Friday, December 25, 2009

The Incarnation of the Word

I’ve just finished reading The Mystery of the Word: Parables of Everyday Faith, by Mike Mason, and I’m challenged, feeling the weight of his words about Words, dipping deeper into the seriousness of writing as a Christian.

He says that the personal appearance of Jesus in his writing is “the only reason I write anything. All that vain spilling of ink is utterly worthless to me, except as a lowly means of setting up, or inviting, the possibility of Incarnation, the possibility of a real manifestation of Christ within the pages of a book and so, hopefully, in the life of some anonymous reader.”

Really? The only reason? Yes. For the Christian writer, it has to be. Only what’s done for Christ will last.

He questions whether this high aim might not be “an absurd vanity.”

“For can my artificial art really become a vehicle for the living God? Can my mere words be transformed into Word?”

Can they? Yes. Even as we are, bodily, the incarnation of God when we walk in the Spirit in this life. When we abide in Him, the reality of His presence radiates out into the world around us, without our doing.

Can it be so also with our words?

In writing, Mike says, it’s not up to us to make this happen. “It’s His job to appear. It’s my job to pray, to hope, to write—and to write, indeed, as though my life depended upon it, as though all my ink were a spillage of blood, and all for the sake of Christ.”

I’m coming to see that writing, for the Christian, is that serious. It frightens me. It awes me. The thought of Jesus being incarnate in my words has changed the way I approach this occupation forever.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Zinovy's Deepest Motivation

The last post talked about the two motivators that drive the conflict at the beginning of Zinovy’s story. Today I want to delve deeper, to go below Zinovy’s body and his mind, and even his psyche, to discover what drives him at the most primitive level.

All humans have a deep desire to worship. Ingrained in us is the hope that there is actually something more than we find in our own psyches. Something bigger, or wiser, or more righteous than we are. Something, or Someone, we can look up to. Someone we can bow before, knowing at the core of our being that the allegiance we are giving is right and good.

At first Zinovy isn’t aware of this personal, spiritual need, because he’s oblivious to spiritual reality in general. As the new environment he finds himself in begins to deconstruct his naturalistic worldview, he’s forced to consider spiritual possibilities. It is then that the first glimmers of the deeper conflict begin to emerge.

The motivation of Zinovy’s spiritual need is buried so deep it takes the whole second part of the book for him to discover it’s there and do something about it. In the end, his strong need to be in control of his own destiny clashes with his even stronger need to give the control over to a higher Being, and the resolution of this struggle constitutes the central conflict in the story.

So it is in my own life. The longer I walk with God, the more completely I am driven to analyze my motivations. And the more I analyze, the more dissatisfied I become with my own rule over my life. I am a selfish being, but I was created to be a worshiper. The whole of my spiritual journey through this life revolves around this struggle between my human desire to control my own destiny and my desire to bow before my Creator.

The struggle is a universal one. It’s the story of humanity and our relationship to the God who is with us, but also above and outside of us. It’s the story of a Creator who loves so deeply that He gives His all to make peace between the two deepest opposing motivators that drive our lives.

As Zinovy journeys from Canaveral to Jerusalem, he becomes spiritually aware. He learns the meaning of his name. He learns that all his life he has been walking with God. It’s a discovery we all need to make.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Zinovy's Struggle

I’m following some interesting chatter about Zinovy online. ( Readers are discussing Zinovy’s need to be in control. They identify with that drive. It’s a common human desire. The discussion is leading me to consider my character’s motivation.

Every protagonist must have a motivation, or a need, strong enough to make the story important to the reader. When the need is thwarted by an antagonist, or an antagonistic situation, conflict is created, and the story develops out of that conflict.

Now that I know Zinovy’s story (I’ve read the book!), I have a much clearer idea of what motivates him and how the conflict develops than I did before the story was fully created in my mind.

Zinovy’s immediate need, in the beginning, is simply to survive. At the beginning of the book, the whole crew is focussed on surviving. This is Zinovy’s “felt” need. But beneath that felt need is a stronger motivator that defines Zinovy. It’s connected with his need to survive, but it comes from a deeper place in his psyche. This need is the need to be in control.

All humans, if they are sentient at all, feel the need to be in control. This need is what prompts the two-year-old to say, “I can do it myself.” It’s what drives all human accomplishment, in the end. It’s a selfish motivator, based on either fear or pride, or usually a combination of the two.

I need to be in control because I need to protect myself from the threats that come from the fallen world around me. My desire to be in charge of my own protection, rather than trusting to the protection of another, is driven not only by fear but also by pride. We say (to God, or anyone else who will listen), “I can do it myself.” We write songs stating proudly, “I did it my way.”

When Zinovy’s life is threatened by forces he cannot control, the conflict that develops creates an even deeper tension than simply the tension created by the need to survive. His independence (from God and others) is challenged. His pride is hurt. He is no longer the master of his fate.

So Zinovy experiences tension on both these levels. He needs to survive, and he needs to be the one assuring his survival will happen. The physical and the psychological meld in this immediate conflict.

But all humans are also driven by a deeper need than even the need to be in control. And this is what makes the story so powerful.

More on this topic next post.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Marcher Lord Select

I’ve been having fun with the Marcher Lord Select contest.

When I went to Denver in September I met with Jeff Gerke. He’s the editor/publisher of Marcher Lord Press, a new publishing company specializing in Christian speculative fiction. He asked for my manuscript and invited me to participate in an innovative venture he’d just begun to help him decide what novel he would choose as his third selection for the Spring 2010 list. He posted blurbs and synopses of 36 manuscripts on line and invited readers to select which one they wanted him to publish, based on that information.

The contest is in full swing. It runs in three or four phases, each phase eliminating manuscripts until, in the end, one will be selected as the winner. While I’m sure mine won’t be the final winner, it has been fun to participate, and I was pleased that mine was one of the 18 that survived the first round.

Now we’re in round two. Readers can only select six of these 18 competing manuscripts, and the selection is based on a reading of the first 500 words of the manuscript.

