Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Interview With DiAnn Mills

Today I’m pleased to have fellow Texan and accomplished writer DiAnn Mills as my guest. After you’ve read the interview, leave a comment to be eligible to win a copy of her latest novel, Awaken My Heart.

RM: DiAnn, Awaken My Heart takes place in 19th century Texas. You’ve written so much about Texas and its history. What attracted you to this place and this period? Why do you think it will appeal to your readers?

DM: I grew up in Ohio, so I’m a 28 year transplant to Texas. Before I started to school, the Davy Crockett theme song was my favorite, and when I went to first grade, I had to have a Davy Crockett lunch box. Like that early pioneer, I got to Texas as fast as I could. I’m fascinated with the rugged and courageous people who helped build this state – and it’s such a melting pot. When one considers the native Americans, the Spanish, the Mexican, the black African, and all the different other people who came to Texas, well it paves the way for many, many stories.

RM: The book deals with friction between Anglo and Hispanic people. This was a touchy subject then and it remains one today. Did you have any misgivings about writing on a controversial subject?

DM: Absolutely not. People are people. If God doesn’t look at the outer shell, then we have no reason to discriminate against color and race either. There are wonderful, good people in every race and culture, and there are those who are not contributors to a peaceful and advancing community.

RM: Much of the tension in Awaken My Heart comes from forbidden love, in this case forbidden by the social and political environment of the day. The same subject has captivated authors going back to Shakespeare and before. Is there an answer to the problem?

DM: I believe love is a gift from God. Take a look at our biblical heritage and the unusual and sometimes incredible couples that God put together. Times haven’t changed. There will always be issues and challenges in any relationship, but if God has ordained it, then He will guide the relationship.

RM: Knowing how prolific you are, I suspect that you’re deep into yet another novel. Can you give us a preview?

DM: ☺ Well, I’m working on a romantic suspense book for Tyndale. It’s the second in the Behind the Sunglasses Series, about women in traditionally male roles. But I’m also putting together a few historical proposals.

RM: You and I first met at the Mount Hermon Christian Writers’ Conference, and you are frequently a faculty member at such conferences. How can you justify taking time away from your writing to devote your energy to helping others in the writing field?

DM: My ministry is as much teaching and helping other writers to achieve their goals as it is writing books that entertain and inspire. I’m also a mentor for Jerry Jenkins Christian Writer’s Guild and I teach fiction mentoring clinics. It’s all a part of what I do.

RM: And, as always, any final words for my readers?

DM: Let me hear from you. You can contact me via my web site. I encourage you to sign up for my newsletter. If you are a writer, keep at it! If you are a reader, God bless you! Without faithful readers, we writers would have nothing.

Don't forget to leave a comment if you'd like a copy of DiAnn's latest novel, Awaken My Heart. And thanks for stopping by.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Blog Etiquette

When I was a senior in high school, I received a copy of Emily Post's Etiquette: The Blue Book of Social Usage. Now for a young man who'd scarcely been outside the city limits of Decatur, Texas, this was an introduction to a complex world. I mean, I knew how to eat the fried catfish special at R. J. Terrell's Cafe without getting catsup on my shirt. But this talked about fingerbowls, and place settings with several versions of knife, fork, and spoon. It spent a whole chapter telling me what to wear when the invitation said "formal" as opposed to "semiformal." Fortunately, the more I read, the more I discovered that the world of etiquette wasn't as complex as all that. Matter of fact, I'd been taught one of the basic principles early in my life: don't draw attention to yourself and be considerate of others.

Lately, as I've read various web-logs (I hate the term "blog"--sounds like something out of a '50's science-fiction movie) I've been disappointed that there are folks out there who apparently still don't get it. On more than one occasion I've seen comments posted that result in a protracted dialogue between two commenters, with no consideration of the blog owner or the original material that they posted. I've seen people adding a comment that is so blatantly an advertisement for their own site, service, book, or accomplishment that I think they should pay the site owner for advertising space. Occasionally, someone will write a comment that is so long and complex it sounds more like a sermon than a sidebar. I have seen situations in which the host answered a comment, and that turned into a prolonged back-and-forth--which is why I almost never answer in the comment section. However, those of you who have left comments here know that, if I can locate your email address, I'll usually respond directly to you. I think that's nicer. Emily Post would probably agree.

I need to make it clear that these examples don't come from my personal experience, but from the twenty or more sites that I visit regularly. Lest you think that some of you good people who visit Random Jottings have been guilty of this, think again. I have the nicest, most polite, most caring visitors in the entire internet universe. And for this, I am extremely grateful.

