Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Things That Make You Say, “Oh, Brother”

A few days ago, Brandilyn Collins announced that she has signed with B&H Publishing. The first sentence of the press release announced that and then we fine the statement, “Her first book with B&H is the story Collins says she was ‘made to write’—a tense novel based on Lyme Disease and the stunning medical battles over its treatment. Brandilyn herself fought the illness seven years ago and well knows the fallout across the nation of the ‘Lyme Wars.’”

First, let me say that I’m happy for Brandilyn getting this contract and I’m happy for B&H Publishing for signing another well known author. But as I sit here looking at that press release, realizing that press releases are always written with the most important information at the top, the only thing that comes to mind is “Oh, Brother, you really think people are going to read that?” And I’m a hair’s breath away from saying, “Good grief!”

I’m sure that many of Brandilyn’s fans will read it, no matter what it is about, but this book has the appearance of being agenda driven fiction, a topic that came up recently in the comments of Rachelle Gardner’s blog. Given Brandilyn’s reputation and experience with writing, we would expect that she will be able to handle the temptations of agenda driven fiction better than most of us, which would explain why B&H would be willing to take this risk, but let’s be clear, anytime we have a situation like this there is a risk that the author will take off on some tangent, harping on some issue, leaving readers scratching their heads.

The description Brandilyn gives at the end of her post makes it look a little better than the press release does, indicating that the protagonist is a man who has lost his wife to Lyme and is embittered because of what is going on in the medical community. But I can tell you right now that she’s going to have a hard time convincing me to pick up this book. Look, I realize that Lyme Disease is not a lot of fun to deal with and I feel sorry for people who are suffering from the disease and feel that their doctors aren’t providing the best treatment possible. But the “Lyme Wars” controversy is better hashed out in the medical journals, as a result of scientific studies, than it is to be hashed out in a novel written by a patient.

You know, it’s possible that my fears are unjustified, but there’s just something about the way the press release reads that indicates to me that in the halls of B&H Publishing they are already thinking of this book as The Lyme Disease Book. You simply don’t begin a press release talking about Lyme disease unless that was how the book was pitched. May 2011 is many months away, so the book may change significantly between now an then, but for now, all I can say is, “Oh, brother. There’s going to be a novel about Lyme Disease.”

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

I Hate Starting

I have a love/hate relationship with starting a new novel. I love doing the outline and writing the synopsis. That’s were all the truly memorable stuff happens. After a reader reads a book and someone asks him what the book is about, he is going to relay portions of they outline or synopsis. He won’t remember most of the details of conversations in the book. He may remember a few select scenes, but mostly he will remember the story at a high level. What I hate about starting a new novel is the low word count. When I turned off my computer and went to bed the other day, I had 1,600 words and I hadn’t yet completed chapter one. There’s a lot of words between now and the end.

If you look at the outline and synopsis, what you see are some of the high points. Things like “woman doesn’t have much to say about why she is there, but Sara discovers that the girl is the daughter of someone involved with the movie.” Those twenty-six words could turn into 2,600 words by the time I flesh out the scenes, or it could be a couple hundred. And if it is a couple hundred, what am I going to do to fill in the rest? And how do we turn those twenty-six words into emotionally charged scenes? On it’s own, it has conflict, but we need to stretch that out and crank it tight.

While I may love the concept of a story, I find that I don’t usually love my novel until I’m deep into it. Sometimes I’m in the second draft before I truly love it, but that comes weeks after starting the novel. But start we must, if we ever hope to finish.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Two Examples of How to Describe Beauty

A couple of years ago I wrote about How to Describe Beauty and basically said that the best thing to do is to not try to describe it. I still think there’s a lot of truth in that, but today I want to look at some examples, both from the Bible, one of not describing beauty and the other of a more direct approach.

The first example comes from Genesis, the first book of the Bible. In Genesis 12:4 it says, “Abram was seventy and five years old when he departed out of Haran.” Then in Genesis 12:11, 12 it says, “And it came to pass, when [Abram] had come near to enter into Egypt, that he said unto Sarai his wife, ‘Behold now, I know that thou art a fair woman to look upon. Therefore it shall come to pass, when the Egyptians shall see thee, they they shall say, “This is his wife”; and they will kill me, but they will save thee alive.’” Abraham and Sarah were ten years apart, so she was 65 at the time. I’ve seen some attractive women who are about 65, but Abraham tries this stunt again when his is 100 and Sarah is 90. In fact, Abimelech decides that he wants Sarah as his wife. If she was that attractive when she was 90, she must have been something special in her younger years.

In Revelation 21, we find a more direct description of beauty. In verse 2 it says, “And I John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down from God out of Heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” Here it is simile that shows us the beauty of this great city. Brides are beautiful, so when we see this comparison we imagine the city to be beautiful. Later in the chapter, John goes into the specifics of the city, describing things in terms of the gems. Verse 11: “And her light was like unto a stone most precious, even like a jasper stone, clear as crystal.” I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t do as much for me as verse 2 does. I suppose I’ve seen a jasper stone, but I can’t say that I’ve given it much thought. What that tells us is that though we can use simile to describe beauty, we must use comparisons that connect well with the readers. Verse 11 is likely to mean a whole lot more to people who have a special appreciation for jasper.

