Thursday, August 30, 2007

Interview With DiAnn Mills

Today I’m privileged to interview fellow Texan DiAnn Mills. DiAnn is an award-winning novelist who launched her career in 1998 with the publication of her first book. Currently she has over forty books in print and has sold more than a million copies. Her next novel, When The Nile Runs Red will be released on September 3.

RM: DiAnn, what inspired you to write this novel?

DM: I had previously written a nonfiction book about the Lost Boys of Sudan – Lost Boy No More. From that research, I wrote the novel When the Lion Roars, but the story would not let me go.

Through numerous interviews and extensive reading, I grew to love and admire the courageous Sudanese people and was burdened by their incredible needs. I had to bring them back in When the Nile Runs Red.

RM: Why Sudan?

DM: This country went through nearly two decades of civil war strife. In 1983, the northern government launched a holy war against the south. This grew out of the views of the Islamic north against the mostly Christian black African south. The war had three aspects: religion, politics, and oil. The atrocities committed against the southern people are too many to list, but the war was fought in the south through genocide.

RM: How did you research the novel?

DM: I grabbed my backpack and sunscreen and traveled to Juba, Sudan, the southern capital. There I stayed at a Christian compound and met with southern Sudanese from all walks of life: refugees, political leaders, and church leaders. I talked to as many people as I could, snapped pictures, and listened to what was being said.

RM: On your trip to Sudan, what touched you the most?

DM: The incredible faith. I could look into a Sudanese’s eyes and see the pain of persecution and the hope of Jesus. Here, we say we love Jesus while we live in our huge homes, drive our fancy cars, are well-fed, are not hunted down for our faith, or are concerned about medical care. The Sudanese understand that all they have and need is Jesus.

RM: What are your goals for this novel?

DM: To increase awareness about the situation in Sudan and to share my passion for the Sudanese people through a compelling story.

RM: I understand that you’re doing more than just calling attention to the Sudan with this novel. Is that right?

DM: Yes. All the proceeds for this novel go back to aid the Sudanese.

RM: That’s a truly wonderful gesture. Readers, if you want to learn more about this project, here's a link you can click to view a clip.
Now a bit about your writing in general, DiAnn. You consistently turn out excellent novels. Tell us, how do you build your plots?

DM: Always out of character with two simple words: what-if? John Gardner said to create the best possible characters and allow the worst possible things to happen to them. That says it all. It’s easy to coat our darlings with easy trials and struggles, but the hard stuff, the struggles that define the character are what has to happen. I’m a huge fan of Donald Maass and wouldn’t consider writing a paragraph without using techniques found in his books Writing the Breakout Novel and Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook.

RM: What is your next project?

DM: I’m currently writing a romantic suspense series with a working series title of “Behind the Sunglasses”.

We’ll watch for it. DiAnn, thanks for sharing your passion about Sudan and for giving us an advance peak at When The Nile Runs Red. To find out more about DiAnn Mills, check out her website. In addition to sections about Sudan, she has material for both readers and writers. If you sign up for her newsletter, you can download a chapter of an upcoming release.

I’ll have another “all-redhead, all-the-time” interview soon. Meanwhile, keep dropping by Random Jottings. You never know what you might see there.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Is What We Do A Business?

When I began writing, I wasn't necessarily thinking of supporting myself in my old age with income from the activity. However, when I got that first check for $25 from Upper Room, you can bet that I made a copy and shoved it into my "income" folder for my CPA. Unfortunately, there were lots more things in the "expense" folder at that time than on the "income" side. When this month's newsletter from the CPA firm I use contained an article about deducting expenses for a business that's non-profit (not by choice or due to one's innate generosity--it just didn't make a profit), I thought some of the writers who read Random Jottings might appreciate seeing it. The standard disclaimer applies: This isn't tax advice. It's general commentary. Consult your own accountant for advice regarding your situation.

My thanks to Lindsay Sacco at Middleton, Burns & Davis, Dallas, Texas, for permission to publish the following:

According to the IRS, incorrect deduction of hobby expenses account for a portion of the overstated adjustments, deductions, exemptions and credits that sum up to about $30 billion per year in unpaid taxes. In general, the ordinary and necessary expenses incurred while conducting a trade or business are deductible. The IRS defines an ordinary expense as an expense that is common and accepted in the taxpayer's trade or business. A necessary expense is defined by the IRS as an expense that is appropriate for the business. An activity is usually considered a business if it makes a profit during at least three of the last five tax years, including the current year. An exception is breeding, showing, training, or racing horses. Such activity is presumed to be a business if it makes a profit during at least two of the last seven years. The above "rules of thumb" are not by themselves determinative of business versus hobby. Rather they are simply rebuttable presumptions. The following list of questions will help make the determination whether the activity should be considered business or hobby:
-Does the time and effort put into the activity indicate an intention to make a profit?
-Does the taxpayer depend on income from the activity?

-If there are losses, are they due to circumstances beyond the taxpayer's control or did they occur in the start-up phase of the business?

-Has the taxpayer changed methods of operation to improve profitability?