I’ve talked before on this blog about the importance of beginnings, so I should know better. But seeing my first 500 words in print next to the first 500 words of the other first phase winners has been a disappointment.

My first page needs some working over. I need more action and less inner dialogue if I’m going to compete with great writers like the ones who are in this contest. I found (alas) at least seven other manuscripts that have better openings than mine.

Yes, I will vote for my own manuscript, even though it means I have to (shame-facedly) eliminate two of the seven I feel are the best. But if I’d taken my own advice more deliberately I might have been able to vote for my own with a clear conscience!

If you really want to know how your beginning stands up, it helps to see it next to the competition. And if you want a great beginning, you need to look at no more than the first 500 words. Some faithful readers (like your mother) might be willing to hold out for more than 500 words before they put your book down, but many potential readers will be browsing the bookstore shelves. They’ll read the blurb on the back, for sure. Mine has a good blurb. Good enough that 70 voters in the contest wanted to read more. But the next thing readers will judge your book by is the first page. If you don’t hook them there, you’ll miss them completely. It’s those readers I want to try to reach with my beginning.

So, no matter how the contest turns out, I have learned something that might help me get published in the end—somewhere, somehow. If I can perk up my first page a bit, it could make all the difference. I’m going to go back to the beginning again, literally, to take a look at how I can make it a big enough hook to drag readers into the heart of the story. It’s worth doing, because I’ve got a great story to tell.

P.S. If you’re interested in learning more about Marcher Lord Press, check out the contest at:
You have to sign into the forum to see the entries and vote, but the sign in is free and safe, and it’s fun to take a peek at what crazy ideas Christian speculative authors are thinking up these days. You'll find the entries under the top board, Marcher Lord Select. There are two contests--a main contest and a premise only one. My manuscript is in Phase 2 of the Main Contest.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

What NOT to Do

I just finished the "final" edit of my 645 page manuscript, ready to send it off to Jeff Gerke. My last editing task--the finishing touch--was to replace all the double spaces between sentences with one. (I haven't yet re-trained my fingers to do only one).

The final save took an awfully long time to complete. A bad sign. That little circle just kept going round and round. I got up and walked away from my computer, praying as I went.

When I came back it had completed. Relieved, I saved all the changes. Then I discovered that the last edit had removed every space from between every word in the whole text. Just over 165,000 corrections.

I hate that "Cannot undo" message.

So what did I learn from this experience?

I learned what not to do:

Do not use the "find" tool to remove double spaces between sentences unless you know what you're doing and do it right.

I learned what to do:

Do save a separate file of your manuscript after every day's edit. If you don't, one careless tap of a key can invalidate every change you've made for the last two weeks.

This caution applies especially if you are putting the final touches on a perfect manuscript that is going to cause an editor to stay up all night reading because your story is so exciting he just can't put it down.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Top Thirteen Things I Learned During my 36-hour Trip to Denver

This is a report on my ACFW conference experience last weekend. And, yes, the number 13 is significant.

What I learned on the way to the conference:

1. If you’ve had radiation treatments any time in the last three months, you may set off radiation detectors at the border that will delay everyone within a two mile radius while the officers try to discover which one of you is trying to smuggle uranium into the United States.

2. Never even hint to a border crossing officer that you might be missing your flight in Seattle. It only slows them down.

3. Twenty-year old Buicks can cruise along very nicely on the straight-away at 65 or 70 miles an hour if they have to, even though they might be burning up the gas faster.

4. Best Value is a good, cheap motel on International Boulevard that also offers shuttles to the airport 24-hours a day.

5. If you want to fly standby, you have to arrive at the airport two hours before the first flight (which goes out at 6:00 am) to give the airlines people time to figure out what you’re doing and arrange it.

6. All flights are always full, and everyone who has paid for their ticket shows up, often at the last minute just as your hopes for a successful stand-by ticket have risen to new heights. Everyone, that is, except people who have missed their flights the day before because of border delays.

7. Do not eat chili at any time during a 12-hour layover in any airport, even though it seems like a good idea at the time.

8. If you want to read or sleep during 12-hour layovers in airports, don’t strike up conversations with race car mechanics sitting next to you in the gate area. But if you would enjoy meeting interesting characters like Les, who has a daughter named Summer Breeze (named after the song) and a son named Talon, and if you would like to learn a whole lot of other interesting things on a 12-hour layover in the airport, go for it.

9. The reason you have to change the oil in your car often is because oil contains additives that keep your gaskets supple. The additives burn up after awhile, so you need to change the oil to get fresh ones.

10. If you’re smoking anything with your buddies around a campfire in an empty lot anywhere near the Seattle International Airport runway (or any airport runway, for that matter), and it occurs to one of you that it would be a good idea to add some old tires to your campfire, don’t. It scares the tower people when they see their planes descending through a cloud of black smoke.

11. If you haven’t played Sudoku in a long time, you’ve lost your edge and will have to learn to win it all over again.

12. Coffee should be consumed only when you want to stay awake for a long time after you drink it.

13. No obstacles in your writing journey will prevent God from doing what He wants to with your writing, and one ten-minute conversation with an editor can make the whole trip worthwhile, even if you arrive when the conference is half over.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Killing Time so I Don't Have to Write

Okay, so I've been lazy lately. Not posted anything in a long time. I do have good intentions and one day they'll pay off. Meanwhile, as I "research" the net between checks of my e-mail messages, I run across interesting spam. It occurs to me that many of the following would either make intriguing story ideas or beguiling character traits.

For example,

Story ideas:

What would happen if I hired two private investigators to follow each

I think part of a best friend's job should be to immediately clear your
computer history if you die.

Bad decisions make good stories.

Character traits or realistic actions:

More often than not, when someone is telling me a story all I can think about is that I can’t wait for them to finish so that I can tell my own story that’s not only better, but also more directly involves me.

Nothing sucks more than that moment during an argument when you realize you're wrong.

I would rather try to carry 10 plastic grocery bags in each hand than take two trips to bring my groceries in.

The only time I look forward to a red light is when I'm trying to finish a text.

I have a hard time deciphering the fine line between boredom and hunger.

