Saturday, October 31, 2009

I'm Back

It was a quick trip--five days instead of our usual week--and we flew instead of driving. Nevertheless, we enjoyed getting away. The picture here was taken a year ago, and doesn't begin to compare to the wonderful color of the foliage this year. Sometimes you get lucky and just hit the exact right time to see the full glory of God's handiwork. That's what happened this year.

My first surprise was finding that my new laptop didn't have a connector for a phone cord! Ethernet, Firewire, USB ports, but no phone connector. Since that was all we usually could use to access the Internet at our timeshare, I thought I was doomed to be cut off from the outside world. Then we discovered that there were a couple of WiFi hotspots on the property. But you know what? Even though I went down to the little cafe/deli each morning and checked my email, I found myself taking less time each day to do it. I didn't bother reading any blogs, checking my Twitter or Facebook accounts, or any of the other Internet things to which I'd become so accustomed. I'd cut the electronic umbilical cord, and I found that I survived very well, thank you.

Now we're back. I've spent the day dealing with all the mail that piled up in our absence. I'm handling the things we put off "until after the trip." (I don't suppose any of you ever do that). Now I'm ready to sit back and relax a bit more, take the last few hours of true "vacation" before starting the daily grind once more. But I can't help wondering if I'm not going to be absent from Twitter and Facebook a lot more than previously. You know, maybe Wordsworth was right: "The world is too much with us, late and soon."

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Sharpen The Saw

Years ago, when Stephen Covey first published his book, 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People, my oldest son pointed out to me that one of the chapters encouraged the reader to "sharpen the saw," meaning take time to refresh and renew yourself. I think he was trying to tell me something. Well, I may be a slow learner, but I eventually caught on.

As you read this, we're on vacation at beautiful and peaceful Lake Lure, North Carolina. Since we've been here, we've been enjoying the lovely fall colors, visiting with dear friends who have the timeshare next to ours, and I've been "sharpening my saw."

I hope you'll come back Monday, when I'll be interviewing author Kay Marshall Strom about her new novel, The Call Of Zulina.

Monday, October 26, 2009

3 Ft Of Books $20

Normally, I enjoy being in a book store. Even though I'm sometimes overwhelmed by the sheer number of books out there, wondering whether the ones I write will ever make a difference, it's still neat to enjoy the feel of being surrounded by so many volumes, so much knowledge, the result of so much effort. And, unless you've actually written one or more books and gone through the pain of seeking publication, you may not fully comprehend that effort. But, I digress.

What struck me in this particular store was a shelf of used books, marked down about as low as possible. People were being encouraged to buy these books by the yard. "3 Ft Of Books $20" read the sign. Of course, my author's imagination took over then. How many hands had those books passed through? How many lives had the authors touched before their work ended up here? And how many books by these authors were sitting on other shelves, not on the bargain aisle of a used book store but in a home or office?

There's a saying in baseball: Managers are hired to be fired. At the end of this last season, you could count on half a dozen or more team owners, those whose teams didn't make the play-offs, saying, "We just need to go in a different direction." What they were really saying was that these managers, although they may have performed their jobs well, had outlived their shelf life. It was time for new blood, a fresh approach. And you can bet that many of these fired managers were already getting feelers from other teams in different cities.

My hope is that the books on that bargain shelf, like a fired baseball manager, will end up in different homes, in the hands of new owners, where they can continue to be useful. After all, isn't that the purpose of a book--or a life?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Code Blue Available On Amazon

When you're waiting for the publication of your first novel, time seems to drag at a glacier-like rate. Then you're suddenly reminded that the book is nearing release, and you'd better get ready. I got that wake-up call this morning when my Google Alerts told me that Code Blue is now available for pre-order on Amazon.

