Saturday, March 29, 2008

"Meet Me By The Chocolate Fountain"

Kay and I have just returned from a short trip to the Fourth Annual Gathering Of Church Bookstores, held at Lakewood Church in Houston. It was an eye-opening experience for both of us.

I don't think I've ever been an active member of a church that was large enough to have its own bookstore. Library, yes. But these are full-fledged bookstores, and they're getting to be more prevalent. The host church, Lakewood, has a bookstore that occupies over 9000 square feet. Another large church in Houston has just opened a 10,000 square foot facility. These are stores that don't have to work to get people to come in their doors--they're already coming.

About 300 attendees heard talks on the industry, went through exhibits from over forty vendors, heard authors and singers who led them in worship and challenged them, and networked like crazy. The banquet on Thursday evening gave the attendees a chance to sit down with authors and discuss their work. There was some neat give-and-take at our table, and I learned from it.

I was invited by my publisher, Kregel Publications, to sit at their booth after the Thursday night banquet and sign complimentary copies of my book as the attendees wandered through the exhibit area. There were forty authors present, and the signing went on for about an hour and a half. During that time, the attendees also visited the chocolate fountain for dessert, a treat that was denied me (although Kay did bring me a few nibbles). But I was glad to sign a couple of hundred copies while hearing person after person tell me how there was a need in their church for my book. So many of them said, "I'm taking this back to our staff...or our grief counselor," or "I know several people who need this book." I met some neat people, both attendees and fellow authors, and there was a chance for me to do a bit of networking as well.

I left there inspired by the potential for ministry in my writing, not just the ministry of The Tender Scar: Life After The Death Of A Spouse, but all types of books. As authors, we can't lose sight of why we write. Not to get published, although that's nice. Not to make money--you'd have a better chance as a greeter at Wal-Mart. No, we write to get the message out that God has given us. Sometimes it's nice to be reminded of this fact.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

"We Have A Winner!"

You may recall that I mentioned the contest that Rachelle Gardner was running on her "agenting" blog, CBA Rants and Ramblings. She had over a hundred submissions of first lines for a novel. She judged them anonymously, then cracked the code and posted the results today on her blog. Check them out. There are some very good ones there. I'm especially fond of the one that took first place. See if you agree.

The next part of the contest is to write up to 300 words as the start of a novel, using one of the top first lines chosen. It's not too late to join the fun. Click on the link above for more details.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Don't Load Up Your Sentences

Some of you may think that I've exhausted the supply of writing tips from John Gardner's The Art Of Fiction. Others may fervently wish that I'd leave this subject and get on to others. True, much of the book is too technical for just about anyone but someone majoring in English composition, but if you're patient you can dig out a number of kernels of truth. Let me finish my Gardner gala with a discussion of what he calls "overloading syntactic slots." See, I told you it was technical.

Most of us recognize that sentences generally contain specific elements. Take the simplest form: subject, verb, object. Gardner calls these components syntactic slots. An example is, "He shot her." It's easy enough to see that unadorned sentences with just these elements would pretty quickly lose the interest of anyone reading above, say, the first grade level. So we amplify the nouns, vary our verbs, and hang modifiers on the elements. No problem so far.

If you've ever been to a Writers' Conference, sat in a critique group, or had your work evaluated by someone familiar with writing, you've heard the phrase, "Get rid of adverbs." We're told to choose words that make adverbs unnecessary. Gardner goes in a different direction. For those who like adjectives, adverbs, and modifying clauses, he cautions against overusing them. To do this, he suggests that we analyze the syntactic slots in each sentence and avoid hanging too many modifiers on them.

He gives an example sentence: "The man walked down the road." Now modify the first slot. "The old man, stooped, bent almost double under his load of tin pans, yet smiling with a sort of maniacal cheer and chattering to himself in what seemed to be Slavonian, walked slowly down the road." By the time we get to the second and third slots, we're longing to be free of the sentence and our eyes move ahead, hoping for something simpler in the next one.

Then Gardner loads up the second slot: "The old man walked slowly, lifting his feet carefully, sometimes kicking one shoe forward in what looked like a dance...." You get the picture.

