Monday, February 26, 2007

This Road We Travel...

My introduction to writing came as a result of the most tragic event in my life--the death of my wife of forty years, Cynthia. The journal entries I made over the next two years formed the basis of my book, The Tender Scar: Life After The Death Of A Spouse. But that was just the start of a new phase of my life.

I've already written about how that experience led me into the field of Christian fiction, resulting in two completed novels, with a third one well underway. But the publication of The Tender Scar also gave me the opportunity to begin ministering to an ever-expanding group of people--those who have suffered the death of a loved one. This month I'm speaking at three grief recovery support group functions in North Texas. I've done the same at a number of churches in the area over the past year. I was privileged to speak from the pulpit at a church in North Carolina last fall when Kay and were visiting there, and I'll have the same opportunity in Alabama this coming fall. God just keeps opening doors.

My Christian writing has also expanded into this area. I've been fortunate enough to be published in In Touch magazine (if you're interested, click the link, search the magazine archives for my name) and will have an article in the forthcoming issue of Grief Digest. There's no monetary reward for any of these activities. The articles don't carry an honorarium, and when I speak, I never ask for a fee or even the payment of expenses. I look upon this as a ministry, one that I didn't ask for but that God has given me the equipment and the experience to carry out.

Christian writers, and by that I mean writers who follow Jesus and have a Christian worldview, whatever genre their published work involves, have a duty to use their talents in a way that will honor God and help their fellow men. I hope that those of you who read my random jottings from time to time will do just that. Blessings as you do.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Sending The Hero Out

Which comes first, the characters or the plot? I have no idea in what order the people who populate my novels and the journey they undertake came to me. Honestly, my fiction writing was the result of an idle remark by a particularly kind and patient editor, Gary Terashita. I was attending my first ever writers' conference. I had a bunch of journal entries made after the death of my first wife and was struggling to find some way for something good to come out of that horrible event. Gary didn't have any interest in such a non-fiction book, although fortunately another publisher eventually did, and The Tender Scar was published. Gary, on the other hand, wasn't in the market for that book, but there was time left on the meter, so we talked. He found out that I'd played some baseball. "Doc, why don't you write me a novel about a doctor who used to be a baseball player?"

As I thought about that suggestion, the first line of the story sprang into my head and has remained there, unchanged, through the three plus years that have intervened. The characters and the plot formed slowly, and eventually a novel was born. It's undergone numerous revisions, but the basic premise has remained unchanged.

My agent has the final version of the manuscript in hand. Soon it will be in the hands of editors--editors who, like the Roman emperors in the Coliseum, will give it either a thumbs up or thumbs down. I've had lots of help along the way: encouragement from critique groups and instruction from some giants in the Christian writing world. This last version has passed muster by the most stringent editor of all, my wife, who will accept nothing but my best writing from me. Now it's time to send my hero forth into the cold, cruel world. I hope he's up to the task.

So, farewell, Dr. Ben Merrick. Travel safely. Now I have to go back to the mantra I've been mumbling to myself for the past three and a half years: if God wants this novel to be published, it's as good as done. If He doesn't, nothing I can do will change that.

By the way, here's that opening scene. I hope you enjoy it. And thanks for stopping by.

* * *
Two out, top of the ninth, tying run on third base, winning run at second.

Ben Merrick pounded his glove. He balanced his weight on the balls of his feet, ready to move in any direction.

He risked a glance to check the position of the sun. Here, in center field at Yankee Stadium, that deadly orange globe was a treacherous adversary for the home team and visitors alike, able at any moment to turn a routine fly ball into a triple.

Before he could refocus his attention, he heard the unmistakable crack of bat meeting ball. The flurry of motion by the players on the field barely registered in his peripheral vision. He strained his sun-blinded eyes for a glimpse of the white sphere arcing into the afternoon sky. At last he saw it off to his left, falling earthward at an alarming rate. He sprinted flat out toward it, dived with glove outstretched, and while still in midair he sensed the crowd calling his name.

“Ben, Ben, Ben …”

“Ben, Ben. Hey, fellow. Are you ready for me to pre-op the next patient?”

Dr. Ben Merrick blinked and found that his Yankee pinstripes had been transformed into a gray scrub suit. Instead of standing in the hallowed confines of Yankee Stadium, he was surrounded by the sea-green tile that covered the walls of Operating Room Number Four at Dallas Methodist Hospital.

Ben glanced toward the head of the table where the anesthesiologist, Dr. Rick Hinshaw, sat. "Sorry. Just thinking about something else for a moment. I guess my coffee level's a quart low. Yeah, go ahead and pre-op the next one. Thanks."

Ben felt a brief wave of embarrassment for his momentary lapse into what surgeons sometimes called a "sterile trance." But he knew that for many aspects of the appendectomy he’d just performed his hands could move on automatic pilot, going on with the actions learned through so many repetitions while his mind was a million miles away. Well, at least 1500 miles away, if his estimate of the distance involved was correct.

Any guilt that Ben felt quickly passed. He’d always thought that closing an incision was sort of like driving through Kansas: boring, monotonous, and you could do it in your sleep. But, to be sure, he ran his eyes over the subcutaneous closure he’d just completed. A neat row of violet-colored Vicryl stitches, looking like an illustration from Netter’s surgical atlas, held the deep tissue of the wound closed. He poked at it with the needle holder he held until he was satisfied that he hadn’t missed anything while his mind was busy elsewhere.

