Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Out of the Mouths of Babes

I would suspect that this blog, like many others written by professionally published authors, draws a certain amount of aspiring authors, perhaps looking for advice or insight concerning the in-roads to breaking into the business. I know I've been asked a couple times in my career if I have any advice for folks just starting out. Well, as it turns out, I do. I could go on about the benefits of being open, honest, polite, and friendly to absolutely everyone you meet. Not only is that just a good thing to do in your every day life, it can also benefit you in strange ways in your career as you never know who might be in a position to help you one day--and they will most assuredly remember if you were a jerk or not.

I could give other advice about honing your talent and staying true to your story. Both are sound, practical advice.

But, perhaps the best piece of advice I can give you is something that I learned from a small child that I taught one year many years ago at a Vacation Bible School at my church. We had a small group of, I believe, pre-schoolers and we had them for the evening. It was tough going trying to come up with something to keep them all occupied and interested for the time allotted, but one thing we did was hand out mazes. We passed them out and the kids went to work, trying to get from Start to Finish. They took some wrong turns and a few probably even made it through. But my attention was focused on one little boy. I watched with mild amusement, at first, as he took the crayon in his chubby hand, stabbed the Start line, then drew a straight line, cutting through obstacles, to the Finish line. Blank-faced, as though he wasn't even aware that what he'd done was the total opposite of every child, he calmly handed the maze back to me, without a word, to show me he was finished.

For long seconds I stared at that page and, I kid you not, I had an epiphany. The heavens parted, light shone down, and the scales fell from my eyes. I remember looking at that maze with one simple line drawn from Start to Finish and thinking "Exactly".

It has become an attitude I have adopted in all areas of my life, and especially my writing. There are so many people in this business who will set before you hoops to jump through. They'll tell you you have to get an agent, or go to writers' conferences, or get a certain publisher, or be a New York Times Bestseller, or this, or that. Everyone seems to have a different level they want you to reach before they accept you. Before they deem you "Finished". To that, I say "bah". Set your mind on your goal--what you want to do--regardless if anyone believes in you or not. Then, like that boy in my VBS class, shoot for that goal, never minding the obstacles in your path, never minding the accepted "rules" of "how it's done". Yes, you're going to make mistakes along the way. Maybe you'll have to retrace your steps and try again to find your way through the maze. But don't be afraid to be unconventional. Don't be afraid to blaze new terrain. Be yourself. If I've learned anything, no two writers come to the Finish Line the same way. We all take different paths, some we planned, others we didn't. But know where you're at right now in your life. Then identify your goal.

Then draw a straight line. Don't hold back.

That's probably the best advice I can give you.

To the other authors out there, what's some of the best advice you've received about writing and/or life?