I love the sense of camaraderie when an entire line of cars teams up to prevent someone from cutting in at the front.

Everytime I have to spell a word over the phone using 'as in' examples, I will undoubtedly draw a blank and sound like a complete idiot. Today I had to spell my boss's last name to an attorney and said "Yes that's G as
in...(10 second lapse)..ummm...Goonies"

I find it hard to believe there are actually people who get in the shower first and THEN turn on the water.

I can't remember the last time I wasn't at least kind of tired.

Why is it that during an ice-breaker, when the whole room has to go around and say their name and where they are from, I get so incredibly nervous? Like I know my name, I know where I'm from, this shouldn't be a problem....

There's no worse feeling than that millisecond you're sure you are going to die after leaning your chair back a little too far.

I hate being the one with the remote in a room full of people watching TV. There's so much pressure.

And truisms especially for writers:

I'm always slightly terrified when I exit out of Word and it asks me if I
want to save any changes to my ten page research paper (or Land Contract!) that I swear I did not make any changes to.

You never know when it will strike, but there comes a moment at work when you've made up your mind that you just aren’t doing anything productive for the rest of the day.

So there you have it. Something else to read so you don't have to write. Enjoy.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

One More On Beginnings

So, continuing on the topic of beginnings, if a writer really wants to fix a weak start there are three ways it can be done.

We’ve already said a weak start is one that lacks drama. Drama always involves tension, or conflict, and usually also involves action. So some combination of tension/conflict and action is necessary, right up front.

One way to put it up front is to begin the novel farther along in the story. How? Just read from the beginning of the manuscript and look for the first real drama, then begin the story there. Any important information in the skipped section can be tucked into other scenes later on. Braveheart has written a great action scene but it doesn’t come until well into his story. If he wanted a greater impact with his beginning, he could choose to begin his story with this action scene and introduce his protagonist as he’s running from the bullets.

A word of caution if you choose this solution: It’s generally not a good idea to begin a novel-length piece of writing at an exciting point and then go back in time to begin the actual plotline. It can be done, but you risk a couple of potholes.

First, doing this will technically make your whole novel a backstory. We’ve already touched on why backstory is dangerous. Backstory destroys forward action, and forward action is something you have to maintain in order to keep your reader chugging happily down the reading road. Readers don’t want interruptions to their train of thought. They don't want to have to stop to fix a flat tire.

Second, if not done skilfully, an action-packed opening followed by backstory can look suspiciously like a writing device. You don’t want your reader to feel you’ve tricked him into reading the story. So, if Braveheart chooses to spice up his beginning this way, he’ll have to convince the reader there’s a good reason for doing so, and the real story, when it picks up again, will have to be exciting too. The travel brochure can't be more beautiful than the actual road trek.

I really think Braveheart’s action scene is in the right place in his manuscript, however. He’s right in thinking that much needs to be said, and could be said dramatically, before his protagonist begins dodging bullets. So, for Braveheart, I would recommend a different solution.

He could choose to begin at the same place and time, but recreate the scene with more drama.

As it stands now, his opening scene is primarily inner dialogue by the protagonist as he sits at breakfast and occasionally talks with the waitress about his meal. BH does a great job of introducing his subject matter through the interior dialogue, but neither the dialogue, nor the conversation with the waitress, nor the action of eating, contributes drama to the situation. The waitress is too pleasant. The meal is too ordinary. The information is pretty academic. Even the weather is too placid to stir up any hint of suspense.

If BH introduced an antagonist here, or gave us some sense of foreboding in the setting, as in "It was a dark and stormy night,” or even just gave his protagonist some kind of inner turmoil, the scene would immediately become more gripping.

A third way to deal with weak beginnings is to begin the story earlier. This might also be a good option for Braveheart. His story begins with the protagonist already started on his quest. That’s okay, but I think there are opportunities for great drama in the planning of the quest, or even in his choosing to begin the quest.

What obstacles does his protagonist have to overcome to begin this journey? Human, or psychological, or even physical? Could he have a broken leg?

Or what, about the quest, captures his interest in the first place? Perhaps an offhand remark he makes to someone that causes an extreme reaction? Maybe even an action that threatens the protagonist’s life? Or the life of the person he loves most?

And what is it about this character that makes him vulnerable to this kind of a quest? Does he have the kind of curiosity that kills cats?

If this looks like brainstorming, it is. Brainstorming is an important activity for writers. It’s especially helpful when first developing characters and story ideas, but it’s amazing how useful it can be at any point later on when characters or their plotlines need some added zip. The wonderful thing about a book manuscript is that it can always be changed at any time in the pre-publishing process. And change is good.

No matter how Braveheart chooses to deal with this problem, it definitely needs to be done if he’s interested in publishing.

That’s a pretty firm statement. Reminds me of the time I gave a fellow writer my critique on a draft of his manuscript that I thought was pretty rough. I suggested major re-writes to put more action and drama in his beginning. He thanked me politely. A few days later he e-mailed saying that Zondervan had seen his manuscript (in the form I thought was rough, and without his making any of the corrections I’d suggested) and loved it. He’s got a contract and the book will come out in 2011.

Dang. That’s not a very good thing to say. I’m trying to develop credibility here.

Oh well. Enough with beginnings. Next post will give us some fun and easy things to do to make our writing better using a great Microsoft Word function.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Tips for Writers on Beginnings

Today I’m starting a blog series called “Tips for Beginning Writers.” I’ve recently met a delightful writer who’s WIP (work in progress) uses DaVinci Code-style intrigue to uncover some astonishing, historically accurate secrets in the foundations of the government of one of the world’s most well developed nations. He has graciously given me permission to use portions of his manuscript to illustrate the writing concepts I want to talk about in this series. In the great and glorious tradition of All The President’s Men, I’ve given him, my secret source, a nickname. From now on I will refer to him as Braveheart, for reasons every writer who submits to critiquing by someone else will understand immediately.

