Saturday, December 29, 2007

Happy New Year

The presents have been opened (and, in many cases, returned or exchanged). The last of the turkey has been consumed. The family members have returned to their respective homes. As Don Meredith once said, "Ain't nothin' as over as Christmas." I hope that each of you had a wonderful experience.

Now we turn our attention to the new year that lies just around the corner. Many of us are thinking, "This year, I'm going to...." You can fill in the blanks. "Write the great American novel." "Live within my means." "Be a better person." "Lose weight." Resolutions abound, although the resolve to carry them out might be short-lived.

Wanting to be better, to do better, is one of the characteristics of mankind. We recognize our imperfections and shortcomings. Even the worst of us has the ability to discern right from wrong, good from bad. It's doing something about it that is the challenge.

May the new year be full of possibilities for each of you, and may you take full advantage of them. I encourage you to set your course according to the leadership of your Creator, so that your actions will show Him to those around you. That's my wish for you and for myself. Happy New Year.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas: What To Say?

Here's my Christmas message from 2006. I think it's still appropriate.

"Do we go to your parents' house or mine?" "Where did you put the extra string of Christmas lights?" "Which stuffing recipe are you going to use?" "What would you like for Christmas?" "Where is my Christmas tie?" "Why doesn't this sweater fit anymore?"

Have these become the sounds of Christmas at your house? I hope not. As the blessed day sneaks up on us, I've wondered what to say to those of you who read my random jottings from time to time. What can I say that's new and inspirational? Finally, it dawned on me...I don't have to find something new. Better to stick with something written about 2700 years ago by the prophet, Isaiah. The words bring as much hope now as they did then. May it be ever so.

"The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned....For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace."

May you have God's peace in your heart, not just as you celebrate Christ's birthday, but every day in the year to come. Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Christmas Without Them

Christmas is a time of strong emotions for most of us. It's a family time, but sometimes the family is broken--by separation, by divorce, by death, by circumstance. I was asked by our local newspaper to write a column dealing with the first Christmas after the death of a loved one. I hope you don't mind my sharing it with you here.

THE FIRST CHRISTMAS WITHOUT THEM

After the death of a loved one, every holiday that follows carries its own load of renewed grief, but there’s little doubt that Christmas—especially that first Christmas without him or her—is the loneliest time of the year.

After the death of my wife, Cynthia, I was determined to keep things as “normal” as possible for that first Christmas. Since this was an impossible goal, the stress and depression I felt were simply multiplied by my efforts. My initial attempt to prepare the Christmas meal for my family was a disaster, yet I found myself terribly saddened by the sight of my daughter and daughters-in-law in the kitchen doing what Cynthia used to do. Putting the angel on the top of the tree, a job that had always been hers, brought more tears. It just wasn’t right—and it wasn’t ever going to be again.

Looking back now, I know that the sooner the grieving family can establish a “new normal,” the better things will be. Change the menu of the traditional meal. Get together at a different home. Introduce variety. Don’t strive for the impossible task of recreating Christmases past, but instead take comfort in the eternal meaning of the season.

The first Christmas will involve tears, but that’s an important part of recovery. Don’t avoid mentioning the loved one you’ve lost. Instead, talk about them freely. Share the good memories. And if you find yourself laughing, consider those smiles a cherished legacy of the person whom you miss so very much.

For most of us, grieving turns our focus inward. We grieve for ourselves, for what might have been, for what we once had that has been taken from us. The Christmas season offers an opportunity to direct our efforts outward. During this season for giving, do something for others. Make a memorial gift in memory of your loved one to the North Texas Food Bank, the Salvation Army, or your favorite charity. Involve yourself in a project through your church. Take a name from an Angel Tree at one of the malls and shop for a child whose smile you may not see but which will warm your heart nevertheless.

When you’re grieving, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by Christmas, especially the modern version. The echoes of angel voices are drowned out by music from iPods. The story of Jesus’ birth gives way to reruns of “Frosty, The Snowman.” Gift cards from Best Buy and WalMart replace the offerings of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. If you find the season getting you down, the burden of your loss too great to bear, read once more the Christmas story in Luke, chapter 2. Even when you celebrate it alone, this is the true meaning of Christmas.

To those of you who read this blog, whether regularly or sporadically, may I wish you a wonderful Christmas. I'll be back again in a week or so. Blessings.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Star Stood Still

I'm not much of a shopper. There, I've confessed and I feel better. And at this time of year, shopping ranks right up there with a root canal in my hierarchy of things I don't much care for. However, it's necessary, so you might as well make the best of it. Kay and I recently spent a good bit of time at a large mall in Dallas, walking and shopping and people-watching. Some of the folks had the vacant look of a person who's totally overwhelmed by the moment, some looked as though they'd just been enrolled in the Mission Impossible team and were hurrying to complete the assignment, but a few of them seemed to be enjoying the experience. I'm hoping that these were the people who'd decided to look beyond the "have-to" of buying gifts to the pleasure that comes from doing something for others.

It's easy to get lost in the hurry of the season, and I'm as guilty as anyone. I have a rug that I put down at the entrance to my study every year at this time: "Bah, Humbug." But when all is said and done, I really do enjoy the tree (so long as I don't have to decorate it), the presents (so long as I don't have to buy and wrap them), and the family time (there's no disclaimer there).

In the stillness of the Judean night, when angels were announcing the birth of Jesus, the star over that sacred manger stood still. Let's do the same. Stand still, reflect, and give thanks.

Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Building Blocks For Writers

Recently I was called upon to give some advice to a beginning fiction writer. In reading through his first several chapters, I was reminded of the journey a writer takes as they learn the craft. When I first thought about writing a novel, I figured it was just taking the day-to-day happenings of a cast of characters, transcribing them to paper, and waiting on the street corner for a publisher to stop by, much as one waits for a taxi. How wrong can one person be?

Those of you who are already established on this road will find this review brings back memories. If your journey is in its first stages, I hope this helps.

Begin with plot. Decide what's going to happen and how you can make it interesting. The best resource I can recommend in this area is James Scott Bell's book, Plot and Structure. Not only is it excellent for the neophyte, I firmly believe that every novelist should review it periodically. Then populate your novel with interesting characters. For this, read Brandilyn Collins' book, Getting Into Character. Guard against "head-hopping" or shifting points of view. For this, try Mastering Point of View by Szeman. For more insight into story arc, consider this book, one I only learned about recently: The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler. You'll also get help from all of Noah Lukeman's books, but especially The First Five Pages and The Plot Thickens.

Now you have your plot, your characters, and your story arc. Write, revise, write, revise, repeat as needed. No one--I repeat, no one--just pops out a novel without sweat, tears, and many revisions. For this you'll need to consult the classic The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. To spice up your punctuation, it's back to Lukeman, this time for A Dash of Style. For that final rewrite, read Donald Maass' Writing The Breakout Novel. And watch for James Scott Bell's forthcoming book, Revision and Self-Editing.

Is that all? Of course not. If you're down about your writing, read Bird By Bird by Ann Lamott. Read Stephen King's King on Writing. Had enough? Probably so, but there are another dozen or more writing books on my bookshelf, and there's no dust on any of them.

Two last bits of advice. Read. Read the works of authors whose fiction you admire. My friend, Alton Gansky, told me, "Once you start writing, you'll never read the same way again." That's true. See how they do it. That's one way to learn. Then write. Nolan Ryan didn't become the best strikeout pitcher in the major leagues by reading about it. He practiced. A lot. So should you.

Don't be scared to fail. We all do. Failing isn't terrible. Not trying is. Write on.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

A Story For Christmas

The young couple knew the long trip would be difficult, but it was the Depression, and although there was no work in the small Texas town where they had started their married life, the husband had heard of work in California. So they packed up their car, praying that it would hold up for the trip. The wife’s father slipped a couple of crumpled bills into her hand and said, “In case of emergency, Honey.” Her mother stood nearby, twisting her apron, obviously worrying about her daughter but just as obviously trying not to show it.

The couple used up the last of the daylight driving. They had reached deep West Texas when they realized it was time to stop for the night. “We can’t spare the money for a hotel,” the husband said. “I’m going to see if the folks at one of these farms will put us up for the night.”