-Does the taxpayer or his/her advisors have the knowledge needed to carry on the activity as a successful business?

-Has the taxpayer made a profit in similar activities in the past?

-Does the activity make a profit in some years?

-Can the taxpayer expect to make a profit in the future from the appreciation of assets used in the activity?

Just a couple of editorial comments. For most of us, all the time spent getting that first contract could certainly be considered "start-up." Other than that, our failure to get paid for what we do definitely represents circumstances outside our control--i.e., the opinion of the editors and pub board. And goodness knows we've all tried to change the way we do things to make our writing successful. Don't know if the IRS would agree with our reasoning, though. (And isn't it interesting that they recognize that breeding race-horses is riskier than trying to write for profit).

Again, this is just furnished for your information, not as the springboard for a debate. Talk with your own CPA. Meanwhile, I hope your writing is so successful this next year that it puts you in a whole new tax bracket. We should all have such a problem.

Come back on Thursday for an interview with DiAnn Mills and information about her new book, When The Nile Runs Red.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Quiet Strength

I've just read the book, Quiet Strength, by Tony Dungy. For those of you who don't follow football, Dungy played for the Pittsburgh Steelers and then worked his way through the coaching ranks to become head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He was fired from that job and thought he was out of football--but he was okay with that, because long before that time he'd placed his faith in God, believing that He would direct his life. Then he got a phone call from the owner of the Indianapolis Colts, a call that consisted of fifteen minutes of reasons why the owner thought that the Colts should be a team of character, a team that gave back to the community, a team composed of men who took their family responsibilities seriously--and he wanted Tony Dungy as the coach.

Success in Indianapolis wasn't automatic for Dungy, but he persisted and persevered. Finally his team was headed for the Super Bowl. And then he got the call that his son had committed suicide, hanging himself. The way he conducted himself, both then and until the present, serves as a great example of the strength that can come from a strong faith in God, a strong commitment to Christ.

When I saw that the book was published by a Christian publisher (Tyndale) and that Scripture was sprinkled throughout it, I thought, "Uh oh. This will be an inspiring book that won't be very popular with most people." Fortunately, I was wrong. Dungy admits that he finally gave in to the pressure on him to write a book because he knew that his position as the winning coach of the Super Bowl would give him a platform for his witness. I'm glad he did. The book is at the top of the best seller lists and going strong.

We may not have a platform that equals that of Tony Dungy, and our books may never see the light of day. But, day by day, we encounter people who look to us for an example. May the one we set for them glorify the One we serve.

Thanks for dropping by. Come back later this week for another of my "all-redheads, all-the-time" blog interviews. You'll enjoy it.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Are Books Dying Out?

Admit it--when you need to do some research, do you pop down to the library and find a reference text? Or do you boot up your computer and find Google, or Yahoo, or MSN, or.... Well, you get the picture.

Then there are ebooks. You can download a book onto a PDA or your computer and read it on an airplane, while you're in the doctor's waiting room, during the time in your car while waiting for the kids to get out of school. And if you don't want to read, you can download a movie onto your laptop and watch it. Instant entertainment. Immediate gratification. And no danger of paper cuts.

Like a lot of folks trying to get work published in the area of Christian fiction, I've been a bit disappointed at some of the changes I've seen recently. Smaller houses are gobbled up by larger ones, some of the mainstays have severely cut the number of novels they publish per year and others have essentially done away with that line. One editor to whom I talked at a Christian Writers' Workshop last year asked for proposals for two of my novels, then emailed me about three months later and apologized because his house had decided not to add fiction to their line--not enough demand. Add that to the things I've already described, and you get the question I've asked in the title: are books dying out?

That's why I'm not surprised by the results of a recent survey, indicating that only 25% of the adults queried actually read a book--one single book--in the past year. The article didn't say whether all the people surveyed were literate. You see, we have only a 70 to 75% literacy rate in our country! Women and retirees read the most, and religion and popular fiction were the categories that got the most action.

No matter. I'm still going to keep writing. Someone out there is still reading, and as long as I think I have something to say that they might find entertaining or enlightening I intend to keep pounding at the keys of this computer. How about you?

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Salt and Light

Most of us are familiar with the admonition of Jesus to his followers to be salt and light (Matt. 5:13-16). We've heard sermons preached on this with varying interpretations: preserve, illuminate, don't be insipid, avoid dark deeds. Our pastor often ends our services by saying, "Go out and be salt and light." It's a simple yet inspiring thought, and it speaks to me. This morning I heard a sermon that used this Scripture text, and I decided to "borrow" some of the thoughts for this blog. But when I went searching for an image to illustrate it, I came upon the one you see here, and it started a whole new train of thought.

What you see is a salt lamp--a candle contained within a solid piece of salt. Supposedly, when the candle burns it cleanses the air, doing away with all sorts of impurities: dust, mold, pollen, etc. Now as a physician I'm not sure that's totally true, but I began to think that perhaps this illustrates yet another way in which we, as Christians, should be salt and light. Many of you who read this are writers. If you are, you know how difficult it is to get your work of Christian fiction published. What seems to sell nowadays is material that includes a generous helping of sex, profanity, and other stuff that isn't exactly family reading. Why should we persist in our efforts to produce good material? To be a salt lamp--avoiding impurities and offering a clean, healthy alternative.

