Monday, October 31, 2011

Interview with Psychological Thriller Author, Steven James

Steven James has written more than thirty books, including the award-winning Bowers Files, an eight-book series featuring chess terms as the titles. I recently read the fifth in the series, The Queen, in which environmental criminologist Patrick Bowers must find the link between Cold War secrets and present-day tensions in the Middle East.

About his writing habits, Steven says this in Wikipedia,
When it’s time to crack down on some serious writing, the office in his basement, his porch, and his kids’ tree house (which he built “supposedly for them”) are a few of his favorite places to tune out the world’s distractions. Finding his optimum time to write, however, can be tricky: “It’s funny; I work really well late at night from 11 to like 1 and from like 6 to 10 a.m. or so, which really stinks because I can’t do them both one day after the other. I have to choose: Do I want to stay up late or get up early?”
Here's a little more about him:

AC: Scattered among the thrillers and action films of your favorite movies list are Finding Nemo, Enduring Love, The Princess Bride, and Babe–all undoubtedly thanks to your daughters. I wonder, do you analyze any part of these films–theme, characterization, etc.–and derive lessons from them? Do you feel they influence your writing?

SJ: Whenever I watch a movie or read a novel, I can’t help but view it through the eyes of a storyteller, of a novelist. I’m always looking at characterization, the movement of the story, the pace, etc. However, there are certain movies where I’m so engaged where I don’t do this. For whatever reason, they grab my attention and my emotions and don’t allow me to analyze them. These always end up becoming some of my favorite movies.

AC: While I’m on the subject of deriving lessons from outside sources, do you learn from any of the authors you read? And as a side question, what do you like to read?

SJ: I tend to notice more when something’s not done well. Whether it’s issues of believability, or flat characters, or whatever. This goes for both movies and novels. Lately I’ve been reading and enjoying Mark Greaney, Gillian Flynn, Gayle Lynds, and Lee Child.

AC: You’ve defined yourself as a “tree house builder,” which says “family man” almost as well as your movie list does. Do you draw from your family to develop the relationship between Bowers and his step-daughter?

SJ: I have two teenage daughters, and there are times when their comments, attitudes or actions spark ideas for Tessa in my novels. Sometimes they’ll say something and I’ll say, “Cool, I can use that in a book.” And they’ll groan, roll their eyes, or shake their heads. I think they think I’m desperate for material.

AC: You did an excellent job of explaining why you write about evil, but do you have a line you refuse to cross? Something you simply will not depict?

SJ: This is a good question. I tend to show the prelude and aftermath of violent acts. I don’t show the slow step-by-step process of someone being beheaded or anything like that. So, in other words, I do my best to keep most of the violence off the page, and I try to avoid images that I just don’t need rolling around in my head.

AC: I read through the more critical reviews on Amazon of the first in the Bowers Files, The Pawn, and was astounded to see the words “cardboard characters” applied to your work. I didn’t read The Pawn, but if it’s anything like The Queen, I believe the claim is unfounded. One of the critics said you used James Patterson’s “Alex Cross” as a pattern. I've read some of Patterson's Alex Cross books and believe there's quite a difference between the two characters, but here’s your chance: Care to respond?

SJ: No, I didn’t use his character as a pattern. Patrick Bowers is a much different character than Alex Cross. Patterson is certainly a successful author, and I’m not criticizing his work, but I think my books tend to be more complex and have more twists. As far as cardboard characters, The Pawn was my first novel, and I think that with each book my characters become more dimensional as I learn about the craft of writing. So if that criticism was leveled at any of my books, I suppose The Pawn would be the one.

AC: In The Queen, the way you handled your bad guy, Alexei Chekov, fascinated me. You portrayed him as an assassin with integrity, and I found myself developing a warped sense of sympathy for him.

SJ: Many readers have noted that Alexei has become a favorite character of theirs. As I wrote the novel, he became an assassin with a conscience, which fascinated me. It added depth to his character and allowed me to explore the evil I believe lurks in each of our hearts, and the good that constantly fights against it. I think of all the villains I’ve created, he’s the most interesting because he’s not pure evil, but a little more like me, with a mixture of both the good and the bad.

AC: You have a lot of technical information in this novel. How long did it take you to research for The Queen? Do you have “inside sources,” or do you have to scratch and dig to retrieve your info?