They pushed on between pastures marked by sagging barbed wire, the road a winding black ribbon in the flickering yellow headlights. At last the driver spied a cluster of lights in the distance. “I’ll try there.”

The man who came to the door wore overalls and a gray, long-sleeved undershirt. He didn’t seem to take to the idea of this couple spending the night, but his wife came up behind him and said, “Oh, can’t you see she’s pregnant. The hands are out in the north pasture with the herd, and the bunkhouse is empty. Let them stay there.”

In the middle of the night, the young husband was awakened by his wife’s cries. “I’m in labor.”

“But, you’re not due until—“

“Just get help. Please.”

He did. In a few minutes, the rancher’s wife bustled in, laden with towels and blankets. “Just put that down,” she said to her husband, who trailed her carrying a bucket of hot water in one hand. “Then you two men get out.”

Soon, the men tired of waiting outside and the rancher grudgingly invited the stranger into the kitchen. They’d almost exhausted a pot of extra strong coffee when they heard a faint cry. Then, “You men can come back now.”

The two men were halfway to the bunkhouse, following the faint light of a kerosene lantern, when three weary cowboys rode up and climbed off their mounts. “We saw lights on here. What’s going on?”

“Come and see,” the young husband said. And they did.

When he saw the mother holding a wrinkled, fussing newborn close to her, the gruff old rancher turned to his wife and said, “Well, Mother, I’m glad you talked me into letting these folks stay.”

“We had to,” she said. “It was a wonderful gift for me, seeing that little baby born. Who knows? Maybe he’ll grow up to be someone special.”

Now imagine that the scene wasn’t West Texas, it was Bethlehem. It wasn’t a bunkhouse, it was a stable. Does that make it more real to you? I hope so.

During this season, as you think about Jesus’ birth, don’t put him in spotless white swaddling clothes in the middle of a Christmas card. Picture him in the most humble surroundings your imagination can conjure up, the Son of God in blue jeans, born to give each of us the best gift we could ever imagine.

Friday, December 07, 2007

The Busy Season

Where does the time go? In case you haven't noticed, it's December already. And less than three weeks until Christmas. Christmas cards? Shopping? Travel plans? Of course, each of you has these under control. Sure you do.

One of our guilty pleasures is relaxing in the evening watching previously recorded sitcoms, and there's an episode of Frasier that's a classic. Niles, played by David Hyde Pearce, is playing the part of the adult Jesus in a Christmas pageant. He's in Frasier's apartment to get his nasal spray, because he's reacting to the hay in the manger scene. He runs into the mother of Frasier's current girl friend, there for a brief visit. Only one problem--the girl and her mother are Jewish, so Frasier is pretending that he is, too. At the end of a hilarious scene, Niles says, "Sorry, I have to run." The mother's line is a classic: "Of course. This is your busy season."

The problem with most of us, myself included, is that this is indeed our own busy season. But I hope that we're never too busy to reflect on the meaning of the season. Not the wreaths, the lights, the gifts, the carols, the family celebrations. No, the reason we celebrate is that God came to earth in human form to give each of us the greatest gift we could ever hope for. Eternal life.

Enjoy the season--and the reason. Blessings to you and yours.

NOTE TO FRIENDS OF KRISTY DYKES: Kristy, one of the sweetest authors around, has undergone surgery for a malignant brain tumor. She starts radiation treatment on this coming Monday, and she and her husband, Milton, have asked us to pray for her at 3:30 PM Eastern time on that day. For details on her situation, you can check out her web site, where Milton is continuing to post.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Writing Queries: More From Teri Walsh

I promised to give you more inside information from writer Teri Walsh. In this post that originally appeared on the site Writer Unboxed, she addresses what she's learned about queries. I hope you find it as helpful as I did. Thanks, Teri, for letting me share it with my readers.

Heard at the Backspace Agent seminar:

“Trying to find an agent through blind querying is like trying to find a job by sending out blind resumes.”
“Write your query and synopsis sometime between the first and third draft. Don’t just write and send; allow it to sit and age and improve. Treat it like your novel.”

“If you have a good story, you must write a good query to interest an agent. It’s not a crap shoot.”

Unless you’ve already made a strong agent connection and can bypass this step, your submitted work will land as another melting crystal of ice in the slush pile. Because of this, you’ve got to find a way to distinguish yourself from the other sloshy bits. The query is an important tool in this regard and can act as your golden ticket into Agent Land–if you’ve written it well.

One of the main purposes of the Backspace seminar was to allow writers to learn about the query process from the queried masses themselves. What do agents really like to see? What do they hate? And which choices will land you in the grey zone? Here’s a peek at my notes.

YES, PLEASE.

* Look at an agent’s website for submission preferences. Some agents want e-queries while others prefer snail queries. Some may want to see the first ten pages and/or a synopsis along with your query. Because agents have so much slush to sludge through, submissions that don’t follow these rules might end up auto rejects. Do the upfront work and you’ll improve your chance at moving on to the next phase.

* Personalize your query letters. Summarize, even in a sentence, why a particular agent appeals to you. You admire the agency, authors the agent works with, the agent’s website/blog, etc… No one likes to feel like a Jane/Jay Doe.

* Make smart comparisons. Go ahead and liken your style to an author on the agent’s list–as long as the likeness is viable. Still good is to relate your work to another published book (but not a classic).

* Elevate yourself. Mention in your letter if you heard an agent speak at conference and especially if you’ve received a referral by another author. Said one agent, “A good word by another author will buy you a few more pages with me instead of the 1-3 page reading you’ll have otherwise.”

* Mention your credits. Have you published poems, short stories, magazine articles, nonfiction works? Mention your writing experience, briefly. Those with an advanced degree in a particular field should also include this info in a query.

* Mention the mistakes under the bed, too. Say if you have several other stories gathering dust. Though these old tales may not be publishable, agents like to know you’re a career-minded person focused on improving your craft.

* Reveal agents in your closet. If you’ve had an agent in the past and parted ways, say so in your query. If you’re querying a story that’s already been widely shopped, it might make hooking a new agent more difficult but it’s still info a would-be agent should have. If your story’s fresh, clarify this by saying something like, “My previous book was represented, but here are details for my next (read: better, infinitely more saleable) work.”

* Make your query unusual and attention grabbing. Of course your story is ultra-unique, fantabulous and unboxed to the max, so be sure your query is too. Got hook? Don’t be coy about it. A strong hook can help set your query above the others.

* Keep it professional. This one’s easy. Standard white paper. Black ink. Easy-breezy font like Courier or Times New Roman, 12 point. Include the agent’s name, your address, etc… Spell check everything. Sign it. If you’re sending an e-query, be sure you maintain a professional atmosphere, include all relevant information and keep the length from eee-growing beyond the equivalent of one manuscript page. Some agents noted that e-queries lean inappropriate-casual because the very nature of email is more casual. This can be a big mistake. Present your best self. Basic stuff, but still important.

NO, PASS.

* Don’t sell yourself more than the book. Though some biographical information may be interesting and relevant in your query, focus on the story you’re trying to represent and keep info about yourself focused and to a minimum.

* Ditch the Sir or Madam approach. Don’t sent a query off to an agency without personalization. And never send a mass query to several agents at once. See the now-infamous Gawker query for the perfect example of what not to do, HERE.

* Don’t misspell the agent’s name, or use Mr. for Ms., etc… Is there a quicker route to knee-jerk rejection? Because this is one of the most easily avoidable screwups, getting basic facts wrong indictates a laziness that can turn agents off. Do your homework. There are plenty of agent-info websites you can visit for factchecking, but top among them is the agency’s own site.

* For that matter, don’t misspell anything. Agent Michael Bourret once received a query with the word “intellectual” misspelled. Erk. Use your spell check.

* Don’t write your query hastily. Remember that your query could be your golden ticket. Don’t let months or years of writing stand or fall on a slapdash query. Write a draft. Stew over your phrasings for a while. Improve upon your letter over time as you did with your novel. Create a query that is your best representative.

* Don’t dribble over into a second page. Queries that go beyond a single page may signal an author who has a too-long manuscript as well. A red flag for agents.