Monday, October 24, 2011


A rather strange title. I was thinking the other day while reading a post from my former agent on the growing field of Christian speculative fiction. I recalled the words he told me when I was trying to get him to shop my fiction around. His words were far from encouraging. In fact, they were discouraging. But, because of his discouragement, I just worked harder if for no other reason than to prove he was wrong about my fiction. And I concluded after my period of thinking that often, it doesn’t matter whether the words are encouraging or discouraging as long as we have the right attitude about what we do with those words. If I’m discouraged, I won’t give up. If I’m encouraged, I start looking over my shoulder because something bad is about to happen. I decided to write down five of the most -couraging phrases I’ve heard in my career as a writer.
1 -- “Publish! Publish!” was written in red ink at the top of every one of my creative writing assignments in the ninth grade. I was so blessed to have one of the most positive, encouraging English teachers in history. Mrs. Griswold thought my stories and poems and haiku were the best thing a ninth grade student had ever written. I don’t know if they really were, but it inspired me to become a writer. I still have those fading notebook sheets in a plastic sleeve to remind me how important an encouraging word can be at just the right time.
2 -- “Fiction has to be stunning!” was the phrase uttered to me by my second agent. My co-author, Mark Sutton and I hired him after the success of “Conquering Depression.” I had finished the rough draft of “The 13th Demon” and was ready to start shopping it around with a real agent behind my manuscript. His terse reply was the above statement. I was wasting my time with fiction. Stick to non-fiction and self-help books. You will NEVER get your fiction published! It has to be stunning to get the attention of a Christian publisher. And, let’s face it. You will NEVER write a piece of fiction that is stunning! I was stunned! I thought my agent worked for me! I understood that my agent would be able to look at my work and tell me if it had a chance; if it had an audience; if this was the project I should focus on at this time. But, to tell me forget about it? I was so discouraged. Eventually, he left the firm he was with and I severed our contract after two wasted years of arguing over my fiction. So, I decided I was going to prove him wrong!
3 -- “Who cares?” was the operative phrase from my editor on my first book with Realms. His assessment of my manuscript was scathing and eviscerating, but ultimately liberating. It was like listening to Simon Cowell destroy the latest American Idol contestant and realizing the man, however loathsome, was absolutely right! My editor, however, was no Simon. Andy was a great guy who cared about my book and he wanted to help me make it the best it could be. Sometimes the truth hurts, but only in hearing the truth can we change direction and make our path right. I took my editor’s suggestions and I embraced them. After a month worth of rewriting, the book was hardly recognizable compared to the original manuscript. But, that was good! It flowed! It moved! It was a book I couldn’t put down! Now, let’s see if readers would agree! Who cares? I care!
4 -- “Cheesy, but an honest effort.” This from a recent review of my debut novel, “The 13th Demon: Altar of the Spiral Eye”. I’ll admit the review did upset me some. I never pictured my book as “cheesy” although it was certainly an “honest effort”. Of course, one man’s “cheese” is another man’s fondue and there are several other more positive reviews than this one. So, should I let this upset me? What should I take from it? I plan on writing more books so I want to improve my writing. I have several favorite book serials and I’ve noticed that the first book is always the worst written book. But, each subsequent book got better and better. This is what I am hoping for. I remain teachable! As Mike Duran posted recently in a quote from Andy Crouch: “it is better to create something worth criticizing than to criticize and create nothing.”
5 -- “Never Surrender Dreams” comes from one of my favorite writers, Michael J. Strazcynski creator of Babylon 5. That television series still stands the test of time as one of the best series ever created. Michael sat down and mapped out every episode over a five year story arc. He took characters through tremendous changes and upheavals. One major character started out as an arrogant politician and ended up as the savior of his people. One started out as a drunk and ended up the emperor of his world. Strazcynski’s passion for his story and his dogged and relentless pursuit of his story was inspiring. My son, Sean, gave me an autographed sign with that phrase and it hangs on my wall where I can see it. No matter how discouraging things may get; no matter how hard the criticism hits; no matter how dark the day becomes I will never surrender the dream God has given me!
So, how about you? How did you react to a negative book review, assuming you received one? How did you plan on improving with time? Or, were there any phrases, words of wisdom, pearls of encouragement you have relied on during your most trying times as a writer? How about sharing some of them with the rest of us?

Friday, October 21, 2011

Historical Research Enriches Your Stories

I'm often asked how I found some of the information I've used in my stories. I keep a file going with all the internet links I've found useful. You do have to be careful with things you find online, because anyone can put just about anything they want online, whether it's true or not. Once I've found informtation from a reliable source, I like to make note of that link. No telling when I'll need to go back to that place for more information.

I'm soing to share some with you today. I have most of the links divided by subject matter, but these have general information on a large array of topics in them. - by decade in 19th century - from Library of Congress - on all aspects of 19th century – Hill Country Texas historical articles - digitized magazines, newspapers, etc. - all kinds of antiques - presidential election information from 1789

Where do you go when you're looking for historical accuracy for your books?
--Lena Nelson Dooley

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Live Like It's Already Happened

I started writing in 1998 as a way of dealing with the grief and questions after a terrible motorcycle accident almost claimed the life of my brother-in-law. I didn't know what else to do, how else to express myself. My heart was raw and exposed. I'd been poked in the eye by life and needed to vent. Writing became my outlet.

It was then that I was born a writer. I fell in love with it and knew it was what I wanted to do the rest of my life, in some form or another.

At first I wrote only for myself. I explored my feelings, questions, thoughts, my anger and frustration. Being a stutterer my whole life I had finally found my voice and there was no shutting me up.

But it didn't take long for my writing to become more focused and my goals more precise. I wanted to write a book. I wanted to be published.

Years went by and my writing evolved from short, vignette-like devotionals to more full-bodied creative non-fiction to, eventually, fiction. I'd finished one book and started on another but that publishing contract was no where to be found.

And I grew impatient. I was sure I was called to write, it was my passion. So why the delay? My frustration grew and spilled over into my day job and family life. I became withdrawn, moody, unfocused. I'd lost my vision, lost my way.