SJ: My novels typically take nearly a year to write. I always travel to the location of the book to do research of the site. I also interview experts in the field, so I did the same with The Queen. I spoke with sources in the military to get the most up-to-date information about cyber warfare that I could.

AC: In your “Story Trumps Structure” article in Writer’s Digest (February 2011), you suggested forgetting about structures and formulas in favor of “propelling your protagonist through a transformation.” Do you outline your novels?

SJ: I despise outlining. I can’t imagine what it would be like to outline a novel then spend the next six months filling in the blanks. I write organically, continually evaluating the story and its direction, asking myself a series of questions related to the movement of the story. As I write, I’m constantly surprised about the direction the story goes even though I have in mind certain ideas regarding the ending as I begin the project. Even when the book is done, I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to go back through the story and try to write an outline of what happened.

AC: You choose not to use explicit language in your novels, but other authors feel expletives are necessary to maintain “realism.” How would you respond to them?

SJ: I empathize with the goal of creating realism. In fact, I believe it’s a central and vital part to the story. It’s not always easy to write a thriller without profanity, but I hear from readers all the time that coarse language is a distraction to them. I don’t hear from too many people asking me to use the word “f-bomb” more. So I feel as a service to my readers that it’s worth the extra effort to develop believability without resorting to profanity.

AC: This is the fifth book in a series, yet I don’t feel like I’ve “missed something” by not reading the others. Novice writers want to catch the reader up on everything that happened in the previous books all at once, or they continue to make references about the previous books that make no sense to the reader of the current novel. What would you suggest to authors of series novels to make each of their books stand alone?

SJ: Every story, even the first in a series, has back-story, context that has developed the character to where they are as the story begins. I look at each of the novels I write as stand-alone projects just as I would if I was writing the first book of the series. However, to satisfy my readers, I also have an overarching narrative that spans the series. I have a policy: Never write a book that someone can’t understand unless they read another book.

AC: Novice suspense/thriller writers seem to have trouble knowing what to reveal and when to reveal it. They want everything, including the full names of the characters, kept secret until later. What advice would you give them?

SJ: Always give the readers what they want, or something better. At every moment in the story, in every chapter, in every paragraph, that’s the principle that guides my writing.

That's a terrific principle, and a perfect way to end the interview. AuthorCulture appreciates Steven for taking the time to answer our questions.

If you want to learn more about his Bowers Files series, see the videos and excerpts on his website, Steven James, and you can find his books on

Note: Steven's publisher, Revell, provided The Queen for review.
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Friday, October 28, 2011

Fabulously Fun Friday: The Writer's Clock

Image by Angela Giles Klocke

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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Review of Writer on the Side by Bryan Cohen

Subtitled “How to Write Your Book Around Your 9 to 5 Job,” this booklet provides a fast read packed with easily grasped and implemented life-management tips. Most of us only dream of making writing our primary livelihood. For the majority of writers, our writing is something we’re forced to squeeze into odd hours when real life isn’t making its incessant demands. And, for most of us, this is a major challenge. How are we supposed to find enough time to write, edit, and market our work when the vast majority of our day is taken up with such necessities as earning our daily bread, eating our daily bread, and generally cleaning up after our daily bread?

As someone who’s been there, done that, Bryan Cohen offers tips that apply as much to living a organized and fulfilled life in general as they do to living a productive writing life. He opened with a chapter sketching his own journey and growth from a writer who wasn’t writing because he didn’t think he had time, into an author who disciplined himself to become both efficient and prolific. He then divides the standard work day into morning, afternoon, and evening chapters and further breaks them down into schedules and tips. Some of his suggestions are the generic sort we’ve all heard (get up early, prioritize your tasks, etc.), some are geared toward helping writers reach their peak of creativity by maintaining a physically and emotionally healthy lifestyle, and some are suggestions for optimizing creativity while actually writing.