* Don’t use gimmicks. Rachel Vater once received a piece of toast in a query. Though the toast was somehow related to the book, the gimmick was a definite turn off. Forget about the cute kitten stationary, too, the fancy font, the glittery paperclip and the purple ink. Keep it simple and let your work sell itself.

* Don’t bother with Priority Mail. Spending more on postage doesn’t elevate you in the slush, and it’s not going to get you read more quickly either. Send your submission via regular mail.

* Don’t angst up your query. Keep the high drama in the novel–or save it for post-publication talk show interviews. The agent reading your work out of the slush neither wants nor needs to know about your recent surgery or the many children who’ve fallen in love with your book, etc…

MAYBE. MAYBE NOT.

* Consider business cards. Some agents don’t mind them but others complain they fall on the floor and lead to aggravation toward the author from the start.

* Use the right voice. It’s hard to say whether you should infuse your query with the voice you’ve used to good-great effect in your manuscript. Some agents like getting an instant feel for your writing style while others prefer a query stand on its own and simply do what it’s meant to: provide information.

* Think twice about slipping into character. First-person queries work for some agents but others find them a big turn off. It’s probably not a good approach unless you know a particular agent likes to see character queries.

I hope you've found this material helpful. My thanks to Teri and her colleagues at Writer Unboxed for letting me share this information. By the way, they've recently posted an interview with Donald Maass, author of Writing The Breakout Novel and The First Five Pages. It's worth a read.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Agents And The First Two Pages

Today I’m privileged to “steal” and post the work of another contributor to a site that’s fast becoming one of my favorites: Writer Unboxed. Therese Walsh tells us about her experiences in New York, reading her work for four different agents. Read on and learn. I certainly did. (And remember, what she says about agents goes for editors as well).

AGENTS AND THE FIRST TWO PAGES
By Therese Walsh

I had a great time in NYC last week. Saw the fabulous WICKED (just in time, too, as the stagehands’ strike has shut down a chunk of Broadway), got to wear my hip city clothes and had the pleasure of participating in Backspace’s Agent Seminar. During the seminar, we were given the opportunity to peer inside agently minds, to hear what made agents take note, what made them groan, and what made them laugh.

We also were able to read our first two pages aloud for a group of fellow writers plus two agents. Because I did this on two consecutive days, I read for four agents. The experience was truly enlightening, since the agents were asked to stop a reader once they reached the point where they’d put the work down if sent to them as a submission.

Although I already understood cerebrally the importance of hook, these sessions drove home this point: To be taken seriously in the slush–and I’m including partial submission requests here–you must not only possess a first graph that’s going to get an agent’s undivided attention, but you’ve got to entice them on and convince them that your work is about as close to perfection as humanly possible. Ugh. But it’s true. Said agent Jessica Faust, “It has to be perfect to sell it.”

Agents face a mountain of slush and partial subs on a weekly, if not daily, basis, and they just don’t have time to give anyone the benefit of the doubt. In fact, I’d say the assumption when they peruse page one is that the work isn’t going to be good. Uphill battle? You bet. So don’t hobble yourself. Your story picks up steam in chapter two? Tough, no one’s going to read that far to see it. Your story gets brilliant on page three? Sorry, never made it past the first paragraph.

This hard truth upset a lot of people, but sitting through a live version of slush-pile processing, I’d have to say it’s undeniable. Perfection is an unpublished author’s one true hope of standing out. But is the flavor of perfection in those first few agent pages different than what we think of as perfection for the work as a whole?

Some of you may not agree with this, but I heard more than one person come to this conclusion: The first pages you send to an agent may be more likely to land you a request for a full if those pages are specifically constructed for agent maceration. Crazy? Maybe. But if a few tweaks get an agent to read on to page 3, 5, 10, 25, 100, does it really matter?

Like I said, I read both days. The first day, I read my current first two pages without alterations, which included a three-graph prologue. I wasn’t stopped as I read through my work, but I wasn’t commended for my approach either. “It’s not pulling me in,” I heard. “Nix the prologue.”

On day two, I revised. I removed the prologue entirely and tweaked the opening of chapter one a little, too. I removed reference to a secondary character to streamline the prose, for example, and got rid of other things I thought could act as “road bumps” in the work. I not only got through my reading but was praised for some craft elements including flow. Lesson? You know I’m not going to send my prologue in any partial request. Maybe for a full, but not for a partial. And, who knows, maybe I don’t need the prologue at all and will ditch it in the end.
Based on my experience as part of a group of writers at the seminar, here are some tips that may get an agent to read beyond your first two pages. Caveat: There are going to be exceptions to every rule, but these points stood out for me and others.

* Make it unique. Don’t let you prose be the equivalent of a sunset photo. They’re beautiful, but we’ve all seen them, we’ve all taken them. What you want is the literary equivalent of a “wildergibra." AKA: One of a kind. Sure Alice Seibold was raked over the coals for her latest book, but her first line caught everyone’s attention (”When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily.”). Seminar participant and agent Rachel Vater has a client, Jeaniene Frost, who just made the NYT’s bestseller list with her debut novel, Halfway to the Grave. First line? “I stiffened at the red and blue lights flashing behind me, because there was no way I could explain what was in the back of my truck.” What about your work will make an agent put down his or her coffee mug and read on with interest?

* Polish your voice. Your unique writerly voice and the personalities of your characters should come through, even in those first two pages. Voice alone sometimes got readers in our groups through their reading, whereas a vanilla or clunky voice was sure to make an agent say “stop.”

* Make us care. Characters who are bored are going to bore agents and readers, too. Characters who are a little weird can make compelling characters, but remember that agents almost have to assume that your manuscript and story are not what they’re looking for. If your protagonist comes across as unfriendly, ubertormented or just plain psychotic, the agent may not want to spend more than a few graphs with them before moving on to clear more slush from their desk.

* Don’t jar the reader. Things that made agents stop reading immediately–as in, after a paragraph–included overlong or complex sentence structures, strange word choices, inappropriate language for the age of the character and plotlines that jumped around in time right from the beginning. Keywords here are smooth and professional.

* Nix the backstory. We all know this rule, but many still try to become an exception. Let’s try an analogy. Your story is dinner. Your would-be agent is a stomach. What’s more easily digested? A nice carrot-ginger soup, made with a few simple ingredients, or a bowl of chili made with tomatoes, onion, oregano, paprika, garlic (5 cloves!), ground beef, bacon drippings, scallions, Serrano chilies, chorizo sausage, chopped bell peppers, red hot chilies and cumin? (Phew!) The NOW of the story, by the way, is the beef. The rest is backstory, and in the first two pages it just provides indigestion. Don’t serve it up.

* Reconsider the prologue. Agents tend not to like prologues because they’re often unrelated to what comes next, which can slow the pace and create frustration. Prologues can also be backstory heavy and not very compelling on their own–a good excuse for an agent to set your work aside and reach for a form-rejection letter. Even if you want to argue later to keep your prologue in the story, strongly consider nixing it for purposes of trying to hook an agent.
* Careful with your beautiful prose. I personally enjoyed many of the pages I heard, though the agents stopped some readers if their openings were thick with poetic wordsmithing (and by thick, I mean merely a paragraph). Truth is, poetic prose slows the pace because it asks that the reader stop and appreciate, and when you’re trying to hook a busy agent you shouldn’t expect them to give you that time. Not at first, anyway. Not when you’re in the slush.
* Minimize description. In the first two pages, even your best detailed descriptions may seem like unnecessary clutter. Like beautiful prose, description can slow pace. Make sure your descriptive passages are compelling or get them out of there.

* Do your homework. Make sure you’re sending your work to someone who’s looking for the type of book you’ve written, otherwise it’s a waste of the agent’s time and your valuable resources. Though we didn’t get into this during the two-pages sessions, it was made clear throughout the seminar that following agent guidelines is critical. Take the time to read them. Some agents want queries, others prefer a query plus the first ten pages, etc… Personalized letters to agents stand out in the slush, too. These letters indicate that the writer has done some homework, knows what an agent is currently looking for and even compares their work to the work of current clients, if applicable.

