Wednesday, January 30, 2013


You'll have to forgive me (or I hope you will) - I was sixteen.
The book was on my high school English teacher's loaner shelf, there for me to borrow, and then bring back, and I borrowed it, and I'm still borrowing it, and now I don't know where the teacher lives, so what can I do?

The reason I never returned the book was because in it I found an essay by Dylan Thomas that started like this:

  "I was born in a large Welsh town at the beginning of the Great War---an ugly, lovely town (or so it was and is to me), crawling, sprawling by a long and splendid curving shore where truant boys and sandfield boys and old men from nowhere, beachcombed, idled and paddled, watched the dock-bound ships or the ships streaming away into wonder and India, magic and China, countries bright with oranges and loud with lions; threw stones into the sea for the barking outcast dogs; made castles and forts and harbours and race tracks in the sand; and on Saturday afternoons listened to the brass band, watched the Punch and Judy, or hung about on the fringes of the crowd to hear the fierce religious speakers who shouted at the sea, as though it were wicked and wrong to roll in and out like that, white-horsed and full of fishes."

This paragraph can explain so much, like why I never could stop wanting to write, and why I gather books just to have them (even if they don't belong to me), and why I tend to like parentheses, and why my sentences tend to run on for whole paragraphs.

Until I have to break them up.

I never returned the book because I could never let go of a line like, "streaming away into wonder and India, magic and China, countries bright with oranges and loud with lions."

Could you? Aha, I thought not.

So here's your assignment: Go to your shelves and pull down the library book you never returned. Find the line that made you keep it.

And tell us.

We love to read what you can't let go.

Monday, January 28, 2013

The Carpe Annum Interviews--Chris Fabry

We’ve declared 2013 Carpe Annum—Seize the Year! It’s our way of encouraging you as an artist/writer to find your own path, listen to your inner iconoclast, and to be set free to explore your true writer/reader/human self.
We’ve asked a few authors to share their Carpe Annum journey and we’re pleased that our first guest is Chris Fabry.

Chris Fabry is an award-winning writer who has written more than 70 books for children and adults. His first novel for adults, Dogwoodwon a Christy awardThe third book in the Dogwood trilogy, Almost Heaven, won the ECPA Book of the Year for Fiction and the Christy Award. His latest is Borders of the Heart.

Chris is heard daily on the radio programs Chris Fabry Live! and Love Worth FindingHe and his wife, Andrea, co-host the national broadcast Building Relationships with Dr. Gary Chapmanfeaturing the New York Times Best-selling author of The Five Love Languages.

Fabry’s other books include the NY Times bestseller, Coming Back Strongerwritten with quarterback of the New Orleans Saints, Drew Brees, and Left Behind: The Kids, co-written with Jerry Jenkins and Dr. Tim LaHaye.

Chris is a graduate of the W. Page Pitt School of Journalism at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia and Moody Bible Institute. He has been married to his wife, Andrea, since 1982. They are the parents of nine children and live near Tucson.

Novel Matters: Welcome, Chris. The theme this year on Novel Matters is Carpe Annum—Seize the Year! Tell us about a turning-point time in your journey as a writer when you took hold of your career. What did that look like? How did that moment change you as a writer? 

