Monday, August 31, 2009

Words And Music

The church bulletin listed the special music as Love Divine, All Loves Excelling. It's a hymn with which I've been familiar for many decades, so I settled back to enjoy the message. Imagine my surprise when the first few chords weren't those of the familiar hymn tune, but instead made me scratch my head and search my memory until I figured out what was going on. This arrangement had taken the words of the classic hymn and set them to the hymn tune of I Will Arise And Go To Jesus, music most often associated with the words, "Come ye sinners, poor and needy..." Not "Love divine, all loves excelling." But, you know what? It worked.

As authors, we often have the niggling fear that someone will steal our plot ideas and write "the great American novel" before we can. Frankly, the plagiarism suits involving The DaVinci Code notwithstanding, the idea is foolish. Plot is one thing. Characterization and that elusive thing called "the author's voice" are quite another, and these are the things upon which most novels rise and fall.

The Christian writers' group, Chi Libris, decided to test this hypothesis. They asked twenty-one of their members to write a short story with these five common characteristics:
-The first line was to be "The wind was picking up."
-Mistaken identity had to be involved.
-There had to be pursuit at a noted landmark.
-Some unusual form of transportation was to be used.
-The last line was to be, "So that's exactly what she did."
The resulting book, What The Wind Picked Up, demonstrates beyond the shadow of a doubt that ideas may be the structure upon which one builds a novel, but characterization and execution provide the meat that fills out those bones.

So if you're an author, the next time you think about copyrighting or registering a plot idea--something that supposedly is neither feasible nor necessary--remember this. Consider your plot idea to be like the words of a hymn. It may bear a wonderful message, as does "Love divine, all loves excelling..." but it takes a tune to make the idea complete. Make the characters live. Write words that jump off the page. Draw the reader in from the first paragraph. Then you'll have written both the words and the music. Then your work will be complete.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Games On Facebook

I think I've started a war. I recently posted on Facebook, telling "friends" that I don't really care what movie star they resemble most or what level they achieved on a game.

Many of my friends liked this. Apparently, they were as tired as I of seeing these posts. However, others took offense. My intention wasn't to offend, but if these folks can post their scores and results I figured I could mention my own likes and dislikes. I already spend more time on Twitter and Facebook than I should, and I certainly don't have time for these games. If some people do, more power to them (unless they're doing it on company time).

I just read where Farmville is the fastest growing social game. I haven't played it and have no plans to do so, but apparently a lot of people do. But I'm still not interested in their high score. Why don't they do like the corner drugstore did with the pinball machine? Just write the name and score on a piece of paper and tape it to the wall.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Three Questions

Recently an acquaintance gave me the name of another author and said, "You might want to check out his work." I did some searching and discovered that through the magic of the Internet I could buy one of the three books he's written at a decent price through a reseller. Always ready to read the work of a new author, I ordered the book. Last week it arrived, and I dived in, only to retreat rapidly after about a dozen pages.

It wasn't as though the book was full of grammatical errors, although the language seemed pretty stilted at times. But there were all sorts of things that are red flags to authors, things we're told to avoid at all cost. The opening didn't get my attention. There was no tension in the work (at least as far as I was able to force myself to read). Point of view shifts occurred with regularity, making it difficult for me to know through whose eyes I was observing the action at any particular time. I began to wonder who had edited this book? Who let these errors slip through?

That's when I finally got around to reading the spine, looking for the publisher. The book (and the author's two subsequent works) were published by what is known as a "vanity press." They were self-published. Now some self-publishing houses are reputable. They offer (for a price) editorial services. And there are independent editors who will work with an author to put their manuscript in the best possible form before publishing, should the writer choose to spend the money to use these services. Apparently this hadn't happened in this case.

I have no problem with self-publishing per se. The woods are full of stories about authors who self-published a book and were subsequently picked up by a large publishing house. But these situations are as rare as a kid coming out of high school and signing with the New York Yankees and being brought directly to the big leagues. Possible, but don't wait for it to happen.

My advice, advice I didn't take when I bought this book, is to ask three questions about a book before buying it. What's it about? Who is the author? And who published it?

Ever bought a book and later discovered it needed the touch of an editor? What self-published books have you read that stand out in your mind? And do you think publication by a major publisher gives more of a guarantee that the book you pick up will be a good one?

