Friday, September 28, 2012

Braving The Mighty Amazon

Be warned: The Amazon is a perilous place. One so easily gets lost, searching for treasure, and the temptations to deadly excess are everywhere. There are fiction books - the newest ones, the ones everyone is talking about, the ones with pretty covers.

Close behind are the books on writing, that promise to help us write heart-breaking books, breakout books, breakaway best sellers.

I may just have all of them, now. At least, all of them so far.

Most dangerous of all is the seemingly harmless orange button that reads, "Buy now with 1-click."

You can see that I have 1-clicked many times. I've succumbed to temptation, and I have failed to shield my young. My oldest son was the first in the family to buy a Kindle (is it wrong to envy your children's toys?), and my youngest was answering "The Call of Cthulhu"* on his Palm Pilot long before Jeff Bezos made an app for that.

I've trekked the forests, mountains and oceans of Narnia with both my sons. My eldest continues to tempt my three-year-old grand-daughter with new books every week.

My youngest, when he was three, used to catch me sinking into a chair with a cup of coffee for a break between chores. The moment my bottom hit the cushion, he would grab a blanket and a book, and say, "Let's get cozy here!" Could you resist? I couldn't. What better way to spend time than to read a good book with a child? And then to read it again.

One of his favorites was "Love You Forever" by Robert Munsch. He loved every word, including the part where the mother crawls through her grown son's apartment window so she can hold him and sing the song again. I knew we'd crossed a threshold from which there was no turning back, the day my son stopped me on that page and said, "Wait! That's sick!"

I knew just as surely that something special had happened, the day he surprised me with this, at age eight:

We were driving in the car, going home after a long day, when he said, "I figured something out today about stories."

"What's that?"

"Batman can't be too strong."

"He can't? Why not?"

"Because if he's too strong, the Joker wins, and the story's over too soon."


"And if the Joker is too strong, then Batman wins, and the same thing happens."

It's terrible, the way I brag, I know. But wasn't he right?

Here's the thing: Both my kids are readers, but neither is tempted by books about writing. Even my youngest, who at such a young age figured out one of the great rules of writing, that villains and heroes must be evenly matched - even he feels no desire to break the bank over every book that promises to take his writing to the next level. At least not yet.

I just know there's a lesson here, and I think it is this: The books that will teach you best about writing novels are novels. 

That ought to cut the dangers of the Amazon in half, right?

It should. But it probably won't.

But since we're talking about our children this week, why not spill your stories? We love kids. And we love to read what you have to say.

*Back then, when my son said, "I'm really getting into Lovecraft," a friend thought he was reading sex manuals.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Story Structure comes from the RCMP, the Canadian Rockies, and a Pickle

My daughter dances into the room. She never walks. Walking doesn't occur to her. She's 9--a true nine-year-old that loves imagination games, dress-up, and being nice to people.

Anyway, here she is, dancing all over the living room. She eyeballs me in a way that tells me she has something important to tell me.

"High five," she says, hand up over her head. "Down low," she lowers her hand down to her knees, palm facing me. "In the middle," hand at waist height.

Here comes the unexpected bit. Still at waist height, she arranges her hands so the tips of her index fingers meet. "Cut the pickle," She says.

I know this--I was there when she learned it--so there's a short pause while we smile conspiratorially at each other. We know what's coming.

I reach toward her makeshift pickle and slice through with a delicate karate chop.

My daughter, nearly hovering above the floor in joyous anticipation, doesn't wait for my hand to finish its chopping.

"Tickle, tickle!" And I have child's hands buried in my armpits. I laugh, even though it doesn't tickle. Nine-year-olds don't know the secret of a good tickle yet.

"I love that," she says.

"Do you remember who taught you that rhyme?" Her searching expression says she doesn't, even though I've told her before.

She throws herself down on to the sofa, arranging herself in that most primal of postures that says, Tell me the story. She's a good sport, so she ventures a guess. "You."



"You were three years old," I begin.

She snuggles in. It's not a long story but we both get comfortable. It's important to be comfortable when a story is present.

"We were in Banff," I continue. I tell her that it is a town in the mountains in Alberta, frowning a little because it's been too long since we've taken her there, and I realize she might have forgotten there are places where the earth rises to touch the clouds. "We were walking down Main Street, and Ben saw an RCMP officer all decked out in his reds."

For some reason, this delights my daughter. Perhaps it's the special feeling that comes from me not having to explain to her what "reds" are. She knows and the knowing makes her feel grown up, smart. Whatever the reason, she giggles.

I say, "He crouched down to talk to you and Ben, and I thought, he must be a dad." Only a dad would know to get right down like that.

"Did he ignore you and Daddy?" Maybe she remembers this story after all?

I nod, feigning indignation. Can you imagine a grown up ignoring other grown ups? I don't tell her that the Mountie, in the milli-seconds before he bent down, whispered, "Is it okay if I do a tickle game with them?" I doubt I'll ever tell them that part. Permission spoils the fantasy.

"And this is what he did," I tell my daughter. And we go through the motions. Up high, down low, in the middle, cut the pickle. . .

"The pickle," I tell her. "That's the bit that really got you."

A Royal Canadian Mounted Police, decked out in full reds, bent his knee on Banff's cobblestone streets to play Cut the Pickle tickle game with two small children.

And that's how story works, right? Larger than life character, in a breathtaking setting, does something heroic (or at least, endearing).


