Thursday, February 25, 2010

Bend, Don't Break

Recently, we were treated to about a foot of snow. I know, you folks in the North are saying, "So what?" But here in Texas, even in North Texas, snow is a rarity. And this was our second snowfall since December. The weather prognosticators put us to bed with assurances that we'd see an inch or two on the grass, no accumulation on the streets. We awoke to a carpet of the fluffy stuff that kept on falling...and falling...and falling. It was still on the ground the next day, so schools and businesses closed and snowmen could be found in many yards.

We have a huge live oak tree in our back yard. As the snow accumulated on it, the branches bent lower and lower and lower. I was afraid that at any moment I'd hear a Snap and see a branch come tumbling down, causing damage I didn't even want to imagine. Instead, about half the branches settled gently onto our roof and many more rested on the edge of our fence. And when the snow melted, the tree sprang back, as good as new.

Have you ever felt the weight of the world pressing in on you, until you were ready to give up with your own Snap? I have--many times. Did you find support that held you up until your burden eased? I've leaned at various times on family, friends, and God in these circumstances, and I frankly don't know what I would have done otherwise.

If you're staggering under a burden right now, I hope you'll find the support you need to hold you up until your own personal snowstorm melts away. I know it will. They always do.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Olympic Figure Skating and Writing

Like many of you, Kay and I watched last Thursday evening as Olympic figure skater Evan Lysacek turned in the performance of his life to capture the gold medal, besting favorite Yevgeny Plushenko. The turning point of the whole contest was hyped as being Plushenko's ability to do "quads"--jumps that involve four revolutions. Lysacek is apparently one of the hardest working skaters to come down the pike in a long time, but a quad isn't in his repertoire. However, he has put in countless hours of practice to make every aspect of his performance the best. Plushenko supposedly was dependent on his ability to do a jump that only a few of his competitors would even attempt.

I loved the comment of Lysacek's mother, when told that Plushenko had said no one who couldn't do a quad should win. She came back to aver that someone who could only do a quad shouldn't win.

In the end, Lysacek's hard work paid off and he stood on the center of the podium as the Star Spangled Banner played.

Is there a lesson here for writers? A couple, actually. One is that in figure skating, although there are rules and mandatory deductions for errors, the judging is, in the final analysis, subjective. In downhill skiiing, if you follow the rules, stay on your skis, and cross the finish line first, you win. Objective. Clearcut. Not so with skating. Is what happens to a writer's product objective or subjective? There are rules, but in the end there's a good bit of subjectivity in the judging. More about that in a moment.

The second lesson is that hard work and consistency in all aspects of your craft can pay dividends. Flash and something that's unique can sometimes get you there, but proficiency stands a better chance in the long run. It's been said that it takes ten thousand hours spent writing to develop the ability necessary to reach publication. There may be a few people who can short-circuit that, but by and large an apprenticeship of study and work is the best route to get there.

And once you reach that level of writing, the ultimate judgment is still subjective. Your success depends on the response of agents, editors, publishers, and eventually the reading public. Falter anywhere along the way, and you never reach the Olympics--that is, having your work published. On the other hand, if you never try, you have no chance at all.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

It's All In The Tools

The latest issue of The Writer magazine has an interesting juxtaposition of articles. On page 11, we read about the Charles Dickens museum, which is getting ready to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Dickens' birth in 2012. In a box at the bottom of the page, we're told that none of Dickens' novels has ever gone out of print. That's a tough record to match. And he hand-wrote every page with a quill pen.

Across the page, on page 10, freelance writer Stephanie Dickison talks about the effect of technology on writers. Here's her opening statement: "To be a writer in 2010 means five things. You have a cell phone. You have high-speed Internet. You have a Web site. You know how to research online and make the most of Google. You're promoting your work/self on some sort of social media such as Facebook or Twitter."

As Bob Dylan sang (or whined, if you're not a Dylan fan), "The times they are a-changin'." I guess I'm a writer, because I can say "yes" to the five things Ms. Dickison lists. But what will be the necessary tools for a writer next year, or the year after that?

Will ink-and-paper books even exist in twenty years? How will authors adapt to the new e-book technology? Will iPhones and laptops give way to iPads and Kindles? Or, as Sheldon on Big Bang Theory theorizes, will we all have personal humanoid robots to take our dictation (or read our thoughts) and translate them into writing?

For now, I guess I'll struggle along with the laptop on which I'm composing this post. I'll send my manuscript to my agent and editor via the Internet (and worry about whether it will get there). And I'll enjoy holding a real, honest-to-goodness, printed-on-paper book in my hands, reading my name on the cover.

