Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Year-End Thoughts

If my agent hadn't warned me about using cliches, I might have used a phrase like "standing on the brink of a new year" to begin this blog post. As it is, I think I'll just say that, for all of us, December 31 is a time of reflection, a day for looking back and looking forward.

This has been an eventful year for our family: experiencing both family tragedies and triumphs, moving to a new home, watching the world economic crisis play havoc with retirement funds, struggling to take rejections in stride, and rejoicing with that phone call in October that announced the sale of my first novel. And through it all, God has been in control. Both Kay and I have seen some tough times in our lives, times when it seemed as though no one--even God--could help. But looking back with the perspective of time we can see that God was with us through it all.

Our pastor, Chuck Swindoll, preached a sermon several weeks ago that left me with one phrase I determined to hang my hat on through this coming year: "God is sovereign." So as we stand on the brink of a new year (sorry, Rachelle; had to use it), I commend that phrase to you as well. Whatever happens, God is sovereign. Who could ask for any greater assurance?

May your new year be happy, healthy, prosperous, and peaceful. See you next year.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Writing and Editing

This weekend I typed "###" at the end of the first draft of my most recent novel, number two in the Prescription For Trouble series. The draft was about thirty percent done by the time of my interview with Abingdon Editor Barbara Scott at the American Christian Fiction Writers meeting in September. After that interview and subsequent contacts led me to believe that a contract might be forthcoming, I began working more seriously on the novel, but (as it always does), life intervened: a move, family needs, the holidays. Of course, there were other factors, such as sloth and inertia. But now the first draft is completed. Kay, my first reader, has gone through it and made her comments. (Actually, I was working hard to stay ahead of her as she read). Now it's back to work. Time to edit.

I've always enjoyed editing more than writing. When I finish writing the first draft of a novel, I feel a little sad. The tale is told, there've been some surprises along the way--like a character dying when you don't expect it--and now you're saying good-bye to folks you've come to know well. Sort of like sending a youngster off to college. You know you'll see them again, but they're pretty much out of your hands.

With editing, on the other hand, I get a sense of accomplishment that rivals what I feel when I take pieces of unfinished wood and turn them into a table or bench. When it's over, I'm happy to put the work aside and move on to the next project. No tears with this good-bye. Just satisfaction at a job well done.

Soon I'll be getting the macro-edits of my novel that's due for publication in just over a year. And I'm already at work on the third novel in the series. All this activity may play havoc with my golf game, but I guess it keeps me off the street corners and out of pool halls.

Now, if you'll excuse me, there's a stack of manuscript pages calling for my attention.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas: Light In The Darkness

"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 can we give him/her?" "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.

Monday, December 22, 2008

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 wrote this last year for our local newspaper and posted it on my blog. I’m repeating it this year, hoping it will minister to some of you whose hearts are heavy during this season.

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--in our area, options include the North Texas Food Bank, the Salvation Army, and numerous charities. 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.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Privacy Or Platform?

Authors are constantly being reminded that they need a "platform." My understanding is that your platform is the sum of things like name recognition, contact with the public, opportunities to "get yourself out there" so that, in the end, people will buy your books. It goes without saying that for a platform to work, you first have to have books for folks to buy. However, we're also encouraged to start working on our platforms even before getting that elusive contract.

A web page is supposed to be a "must," as is a blog. I defy you to find many authors who don't have both. Then came the social networking sites, like Facebook. And more recently, Tweeter has become popular. With Tweeter, you post brief messages--limited to 140 characters (not words, characters)--that your "followers" can read. I grudgingly signed up for both these sites, but now I must admit I'm having second thoughts. One high-profile person has just had both his Facebook and Tweeter sites hacked into, with inappropriate messages posted under his name. In addition to having a close look at my passwords, I find myself wondering if this "getting myself out there" is worth it. When my novel is published, will everyone who follows me on Facebook run out and buy it? If I have a book-signing, will all my Tweeter followers show up? If I had the answer to these questions, it might be easier to either drop the accounts or keep them in place.

You'll notice I haven't linked to any of these sites. I'd rather let you decide whether to check them out--it's easy to find them. But what's your opinion? Is social networking a valid tool for building a platform, or just a chance to gossip via electronic means?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Should You Take A Holiday From Querying?