Of course, the novel has been available for a while on ChristianBook.com and for pre-order at a significant discount at Cokesbury.com. But having your name, your book's cover, and a brief blurb about it appear on the site of the six-hundred pound gorilla of online book stores seems to be some sort of a milestone. Now I have three types of books shown on my Amazon author page: one fiction, one non-fiction, and one of the many textbooks I've written or edited. It gives a bit of validation to the title "author" I've been using about myself.

I can't close this post without giving a plug to independent booksellers. I encourage you to find a bookstore near you, one where you can get to know the staff and they can get to know you. These are the folks who'll order any books you want. They'll keep an eye out for the latest work by your favorite author. They'll give you personal service. They're part of the backbone of the publishing industry, and I can't stress enough how important their continued survival is to it. And, by the way, if you'd like to pre-order your copy of Code Blue, they can do it using the ISBN-13 number 9781426702365. I'll be making free signed bookplates available after the book release, so don't worry about not getting a signed copy.

Well, that's enough bragging. We now return to your regular weekend activities.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

"Front Table" Placement Of A Book

When you walk into a chain bookstore, do you automatically let your eyes sweep over the front table? How about the books in the area labeled "staff picks?" Did you ever wonder why some books are placed on end caps rather than in the shelves. And of the books on the shelf, why are some turned so that the entire front cover is visible, while most display only the spine?

If you thought that a front table display signified a book that was worth reading, one that had sold millions of copies, you might be partially right, but that's not the reason the book was displayed in that position. I have been told several times by reliable sources in the publishing industry that publishers pay handsomely to have books displayed on the front table.

The same goes for preferential display position elsewhere in the store. Ever see someone rummage through the books on a shelf, pull out one and place it cover-side-out? If you do, that's probably an author, making sure that his/her book is visible, even though the publisher hasn't arranged that. Have I ever done that? I refuse to answer on the grounds that... Well, no. But, after Code Blue comes out in a few months, I might be tempted.

The bigger question is "Does preferential display position sell books?" The jury is apparently still out on that one, but the current answer seems to be "Not as much as you might think." What we're told, time and again, by editors and agents alike is that most books sell on the basis of word of mouth. That's why publishers send out complimentary advance reading copies (generally cheaply bound paperback books, sometimes just galley proofs stapled together, sent before the final editing is done). They're looking for reviews and word of mouth recommendations.

What about online booksellers? What influence do publishers have on product placement on their websites? The word on the street is that there's some, but maybe not as much as with the brick-and-mortar stores. Aside from the advantage of shopping from your desk (sometimes counteracted by the disadvantage of paying postage), these online booksellers do offer something that the stores can't: the opportunity to pre-order books at a discount. (For those of you who are curious about the process, check out the tab to the right where you can pre-order Code Blue).

Bottom line--you, the reader, are probably the most important factor in how well a book sells. Your posted reviews, your conversations with your friends, even your emails to the author (and, believe me, these are forwarded to the publisher to show, "See, they like it") are more important than front table placement. Don't you feel good about that? I know I do.

Monday, October 19, 2009

A Second Look At Our Work

I was recently asked by a writer to look over the first portion of his manuscript. I sensed that he felt it wasn't quite ready for submission, and he was right. It had great potential, but it could use some more polishing. I made some suggestions, and I believe he was relieved to be given a sense of direction.

Whether you're writing a novel, a business letter, or an email to a friend, it's a rare person who can produce something on the first pass that can't be improved. A good friend of mine, a multi-published author, recently confided that she found numerous errors in a supposedly edited copy of her latest novel. When we look at our work a second time, we see typos, unclear sentences, even incorrect wording that we missed the first time around. And if that's true for the written word, why not hold our conversations to the same standard?

In one of my novels, the protagonist is being prepared by her attorney for testimony. "Pause before you answer. Not only does this give me a chance to object if necessary, it lets you consider what you're saying. Take your time." I'm as guilty as anyone of failing to follow this common-sense advice in everyday conversation, and it's resulted in instances when I've paid a penalty in misunderstandings. Maybe we should replace the dictum of "Look before you leap" with "Think before you speak."