Thanks, Teri. In her original post, Teri challenges the reader to take a look at the first two pages of their own work. Do you think they’re enough to entice an agent (or editor) to read on? Or is there something more you can do to keep them out of the slush pile. And if you want to know more on this subject, I highly recommend Noah Lukeman’s excellent book, The First Five Pages.

I’ll have more from Teri in my next post.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Writing: Outline or "Seat-Of-The-Pants"?

I'm shamelessly stealing material originally posted by my friend in cyberspace, editor Ray Rhamey, on the site, Writer Unboxed. I highly recommend Ray's own blog, Flogging The Quill, on which he tells why he either would or would not turn the page after reading the first sixteen lines of a manuscript. Ray has critiqued a couple of my first scenes, and every painful comment he's made has been spot-on. This particular posting deals with the methodologies of writing from an outline vs. seeing where the story takes you. I'll let Ray tell the rest of the story.

Pantsers versus Architects
by Ray Rhamey

Relative to the never-to-be-resolved debate between “pantsers” (writers who forego outlines and write by the seat of their pants) and, er, “organizers” (funny that there’s no funny name for writers who outline their novels– how about “architects” for a more colorful handle?), I came across advice by author David L. Robbins posted in a Backspace article that said this: “…keep in mind that imagination is limitless. Do not, therefore, reduce your story to outlines and sketches, notes and 3×5 cards. You will make your story finite this way and it will suffer because it cannot grow beyond your outline. Juggle your story: by this, I mean keep eight balls in the air and only two in your hands. Let the story - the eight balls - float free, dangerously so. That’s the beauty of watching a juggler: where will those balls fall? Chase your story, believe in your characters and follow them. Do not predetermine every step they take but record what they do, and do the recording breathlessly but with control, as if you just came inside to report an accident or a marvel you have just witnessed.”

Me being a pantser, his words were, of course, delightfully affirming. That’s me, boy, taking in what’s happening and putting it on paper. Sometimes it happens that I’ll be able to see a little further down the road than the immediate scene, say a chapter or three, but that’s as far ahead as I ordinarily go (except for knowing the ending, which I usually do).

But I wonder about Mr. Robbins’s assertion that a story will “suffer because it cannot grow beyond your outline.” Cannot? I’d like to hear from you architects out there on this, but that seems to me to assume that you don’t have the creativity and flexibility that pantsers do. I seriously doubt that, although architects may have to resist a natural resistance to dumping their work, much the same as a pantser does.

While we pantsers don’t have to worry about keeping to or straying from an outline, we are often faced with a need to throw out perhaps thousands of words because our pants have walked us into a blind alley. In my own writing, I now know that when the narrative stalls and I just can’t seem to make it move forward, the problem lies in a wrong fork taken. When that happens, I backtrack and reread until I see the error of my story’s ways, throw out the bad stuff, and my writing is re-energized and the flow resumes. I’ve scrapped chapters, sections, you name it.

It seems to me that architect-type writers must be able to do the same thing with outlines. We pantsers know well how an unforeseen development can steer a scene or a chapter to an unanticipated destination. An architect’s outline may seem perfect at the conceptual stage, but unexpected twists must also happen to them as they write. I don’t think that good architect writers limit themselves, as Robbins suggests, to sticking with the outline no matter what. I’ll bet that they do the same thing I do, only with less waste motion—re-evaluate, find the right path, and then reorganize (same as me rewriting, only a lot less labor-intensive).

For what it’s worth.

Ray, thanks for sharing. I'll be posting another segment from Writer Unblocked soon, one in which Teri Walsh relates what she learned from reading the first few paragraphs of her work for a number of different agents at a workshop. I think you'll enjoy it.

Now back to the kitchen for a turkey sandwich. Hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

My "Backstory"

Crystal Miller has posted an interview with me on her site, "When I Was Just A Kid." Check it out if you'd like to know more about me, including a picture of me as a toddler and one of my high school baseball team.

Speaking of turkeys.... Have a wonderful, blessed, and thoughtfully thankful Thanksgiving. I'll be back this weekend with a post from an editor about writing from an outline vs. "seat of the pants" writing.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Interview With Teena Stewart: Moving Forward On Faith

Our interview today is with Teena Stewart. I believe she has some interesting things to share with us. I think you'll agree.

RM: Teena, you’re a pastor’s wife and heavily involved in ministry activities. How do you find time to write?

T: Ministry does keep me busy. And lately, busier than ever. I just finished helping plan and implement something called Faith in Action at church that mobilized hundreds of people to get involved in community service. Plus, with our current status where were are changing church ministries, which involves lots of work, it has really eaten up a lot of time.

But even so, I reserve several days a week for writing. Even before I go to work in the mornings – I have to be there at 10 am--I sit down at the computer and work on my writing. Sometimes in the evening, if I have a little time after doing ministry, going to exercise class or handling some family obligation, I write. I've learned that having time to write is similar to having time to have devotionals. You don't find the time, you have to make the time. That means less playtime, but that's how I have to balance it. I rarely watch TV (which eats up lots of time) except for watching an occasional murder program on TV or watching a movie on weekends with my husband.

RM: I notice that, like me, your initial experience in writing was in non-fiction. Yet we “met” on the loop of the ACFW. Where do you stand with your fiction efforts?

T: Yes, that is interesting. Crystal Miller, a book doctor friend of mine, suggested I join ACFW after encouraging me try to get my fiction novel published. We are in an online writer's critique group together and she had seen some of my short suspense fiction before I switched to non-fiction. She also remembered the novel I had written but set aside due to life, ministry, moves, you name it. And she started gently nagging me to try to get it published. She saw the Christian romantic suspense market heating up. I have to say that ACFW has been such a blessing. Even though it is geared for fiction it has such a wealth of info and resources that a non-fiction writer can benefit from too.

Where do I stand with my fiction? It has been a long haul. And I have learned and am learning lots along the way. I have reworked the book so many times and am working with an agent to get it out there. But the original market I targeted, Steeple Hill, is closed to first time authors in the romantic suspense genre right now. They take a much shorter word count, which would have worked well for this book because I tend to write short. Now I am working on adding length and polishing. It's been tough but I now have it at nearly 75,000 words, which will make it more marketable to other publishers. Our concern now is that is might be a bit edgy because it deals with a business partner whose drug usage causes the death of his Christian partner. So there is no guarantee that even after I lengthen it that someone will want it. But if I look at that then I wouldn't write anything. I have to just keep writing. If God means for me to get it published, He will find a way. I envy those who seem to find fiction writing easy. It is the hardest writing I have ever done.

RM: Your book, Successful Small Groups: From Concept to Practice, has just come out. I notice that you had another non-fiction book, The World’s Easiest Pocket Guide To Money And Marriage, published about five years earlier. Tell us about the differences in writing those books and getting them published.

T: The World's Easiest Pocket Guide To Money And Marriage is technically considered co-written with my husband Jeff and financial guru Larry Burkett. I say co-written because our names appear on the cover. But in truth I did most of the writing, and Jeff added some masculine viewpoint. We compiled Larry's notes from previous articles that an editor provided, and added our own illustrations plus helped organize it. We never spoke with Larry and it is a work for hire, where we were assigned the work and paid a specific amount upon completion. Often this kind of writing is considered ghost writing, but because we have our names on the cover, it is considered co-written. Mr. Burkett has since passed away but I think it is a testament to his character that he allowed us the recognition of having our names listed. In ghost writing you don't get the recognition and the big names get all the credit. Many writers have an issue with that because it misleads the public and doesn't give credit where credit is due.

With Successful Small Groups: From Concept to Practice the process was similar in some way to the Burkett book in that I had published quite a few articles on how to lead and manage small groups. I saw where I had enough expertise and enough articles under my belt that I could organize them and add more meat to the bones. The tough part was marketing. I attended a writers' conference at the urging of a writer friend and made a crucial connection with a Beacon Hill editor. Through God's providence I hit the right publishing house just when they were looking for a book on that subject. Definitely a God thing.

RM: What is the important take-home message for readers of Small Groups?

T: That small groups are a crucial part of church health because they provide community, spiritual support and leadership training and that church's should have some means for growing and coaching more groups so people grow into mature Christ followers.

RM: You and Jeff are just making a move into a Christian coffee house ministry. What prompted that? And where can my readers learn more about what you two are doing?