Writing this now and thinking back to those days I'm not proud of the way I handled things, actually, I'm ashamed of it, embarrassed even. But that's how things went when my focus turned to my own plans and timelines and expectations. It's reality in all its ugliness.

My wife, bless her, tried to be a constant encouragement to me. At times she was stern, redirecting me away from the computer when it interferred with family life, and at times she was patient, assuring me that my time would come.

Finally, she said something to me that changed my mindset and brought everything into focus. It exposed my selfish desires and humbled me.

We were standing in the kitchen and I once again expressed my discouragement over yet another rejection. "Micheal," she said. "Do you believe God has called you to write?"

I didn't even hesitate. "Yes. Absolutely. I know it in my heart. I just don't understand why it's taking so long."

"Then it will happen. In His time. In the meantime, live like it's already happened."

That hit me. Those five words. Live like it's already happened. That takes faith, you know? That's putting your heart where your mouth is and going beyond words and platitudes.

I took her advice and put the whole writing thing in God's hands. I stopped trying to control something that was completely out of my control. This was God's deal not mine. I finally understood that. And in the meantime, I would walk by my faith and not just talk about it. And be content with whatever God had in mind.

A year later I went to a writer's conference where the ball started rolling. Less than a year after that I signed my first contract.

Listen, I know many reading this are aspiring writers, maybe established writers. You believe God has called you to write. You believe it in your bones. That's great, but please realize He'll use you how and when He wants to use you. It may be by getting published and reaching thousands with your words, or it may be by writing for your church newsletter and reaching one who needs to hear exactly what you've written. Whether you reach thousands or one it's all good, it's all for Him.

And in the meantime, while you're writing and waiting, hoping and praying . . . live like it's already happened.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Don't Quit Your Day Job

As many of you may know, the next ACFW Webniar is, How to Write More and Work Less. I’ve been talking with writers who have another job as well as their writing to see how they juggle doing both. I was a social worker before my daughter was born and started writing soon after, but now that my youngest is off to college I’ve thought about getting back into the work force. I just don’t know how I’d balance the two yet.

The first thing I thought of was that I’d have to do some serious time management to get everything done that I do now plus working. Getting my family used to the idea that I wouldn’t be as available would be the biggest undertaking, and having others do some of the tasks that I’ve always done. In having less time for writing I’d be spending less time with my imaginary friends, meaning my characters of course (If I were writing this to anyone other than fellow authors I’d worry they would question my sanity) along with a number of activities and groups I belong to. I suppose it’s all about prioritizing.

I did a little research about authors who didn’t give up their day jobs, or at least not right away after they were published. Some of these might surprise you.

-Michael Blake, author of Dances with Wolves, had just been fired from his job as a dishwasher in a Chinese restaurant when Kevin Costner called him to ask if he would be interested in writing a screen play of his book.

-Steven King was a high school history teacher and used to write in the furnace room closet of his trailer.

-Both C.S. Lewis and Tolkien served in WWI and then taught at Universities

-John Grisham was a lawyer and member of the State Legislature of Mississippi

-Jack London was an oyster pirate and then a gold prospector.

-Nicolas Sparks applied at Law school but was not accepted, so he tried doing real estate appraisals, waiting tables, selling dental products and starting a manufacturing business

-J.K. Rowling got her postgraduate degree and taught in Scotland. She had a baby and then was divorced. She completed her first novel while on welfare

-Francine Rivers wrote obituaries for the town paper

-Zane Gray was finally published after many years of rejections and quit his job as a dentist to write full time.

-William Faulkner was a post master

This group of writers is a tough comparison, but were the most interesting. I know many writers on this blog manage doing both very well, so help me out with some ideas…how do you create the necessary balance working two jobs?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Is Your Kindle Cluttered? And How About The New Fire?

Less than a year ago I bought my first e-reader, the Amazon Kindle. I thought I was buying it primarily to download research books for my historical novels so I wouldn't have to lug heavy books around. Oh boy, was I ever wrong. I love it. I bought the basic one which I think was about $149.00 then. And I bought a red case and a light to read by at night. My hubby loves it because I don't keep him awake at night. But even more than that I love the fact that the font can be adjusted. This has become very important to me and my changing eyesight. It was bad enough having to get use to bifocals but regular 12 font in a typical paperback novel just isn't what it used to be. I would have loved to have had this as a kid when I was growing up. I could have stayed awake all night under the covers with my ability to read by Kindle light. :)

Now before you think I've gone completely off the deep end for e-reading, hold on a minute. I still love a book with a beautiful cover and the feel of real pages. I don't think I'll ever not love the smell of a new book, the feel of a new book, a traditional author signature of a favorite novel.