What about you? Have you ever written something and sent it off, only to find an error in it later? Or said something that you'd have phrased differently if you'd taken a few seconds to think about it? If you haven't, let me know and I'll send you the application form for sainthood. And if you have, maybe this post will help you avoid that error in the future.

(By the way--I've revised this post twice after I started it. And there still may be mistakes in it. But I tried!)

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Am I The Only One Who's Overwhelmed?

I'm going to have to stop reading Facebook and Twitter for a while. Some of my writer colleagues are always posting about how they're balancing their writing activities (which, as any writer knows, include writing, revisions, submissions, re-writing, marketing, and so forth ad infinitum) with family responsibilities, often tossing in vacations, side trips, and fun activities. I, on the other hand, sometimes have the feeling that I'm trying to juggle chainsaws one-handed, and wonder how I'll ever get through it all, much less get any productive writing done.

How about you? Do you sail through the day with a smile on your lips and a song in your heart, never overwhelmed, always staying caught up? I didn't think so. The fact is that when I see how great others are doing, I'm cherry-picking the best of every post, ignoring the lows that are often not even posted. All those people are struggling with life, just the way you and I do. And when I start looking across the fence at how green that grass is over there, I'm setting myself up to make my struggle worse.

At our Men's Fellowship last week, Steve Farrar asked us if we, just like Daniel and his companions who were in danger for their lives, had found ourselves in a situation where there seemed absolutely no way out. Most of the hands in the room went up. "And then, how many times did God make a way?" Again, most of the hands in the room.

Our journey isn't--to use Tony Romo's words--all "chocolate and lollipops." There'll be good times and bad. But we're not alone. I need to remember that. And when asked how I'm doing, I'll use the words of John Newton (author of the hymn, Amazing Grace): "I am just as God would have me." How about you?

Monday, October 12, 2009

Interview With Debut Author Therese Walsh


Not only is Therese Walsh a co-founder of the award-winning website, Writer Unboxed; she’s also a very talented writer. Her debut novel, The Last Will of Moira Leahy, will be released on October 13. I’ve had the opportunity to read this book, and the writing is great. I love the way she uses words. Here’s an example: “He looked dusk-gilded and windblown, like a storybook hero with a kind heart.” And, “Pinpricks of radiance emanated from a hundred wee panes of glass, like a vast sea of earthbound stars.”

RM: Therese, can you tell my readers a bit about how Writer Unboxed started?

TW: Hi Richard, thanks for having me today. Yes, let me take you way back. Kathleen Bolton and I were in a critique group together. Several of us were interested in dissecting books that spoke to us—deconstructing them to see what made them work. When the movie The Lord of the Rings came out, we were fascinated with Peter Jackson’s process, and so we deconstructed that. And then we wrote a paper about it, and the paper was accepted for publication. I think that was our first taste of successfully putting our thoughts about successful story mechanics to writing. Kath and I were particularly anxious to try it again, so when she suggested we start a blog together, I jumped at the chance.

RM: Writers Digest has named Writer Unboxed as one of the 101 best writing websites for three years in a row. How do you hope to maintain that level of excellence?

TW: Though Kath and I, who both landed publishing contracts in 2008, are admittedly busier than ever, we’re not going to forget our mantra: empower other writers. That’s the ticket, really. That and drawing from the knowledge base of our fantastic panel of contributors, including authors Allison Winn Scotch, Ann Aguirre, Anna Elliot, Barbara Samuel O’Neal, J.C. Hutchins, Juliet Marillier, and Sophie Masson; and publishing experts, agent Donald Maass and editor/author Ray Rhamey. We also invite guests with knowledge and a desire to empower others to blog with us, because we know it’s important to keep the vibe fresh and provide a mix of posts on craft, inspirational and industry topics. We’ll continue with dedicated-craft-topic months this year, like “how to bring your setting to life,” as they’re always popular and it’s interesting to hear how each on our panel approaches a topic.