T: We had this nagging sense that our ministry was turning in a different direction from our current church, which is growing larger and larger. Jeff is pastor of discipleship and both of us are equippers. We have worked with many people in small group settings. We both experienced a growing awareness that many churches have a "come to us attitude" for reaching unchurched people. And yet studies show that expecting people to come to your building and adjust to your church culture is not very effective at all. Very few people come to Christ that way. People feel lost in big churches for one thing. And regardless of your church's size, many will never step foot in a church. They just won't. We have to go out and reach them. We began noticing the coffee shop phenomenon. People love to come and hang out and have a favorite drink at coffee shops. It's almost a small group community in itself.

We saw that maybe having a legitimate coffee shop where people come for the coffee first could provide a crucial connecting point for reaching unchurched people. We don't have to try to drag them into a church building. They are in the shop of their own free will. Maybe we can meet them on their turf, offer them prayer, support groups, small groups and not expect to grow big. Where did we get the idea that bigger is better? Maybe we could teach them to be small group leaders and encourage people to meet in homes, businesses, etc. and be out in the world. So far, our decision has been a real faith adventure. We are having to raise support for covering many of our expenses. We are trying to sell our house in a depressed market, which has raised all kinds of challenges, especially if it doesn't sell. And yet, we still feel called to do this. If people want to learn more about our crazy Java Journey adventure and ministry they can visit this site.

RM: Any final words for my readers?

T: God is a big God who sees the big picture. Lately He has been talking to me and Jeff through what we call mile markers. Those are life changing events and incidents, (not always happy ones) that happen to us on the life journey. Look at your mile markers, write them down on paper. What are they? What did you learn? How can you use them to take stock of where you are and your life direction? Maybe you are supposed to use what you've learned to encourage others to press on toward the goal. It might even be a book.

Thanks, Teena. And best wishes for success in your new missionary endeavor, as well as in your writing.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Blogs, Podcasts, and Exposure

I've recently been encouraged to branch out beyond blogging to the field of podcasts. Now, for someone whose yellow legal pad has been known to crash, just getting familiar enough with a computer to have a website and a blog is something of an accomplishment. (Confession time: my wife, Kay, designed my website and keeps it running. The blog, however, is mine--thanks to templates and instructions from the folks at Blogspot). Anyway, the question I'd like you to answer is: "Do you listen to podcasts?" And, if you're an author or speaker, "Do you do podcasts of your own?"

Let me hear from you. I want to know how you feel on this subject.

For those who are interested, Miralee won the copy of Texas Legacy Christmas that DiAnn Mills so graciously donated.

I'll be back mid-week with another interview, this one with Teena Stewart. We'll talk about her non-fiction book and how she's trying--like many of us--to break into Christian fiction as well. Y'all come back.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Guest Blogger: DiAnn Mills



I don't mean to cause you to panic, but we're six weeks away from Christmas. While I try to address my Christmas cards, I'm turning the blog over today to fellow Texan DiAnn Mills, whose latest book is A Texas Legacy Christmas.

Watch this blog this weekend when I'll post the name of the winner of a copy of A Texas Legacy Christmas, chosen at random from those who leave a comment.

Now, here's DiAnn:

Christmas is the time of year when we remember friends and family, when a bit of nostalgia roots in our hearts and blossoms into sentimental moments. Our faith in God and the birth of Jesus shapes our ideals of what we want for the world, our country, and our community. Peace on earth becomes an action instead of a greeting.
The Texas Legacy Series comes to a close with the Christmas book. The characters who I have grown to love and respect will always be with me, but now it’s time to finish the story. We think of Christmas as the beginning of our Christian faith, a time for all of us to reflect on the past and to step forward. I think this is a perfect time to say goodbye to our friends in Kahlerville, Texas.
For me, writing about historical Texas brings that era to life. In the beginning when I wrote Leather and Lace, I fell in love with Casey and her dream of forsaking the outlaw life. But the story would not let me go. Grant needed his story told in Lanterns and Lace, and Bonnie’s sweet story had to be told in Lightning and Lace. I fell in love with Zach Kahler, Bonnie’s son, and I could not let the series end without showing how that wayward boy had grown into a fine man.
Our lives are much like these characters. We grow and change while seeking to turn our weaknesses into strengths. Our faith is challenged, and even though we may stray, God’s love is permanent. Fiction is my way of planting seeds about truth. Writing about Texas history has allowed me to grow truth and memorable characters in the hearts of my readers. And maybe, just maybe, the story might make a difference in someone’s life.

Thanks, DiAnn. Now leave your comments and come back this weekend to see if you've won a copy of this excellent novel.

Monday, November 12, 2007

"Oh, Look! There's Manna Again This Morning!"

Our church's finance committee met last evening, and I re-learned something I should never have forgotten. Each year, on October 31, we hold "Festival 31," where families from the community can come to safely celebrate. There are expenses involved, and the token charge isn't meant to cover all of them. We put a sum in the budget to handle the shortfall. This year, those two amounts weren't quite enough, because of some added expenses and a larger group than usual. But we received some voluntary contributions to support the activity, and when all the figures were added up, everything was covered--almost to the penny. Not too much, not too little. And immediately my response was, "Oh, look! There's manna again this morning."

You remember the story. We all heard it in vacation Bible school. The children of Israel wandered in the wilderness for forty years. As we all do, they complained about the food--or lack of it. So God provided manna, kind of a heavenly bread, each morning and quail each evening. And to demonstrate their faith, the Israelites were only to gather as much manna each day as they needed for their immediate needs. God said there would be more tomorrow. If you want to refresh your memory, read Exodus 16.

I was shamed by how often in my life I'd failed to take God's promises to heart. We all have needs: financial, physical, emotional, spiritual. And it makes sense that we devote our best efforts to handling them. After all, God gave us two hands and we shouldn't just spend all our time wringing them. But, in the end, there will me manna in the morning. It may come as a surprise...but it shouldn't.

My blogging recently has mentioned the needs of fellow writer, Kelli Standish. If you haven't heard about her problems and the efforts being made to help her, please read about it now. Over the weekend, I learned that my friend, Kristy Dykes, has been diagnosed with a brain tumor. That's another situation to be added to my prayer list. But the attitude of both these wonderful Christians is unbelievably positive.

My prayer, for Kelli and for Kristy, is that they'll awaken tomorrow to a full harvest of manna.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

An Urgent Need

I was sitting at the computer this morning, pondering the subject of my next post. Then I received an email that answered the question. Maybe this call to help "one of our own" will touch you as it touched me.

I first met Kelli Standish in a class at Mount Hermon. She is a talented writer who has decided to focus her efforts on encouraging and facilitating the work of other authors. She truly is an amazing encourager, a huge supporter, with a generous, loving heart. She is also a big supporter of Christian fiction. For a few years she ran the successful Focus on Fiction web site. Now she functions behind the scenes creating web sites for others. I’ve seen sites she has designed and they're excellent. Kelli works tirelessly to promote authors and provide the support they need. What many don't know is that Kelli is in need of support herself. Right now, Kelli needs an urgent operation on her spine. Kelli has mentioned her problems in her own blog, but to see a summary go to this blog post.

As stated in Kelli's last blog entry, literary agent Janet Kobobel Grant has started a fundraising drive to help Kelli get the surgery she desperately needs. Now word has come of an anonymous matching grant of $10,000 for all monies raised on Kelli's behalf by November 15. If you would like to contribute, you can send checks made out to Janet Grant, with the note “for Kelli." on them. Janet will collect the monies, apply the matching grant and give Kelli one check. The amount can be large or small: $2, $20, $200...whatever. And remember, every dollar we give will be doubled by the grant.

Send checks to:
Janet Grant
Books & Such Literary Agency
52 Mission Circle, Suite 122, PMB 170
Santa Rosa, CA 95409-5370

I hope you’ll add your contribution and your prayers to those of many others, myself included. Kelli, we’re behind you. May God grant you relief from your suffering so that you can continue to be an encourager and a helper for so many.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Speaking Opportunities

Kay and I are back from a week in the beautiful mountains of North Carolina. We rested, played some golf, visited with friends, and in general relaxed. Of course, I got some writing done while we were there. As with most writers, it wasn't as much as I wanted, but at the same time I was pleased with the way my current novel has begun to take shape.

