned. Both of my novels are about estranged families, and so is the one I'm writing now. I'm just relieved I haven't yet written any of the worn-out stories Ariel listed - though I do wonder what would happen if we took a young ex-Amish FBI agent, returned her to her home town in Pennsylvania to track down a nuclear detonator from her past...

What do you think?

This brings me, in a very roundabout way, to the magic juice of story-writing: The unexpected.

Recently my husband, George read Blood Work by Michael Connelly. He loved the book so much, he insisted we watch the movie together. Here's the premise:
Still recovering from a heart transplant, a retired FBI profiler returns to service when his own blood analysis offers clues to the identity of a serial killer.
About twenty minutes into the film, I said aloud, "I wonder if this is what happened..." But George only smiled, and said, "You'd think so, but Michael Connelly's way ahead of you."

So I kept watching, and twenty minutes later, I said, "I'm sure I was right. It's obvious. I'm surprised Clint Eastwood hasn't figured it out yet. He's been a cop for how long?"

"You wait and see," said George. "This writer is sooooooo good..."

Long before the movie was over, I even thought I knew the killer's name. The only thing that threw me off was that smirk on George's face that said I didn't know anything at all about whodunit.

But you know what? I knew everything. I was a hundred percent right from the very beginning.


What happened? Michael Connelly may have written the book, but Brian Helgeland wrote the screenplay, and for some reason, Helgeland took out all the tricky stuff and substituted in the obvious stuff.

A good writer does it the other way around. The unexpected is perhaps the least complicated, the most deceptively simple device in his toolbox.

Did Ariel nail your premise with "A young woman leaves the big city and returns to her home town to face the ghosts of her past?" What expectations will your reader have from such a story? Where will he start saying, "Oh, I know what happens next?" At that point, just give him something else, something unexpected, and find a way to make it work.

With a bit of imagination, you really can put a Philadelphia cop in an Amish community and let the bad guys meet him there. Call it The Witness and ask Harrison Ford to star in the movie. He might just say yes.

A nuclear device on an Amish farm might push things a little far. But then again...

Here's a book recommendation from Becky Miller to me to you: While I'd been aware of the trick of the unexpected before, John Truby does a great job of expanding on it in The Anatomy of Story, in the second chapter, titled Premise.

Play the game with me. What books or movies have you enjoyed that put a new twist on an old concept? I love to read what you have to say.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Power of Premise - A She Reads Guest post by Ariel Allison Lawhon

Our second Audience with an Agent contest is underway. This is your opportunity to have your manuscript read by Janet Grant -- one of the premier agents in the industry -- of Books & Such Literary Agency. We will accept manuscripts until April 15. Please go to our Promotions page and carefully follow the guidelines. We look forward to reading your submission

“What’s it about?”

That is the first question we ask at She Reads when a novel is submitted for consideration. And depending on the answer, can be the last. The premise often determines whether we request a copy for review. Because if that most basic of ideas doesn’t draw us in, why read the book?

Mark Twain once said that, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter – it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” I say the same holds true for premise. To create an idea that strikes the reader as lightning – something they will never forget – is, in my opinion, the most neglected aspect of writing fiction.

I’ve made an observation over the last eight months, while perusing countless novels: many authors build their novels around a worn-out premise (perhaps the first idea that comes to them?). Let’s consider some of the premises that get presented to the She Reads committee most often:

A rogue FBI agent must find a nuclear detonator before the world is blown to bits. (The idea of a “high concept” novel is inextricably linked to nuclear devastation in the minds of many writers. They want the story to matter to a large number of people and the easiest way to do that is to put mankind in danger. But are there other cultural, moral, or spiritual dilemmas that would have the same effect? Me thinks so.)

A young Amish woman leaves her cloistered community and finds true love in the big city. (The desire for a life of simplicity and reverence is understandable in our fast paced society. We want the world to slow down. And we want our spiritual lives to have greater preeminence. Is there a way our characters can acquire those things without retreating to Pennsylvania?)

A young woman leaves the big city and returns to her home town to face the ghosts of her past. (At the moment, this is the most common premise we see in Christian fiction. The urge to explore our past and extract meaning from it is important to many novelists. Are there other ways to do this? Certainly. But for now, this seems to be the path of least resistance.)

Now, there is nothing wrong with any of these ideas. But there is nothing original either. They’ve been done ad nauseam. And when we ask readers to spend days between the covers of a novel, we ought to offer them something unique. Something unexpected.

It is interesting to note that all of the premises above are favorites with first time authors. And it is possible to do them well, as evidenced by the February pick for She Reads, Just Between You and Me by Jenny B. Jones – about a young woman who returns to a small town to conquer her fears. When a common premise is put in the hands of a craftsman, amazing things can still result. But only if the author is willing to leap that extra hurdle.

It is certainly true that there is nothing new under the sun. And if you were speaking to my mother, she would go as far as to say that there is only One story. His story. And we spend our lives retelling it. So it begs the question, are we telling the same stories over and over? Or are we telling the only story in a fresh way?

As both a reader and a writer, it is satisfying to find those gems, the stories that catch, and hold, my attention. Here are four that stood out amongst the submissions and went on to be featured titles for She Reads:

~ A wealthy college student transcribes the diary of a young woman killed during the Salem witch trials. (The Shape of Mercy by Susan Meissner)

~Three lives spin out of control after a young girl abruptly disappears from a small Texas town. (Daisy Chain by Mary DeMuth)

~A young widow camps out on her living room floor unwashed, unkempt, and unable to sleep because her dead husband keeps talking to her. (Talking to the Dead by Bonnie Grove)

~A tormented photo journalist returns to an AIDS ridden African country to

redeem himself after witnessing unspeakable atrocity. (Scared by Tom Davis)

We sat up. We paid attention. And we invested our time getting to know the lives portrayed in those novels. That is the power of an original premise.

However, an idea alone does not a great novel make. We all know that. Execution, characters, plot, dialogue and prose all matter a great deal. And to create a bolt of literary lightning, they must be present in equal measure. But that spark of energy – a great premise – must light up a reader’s mind first.


What about you? What premises caught your attention and lured you between the pages of a novel? Are there any ideas that you’re tired of seeing rehashed? And, if you're feeling brave, share the premise for your WIP - we'd love to hear it!