Quick note: Code Blue has made the Internet in Australia. Book reviewer Rel Mollet highlighted the spring Abingdon fiction line on her excellent blog, Relz Reviews. Check out this post to see more.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Social Networking: The Debate Continues

I've come to the conclusion that Twitter and Facebook are the Howard Cosell of the current age: You love them or you hate them, but there's very little middle ground. When I first encountered these networks, my thought was, "Why do I need them?" Then my friend and colleague, BJ Hoff, told me she was "tweeting" and encouraged me to sign up. I don't recall the exact words, but the sense was something like, "It's a great way to keep up with friends. Short posts, just 140 characters. I think you'll like it." Well, BJ was the last person I expected to jump into something without thoroughly investigating it, so I decided to join. And I did, as those of you who follow me on Twitter can attest.

Then I discovered this app that let my Twitter posts appear on my Facebook page. Imagine that, a two-fer. Might as well join there, too. After all, authors need name exposure, so this seemed a good move. So now I was on Twitter and Facebook. Connected to the world.

I soon discovered that some people posted on Twitter with every fifth breath. "Watching the football game." "Having a sandwich." "Score is tied in the fourth quarter." "Really great sandwich. Wish I had some potato chips." "Wife brought me chips." I mean, really now. So I began to weed out the people I was following who had this annoying habit, saving Twitter for family, friends, and a small circle of friends who seemed to use the medium responsibly.

As for Facebook, I kept getting these "friend" requests from people whom I didn't know, although we had 157 mutual friends. I'd look at the mutual friends, decide that this request came from an author with similar interests, and say, "Sure. Confirm." But that meant a lot more chatter, lots of comments and conversations on my "Wall." I learned to "hide" some people--it seemed rude to "unfriend" them--but there was still a lot of traffic that didn't interest me, so I began to visit Facebook less. That may explain why, if you post something on my Facebook wall, I don't jump in and reply to your comment. I probably haven't seen your comment yet. If you want to communicate, you can email me or find me through my website.

Some people swear by these social networks. Others just swear at them. Are they wonderful? Or are they time-wasters and possibly the vehicle for invasion of our fast-shrinking privacy. Now my friend, BJ, has decided to drop out of the Twitterverse (the Twitter Universe). BJ has made her decision, and it's made me think.

As has been the case for months, I'm torn between staying with the program and dropping out. Got to do the old pro/con analysis. Or, as my colleague, Dr. Bill Meyerhoff, called it, "assess the compensation for the aggravation."

What do you think? Do you tweet? Post on Facebook? Have you done so and then dropped out? Or do you think these social networks are the greatest things since sliced bread? Let me know, but do it by comments here, not via Twitter or Facebook. Please? Thanks.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Value In A Book

As an author, I've become more sensitive to the fate of books after they're published. Most of us who call ourselves writers struggle for years, writing and revising, submitting our work and suffering rejection after rejection, before we finally get "the call" that a publisher is offering a contract to publish our work. You might think it's all gravy after that, but it's not like that at all.

There are lots of roadblocks for the author with a book contract: revisions, marketing, and the fear that this might be the only book you ever have published, just to name a few. But the one that's on my mind today is how brief the life span of a book actually is.

I was walking through Wal-Mart recently and saw a book by an author who lives just a few miles away. She writes excellent romantic suspense, and this novel--her latest--had been on the New York Times best-seller list for several weeks. And there it was, on a display case with the sign, "40% off." Surely this was an aberration, I thought. So I checked Amazon.com. When I called up their best-seller list, all the top titles were discounted 40 to 45%! I realize that the economy has hurt publishers and book-sellers, but this also pointed out to me the brief shelf-life of most novels. True, there are some titles that will always sell. The publishers call them "evergreens," but for every one of them there are dozens and dozens of books with the life-span of a fruit-fly. Eventually, the books that are on the shelves are "remaindered," either sent back to the publisher (from whom they were bought on consignment) or discarded, the covers torn from them and sent back to the publisher for a partial refund.