But here's a really scary thought. You can now store up to 1,400 books on a Kindle. 1,400! I thought my bookshelves were way to heavy on the home front. I currently have 91 items on my Kindle. 91! What's going on? This is crazy. Isn't it? I don't need 91 books, do I? Is the invention of the e-reader a good thing or is it going to suck away even more of our cherished minutes per day?  What do you think?

And now the Kindle Fire has been unveiled. I didn't buy a Nook because it was too expensive. I'll wait for the Fire to come down in price, but I've got to tell you I'm scared. I think this could be a real time suck. I think I may have to set more boundaries on it's use just because all I'll do is read. And what about all those other features. And Minow thought television a vast wasteland.

Wasteland or treasure chest?  Curse or blessing? How many books do you now have on your e-reader? If you haven't bought one yet what do you think about our changing times and our love of reading?

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Book Trailer

When I was 16 I started college and got a degree in video production. Ever since then I've been looking for practical applications for my work, and have had difficulty finding takers for such work. But, from time to time I find a use for the skill, and use it with great gusto.

In the book world there is sometimes the discussion about book trailers, and whether or not they are of any use to authors. Being a guy with a video skill-set, I find myself quite quickly coming down on the side of pro-book trailer--partly because I've seen genuine results with my own books, and partly because I like have an excuse to do them.

That said, video work can take as much as 20 hours worth of work for every minute of final product, so when you do take the time and do the work, you find yourself wanting to see what you've done.

Recently, my agent and I have been putting together materials for a supernatural suspense/fantasy novel of mine, and I decided to do a trailer for it. After many, many, many long hours away from human contact I came up with the following. Since I now have all of you as a captive audience I would like to say this: Please watch, rate, comment, and subscribe! Thank you very much!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Characters in Christian Fiction Who Reject Faith

Not long ago, Amy Riley at My Friend Amy, on her Faith and Fiction Saturday, posed an interesting question regarding Books Where the Main Character Rejects Faith. She asked about the

…lack of books where characters consider faith or religion but decide against it for one reason or another.

Rejecting faith is a part of the faith experience like embracing it so do you know of any books where the characters have considered faith and rejected it?

That question probably divides differently along religious and traditional market lines. Portrayal of “faith experience” in the general market can be as stereotypical as that of the Christian market. The conversion-to-rejection rate of the characters no doubt bears that out. Nevertheless, in the Christian market, I think it’s safe to say, “there’s a lack of books where characters consider faith or religion but decide against it for one reason or another.” In other words, most main characters in Christian fiction who are confronted with faith, inevitably “accept” it.

Admittedly, I don’t read enough Christian fiction to comment authoritatively on the actual percentage of conversion-to-rejection ratio of characters. However, the majority of Christian fiction I have read does include — in fact, center around — some form of “conversion,” whether it be a backslider returning to the faith or a seeker discovering it. So I think it’s safe to say that conversion scenes and/or conversion processes are one of the earmarks of Christian fiction.

This conversation fascinates me for several reasons. For one, as Amy mentions, “Rejecting faith is a part of the faith experience.” So why don’t we see more “faith rejection” in Christian fiction?Are we afraid to show someone (albeit fictionally) deciding against the religion we defend?

The second has to do with my debut novel. What I’m about to say may require a minor spoiler alert. So be forewarned. But a central character in The Resurrection, after rigorous “Christian evidence,” remains largely agnostic. While conversion is an issue throughout the story, it is unresolved in this character’s case. After much thought, I believed that ambiguity was so true to the character and so integral to the story, that I could not remove it. When my publisher approached me about edits, I was prepared to concede a lot… but not that. If my editor asked me to convert this character, I would have refused. Which is one of the reasons I am so thankful that Strang let me tell that story.

Anyway, I’m interested in your take in that conversation. Do you agree that most characters in Christian fiction who are confronted with faith, inevitably “accept” it? And if not, can you name some Christian fiction books that don’t?

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Reality of Evil

With Halloween approaching, October is a good month to remember that evil truly exists. I think one of the most frightening things I ever read can be found in a book, titled Crying Wind by Crying Wind (yes, that’s her name). It’s the true story of a Native American (Kickapoo) girl’s journey from darkness into light during the mid-1960s and early 1970s. 