I haven't ordered one of the salt lamps yet, but I'm tempted to do so, placing it on my desk to remind me of the need to be salt and light--not just as a preservative, not just as a source of illumination, but by the simple example that I set. As the bumper sticker says, I'm not perfect--just forgiven. And that takes away more impurities than any salt lamp can.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Throw A Slider On The Outside Corner

I'll admit it. I'm still watching the Texas Rangers (the baseball team, not the law enforcement group), even though their hopes of making the playoffs are laughable at this point. Why? Because of my own background in baseball. I enjoy watching the duel between the pitcher and the batter. Unless your name is Nolan Ryan, it involves a lot more than just throwing the ball as hard as you can and muttering, "Okay, hit it if you can."

In Little League, I was taught to throw the ball over the heart of the plate. None of us had good enough control to do more than aim in that general direction and hope. In high school, I had to develop a different pitch--in my case, a "slider" that breaks down and out to a right-handed batter. Now I had a couple of pitches to keep the hitter guessing. In my brief career in semi-pro ball, I learned to throw to all areas of the strike zone instead of just getting the ball over the middle of the plate. Now the batter had to wonder both what was coming and where it would end up. If I'd opted for professional baseball instead of medicine (Yeah, right. As though I had a chance), I would have had to nibble at the corners with my pitches, aiming for the edge of the strike zone. That would give me a fair chance of confusing the hitters. Well, that's what I still watch for nowadays in baseball.

In a previous post, I promised to discuss the book that has most deeply affected my attitude toward writing fiction. That, of course, is Donald Maass' book, Writing The Breakout Novel. Maass challenges the writer to do more than just follow classic patterns of structure and character. In the chapter on premise, for example, he shows how you can take a typical plot idea (a young boy with dreams of winning the world series), change the character, the setting, the goal, and end up with a Special Olympics participant mentored by a Nigerian athlete who is in this country temporarily, and.... Well, you get the picture. Don't just throw the ball. Nibble at the corners with sliders and an occasional change of pace. Too often, authors aim for good writing but don't have good plotting. In his book, Maass leads us through considerations of premise, stakes, setting, characters and plot, at each turn urging the writer to deepen the tension, raise the stakes, and go beyond the usual and expected. I'd like to have had him as a catcher when I was pitching. He'd undoubtedly call a great game, keeping the hitters off-balance for the entire nine innings.

By the way, I'm preaching to myself as well as to the writers among you. I've just received a critique of my third novel, one I'd written as an experiment in suspense fiction. The verdict: the writing was good--middle of the plate fast ball--but the plotting was insufficient to carry it forward--low and in the dirt, ball four. So, here I go, back to Maass' book, trying to put his admonitions into practice. I'll let you know how it goes.

I'll be away from blogging for a couple of weeks. While I'm gone, look at your own work and see if you can change things up a bit to keep the reader off-balance. Good luck.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Another Writing Book By Lukeman

I've tried to periodically point my readers to various books on writing that might be helpful to them. In other posts I've reviewed agent Noah Lukeman's books, The First Five Pages and A Dash Of Style, both of which I've found quite helpful--the latter more than the former.

I've just finished reading The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways To Bring Fiction To Life. If it weren't for the book on writing that I'll be reviewing in my next post (see--I know how to build suspense), I'd think that I'm getting burned out on this type of book, because this one didn't seem as helpful to me as Lukeman's two others. Nevertheless, it did give some good advice to writers who are trying to make their fiction better.

He spends three chapters on characterization, moves on to "the journey," and finally hits what I consider to be the meat of the book: chapters on suspense and conflict. These are quite good, and I recommend them. He closes with chapters on context and transcendency, plus an epilogue that contains these memorable words: "It is your job to create instability, and then, perhaps, to set it right."

My reaction to this book is sort of like my reaction to the circus. Everyone should probably experience it...once. I don't imagine myself going back to review this one again and again, but on the whole I'm glad I read it.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Free Critique Service

Want some help with that scene? Would you like someone to critique a sample of your work? How about for free? That should get your attention.

Tina Helmuth, a writer from Minnesota, has decided that it would be neat to fill the time when she's not working on her own fiction by offering a free critique of 1000 to 1500 words of your work. I learned about this service on the ACFW loop and immediately sent Tina the opening scenes from my second novel. Her comments on my work will be posted on her blog site on Friday, August 3. I'd encourage you to stop by, not only to read my stuff but to get the information for sending your work to her. There will come a time--soon, I predict--when Tina will be doing this for a fee. If you want to catch her before that time comes, you should check out her blog, which has the catchy title of The Ink's Not Dry. I've been following it along for a couple of weeks (she posts her critiques on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday) and her advice is always constructive and, in my opinion, right on the money.