But I’m sure John must have had a particularly beautiful piece of jasper in mind when he wrote that. Though I’m sure this has a much deeper spiritual meaning than just a need to describe beauty. The name jasper means “spotted or speckled stone.” To describe it as clear as crystal seems like an oxymoron. Then when we stop to think about it, those of us who are going to be living in that city are indeed spotted and speckled by sin, but the blood of Jesus has washed us clean. The image that John saw was of a people who were once so opaque that we blocked the light of Jesus, but now his light shines through us. What could be more beautiful than that?

Friday, March 26, 2010

Blood and Destitute Strangers (No, that isn't the title.)

Last Friday I sat down with Sara and discussed my next book in that series. She was quit persuasive and through the magic of blogging, this week I am posting the first chapter of that book. Please feel free to leave any thoughts, good or bad, in the comment section, but keep in mind that this is the first draft and I haven’t edited it at all. The story for the novel is that Sara helps an out of work waitress find the evidence she needs to prove that David, the grandson of the owner of a movie studio, is the father of her child and to convince him to provide for his daughter.

Chapter One

Blood covered one side of the man’s face. No one could expect anyone with such a terrible wound to live for long if medical help didn’t arrive soon, but as Sara watched, he tore open a small packet of sweetener, dumped it in his coffee cup and stirred it with a spoon. He took a sip of his coffee and looked down at his watch.

“Do you mind taking this to that man over there?” Sara heard Carla say from behind her.

Sara turned around and saw Carla standing just outside doors going into the kitchen holding a tray with a bowl of blackberry cobbler and topped with vanilla ice cream that was already beginning to melt from the heat of the cobbler. Sara took the tray from the other woman.

“Thanks,” Carla said as she did, “I don’t think I can look at that blood on his face for another moment. It makes me sick.”

“What makes you think that I can handle it?” Sara asked, while mindful that she needed to get the man his order quickly or it would melt completely.

“With as many noses as you’ve busted, I don’t think it bothers you too much.”

“I haven’t done that in a long time,” Sara said.

“More recent than I have,” Carla said, turning to go back into the kitchen.

Sara wove her way quickly through the tables to the where the man sat. She sat the bowl down in front of him.

“What happened to the other girl?” he asked, looking up at her.

“She couldn’t stand looking at you.” Sara pointed at the left side of her own face. “It looks like you’ll have to put up with me.”

The man looked confused for a moment and then his face lit up with recognition, at least the half of it that wasn’t covered with blood. “I forgot about how I must look. I hope I’m not running your customers off.”

“No, I doubt it,” Sara said, looking around at the other people in the restaurant. Most weren’t eating anything, just sitting around the tables killing time, sipping from cups or glasses. “There’re more people in here than we usually have in the middle of the afternoon. But you look terrible. It looks like it must hurt.”

“Not at all,” the man said, reaching up and touching his left cheek with his hand, “but it does feel funny, especially when I talk or chew.” He used a spoon to dip into the blackberry cobbler.

“So, what happened to you?”

“Car wreck,” the man said. “Can’t you tell from the glass?” He reached up touched his face, where it looked like a shard of glass was embedded in his face. It came loose in his hand. He stared at it for a moment. “I didn’t mean to do that. I bet someone’s going to have to stick that back on.”

“Well, not before you finish your cobbler, I hope,” Sara said. “You seem like you’re in a hurry.”

“I am,” the man said, “but not because of this. I told my boss that I’d be back at work this afternoon and now it’s beginning to look like that isn’t going to happen. I just hope they don’t expect me to come back tomorrow. I thought it would be a fun experience being an extra in a movie. I had to show up at five o’clock this morning so they could put this stuff on me and then I waited around all morning. They had some scene they were supposed to shoot and then they were going to shoot the one I’m in, but they’ve been behind all day.”

“Any particular reason?”

“I don’t know. It’s not like they would tell me anything, but I heard it had something to do with one of the actors showing up late or something. If you ever get the idea that you want to be in a movie, don’t.”

“They’re keeping me busy enough as it is, I don’t see myself wanting to wait around all day with blood on my face.”

“I guess you would be getting more business with them shooting outside,” the man said.

“Some,” Sara said, “But we got the catering contract for while they’re here. That’s keeping me busy and they don’t even have as many people here as they say they’ll have later.”

“Here I thought I could impress you with my story about being an extra and you’re practically an insider.”

“Not really.” Sara smiled at him. “I did have a meeting with some of them this morning, but that’s only because Mom is out of town.”

“She skipped out on you and left you with all the work?”

“Well, she didn’t really want the catering contract to begin with. I talked her into it and I think she’s trying to teach me a lesson. But she’ll be back before they finish filming.”

“If they finish,” the man said, scraping his bowl with the spoon. “As slow as they are…”

“Maybe it’ll pick up.”