In it, Crying Wind describes an unforgettable time when she was about ten years old. She wrote: 

"I knew that there must be dark, shadowy things, bad things that Grandmother and my uncles talked about when I was supposed to be asleep, but I didn’t know what they were. Even though I was curious, I wasn't sure I really wanted to know everything that went on around the reservation."

Crying Wind goes on to say that a man came to the door one night. He'd been newly wed, but his wife died of pneumonia. So he had gone to the medicine man on the reservation and was told he could raise his wife from the dead if he did the following: 1) Took off his clothes and slathered his body with mud; 2) Waited for the full moon to rise; 3) Went to his wife's grave and covered it with a coyote skin.

The man did this and reported that in the third hour of his waiting, the ground began to shake and something ugly and horrible rose from out of his wife's grave "so terrifying that his mind couldn't grasp it." He knew it wasn't the spirit of his late wife and sensed the spirit was despicably evil. The man went screaming off into the night, the evil spirit right on his heels. He went from house to house, seeking help, but found no escape.

The story continues:

“What’s happening, Shima Sani (Grandmother)?” I whispered as I watched the man disappear.

“He shouldn't have done that,” she said quietly and shut and bolted the door.

*     *     *
Conjuring up spirits? Frightening stuff!

But, all right, I'll admit it. I'm a big honkin' chicken. It's hard for me to enjoy Christian thrillers without feeling the hairs on my neck stand up and my limbs go numb from fright. I, personally, don't enjoy being scared out of my mind.

But the plain truth is the spirit world is alive -- and about half the authors on this blog write about that very subject! Native Americans especially, I think, are aware of this fact. Crying Wind’s journey ended with her conversion to Christianity and her desire became to share God’s plan of salvation with others. She is featured on Indian Life Ministries web page.Click here to find out more.

This month when store aisles are lined with ghosts and ghouls and enough candy to make my blood sugar soar to the stars, my big honkin' chicken heart can take comfort in the words of my Savior. Christ said, “Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are recorded in heaven.” (Luke 10:20 NASV) 

So what's the scariest thing you've ever read in a book -- or, for the Christian horror and thriller authors, written in a book? How did that impact your life?

Monday, October 3, 2011

Keeping up the quality

So many of you write such deep, introspective things about your writing life, and I do enjoy reading them. However, my articles are sometimes serious, but not the deep introspection into writing that others have.

That’s one of the things that makes authors such unique individuals. We all may think alike as far as our writing skills and knowledge are concerned, but when it comes to topics and styles, we all have our own way of doing things. Some are plotters, planners, and organizers. Others of us are Pantsters and don’t know the whole story until we write it.

Those who write mystery, suspense or thrillers have their own way of thinking and keeping their readers on edge until the end. We have gentle, sweet, romance writers who have conflict, but it doesn’t blow up in your face.

I envy those who can write mystery, suspense, speculative and fantasy. That’s just not me, but I enjoy reading those genres. Perhaps that’s because I don’t feel I am competing with them for a reader base. I want my stories to touch the hearts of my readers as they watch the lives of my characters grow and evolve in their relationships with each other and with the Lord.

The libraries and bookstores are full of books for every kind of reading tastes. If readers can’t find something they would enjoy reading, they just haven’t looked hard enough.

Each of us writes with our own style and voice, and that’s how it should be. Being true to ourselves in our writing is what makes our writing sincere and keeps it moving. It also builds our fan base if we strive for excellence in our writing. When the quality of our writing stays true to our voice and style, our readers won’t be disappointed.

So many times we may wonder if that first book was a fluke and if everyone will hate the next ones. As long as God is helping us write, and we rely on Him to supply us with the stories, we will not disappoint.

My greatest concern with my writing is that the quality will diminish the more I write. I’ve seen it so often in the secular world, but only a few times in CBA authors. Later books by well known, best-selling authors sometimes lose the pizzazz of the first few and the plots and outcomes become much too predictable. That’s what I hope I can overcome and write so that each book keeps getting better rather than the same old thing.

Of course in romance there has to be some predictability in the hero and heroine resolving all issues and coming together at the end, but the journey to that end must be exciting and keep the reader turning the pages to find out how the two will finally be together.

What do you do to make sure each book is as good as and even better than the previous one, especially in a series?