Friday, May 29, 2009

Writer's Block (Excuse The Expression)

My daughter taught me a lot about the theatre, including some of their superstitions. For instance, Shakespeare's play, Macbeth, is never referred to by name, but as "the Scottish play."

As a baseball player, I learned--and practiced--a number of superstitions. Recently, Kay and I were watching a Texas Rangers game on TV and she noticed that, when the pitcher took the field, he hopped over the first-base foul line. When she commented on it, I told her, "Of course. Pitchers don't touch the line. It's bad luck. I used to do that myself." Many players use a different bat in batting practice than in the game, because "there are only so many hits in a bat and you don't want to use them up in batting practice."

Well, that's athletes. Surely writers don't have superstitions. Actually, there's one I've encountered on several occasions. Writer's don't like to talk about writer's block. Because if you don't mention it, maybe it will never happen to them. But it does--and it will. It did to me just recently.

I'd written three chapters--about 10,000 words--in a new novel, number three in the Prescription For Trouble series. I'd pretty much decided what course the novel was going to take, had the characters set in my mind, even had the ending mapped out. But the opening chapter didn't grab my attention. More than that, it didn't grab the attention of Kay, my wife and biggest fan/severest critic/first reader. I tried again, and again it didn't work. We kicked it around several times, and finally I bit the bullet and deleted about two-thirds of what I'd written. But it wasn't wasted, because it was wonderful backstory that I could reveal later, if necessary, while letting the story flow. What I'd initially perceived as writer's block was a message from that part of my brain that had retained some of the lessons I'd learned along this road to writing: "Resist the urge to explain. Trust the reader to figure it out. And if there's not tension on the page, if the scene does nothing to further the plot, hit the delete key."

Each writer has his or her own way of dealing with a situation where they hit a snag. Stephen King talks about just letting things ferment in the mind. He calls this turning loose "the boys in the basement." In this case, the "boys" were hampered by my reluctance to part with some of the words of deathless prose I'd already written. Now that I've gotten past that, we'll see how things go.

Have you encountered a block? Not just in your writing, but in your life? Maybe you need to turn loose your own "boys in the basement." Go back to some of the basics you learned earlier in life. Open your Bible and see if there isn't instruction there for you. Maybe you need to do the hard thing. If it's the right thing, it may get you past that block. And maybe that block was there for a reason. Think about it.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Latest From James Scott Bell: Try Fear

Many of my readers are already familiar with the work of best-selling author James Scott Bell. He has established himself as one of the leading authors of Christian fiction. He is an excellent teacher and tireless mentor. His books, Plot & Structure and Revision & Self-Editing, deserve a spot on any writer’s bookshelf.

His latest book, Try Fear, will be released in July. Try Fear is the third in a series of books that could be classed as “mainstream” fiction. Does this mean that the novels, published by Center Street, are full of profanity and sex? Far from it. They are books you wouldn’t mind your mother reading. The protagonist, Ty Buchanan, is a lawyer who is reeling from the death of his fiancĂ©e, climbing back after being charged with a murder (of which he was acquitted), and struggling to find something to which he can hold—whether it’s a belief in God remains to be seen. The book is full of suspense, the characters are well-drawn, and the plot contains more twists and turns than the Texas Twister at Six Flags. And, so far as I’m concerned, with these books, Bell can be compared with such masters as Raymond Chandler.

Often the second and third books in a series are marred by a dependence on the reader being familiar with the earlier books. As was the case with the second book in the series, Try Darkness, that’s not true of Try Fear. Bell has done a great job of making each book stand on its own merit, giving us just enough back story to keep us in the picture without spoiling our enjoyment of the previous books when we get around to them.

In his classic, Plot and Structure, Bell lets us in on his secret for writing fiction: the LOCK system. That’s Lead (a main character with whom we can identify), Objective (a goal that must be met), Conflict (the tension that keeps us going), and Knockout Ending (that makes the reader take a deep breath and wish there were more). In Try Fear, he has certainly adhered to this template, and done a great job.