Maybe the advent of ebook readers such as the Kindle and Sony book-reader will change this. But in the meantime, I still grieve for my fellow authors who have slaved over their work for so long, only to see it moved off store shelves by the next big hit. Which brings me to my point. My novel, Code Blue, will be out in a few months. And I'm already worrying about how it will be received, how it will sell...how long its shelf life will be. But if that book changes a single life, influences just one person, makes the world a better place in some way, I think I'll feel good about it. Even if I see it on the shelves after a few months, deeply discounted. Even if it goes to the publisher's "back list" of titles no longer printed. Because, to me, the value of a book can't be counted in dollars. It's measured by how it affects the reader.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Bunnies In The Neighborhood

I counted five cotton-tail bunnies in various yards on my morning walk this weekend. Since we don't have a vegetable garden, and the rabbits haven't appeared to be doing any damage around our yard, we've just accepted their presence in this quiet urban neighborhood as charming. But this morning, I started wondering how they got here in the first place.

This moderate-sized North Texas town is urbanized, but there are still undeveloped, green fields less than a mile from the edge of many of the housing developments. I suppose it began with a couple of cotton-tails wandering too far, finding themselves in someone's back yard. I can imagine the conversation (translated from bunny-talk) that ensued. "Shall we stay here, or try to get back home?" "Hey, it's not bad here. Let's just hang out for a while." So they decided to stay where they were and make the best of it. And, the nature of bunnies being what it is, soon there were more. Lots more.

My point, if there is one to this narrative, is that sometimes we find ourselves in a situation or position that's not exactly what we'd choose for ourselves. We could try to run away from things, or we can stay there and make the best of it. If we do that, we have the opportunity to affect those around us in a positive fashion. Some of the things in my life now aren't going exactly the way I'd planned. But rather than moaning about the situation, I plan to stick it out, maybe even make a positive contribution. And, who knows? That may be why God put me in in that situation to begin with. Hey, maybe that's why the bunnies are here, away from their natural habitat--to remind people like me that it's okay to adapt and move on.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Interview With Author Alton Gansky


Over the last decade and a half, Alton "Al" Gansky has produced 24 novels that have taken readers from underground bases to an orbiting spacecraft 200 miles above the earth, from a possessed WW II submarine to murder in small towns, from Antarctica to Ethiopa.

Al specializes in suspense and supernatural suspense novels, but has also written a number of nonfiction books dealing with biblical matters and biblical mysteries.

Besides all that, Al is the man who sat across from me at a writers' conference in 2003 and said, "Well, you know how to put the words together." He encouraged me to try my hand at fiction, and he bears a good bit of responsibility--some might say "blame"--for getting me started on the road to writing. And I'm certainly not the only writer for which he's done that.

RM: Al, your background includes 22 years in the pulpit ministry. How much faith did it take to step out and become a full-time writer?

AG: A lot. the biggest struggle was making sure I had God's permission. Occasionally, someone will wonder why I "left the ministry." I try to explain that I didn't leave the ministry; I just print my words instead of speaking them. (Okay, I still do a lot of speaking, too.) Once I felt that I could serve God in this way, I moved into full time writing. It's still a walk of faith.

RM: You've done a good bit of teaching at conferences in the past, but just this year you took over the reins of the Blue Ridge Mountain Christian Writers Conference. What was it like to make that transition?

AG: First, I followed a dynamo named Yvonne Lehman, and she's a tough act to follow. I quickly learned that there was a great deal of work involved. BRMCWC is one of the larger conferences in the nation, so there is a lot to juggle. My first year came at the height of the recession, but we had more in attendance than the previous year. That was a blessing. The faculty and students were great. I arrived with great apprehension and left blessed.

RM: I know that you have also formed Gansky Communications. What services do you provide and to whom?

AG: Gansky Communications has been around for a long time. I used to do creative writing for business, including corporate videos. Most of my business work now is with publishers, agents, nonprofits, and other writers.

Publishers hire me to do substantive edits, line edits, creative consulting, rewrites, professional reviews, collaborative writing, rewriting, and the like.

Nonprofits retain me to do rewrites and professional reviews, create proposals, or to create new material.

Sometimes, authors hire me to do a professional review of their proposals and books. I have also done rewrites and creative consulting.

RM: Your latest book is Certain Jeopardy, which you co-wrote with Jeff Struecker. What can you tell my readers about that book, and how you came to be involved in the project.