The bit that matters to storytellers isn't the Mountie, or Banff, or even my children, darling as they are.

It's the Cut the Pickle game.


High five. We know this. It's ubiquitous to our culture. Ah, the blessing of familiar, this is the same thing we've known and loved for years. We're charmed and we can't resist it.

Down low. Okay, cute. Put a little spin on the story we know so well. We can go there with you. It's different, but not so different as to be unbelievable.

In the middle. We trust you by now. You know what you're doing, and you are able to be creative with where the story goes. Fine. In the middle we go.

Cut the pickle. Whoa. Where did that come from? This feels strange--but intriguing, too. After all, you didn't change things up too much. You just rearranged things into a new perspective. It's different, but, because you didn't use anything else but the things organic to the story, we feel we can trust you. Still, why do we have this feeling like there's more to this? Okay. We will take a step closer in order to find out where this is going.

Tickle, tickle! Ahhh! Surprise! You got us to trust you, drew us close, then sealed the deal with an unexpected, but perfectly logical ender. We didn't see it coming, but now that it's happened, it's the only way you could have ended the game.


So now, I move from my spot on the sofa to the chair in front of my computer. The story I'm telling is big and hairy. I'm in over my head. Ready to quit.

Then I hear my dancing daughter sing, "Cut the pickle!"

Fingers on keyboard. Shoulders back. Start storytelling.

After all, it's nothing more than an elaborate game of Cut the Pickle.
Have you had an "ah-hah" moment of insight about story? We'd love to hear all about it!

*The picture above is for the heck of it. Please, do not attempt to find sense, common or otherwise, in the inclusion of the above picture.*

Monday, September 24, 2012

Why the Novel Matters: An Interview with Cynthia Ruchti

 Our guest author today is Cynthia Ruchti, author of  They Almost Always Come Home , a 2011 ACFW Carol Award finalist, as well as her latest release, Maybe Us, a novella in the Cedar Creek Seasons 4-in-1 collection.

Cynthia served as president of American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW) for the 2009- 2010 term, and now serves as their Professional Relations Liaison.

Novel Matters:   Tell us about your professional writing affiliations and how they have helped your writing career.

Cynthia Ruchti:   I've been a member of ACFW since 2002, and credit it with much of what moved me from aspiring author to multi-published author. I could paste words together to form a sentence before joining. ACFW helped me learn to carve them into a story. Then it taught me how to polish the story so it caught the light ... and the Light.

I'd been writing professionally -- radio scripts, magazine articles, newspaper columns, anthologies -- for 20 years before attempting full-length fiction. The radio broadcasts were fiction exercises -- eight- or nine-minute scenes of dialogue with a musical interlude and devotion-style teaching. So I'd had practice storytelling. But there's so much more to becoming a novelist than knowing how to tell a story. ACFW offered me the "so much more." After volunteering as the Topic of the Week coordinator for several years, I made the anything-but-natural leap to president of ACFW for a two-year term. Since then, I've served as ACFW's professional relations liaison, helping strengthen connections between authors and retailers, libraries, book clubs, and readers.

Writing conferences large and small have impacted my writing. Here a little. There a little. Here a lot. There a lot more.

I'm a member of The Writers' View and consider the wisdom shared on that loop part of my continuing education. As a member of AWSA, Advanced Writers and Speakers Association, I gain another level of education, one that connects my writing and speaking. I recently joined CAN, Christian Authors' Network, and look forward to growing in that affiliation.

Novel Matters is one of the writing-related blogs I try not to miss. It feeds my writer-soul as well as my writer-mind.

NM:   We're happy to hear that. Which novels have informed you as a writer over the years? In what ways have they influenced you?

CR:   Every novel I've ever read has informed me, influenced me. Some have taught me what not to do or challenged me to write in a more compelling way. Some have edged me forward in my understanding of the human spirit and what it's capable of enduring, or strengthened my grasp of concepts like hope and grace. Some novels left me longing to have been given that story to write. Some left me speechless, wordless, longing to have been given that gift for storytelling. I appreciate a wide variety of novel styles. But I only remember the ones that moved me.

NM:   If you could sit down with any writer in history or living today, who would it be and why?

CR:   David, the psalmist -- the writer/worshiper/warrior -- would make a fascinating dinner guest. I'd listen first, then share my theories about how all of us are called to balance the writer, the worshiper, and the warrior in us. Then I'd listen some more, likely embarrassed that it took me so long to discover what his words and his life have been speaking for millenia.

NM:   As we shift gears just a bit toward your writing, do you outline your novels before you write, or are you a feel-your-way-through writer?

CR:   Somewhere in my brain is an outliner. She lives in a tiny little corner of my mental attic. The rest of the house is given over to the intuitive writer who -- to puree a metaphor, which is significantly more aggressive than mixing one -- likes to push off from shore with a paddle, a canoe, and no map. I have a general idea where I am as I write, but I thrive on the discovery of uncharted territory. I don't outline until I'm well into the process.

NM:   Which comes first for you: plot, characters, theme or something else?

CR:   Where does a novel start for me? With an intriguing word, a title that promises a whole book behind it, a scene visualized then threaded with what came before and what comes after, a concept that makes me wonder, a character in my life who begs to become a character in a book ...

So far the novels I've published, those soon to be released, those contracted, and those still in embryo stage have each had their unique genesis. Does that make me bizarre or buffet-like?