Chris Fabry: In 2008, our family vacated our dream house in Colorado because of toxic mold. We had nine children. All of the children were ill, my wife and I were sick, too. We had to put our two dogs down and basically leave everything in the house: treasured books, electronics, toys, clothes, photo albums, everything. (Thankfully we did salvage a few heirlooms later.)
I was in the middle of writing the book June Bug. Our health struggle became a financial struggle and then a legal struggle. It affected everything. I wanted to give up. I wanted to walk away from the writing, from the pain, from all the questions about our lives and the future. But something inside said that writing was the path to freedom. If I could write through this devastation, if I could allow the pain I was going through to inform the story, my readers would connect with the character on an even deeper level. And I would find a measure of solace in the process.
NM: How did you funnel your immediate experience into June Bug’s story?
CF: In the story, June Bug lives in a small RV. Everything she has in the world is in that RV. We vacated the house and I was forced to work out of a neighbor’s little pull-along trailer. This was in January in Colorado. I could see my breath as I edited. Those days were some of my most productive writing days ever. And June Bug, to date, has been the novel I get the most response about. It has sold the most. I don’t think that’s by accident.
An event like that reframes your life. It shows how committed you are to telling stories and believing they’re going to have an impact on those who read them. And they have an impact on the writer as well. I no longer see my stories as for some mass audience out there. Each story is for an individual reader. And each story is for me.
NM: Which is amazing advice for all writers—get to a place where you’re able to see each story as personal, touching a single life to the core rather than a story that will ripple the surface of a large body of water. That takes time and effort but it’s worth it. Speaking of advice, Chris, if tomorrow were the first day of your career, what advice would you give yourself?
CF: Go deeper. Don't settle for what's on the surface. Use what you're personally going through, the pain and struggle, to propel you. For me, a deep relationship with God is important, it informs everything I write. So I would say, “Lean into that and your characters and stories will have depth.
NM: “Lean into that.” Good words for writers in this rollercoaster industry. We need something solid to lean on and, as it turns out, we need to be the ones who provide that stability for ourselves. Writing careers ebb and flow—one day you’re an Amazon 5-star, the next you’re on your way to the bargain table. How do you—do you?—separate yourself from critical opinions to give your creative self for another day of writing?
 CF: Before I ever wrote a word for publication I struggled with the question, "What makes you so special?" What makes me think I can write something better than author X who has done it longer, studied more, paid more dues, etc. And I had to come to the place where I asked if I really believed God had given me a desire to write and a message.
MN: So, you found the answer of what makes you unique in yourself, not ‘out there’ in public opinion?
CF: When I compare, I always lose because I'm either better or worse than others. But when I focus on what God has called me to do, whether I write or dig a ditch, it doesn't matter, I'm just going to do it in his strength and wisdom and let him do what he wants with it. I actually get a kick out of people leaving negative reviews. It keeps me humble and lets me know more people than my mother are reading the books.
NM: You’ve authored many books. In the beginning, did you consciously choose one of these paths over the other, and are you happy with that choice today? 
CF: I set out to write To Kill A Mockingbird and only have one book to my name, but I've written more than 70 now, in different genres, so I'm not Harper Lee. My main goal is to write stories that will touch readers deeply, as other writers have touched me
NM: Touching readers is the goal of every writer. There are many, many ways to do that through theme and content. You’re books run the gamut of theme, character, even genre. Are there any taboos you've respected in the past that you'd consider breaking now, after years of experience as a writer? If so, which ones, and why? Which would you never break?
CF: I don't use profanity and graphic sexuality. However, both are implied in my books because real life has both. I have an idea for a book where the main character is about as far from God as you can imagine, and that may be difficult for some of my readers to encounter, as it was with Truman Wiley in Not In The Heart. But it's not how good or bad a character is that makes them compelling, it's how real they feel and whether or not you care about them. 
NM: The use of profanity and graphic sexuality is an issue for writers who contribute to CBA (Christian Booksellers Association). But there is a bigger debate out there between writers: outline vs. no outline, just go with the gut. Which do you prefer? What role does epiphany play while planning or writing?
CF: I've never written a novel where I knew exactly what was going to come each day of writing. I know where I'm starting, I know the ending, and I know the conflict in between, but I'm always surprised by what I encounter along the way and the conscious and subconscious work together in my fictive dream.
NM: So, a bit of both. You start with a road map, but often find yourself 4x4ing through the brush. This has to be helpful as a writer who is faced dialing with a changing publishing industry. What once seemed like a narrow river feels more like a vast sea of choice for writers. How are you navigating through the waters these days?
CF: This hearkens to the question above--I'm not as concerned with industry changes and all the choices out there because my main concern is my art, the story. I can have a great publishing plan, a brand people recognize, and all the “right” industry choices made, but if I don’t have a good story, I don’t have anything.
NM: What about in this era of writers needing to market their own books?
CF: Marketing can sell an author once. It won't bring the reader back. So I concern myself with that. And I try to surround myself with people who have done this longer than I have, writers, agents, editors, who can advise well.
NM: Who do you turn to for advice when things are rocky on your writing journey?
CF: My editor at the publisher. You'd think you wouldn't want to say anything negative, but my editor is my friend/my book's best friend. I also email a close writing friend and say, "Help!" once or twice every book.
NM: It’s true, writing, in the end, isn’t the solitary pursuit it seems. Every writer needs a team they can count on. Speaking of things you count on, what's the one thing (be it a technology, a notebook, a wristwatch, or pen) that you can't be without as a writer?
CF: Time. Time is my biggest friend or foe as a writer. That's too nebulous, though. I'd say it's my chair. We relocated to AZ a few years ago and the house we moved into had a swivel chair, kind of a Lazy Boy thing, and it was all I had. I held the keyboard in my lap and sat back from the screen and I couldn't believe how much more productive and relaxed I felt than sitting straight and having the ergonomic this and that. I'm not suggesting this for everyone, but I've never had trouble with wrist pain, etc. And I do spend a lot of time in this thing.
NM: Awesome. I’m going to try writing from my reclining chair. If I get nothing written, maybe I’ll have inspiring dreams instead. We’re glad you were able to hang out with us today, Chris. One last question: What advice do you give to writers who are looking to seize the year and take control of their writing career?
CF: Don't seize a week or a month or a year. (Though I like Carpe Annum.) Commit to today. How much time can you spend working on your idea today? If you have a full-time job and can only spend 15 minutes, do it. If you do that, the Annum will take care of itself. 
Thank you, Chris Fabry for joining us on the blog today and inspiring us to dig deep into our experience to bring fullness and empathy to the story. We appreciate your time and insight!
 As always, we value our reader's ideas, questions, and input. Please share!