The author’s friendly, self-deprecating style makes this a fun and encouraging read. You won’t find anything earth shatteringly new in these pages, but you will find an accessible list of tips and tricks to keep you focused, fulfilled, and, most importantly, writing.
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Monday, October 24, 2011

Resource Roundup

There are several books I use a LOT when I find myself stuck. Three are by writing master Sol Stein: Stein On Writing: A Master Editor of Some of the Most Successful Writers of Our Century Shares His Craft Techniques and Strategies; How to Grow a Novel: The Most Common Mistakes Writers Make and How to Overcome Them; and Sol Stein's Reference Book for Writers: Part 1: Writing, Part 2: Publishing. All three are invaulable treasure troves of great information.

Another one (and trust me on the title) is Telling Lies for Fun & Profit by Lawrence Block and Sue Grafton. Howlingly funny and packed with good info, both of these writers are masters of the suspense/mystery genre, and most of the articles are reprints of Block's work he did years ago for Witers Digest.

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Friday, October 21, 2011

Fabulously Fun Friday ~ Writer's Block

Okay, so my drink of choice is either coffee or Vanilla Coke, otherwise I've totally been here! :)

What is your favorite way to conquer writer's block?
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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The 11 Elements of a Great Proposal

I recently spoke to the Northwest Christian Writers' Fiction Group on how to create captivating proposals. The below information is taken directly from that talk. While this post is supposed to be "Lessons from the Pros," and I know I still have a long way to go before I consider myself to be a "pro" in this business, I think you will find useful information in this post - especially if you are new to creating proposals, or have seen the last rejection slip you ever want to see! 

What is a proposal?
A proposal contains the basic information a publisher will need to make an initial decision about your book. Today’s post is about the elements that need to be included to help the publisher make a sound choice.

 As you create your proposal try to look at it from the publisher’s point of view.
It needs to contain enough information about you so they can contact you if they are interested. (At a minimum your email address, but it is recommended to include your physical address, email address, phone number, and website. Also include a short biography and a good head-shot of yourself.)
It needs to contain enough general information about the book so they can determine if it is even a genre / subject matter, target market, and length that they are looking to publish at the moment. (Be specific about genre – don’t just say romance if it is a paranormal historical romance. Length can be rounded to the nearest thousand words. Target market can be a little hard to nail down, but resist the urge to generalize. For instance, don’t say “all women,” instead narrow that down by whatever means feasible for your book – religion? ethnicity? age? political affiliations? marital status? etc.)
It needs to contain enough specifics so they can verify whether they think it will be a strong story, and assess the writer’s skills. (Chapter by chapter synopsis and a sample of the writing itself – generally the first 3 chapters of the work.)
It needs to tell them about your authorial reach – how many customers can they expect you to come into contact with directly? (List specifics here. What social networking sites do you belong to? And how many friends do you have on each one? How many followers does your blog have? Do you belong to any associations? What other places on the internet or public forums do you frequent?)