As Gardner says, some authors tend to load up their sentences like a Japanese commuter train. The point he makes is this. Adverbs and adjectives aren't always bad. But if you use them, insert them in syntactic slots in such a way that they don't slow the progress of the sentence. And never use multiple modifiers in all three syntactic slots.

Now this may sound too technical for you--it sort of was for me until I began looking for it in some of the fiction I'm reading--but I can assure you that being careful about how you crowd syntactic slots will make your sentences flow better and keep the attention of the reader.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Good Friday

I'm pleased that the editors of the Upper Room Devotional Guide have chosen my meditation, "Tombstones and Cornerstones," for publication as the devotional for this Good Friday. If you'd like to read it, click here.
Have a blessed Easter.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Common Errors In Fiction Writing

In my last post I discussed material about psychic distance in writing fiction, quoting from John Gardner's The Art Of Fiction. In this book, Gardner also writes about the errors he most commonly encountered in the many years he taught creative writing. I thought it would be interesting to mention a few and add some brief comments.

The most crucial error is interruption of the "vivid and continuous fictional dream." Most writing teachers call this author intrusion, and liken it to a playwright running onto the stage to give comments or directions. Fiction written in the omniscient point of view (a POV that has unfortunately become less common nowadays) puts the reader in the front row. First-person or close third-person POV puts the reader onstage with the characters. Continuity interruption freezes the action and pulls the reader away from it toward the back of the theatre.

Gardner speaks of "clumsy writing" as an egregious mistake, citing inappropriate or excessive use of the passive voice, needless explanation (often cautioned against by editors and writing teachers by the use of the acronym RUE--resist the urge to explain), lack of sentence variety (which can be avoided by reading your work aloud and listening for monotonous rhythm and patterns), and careless shifts in psychic distance.

He especially cautions against the frequent use of sentences beginning with infinite verbs. Now, I don't want to get into the definitions of finite vs. infinite verbs (the former being linked to a time or circumstance, the latter not so linked, or "infinite,") nor discuss participles, gerunds, and such. Much as someone plays piano by ear, I learned years ago from my sainted English teacher, Mrs. Billie Casey, to write by ear, not by definitions of parts of speech. In simple terms, Gardner warns us to avoid sentences that begin like these: "Looking up slowly from her sewing, Henrietta...." or "Quickly turning from the bulkhead, Captain Figg...." I'm embarrassed to look at the first draft of my initial foray into novel-writing and find a double handful of these horrible examples up front. Fortunately, my writing has improved.

There's more in Gardner's book, and I reserve the right to post about it again. Meanwhile, I hope that this list of things to avoid will help you in your writing journey.

Looking at the clock on the wall, it tells me that my time to blog has expired. Now correct that sentence, write a bad example of your own, and I'll see you back when class convenes in a few days.

PS: My friend, Rachelle Gardner, has absolutely lost her mind and is running a two-layered contest for 1) the best first line and 2) the best first page of a novel, using the first line she's picked. Check out the rules at her site.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Writing Tips: Psychic Distance

I received a critique recently from my friend and fellow Texan, DiAnn Mills, in which she mentioned the term, "psychic distance." Now, I've been studying writing for over four years, but that one threw me for a loop. What in the world is "psychic distance?" Does that have to do with introducing a fortune-teller in the second act?

A little research (ah, Google is a wonderful tool) brought me to yet another book about the craft of writing, one that held the answer to this question and several other nuggets that I intend to incorporate into my work. The book is by the late John Gardner, and is called The Art Of Fiction: Notes On Craft For Young Writers. Frankly, a lot of the book was too abstract for me, some of it was too technical (trochaic, dactylic, anapestic, and antibrachic meter--oh, give me a break!), but some parts are pure gold.

For those of you who are wondering about psychic distance, it's just the term that denotes the relative distance the reader feels between himself and the events in the story. Think of it in movie terms: long opening shot, pan in to a closer view, maybe a two-shot (two people), and eventually a close-up of one character. The skillful writer generally starts with an overall view (always maintaining the same point of view, of course), then pans in. Here's an example from Gardner. The POV is third person, from distant to very close:

1. It was winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway.
2. Henry J. Warburton had never much cared for snowstorms.
3. Henry hated snowstorms.
4. Oh, how he hated those d--n snowstorms.
5. Snow. Under your collar, down inside your shoes, freezing and plugging up your miserable soul.