Friday, January 25, 2013

You See, But You Do Not Observe

I would like to thank my sister for getting me hooked on the BBC's Sherlock series starring Benedict Cumberbatch (War Horse) as Sherlock and Martin Freeman (The Hobbit) as Dr. Watson. It all started when she gave me a 3-episode DVD for Christmas, recognizing that some things are just good for people, whether they know it or not.  The stories are tightly written, smart and compelling. The characters are well-developed and complex.  And the villain is...well, a madman. The kind you wouldn't expect, which makes you squirm whenever he enters a scene. A fitting nemesis to the self-proclaimed 'high-functioning sociopath.' They have begun the third season and from what I gather, there are only 9 episodes so far. Total.


What I also love about the series is Sherlock's deductions, which appear briefly in writing over a person or situation stating a fact that he has ascertained by keen observation.  A piece of lint, an impression in cloth, a subtle change in gait reveals clues that are so obvious to him that he remarks to Dr. Watson, "You see, but you do not observe."  Commonplace objects and conditions tell the story for him.  How amazing it would be to have his keen eye to help me to flesh out characters and scenes.  It has challenged me to sharpen my own powers of observation.

In fact, I've put it into practice.  Not really snooping, just watching.  Last week I covertly peeked into the shopping cart of a 50-something man in the grocery aisle and deduced from the copious amounts of single-serving frozen dinner entrees and boxed macaroni and cheese that he would be dining alone.  Possibly he was newly single judging from the men's body wash, men's shampoo, jug of mouthwash and new toothbrush.  People don't usually run out of everything all at once.  But it could happen, and it could be an interesting twist if his actions were misinterpreted - in a story, not in life, poor man.

Of course, physical clues are only part of the story.  Intent and motivation are not easy to deduce or to show. The truth is, I 'see but don't observe' much of the time.  It takes practice to read a person's body language and the clues they unwittingly give. Some good news is that I think that just getting older has helped to make me more observant. Maybe because I've seen a lot. And I bet you have, too. 

So this is one part of how I plan to Carpe Annum in 2013 - sharpening my powers of observation to make strong, true characters and planting clues naturally within the story so they aren't contrived. How does 'seeing and observing' fit into your plan to seize 2013?

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Carpe Annum--Seize the Year! We Can All Be Astonishing

Today's post began as a Facebook status update. I wrote it earlier this week but I can't say why I wrote it. Meaning, I can't point to a particular event or circumstance that served as a catalyst for it. Sometimes life offers the pinprick of inspiration for such things (in novel writing we call it the inciting incident), but I'm hard pressed to come up with one for these thoughts. Probably because, much as we'd like it to, life doesn't work the way fiction does. Our cause and effect are often too far apart for us to clearly see them as a pair. (The job of the novelist is to bring personal cause and effect close enough together on the page for the reader to see, understand that this event brought about that event, and allow enough room for the reader to ponder how her past plays out in her present.)

Here's the status update I wrote on Facebook:
"The next time I read a book I think is badly written, or not up to my standard, or sags in the middle, or whatever, I'm going to remind myself that what I'm reading is a person's attempt to create something. And that act of creation, that attempt alone is astonishing. 
We've left ourselves in a world that will tear apart anything that smells of novice. But we've got it wrong. We need more cheering sections and less critics. We need more pom-poms and less pomp.
I need to be that fanatic encourager, for the sake of the art, yes, but more for my own sake. When I cheer for others, the clouds break above my head and I can begin to see the world as limitless. I begin to see that I too can dare to create something. That we can all be astonishing."

The comments under the update were as interesting as I could have hoped for. People were quick to separate constructive critique (which we strongly believe in) from criticism--the kind of negative review that is all scathe and no insight--which is an important distinction. I was gratified to read the conversations that took place around this topic (I often lose control of my FB wall and it is taken over by people who have conversations with each other. I enjoy this very much). 

The main point, however, is the emphasis on creation. The act of creating is, to many artists, sacred. A kind of sanctified place, if not utterly holy at least butting up against the edge of it. We employ this perspective frequently when we ourselves are writing--creating--and later when we feel the burn once the book is handed over to an editor, knowing it will not be spared the knife. I love everything about these moments of creation, editing--remodelling, recreating--precisely because I feel apart of something larger than myself.