Rachel Burnett, the circulating nurse for today's cases, interrupted Ben's thoughts with a gentle, "Excuse me, Dr. Merrick."

Ben glanced up at her. “Yes?”

"Doctor," she continued, "when you're between cases, you have two messages. Please call Dr. Gates, and Nell at your office. Neither call is urgent.”

Ben grunted an affirmation. The call from Dr. Gates couldn’t be good. How long was this going to keep hanging over his head?

Thursday, February 15, 2007

A Unique Writing Resource

"Where do you get the names for your characters?" I've seen that question asked dozens of times--at writers' workshops, in online chats, in conversations with non-writers. The answers vary from person to person, of course. Some authors use books of names. Others consult the phone directory or reference books. I've used names of high school classmates before. If I see a name I particularly like, I'll jot it down and hope to use it in a book sometime. I may even begin to picture a person to fit the name. Of course, by the time I want to employ that particular name I'll have forgotten where I put my notes, but that's another story for another time.

I recently discovered a wonderful source for character names. If you're like me, your email "in" box is filled to overflowing each day with messages that can be labeled as spam or junk mail. It was only this week that I began taking a closer look at the supposed senders of this plethora of unwanted material. And that's when I found that some of the names listed there would be perfect when applied to characters in a novel. So now, before I empty the junk messages, I make a note of the best names. One thing, though. If you come across a Bethany Allred or a Travis Lewis in one of my stories in the future, please know that I've made sure these folks change their ways before I move them into a Christian book.

I'm about to send my second novel off to my agent. I've come to know my protagonist, Dr. Ben Merrick, well, and it's hard to send him out into the world on his own now. I've spent a lot of time with him--rewriting the things he says, planning his future, even finding a girl friend for him. Now I have to turn him loose. But don't worry, I've already started his next adventure. And I know where to find the names of the other characters.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Reading To Write

As Yogi Berra said, "You can observe a lot just by watching." By the same token, a writer can learn a lot just by reading. In the past I've mentioned how important it is to read critically--observing how the story arc proceeds, how characters are developed, how different authors approach the denouement. It's also important to read the classic "how-to" books for writers. I have a shelf of reference books that I consider the pillars upon which rest any ability I have to write: Jim Bell's book on plot and structure, Brandilyn Collins' work on character, and the absolutely mandatory read for would-be writers, Browne and King's book on self-editing your fiction work.

Now I have another book to add to my pantheon of indispensable works: How To Write Killer Fiction, by Carolyn Wheat. I must confess that it was the title that intrigued me as much as the content. I had no idea who this Carolyn Wheat was, although I've since discovered that she's an award-winning mystery writer, a former attorney, and a respected teacher of writing (currently at the University of California San Diego). She guides the reader through the process of writing both suspense and mystery (clarifying the difference along the way). This book has some of the best explanations I've encountered on story arc, the novel based on the structure of classic myth, and writing an ending.

Along the way, I actually had fun reading this book. In contrast with Elizabeth George's book, Write Away, which I also consider an excellent book, Wheat's examples don't run to two or three pages from a novel that I've never read. She uses segments from popular fiction, quotes well-known writers, and keeps the reader engaged through every page.

By the way, I'm not related to Carolyn Wheat, don't get a commission for posting this review, and have no connection with the publisher--Perseverance Press, a house previously unknown to me. But this is a good read for anyone who is a fan of mystery or suspense fiction, and a must read for those of us who'd like to write in that genre.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

The Writer's Super Bowl

Like millions of others, Kay and I will be watching a football game today: The Super Bowl, pitting the Chicago Bears against the Indianapolis Colts. For this one, we won't record the program and TiVo through the commercials. Hey, Super Sunday commercials are sometimes more entertaining than the action on the field. We will, however, probably skip the halftime festivities. I got tired of "The Artist Formerly Known As Prince" before he changed his name.

It's certain that the two teams who'll be playing today were giving it their best shot all season long to get this opportunity. And I'm sure they haven't relaxed during the two weeks they've had to prepare for the big game. They've tried to take their skills to the highest possible level for this game. It's worth it.

The commercials that air during this game reach a huge audience, and the cost for their preparation and broadcasting is enormous! But the sponsors undoubtedly believe the expense and the effort are worth it. They have a product to sell, and this is a big chance for them.

One of my mentors, Randy Ingermanson, pointed out to his class that a successful CBA novel may reach about the same number of people as we'll see today filling the stands in Miami. As a novelist whose work comes from a Christian worldview, my chance to get to the writers' Super Bowl (i.e., publication of my novel) will come only after lots of work. Study, preparation, research, writing that first horrible draft, revising, changing, fine-tuning, going back yet again and again. The work never seems to stop, but it's worth it for the chance to see my characters "play" before the "crowd" of readers out there. And, if I've been faithful to my calling, the book will carry a message to the people reading it. A message of faith and hope, one that draws them to God if they aren't there already, one that brings them back if they've drifted away. There's a price to preparing such a "commercial," but the product it offers is worth more than any possible price.

This next week, as I finish a significant reworking of my second novel, I'll try not to be satisfied with anything but my very best work. It's a chance to make it to the writer's Super Bowl. I'm thrilled to have the opportunity.