In the final analysis, being a writer isn't a matter of tools. What makes a writer are words. It doesn't matter how you get them down and distribute them. If you put words into sentences, and sentences into paragraphs, and paragraphs into chapters, then you're a writer. Just like Dickens. (Well, almost).

Monday, February 15, 2010

Happy Presidents Day

I'm old enough to recall when George Washington's birthday (February 22) was an official holiday. On the other hand, February 12--birthday of Abraham Lincoln and of my father--never was. For going on 30 years, we've lumped these together and observed Presidents Day. A few people celebrate by flying their flag. Car dealers and department stores celebrate by holding sales. Most of the nation observes this by going about their daily routines and wondering why there was no mail delivery.

I hope you'll pause and reflect on the men who have helped guide our country. We have had some good men and some scoundrels at the helm of our Ship of State. But whether you agree or disagree with their actions, there's little doubt that serving in that office takes its toll. If you don't believe it, compare pictures of any given President when they take office and when they leave. There's never any question which is the "after" picture.

I also hope you'll join me in praying for our country. I Timothy 2:1-2 tell us, "I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness."

Thursday, February 11, 2010

In Search Of The Lost Chord

I hadn't thought of the song in years until recent events brought it to mind. Over 150 years ago, Adelaide Anne Proctor wrote a poem, The Lost Chord. It was later set to music by Sir Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame). The gist of the poem was that, "seated one day at the organ," the writer randomly struck a chord that reverberated "like the sound of a great amen." Despite a lifelong search, they could never reproduce the chord.

Have you ever had an idea so fantastic, so extraordinary, that you wanted to hurry and write it down before you lost it? And then, when you were finally able to commit it to paper (or your computer, or your Blackberry--work with me here, folks), you couldn't recall it? It's happened to me a couple of times within the past few weeks, and on both occasions I was unable to recall the idea. But I take heart in the knowledge that often these "lost chords" don't turn out to be so hot, anyway.

There's a Seinfeld episode in which Jerry awakens in the middle of the night with the idea for such a classic comedy bit that he's sure it will bring him fame, fortune, and a spot on the Tonight Show. He writes it down and falls back to sleep, but the next morning, neither he nor anyone he asks can read his scribbling. He finally discovers that he's recalled a line from a sci-fi program he was watching at bedtime. His "lost chord" turns out to be "Flaming Globes of Sigmond." Not so funny, after all.

On the other hand, several times I have come up with ideas in my sleep that I did recall when I awoke, and I was able to apply these to my writing with excellent results. Stephen King refers to this as "the boys in the basement"--his internal muses. James Scott Bell talks about the process frequently. And I have to agree that, once we set our subconscious free, sometimes it comes up with some excellent solutions that we couldn't have developed when trying to do so voluntarily.

So if you're still looking for your "lost chord," don't worry if it eludes you. Just relax and let the boys in the basement work. And if they don't come up with anything, don't sweat it. It was probably just "Flaming Globes of Sigmond" anyway.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Please Send Lesa and Jim A Word Of Support

I honestly can't recall how I first made the cyber-acquaintance of Lesa Holstine, host of Lesa's Book Critiques. She has a long career in the library field, and currently is Library Manager in Glendale, AZ. In addition to her blog, she's a contributing Book Reviewer for Library Journal, Mystery News, Mystery Readers Journal, and various websites. However the acquaintance came about, I've been a regular reader for a while.

This morning, Lesa stunned her readers by announcing that her husband, Jim, has been diagnosed with a metastatic malignancy. They're meeting with their physician soon to map out a strategy, but in the meantime, please join me in dropping by her blog and leaving a word of encouragement and a promise of prayer support for Lesa and Jim. I can identify more than most with what they're going through, and I know that they'd appreciate your prayers. Thanks.

Monday, February 08, 2010

We Can't All Be Winners

The Super Bowl is over and the Dallas Cowboys didn't win it. They weren't even playing on February 7, 2010--unless some of them struck up a game of flag football somewhere. There are thirty-two teams in the National Football League. At the end of the season, only twelve of them played for the right to be one of the two who faced off in the "big game." Does that mean the other twenty were losers? If you love the sport for the sake of the game, enjoy watching teams compete, take delight in big plays on offense and defense, then your team wasn't a loser. They entertained you. For some people, that's enough.

Writers face a bigger uphill challenge than an NFL team. The statistics are always a year or two behind actual numbers, and they vary according to the source. The number that sticks with me is that most books published in the US sell fewer than 500 copies. And that's drawn from all the proposals and manuscripts accepted by agents and editors. There's a huge chance that any particular writer won't ever reach that level. So are the writers who are never taken on by agent, the writers whose work is turned down by editor after editor, and even the writers who become published authors failures if they don't reach Super Bowl levels? Not by my definition.