In line with my holiday policy of short posts, stolen when possible from others in the field, here's a great post by literary agent Nathan Bransford, who addresses the question: "Is there a best time to submit a query?" For those of you who are too lazy to click the link (shame on you), Nathan suggests you hold off if you know the agent is out of the office or during the "weeks around major holidays, i.e. Thanksgiving and Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa/Festivus." (For those of you who don't recognize Festivus, you don't watch enough Seinfeld reruns).

Nathan explains that, although agents and editors theoretically give equal attention to submissions at any time, coming back from a holiday break to find a mountain of queries waiting may result in a quicker "No" than under other circumstances. It may not be fair, it may not even be an accurate assessment for the particular editor or agent you're querying, but why take a chance?

As for writing during the holidays, I've rationalized my inactivity by saying that the last few scenes of my work-in-progress are important enough that I need to mull them over until inspiration strikes. My guess is that's going to occur about December 27 or later. Meanwhile, I intend to be guilt-free and enjoy the season. Hope you can do the same.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Matching Editors And Writers


My agent, Rachelle Gardner, does a fantastic job of giving readers of her blog the inside scoop on the publishing industry. But there are other agents whose blogs are also educational. One of these is the agency, Bookends LLC, where Jessica Faust had a thought-provoking post today. In it, she addresses a question that goes something like this: "Do you have favorite editors, ones who get all your submissions? And do you try to match the personalities of the editors with those of your authors?" Jessica's answer is interesting, and I hope you'll read it for yourself. I especially like her comment to the effect that "This is a literary agency, not a dating service."

That brings me to a question for you: If publication of your book depended on your working with an agent or editor who was absolutely a terrible fit with your personality, would you still go along with it?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

If It Were Easy....

Writing is a tough business, and if you read the publishing blogs (such as the recent posts of my agent, Rachelle Gardner) you'll find that it takes real work and real talent to succeed. But, I guess that if it were easy everyone would be doing it. If you've ever sat down and drafted a novel of 80, 100, 120 thousand words, you know that writing isn't as easy as it may sound to the unitiated.

Just recently I signed a contract with Abingdon Press for the publication of my work of romantic medical suspense. They're just getting their fiction line started, and I'm thrilled at this opportunity, but there are bound to be some of my readers who are thinking, "Why him? Why not me?" Honestly, I've thought that many times as well. Let me offer an explanation and a word of encouragement.

First, the explanation. I've paid my dues and done my homework. I've been to conferences and been mentored by some of the best (and most giving) Christian writers around: Jim Bell, Gayle Roper, Alton Gansky, Randy Ingermanson, Karen Ball, and others. I've read book after book on writing--right now I'm looking at a bookshelf that contains more than twenty-five books on the craft, and there's no dust on any of them. I've practiced the art of what Anne Lamott calls keeping your rear end on the chair and your hands on the keyboard, even when I didn't want to.

That brings me to the second point. I persisted. Many writers of my acquaintance work for years to perfect a single novel. They revise, rewrite, agonize over words and scenes, getting them just right. I did that initially, as you'll see in a minute, but I've learned better. I just went over the chronology of my road to writing, and it might interest you that it's taken me a bit less than five years to become an "overnight success" and sign this contract.

I submitted the initial query for my first novel in the summer of 2004, just about the time I also submitted the proposal for what was to become my non-fiction book, The Tender Scar: Life After The Death Of A Spouse (which was accepted after seven rejections). That first novel garnered ten rejections. I revised it extensively, reworked it meticulously, and tried again. This time I garnered thirteen rejections. My second novel was rejected seven times, including a couple of revisions. My third novel was so bad that my (then) agent rejected it as not good enough to send out. My fourth novel was rejected ten times, and I figured that was enough. By that time I'd been writing for almost four years and, although I'd had a non-fiction book published and my work had appeared numerous times in periodicals, I felt like I wasn't cut out to be a novelist. So I ended my representation agreement with my agent and stopped writing.

Then editor-turned-agent Rachelle Gardner had a contest on her blog, offering a prize for the best first line for a novel. I dashed off one and was totally surprised when I saw that I'd won with my line. The prize was a critique of the first several pages of a work-in-progress, so I sent Rachelle the first scene of my latest novel--the one that had been rejected ten times. Her comment was, "Send me something that needs editing." One thing led to another, and I submitted a query about representation. She accepted me, and I got back to writing.