Get the idea? Try looking for it in the novels you read, and incorporate the technique into your own writing. I plan to.

Gardner also mentions the most common errors in writing that he encountered during his years of teaching creative writing. I'll be posting about those later. Meanwhile, pan out and fade to black. Music up. Roll credits.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Brandilyn Collins and Amber Morn

I'm pleased today to post an interview with one of the First Ladies of Christian suspense fiction: Brandilyn Collins.

RM: Brandilyn, Amber Morn has just been shipped to bookstores and, like your other fans, I’m anxious to read it. I’ve seen the first few pages and you’re setting up a hostage situation at Java Joint. How difficult was it to maintain tension with the location staying the same for so long?

BC: It is difficult when the main location—that is, the location where the crime is taking place—remains the same throughout the novel. There are a couple things I did to keep the tension going. First (since this is an ensemble cast story), I switched POVs from one hostage to another. Each hostage has his/her own unique fears and thoughts about family who will be worried. Each also has unique reactions to the hostage takers.

Second, I kept up the action. It’s not only three perpetrators against the hostages, it’s also three perps against each other. This father and two sons constantly argue. One son’s a meth head. The other’s a hothead. And the dad is simply on edge with everything. I helped set up this tension between the trio by starting the novel in a scene at their home, as they’re getting ready to leave on their “mission.”

Third, in even quieter moments in a static location (and, in fact, even in very quiet scenes with just one character), tension can be heightened by effective word choice and tone.

Fourth, I cut away from the Java Joint café often—to scenes of the negotiator at his command post, and to scenes of a few other characters around town during the crisis. One of the most effective ways to keep a suspense story going is to end with a hook at every chapter, then jump to another location with a tension of its own—ending on a hook there, as well. That back and forth tension can really keep pages turning.

RM: Tell us more about the opening to Amber Morn. As you mentioned, the take-over of the café doesn’t happen in chapter one.

BC: Doc, I know you’re used to a body on the first page from me. Or at least in the first chapter. But I did something different in this one. I wanted to take some time setting up the attack on Scenes and Beans. I start with the three bad guys—showing their plans and why they’re doing it. Establishing how serious they are about their attack, and that they don’t care who they take down with them. Then I switch to the Scenes and Beans folks going to the party at Java Joint. Then back to the bad guys getting closer … back to the café … the bad guys … the café … The juxtaposition between the Scenes and Beans folks’ light-hearted partying and the death and destruction that’s coming to their door intrigued me. It’s like a fun gathering on hidden tracks, with the celebrators not knowing a train’s headed straight for them. This is certainly an example of a delayed inciting incident—something I don’t do often. And it’s a tricky thing to write. But now that it’s done, I like the effect.

RM: In your blog you’ve been talking about speaker attributions and the need to keep them to a minimum. Did having eleven people in a scene tax your inventiveness?

BC: Well, it kept me on my toes. Eleven hostages plus three perpetrators, all in one area, with lots going on—that’s a lot of characters to keep straight in more ways than just who’s speaking. I had to remember where each of them was. Who could see what. Who faced what area. Had to draw myself a diagram.

RM: So, apparently this is good-bye to Kanner Lake. Do you feel like you’ve just moved away from a beloved hometown, leaving behind friends?

BC: Yes. But frankly, I’m so busy with contracted novels right now—both adult and young adult—that I didn’t have time to think about it. I just had to go directly to the next novel. And with my novels—you never know when some character from a past series may turn up. Or maybe the whole lot of them…

RM: You’ve been sort of silent about your previous ankle injury lately, although you’ve confided to me that you sound like a bowl of Rice Krispies when you come down a flight of stairs. Can you bring the readers up to date on your status?

BC: Thanks for asking, Doc. I’m back to my regular routine of running. The break is healed, but I tore the ligaments badly, and those still aren’t the same. I walk normally and run normally, but I don’t have all the flexibility I used to in that left ankle. And yes, it sounds like giant sized Rice Krispies when I go down stairs.