Our first day at Lake Lure, NC, was Sunday, October 28, and Pastor Everette Chapman invited me to say a few words at the morning service of Fairfield Mountains Chapel. Last year I shared a bit of the message that's in my book, The Tender Scar. This year I talked about "divine appointments," telling the members about some of the ways God has placed people in my path who needed the encouragement I was able to give. Later in the week, I heard from several of these folks that the message seemed to be directed right at them.

Then, on our way back home, we stopped in Birmingham, where on Sunday, November 4, I was privileged to speak at South Roebuck Baptist Church and conduct a grief workshop for the members. Again, it was evident from some of the comments made to me afterward that what I had done was helpful to many of those present.

It's humbling to see how doing something that may seem so simple can affect the lives of a number of people. I'll continue to speak, to teach, to encourage, and to give my time in this ministry so long as opportunities arise. And maybe there'll be other books in the future, either non-fiction works or novels, that God can use as well. After all, that's what we're about, isn't it? Letting God use us? At least, that should be our aim. Is it yours?

Friday, October 26, 2007

Time For Rest and Renewal

I'll be taking a break from blogging for the next week or so, while we enjoy the mountains of western North Carolina, one of our favorite places to rest, recharge our batteries and marvel at the wonders of God's creation.

I have some projects to keep me busy: a couple of articles to complete, a work-in-progress that needs a bit of work and a lot of progress, and a new non-fiction book that's only partially done. But there'll be time for golf, walks in the woods, meals with friends, and sitting on the balcony letting God speak to me.

I'm speaking this Sunday at Fairfield Mountains Chapel, in Lake Lure, North Carolina. Last year I spoke there and then did a book-signing for The Tender Scar, and they've asked me to speak again on our return here. Not a full sermon. Just ten minutes from the pulpit. Pray that I have the right words to say as I talk about "Divine Appointments." Next Sunday, November 4, I'm speaking at South Roebuck Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, during the morning service ("When God's Answer Doesn't Match Your Request"), then doing a grief workshop that afternoon. I'll need your prayers for that one, as well.

My life has changed dramatically in the past eight years, and what I expected to be a quiet retirement has turned in a new direction: writing and speaking. I've experienced a number of my own Divine Appointments along the way. Maybe I'll post about them soon. Meanwhile, have a wonderful week. Thanks for dropping by.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Editing Offer

One of the neat things about Christian writing is the way we get to know others who share this common bond. We can meet them at writers’ workshops, at conferences, in crit groups, or even via their blogs. I’ve become something of a “pen pal” with Tina Helmuth, who wears two hats in the area of Christian writing. I mentioned Tina's editing services in a prior blog, and now I thought it would be interesting for you to get to know a bit more about her as a writer as well as a critiquer and independent editor.

RM: Tina, you took second place in this year’s Genesis competition in the historical division. How long did it take you to write Hidden Snares, and was it your first novel?

TH: Yes, it was the first novel I’d ever written. I want to flash a “results not typical” warning before I answer how long it took. Actual writing time was about six years. You have to understand that I started it purely as a hobby and I knew nothing about writing. Plus I’ve done extensive research. Really. If I mention a full moon, there was actually a full moon on that day in history.

When I completed the first draft, I was proud that I’d been able to complete a novel. I even tried to get it published after only a couple of drafts. Then I started studying the craft and found out how little I knew. I had good writing instincts, but my execution was so poor that after a couple of years I basically threw it out and started over. I salvaged my plot and my characters, but the writing was all fresh. That’s when my journey began in earnest.

RM: Like most of us, I suspect that, in addition to encouraging events, you’ve had some disappointing times along the road to writing. Would you share some of your highs and lows?

TH: My first rejection letter was the hardest. Back then I thought publishers would see writing potential and want to work with someone who had a good story idea—sort of take a writer under their wing to mold and shape them. So young and na├»ve! I had chosen my favorite publisher to send to first, so I was crushed when I was rejected. And the rejection form letters just kept coming.

Another low was when more than one friend advised me to write children’s books. My translation: Your writing is too simplistic to satisfy an adult audience. That was what prompted me to throw it out and start over. So they actually did me a favor.

Since I’ve come so far, my victories are all the sweeter. Just over two months ago, I signed with an excellent agent. Now my rejections are coming with reasons. And more than one respectable editor has complimented my writing ability.

RM: Besides writing, you also edit. And you have sort of a different focus from some of the professional independent editors. Can you tell the readers about what you offer?

TH: I have a heart for helping writers who are just starting out. Probably because I floundered for so long on my own. I started a critiquing blog called The Ink’s Not Dry. Writers submit their first chapter—roughly 3,000 words—and I critique it for free, then post it on my blog for others to learn from.

I say beginners, but the editing I’ve done for the blog has ranged from newbies with not even a rough draft completed, to polished writers whose only obstacle to publication is meeting up with the right editor. I’ve even critiqued one or two authors already published by small presses.

RM: It sounds to me that the offer to edit a first chapter at no cost represents one of the best bargains around. For those who don’t already know, why is the first chapter—even the first five pages (to quote Noah Lukeman)—so important?

TH: Agents and editors are inundated with proposals. The writing in those first pages has to stand out, or they’re not going to take more of their valuable time to read further. Don’t give them an excuse to put down your pages prematurely. If they see messy grammar and poor punctuation, they’ll immediately say, “Not ready.”

But beyond the technical, you’ve got to hook the reader. Make them care about your character and put that character in a high-stakes situation from the beginning. The stakes can be emotional or physical. If not much is happening with your character, ask yourself if you’re starting the story in the right spot.

Thinking beyond getting an editor’s attention, you want that bookstore browser to be captured by your story from the start. You won’t be there to say, “Oh, but it’s about to get so good!”

RM: What if someone wants to engage your services to edit a whole manuscript?

TH: My contact information is on my blog. They can email me for a quote. My fee is around $300 for a complete manuscript, but that will vary slightly depending on length. I always edit the first chapter for free as a way of seeing if the writer and I are a good fit for each other.

RM: Where do you stand with your own writing right now?

TH: The proposal for Hidden Snares is sitting on several editors’ desks. Meanwhile I’ve started a new WIP. Looking ahead to the day I might be under a contract deadline, I challenged myself to have a polished manuscript done in six months.

RM: And any final thoughts for our readers?

TH: Most probably know this already, but I’ll say it anyway. If you aren’t part of a critique group, join one. It’s so vital to have someone else look at our writing. Friends and family can give good feedback—strictly as readers. But fellow writers will catch things that no one else can. It may sound like I’m shooting myself in the foot since I do paid critiques, but a free exchange of critiques is the best place to start.

It’s been a pleasure, Richard. Thanks so much for having me on your blog.

Tina, thanks for sharing your experience and your advice. I think one important “take-away” message is that, although we all may think our initial efforts at writing are wonderful, sometimes they’re like the first waffle—the one you use for practice, then throw away. The secret, I guess, is to keep cooking.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

"I'll Play Your Game"





I’ve been tagged for the latest blog version of a chain letter: 10-20-30. Mary DeMuth gets the blame/credit for starting all this. She tagged D’Ann Mateer, who in turn tagged me. I don’t normally play these games, and I respectfully decline to tag others, but in deference to the folks who brought me into this, here’s a view into my life at those times.

30 years ago (1977):
I was entering my tenth year of private practice in otolaryngology (ear, nose & throat) and just beginning to move toward a subspecialization in nasal and sinus work, including allergy. My wife, Cynthia, and I were celebrating eighteen years of marriage. Our children were seventeen, twelve, and seven respectively. Our travel was pretty well confined to trips to our lake house at Runaway Bay, about an hour’s drive away.

20 years ago (1987):
I was still in private practice, but getting disenchanted with so much of the hassle. Cynthia and I made several trips to other parts of the country to meetings and courses where I was teaching. I’d had a number of professional papers published as well as writing dozens of textbook chapters. The children were growing up and one had already left home.