Remember that publishers see thousands of proposals a year, so it is imperative to make yours stand out (in a good way) from the pack. So let’s quickly look at the eleven major sections that should be included in a proposal and what each one should contain.
  1. Title Page – We’ve all been writing these since our first reports in the third grade, so I’m sure you know the main elements to include, but just as a refresher…. The page should contain: The title of the work, series information, your name, the fact that this is a proposal, your address and above mentioned contact information.
  2. Table of Contents – Again, just what it sounds like. List out the nine sections below (other than the Title Page and the Table of Contents) and what page that section begins on. If you are submitting this proposal online, you can even link each line to the appropriate page in the document.
  3. Overview – This section should contain three short blurbs. “Your book in 50 words or less,” “your book in 100 words or less,” and “your book in 250 words or less.” The goal is to grab the publisher’s attention with that first 50 words, get them to read the 100 word blurb and be even more interested, and then reel them in with the 250 word synopsis. Much easier said than done, but you are a professional! You can do it!
  4. Character Descriptions – Give a short analysis of each of your characters, both major and minor. (Only the ones who are the important players.) I like to put all my major characters in one section and the minor characters in another. Give a little interesting tidbit about each one and why they are important to the story.
  5. Chapter by chapter synopsis – Try to condense your book down to about three pages, give or take, and list what happens in each chapter. If you need to group a few chapters together, that’s fine. This section is just to give the publisher a general idea of how your plot flows. This section should be double spaced.
  6. Target Market – as mentioned above, try to be as specific as possible. But don’t leave anyone out! Who are the people who will MOST enjoy the book you’ve written?
  7. Author Biography – just give a little bit of your history, publishing credits, etc. Any interesting information in your history that makes you the perfect one to write this story? Be sure to list that here. Also include a picture of yourself in this section – a professional looking image.
  8. Platform and Publicity – Some of this was mentioned above, but what is your authorial reach? List your social networking sites and how many friends and followers you have on each one. List your blog and how many people follow it. Any other public forums where you are a regular speaker or associations you belong to are important too. If you’ve been previously published you can list things that you’ve done in the past to promote your books. For instance, did you do a blog tour? Did you do any book signings? Any speaking? Etc. All this gives the publisher an idea of the type of writer they are working with.
  9. Competitive Works – This section is to give the publisher and idea of some books already in the marketplace that are similar to your book. They will use this to determine sales potential and target audience for your book. Resist the urge to only mention highly successful books with the thought that the publisher will then be more likely to offer you a contract. They will see through this. Be honest. And yes, there are already other books out there similar to yours, so you must also resist the urge to throw up your hands and declare that you simply can’t find any other books similar to your own.
  10. Other Information of Note – This is the section to list the word count and genre of your book, whether the book is complete or, if not, when you expect to complete it and what percentage of completion have you attained? (Note for first time authors: Most publishers won’t even give you consideration unless your book is complete.) Is the book part of a series? You can take a paragraph each to talk about other books you have planned for a series here – also list their status and approximate word count.
  11. Writing Sample – generally it is best to include the first three chapters of your book. However, sometimes authors will choose to include the first, middle, and final chapters. I recommend you stick with the first three chapters because that will give the publisher a good idea of how your story flows together from chapter to chapter. This section should also be double spaced.  

So there you have it. I hope this has been helpful. I know it’s been a bit long, but I wanted to give you a thorough post on what to include in your proposal.

Any questions or comments for me? 
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Monday, October 17, 2011

How Long Does It Take to Break Into Publishing? - Interview With C.J. Darlington

Antiquarian bookseller and award winner C.J. Darlington is the author of Thicker than Blood (Tyndale) and its sequel Bound by Guilt. She can be found on her site, blog, and Twitter. Today, she was kind enough to stop by and share her journey as a writer, the lessons she’s learned along the way, and her marketing strategies for promoting her work.

What’s your writing background? What inspired you to begin writing?

There has always been something about stories that’s fascinated me. I’ve loved to read since I was a kid and would bring home bags and bags full of books from the library. I think God placed the love of reading in my heart, and he sparked the desire to write when I read stories like Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness and Piercing the Darkness, I too wanted to tell stories about hurting people on their journeys of faith.

Actually, I explored painting and music before writing, and while I enjoyed both (I thought I was going to be a painter as a teenager), when I started writing stories I realized with my painting and my music I was always trying to tell a story. But writing a three minute song and filling a blank canvas didn’t give me the satisfaction writing fiction did.

When I was fifteen I started the story that would become my first published novel Thicker than Blood. Around this same time was when I began to read writing how-to books from the library. I’ve probably read hundreds of them over the years and learned a great deal. I never had any formal training in writing, just reading enough novels and those how-to books gave me a wonderful foundation.

You’re a relatively young author to already have published an award-winning novel (and its sequel). Tell us about your journey to publication.

Well, it was a long one! From idea to publication, it took fifteen years for my first novel to hit the shelves. But during that time I was growing as a writer, and a person. I re-wrote Thicker than Blood numerous times. When I was twenty-three I saw an ad in Writer’s Digest magazine for a contest sponsored by the Christian Writers Guild called Operation First Novel. The prize was publication by Tyndale House and $50,000. I thought, hey, why not? I made the deadline for entries my deadline for finishing the book. Then I waited. And waited. And waited. Finally I found out that my novel was one of 20 semi finalists! I was thrilled. To have that nod of recognition that I wasn’t spinning my wheels was huge. Turns out the book didn’t win, but it gave me the encouragement to start submitting it elsewhere. I did a lot more revision but was met with rejection.