RM: And have you been back on a snowmobile since the injury?

BC: Are you kidding?! I didn’t like it in the first place. Never again.

RM: You wrote a YA novel with your daughter. Can you tell us about that?

BC: Actually, we’ve now done two. It’s a three-part suspense series featuring Shaley O’Connor, sixteen-year-old daughter of a rock star. Who’d have thought, all those times Amberly and I shelled out the money for close-up seats at a concert, that we were doing research. ☺ The books begin when the band, Rayne, named after Shaley’s mom, is on tour. Naturally there are a few dead bodies along the way...

These books are part of Zondervan’s new young adult line. All three will be released in 2009, the first two together in April, and the last one in the fall.

RM: As we do this, you’re getting set to attend the Mount Hermon Christian Writers’ Conference. Do you go to any other writers’ meetings besides ACFW and Mt. Hermon? And how do you decide?

BC: Right now I only accept these two. I just can’t do any more per year. I also need to attend ICRS every summer, and every other year or so Zondervan hosts a retreat for its novelists. Plus there’s occasional travel for the ACFW advisory board. All this is enough for me now, given my current contracts.

However, I have accepted one extra invitation for 2009. I will be teaching a fiction track at the Christian Writers’ Guild conference in Colorado in February. The track will focus on using suspense techniques in all genres of fiction.

At some point, one by one, I’d like to accept invitations from other writers’ conferences.

RM: Any last thoughts for my readers?

BC: Doc Mabry is a really cool guy.

Thanks, Brandilyn. You wrote that just the way I suggested. Seriously, I appreciate your taking the time to visit with us here. Have fun at Mount Hermon.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Agents: Can't Live Without 'Em...

Many of you who read this blog are preparing to attend the Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference, one of the best ones around. I've been to three conferences at MH, and I'm sorry to miss it this year. One of the things many of you will do at the conference is meet with an agent. The way the industry is shaping up, it's extremely difficult--sort of "camel through the eye of a needle" difficult--for a writer to get published without an agent. Not impossible, just tough.

When you meet with an agent (or editor), the first thing you'll have to do is get their attention. This "pitch" is the way you get your foot in the door. In my last post, I recommended that you sign up for author CJ Lyons' free newsletter, since one of the benefits is the ability to download her tips for making your pitch. I've seen the tips and I like them. They've certainly worked for her. You might want to get hold of a copy before you leave for the conference. Then you can practice your "elevator pitch" (30-45 seconds) on your seatmate on the flight.

Once you have an agent, is it automatic that you'll get published? Far from it. But agents do a lot to earn their 15%. My own agent tells me she's too busy (working for me and her other clients, obviously) to have a blog, but my friend, agent Rachelle Gardner, has one in which she shares lots of information about the industry. Check this post on how an agent earns his/her 15%. It will open your eyes.

Unfortunately, sometimes the author-agent relationship doesn't work out. Agents, like baseball managers and football coaches, do get fired. For an excellent post about the ethics, mechanics, and reasons for the process, check out this post from Bookends LLC Literary Agency.

Good luck with your writing and with finding an agent to represent it. But be warned. Even if you find the rainbow, sometimes the pot at the end of it isn't what you expect.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Interview With C J Lyons

Today I’m pleased to post an interview with another of my fellow physician-writers, CJ Lyons. As a pediatric emergency room doctor, CJ has lived the life she writes about. She tells me that she loves sharing the secret life of an urban trauma center with readers, and I can attest to the fact that there are some interesting things that go on there. Her first book, Lifelines, has just been released. It combines women's fiction with medical suspense with thriller pacing with romantic elements and is told from the point of view of the women of Angels of Mercy's Medical Center.

RM: Did your urge to write come along after you were in med school, or was it always there?

CJ: I've been writing pretty much all my life—it's an addiction, I would need a 12 step program to stop. Actually, that might not even work, LOL!

Medicine has been very good for my writing. Despite working three jobs (I put myself through med school) and the crazy hours, I really got serious about my writing during medical school, joining my first writer's group and attending my first writing workshop. I was actually able to finish a science-fiction novel during medical school—now safely tucked away until I have the strength to read it and see just how bad it is!