We’ll begin our tips for beginning writers, appropriately enough, at the beginning. *

Braveheart’s beginning has some problems. This is not unusual. In fact, it should be considered normal. The beginning of a novel is a really hard place to start. Even if you think you know where your story should start, pitfalls abound when you try to put the beginning on paper.

Most of the problems with beginnings result from the need to give the readers enough information to get them into the story, while creating enough suspense to make them want to read on. This balance between information and suspense is a delicate one. Braveheart’s main problem is that he skews heavily on the information side. His story begins with an overload of background information that mires the reader in details without giving him/her an emotional reason to care about the details.

Braveheart will probably decide, later on in the writing process, that much of the information he gives here at the beginning is unnecessary. It’s all part of his own backstory—the things he needs to know about his character that the reader will never need to know. He may also find that the necessary pieces of information he’s given here will come out more naturally later on, as the story progresses. He would do better, here at the beginning, to go heavy on the suspense and dole out the information later.

Here’s the essence of the first tip for beginning writers: Braveheart needs to pound into his writer’s mind the need for forward action. Forward action will be an important objective all the way through the novel, but it is essential in the beginning if he wants his readers to stay with him.

I’m not going to hold The DaVinci Code up as an example of good writing. Most experts agree it isn’t. But Dan Brown has the right idea about the use of suspense to grab an audience. His information is communicated to his readers in the midst of emotionally-gripping, gut-wrenching, forward action. Admittedly, Dan Brown’s method of communicating technical information is somewhat bizarre. It’s hard to imagine how the intricacies of interpretations of the Holy Grail could be effectively communicated while the protagonist and his partner are running down the hallway dodging bullets, but, though the technique wouldn’t work in real life, it’s apparently effective for grabbing readers’ attention and holding it. (Millions of readers can’t be wrong, right?) The real trick is to engage and communicate at the same time. It would be even better to do both without asking the reader to suspend disbelief as Dan Brown does!

Next blog post will elaborate on this opportunity for building suspense and communicating necessary information at the beginning of Braveheart’s story. But for now it’s important to note that a weak beginning is not a major problem at the beginning of the writing process. The beginning is a stepping stone for the writer as well as for the reader. A starting place only. Once you’ve gotten past the beginning—gotten into the rhythm of the writing and found your pace—the story will take off and almost tell itself. You can always go back and fix the beginning after you’ve written the story. In fact, once you’ve gotten closer to the end of the story, you may find the beginning will fall into place naturally and easily.

* Don’t ever write like this. In blogs you can play silly word games—you can Be a Ludicrously Obnoxious Gabber—if you want because blogs are about what you want to write, not about what other people need to read. But in the real world of writing you want to avoid cleverness at all costs. People—especially editor-types—will roll their eyes and toss your manuscript in the wastebasket if you write like this for them.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Seriously Great Advice for Christian Writers

I just read Greg Laurie's e-devotional for today and found it very pertinent to Christian writers ( Greg admonishes us, as Christians, to "T.H.I.N.K. About it!"

It's so easy to "sound off" when we read or hear something that offends the Christian faith. But those gut reactions need to be filtered through Paul's admonition to "speak the truth in love" if we're going to be effective apologists.

Greg Laurie recommends we consider the acronym "T.H.I.N.K." before we speak.

T- Is it Truthful?
H- Is it Helpful?
I- Is it Inspiring?
N- Is it Necessary?
K- Is it Kind?"

I can't “think” of better advice to Christian writers.

One of the best examples of a writer who communicates this way is Randy Ingermanson. Randy says his only "claim to fame" is that he's "the only theoretical physicist who writes Christian fiction," but I believe he's being too modest. He has written some powerful Christian fiction (, but he also produces the largest e-zine for writers in the world.

His e-zine services 14,000 subscribers and receives 4000 to 6000 hits on a typical day. When I asked him how many countries those 14,000 subscribers were from he wasn't sure. His guess was between 50 and 100.

His e-zine is a "must-read" for Christian writers. His advice is invaluable. (He helped me solve a huge problem with the beginning of my current WIP.)

When he's not working on his e-zine or his current novel manuscript, Randy is writing thoughtful, respectful responses to critics of the faith. Check out his response to the Jesus Tomb controversy if you're interested (

Randy does what thoughtful Christian writers must do and he does it well. He engages with this culture in a way that makes a difference by speaking the truth in love.

Go to if you'd like to sign up for his free Writer's e-zine.

Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone. Colossians 4:6

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Creating Genres

Yesterday I talked about the importance of researching the market and writing to specifications if your primary goal is to become an author. Today I want to talk about writing when fame and fortune is not your first aim--when you have a story burning a hole in your heart and the heartburn is only eased when you spew the story into a Word file. Yes, you do want to publish, but your story drives the genre issue, rather than the genre dictating the story parameters.

If you’re writing because you have a particular story you want to promote, you may have a harder time finding a publisher. Often those kinds of stories don’t fit within the very narrow genre guidelines that publishers are asking for. And if your book is unique enough that it doesn’t fit into any existing niche, many publishers will turn it down, simply for that reason. Again, they don’t want to take unnecessary risks.

There are exceptions—notable ones. Some of those exceptions become best-sellers, and often that’s how new genres are created. The Left Behind series is an example. These books created a market for a specific sub-genre of post-apocalyptic stories and became best sellers beyond all expectations. The creators of these books found a publisher only because they were already best-selling authors in other genres (they had platforms), and the Christian publishing house that turned down the first book in this series is still being good-naturedly teased by the publishing house that decided to go with it and made lots of money.

The Shack is another example of writing outside the box that found, or created, its own niche. This story didn’t fit into any genre and was so different no publisher would have touched it with a ten-foot red pencil. William Young was not writing for a market when he created this book. He wrote it for his children. But when others who read the manuscript connected with the content, he decided to self-publish. He did some marketing on the side and the book took off in the ratings. You can bet there are publishing houses that wish they had gotten their hands on it in the first place.