Too often, I forget the cosmic-closeness feeling when I pick up someone else's novel. I ignore the fact that this writer too fell into the pool of creativity and taught herself to swim. Instead, I can be quick to criticize her stroke. I forgive my own flailing, my own ragged gasps as I nearly drowned in the eddy of hopeful creation, yet I press the other writer to impress me a deftness I myself do not possess.

And that is where my Carpe Annum lies. Part of how I plan to seize 2013 and make it my own is to promise myself that I will never forget the wonder, the astonishment of the creative act no matter who is creating. I love and respect story. That means, by extension, I love and respect those who work to create story. 

Love and respect. We can all be astonishing.

That's my Carpe Annum promise.

Tell us how you plan to Carpe Annum.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The best of time, the worst of times

As a great author once said, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times ..."

That's how I view the upheaval taking place in the publishing world: the best and the worst of times. The worst--or scariest--part for me is trying to find my audience as an indie-published author, trying to make a successful go of it without the backing of an established publishing house. While my first two novels were published by a publishing house, next to nothing was put into promoting my novels. So, honestly, not a lot has changed in that regard, except that I've learned that an author has to do the lion's share of promoting her work no matter who publishes her books. Now that it's all on my shoulders, I want--need--to make the best choices from the get-go. Which social media should I concentrate on, and which can I ignore (because we can't realistically and adequately do them all)? How do I get word of mouth working in my favor? Where will my very limited dollars most advantageously be spent? The best part, though, is that with so many well-known authors going independent, the stigma of self-publishing is rapidly dying.

What about you? What's the best and worst for you regarding the enormous changes in the industry?

The best for me is the independence. Even the modest pressure put on me to write more novels per year didn't feel good. "Can you write more than one novel a year?" they asked. "No." In fact, I wanted to take longer with my books to do a better job, to write a more significant story, one that--could it be?--engaged people emotionally. The worst part for me is the independence, mostly for the reasons you stated but also because I loved the people at my publishing houses. Being independent is a little lonely at times.

I'm living in that half-world of self publishing and commercial publishing. After several years of attempting to market a nonfiction I've written (The Hinge of Your History: The Phases of Faith ), in spite of the fact that it was endorsed by Philip Yancey, my agent Janet Grant could not find a commercial home for it. So we agreed that I could self-publish it; and in spite of the fact that the sales are supported mainly by my speaking engagements (people buy it like hotcakes when I speak on the subject), it has done well.

On the other hand, Howard/Simon&Schuster is publishing my new co-written nonfiction in a couple of months, Discovering the City of Sodom. Very controversial book. And my agent has proposals for two new novels in the hands of editors.

So why do I feel in a half-world? Yet another book, which I consider the best book I've ever written, can't find a commercial home. This book is the book, I believe, I was born to write. And of course there's no guarantee (in fact the odds are against it) that either of the books being read by editors will be published.

I know that many of our Novel Matters readers are aspiring to be published. I just want you to know that I truly feel your pain and disappointment when a project into which you have put heart and soul can't get a wider audience. I do understand why Sharon and Patti have decided to go the route of self-publishing. It's truly a confusing time; one in which my only secure guide is prayer.

I think, above all, you need to go with your strengths and what feels the most natural to you. Whether you have the type of personality that makes for great radio and TV interviews or lean toward speaking to book clubs and teaching workshops, include both. Try to strengthen your weaker areas and lean heavily on what makes you shine. With the changes in publishing, it's even more important to have a well-rounded marketing plan.  I know some self-published authors who are being extremely creative on Facebook with events and with paid promotions.  I think it will get easier to market rather than harder. This could be an exciting time!

I'm in a strange, transitional place, here. Some big things finally seem to be resolving in my life, and I couldn't be happier or more surprised at the resolutions. God has shown a tender attention to detail that seriously blows my mind - details I had too little hope to consider. This is one of those rare moments of epiphany for me, a series of events that change my perspective forever. I can't wait to see what story will come out the tips of my fingers - and I think I may finally be ready to begin. But I can't stress out about it. In fact, I feel much less prone to stress than I did just a few months ago.

What will I do with the story once it's written? I'm not sure, but  I do feel that whatever happens, it will be fine. Really.

Did someone drop a pill in my coffee?

Just kidding.