AG: I became involved through Jeff's agent, who is a pleasure to work with. Major Jeff Struecker (he was a captain at the time we wrote the first book) is an active duty Army chaplain. However, he spent most of his army career as a warrior with the Army Rangers. He was involved in the "Black Hawk Down" crisis in Somalia. If you saw the movie, Jeff was played by Brian Van Holt. I come from a navy family, so I had a lot to learn about the Army for the project.

Certain Jeopardy is about a team of Spec Ops soldiers sent on a covert mission in Venezuela. While conducting the surveillance mission they become aware of a greater danger to the United States and the world. Known as a "certain jeopardy" situation, these events mean the team must change their mission and take immediate action that endangers them and hostages.

Jeff also wanted to show what families of soldiers go through while their loved ones are on foreign fields doing things the families can never know. So the book contains a strong "back at home" story line.

We just sent Book 2 (working title, Blaze of Glory) off to the publisher.

RM: You've co-written several books. Obviously, that's different from doing a book solo, but can you give my readers some insight on the process?

AG: The first thing to know is that it's never the same. Each project is different, just as each "name" author is different. Some are very hands-on and want to weigh every word. Others are happy to provide the basic story, guide me, but let me do the heavy word lifting.

Jeff provided the storyline, and I added to it. I'd write and send him sections of the book with questions in footnotes. He'd make sure I got the terms and actions correct.

Since Jeff is active military, there were some things we couldn't put in the book, and we had to take liberties with some procedures. Still, everything is as real and accurate as we could make it.

RM: What can we look forward to next from the fertile brain of Alton Gansky?

AG: A nonfiction book titled An Indispensible Guide To Jesus should be released early next year. The next Robert Cornuke/Alton Gansky novel, The Pravda Messenger, comes out in September 2009.

Al, thanks for stopping by. I want to remind the writers that read this blog of a mantra you taught me years ago: "What if...?" With that in mind, it's almost impossible to run out of material. I know you never will, and I look forward to reading the results for a long time to come.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Are We There Yet?

Our guest speaker at church reminded us of the three important questions everyone asks at one time or another: Who am I, why am I here, where am I going? Of course, anyone who has ever taken a trip with children knows that there is a fourth eternal question: Are we there yet?

In our lives, at some time or another we ask each of these questions. Most of us know the answer to the first, although the definition changes as we mature. Many of us eventually find the answer to the second. The third is a real puzzler, especially at some stages of our lives. But the fourth deserves some attention as well.

During my years of medical practice, I performed surgery hundreds of times. I knew the reasons each procedure was indicated and why I offered it as an option, but when it was elective surgery, I always asked a pointed question of patients: If I operate, what is your indicator of success? What do you want out of the surgery? Where do you want to be after the healing is complete? If that result wasn't the same as mine, if I knew the procedure couldn't offer what the patient wanted, I needed for the information to be out in the open. On our journey through life, many of us don't know whether we're "there" because we're not sure where we're going. We have no idea what our indicator of success is.

Do you want to be a good husband or wife, father or mother? Do you want to be at the top of your profession? Are you looking for wealth? Is fame your goal? Or are your sights set higher. Do you want to deepen your walk with God. Would you like to serve your fellow man in a better way? It all depends on your priorities. It all boils down to where you want to go.

There's neither time nor space for me to launch into a deep philosophical and theological discussion on this subject. Everyone eventually finds his or her own answer. But I'll encourage you not to stop with the first two questions. Only when you know where you're going can you tell whether you've arrived.

Friday, August 07, 2009

The New Abingdon Fiction Line

For many years, Abingdon Press has done a great job serving pastors, teachers, and the general public with their non-fiction books on various aspects of Christianity. The decision to include Christian fiction in their line was a big one, and to head the effort they chose industry veteran Barbara Scott. My agent, Rachelle Gardner, pitched my novel of medical suspense to Barbara at the ICRS meeting in 2008, and subsequently Barbara made the decision to include the novel, now titled Code Blue, in the Abingdon fiction line. It's slotted for release in April, 2010.

I had no idea what I'd become a part of by joining the fiction authors Barbara signed for Abingdon. Since many of them were previously unpublished in fiction, and all were new to the Abingdon family, I suggested the name "New Abingdonians" for the group. It seems to have stuck, and I have to tell you that the collegiality and mutual support within the ranks has been excellent.