In an interview on the Christian talk show, 100 Huntley Street, Young was asked if he thought he had created a new genre with the writing of The Shack. I’m not sure he did. Interestingly enough, The DaVinci Code probably introduced the genre that The Shack fits into. Both are novels that use plot and dialogue to convey a theological or doctrinal message. Tosca Lee’s books fit into that category as well. In Demon: A Memoir Tosca uses dialogue almost exclusively (and plot only as background) to communicate a fictional but biblically-based perspective on how evil came into the world and how it will leave.

I am encouraged by this development because I think the story that’s been burning a hole in my heart might fit in this new genre. A few years ago, a novel that allowed its characters to discuss theology would have died on the vine. Now there’s hope. There may be something else fatally wrong with my manuscript, but I’m encouraged to know that at least the story idea has a chance in today’s market.

But enough ruminating about publishing. My next posts will focus on the mechanics of writing. Not grammar. I know how you hate that topic. Instead, I’d like to share some of the tricks I’ve learned about using Microsoft Word to create a best-seller. (Sigh.) I mean a manuscript. Microsoft Word can be either a friend or a foe. I’d like to help you discover some of its friendly capabilities and also tell you how to defeat at least one of its little deadly and devious attempts to frustrate you on your journey toward publication. Please come back next time for: “Microsoft Word: Friend and Foe.”

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Genre and Writing

In this post, and the next, I want to talk about writing to genre specifications and about how new genres are created. (I know I said only one more post on genre, but I’ve changed my mind. I’m a girl so I can do that.)

How you go about writing will depend on your motivation for doing it. If your primary aim is to become a writer—to develop a writing career—you will approach the process in a specific way. I’ll talk to that scenario in this post.

If, on the other hand, your desire to write is story-driven—if a story is burning a hole in your heart and you have to write it down to stop the pain—your approach will be different. Tomorrow I’ll post some thoughts on that scenario.

These thoughts are geared primarily toward the creation of book-length fiction, but much of what I say would apply to short fiction and non-fiction as well. Researching and writing to specifications is essential if you want to publish magazine articles, for example.

Writing to Genre Specs

If your primary goal is to become an author (a published writer), you need to begin by doing research to find out what specific genres are being sought out by publishers and agents, and then you need to write to those markets. Publishers don’t take risks, especially in today’s tough market. This applies both to secular publishers (the American Booksellers Association, ABA, in North America) and to Christian (the Christian Booksellers Association, CBA). "The bottom line" is what drives their decisions about what to publish. They have to make money to stay alive.

Publishers look for three things in manuscripts they consider: 1) professionalism of the writing; 2) quality of the story; and 3) marketability. Marketability has to do with staying alive, and marketability has a lot to do with genre.

Each publishing house has its tentacles into a particular, usually very strictly defined, market niche. They know what specific kinds of stories have sold for them in the past, and, with some exceptions, they stick to those kinds of stories.

They also know their competitors and they don’t publish books in genres that are already being successfully marketed by other houses. They find their own niche and go with it. That’s why you need to do research to find out which publishers are buying which kinds of stories.

You would also do well to do some research on trends. Publishers do that. They want to know what has sold in the past, but they also try to predict what will sell in the future. They think ahead—usually three to five years ahead, because once they’ve found a manuscript they like, it takes at least two years to turn it into a book and to market it.

(Someone want to edit that sentence? Do you see what’s wrong with it? Hint: last word of the last sentence.)

A writer I met at the ACFW conference in September had a story that was set in the civil war. One of the big publishing houses picked it up eagerly. Why? They were obviously impressed with the writing and the story, but it also helped that the U.S. is planning, between 2011 and 2015, to mark the 150-year celebration of the Civil War. This publisher is expecting that celebration to create a market demand for books about the Civil War.

That trend is already developing, in fact. Google “Civil War” and you’ll see it happening before your eyes.

Here’s a great idea: if you already have a story in mind, Google the topic and see if you can find some stirring of interest beginning to happen in the culture. Let your imagination lead you to a place, down the road, where readers might be heading. Think in terms not only of story idea, but setting (Where on earth--or in space--will attention be focused in three years?), the plot (What kinds of things will be happening in the world?), or characters (What kind of person will people be fascinated with in three years?) Ask yourself, Can I clothe this story idea in garments that will be appealing to readers three to five years from now?

So if you want to sell a manuscript to a publisher, look at the kinds of things they sell, but also look at trends. Decide how long it will take you to prepare a manuscript, then pick a topic that will catch the attention of readers and publishers within that time frame.

If you’re just writing because you have a story in your head that is making you tell it, you will look at the whole business of getting published differently. I'll talk about that situation in tomorrow’s post.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

What to Call the Baby: About Genres

This post is another one about a writer's vocabulary, and it’s very basic. I know some of you will be rolling your eyes, and I don’t blame you. (“Sheesh. Just how dumb does she think I am anyway?”) This is stuff you learned in high school, unless you hated English and spent class time daydreaming and looking out the window, in which case you might have missed some of it. So I apologize. My excuse is that I’m an English teacher and I have an obsession with “covering the material.”

You can skip the next two blog entries without doing irrevocable damage to your writing career, but at some point identifying your genre will become important. I wallowed around for a while trying to figure out the 'ins' and 'outs' of it. I still wallow, but I’m gradually coming to terms with the fact that my novel doesn’t fit anywhere so it’s getting easier.

I promise to get to the good stuff in upcoming posts, but please humor me for just two more posts on genre talk, okay?


As I said in the previous post, genre is a type, or kind of writing. All writing falls into four very broad genre categories:

Poetry is anything that is written in some kind of poetic form. That’s a loose definition, I know, but modern poetry is not always easily categorized. A contemporary poem may or may not display rhyme or rhythm, but it should at least be formatted with an emphasis on lines rather than sentences or paragraphs. Every poem should also use poetic, or figurative, language and most poems also have a figurative, rather than a literal meaning.

Prose is easy. It’s any piece of writing that is not poetry, including both fiction and non-fiction. It’s more a “style” of writing than a “kind.”

Non-Fiction is writing that is literally or historically true, usually presented with little subjective interpretation by the author. Non-fiction writing could be historical accounts of events or people’s lives, including newspaper articles, biographies or autobiographies, or it could be a presentation of thoughts and ideas of the author on a specific “real” topic, such as “how-to” books or articles.