I don’t like reviews that tell too much about the plot. I prefer to read the book jacket, consider what I know about the author, and take it from there. I’ll just tease you with the opening lines of Try Fear. If this doesn’t make you pre-order it, nothing will.

“The cops nabbed Santa Claus at the corner of Hollywood and Gower. He was driving a silver Camaro and wearing a purple G-string and a red Santa hat. And nothing else on that warm, December night.”

If you like legal fiction with a twist, you’ll enjoy all three books in the series: Try Dying, Try Darkness, and Try Fear.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Memorial Day

As we enjoy this holiday and the three-day weekend that signals the unofficial start of summer, let's don't forget the reason behind the occasion. Our nation pauses to salute those who have given their lives in past and present conflicts, in defense of the freedom and liberty we are so prone to take for granted.

Let us thank God for the sacrifice of these brave men and women, and remember as well the families who have been left behind.

May God bless America.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Book Trailer: The Final Product

You can't believe the amount of work it took to produce this simple video. Opinion remains divided on whether it's worthwhile to do so. However, my publisher has encouraged me to do it, so here 'tis.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Fire In Fiction

I've been reading Donald Maass' new book, The Fire In Fiction, subtitled Passion, Purpose, And Technique To Make Your Novel Great. My original intent was to do a book review, but I'm only a third of the way into it and already my copy has so much red highlighting that it looks like someone spilled strawberry jam on the pages. In future posts, I plan to share some lessons I've learned from it. But I won't tell you everything. For that, you'll have to buy the book. And that's okay. This is definitely a "must read" for any serious novelist.

Maass had my attention as soon as I dipped into the introduction. Like him, I've often seen a sixth novel in a series that disappoints, a highly touted novel by a well-known author that just doesn't live up to expectations. Like Maass, and undoubtedly many readers, I've wondered if the author was rushed to meet a deadline, or perhaps edited poorly, or--perish the thought--just not trying hard enough. He offers his own take on this phenomenon by differentiating between two types of writers: status seekers and storytellers.

Status seekers, according to Maass, want to be published. They want to improve their writing to that level, and often that's as much as they want. Storytellers, on the other hand, want to write the best possible work. They're willing to work at it until it's all it can be. In Maass' words, "Status seekers rush me fifty pages and an outline a few months after the workshop (where I taught). Storytellers won't show me their novels again for a year or more, probably after several new drafts."

Ouch! I've had to fight the urge to send off a manuscript as soon as I've finished it, maybe with one revision. If I'm to put my best work out there to be read, I need to polish and hone it until it shines. The introduction goes on for several pages, but Maass had me from page one. And by page 50 he continues to hold my attention.

If you're planning to attend the annual meeting of the American Christian Fiction Writers, be sure to register as soon as possible, so you can sign up for the all-day workshop Donald Maass is holding the day before the conference opens. At $99, it's a bargain. I've signed up, and I'm looking forward to it.

And if you do come to ACFW, consider signing up for the course I'll be teaching: Medical Details In Your Fiction: Get Them In, Get Them Right. I'll look for you.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Brandilyn Collins' Latest: Exposure

Brandilyn Collins writes "Seatbelt Suspense," guaranteed to keep you on the edge of your seat. With her latest novel, Exposure, Brandilyn defends her title well. This may be her best suspense novel yet. She's taken some of her own fears and phobias, added a generous mix of others, and invested her protagonist with all of them.

Kaycee Ray writes an advice column for people with fears, and she's successful because she has so many of her own. This book doesn't introduce a dead body in the first chapter--just a photo of one, a photo that appears so mysteriously it almost sends Kaycee off the deep end. The chapters that follow take the reader on a wild roller coaster ride, with each event building suspense. And even the veteran reader of mystery and suspense will be floored by the ending.

Don't read this one in a dark house while you're alone, and prepare to leave a night light burning.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Brief trailer for my novel

Do you like short book trailers or longer ones?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Where Have All The Heroes Gone?