In another vein, we’ve recently upgraded WU to include features that will enrich our readers’ experiences with us, like “Comment Luv,” which posts a teaser of a commenter’s most recent personal blog post, encouraging others to visit their site. It’s a great way to build community, and I feel like that’s what we have at WU: a community that continues to grow.

RM: Can’t let the occasion pass without saying that I appreciate the opportunity you’ve given me to contribute to WU from time to time. I look forward to watching it move forward. For the writers among my readership, if you're not already checking out Writer Unboxed on a regular basis, I'd urge you to do so.

Teri, here’s another question for you. I know that you’ve been in publishing for a long time. Even when working with children’s books and health magazines, did you have a yearning to write a novel? Or was it just the fortune cookie that did it?

TW: Haha! Well, the fortune cookie—“You are a lover of words. One day you will write a book”—was just one of those things that nudged me along.

It’s hard to pinpoint a moment when I felt compelled to write a novel, but it was definitely after I’d been writing children’s stories for a while. My stories had been getting progressively longer, falling into the text-rich “picture story book” territory, which is coincidentally less marketable. I also recognized in my own writing a leaning toward meaty words. My critique partners would point them out to me: “Umm, this is for 3rd graders, don’t forget!” But I hated cutting those words from my manuscripts. The light bulb went off eventually: Write for an older audience and you can write longer fiction with bigger words, no problem.

RM: I know that The Last Will of Moira Leahy isn’t being published in the exact form it first jumped off your computer. Can you tell us how the novel took its final shape?

TW: After I decided to try my hand at adult fiction, I wasn’t quite sure where to go, but I had a friend who adored romance novels. Last Will is not a romance, but I began with the notion that I would write one and that at least one person—my friend—would be willing to read it.

I had a very long learning curve ahead of me. If I’d known that what I started in 2002 wouldn’t be finished until 2008, I’m not sure I would’ve stuck with it.

What happened was this: I wrote the book in a year, edited it through another year, and then tried to market it. It was not a romance. It had the structure of a romance, but the story had taffy-tugged its way into not-at-all-romantic territory; there was a twin sister and a mystery involving music and this Javanese dagger called a keris, and they were all demanding primetime. The story was rejected, but one agent—Deidre Knight—took the trouble to tell me that I should probably be writing women’s fiction. I honestly didn’t know much about women’s fiction, but after a good pout, I read quite a lot of it and felt that I could make the leap. After brewing a while longer and experiencing the keen tug of my characters, I knew I had to try. So I threw the entire story away and started over from scratch in 2005. In 2006, I threw that away and began for the last time. I finished the draft in 2007 and the edits in 2008, then found an agent, who sold the book in a two-book deal to Random House.

RM: The Last Will of Moira Leahy is being called a “cross-over novel.” How would you describe it? And can you give my readers a taste of the story?

TW: Because of the emotional journey of the main character, Maeve Leahy, and that of her twin, Moira, I consider this women’s fiction above all else, but it also contains elements of psychological suspense, mystery/adventure, romance and mythical realism. (I left out the kitchen sink.)

As for a taste of the story, I’m a big believer in the saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” and so my web designer and I created a picture journal to go along with this novel. You can access it HERE. Your readers are also welcome to read the first three chapters of The Last Will of Moira Leahy on my website, or by clicking HERE.

RM: Any last words for my readers, many of whom are writers themselves?

TW: I think it’s important to study your craft while writing your story. Study, write, have your work critiqued. Study more, write more, analyze your work again—with the same group or with a different one. Remain open-minded about your manuscript and don’t be afraid to try new things. And if you have an idea that won’t let go of you, do what you must to live up to it. I grew tremendously as a writer from 2002-08, and I hope to keep learning and evolving into the future. Never, never quit.