How does a writer (or anyone for that matter) make the best choices? Patience is a huge factor. It's easy to be in a hurry when it comes to wanting our work in the marketplace being hungrily consumed by happy readers (we hope), but rushing leads to mistakes--sometimes big ones--and mistakes mean precious time taken up repairing and then making up for lost time. I think I rushed a manuscript last year because I felt I "should" have been finished by now--you know that feeling?--and that ended up costing me in the long run. My Carpe Annum in 2013 is trusting myself more and asking myself, "Am I enjoying this? Do I feel I'm being led, or pushed?" My husband is brilliant, and he tells me, "God leads. If you're feeling pushed from behind you need to rethink what you're doing." I won't be pushed from behind this year. I'm going to lean into my instinct, my moxie, my path. Where will it take me? That's the other thing. I've given up on caring where I end up. I'm here for the ride.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Book Club: 21st Century Fiction's New Working Definition

Each Sunday, I scan the NY Times Best Seller List that is reprinted in my hometown newspaper on what our paper overstates as its book page. If you lean toward the love of literary writing, and we do here, the list seems contrived, doesn't it? But if you're someone entrenched in the publishing biz, the list tells an important story. As a big-time literary agent, Donald Maass, brings decades of list watching and the lessons the list provides to Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling.

At first, I wasn't sure another book club on a writing book would fit into our theme of the year, Carpe Annum. After all, our goal is to take charge of our creativity, not to bow to yet another must-do list that guarantees success if only...well, if only.

Truthfully, I haven't read the whole book. To keep this experience fresh and surprising, I'm not reading ahead. Maass may say some bonehead things about writing and creativity in the chapters ahead. If he does, all the better for a discussion.

For now, he's introducing his idea of a high impact novel, and I must say that what he says so far matches with our goals beautifully. In fact, I'm praying he's a prophet.

Let's get started.

Back to the best-sellers list. I don't pay much attention because it's consistently populated by the same twenty or so authors week after interminable week. Stephen King. Danielle Steele. Nicholas Sparks. David Baldacci. James Patterson, James Patterson, and JAMES PATTERSON! Reading the list is better than counting sheep.


According to Maass, literary books are showing up, and when they do, they stay and stay on the list, outselling, and, more importantly, out-impacting the commercial fiction.

" our new century, literary fiction is selling the way that commercial fiction are supposed to." Donald Maass

So what's changing?

Stories like The Help, Water for Elephants, and The Art of Racing in the Rain have two things in common. First, they're great stories. Second, the writing is beautiful. According to Maass, the result is a high-impact novel.

The authors of these stories have learned to do it all well--plot, structure, characters, language, and so much more. These types of books are starting to turn up often enough that the industry has coined a new term: literary/commercial fiction. (When we first started this blog, we called this category Up Market Fiction. Unfortunately, none of us are very influential in the NY publishing biz, so they came up with their own name. We are not bitter.)

This is the future!

"It's an approach to novel writing that eschews both snobby pretense and genre dogma. It is personal, impassioned, and even downright quirky, yet through its rebellious refusal to please, it paradoxically achieves universal appeal. It panders to no one. It speaks to everyone." Donald Maass

Cue "The Hallelujah Chorus!"

To support Maass's point, an illustration. My father-in-law and I could not have more divergent reading preferences. Give Dad a craggy midshipman's tale--usually self-published--told from the deck of a WWII destroyer, and he's in heaven. We hear snippets of the story for weeks at the Sunday dinner table.

But Dad and I both adored Water for Elephants, a literary novel that swings to the past, where a young man is swept into the drama of circus life and back to the present where the man is now too old to remember if he's 91 or 93.

And Water for Elephants fits Maas's description of the 21st century novel perfectly. The language is straight forward yet beautiful; the story is achingly human and wonderfully surprising. The author, Sara Gruen, stares down her mortality through her character Jacob, inviting us to do the same. There's nothing much more personal or universal than that. The circus is a world unto itself. Nothing is too ruthless to insure its survival. Quirky? A circus is nothing if not quirky, rebellious, and self-governing yet lawless. What a setting!

Sara Gruen manages to write a larger-than-life story about a man who gets a second chance at adventure and purpose when the rest of the world is asking for the bed pan. No wonder the book outlasted commercial books on the bestsellers list by impacting the reading world so powerfully.

So what's changing? According to Maass, fiction is changing.

"The characters who resonate most widely today don't merely reflect our times, they reflect ourselves, moving beyond what is easy and comfortable to write what is hard and even painful to face." Donald Maass

Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help, grew up in the South, white with a black housekeeper who was also her nanny. Of her white character, Skeeter, she said, "Skeeter was the hardest to write because she was constantly stepping across that line I was taught not to cross. Growing up, there was a hard and firm rule that you did not discuss issues of color. You changed the subject if someone brought it up, and you changed the channel when it was on television." Kathryn Stockett
moved beyond what was easy to tell to a story of heartbreaking universal appeal.