Fiction is writing that is the opposite of non-fiction. Though it might be inspired by actual facts, the story is an imaginative account that is only “real” in the mind of the writer and the reader.

NB: Some recent best-selling books have deliberately (and some would say dishonestly) blurred the line between fiction and non-fiction. The Da Vinci Code, mixes fiction and historical facts indiscriminately, which makes for interesting reading but the confusion that arises from the mixture can be disconcerting. Some memoirs also fit into this category. A Million Little Pieces sold a lot of copies and received rave reviews until someone discovered that the “memories” of this purportedly autobiographical memoir were fictitious. Most serious authors look sternly down their noses on this writing technique and do not respect authors who use it.

Categories of writing can be further broken down into genres. And this is where things really get confusing.


The most frustrating and confusing discussions about genre dance around the difference between literary and non-literary works. No one—not even the “experts”—have a complete handle on where the difference lies. Having said that, I will meekly attempt an explanation of the difference based on what I have learned in my university English classes and in writer’s conference workshops I’ve attended on the topic.

Strictly speaking, literary fiction uses figurative language much more deliberately than other kinds of fiction; the plot and characters are used to develop metaphorical as well as literal meanings; and literary fiction centers around universal themes about life and the human condition. Literary fiction is designed primarily to challenge the reader’s thinking and develop in him/her a deeper human experience. Entertainment is a secondary aim, if it is an aim at all, in literary fiction.

At the other extreme, what is generally called “pulp” fiction, or “pop” fiction is created for the sole purpose of entertainment. It provides an escape from real life, rather than an avenue into it. Pulp/pop fiction appeals to the masses and does nothing more for them than give them a respite from the harsh realities of the world they live in.

Fortunately, a broad category of writing that falls somewhere between literature and pulp fiction has developed, and that’s what most general readers are buying today. This style of writing makes some use of figurative language, reflects the complexities of real life, and deals with significant themes and issues, without being either "stuffy" or "fluffy." Today’s more sophisticated readers enjoy this middle ground and many, though not all, of the best sellers would fall into this category. And while the literary elite used to look down on the more non-literary styles as being unworthy of their place in the world of published writing, the prejudices are relaxing somewhat.

If you want to reach a large market audience, you’ll probably want to steer clear of writing purely literary pieces. And if you want to say something significant, you’ll want to avoid the pulp fiction market. Anything you want to say can be written for the more general market in any one (or three or four or five) of a number of genres.


There are a plethora of genres and sub-genres out there. Good luck at figuring them out. Romance, for example, is a general genre category with sub-genres galore (including such sub-categories as historical, contemporary, medical, Amish). Mysteries might include detective stories, police stories, or stories with humorous elements and happy endings, called “cozy mysteries,” such as the Murder She Wrote series. Sci/Fi is increasingly being sub-divided into separate Science Fiction and Fantasy categories with the recent upsurge of new fantasy writers and their huge following among younger readers. And non-fiction works fall into a whole other mess of sub-genres as well.

Wikipedia gives a great comprehensive list of writing genres. Check it out for more detailed information.

One more post coming tomorrow on the genre topic, then I promise to begin a rash of more practical entries. I'm especially keen to share some great tips for using Microsoft Word to streamline your writing/revision process. Please stay tuned.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Writer's Language

When you write, it’s good to discuss what you’re doing in the language of the profession. Here are some tips about the words you will want to use when you describe what you’re doing.

Q: What is the difference between an author and a writer?

A: A writer is anyone who writes anything with an eye to publication. An author is a writer who has been published. What counts as “publication” is a little questionable. I’ve been published a number of times but not for money, so I don’t consider myself an author yet. It’s sort of up to you when you start calling yourself an author, but you’re always free to call yourself a writer if you’ve done enough of it to feel like one. I’m waiting until I get my first check to call myself an author, and even then I may not feel quite ready.

Q: What is a WIP?

A: A WIP is a Work-In-Progress. It applies to any piece of writing you’re working on, whether it’s a book-length manuscript or an article, fiction or non-fiction, prose or poetry.

Q: How do you refer to your WIP and how do you title your manuscripts?

A: In the literary world, titles of works are punctuated differently depending mostly on their length. Titles of book-length works are either underlined or put in italics. Titles of smaller works, such as magazine articles or chapters in books, are put in double quotation marks. However, this only applies to published manuscripts. Before a manuscript is published the title is simply put in double quotation marks, like titles of published articles would be, and before publication the work is called a “manuscript” not a “novel” or a “book” or an “article.”

Q: I’ve heard the terms, “brand” and “platform.” What do they mean?

A: I’m still trying to figure that out, but here’s what I’ve decided so far.

A brand is very much like the mark cowpokes put on the butts of their cattle to distinguish them from animals that belong to other ranches. It’s a distinguishing characteristic of a writer that sets him/her apart from the rest of the herd. It’s very much connected with the genre they write in and their writing style. If it’s successful, it’s also geared deliberately toward the market they want to reach.

For an example of how branding works outside the publishing business, think of the music you hear when you wander into a clothing store in the mall. It’s an element of the store’s “brand.” The music blaring from the speakers in The Gap sends me up the wall. That tells me I’m shopping in the wrong store. If I bought something in that store and wore it outside my house my kids would roll their eyes and a picture of my cellulite thighs would probably end up on the internet with the caption, “At some point people should stop wearing Daisy shorts.”

I have a writer friend who writes light-hearted young adult novels. Everywhere she goes she wears short-short, flared skirts with tights underneath and one leg of the tights is always a different color than the other. That’s part of her brand. It says something about her (and her books) and it resonates with the young audience she is writing for.

Brands are hard to come up with. Sometimes they just develop naturally after you’ve written for a while. I’m not going to worry too much about my brand until I have a butt large enough to have one burned onto.

Platform is related to brand, but is slightly different. Your platform is the stage you stand on to advertise yourself and your writing. It’s your public image and it’s related to what you do besides writing to get people’s attention.