Keep coming back. On Wednesday, I'll have an interview with DiAnn Mills, and everyone who leaves a comment between now and next weekend will be eligible for a drawing to receive a copy of her forthcoming book, Awaken My Heart. I look forward to your comments...really.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Interview With Brandt Dodson

Today I’m pleased to present an interview with Dr. Brandt Dodson. Brandt is one of the brightest new stars in the area of Christian suspense fiction. I was privileged to meet him at last year’s ACFW meeting, where I took his workshop in suspense writing. For those of you thinking of attending this year’s ACFW meeting, I’d highly recommend that you check out Brandt’s course.

RM: What was it about writing that first grabbed your interest?

BD: Writing is something that I have to do. I can’t not write. God has placed the desire within my heart, and when I promised to write for Him as long as He gave me the grace necessary to do so, He began to open doors that I am convinced would never have opened otherwise.

RM: You come from a family of police officers and have worked in an FBI office. Does that help you in your writing?

BD: Since most of my plots revolve around Indianapolis law enforcement, I will often turn to my father or other family members for a tricky police procedural question. That’s one of the advantages of “writing what you know.” Unfortunately, I often rely on my own failing memory for FBI procedures, and I find that things have either changed or I’ve just plain forgotten how things work. It’s those moments that make me wish I’d called someone and just asked.

RM: Rather than following in the family footsteps, why did you decide to become a podiatrist? The two fields don’t seem that similar.

BD: I loved the FBI. The general mindset of the bureau employees and the commitment with which they carry out their duties borders on a calling. The vast majority of them would never do anything that would tarnish the badge or violate the trust that they have been given. But the job is stressful and demanding, which results in a large number of divorces within the bureau. I didn’t want that. Medicine had always been in the back of my mind. Science fascinated me, so the healthcare industry seemed like the natural outlet for that. I never had any real doubts as to whether or not I could accomplish my goal, but I must admit there were times that I wondered if I had chosen the correct field. After all, cutting someone open with a knife isn’t a natural act.

RM: What advice would you give to someone who wants to pursue the dream to write?

BD: Too many people live lives with too many regrets. And I’ve found that the single biggest barrier between people’s goals and their accomplishments is fear—specifically, fear of failure. If God has given you a dream, or otherwise spoken to you in a way that makes your spirit restless, then I would suggest listening to Him. And pray.
I wrote for twelve years before I was published. I was beginning to wonder if I was chasing a fool’s dream. But one day, as I was about to drop a manuscript of a magazine article into the mailbox, I asked God to either carry it to the right editor or relieve me of the burden of an unfulfilled dream. Six days later, I received an acceptance for the manuscript.

RM: Talk a bit about the inspiration you’ve received from writers like Raymond Chandler.

BD: Chandler (along with Hammett) set the paradigm for the hardboiled PI genre. Chandler, perhaps more so than Hammett, is responsible for tying the PI into a specific locale. Marlowe’s Los Angeles is near palpable. The city comes alive and is an integral part of the PI’s world. Robert B. Parker, who candidly admits to the influence Chandler had on him, has done the same thing in his Spenser series; Boston is Spenser and Spenser is Boston. Other PI writers have done this also, but with much less success. In Sue Grafton’s case her fictional Santa Teresa is a thinly veiled Santa Barbara, but the fictional setting loses something in the translation. While Grafton’s writing and her character are top notch, there isn’t the same feel for how the character’s environment has impacted her or how she has impacted the world in which she moves.

RM: How did you come up with the name, “Colton Parker?”

BD: I wanted to project a certain level of “lethality” to my character. I wanted him to be an “everyman”, but also one who struggles to control (or subdue) his dark side. Colton is like a boiling pot with the lid ready to fly off at any moment. Looking back, we can see how many writers have done the same. The names of guns or gun manufacturers seem the easiest way of accomplishing this task. For example, we have Thomas Magnum, Tony Berretta, etc. I chose “Colt” or “Colton.” I used “Parker” to pay homage to one of my favorite writers, Robert B. Parker, who restored the PI genre at a time when everyone was saying it was dead. He was also recently named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America.

RM: You’ve written four Colton Parker novels. Tell us a bit about White Soul. Is this the start of another series?

BD: White Soul was designed and written as a stand alone, but may also represent the beginning of a series we’ve called, “To Serve and to Protect”. The series will focus on cops and the lives they lead. Joseph Wambaugh once said he didn’t want to write novels on how cops work on the job as much as how the job works on cops. I want to take the same approach, but I want to do it from a spiritual angle.