Author James Scott Bell told me early in my road to writing that if I was in the field to make money, I'd do better to take a job as a greeter at Wal-Mart. For most of us, this is pretty accurate. There are a few authors who are able to support themselves, even do pretty well financially, purely on the income from their writing. But the odds of reaching that level are about the same as a Cinderella team coming out of the pack and winning the "ultimate" game. For most of us, Jim was right.

But I said that all writers are winners. How do you get that? Because all writing will affect an audience, even if it's never published. That audience is the writer. I know that since I began writing my outlook is different. I read books, even watch TV and movies, from a changed viewpoint.

How about your job? Whether you work outside the home or inside, whatever you do, does performing your job make a difference in someone's life? Even your own? If it does, then you're a success. You've won your own personal Super Bowl. If not, then keep trying. It's a new season every day.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

What About Writer's Conferences?

Along with all my other activities, I'm preparing to teach at the Mount Hermon Christian Writer's Conference in March. I've been to the Mount Hermon conference several times, but this is my first time as a faculty member. I'm looking forward to the experience. Such conferences are a great way to do two things I consider very important for a writer: learn the craft and meet others in the field.

My own road to writing began at one of these conferences when Alton Gansky and James Scott Bell inspired me to try my hand at writing fiction, in addition to the non-fiction book I was planning. And I treasure the contacts I've made with authors, editors, and agents over the years at writer's conferences. I met Rachelle Gardner at Mount Hermon. At that time she was an editor, but later she became my agent. Some of the authors I've come to know through being with them at conferences have become mentors and good friends. Writing is a small world sometimes, and the people that inhabit it are a wonderful part of it.

Of course, Mount Hermon isn't the only writing conference around. There are many others, each offering a unique perspective on learning the craft along with the opportunity to network with authors, agents, and editors. Alton Gansky directs the Blue Ridge Mountain Christian Writers Conference, located in a beautiful area near Asheville, NC. I've never been to that one, but it's definitely on my list. A Google search for "Christian writers conference" (or just "writers conference" if you prefer) will provide a list of many more opportunities.

One more conference I have to mention is the annual meeting of the American Christian Fiction Writers. I've attended a number of ACFW meetings, and I believe they're getting better each year. Each year they put together an all-star line-up of presenters. It was a special privilege for me to teach at last year's conference. If writing fiction is your thing, this is definitely a conference to consider.

Attending a writer's conference is expensive, and in today's tough economic times it may not be an option for you. But if you can make it, I think you'll find it a great experience. At Mount Hermon I'll be teaching two courses: Medical Details In Your Fiction: Get Them In But Get Them Right and Things I Wish I'd Known When I Started. This latter course is aimed at the person attending their first conference, and consists of lessons I or others have learned--as is the case with most things--the hard way. For instance, when is it okay (and more importantly, not okay) to pitch your novel to an agent or editor? How do you go about pitching? What about follow-up?

If any of you will be attending Mount Hermon, I hope you'll introduce yourselves. I'll be easy to spot. Just look for someone who looks like Cary Grant. (I'll probably be standing right behind him.)

Monday, February 01, 2010

The End? No, Just The Beginning

If nothing goes wrong (and something usually does), I'll write for a couple of hours today. During that time, I should complete the last few scenes of the novel on which I've been working for several months. To tell the truth, I've written sort of slowly for the past few days, knowing that I was about to reach this point. There's something sort of sad about coming to the end of a book, whether it's one you've enjoyed reading or one you've sweated over and created.

But, fear not. I have more to do. After writing the first draft, to quote the Carpenters, "We've only just begun." My preferred process involves re-reading the preceding few scenes each time I sit down to write, editing them while I get an idea of what I was writing and where I was going with it. That means that there's been a certain amount of editing all along. However, there's more to be done.

I'll start from the first and read through the whole novel, trying to deepen the characters and make their activities and emotions more consistent. I'll look for inconsistencies in the story. This was pointed out to me early in my writing journey by Dr. Dennis Hensley, who questioned how a character could leave his car at one location one evening and hop in it at a different one the next morning. Time travel? Did Scotty beam him up? Now I look for those things. I'll polish the wording, killing off adjectives and adverbs right and left, removing unnecessary commas, and looking for overuse of such pet words of mine as "just."

I have a lot of work ahead of me, but I look forward to polishing the story. After all, now I know how it ends.