Thanks, Teri. I’ve read The Last Will of Moira Leahy and found it to be gripping and well-written. A few of my readers may need to know that sex is portrayed in a few places (although handled quite well), that the novel has the occasional dark moment (although well worth it in the context of the story), and there’s a paranormal element to it. That having been said, this is a well-written novel from the pen (well, the computer) of an author who really knows how to put the words together. Bottom line, if you enjoy a novel that’s well-crafted, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed in this one.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

It's Not My Fault

I was listening to a news report on divorce statistics in modern society, when the marriage counselor being interviewed said something that caught my attention. "One of the saddest things I encounter is the way each partner tries to blame the other. It seems that humans have an innate need to assign blame." Wow! But, you know, that's probably true.

I think back to the story of a woman who came into the house and said to her husband, "Honey, I just ran into your car. Who do we sue?" It's become the nature of our society to look for someone to blame.

Product liability suits have led us to warnings and disclaimers everywhere. A cup of hot coffee is spilled on a customer, and now all the paper coffee containers carry a warning: "This beverage is hot!" A TV commercial shows a driver doing crazy stunts to catch the eye of the viewer, and there's a little warning at the bottom of the screen: "Professional driver on closed course. Do not attempt this." Duh!

But this isn't new. It's as old as mankind. When God confronted Adam in the Garden of Eden after the first man had broken the only commandment his Maker had given him, what did Adam say? "Lord, you're right. I did it, and I'm sorry." Not on your life. He blamed his wife. If you want to say that men have continued to do this down through the ages, feel free to leave it in a comment. That's not the direction I'm going.

What I'm trying to say is that within our modern society there's a shameful lack of willingness to be responsible for our actions. If I broke it, I'll try to fix it. If I did the job poorly, I'll do it again. If it's my fault, I'll confess and try to make amends.

For those writers among my readership, stop snickering about the way other people act. We're as guilty as the next person. If our manuscript, the word collection we've labored so long and hard over, garners nothing but rejections from agents, it's easy to blame them. "Well, agents don't even read those things. It's all a numbers game. They don't recognize talent when they see it." Or, suppose we do gain representation, but editors turn down our version of the Great American Novel. The same excuses begin to surface. And, if our book actually does get published, but no one buys it, our immediate reaction is "Readers are only interested in trash. It's their fault."

Maybe some of these things are true. Then again, maybe the blame falls on us. We've written a good work, but not a great one. Could it be that we were so happy to finish the novel that we didn't spend enough time on the edits, and the re-edits, and the final polish? But it's no fun blaming ourselves, is it? And taking responsibility for our actions sometimes hurts. Well, I've been told that being a writer requires a thick skin. Maybe this is the reason that's one of the requirements.

I wish I had a pat phrase to use in winding up this post, an answer to this problem that's part of the human condition. Unfortunately, I've probably just generated more heat than light. Then again, maybe I've made you think. If I have, you can blame it on me. I'm willing to accept responsibility for my actions. Don't you wish everyone would?

Monday, October 05, 2009

Is Your Bible Electronic?

I don't own a Kindle...or a Sony reader...or any other electronic device for reading books. Kay and I just upgraded from our flip-phones to "smart phones" two months ago, and I'm continually amazed by what these things can do. However, I'm also discovering that they're smarter than I am at times, and that's something I find hard to tolerate.

Our smart phones aren't iPhones, although several of our children have moved in that direction. One of them has downloaded the entire Bible onto his iPhone, and when we were in church a few Sundays ago, at the time that everyone else was flipping pages in their Bible to find the Scripture reference under discussion, David ran his finger along the screen of his phone and was reading the words while I was still trying to recall whether II Timothy came before or after Titus. (It's before, in case you're wondering). Neat, I thought. But then, while I was jotting notes in the margin of my text, I had to wonder how the people using these e-Bibles were handling it. Could they take notes? And how did it feel reading Scripture off a tiny screen?