Discouragement began to seep in, and I wondered if perhaps I should set Thicker than Blood aside and start submitting my next book (which I had already written). But one night while lying in bed I had a spark of inspiration I now know had to be from the Lord. I thought, “Why not enter this new and improved version into this year’s Operation First Novel contest?” I did, and the waiting game started again. A few months passed and I heard I was one of four finalists! They would announce the winner at their annual writers conference in Colorado Springs. I was shocked when Jerry Jenkins named Thicker than Blood the winner in 2008. That’s how I connected with the fantastic folks at Tyndale House, and I was blessed they wanted to publish my second novel Bound by Guilt too.

How long does it generally take you to write your books?

Ha! It took fifteen years for Thicker than Blood. For Bound by Guilt it was a lot faster, but took something like four years. Now keep in mind that I’m not a full-time writer. I usually only write in the evenings and one day on the weekends, so I’m not as prolific as some. Hopefully I’ll be able to speed up the process as I go, but we’ll see.

What was your biggest lesson learned writing Thicker than Blood? What about Bound by Guilt?

For Thicker than Blood it was persistence. I really had to choose not to give up, even when it seemed like I’d never be published. As far as the actual writing of that novel, early on I struggled with dialogue and action scenes. I had to learn how to picture a scene in my head and really slow it down on the paper to make it read right.

Bound by Guilt taught me to write the story of my heart. I had desired to write some of the scenes in the book for many years before I actually wrote them. Letting them percolate that long helped me write them better. When I first started brainstorming ideas for a second novel I did a little exercise in which I asked myself the question, “What I really want to write about is ____” and then I had to fill in the blank. In my novel writing journal I wrote down my response. I forgot I’d done this and only later, after I’d beaten around the bush many times in my plot brainstorming, did I realize I eventually settled on the very idea I’d wanted to write about in the beginning. I think God often will give us the desire to write a certain story, and then we talk ourselves out of it (ask me how I know!).

What’s your platform and marketing strategy?

I’d been involved actively online for years before I was published, so I did have contacts through industry professionals and other writers through my work at TitleTrakk, which helped me promote my books. Overall I just try to be as real and natural as I can be and take advantage of every opportunity I can. I do my best to stay on top of trends and stay socially active on sites like Twitter and Facebook. I think readers really enjoy interacting with the authors they read. I make myself as accessible as I can be along those lines. I also utilize every marketing tool I can. People haven’t yet measured the effectiveness of book trailers, but I paid to have one made for each of my novels because I figure every marketing avenue, whether it be print, visual or whatever, is important to at least explore. I try new things whenever I can but ultimately must remember that unless I have something to promote, all the marketing won’t do me any good.
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Friday, October 14, 2011

Pre-Writing Preparation

You'd rather be writing, but first you have to...

10. Reach into the freezer and get something out for dinner. WARNING: You may discover things in your freezer older than your youngest child. This has happened to me. This brings up all sorts of other issues that may further delay your writing.

9. Organize your desk - including all the drawers. This could take hours, if you're lucky. But don't think of it as luck, think of it as being thorough.

8. Vacuum the cat. Yes, scratches and a certain amount of blood loss with probably be involved. However, you can use the pain and suffering to enrich the detail in your current work.

7. Do more research. You're not wasting time, you're getting your details correct. Keep repeating this - it helps alleviate the guilt.

6. Have a snack. Go to the kitchen to discover you are out of snacky foods. Go to the grocery store. Don't forget you're out of milk. And cheese. And toilet paper.

5. Reread your previous few paragraphs to remind yourself where you are in the plot. Try to read them with no judgment. Try. Try harder. Now step away from the delete button.

4. Have a staring contest with your pet. NOTE: With a dog, you have a fair chance of winning. With a cat you have less chance. With a fish, you have no chance. No pet? Stare at a picture of one in a magazine. You're not wasting time, you're sharpening your concentration.

3. Close your eyes and imagine the blockbuster movie that will be made based on your current manuscript. Picture a scene and hear the dialogue. WARNING: This exercise may lead to actual writing. Approach with caution.

2. Think about what your characters were like in high school as a means of exploring their histories. Think about what you were like in high school. Think about what your friends were like in high school. Do you remember some of the names? Hello, Facebook?

1. To pick up dialogue tips, watch a movie or television episode written by one of your favorite writers. WARNING: This may cause severe depression and self-loathing. More snacks may be necessary.

