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.