NM:   Since the six of us would give a similar answer, we say that makes you buffet-like. Definitely not bizarre. What is the one non-writing thing you do that helps you be a better writer?

CR:   No matter how pressing the deadlines, my husband and I try not to miss our weekly small-group Bible study, a true community of people walking out their faith and not afraid to show their blisters. Last week, one of the members said, "You should write a book about us." I told him, "I already did."

NM:   How are you navigating the changing tides of publishing?

CR:   Veewy caewfuwwy. As soon as we think we've memorized the "pink sky at night, sailors take flight; pink sky in morning, sailors take warning" publishing weather signs, the sky turns chartreuse! But when have things been predictable? Personally, I'm working hard to stay abreast of the changes, but also working hard to stay tethered to my anchor, to the Lord who called me to this undulating process with its adventures and obstacle courses.

NM:   What keeps you writing despite setbacks?

CR:   The joy of story keeps me writing. I want to see how life turns out -- for my characters, for the situations they find themselves in, for me the writer. I keep writing because writing is how I grow. It's what keeps me alert, observant, empathetic, and expressive. I don't like me as well when I'm not writing because I have to think and feel in order to write well.

NM:   What is the worst piece of writing advice ever offered to you, and why?

CR:   Not advice, per se, but years ago I heard people question why I wasn't published yet. They thought I could write. Grateful for their encouragement, I'm also grateful it didn't happen because they wished it so. It happened because God orchestrated it, so He could take credit. I forced open a rosebud once to see what would happen. It wilted in my hands. I don't want that to happen to my writing.

NM:   What is the best piece of writing advice you have to offer aspiring authors?

CR:   Write as hard as you can. Learn as hard as you can. Wait as hard as you can.

Aspiring authors don't mind investing time in writing. And learning's not so bad. Waiting? Do I have to?

Before, during, and after writing the novel.

NM:   Your novel, They Almost Always Come Home, is set in the Canadian wilderness. Tell about your choice for that setting.

CR:   The Quetico Provincial Park was a natural choice for this story. It's a favorite spot for my husband's getaways -- canoeing, backpacking, fishing, swatting mosquitoes in the remote wilderness. After annual and sometimes twice-annual trips to the wilderness, he coaxed me into accompanying him. It was snowing when we slipped our canoe into the water, and that gives a clue how much I didn't enjoy what he so treasured.

NM:   What was the seed of your story idea for this novel?

CR:   In 1999, my husband almost didn't come home from one of his trips to the Canadian wilderness. His story sparked the idea for what eventually led to They Almost Always Come Home. If the setting and the emotions seem real, it's because I've seen that water, felt the weight of a pack on my back, crossed the grueling portages, slept on tree roots and huddled as close as I could get to the campfire without setting fire to my hiking boots.

The remoteness and beauty of the wilderness mimicked the utter loneliness and yet the beauty of discovery for the main character, Libby, as she searched the wilderness to find out what happened to her husband, to their marriage, and to her faith. Although Libby's story is not mine, it was all too easy to imagine how she might have felt and the internal battles she fought. As I began to develop the story, new layers unfolded, layers that surprised even me.

NM:   What did you gain from writing They Almost Always Come Home?

CR:   How much time do we have? I needed to dig deep, then deeper still, in order to write Libby authentically. She, an imaginary character, taught me things about myself, about my approach to my husband, about who he was at his core, about how easily a family can be destroyed if they stop talking about what really matters. I gained great empathy, too, for those who feel abandoned by God, or who think they deserve to be abandoned by God. I'm continually uncovering more that I needed to learn as I interact with readers and hear their coments about how the story moved them.

NM:   What do you want your readers to carry away from reading your novel?

CR:   I tell stories of Hope-that-glows-in-the-dark. Hope often shows up best against a dark backdrop. So I pray that as readers get to the end of any novel I write, they'll see hope glowing in the dark of the characters' story and their own.

NM:   Why does the novel matter to Cynthia Ruchti?

CR:   "Come, let us reason together," God said in His Word. I picture that He's really saying, "Come sit here by me. You tell me your stories and I'll tell you Mine. And we'll think about them. We'll talk about them. You'll walk away different. I promise."

I see that same scene happening every time a reader opens a novel of any significance. We don't walk away the same. We're enlightened, encouraged, challenged, delighted, saddened, moved, impressed, baffled, buffaloed, blessed, or refreshed ... but rarely the same.

When I read a novel, I climb inside the pages and live the story with the characters, which expands the breadth and depth of my understanding. Novels written by the Novel Matters authors did that for me. Considering the number and variety of novels on the bookshelves in almost every room of my house, including the bathrooms, I've been through a lot!

Thank you for letting me visit with your blog readers. I appreciate the insights offered on Novel Matters. It's a must-read for me.

And we appreciate Cynthia taking time to share her writer's heart with us. They Almost Always Come Home and Cedar Creek Seasons are available wherever books or ebooks are sold. A Door Country Christmas novella collection is sold out but available in digital format. Readers can watch for another full-length novel from Cynthia in April: When the Morning Glory Blooms, by Abingdon Press.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Great Romance

I've really enjoyed the discussion about romance we've had since Patti's post last Friday started us on the topic. I loved the clip she posted from You've Got Mail, which is high on my list of movie favorites. I love all the comments generated by the posts of the past week, and have added titles to both my reading and movie-watching lists.