In the novel, Ron Ortega has infiltrated an organized crime family that is on the verge of a major comeback. As often happens in real life with undercover officers, Ortega begins to find himself slowly adapting to the lifestyle, which conflicts with his stated faith in Christ. Will he succumb as so many officers do? Or will he live out his faith? How far will temptation take him? Or will he stand true, even if it means he won’t live at all?

These are questions that every Christian has to face at one time or another. But in the case of Ron Ortega, there exists the possibility of immediate death if he answers “wrong.”

Brandt, thanks for dropping by. I'd encourage folks who'd like to learn more about you to visit your website. I look forward to reading White Soul, and I’ll look for you at the ACFW meeting this fall.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

What's In It For Me?

Football? Yeah, I think they're going to play another game or so, but the Cowboys have already cleaned out their lockers and headed home...or to Cabo San Lucas or wherever. I'm sure I'll watch the Super Bowl, although in some years the commercials are better than the game.

But the game I most certainly won't be watching will be the Pro Bowl, from Hawaii. This started out to be a chance for fans to see their favorite players, the cream of the crop, playing against each other. The trip to Hawaii was a reward for the players for their excellence in the sport. But a couple of problems quickly developed. First, the only way any of us (even those who live in Hawaii) are going to see it is on TV. I've been fortunate enough to be in Hawaii at the time of the Pro Bowl on two occasions. (I actually played beach volleyball with Franco Harris and some other players one year). But when I tried to get tickets to the game, after the laughter subsided it was made manifestly clear to me that the tickets are allocated to the various football teams and--more important--the corporate sponsors, the ones who put up the big bucks every year for TV spots and so forth. The few that are left are often snatched up by scalpers.

In the second place, the players chosen for All-Pro honors may or may not be there in Honolulu. A good number of them decide that they'd rather do something else instead of play in the game that the fans and their fellow players voted them into. Compare the list that came out several weeks ago with the roster of players who actually play in the game and see how many have dropped out. Some of the absentees have valid reasons, but many of them are no shows because of the attitude that's overshadowing professional sports and the American scene in general: what's in it for me?

I know that a lot of you who read this are writers. For those of us who write in the genre of Christian fiction and non-fiction, we do what we do because we feel it represents a mission, a method of service. Oh, if we're offered a contract we'd like for it to reward us for our efforts, but our motive goes way beyond the "what's in it for me?" thing. And for that, I'm grateful.

Come back mid-week for an interview with Brandt Dodson, one of the bright new stars on the suspense fiction scene.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Writing The Dreaded Synopsis

I stumbled across a web site recently that advertises, among other things, a "synopsis wizard." It apparently takes information that you've already entered and formats it into a workable synopsis. Here's a disclaimer: I haven't tried it. Maybe it would work for me, maybe not. What I'd prefer would be a "synopsis genie" who'd appear when I rubbed my hand over the computer monitor, ready to take my ideas for the next great American novel and turn them into a three-page synopsis that would immediately grab the attention of an editor and result in my being offered what the Muppet Movie called the "standard rich-and-famous contract."

For those of you who have neither a synopsis genie nor synopsis wizard, I would like to give you some advice that comes from writer Therese Walsh, one of the contributors to Writer Unboxed. In a recent post, she shares some of the things she learned while at a New York seminar that featured a number of agents. Here are some of the points she makes:

* The synopsis should provide a snapshot of what your book is about.
* Be sure your synopsis is an accurate distillation of your story and holds together all major plot points, internal and external conflicts, and character arcs.
* It doesn’t have to be chronological (”first this happened, and then that, and then…”). Weave your synopsis in a way that’ll read most smoothly to an outsider.
* If the flashbacks are WHAT happens, the info should be in the synopsis, but if the flashbacks merely explain WHY something happens, leave the info out.
* Always include the ending to your story, no matter what.

In my experience (researchers always say that when they don't have scientific evidence on their side)--in my experience, I end up writing the synopsis at least twice: once before I start the book and once after the second draft is completed. If there are many more drafts (and there generally are at least one or two more), further fine-tuning is necessary.

Happy writing. I'm off to polish a synopsis.

Sunday, January 13, 2008


I've been thinking a lot lately about how difficult it is to produce writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, that is worthy of a publisher's time and attention. Actually, the determining factor should be whether it's worth anything to the reader, but first it has to be published. That's why the recent series of posts by Brandilyn Collins has been intriguing. She discusses a book, Art and Fear, and makes the point over and over that not even the most talented artist--musician, painter, writer, whatever--can produce great work without effort. Just because it takes effort doesn't mean that the artist is without talent. If no effort were involved, anyone could do it. And they can't.