I was going to do a post about the releases that have just come out, but decided instead to direct you to this site. That will give you a complete list of the titles, their authors, and release dates. It's also worth mentioning that Abingdon has arranged with Cokesbury books to make these titles available at a significant discount to people wishing to pre-order them. Why not check out the titles and take advantage of that offer while you can?

Anyway, although I'm still almost eight months from the release of my own novel, I can't help being caught up in the excitement of the launch of this new fiction line. I predict great things for it, and hope I can continue to be a part of it with the Prescription For Trouble series. Meanwhile, congratulations to all the Abingdon authors whose novels have recently released or are poised on the threshold of that experience. I'm proud to be your colleague.

Speaking On August 8

I'm speaking on Saturday, August 8, at the meeting of the DFW Ready Writers, the Dallas-Fort Worth subgroup of the American Christian Fiction Writers. My topic is "Medical Details In Fiction." If you're in the area, I hope you'll join us at 11 AM for lunch at La Hacienda Ranch Restaurant on Highway 121 in Colleyville, TX. My talk and what promises to be an interesting question-and-answer session will follow. Ya'll come.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Blogging Elsewhere Today

Today, author, friend, and fellow Texan Mary DeMuth has kindly invited me to guest blog about one of my favorite writing books. Drop by to see which one I've chosen. But don't forget to come back here soon. You never know what I'll post. Matter of fact, quite often neither do I. Guess that's what makes it interesting.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Reflections From A Book-Signing

Yesterday I spent a couple of hours in the atrium of the Frisco Public Library at the first annual Texas Authors' Tea. This year, the theme for the library's adult summer reading club was "read across Texas," so they thought it would be fun to combine their awards ceremony with a book-signing by authors who live in the state. Since it's a large state (in case you hadn't noticed), most of us were local. Still, there were eighteen of us seated at tables in the atrium while people milled around, chatted, and occasionally bought a book and asked for it to be signed. All in all, it was a fun experience.

When people hear that I'm doing a book signing, they usually get all excited. I guess it's part of the mystique of being an "author." Since the publication of my non-fiction book, The Tender Scar: Life After The Death Of A Spouse, I've done several book-signings, and it didn't take me long to lower my expectations. I might have started out with visions of selling a carload of books, but now I'm pleased if I sell a few. Actually, the best part of the experience, so far as I'm concerned, is meeting people and interacting with them. This is hard for a die-hard introvert, but I'm learning.

Yesterday I discovered that the Head Librarian for the City of Frisco and her husband are members of the same church to which we belong, and that they teach a Sunday school class for older single adults. I even met a few members of that class. As a result of the contact, I'll probably be speaking to the group on the loss of a spouse and the process of grief and recovery.

I met a woman whose son likes mysteries, and she picked up one of the cards with information on how to pre-order Code Blue at a discount, telling me she plans to get it for his birthday.

I was delighted to see Rose Mary Rumbley, a woman who writes and speaks about Texas, and renew our acquaintance. Rose Mary and her husband were members of the church that Cynthia and I attended several decades ago, and we spent much of the afternoon shuttling between our tables to ask, "Do you remember..?" and "Have you heard..?"

Yesterday's book-signing was about what I expected. No huge crowds. No massive book sales. Just connecting with people. And, you know what? That's the best part.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

If Bill Gates Says "No," Why Should We Say "Yes?"

Well, the news is in. Bill Gates has "unfriended" Facebook. He recently made the announcement that he was discontinuing his participation, saying it took too much of his time agonizing over 10,000 friend requests. It's nice to know that this multi-gazillionaire and I share at least one characteristic: like me, he actually tried to figure out if these people really had a connection to him. If you want a laugh, check out this link for one humorist's vision of what Gates' Facebook page might look like.

I like Twitter, which I use with the utility Twhirl, mainly because I can easily control whose "tweets" I receive. I can send a direct message (provided the recipient is following me) and get a quick reply the same way. For Facebook, I have set up a special group whose posts I check regularly. Reading the others is sort of catch-as-catch-can. And leaving a message on those sites gives me a nice way to let people know when I put up a new post on this blog.

Bill Gates doesn't do Facebook. Steve Jobs doesn't do Twitter. Why? Because they're too busy doing other things. Yet I still check both these sites, as well as eighteen blogs. They're rich. I'm not. There's probably a lesson there, although I'm not sure exactly what it is. Maybe it will show up soon in somebody's post on Twitter or Facebook.