This article was written for The Blood-Red Pencil by Elspeth Antonelli, the author of twelve murder mystery games (available through Host Mystery Games and Parties ) and two mystery scripts that have been performed world-wide. You can find out more about her on her site, It's a Mystery.
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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Plug in Your Power Tool ~ Prayer!

We can write words, but only God can touch hearts through those words. And no matter how cleverly we craft sentences, without God’s blessing, our words are merely ink on paper. That’s why it’s important to have prayer support as we write. Prayer is a powerful tool that can impact our writing and readers. But sometimes it’s overlooked.

Several years ago I realized the need for prayer support and asked others to pray for me. If you want to plug in this incredible power tool and enlist prayer support, take these steps.

Pray First, Then List Names

Who could pray for you? Ask God. Then consider relatives, friends, church members, and fellow writers. By e-mail, you can contact people around the world.

List individuals who are mature in the faith, keep their commitments, and take an interest in your writing ministry. In Philippians 2:20 and 22 (NIV), the apostle Paul wrote about Timothy, “I have no one else like him, who takes a genuine interest in your welfare. Timothy has proved himself, because . . . he has served with me in the work of the gospel.” Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have someone like Timothy on your prayer team?

God provided a dozen faithful prayer warriors for me. They rejoice in my successes and encourage me during setbacks. But mainly, they pray. And that’s where the power lies—connecting with God Almighty in prayer.

Contact Potential Prayer Partners

After you’ve made a list, graciously ask these people to consider joining your prayer team. My letter of invitation began, “Dear Praying Friend. I feel an overwhelming need for prayer support in my writing. I need God’s blessing and favor. I also know the enemy is eager to discourage me and thwart plans to advance God’s Kingdom.”

Also tell them what their commitment would involve and what yours would be. But give them freedom to say no. For example, I asked my prayer team to pray for me once a week for one year. I wrote, “I know this is a sizable commitment, so please pray about it. If you can’t, that’s fine.”

In return, I promised to use my writing time wisely and send regular updates.

Send Writing Updates

Your updates could be weekly, monthly, or as needed. I started with monthly e-mails, but prayer needs came up more often. Now I aim for weekly contact.

In your updates, start with answered prayers. I call this section “Give thanks” and list ways God helped me and blessed my writing. Sharing answers gives God glory and motivates my team to keep praying. One member recently wrote, “I’m blessed to be part of your team. I get to share in a fraction of the action of lives touched through your writing.”

Also, God values a grateful heart. Do you recall the story of the 10 lepers Jesus healed? When only one returned to thank him, Jesus sorrowfully asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine?” (Luke 17:17 NIV).

I desire to be like the leper who returned to thank God. To help me remember what God did, I print out my updates and put them in a notebook. Each week I look back at previous requests and include answers in the current update. There are numerous ways to record God’s answers, so choose one that works for you.

After my “Give thanks” section, the “Please pray” portion follows with five or six requests. I list specific writing, speaking, and teaching needs and may include requests for editors, publishers, and readers.

Express Appreciation

Besides thanking God for your prayer team, it’s also important to thank them for praying. I often begin updates with, “Thank you for praying.” Then at the end I might add, “Your prayers are a real gift to me,” or “I couldn’t do this without your prayer support.”

In addition to thanking them in e-mail messages, occasionally I send thank-you notes or small gifts, such as a bookmark, by regular mail. Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Valentines Day are good times to mail cards with a personal note. If your prayer team prays for you throughout the writing of a book, list their names in the acknowledgments page and offer them a free copy.

Also, don’t assume the prayer warriors will pray forever. Though most of my team has prayed for years, I ask them each year if they wish to continue.

Return the Favor

We’re not the only ones who need prayer. Pray for your prayer team and other writers. If another writer asks you for prayer support, if at all possible say yes. And as you send updates to your prayer team, sometimes include a written prayer for them. It can be as short as this prayer based on Nehemiah 8:10: “May the joy of the Lord be your strength.”

Prayer is a high calling. Right now “Christ Jesus . . . is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us” (Romans 8:34 NIV). What a privilege to follow his example and pray for others.

Reap the Benefits

I’m grateful God nudged me to form a prayer team. They have prayed for me through joy and tears, through rejections and acceptances, and through writing a lengthy Bible study for grandparents. Now they support me as I speak to promote the book. Their support not only motivates me to write and persevere, but it also gives me courage to tackle God-sized projects I couldn’t accomplish alone. Their prayers have truly blessed me in countless ways.