Who is your hero? For that matter, what is a hero? One definition is: a man distinguished by exceptional courage and nobility and strength. Of course, "man" in this sense is a person, regardless of gender. I'm saddened to see the gradual change in our society that invests sports figures and performers in the entertainment world with this title. Why should an outfielder who hits the baseball well be a hero? Why consider someone who gets a multi-million dollar contract to sing or dance or act a hero? To my mind, these people are neither heroes or (in most instances, at least) role models.

The men and women who braved the disaster of the Twin Towers in rescue and recovery efforts are heroes. The pilot, Sully Sullenberger, who demonstrated skill and bravery in landing his crippled plane and saving the lives of hundreds of passengers is a hero. And the breadwinner, regardless of sex, who scrambles in this tough economy to make a home and provide for his/her family, making sacrifices and working long hours, is a hero.

In our novels, we often speak of our protagonist as a "hero." That's not always the case. They may be the lead character. They may demonstrate grace under fire toward the book's conclusion. But not always do they rise to the level of heroism. In instances when they do, the reader should turn the last page of the book, inspired and encouraged. An author can hope for little more than that.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Happy Mother's Day

Let me take time out from the things I usually write about to wish everyone a happy Mother's Day. May the day be wonderful, but may it also have a deep meaning for you.

Today our pastor, Chuck Swindoll, gave us a glimpse into the influence exerted by a mother whose name is only mentioned twice in the Bible. Yet the child whose life she saved, the child whom she was able to nurture through his very early years, turned out to be God's instrument of deliverance for His people.

One lesson to be learned: never, never underestimate the influence of a caring mother (or father) on the subsequent life of a child.

Happy Mother's Day.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Books For Writers

I reviewed Ray Rhamey's book, Flogging The Quill: Crafting A Novel That Sells, a few months ago in this blog post. Now that book is available for pre-order. Just click the link above. Ray is self-publishing this book, not as a vanity measure but as the first book published by the new company he's created. As I said in my earlier post, I think there's some excellent advice in this book, backed up by a myriad of examples drawn from Ray's years as an independent editor and his blog, Flogging The Quill.

I'll be reviewing a couple of other new books for writers soon, including the new one by Donald Maass. Stay tuned for those posts. Meanwhile, writers who read this blog, tell me how many books on writing you have on your shelf. I have an even two dozen. Can you top that?

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

More On Book Trailers And Videos

Author BJ Hoff has an excellent post on book trailers and videos, including some expert commentary by PulsePoint Design specialist Kelli Standish. Wonder if anyone ever watches these? Check out the post and be amazed.

Monday, May 04, 2009


I appreciate so very much those of you who regularly read Random Jottings. I try to remain true to my original description of the site: “A Christian writer’s random thoughts about writing and life in general.” I enjoy writing it (most of the time) and have gotten to know many of you better through your comments and our email exchanges. But some of you have asked when I plan to expand past my blog and my web site, and offer a newsletter. Funny you should ask, because a newsletter is part of that elusive thing publishers call “platform.”

My web site was started to give a more in-depth look at the story behind my non-fiction book, The Tender Scar: Life After The Death Of A Spouse, and remind readers of my speaking ministry in the areas of grief and loss, a ministry that continues. Now that my novel, Code Blue, is due for publication early next year, the web site is being redone to reflect these changes. As soon as Code Blue is available for order, I’ll have a click-through that will allow visitors to purchase it.

What about a newsletter? For the answer to this, I did what I often do. I asked friends who were established authors. Their consensus is that a newsletter should be more than a pitch from an author asking people to buy their books—these get ignored or deleted. The newsletter should have value. It might offer interviews, writing tips, information that will grab the attention of the reader.

Here’s what DiAnn Mills told me:

"I am not a blogger. Once a month I blog for, and it's always difficult coming up with a topic.

"On the other hand, I enjoy composing my newsletter. My goal has always been for the content to appeal to writers and readers - and not focusing entirely on me. I view my newsletter as a gift/letter from me to them.

"Through the newsletter, I've gained online friends and added fans to my writing. I know this, because I receive reader responses stating so. I've also acquired more teaching venues at writer's workshops and speaking events across the country due to the newsletter. I've also met fans at book signings and writing conferences who introduce themselves.

"It is definitely worth the time, effort, and expense because I receive immediate feedback. The contests are another way to engage the readers.