RM: Your story about getting your contract with Berkley is truly unusual, just blew me away. Please share it with my readers.

CJ: It amazed me as well! I had made a huge leap of faith, leaving medicine after 17 years, and found myself unemployed for the first time in decades. But I truly thought I had what it took to become a published author and wanted to give myself the time and energy to make that dream come true.

It was a rough time, but then a few months later, my agent called to tell me that Berkley had read an unpublished manuscript of mine and while they weren't interested in buying it, they loved my voice.

She went on to tell me that Berkley wanted me to create a new medical suspense series for them, something new and fresh, that hadn't been done before: medical thrillers told from the point of view of the women. Think ER meets Sex in the City.

I jumped at the chance—no rules, just me and my imagination creating something new and exciting and blending all my favorite genres….it was great fun!

RM: When visitors to your web site sign up for your free newsletter, they get a bonus: your “Secrets of Pitching.” These are some great suggestions. Have they really worked for you?

CJ: Oh yes! Over and over again! Imagine that you're an agent or editor and you're facing sitting for eight hours getting 30 pitches a day at a conference. Who would you remember? What would be the best way to engage your interest?

I tell people to not worry about the pitch—instead think of your ten minutes with an agent as meeting a new friend for coffee. Treat him as a person, engage him, spark his interest in you as a person, a fellow professional who he wants to do business with.

Have your 15-20 word pitch printed on the back of your business card and give it to the agent. When he gets back to NYC and has 100+ cards and names to sort through, he'll remember yours, because you gave him ten minutes of interesting conversation!

RM: Tell us a bit about Lifelines.

CJ: Lifelines is the story of the most dangerous day of the year, July first, the day new interns arrive at hospitals. For one doctor the danger is only beginning as she investigates a patient's unexpected death and discovers more than she is prepared for.

It's a hybrid of women's fiction and medical suspense, with thriller pacing and a few romantic elements. All this in an on-going series that will feature multiple characters. I was worried people might not appreciate how cross-genre it is—it doesn't fit neatly into any genre pigeonhole!

But the response so far has been overwhelmingly positive! New York Times bestseller Lisa Gardner called Lifelines a "pulse-pounding adrenalin rush! Reminds me of ER back in the days of George Clooney and Julianna Margulies" while Publishers Weekly gave it a great review saying it was a "breathtakingly fast-paced medical thriller" and Romantic Times Book Reviews gave it 4 ½ stars and made Lifelines a Top Pick.

If people want to read an excerpt, there's one available on my website.

RM: What are you working on now?

CJ: I just turned in the second book in the series, Catalyst. It follows a medical student as she searches for the truth behind the strange and deadly symptoms killing her patients. And then she begins to experience them herself….

Catalyst is tentatively scheduled for a January, 2009 release.

RM: What’s the best writing advice anyone ever gave you?

CJ: I don't know who originated it, I've heard it so many times, but the best advice I've received about writing is simply: writers write.

Every time I'm tempted to whine or moan or give up, I tell myself, writers write. If they want a career as a writer, they need to be prepared to spend the same amount of time and effort that any other career training would entail. This often means years and, based on an informal survey of my published friends, writing half a million words or more before you sell.

So instead of talking about writing or moaning about the obstacles that stand between myself and writing, I just remember: writers write.

RM: And what final words do you have for my readers?

CJ: To paraphrase Tim Allen and Winston Churchill: Never surrender, never give up!

Forget about what other people tell you to write or what's selling. Find your passion and follow your heart—that's the story readers want. One filled with passion, one that reveals your heart.

CJ, thanks for stopping by. I strongly urge my readers who want some tips for pitching to an agent or editor to go to CJ’s web site and sign up for her newsletter and the free “Secrets of Pitching.”

I also want to mention here that my friend, Michael Palmer (whom I’ve interviewed on this blog), tells me that his next book, The First Patient, will open at number ten on the New York Times best-seller list this week. Way to go, Michael! Kay and I have just finished reading it, and it’s a real thriller.

Come back soon for more stuff about writing—mine and that of other folks. And thanks for stopping by.