To conclude the discussion, at least for now, I'm posting a book review of one of my truly favorite movels about romance. Actually, it's a trilogy I'm reviewing: Black, Red & White by Ted Dekker. The trilogy is speculative fiction, a thriller/fantasy, so why in the world would I promote it as romance? I'll get to that.

For those who haven't read The Circle trilogy, I'll tell you what the back cover copy says about each one.  Black: The Birth of Evil. "Black is an incredible story of evil and rescue, betrayal and love, pursuit and death, and a terrorist's threat unlike anything the human race has ever known. A virulent evil has been unleashed upon the people of the earth, an unstoppable force bent on the destruction of all that is good. Only Thomas Hunter can stop it, and he has been killed. Twice."

Well, I was already quite a fan of Ted Dekker's writing, but when I read that back cover copy I knew Black was a must-read for me. I'm sure I read the opening pages three or four times and still couldn't figure out what was happening. It was my faith in Ted that kept me going, because I knew when the confusion cleared up it would be so worth it. But that's not entirely true. I'd have kept reading regardless, because the story didn't just draw me in, it sucked me in. I had to keep reading.

I had the privilege of seeing Ted Dekker as the keynote speaker at Mount Herman Christian Writer's Conference a few years ago. What he spoke about bolstered my determination to not give up on my dream of publication. He said the world of writing is like a pyramid. At the base of the pyramid you have a large number of people who want to be published. Move up the pyramid a bit and there will be a smaller number of people who will actually write to be published (a little author humor there). Move closer to the top of the pyramid and you have a much smaller number of people who will hone their craft and persevere until they are published. I left that conference knowing I was going to persevere until I realized my dream or died trying.

I read Black -- devoured it is more like it -- then had to wait several months for Red to be released, and several more months for White. The upside was that I read Black a second time just before Red came out, and read Red a second time just before White came out. Then I read White a second time ... um ... to keep things in balance.

Here's the back cover copy for Red and White:

Red: The Great Pursuit. "The mind-bending pace of Black accelerates in Red, Book Two of Ted Dekker's ground-breaking Circle trilogy. Less than a month ago, Thomas Hunter was a failed writer selling coffee at the Java Hut in Denver. Now he finds himself in a desperate quest to rescue two worlds from collapse. In one world, he's a battle-scarred general commanding an army of primitive warriors. In the other, he's racing to outwit sadistic terrorists intent on creating global chaos through an unstoppable virus. Two worlds on the brink of destruction. One unthinkable solution. Enter an adrenaline-laced epic where dreams and reality collide. Nothing is as it seems, as Black turns to Red."

White: The Great Pursuit. "Thomas Hunter has only days to survive two separate realms of danger, deceit and destruction. The fate of both worlds hinges on his unique ability to shift realities through his dreams. Now leading a small ragtag group known as The Circle, Thomas finds himself facing new enemies, never-ending challenges, and the forbidden love of a most unlikely woman. Enter the Great Pursuit, where Thomas and a small band of followers must decide quickly who they can trust -- both with their own lives and the fate of millions. Dreams and reality quickly bleed into each other as time runs out. And neither the terror of Black nor the treachery of Red can prepare Thomas for the forces aligned against The Circle in White."

So again, what does that really have to do with romance? Well, just as the incomparable Lord of the Rings trilogy is, to my mind, the best Christian allegory ever written (I know, the debate continues over whether Lord of the Rings is an allegory at all. To me, it is) so too The Circle trilogy is a thrilling allegory about the love of God. In the trilogy it's referred to as the Great Romance. My family (all of whom read and loved the trilogy) and I fall back on that phrase on a regular basis. It's a succinct way to remind ourselves and each other of the deep, abiding, unquenchable love of God. As the story so beautifully drives home, "From the beginning it was always about the Great Romance."

What book(s) can you think of that at first glance would never fall into the Romance category, but when you get to the heart of it, it's about little else?

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Romancing the Story

The first writing class I ever attended was through my local community college - just on a  lark - long before I seriously thought about giving writing a try.  The class was taught by Phyllis Taylor Pianka and the price of the session included a copy of her book, “How to Write Romances.”  I didn’t usually read pure romance (although a little romance is a good thing) so my goal wasn’t to write that specific genre but it seemed like a good place to start.

In a few hours I learned the basic formula for plotting a romance, and it didn’t sound too difficult.  I put my hand to it and…fell flat.  As Mark Twain said to his wife when she tried to shock him with his own profanity, “You got the words right but you don’t know the tune.”  I could plot a novel and plug in the scenes, but I didn’t have the music to make the story sing.

Even though the stories we write may not fall into the romance category, we all appreciate when it’s a vital part of the books we read.  We’ve mentioned several of our favorite movie romances this week, such as You’ve Got Mail and Sleepless in Seattle. I’m not even the chick-flick type, but there are some beautiful love stories that have made it to the silver screen – sometimes besting the book versions.  And it’s not about the rippling six-packs or chiseled jaws or other stereotypes sometimes associated with romance. It’s about what people will give up for love, or how it changes them – or how they change themselves for it. It’s powerful and poignant and sometimes painful.  A true love story goes far beyond the romance to the point of sacrificing ourselves. It’s a dim reflection of the love our Father in Heaven has for us.