"The above points are the advantages.

"The drawbacks? Keeping the content fresh and new. I also have a few key people who add image tips and life coaching tips, so I need to make sure I have a steady supply. Also the author interviews need a little planning. But actually I don't see any drawbacks."

Brandilyn Collins has this approach:

"One thing that helps make a newsletter successful is to make it about more than just you. I designed Sneak Pique to support Christian fiction in general. Even those who don’t like to read suspense can subscribe to Sneak Pique to read everything else it offers. Only the first section, with a few bulleted points, is about me and my books. The rest of SP (1) offers a contest, with three winners each month receiving a book, (2) runs a list of new Christian fiction releases in all genres within the previous two months, and (3) answers readers’ questions about Christian novelists, giving an “inside scoop” look into those authors’ writing.

"I do think Sneak Pique has helped me sell books and keep in contact with my readers. However it’s only one thing in a long list of marketing efforts that I do. It’s hard to pull out any one aspect of an overall marketing plan and quantify how well it works in terms of sales.

"I have an assistant who puts the newsletter together for me. She uses Ezine to disseminate the emails. My newsletter/html assistant is Gayle DeSalles of Word Count. She does newsletters for numerous Christian authors, and it’s not that expensive. If you think you can’t handle the time on your own (remember it requires learning Ezine or some other software), do ask Gayle for her pricing schedule.

"We put out Sneak Pique every other month. It’s the same format each time, so plugging in the new information I personally have to write (like Brandilyn’s Bits) takes less than an hour for me. Then I just send it all off to Gayle. After it’s sent to subscribers Gayle puts up the latest issue on my Web site. In this way readership exceeds subscribers."

Other authors who responded echoed the sentiment that a newsletter should edify, rather than just sell books or the author. This is a refreshing change from most of the world, where the motto seems to be Et ubi es meum. Just so you don't go scrambling off for your high school Latin text, I'm told that translates roughly as "And where is mine?"

I’m still thinking about a newsletter, and when/if it does come about you can get it by leaving your email address in the box provided in the right-hand column of this newsletter. Thanks for dropping by.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Living A Double Life

The image on this medallion represents Janus, in Roman mythology the two-faced god of beginnings and endings. Anyone who engages seriously in writing while trying to carry on something resembling a normal life knows the feeling of being dragged in two directions at once--at least two, sometimes more.

My medical career spanned thirty-six years in practice, twenty-six in a private setting and ten as a professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. I've been retired now for over seven years and have been writing on a more-or-less regular basis for six. There was a time of transition after retirement, during which I added several more to the hundred or so professional papers I had published. I also co-wrote or edited a couple more textbooks. But as retirement "took," and I moved into this new phase of my life, I devoted less and less time to the teaching of medicine and more to learning what amounted to a new career: writing. Now, instead of attending a medical meeting this fall, I'll be teaching a course at the American Christian Fiction Writers meeting. The transition will never be complete, of course. Just as a professional football player will always follow the game (and often be tapped for his expertise to comment and enlighten others), I'll always have an interest in medicine. But now, if you ask me what I do, I'll say I'm a retired physician and educator, now writing full-time.

Of course, the "full-time" is a lie. I'm retired, but like most retirees, my life is as busy as it ever was while I was a member of the workforce. Not much has changed except the things that keep me busy. I still feel like Janus, pulled two ways and often three or four. But I keep writing.

Many of you who read this blog are writers, although most don't depend on it for your livelihood. You hold down one (or more) full-time jobs, while writing when you can steal the time. In his book, Telling Lies For Fun And Profit, Lawrence Block refers to members of this group as "Sunday writers." His advice--and it's quite good--is to write when you can and not get discouraged because your time is limited. Very few authors are able to support themselves from the earnings from their writing. But if you're like most of us who spend our spare moments at the keyboard, you write because you have to. It's an important part of your life.

So if you feel like Janus right now, balancing driving the car-pool, keeping things going at work, trying to squeeze out a few moments for writing, know that you're not alone. That's the situation with most of us. Don't be discouraged. Write on!