"To infuse a novel with significance that speaks to many requires, paradoxically, that you ignore what the public wants (Carpe Annum!) and focus instead on what matters to you. High impact fiction is highly personal." Donald Maass

By the way, Donald Maass isn't the only one saying it has to be personal:

I've prattled on long enough. Let's start talking.

What novels have you read lately that would fit Maass's definition of high-impact fiction? What does he mean when he says "high impact fiction is highly personal?" How did the author of the novel you liked make the story personal and universal?  What kinds of changes will you have to face in your writing to make it more personal? How scary is that?

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Einstein and Fairy Tales

Albert Einstein, one of the most intelligent men who ever lived, is famous for his scientific and mathematical writings. But if anything awed him with its infinite power, it was stupidity: “The difference between genius and stupidity is; genius has its limits,” he said.

You’d think someone who specialized in formulae wouldn’t think highly of human imagination. Quite to the contrary, he often spoke of the limitations of logic and the immense power of imagination.

You’d also think that his formula for fostering intelligence in children would have something to do with memorizing mathematics facts, or exercises in logic. No way.

“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales,” Einstein said. “If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”

Fairy tales. Magic. For a reader, picturing things that couldn’t possibly exist, interacting with one another.

For a writer, taking the impossible and giving it dialogue. Making the impractical work. Giving a plot trajectory for things that could never fly and words to mouthless ideas.

Oh, Albert.

I never knew I loved you. Relatively speaking, of course.

Do you agree with Einstein’s theory of raising intelligent children? Did you do that? Or perhaps were you weaned on fairy tales yourself, as I was?

Monday, January 14, 2013

A New Year, A New Work

For 2013, we at Novel Matters are busy lining up interviews and guest posts with some amazing authors and industry professionals. We're starting off proud with Chris Fabry, whose gritty, suspenseful Western romance, Borders of the Heart, was released just last September. He'll visit us on January 28, so there's still time to read the book before his interview!

Carpe Annum! I love our theme for 2013. That's what the 6 of us plan to do, corporately and individually in the coming year, and I expect you do too. In my case I'm moving forward with indie publishing, and anticipate releasing my next novel on my birthday, July 1st. Happy birthday to me! I'm working hard at promoting Unraveled, and will soon re-release Every Good & Perfect Gift and Lying on Sunday, in both print and Kindle format. Yay!

As many of you can attest, there are a number of highlights in the life of an author: finishing a novel, signing that first contract, holding your published book in your hands, hearing from readers -- which really is one of the best things about being published. But another "best" for me is beginning a new manuscript. It's a thrill all its own, and holds so much promise. I can imagine Harper Lee sitting down to begin Mockingbird, creating one of the most enduring novels in literature, as told by one of the most endearing characters in literature, Scout Finch. I wonder how much Harper Lee knew about her story when she wrote that first paragraph. She could not possibly have imagined the lasting impact it would have on the world around her. She not only seized the year, she seized the ages. Wow. There's no end to the author studios our imaginations could take us to, envisioning ourselves looking over their shoulders as they penned, "Call me Ishmael." "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again." "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times ..."

As this new year begins, I've just begun work on a new manuscript. In December, I posted the prologue I wrote several months ago, but the prologue was as far as I'd gotten with the story. Yesterday I began Chapter 1. I'm so excited to be back at work. Since I began writing in the mid-80s I've had a novel in the works, without exception. Until 2012. I completed my last novel early in the year, and except for that prologue, I didn't write another word. I've said this before, I know, but usually by the time I'm 2/3 of the way through one manuscript, ideas for the next one are pounding at my door. I begin making a file for the new work as scenes present themselves and characters begin to take form. Dialogue is loud in my ears. I give myself a week or two after finishing one manuscript, then I'm right back at work on the next.

But there was much about 2012 that sapped my energy, both physically and mentally. (Do you sense how glad I am that 2012 is over?) I had ideas for two possible novels, but I couldn't make up my mind which way to go, and couldn't get traction on either one. I dabbled in plot and character development, going back and forth between the two, but nothing jelled. Then, in November, my daughter Mindy and I were making our every-7-week, hour-long trek to Folsom, where we get our hair done, when I brought up my dilemma. Mindy knew about my two possibilities, but as we talked about them, one of the ideas really began to click with me -- especially when Mindy threw out a terrific idea for a cover based on my working title. That settled it.

An odd way to decide on a novel to write? Perhaps. But simply put, it tipped the scales in favor of one topic over the other. And it gave me the enthusiasm that had been lacking. So for the past few weeks I've been expanding on plot ideas and character development, which is by far my favorite part of this early process. I love looking for the perfect names for my characters, and as I'm sure you've found, there are names that are exactly right for the people we create. I seldom hit on the right name, right off the bat. Instead, I try out a name, maybe even begin the writing with the wrong name, which will nag me until I find the right one. When I find the right first name, I search for the surname that fits. Then I go searching for the face to fit the name. Almost always, that's the point when a character comes to life for me.