10 years ago (1997):
I’d been a Professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School for four years. Cynthia was also working in the department as Allergy Nurse. The nest was empty. Our trips now involved not only medical schools and courses all over the US but into Europe and Asia as well. I’d published one textbook and was working on the second.

A few more bits of history:
1999—Cynthia, my wife of forty years, my constant companion, suffered a massive stroke two weeks after she retired from the medical school. With her death, my world collapsed.

2001—God blessed me once more with the love of a wonderful woman, and Kay and I were married. At the time of our marriage she didn’t have a passport, but she got one the next week and within a year, because of my lectures and teaching, it was getting full. (Our honeymoon trip was Thailand--where I almost pushed her off the top of an elephant-- and Singapore).

2004—I retired from the medical school after ten years on the faculty. Attendance at a Christian Writers’ Conference started me on the road to turning the journaling I did after Cynthia’s death into a book, The Tender Scar: Life After The Death Of A Spouse, now in its third printing.

If you'd like to read more about me, you can go to my website. But that should hold you for now. Mary and D'Ann, thanks (sort of) for inviting me.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The "First Reader"-- Interview With Crystal Laine Miller


We’re back with Crystal Miller, who has revealed that she’s not just a writer. She’s a “first-reader”—a position about which most of us know little or nothing. If you missed the first half of her interview, scroll down and check it out. Now let’s continue.

RM: If you encounter a manuscript that makes you think, “You know, if they’d just do this or that, they’d really have something,” do you just shrug it off or do you try to intervene?

CM: It is my job to mention this sort of thing. Many times I have said, “if the author would do this, we may have a winner.” It’s up to the editor or agent to decide whether they want to tell the potential client this information, or to just reject. They get so many manuscripts that it is easy for them to just reject and not spend any more time on it. This is more likely to happen with an editor than with an agent. You have to understand that the purpose of an agent is different than the editor’s purpose. With an agent, a potential client may be close, and just needs a rewrite. The agent sees the client as a whole career, not just that one book, but that one book should be good, nearly ready to go. With an editor he is looking for something that he can take to the committee and sell there to be published. The agent may take time to develop the potential client. The editor expects the story to be nearly ready to go.

So, if you ever get a note from the agent or editor who actually gives you direction on your manuscript, you better listen up! SOMETIMES it is how the author responds to this direction that will make the difference between an acceptance or rejection. If I see markers of a good story, just needing a few tweaks, I definitely point this out. It is a matter of checks and balances, really. If there is too much to fix, then it is not worth our time to go into too much detail. I recommend rejection. If there are just a few things that would make the manuscript a “go,” well, if the author could fix them and all the other things line up with the author, then yes, of course, I will tell the agent/editor what I think.

If you get encouragement from an editor, but still it is a rejection this is what this means: 1. Do not revise accordingly and send it back to that editor. They rejected it and unless they say, “Revise and send it back to me,” don’t. 2. Do revise and send it on to another publisher (or agent) who has not seen it.If it is an agent, you must tell them what editors have seen and rejected it. 3. Do write something else and send again to this editor because you were “this close,” and they are hoping with that next manuscript you nail it.

RM: Have you ever been given a manuscript by an author that the editor or agent thought was a real prize, only to find that the work wasn’t all that great? How can you handle that diplomatically?

CM: Agents and editors expect their first readers to be brutally honest. They have built a relationship with their readers and they respect your opinion or they wouldn’t use you. They often pay you to give your opinion, so yes, they will listen! A reader knows what kind of a client, or what kind of manuscript is wanted/needed at that agency/publishing house. They are the spotters, the point men or the scouts, if you will. There is no diplomacy. LOL.

It’s funny, but I did once get a manuscript and I emailed immediately back after only a few chapters, “This is atrocious. You don’t really want me to read the whole thing, right?”

The Boss assured me that yes, indeedy-doody I was not only supposed to read it, but “fix” it. It was amazingly awful. I hated the story. And I ripped it apart, evaluating exactly what made it so heinous. Well, The Boss sent it back to the author with all these comments. The author rewrote, and I got it again to read (!!!) The author fixed almost everything, but refused (arguing with me) about a couple points. Because the author was so willing to work and comply and trust our judgment, I this time read his objections with a softened eye, in some respect. (Though I still was sharp on cutting and doing the surgery needed.)

But The Boss listened to what I had to say and I respect this person enormously, and the “eye” that The Boss possesses to spot a potential client/author. I do not have to be a “yes” woman, but I do offer my opinion with respect, and because I may not necessarily see what they see (and it’s their call, not mine) I don’t second-guess the agent/editor. It’s on that editor or agent, not me. I used to worry about a manuscript/author once it/he left me, but after reading hundreds of manuscripts now, I pray over them and let them go. But I do remember names.

RM: What else can you tell our readers that might help them?

CM: Just remember to write the best story that you possibly can. Learn your craft. Get to know the various publishing houses and what they publish. Don’t insult the editor by saying something like, “You know, this book from your house was lousy! I have a much better story than that.” You may have addressed the very editor who worked on that “lousy” book.

Never burn bridges or tell an editor or agent that they don’t know a good story if they do reject you. Maybe you were “this close” and they knew something about the market you didn’t that made this manuscript a no-go. Maybe they were hoping you will send them something else and they gave you encouragement to try something else.

And when you are at a conference talking about your project, don’t sit there and say to someone who has offered some advice, ”Oh, you aren’t anyone, I wanted to talk to thus-and-so agent or editor. You wouldn’t know.” I’ve had people shove me out of a chair at a table because they desperately wanted to talk to some agent/editor. If you are the nameless table, don’t assume that all of the people there are not worth your time.

You never know, but you may be insulting a first reader of thus-and-so agent or editor and the first thing that reader opens up after a conference is your manuscript. Woe is the would-be author who has a first reader who has to pray to forgive that author. Ha, I’m just kidding about this, as I personally do not hold grudges and I always look at the manuscript itself with no preconceived notions about it. A first reader has a strict code of ethics and her main purpose is to answer to the person for whom she is working. Never expect me or any other first reader you happen to know to divulge anything specific, but if you are given a tip, do listen. Don’t expect a first reader to do favors or to actually hold any specific powers (we just read, like Robert Redford did in Three Days of the Condor.)

This business is relational. Show respect and you will be given respect and people will remember that about you. And be patient. It’s a combination of your hard work and perseverance and God’s timing. If you are given criticism or encouragement from an editor or agent, don’t dismiss it just because it came with a rejection this time. You never know who is watching how you take that criticism. You may have been closer than you think.


Crystal, thanks for taking the time to give us this fascinating and educational insight into what goes into the process of getting that manuscript further up the line. I especially like what you’ve pointed out to us: like a “mystery shopper,” there are first readers all around us. So we should remember that we might be “entertaining angels unaware.”

Saturday, October 13, 2007

What Is A "First Reader?"--Interview With Crystal Laine Miller


Crystal Miller’s secret is out: she’s a “first reader.” What, you may ask, is a first reader? Read on and find out.

RM: Crystal, tell us exactly what a first reader does, and for whom he/she does it.

CM: A first reader reads a requested manuscript that comes into the office of an agent or publisher, usually before the agent or editor reads it thoroughly. Think of it as a first checkpoint. Usually (there are exceptions) the agent or editor has criteria and a pre-established response sheet that the reader fills out to evaluate the manuscript. The reader is expected to read the manuscript (duh) and to respond to it, using the criteria set by the agent or editor/publishing house.

RM: Why don’t we hear more about first readers? Do editors and agents try to keep their existence a secret? I know that the readers need to have their anonymity preserved, but is there something wrong with having someone other than the editor or agent read the manuscripts and winnow them down?

CM: I know of agents who don’t want anyone to know their first readers. However, I don’t know that there is a big secret that there are first readers. Editors and agents have an enormous amount of material to work through. Some have editorial assistants and these people act as first readers. Some get so many manuscripts that it is necessary to hire freelancers to help categorize and evaluate the material, because frankly, the editor or agent doesn’t want to miss a good manuscript just because they are overwhelmed. Most TRY to respond in a timely fashion. It is a process, and every author must go through this process. The editor or agent trusts this reader, but the reader does not make the final decision. The editor or agent reads the comments, and acts upon that information to help speed the process. If a reader finds something in the manuscript that makes it unacceptable, why should the editor waste more valuable time with it?