I think my question was answered the next Sunday, when he showed up with a leather-bound volume under his arm. Soon, he was flipping pages with the rest of us. Score one for the old-fashioned printed word.

I use several utilities to access Bible passages and do research on my computer. I confess that I plan to download a Bible version to my smart phone. But I'll still be tucking my Bible under my arm on Sunday (although it's one of the more modern translations). What about you?

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Interview With Author Myra Johnson


Today I have the privilege of talking with fellow Abingdon author Myra Johnson. Even though Myra and her husband, Jack, left Texas to take up residence in Oklahoma, Kay and I still consider them friends. I think you'll see how far back our relationship goes as you read this post. I hope Myra's story will inspire the writers among my readers to keep on keeping on.

RM: Your debut novel, One Imperfect Christmas, has just been released by Abingdon Press. How did you get the news that you had a contract?

MJ: It all came about quite quickly, actually, when you consider how slowly this business usually moves. Within a couple of hours of seeing the announcement about Abingdon Press’s new fiction line on Brandilyn Collin’s blog, I had my query off to Barbara Scott, the editor. In the space of one month she went on to request a full manuscript, then e-mailed me a few times about presenting the book to her fiction committee, and finally called to say the contract offer was official.

RM: You and your fellow “fall line” authors were sort of the “beta-test group” for Abingdon’s venture into fiction. How did that feel?

MJ: Exciting, scary, and utterly God-driven.

RM: Tell my readers a bit about One Imperfect Christmas, if you will.

MJ: Christmas is the season of miracles, but when blame and guilt keep people apart, a miracle needs a helping hand. Natalie Pearce loves Christmas so much she’d gladly make it a year-round celebration—until her mother suffers a massive stroke while taking down the decorations. Natalie’s guilt over not being there to help her mom soon builds a wall that separates her from the rest of her family, including her husband, Daniel, and their teenage daughter. As the next December approaches, the last thing Natalie wants to be reminded of is another Christmas season. Only her family’s tenacious love and an unexpected Christmas gift from her mother can help Natalie mend the broken pieces of their lives.

RM: Was this plot pulled from thin air, or did something inspire you to write it?

MJ: Every once in a while I get an idea in the middle of the night, usually in a dream, and I like to believe those are special God-given gifts of inspiration. I woke up with the vague idea of a couple about to celebrate their 50th Christmas together, only something stood in their way. Out of that came Natalie’s guilt over her mother’s stroke and the struggle to put her marriage back together.

RM: I understand that you began to get serious about your writing with an emphasis toward youth and teens. What prompted you to make the change to fiction for adults?

MJ: LOL—my live-in inspiration (two daughters) grew up!

RM: What’s next for Myra Johnson, author?

MJ: I’m delighted that my 2005 RWA Golden Heart winner, Autumn Rains, is finally coming out in book form in mid-October 2009 as a Heartsong Presents contemporary romance. It’s the first of three romances set in Missouri, and the next two, due out in 2010, are Romance by the Book and Where the Dogwoods Bloom.

RM: And any last thoughts for my readers?

MJ: Just that persistence pays (when combined with a whole lot of faith, of course). I could be the poster child for hanging in there over the long haul for that first book contract. And you reminded me recently that I have you to thank for launching my writing career! It was while recuperating from sinus surgery (thanks, Doc!) back in 1983 that I came across the magazine ad for the Institute of Children’s Literature and decided to enroll. I sold two stories before completing the course and felt certain a book contract was just around the corner. Little did I know it would take 25 long years of practicing my craft, selling magazine articles and devotions, attending conferences, joining writers groups, and amassing book rejection upon rejection before things finally came together. I can only believe that God in His perfect wisdom knew what was best for me. And every other writer out there must cling to that same hope. Be obedient to your calling, and trust God for the results!

Myra, thanks for dropping by. Best wishes for continued success--except on Texas-OU weekend, of course.