But in the case of my current protagonist, her name came to me first, late one night when I was unable to sleep because of illness. It was as if she were suddenly there with me on the couch, introducing herself. A 12-year-old girl with an unusual name. And I said in a whisper, "What's your story?" And she began to tell me. Which was a bit unusual, because she doesn't speak.

Oh yes, there's nothing like beginning to write a new novel, to begin acquainting yourself with the characters who populate your fictional world; to discover the secrets they keep -- or try to; or to follow blindly along, not sure in the beginning what you'll uncover. It's as stimulating for me to uncover the plot of the books I write as it is the books I read. In both cases, there's always such great anticipation.

What about you? What's your favorite thing about starting a novel, as a reader and/or an author? And how do you plan to seize the year in 2013?

Friday, January 11, 2013

Trusting the Madman

I'll bet, when Debbie announced on Wednesday that our theme for this year would be "Carpe Annum!" (Seize the Year!) that at least 50% of you - the ones who've been reading long enough to know what movies I like and how I think - I'll bet you thought I was going to quote from The Dead Poets Society.

I almost did. The quote that intrigued me most from the movie was Todd Anderson's impromptu poem, because the scene is one of my favorites. It perfectly demonstrates the Yawp!, the seizing of the day that Mr. Keating urges.

I close my eyes,
And this image floats beside me:
A sweaty-toothed madman with a stare that pounds my brain.
His hands reach out and choke me,
And all the time he's mumbling,
Mumbling truth,
Truth like a blanket that always leaves your feet cold.
You push it, stretch it, it'll never be enough.
You kick at it, beat it, it'll never cover any of us.
From the moment we enter crying to the moment we leave dying,
It'll just cover your face as you wail and cry and scream. 

The sweaty-toothed madman could easily be not Walt Whitman (the subject of Todd Anderson's poem) but the short-sheeting God of the Book of Job, who demands trust without explanation. Have you met him?

But I didn't quote this poem, because the end of it seemed to tell only part of the story. It left out the eucatastrophe, the surprise at the end when Job sees God face to face, and in that warmth and wonder forgets what explanation it was he'd wanted.

Have you lived long enough to understand?

Sometimes I think, just barely, I might have lived that long.

Last September I experienced a eucatastrophe of my own, the day I sadly conceded to the equiring voice in my head that the time had come for me to find a job. The area I live in is short on jobs, and the ones available - so far as I knew... Well.

The internal conversation went like this:

"Why are you so resistant to getting a job?"

"Because I've had jobs I hated, and I'm afraid I'll get one like that, and then I'll be trapped."

"Yes, but you've had jobs you loved. What if you found one you loved?"

"That would be different."

And fifteen minutes later, standing in the grocery line, my phone vibrated, and when I checked, I found a Facebook announcement for a job that I would love - if I could get it.

I did get it.

And I don't know the words to tell you how much I love what I'm doing. I work in a Family Resource Center, where I get to help struggling families find resources to meet their expenses, put food on the table and love their children well.

What I do know is that with my life so re-arranged, my next novel will be written from a new perspective, from a different rock on whatever mountain it is that I'm climbing. I'm very curious about what I'm going to say.

So the movie I'd actually like to quote is Kate & Leopold, where Kate says:

"It’s wonderful to get what you want. It’s really a great thing… unless what you thought you wanted wasn't really what you wanted because what you really want, you couldn't imagine or didn't think it was possible. What if someone came along who knew exactly what you wanted without even asking? They just knew, like they could hear your heart beating or listen to your thoughts… and what if they were sure of themselves and didn't need to take a poll… and they loved you, and you hesitated?... and I… I have to go."

What if the sweaty-toothed madman loves you? What if he can hear your heart beating? Wouldn't that be the Eucatastrophe to beat all?

Take the leap. Make this your year to forget what you thought you knew, and allow the sweaty-toothed madman to lead you to the thing you didn't know you wanted.

He's sure of himself. He knows.

What if you hesitated?

You have to go.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Carpe Annum - Seize the Year

On Monday, Bonnie gave us this great advice: "2013 is your year."  We at Novel Matters are so happy to partner with you on this journey, that we’ve declared our theme for the next twelve months to be Carpe Annum – Seize the Year.  The six of us are busy brainstorming ways to make this a reality for readers and writers alike, and we are excited! 

In 2013 we plan to feature interviews with authors and other industry professionals exploring what it means to own your career, to write what you were created for and to think outside the genre box.  Author interviews will be announced in advance to allow time for you to become familiar with their writing style before you hear what they have to say about the process.  And a challenging new contest is in the works (more info to come)!