If you don’t already have a prayer team, I encourage you to follow these steps and tap into this divine source of power. Then watch God work through prayer!

Lydia E. Harris has accumulated hundreds of bylines by writing book reviews, devotionals, columns, recipes, articles, and personal experience stories for publications such as Advanced Christian Writer, Mature Years, and Focus on the Family magazines. Her book, Preparing My Heart for Grandparenting, is a six-week Bible study for grandparents at any stage of the journey. Visit her Web site and grandparenting blog at She attributes her published credits to the prayers of others.

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Monday, October 10, 2011

Characterization Multitasking

Your two main characters are in the same scene, but they're not together. He's doing his thing, she's doing hers. You can reveal so much about both when you illustrate your POV character observing the other. Of course you can describe the observed character's physical features, but why leave it at that? Why pass up the opportunity to tell your reader something about both characters?

As the author and creator of these people, you know things about them that 1) you want to introduce to the reader, and 2) you want to introduce to each of the of the two people in the scene. What you know about them is called "backstory," a word I recently discovered was unfamiliar to some newbie authors (I also recently discovered that Miriam Webster has "backstory" as one word, so when you type it on your computer, ignore the little squiggly red line under it).

Whether you pre-plan your novel with outlines and character bios or, like me, you look at a scene and think, "How can I make the characters more interesting here?" and do a character interview on the spot, you need to have a backstory for each of the primary folks who populate your books. What you don't need, though, is to dump the entire backstory into one scene and explain everything you think the reader needs to know about your hero and heroine all at once.

Let me introduce Anna Roberts and Cody Batson.

Anna was a late-bloomer, the ugly duckling who didn't become beautiful by shedding weight until her early twenties. Although she's a knock-out now, her self image, ingrained by kids' cruelty during high school, is that of a fat girl. Today, she's a computer scientist at the NOAA, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and spends the bulk of her time alone.

Cody was the star quarterback and played the role of "popular guy" in school, but in truth, he's shy and longs for a relationship that goes deeper than an appreciation of his athletic skills and build. He's highly artistic, but since he got the bulk of his positive reinforcement from those who valued his athleticism, he played up to that image. Today, with his PhD, he's a professor of English Literature, specializing in the Romance Era, at George Washington University. His biggest daydream is for sonnets to make a come-back.

Anna and Cody catch furtive glimpses of each other at their high school graduating class's tenth reunion. She knows him, because everyone knew Cody Batson. He knew her as "Anna Fat Banana," although he'd never used that name for her, but today, he doesn't recognize her. He stands near the snack table, swirling the ice in his glass, surrounded by jock-types intent on recounting their glory days. He doesn't hear them because~~~

His attention was drawn to the striking woman in the corner, talking softly with a couple other women. Who was she? He should remember a beauty like her. Probably a cheerleader. That might be why he didn't remember. He'd never been attracted to the perky leg-kickers on the sidelines. Cheerleaders tended to be all show, with the depth of a pancake. No appreciation for Keats or Byron. Still, he should've remembered the smile, the dark wavy hair, the slender curve from her waist to her hips.

Randy Colbert, his tightend back in the day, slapped him on the shoulder with a loud guffaw. "Isn't that right, buddy? A thirty-yard bomb, right to my hands." Randy threw both arms up. "Touchdown!"

Cody allowed himself one more glimpse at the cheerleader in the corner, and smirked. She'd find him more attractive as a quarterback than a poet. He threw himself into the sweaty conversation with the rest of the former team and clapped Randy on the back. "That's right! Batson to Colbert. Connected every time!" He drained his glass and assumed the position. "Go long!"

In this short clip, I did more than present a physical description of Anna. I provided Cody's backstory, illustrated how he filters his impressions through his personal experiences, and showed Anna's personality simply by putting her in the corner. The fact that she's hanging in the shadows with a small group of friends doesn't dawn on Cody as being contrary to his idea of "the beauty" as a cheerleader. That speaks to his character, also.

Later, I could do the same thing through Anna's POV, and after presenting their misconceptions, I could illustrate how the two overcome them to succeed in whatever plot task I set before them.