A platform would include your personal or professional qualifications and/or expertise and what you do to make them available to other people. You might develop a platform by blogging on topics that provide useful information to readers, or by developing a speaking career, or by writing and publishing in areas either related or unrelated to your current writing project.

Tim LaHaye stood on a well-developed platform of writing in the area of biblical prophecy before he wrote the Left Behind series. Rick Warren’s platform was his pulpit. Yours might not be so dramatically significant, but anything you can do to make a name for yourself can become the platform from which you launch your writing career.

Q: What is “genre” and how do you decide what genre you’re writing fits into?

A: Good question. Genre is, simply put, the kind of story you are telling—the species, if you will. That’s where the simplicity ends, however. The definition of “genre” is a little like quicksilver. It’s hard (and sometimes dangerous) to hold in your hand. Because it’s such a huge topic, I’ll save it for a separate post. Please check in next time for “What to call the baby.”

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Manuscript Formatting for Dum Dum's

Here’s my first tip for dum dum writers: If you ever want to see your story or article in print you MUST pay careful attention to manuscript formatting. Here are answers to some frequently asked questions (“FAQ’s” in computer lingo) about manuscript formatting.

Q: What is manuscript formatting?

A: Manuscript formatting is simply the way your story is laid out on the page. It includes such things as width of your margins, spacing of your lines, size and type of your letters (“font” in computer lingo—Yes, I said this was for dum dums), how many spaces you indent for paragraphs and where you place your title and chapter headings.

Q: My writing is brilliant and my plot is riveting. Isn’t that enough to get my book published? Who cares about these itty bitty details?

A: The short answer is, no, it’s not enough. In order to get your manuscript published, you have to get the attention of people with extreme attention deficit disorder. I’m talking about agents and editors. They are the ones who care about the itty bitty details, and they won’t read far enough in your manuscript to discover your brilliant writing and riveting plot if you don’t format properly.

Q: That doesn’t make sense. Don’t editors and agents understand they might be missing the next War and Peace by not paying attention to content instead of details? I bet Tolstoy’s publishers weren’t worried about format.

A: I know it doesn’t make sense but that’s the way it is. Tolstoy’s editors weren’t deluged by thousands of manuscripts demanding to be published like today’s editors are. Editors and agents have minds like a steel trap: they snap to conclusions and they don’t unsnap. An editor/agent will decide in less than three seconds whether or not to read the manuscript they’ve just picked up, and their decision will be based, first and foremost, on how the words are laid out on the page.

Q: Why are they so hung up on format?

A: Three reasons: First, readability; second, computer display capabilities; and third, something much more devious.

About readability: Editors and agents read lots of stuff. Their eyes get tired, their minds are easily distracted, and they become annoyed if they have to adjust, not only to the unique content of the manuscript, but to a different formatting style. They want to be able to see your writing in a form they’re used to so their minds can focus on the brilliance of the writing.

About computer display capabilities: Not all computers are created equal. Some won’t display certain fonts (Have you ever tried to open an e-mail message and seen lines of little rectangular boxes in place of the characters? That means the message has been printed in a font your computer doesn’t display.) Your manuscript may look nice and neat on your computer screen the way you’ve formatted it, but on the editor’s screen it might be all over the place. If you format your work according to the guidelines laid out by the editor you’re presenting it to, those problems won’t occur.

About the devious reason: Editors and agents are interested in your baby but they’re also interested in its Mommy. They don’t like to work with mothers who can’t take advice or who think their child is perfect and needs no formatting, or who aren’t smart enough to follow simple instructions. The care with which you format your manuscript tells them something about you that they need to know.

Q: You’ve convinced me. So how do I format my manuscript properly?

A: Every publishing house or agency has its own manuscript submission guidelines, and these include formatting information. You can usually find submission guidelines on the internet. Since most publishing houses are more interested in marketing books they’ve already published than looking for new manuscripts, information for prospective writers is not so easy to find. You will have to do a bit of research to get to sites that give you this information. A quick way to find what you’re looking for is to type into the Google search box the name of the publishing house or agency you are interested in along with the words “manuscript subscription guidelines.” That should lead you to the information you need.

( A “heads up” here: Be prepared to hit a brick wall if you do this with major publishers. Most of the big ones are not accepting “cold call” submissions or proposals. Don’t be discouraged, but listen to their advice about how to approach them appropriately and follow through. It’s not easy to get published, but it’s possible, if you are tenacious and are willing to follow the rules, and if some major miracle happens along the way!)

Q: Are there general formatting guidelines I can follow while I’m writing, before I know who I’m going to submit to?

A: I’m glad you asked that question. I’ve just found a gold nugget of formatting information—a clear, complete, simply written article about manuscript formatting that any dum dum can understand. It tells you exactly where to put your cursor (that pointy arrow that moves over your screen when you move your mouse) and what to click it on, step by step, to do proper formatting. These guidelines are for manuscript submissions to the Genesis contest, a contest sponsored by the American Christian Fiction Writers Association, but they are an excellent guide to general formatting for any submission and, more importantly, the article explains HOW TO DO formatting in general--how to make formatting changes on your computer. You will find the article at this web address:

Q: Okay. I’ll look it up when I’m far enough along with my writing to worry about it.

A: DON’T WAIT!!!! This information may disappear after March 31st when the Genesis contest deadline is past. I printed the article and put it in my writing file. Believe me, it’s worth the paper you will print it on.

It’s true that you don’t need to worry about formatting until you’re farther along in your writing. Thanks to modern computer technology, you can format at any point in the writing process. In fact, the best time to do the final adjustment is just before you send it away to someone important. But these general guidelines will be good for you to follow as you write. Doing so will help you get used to the process and the feel of what professional writing looks like on paper.

So go for it. Format away. And please come back next time when I will give you a small handful of other informational nuggets that will make you feel super savvy and “in the know” about writing.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Writing Techniques for Dum Dum's

I've decided to write a series of posts on this blog giving basic writing tips and techniques. I learned so many things by guess and by golly as I began my writing "career." It was kind of fun--like discovering Piltdown man on an archeological dig, or a ten dollar bill in the bottom of an old coat pocket. But many of those discoveries would have helped me even more if I'd made them sooner.