One example I can give to you is when an editor did read the manuscript and asked me to read it, too, giving my opinion. When I gave him my opinion, he said, “That’s exactly what I thought.” Editors are people. While they are good and have a sharp eye for what is good, and what will fly in their house, they still like talking it over with others before taking it front of a committee. They need comments to build consensus in the publishing house and if they have readers saying, “Good stuff, and this is why” then this only helps the cause of the writer. Don’t just look at first readers as those who winnow out the stack.

There have been times in the case of an agent that the manuscript needs fixing to make it marketable. In that case the first reader points out the problem areas and the agent is giving that author a chance to rewrite. This can also be a test for the author. If an author argues, or says “my story was given to me by God and you don’t know what you’re talking about,” then the agent knows that this is not the client for him.

The main reason agents probably keep their first readers a secret is because they don’t want authors trying to bother the first reader, because more than likely you know this person in your writers’ groups. With a first reader it is the story that must stand. I don’t think it is any secret that they use first readers in publishing houses. Sometimes it is the secretary or someone working there, but those people can’t handle all of them, so they’ll ask or hire freelancers. The first two times I acted as a first reader (two different editors,) I was not paid. They were just getting another opinion.

RM: Do the agents or editors even look at the manuscripts before you see them?

CM: Well, yes and no. Yes, they look at them, check them into the system, and may give them a quick once-over to make sure they need to be read (an agent or editor can make a good evaluation reading your synopsis and a few pages.) They MAY read them, and just really need another set of eyes. Then, they assign the manuscript to a reader.

In a large publishing house there may actually be an editorial assistant who sends out the assignments. For an agent she may send/give the manuscript with a no set up, no synopsis, etc. The reader’s job is to respond just as if it were published. So, while the agent or editor may not have read the entire manuscript, they may be very aware of this author and the work. You have to understand that no manuscript gets to an agent or editor without first having a query (or meeting at a conference) and then, a proposal. The manuscript has already gone through that process. This is the next hoop to jump through.

RM: What do you look for—both in a positive and negative sense?

CM: It sort of depends on who I am working for, but it’s like this—I have certain preset criteria that I can follow. Story is always first. If it is a good story, can any problems be easily fixed? It’s a checklist in many ways. In fiction I look for theme, is the theme a natural part of the story or some hobby horse to ride?; convincing characters; does it fit into the genre?; good pacing; writing problems like grammar, spelling, typos; showing or telling; audience; and in CBA, a spiritual thread that isn’t preachy.

I look to see if the lead draws me into the book. Well-developed characters and plot, subplots. Something that is hard to describe is the author’s voice. I look for it and describe it to the agent or editor. Point of view must be consistent. I look for tension. I look for the overarching question in the book (that is that one pitch line they always talk about—no one has to tell it to me—I find it.) I look at setting, varied scenes. And get this—I can say whether I personally liked it or not. Yeah, just like your reader does when they buy your book! But I have to be specific in voicing my likes and dislikes. I say whether or not I’d buy the book. Here’s one that depends on who I am reading for—does it offend the audience, for example, is it something that a conservative
Christian audience would find offensive (this sort of thing just depends on the house or the type of client an agent wants.) Is the writing good?


RM: If you encounter a manuscript that makes you think, “You know, if they’d just do this or that, they’d really have something,” do you just shrug it off or do you try to intervene?

Sorry--that's enough for today. Come back on Wednesday for the conclusion of the interview with Crystal. I've found it fascinating so far, and I hope you have as well. I have some other neat interviews and guest bloggers lined up for future postings, so I do hope you'll keep dropping by Random Jottings. Thanks.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Interview With Alton Gansky


Today I'm pleased to post an interview with Alton Gansky, a man who has been both an inspiration and a mentor in my writing journey.

RM: Al, you've held a number of positions-pastor, firefighter,
businessman, architect. Did any of them especially influence you, either to become a writer or in your choice of what to write?

AG: It's true. I'm a professional used-to-be. I suffer from a mental illness-my imagination has no off button. It runs all the time. I've known this since childhood. In grade school reading was a favorite pastime.
Writing is the natural fruit for some readers. Stories came unbidden then and they still do.

I have another mental illness: I love to learn. My magazine subscriptions range from Dwell through Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, Discover, and Scientific American. The same is true for my television viewing. I'm as happy watching a documentary as I am the latest sit-com.

I was, and I suppose I remain, a loner. What better career for a loner than writing? I enjoyed all my careers. I still follow architecture, miss my days as a firefighter, and still occasionally work with businesses.

I suppose I should see a psychologist but I'm afraid it will ruin a good career.

RM: You've written a number of fiction and non-fiction books. I've read some of each, and I must confess that you do a great job in both areas. Is one more a favorite than the other with you?

AG: Fiction remains my first writing love. Nonfiction is challenging in a different way. I loved writing 40 Days: Encountering Jesus Between the Resurrection and Ascension and feel proud of the work. I write nonfiction when a topic takes over my mind. Many of them came from my sermon research.

For me nonfiction educates; fiction explores.

RM: Of course, one of the sins for which you'll always bear responsibility is getting me started in the field of Christian writing at my first writers' conference. What do you like the most and the least about teaching at these conferences?

AG: You were a joy to work with. I'll shoulder that responsibility gladly. Writing conferences are a joy. I love hanging with the other writers and students. My greatest joy comes in finding a new writer who has great talent. I figure if I find one in a conferences and encourage that person, then the event has been worth my time. I have found a few that have gone on to publish with major publishers. That's always a joy.

The only thing I dislike is the travel. This weekend I'll be winging my way to North Carolina from California. It's a long trip but worth it once I get there.

RM: One of the things you've taught me about plots is to constantly ask, "What if?" How did you develop such an active imagination? And does it carry through into your everyday life?

AG: We're all born with imagination. It is part of being created in God's image. Cultivating imagination is another thing. For me, reading as a child gave my creativity a boost, but reading never fully satisfied me. It still doesn't. I always wanted a little more, or I wanted the writer to go down another path.

Imagination and creativity must be nurtured. Many people are afraid to wonder "What if?" or feel it is a waste of time. It's never a waste. Medical advances are made because a scientist asks, "What if." Buildings are erected, business started, art made, because someone had the courage to ask the what if question.

The key, I think, is in being bold enough to have ideas you know are no good and be willing to throw those away and keep searching. No one has one great idea after another. Usually the creative person has one great idea followed by dozens of stinkers only to be followed with a new gem of an idea. I have about 10 bad ideas for every good one. The key is to keep looking.

Does it carry into my everyday life? Yes, I suppose it does.

RM: You have two novels coming out within a month of each other. Tell us about them.

AG: In October, Angel hit the bookstands. It's a supernatural suspense novel published by Realms Fiction. Realms came to me and asked what storylines I had that fit the supernatural suspense category. I sent them six or so ideas. They settled on three then bought one. Angel is that book. The premise of the book is based in the human's capacity to be willing deceived.
Following a jarring earthquake in San Diego, a strange craft appears in the sky. A being appears in time to save a life. Soon the alien Aster is a worldwide phenomenon. He brings a message of peace and hope, offering to help us out of the mire of ignorance that keeps us from evolving. Priscilla Simms, a reporter, becomes Aster's advisor on all things human. She learns that things are not what they seem.

Zondervan will release Zero-G in November, a book I'm very excited about. It's a suspense novel set against the new industry of private space travel. Commander Benjamin "Tuck" Tucker is the lone survivor of a tragedy in space that kills his entire crew. He manages to land the Shuttle and the world considers him a hero to everyone but himself. Someone else doesn't see him as a hero but a target.

RM: I notice that your hobby is woodworking. How did you get into that? And what's the most unusual thing you've ever made?

AG: I've been woodworking for a few years now. Honestly, I don't remember how I became interested in it, but since then I've made a couple of dressers, reading stands, piano bench, plant stands, coffee table, headboards, and an art deco style crib for my newest grandchild. It seems that everything I make goes out to the kids, but that's all right.
Woodworking is another creative outlet for me but I only get to do it when time allows.

RM: Any last words of wisdom for our readers?

AG: Keep reading.