If you looked only at the story clip, how much would you learn about the characters? If you compared the clip to the backstory I provided, you'd see what I chose to omit from the scene. Since I wrote in Cody's POV, Anna may still be a bit vague, but what the reader learns about her later will be consistent with the woman standing in the corner.

Instead of dumping backstory of each character into your work, find creative ways to illustrate them. Use every opportunity to deepen your characters through different techniques. Populating your novel with realistic, sympathetic people can bring your story to life.
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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Genre--Speculative Fiction

Today I’d like to talk about a much-underserved genre in the CBA, that genre being speculative fiction. That may sound odd coming from me, as my first three published novels were firmly in the “suspense/thriller” camp. But with the sale of my latest, a science fiction novel called The Radiance, to a secular house, I now find myself on a little bit of uncertain ground.

That’s not so stay the story itself is unsound--I think it's one of the best things I've written--but having to take it to a general market house was … unexpected. You see, in the CBA there are really only two publishers that have much to do at all with science fiction or fantasy, the first being Realms, and the other, Marcher Lord Press. Both of these houses are solid, well thought-of, and their authors have garnered numerous awards. But still, why only two, especially when the general market is fair to bursting with publishers actively seeking not only these two genres, but subsets of them as well: horror, urban horror, steampunk, cyberpunk, and more?

The charge has been leveled by some the CBA as an entity is unfriendly to works that could be considered outside the norm. Is that charge true or false? My honest answer would be it’s true, but changing.

I think the main reason for this ongoing struggle is CBA novels must contain, in whatever small measure, a Christian element; general market works, of course, aren’t under such constraints. That’s not to say many of the works published there don’t have agendas of their own, because they do, be they humanism, New Age claptrap, psychic phenomena, or what have you. But the CBA requires that problemactical faith element, and some houses require it to be displayed in the work more openly than others.

For some writers that causes an issue, because which side of the line the Christian scribe comes down on depends in large part as to how critical to their story that faith element is. If it’s utterly germane, and to excise it would fundamentally alter the tale, then the CBA is the logical choice. On the other hand if a Christian wants to write stories without this faith element—while staying true to their own walk with the Lord—they may want to consider the general market.

So the question: for those of you who read (or write) fantasy, SF, horror, or any of the others I mentioned, which side of the line claims your allegiance? General market, or CBA?
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Monday, October 3, 2011

Free Market Listings

It's my turn to contribute a Marketing post, and I started looking through Evernote for all the posts tagged for AuthorCulture and Marketing. I saw a number of singleton posts, interesting stuff to be sure, but hardly enough to populate an entire post.

And then I came across this post of free Market listings by Jane Friedman. It's a one-stop shop of pure gold. (There's more at her post - be sure to stop over for more Market linkage coolness.)

Free Listings of Book Publishers

Be aware that most New York publishers do not accept unagented submissions, so sometimes “searching for a publisher” really means “finding an agent” (see next list).
  • For fiction and poetry only. About 3,500 listings total, which includes many types of publications.
  • About 130 listings.
  • Preditors & Editors. Hundreds of listings; been going since 1997. Waves a red flag on publishers to avoid. However, unclear how often the information is updated.
  • About 100 listings, focused on SF/F.
  • Bare-bones list (no submission guidelines), but offers embedded links to publishers’ sites. Useful to preview the landscape.
  • If you subscribe to The Writer magazine, you get 3,000 online market listings for free. Vetted list.
  • Poets & Writers. Hundreds of listings, serving primarily the more literary side of the writing community.

Free Listings of Agents

  • About 900 listings.
  • More than 1,200 listings.
  • Preditors & Editors. Hundreds of listings; been going since 1997. Waves a red flag on agents to avoid. However, unclear how often the information is updated.
  • AAR Online. This is the official membership organization for literary agents. Not all agents are member of AAR.

Free Listings of Magazines & Periodicals

  • Several hundred listings, focused on SF/F.
  • For fiction and poetry only. About 3,500 listings total, which includes many types of publications.
  • Offers weekly updates of markets looking for articles, as well as writing opportunities.
  • Preditors & Editors. Unclear how often the information is updated.
 (Thanks to Jane Friedman for her original post. She also recently wrote about this question on Quora.)

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