I’ve made a list of some love stories that were made into movies that may not be categorized as romances, but are about love at the core.  Some were books that were made into movie scripts:

My all-time favorite is The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.  I save it for a dreary autumn afternoon when there are no distractions.  I enjoyed the book, but felt that the movie version was better because there was more tension between the characters and the ending was more satisfying.  Natalie Wood plays her young daughter.  Sappy and wonderful. Sigh…

Another is Pride and Prejudice.  Very much a romance. (Especially when Colin Firth plays Mr. Darcy)  The miniseries on A&E follows the book almost word for word, which is a wonderful thing.

I read The African Queen after I saw the movie and was disappointed that the romance between the main characters was downplayed in the book.  I will say that my edition has a slightly different ending because the publisher made a change that the author didn’t see before publication and the version I have is a re-issue with the original ending.  BTW, Humphrey Bogart’s character is still married to a first wife when he marries Katherine Hepburn’s character at the end of the book. Sheesh.

The Bishop’s Wife  is adapted from the book by Robert Nathan. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s available on Kindle and I would like to compare them.  Okay, I fall in love with Cary Grant every Christmas, but whatever.

Katy mentioned The Painted Veil.  I enjoyed both the movie and the book, although the book ended a bit differently.  This story of love, forgiveness and restoration is incredibly powerful and goes beyond a simple love story. 

I think I’m the only person who loves The Time Traveler’s Wife but hasn’t seen the movie.  Some have told me it wasn’t as good as the book, and I can see where it would be difficult to pull off without the use of subtitles or long-winded explanations of what’s happening. What do you think, those who have seen it?

Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel both depend on romance but are steeped in mystery.  Loved the books, but haven’t seen the movies in quite a while.  I remember a delicious creepiness factor that kept the stories from being sappy.

Casablanca is not adapted from a book, but I wanted to mention it because it’s a great love story.  I was disappointed to find that the last scene of the movie wasn’t shot until weeks after filming was completed because they didn’t know how to end it. They couldn’t decide who Ilsa would end up with!  They actually considered that she would leave her husband – the war hero – and run away with Rick.  I want to knock their heads together, the knuckleheads.

On the lighter side, I was surprised to find that Romancing the Stone and Jewel of the Nile were adapted from books.  This adventure romance was a kick in the pants. I think I was first bitten by the writing bug when I was introduced to Joan Wilder. 

This list is not comprehensive, but I think it gives some good examples of how a romance can be simple or complex and layered.  What romance has left its mark on you?  Which one do you return to year after year? We’d love to know!

Monday, September 17, 2012

Hot Romance Stories--What Novel Matters Writers would write if they wrote romance

We realize the title comes precariously close to the woodchuck tongue twister (how much wood would a woodchuck chuck?), but we're throwing cliche caution to the wind today. Patti popped the question on Friday: Will you read romance?

The Novel Matters women have gathered at the roundtable today with another question in mind. Or two. Maybe three. We don't keep that good of notes.

It goes something like this:

Okay ladies, we don't write romance novels. We don't read them--at least not many. But we all LIKE romance. Each of us is married to a hunky piece of heaven, right? We're living the romance.

So, what if you did write romance novels? What if you could write the perfect romance novel--the one that hit all your literary buttons--what would the premise be?

Or premises?

Romance is enduring, so there's bound to be more than one premise up your creative sleeves.

A man falls desperately in love with a woman he met online, he moves to a new city to be near her, and discovers she's a conjoined twin.


A happily married woman lives a completely different life when she goes to sleep, even being married to a different man, until she forgets which one is real.

Bonnie, you clever girl! I love both of those ideas. Please write them. Here are my offerings:

A couple's marriage is torn asunder by the wife's infidelity. Ten year after the divorce, they are still broken people, but they decide to mend together and remarry.


The wife wakes up to find an impostor of her husband in their bed. But he is her real husband. She's suffering from Capgras' delusion, a rare neurological syndrome that makes her believe her husband is an impostor.  The "impostor" must make her fall in love with him or leave.

I realized after reading Patti's post, that the novel I'm writing is a romance. The most I will say about it is: it's a May - December - May romance. 

I mentioned in the comments that I liked The Painted Veil by  W. Somerset Maugham. What set that apart was that it was about so much more than falling in love, like learning what it is that makes a person good, like forgiveness and growing up and living for something beyond yourself. So in that spirit, here's another premise.

A man and woman who divorced young and hated each other their whole lives end up in the same nursing home and fall in love. 

Actually, I regard my Conspiracy of Breath, an unpublished manuscript, to be the most passionate book I've ever written. Like romantically passionate. Like steamy in places without being graphic. Here's the premise, and I do think the basic principle is one with which many women struggle: How does a marriage thrive when the woman is more "spiritual" than the man? Can it? In the case of Priscilla, she receives direct revelation from God (the book of Hebrews), while her husband is a practical, relationship-oriented leader. 

Probably the closest I will ever get to writing a romance is Lying on Sunday, which has a romantic element, but that wasn't the main element by any means. One of my very favorite movies is Sleepless in Seattle, so the type of romance I like is where the couple getting together is frustrated by any number of things, and they only manage to get together in the end, and the romance happens off screen. I love where the attraction is based on things other than physical attraction, so my premise would be a couple brought together, say over the phone because the nature of their business brings them together. There's an attraction that's frustrated by "The Great Misunderstanding" which takes most of the story to straighten out. When they finally get together, it's all the more satisfying. I know, it's been done and over-done, but that would be the type of romance I'd write.