We will be celebrating several new book releases this year by Novel Matters authors, published both traditionally and through self-publishing.  Discover what it takes to get books into print and how to tap into the market to get them into the hands of readers. 

Above all, we will encourage you to take yourselves seriously as writers and to make steady progress toward your goals. Whether you write best by the seat of your pants or by carefully outlining, sharpen your pencils.  Organize your chaos or toss a grenade into your well-ordered system.  Reach out to other writers for community and critique, to fresh sources for ideas and into your souls to make your characters sing. 

Hemingway said, “Write the truest sentence that you know.” Now would be the time.

Seize 2013.  Carpe Annum.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Burn the "How to" List--2013 Belongs to You

Due to the high volume of spam in the comments section, we've had no choice but to institute the "verify identity" safeguard. This means you will be asked to type in a word verification along with your comment. We're sorry to add this extra step simply because of a very few goofballs out there with nothing better to do with their time. Our apology.

Welcome back to Novel Matters. We have a great year of blogging ahead and we're thrilled to have you join us. Cheers to a new year!

I spent some time last week splashing through the info swamp of the “how to” of writing and publishing. It didn’t take long before my hip waders flooded and I was over my head. The volume of advice is more avalanche than rushing river. Micro info dumping about the industry of publishing (which is either doing just fine, or is a dinosaur long extinct it just doesn’t know it yet, depending who you read) sends writers into a panic.

Why panic?

Because the underlining message of all these articles, blogs, websites, books, and essays is this: Writer, you don’t know what you’re doing. You’re getting this all wrong.

Jane Friedman, in an article called How Long Should You Keep Trying to Get Published? encapsulates this mantra perfectly (with help from Chuck Sambuchino):

 ‘“Good” gets rejected. Your work has to be the best. How do you know when it’s ready, when it’s your best? I like how Writer’s Digest editor and author Chuck Sambuchino answers this question at writing conferences: “If you think the story has a problem, it does—and any story with a problem is not ready.”
It’s common for a new writer who doesn’t know any better to send off his manuscript without realizing how much work is left to do. But experienced writers are usually most guilty of sending out work that is not ready. Stop wasting your time.”

This is good advice—you shouldn’t send out your work until you know you’ve done everything possible to make it the best it can be—but the way the advice is worded leaves you (and me) with the understanding that writers are just creative screw ups with no real understanding of story structure, book markets, or what’s selling.

This makes writers sad. We hate getting it wrong. We hate being industry idiots bumbling around in the dark with nothing but our imaginations to keep us warm. We just keep writing stories with problems!

Hold it.

A story with a problem . . . What kind of problem, and who decides it’s a problem? And, apparently, this will only worsen with experience. We will actually get worse at the whole writing thing the longer we write.

Goodness, we’re an unruly bunch.
Well, if we can’t please the publishing bigwigs, there’s always self-publishing, right? Surely there’s happy news and clear skies over at self-publishing info depot, that rugged station of independent thinking, or flying in the face of convention, of hitching your wagon to a star of your own creation. Ah, yes, breath the fresh air of fresh thinking.

Or not.

Typically, the advice given to self-publishing writers is identical to that meted out to writers hoping to find a home in traditional publishing. Seth Godin is the go-to guru for self-publishing writers, so I spent some time perusing his advice. A great deal of his energy is spent explaining why traditional publishing is dead. If you’d like a list, check out his site (he focuses on non-fiction ventures, but much of what he says can be generalized to other types of publication).


Godin's “short list” of 19 points of advice for writers hoping to self publish reads identical to any list produced for any writer hoping to publish in any format. None of it is “bad” advice it’s just not terribly original.


Because original is impossible to categorize, list, and package. Original defies explanation, yet draws people in by touching the exposed nerve we all have but cannot name. Original is you being your unruly, creative, messy, exceptional self—no excuses, no holding back—and then releasing it all.

Are there steps to follow to becoming a bestselling novelist? Maybe. Is there a list out there that we should enslave ourselves to in order to achieve stardom? No.

I’m going to give you the best writing advice there is: 2013 is your year. That’s my advice.

You’re bigger than any list. You burn too bright. That list will burst into flames in your hands.  You are a writer—and that means you are an artist, poet, priest, lover, fighter. You feel, you live, you watch and then you turn all that over on its back, invert the whole thing, and write about a world familiar yet strange and we all just sit back and say, “Wow. Do it again.”

And it’s because you live and love and express the power of both in ways that leave us breathless that you will, in your own way, find your way—whatever that means and whatever that looks like—to the place you craft. Your place. Traditionally published, self-published, or some place in between.

You are an artist.

Stop reading lists.

Go. Own 2013 in your own way.


Be fierce.

Be fearless.