It's been interesting to me over the past three years, as I've become friends with some very well-respected writers, to see how much effort is required for them to turn out their work. It doesn't just happen. And they know it. But they're willing to put in the time, apply themselves, sweat over their keyboards, until the product is right.

There's an entity called the "imposter syndrome," and I've suffered from it to a degree for many years. Although I had a very successful medical practice, achieved a clinical professor's appointment at three medical schools, had over one hundred papers published in professional journals, wrote or edited eight textbooks, and held high office in every professional organization of which I was a member, I was constantly waiting for someone to jump out from behind a bush and say, "I know who you are, and you're not that good." It was good to find out that I am only one of millions who feel this way. I'll bet that you feel the same way at times.

For a writer, there's always the need for a balance between self-confidence and humility. That's where the Christian writer has an edge. Because we know that we write, not to bring glory to ourselves, but to inspire others and bring them closer to the One who has called us to this discipline. In that, we can be confident.

Don't forget that writer Tina Helmuth, who placed second in her category in last year's contest, offers free edits of your first chapter if she can post the results on her blog. She also edits entire manuscripts for an extremely reasonable fee. I can attest that her writing and her editing talents are excellent. You can get more details at her blog.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Interview With My Agent: Janet Benrey

Janet Benrey is a fascinating person. She graduated from York House College in Kent, England, and has a degree Magna cum Laude in Communication from the University of Pittsburgh. She and her husband, Ron, have been a successful writing team since the late 1980's. Many of you have probably heard one or both of them speak at a writers' conference. Janet's agency is Benrey Literary, and I am fortunate to have had her represent me for over a year and a half.

RM: Why did you decide to become an agent?

JB: Becoming an agent seemed like a natural progression for me. I worked as Editorial Director for a small press before turning to marketing and publicity for authors. At the time I was an unpublished author with a completed manuscript so when my agent suggested I join her, I said yes. The rest, as they say, is history.

RM: What does an agent offer that writers can’t do for themselves?

JB: The flippant answer is access. But there’s more to being an agent than simply getting a manuscript in front of an editor. Some authors can do that for themselves when they attend conferences and meet with editors. But an agent should know where your manuscript will fit in the marketplace or even if it’s appropriate for the marketplace. Also, literary agents have become gate-keepers, the first professional reader. They are often able to spot weaknesses in a manuscript that the author may not. But perhaps the most important reason is that publishing agreements are publisher friendly, not author friendly. It’s a rare author who understands what they are signing away when they put pen to paper. Contracts are legal agreements that can have long-term consequences on an author’s earnings.

RM: How has your experience as a writer helped you as an agent?

JB: I understand what authors face when they write and why they write what they do. But what an author may chose to write may not be what editors are buying. The skill is to steer the author in the right direction so that his or her manuscript eventually finds a home.

RM: What’s the absolute worst query or proposal you’ve ever received?

JB: Easy. An original manuscript the author was convinced was perfect and therefore could not be changed. Not one word.

RM: What advice would you give a writer who is seeking an agent?

JB: Remember that this is a business where perseverance may matter more than skill. Some writers will write better than you, but the writer who finds a home for his or her work is often the one who hangs in there and keeps trying new things. Sometimes it’s not the first manuscript that sells, so my advice is to always have something up your sleeve. I have had many editors say: “I like the writing, but this book will not work for us. I’ll read anything this author writes. What else does he or she have that I can take a look at?” It’s hard to say ‘nothing’.

I think it’s appropriate to close this posting with Janet’s favorite Scripture verse, which I ran across somewhat by accident. It sort of says it all…or should. It's Ephesians 2:10 " For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do."

Friday, January 04, 2008

"Plumb Lazy"

For those of you keeping score, I haven't posted for about a week. The holidays have been busy ones, and right now I feel "plumb lazy," as my grandfather would say in his Tennessee/Texas accent. Matter of fact, if I were to play a game, I'd opt for the "Rubik's cube for the lazy" pictured here.

It's not that I don't have any inspiration to write. I do. The meditation for January 29 in this issue of Upper Room is mine. I've had an article published in the January issue of Christian Communicator. I've just completed the final edits of novel number four and sent the manuscript and proposal to my agent, who was highly complimentary of the writing. I mean, it's time to sit down at the keyboard and begin stringing words together again. But right now I'm in the midst of reading an excellent book (it's an advance reading copy--more about it when I finish) and just feel "plumb lazy."

Hope you're recovering from the holidays, and that your new year is looking good. If I can get over this terminal malaise, I'll be back with a new post in a few days. If I don't, you can guess why. All together now: "He's feeling ____ ____."

Seriously, I do have some great interviews coming up in the next few weeks, so don't give up.