I enjoy when romance is part of any genre as long as it contributes naturally to enhance story and is one of several layers. I've included elements of romance (love) in my books because it is important to the lives of my characters and their lives would seem imbalanced without it. 

Writing a believable romance with a unique premise would be daunting for me.  My hat is off to those authors who can do it!  If I took a stab at it, it might look something like this:

An author meets a woman who is the character from a story he is writing and falls in love with her but she doesn't love him.  He tries to write the story so that she falls in love with him but he soon loses control of the story and the lines between reality and story are blurred. He realizes the danger she is in and must write himself into the story to save her, which leads her to fall in love with him.

Maybe a bit far-fetched but it might even be an analogy of how God loves us and bent into our lives to save us. 
What about you? Romance not your genre, but you have a great premise anyway? Maybe all these ideas will generate enough creative fusion to blast us all into a future writing romance novels! Share your hot premise for a romance novel! 

Friday, September 14, 2012

To Romance or Not to Romance, That is the Question

A good friend recently listened to my lament as we recovered from too much sand and sea. (Is that possible?) She’d heard my line of questions before. “Where are the readers who like non-genre books—a strong, complex story about characters we all recognize, fear, and love, a bit literary, startling in its beauty and truth?” (I'm not delusional. I don't believe I've attained this standard, but it's where I'm shooting.)

My friend is a bit of a bean counter, so she asked, “What’s the best-selling genre?”

“Romance by a mile—more like 3,000 miles.”

“And what is it you write again,” she asked.

“My stories have a romantic thread, which I try to write real, but I write stories about familial relationships. And there’s a dog in every story, but I was warned by my editor to NEVER kill the dog. Too many angry letters. Kill the kid, but save the dog.”

“How’s that working for you?”

“Not great.”

I’m happy with the stories I’ve written, as happy as a neurotic perfectionist can be about anything she makes, but my sales figures are dismal. Add a recession and the investment of hiring editorial support and a photographer/graphic artist to independently publish my next novel (along with 20 million of my closest writer friends), and I started wondering if writing romance—doing it really, really well—wasn’t the answer.

To be truthful, I stopped reading romances exclusively the summer of my 9th grade year. I read every Victoria Holt book at the library. After a few books, I could predict what was going to happen next. Then I started coaching the heroine, “Hon, the rich, dangerous type is not a good investment for your heart. Do you want that man bouncing your kid on his knee? Find a nice, boring guy who will talk to you without snearing.”

Before I continue, to prove I’m not anti-romance, here’s my favorite scene from You’ve Got Mail.

I love this scene because of the tension. Meg wants Tom to be NY152, but she can’t be sure that there isn’t someone a little less complicated out there for her. Tom wants her to choose him because of who he is, even though he put her out of business. I get all goose bumpy during the last scene where he tells her not to cry, Shopgirl, but this scene is my favorite. The evil big-box bookstore owner earns entre into her heart. Sigh.

And since I love this movie, it was completely possible that I needed to take a second look, a more current look, at romance novels of the Christian type, so I read four novels in one week. (Truth: I have read other Christian romances over the years.) I chose books with 4+ stars on Amazon. I also wanted to read different types of romances. I read a contemporary Love Inspired romance, an Amish romance, a Western romance, and a Christy-Award-winning historical romance. I know a larger sample would be better, but life is short, and my post was due today.

Those who write Christian romance do so with a sense of mission. They are good-willed people who are probably a lot more godly than me. They aim to provide inoffensive, entertaining stories that evoke the romancing nature of God. Think Zephaniah 3:17:

“The LORD your God is with you,
    the Mighty Warrior who saves.
He will take great delight in you;
    in his love he will no longer rebuke you,
    but will rejoice over you with singing.”

I love that verse! And let’s not forget Song of Solomon, the story of Hosea and Gomer, and Ruth and Boaz. All beautiful stories that symbolize the passion God has for us His beloved. This is romance at its best.

Some who raise questions about Christian romance see parallels between why women like this genre and men turn to pornography. I DO NOT put Christian romance and pornography on the same moral plain at all, but Joy Eggerich (daughter of the Love & Respect authors, Emerson and Sarah Eggerich) raises some interesting questions in this short video:

What she says about false expectations leading to a lack of grace really struck a chord. Ouch.

Okay, so what did I like about the romance novels I read?

  • I knew the story would have a happy ending. This is hopeful and optimistic.
  • The promise of stress-free entertainment was realized, little real tension or conflict.
  • I was reminded not to overuse the same word. One author used “threatened” or “threatening” six times in the first two pages. Another author mentioned the hero’s blue eyes eighteen times. (I realize this isn’t really a thing I liked, but I needed to pad this list.)

Here’s what drove me nutty about the romance I read:

  • I knew that the hero and heroine would end up together in the end. I like surprises, even disappointing ones. I actually find that entertaining. That says a lot, doesn't it?
  • Since the outcome is presumed (boy and girl together), any conflict or tension the author inserts comes off as artificial, at least it did to me.
  • Weak, crazy, outlandish (are you getting my drift here?) premises.
  • All of the heroes are chiseled (this word was used in one of the stories) and drop-dead handsome.
  • All of the heroines are beautiful with oddly colored eyes. Amber? Violet? 
  • The heroes demonstrated strongly feminine characteristics. Where’s the mystery in that? 
  • Even the best written of the four novels—good research, realistic premise, well-developed characters—was all about the first kiss.  
  • None of the four books I read provided a view of the world that challenged me think bigger.
  • Lots more sexual tension than I expected, especially from two childhood sweethearts who were compelled into marriage by an Amish loophole. 
You may have guessed that I’m sticking to my low sales numbers and non-genre fiction. And I think I’ll stick to romantic comedy movies over romance novels—in and out in two hours. This is a personal choice based on my personality and preferences.