My latest discovery is that other writers, both beginners and those who have been at it for a while, haven't yet learned some of the things I know, even as a relative amateur. So I've decided to share what I've learned.

I'm going to call this blog series "Writing Techniques for Dum Dum's." If you notice that title sounds a little like a famous series of instructional books that have made millions of dollars for the publication industry, you're pretty clever and you probably don't need these blog posts. I decided to use the term "Dum Dum" for myself and my readers so that if the "Dummies" authors stumble onto my blog they won't sue me for stealing their title.

"Dum Dum" was the obvious alternate choice for obvious reasons. I'm talking about me, here, not you. I'm not stupid, but for some strange reason I have an awful time figuring out how to do things or how things work. So I appreciate it when I run across something that explains what I need to know in words any nitwit could understand. I'll try to do that kind of explaining in my posts. It should be pretty easy, since that's the only kind of explaining that makes sense to me.

I'm also pretty sure that other writers who read my blog have their own cache of neat tricks and shortcuts that I haven't yet discovered. I hope, if you're one of them, that you will comment on the posts and share what you've learned with the rest of us as well. So what if it's a case of the blind leading the blind. If enough of us clump together we're bound to find our way to someplace worthwhile in our writing, aren't we? Or is that a dumb thing to say?

So please follow this blog, and chime in with material for the posts whenever you can. I'd love to hear from all of you.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Thanks, Virginia, for another Mayla Strong Adventure


Thanks for the second novel in your Mayla series, Sincerely, Mayla. I finished reading it today and I loved it. Great story. It's incredible to me how God, through your imaginative mind, can weave a story together so well with all the lessons He wants to teach in it. And you did it without preaching!

Of course you have an advantage. You have a saucy, adorable character who is not afraid of being preachy! I love how she not only preaches to everyone else, but to herself as well, and to me.

The biggest boost to my spiritual life from this book was the example you gave near the end of her two prayers. The first one was an example of how I pray all too often, where she just listed her problems and told God she needed help.

Then you led us, step-by-step, through an example of the right kind of prayer. We see her actually throwing her cares, one by on, on God. And because her focus is on Him, she can read His mind as she prays so she can pray His desires for the people she cares about.

I know about all that, but it was so helpful to see a concrete example of what it looks like to do it.

So often my prayers are nothing more than worrying before God. My mind is so focused on my worries that I don't even see Him. He might as well be a bedpost. I need to constantly remember the difference you've illustrated.

Thank you so much for giving yourself to God and letting Him use your life experiences and creative writer's mind to teach us how to walk more closely with Him.

Bless you!


P.S. Readers can check out Virginia's work at her website:

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Kindle Debate

Debate has recently been kindled over the latest reader/writer technological innovation, Kindle Books. Making books available in e-form, readable from hand held devices and computers without the restrictions of hard copy, is an exciting new opportunity--an opportunity for market expansion, which should benefit both readers and authors, and also an opportunity for exploitation of both groups.

If you'd like to read up on the current debate, just google "kindle swindle". There's lots out there.

You might want to begin with Roy Blount, Jr.'s Op-Ed article in today's New York Times. It's a well-reasoned, well-written treatise on one aspect of the Kindle controversy--the audio book function. Roy Blount, Jr. is president of the Author's Guild.

Roy Blount's article can be found at:

The Author's Guild website is: ttp://

Comments, anyone?

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Point of the Book

I've recently discovered Mark Buchanan, Canadian pastor and author of a number of helpful books on living the Christian life. I'm currently reading The Rest of God, Restoring Your Soul by Restoring Sabbath, and I'm being blessed in the reading.

As a writer, I was tickled by the author's imaginative letter from the editor in response to Solomon's submission of his book, The Proverbs, for publication. I'm trying not to gloat over the implication that editors don't always recognize a best seller when they see it. It's tempting to gloat, since I haven't yet found an editor who appreciates the great writing and marketing potential of my novel manuscript.


Dear Sol:

Thanks for the opportunity to glance over your recent submission. We loved your dad's book and continue to be humbled and amazed by how many people it's blessed.

About your book: there's some great stuff here--some real gems of insight (my four-year-old loved the one about a dog's vomit, though I'm not sure something like that would make the final cut). I also appreciate your ability to cover a wide range of topics with brevity. You explore everything from domestic squabbles to international politics to corporate strategy, and so succinctly (though, I admit, here and there a tad cryptically).

But I need to be frank with you, Sol: this is an editorial nightmare. It is all over the place. One minute you're talking about nattering wives, the next about kings' hearts, and then suddenly you're on about table manners, lazy people, poor men, whatever. You repeat yourself in many places, contradict yourself in others. I'm intrigued but confused. I wish you would take one theme per chapter and develop it fully.

I'm not saying no. But I am asking this: sum up the whole book in one clear sentence--I'm talking thesis statement here, Sol, just as in your college days. If we can nail that, I think we can build the book from there.

Say hi to the wives and concubines and kids. And congratulations on your recent marriages last month.

Kindest regards,
Friendly Publisher

P.S. I should have mentioned, the title "The Proverbs" strikes me as a bit pedestrian. I'm thinking something catchier, like "Zingers: One-Liners to Delight Your Friends and Humiliate Your Enemies." What do you think?

Sol’s imagined response:

Dear Friendly Publisher,

I’ve thought about your critique and request, and though I think you’ve missed the point of my book’s (dis)organization (hint: it mimics life), I at least want to give you the “one clear” sentence that sums up the entire work. I simply lifted this straight out of my book. Here it is:

“The wisdom of the prudent is to give thought to their ways, but the folly of fools is deception." [Proverbs 14:8]

Hope that helps.


P.S. I prefer the original title.

Check out this YouTube link for a face-to-face introduction to Mark Buchanan. He's talking about his latest book, Hidden in Plain Sight.

May God bless your inspired words, and may He open the eyes of your editors to their glorious potential!