But the happy ending didn't come yet. There were three rejections before Rachelle pitched the work to Barbara Scott, the new chief fiction editor for Abingdon Press. Barbara liked the work, she and I met at the ACFW, and about six weeks later I got the call from Rachelle: "You've sold your first novel." It was wonderful, but the point of all this is that, before that call came, I'd written four novels (five counting totally reworking number one) over a period of over four years, been rejected more than forty times, and completely quit writing once!

So, to my colleagues who haven't received that phone call yet, my hope is that you won't give up. Just remember, "Nothing is impossible with God."

Monday, December 08, 2008

A Christmas Thought

My posts are going to be a bit sketchy for the next month. As it always does, Christmas comes on December 25 this year, so it shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who can read a calendar. But it always seems to catch me less prepared than I'd like.

Our pastor, Chuck Swindoll, used a phrase yesterday that got my attention. He spoke to us about the encounter between Gabriel and Mary related in Luke 1:26-38. Gabriel was given a commission by God to deliver good news to Mary. Will we encounter someone this week who is waiting for us to be their Gabriel?

Chuck reminded us that this season is a perfect time for such sharing, a season when "they're singing our songs." Right now there are people around us who don't understand the deep meaning of the words they hear or sing. Whether we do it in a conversation, through our actions, or in our writing, let's be ready to bring those words to life for those we encounter.

Enjoy the season. After all, "They're singing our songs."

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

The Wait Is Over

Now it can be told! About five weeks ago, I got "the call" from my agent, Rachelle Gardner. Abingdon Press had bought my novel of medical suspense, working title Run Away Home. But Rachelle suggested I not make any announcement until the contract had been settled and signed. Anyone who knows me well knows that silence is not my forte, and being silent about this good news was doubly difficult. But today I signed the contract.

Of course, the work is just beginning. There will be responses to a macro-edit, then proof-reading and correction of the galleys, and even after publication there's marketing and promotion. Besides that, I can't just stop writing. I've almost finished the next book in the series and have sketched out the plot of the one after that. But this is that big first step.

I am so grateful to so many people: my wife, Kay (my first reader, biggest fan, and severest critic); my agent, Rachelle; all the authors who have mentored and supported me (you should have or will get an individual email with thanks, and I hope I don't forget anyone); my friends in the writing community. Now I sound like a recipient at the Academy Awards, so I'll stop. But I have to give one more acknowledgment. I'm grateful to God that He didn't just put me on this road to writing and forget me. He's been there all along, during the times of disappointment and those of triumph. If there's any glory to be had, it belongs to Him.

Thanks for sharing this moment with me.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

'Tis The Season

Maybe I'm the only person in the nation who's having trouble getting started today. Then again, maybe not. The five days just past have brought us Thanksgiving (otherwise known as the feast day of gluttony and football), Black Friday (the day when the stores get into the black and families get into the red), the weekend when more Americans travel than at any other time of the year, and Cyber Monday (when employees--according to one survey--spend an hour of their boss's time doing their online shopping to take advantage of bargains). I'm not sure there's a word for today, but I'd call it something like Torpid Tuesday.

We are twenty-three days from Christmas. When we look at a calendar, some of us break into a cold sweat. It's time to buy presents, send Christmas cards, get the tree down from the attic and decorate it, risk life and limb on a ladder putting up decorations, start thinking about menus, figure out where the house-guests are going to sleep, and the list goes on. I have to wonder how we manage to squeeze Christ into Christmas each year. And sometimes we don't.

But there are other things to do, things that celebrate the true meaning of the season. The red kettle in front of the Wal-Mart reminds me that the Salvation Army needs our support throughout the year, not just now. The North Texas Food Bank (and, most likely, a similar organization in your area) is struggling to meet the needs of more people than ever during this economic downturn. Here we have Toys for Tots, the Angel Tree, and many others. Undoubtedly, you'll find similar opportunities near you to share what you have, even if it's a bit less this year than in the past. I urge you to do it. Then you'll be celebrating the season appropriately, and it will truly feel like Christmas.