I’ve been pretty hard on Christian romance, and I may have made some of you angry, some folks who I love and admire. I’m truly sorry about that. There are well-written Christian romance novels out there, and many, many people have been ministered to by reading them.  Please, feel free to give me some titles.

Okay, let’s talk. Did I miss something? Convince me to become a Christian romance lover. Are you someone who chose to stop reading romances? Would you tell us why? Does it matter one way or another if we read Christian romances? How do you feel after you've read a Christian romance? Do you think Joy Eggerich is all wet or on the money? What's your favorite romance movie scene?

By the way, these are my ideas. Latayne, Debbie, Bonnie, Katy, and Sharon are innocent and very nice.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Dancing In the Desert

Would you believe me if I told you that when I wrote my first novel, "To Dance In the Desert," I didn't exactly know what I was writing about?

You might believe it if you didn’t like the book.

Or if you did like it, but you’ve written one yourself, you might understand completely.

Or if you pay attention to the mysterious ways of God. If so, you weren’t surprised at the words Ariel brought us from Neil Gaiman.  Perhaps, like me, it comforted you to remember how often you’d reached for the words, and found them there waiting.

Ariel asked what our droughts looked like. Mine has been, for several years, a drought of words, brought on, at least in part, by the economic dryness we’ve all experienced.  The other ladies on this blog have suffered worse than I have, and by their friendship and example, have kept me from despair.  They have been Jane to me, the ones who showed  me how to dance.

Lately, I’ve sensed a turning, a small, first pirouette (it starts inside, where it doesn’t yet surprise the neighbors). It feels like a strange kind of joy, like a last kiss to the world we’ve lost, and a desire to assert myself into the new one, to explore it  for possibilities.

The turn manifested first in a desire to make a few changes of my own. I woke one morning resolved that all the wallpaper had to go. We’re still painting.

And for the next step – a sashay left? – I got myself a real, get-up-and-go-to-work job, and one I think I’ll love. It’s at a local non-profit that will allow free reign for all my flower-girl impulses toward service and community.

Then, just to buck the obvious assumption that I will now spend even less time writing, I’ve already begun a new regimen of getting up at dark-thirty, and going to the keyboard.  I’m pleased to say it’s going well.

Ariel mentioned Gaiman’s commencement speech, and I looked it up, and loved every word. As happens on YouTube, one video led to another  (Neil Gaiman on the Greg Ferguson Show) to another (Neil Gaiman talking about copyright and the web) to another (Neil Gaiman’s advice to new writers). If my husband hadn’t asked for spaghetti, I’d be there still.

But in the commencement speech, Gaiman had something to say about this new, strange world that made me pirouette again:

The rules, the assumptions, the now-we’re-supposed-to’s of how you get your work seen, and what you do then, they’re breaking down. The gatekeepers are leaving their gates. You can be as creative as you need to be, to get your work seen. YouTube ande the web and whatever comes after YouTube and the web can give you more people watching than old television ever did. The old rules are crumbling, and nobody knows what the new rules are. So make up your own rules. 

Look at that.  It only takes a little turn for the end to look like the beginning.

I'm proud of these ladies - of Sharon and her new novel, "Unraveled;" of Latayne and her courage and persistence; of Bonnie, forging her new paths in fiction; of Patti, diving into the creative process in brave new ways; of Debbie for proving that great stories can be written in small bits of time -  and of you - for striking out like Abraham for a promised land you haven't seen.

Have you made a pirouette lately? Do tell. We’d love to read what you have to say.

I’d better go make that spaghetti.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Reach For The Words-- A Guest Post by Ariel Allison from She Reads

This was a summer of profound drought. My little corner of Texas faced its second year of record temperatures, water rationing, and grass fires. Add to that a house full of rowdy children, a pending cross-country move, and two rounds of intense edits on my newly finished novel and I haven’t exactly been in peak creative form.

It was a daily reminder that real life and creativity are forced to coexist and writers have no choice but to write anyway. To block out the chaos and finish that chapter or that blog post. To work through Story on a macro level even when homebound with the Wild Rumpus. (My husband finally bought me a pair of studio-quality noise reduction headphones—a true lifesaver) The last few months were a lesson in pushing through a creative drought.

While juggling those edits and wild children and record temperatures I stumbled across an article by Neil Gaiman in which he interviewed Stephen King. Two fiction legends discussing creativity and their prolific careers and what happens when they reach for the words. I found this segment particularly comforting during those stressful editing sessions:

Neil Gaiman: I told him about the peculiarity of researching the story I was working on, that everything I needed, fictionally, was waiting for me when I went looking for it. He nods in agreement.

Stephen King: “Absolutely – you reach out and it's there. The time that it happened the clearest was when Ralph, my agent then, said to me 'This is a bit crazy, but do you have any kind of idea for something that could be a serialized novel like Dickens used to do?,' and I had a story that was sort of struggling for air. That was The Green Mile. And I knew if I did this I had to lock myself into it. I started writing it and I stayed ahead of the publication schedule pretty comfortably. Because...” he hesitates, tries to explain in a way that doesn't sound foolish, “...every time I needed something that something was right there to hand.

“When John Coffey goes to jail – he was going to be executed for murdering the two girls. I knew that he didn’t do it, but I didn’t know that the guy who did do it was going to be there, didn’t know anything about how it happened, but when I wrote it, it was all just there for me. You just take it. Everything just fits together like it existed before.”

“You reach out and it’s there,” King said. And it’s so true! Every time I’ve needed the words—really needed them—they were waiting for me. It was true of my edits this summer. And true of every blog post and short story and novel I’ve ever written.

That knowledge doesn’t make the process any easier. It doesn’t mean I can procrastinate. I still have to do my part—put my butt in the chair and my fingers on the keyboard. But it does give me hope that no matter the drought I’m in, the story is always waiting for me. Wanting to be written.

Question for you: what does your “drought” look like right now? Do you believe that if you reach for the words they will be there?

P.S. If you happen to be a fan of Neil Gaiman (I do wonder sometimes if there are people who aren’t) then do yourself a favor and watch his commencement address to the University of the Arts. It will make you laugh and cry and then you will get up and go write. Wise and wonderful words from one of the most talented authors of our generation.

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Theme is Out There

I smiled when I read Katy’s Monday post about truth. My husband and I are currently watching through the X-Files TV series on Netflix. Mulder and Scully’s search for truth is fraught with lies which, when taken together, lead to truth. How is that possible?

Someone once said that truth is the version of events the majority agree upon.  Especially when it comes to murky events like history (Churchill famously said, “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.”)

Fiction is about telling the truth via the valley of the shadow of lies.

So what sort of truth are we talking about here?

My dad loves to tell me that Louis L’Amour stories are accurate. “If, in one of his stories, he says there’s a rock in such and such a place, if you go to that place that rock will be there.”

Dad tells me this often, using the voice and posture of one truly impressed with L’Amour’s precision. It is, my dad seems to think, important not to mess up a good story by throwing rocks around willy-nilly.

Look around any bookstore and you’ll see heaps of fiction based on “actual events,” or “real history,” or “inspired by the author’s experience.” There’s something enticing about the story being real.

Real is true, but that doesn’t make it Truth.

When we talk about truth in fiction, what we mean is how affecting is the story’s ability to examine strings of small truths that lead up to the unveiling of a singular large truth?

This is theme at work.

As a story swims upstream to its end, the writer endeavors to explore as many facets and versions of the singular truth as possible within the limits of character and story.

Doesn’t that sound lovely?

So, if theme is the exploration of deep truth, why do writers struggle with theme? (And we all do)

In my journey from fly-by-my-pants to full-fledged planner, the one aspect of outlining I’ve resisted hardest has been writing a theme line. A single sentence that encapsulates the life-essence of the story I am creating.
It’s taken me years to surrender to the theme line. Why? At first, I thought it was because theme is supposed to be organic, something that springs out of my characters and their interactions.


Then, I was convinced that theme was too multifaceted to truly be captured in a sentence. After all, why write a whole novel about it if a single string of words does the trick?

Wrong again.

Recently, I discovered the true root of my resistance: theme lines read like clichés.

To quote a famous saying, writers are to avoid clichés like the plague.

Flee from them! Curse them. Expunge them from the sacred carvings.

So, when I sit my writer self in the chair and hammer up the scaffolding for my precious, profound story, writing a pithy theme line feels close to treason.

Insert Valium here.

Theme line is not an end unto itself. It’s a guidepost pointing to the ultimate large truth that lingers with the reader after they have finished the last page.

It is the meeting place for the moral conflict between characters.

It is the high bar the hero must clear (or fail to clear) in order to change from who he is at the beginning of the story.

Cliché though it may sound, a theme line is important (critical?) to your story.

There’s a pile of reasons why, but mostly it’s because the theme line encapsulates the Truth you desire to tell in your story. Without a clear vision of the central truth you wish to convey, you are in danger of writing a story that contains a cluster of small truths that lead the reader nowhere.

I’m working on two novels*. One is a complex story that includes time jumping. I’ve been thinking about this story for about 2 years. The theme line: Only when we accept our true self can we find peace.

Deceptively simple. Hedging close to the cliché line (if it doesn’t just stomp all over it), and it doesn’t begin to reveal the complexity of the story. But look what it does:

1)   Tells me where to start my main character reveal: she does not accept her true self. She’s hiding something specific from herself.
2)   Points toward the protag’s weakness and need.
3)   Guides me toward the ways in which my protag will act (especially the kinds of immoral actions she will take)
4)   Reveals the first point of attack by my opponent and by allies (a good ally will attack the protag out of love and a desire to fix the problem).
5)   Helps me develop all my other characters as variations of the same theme.
6)   Informs the unique method I will use to tell the story and reveal the hidden secrets in the plot.
7)   Gives me a moral ending to the story—something to prove or, in some cases, disprove. It tells me what my hero will learn at the end (to accept herself, and to stop lying to get what she wants)
When it comes to crafting your novel, the theme is in there, and getting it down on paper will help you get the truth out there.

*For interested parties, the theme line for the second novel I’m working on is still in process, but at this point in time it reads: Sometimes a great love must be sacrificed for the sake of the greater good.