Sara had no sooner spoken than a woman carrying a clipboard came in. “Dead car driver?” she yelled across the large room. “Is the dead car driver in here?”

“I think they’re looking for you,” Sara told the man.

“Yeah, looks like it.” He stood up, open his wallet and pulled out a few bills, which he handed to Sara. “Keep the change.”

He started to leave when Sara spotted the glass lying on the table next to his cup. She picked it up. “You might need this.”

He turned around and looked at it. “Yeah, I might. I just hope it doesn’t take too long for them to put it back on. I don’t want to have to come back and do this again. I had enough trouble getting the nerve up to do it the first time.”

“You’ll be great,” Sara said. “I’ll be sure to look for you when the movie comes out.” What she said was not dissimilar to what she had said to an actor she had spoken to earlier in the day. Of the two, she thought the actor to be the more nervous, but the man with the bloody face seemed more appreciative that someone would think to look for him in the movie.

The man left, following the woman with the clipboard and Sara cleared away the dishes, putting the table in proper order for when it would be needed again. She deposited the dishes in the kitchen. She saw Carla filling a tea pitcher.

“You can stop hiding out in here,” Sara said. “That man with the bloody face is gone.”

“I’m not hiding out. I just had stuff I needed to do. Besides, he must not have stayed very long.”

“He didn’t. I guess they’re ready for him. Someone came looking for him anyway.”

“Carla,” another waitress spoke from behind Sara. “There’s a man here looking for Ellen.”

“Did you tell him she isn’t here?” Carla asked.

“Yes, but then he asked to see the manager.”

“Did he say what he wants?” Carla set the tea pitcher down and walked toward the door. Sara turned and followed the other two.

“No, he didn’t say, but he has a mother and daughter with him.”

“I guess I’d better see what he wants.”

The waitress pointed to a table near the center of the room. Neal Watts sat there. Sitting at the same table, Sara saw a woman and a girl she had never seen before. The girl looked young, maybe ten or so. Had they not been sharing a table with Neal, Sara might have thought they were more people involved with the movie. Their clothes looked worn. The woman wore a cotton dress, faded from many washings. The girl wore jeans an a T-shirt. The shirt hung loose on her, giving Sara the impression that it had been selected to allow the girl to grow into it. Or maybe they hadn’t had much choice in sizes. The woman wore no makeup and she hadn’t taken much care with her hair. It hung down limp and without life. But they both looked clean.

“Neal,” Sara said, before Carla could speak. “What are you doing here?”

“Sara,” Neal said, “If I’d known you were here, I would’ve asked for you.”

“You two know each other?” Carla asked.

“Of course. You remember Neal, don’t you.”

Carla didn’t indicate whether she did or she didn’t. “Well, if you don’t need me, I’ve got things I need to do.” She turned and walked off.

“So what’s up?” Sara pulled out a chair and sat down. “I heard you were planning a trip this summer.”

“Didn’t really have the money,” Neal said. “That and Bro. Hiller asked me to help out. I’m taking over the youth minister’s responsibilities until they find a new one. And I thought one more summer at home would be nice.”

“And what was it you wanted to see Mom about?”

“Bro. Hiller sent me down here. He said you guys would give these two something to eat. They don’t have a lot of money.”

Sara looked at the woman and the girl. The woman made eye contact and wasn’t quick to look away. She didn’t seem like she was trying to be dishonest. Sara had seen plenty of those too and a lot of them came in following Bro. Hiller. But they fed them anyway. The church would have paid for it, if Ellen had asked, but she never did.

“I’ll get some menus.” Sara turned to walk away.

“You don’t have to do that,” the woman said. “We’ll we happy with whatever you couldn’t get rid of at lunch.”

“We don’t have anything like that.” Sara wasn’t truthful. They couldn’t always guess how many people would show up or what they would choose to eat. They did the best they could. The woman’s face told Sara that she didn’t believe her, but Sara didn’t let it bother her. “I’ll be back with the menus.”

She walked across the room toward the stack of menus near the front door, making her way past a couple of actors dressed in firemen’s uniforms. She grabbed the menus and turned around and nearly ran into Jill.

“Oops, I’m sorry,” the woman said, dodging the collision. “Sara, I need to talk to you.”

“I was just…”

“Oh, it won’t take long. I just came to let you know that we expect to break for dinner at six o’clock and to expect fifty-seven. That won’t be problem, will it?”

Sara looked at her watch. It was nearing three o’clock. “But you said there wouldn’t be a meal this evening.”

“Yeah, I wasn’t too happy about it either, but they’ve decide to keep shooting for as long as they can. They’re hoping to make up for the time they lost today and its supposed to rain tomorrow. I’d almost be willing to bet that whatever they shoot tonight they’ll have to come back and reshoot, but what do I know?” Jill shrugged. “Can I tell them that you’re good?”

“Yeah, I’m good.” Sara said, while trying to think what she would do to make it work. They’d booked reservations like any other night and now there were going to be fifty-seven more people than she had expected, all showing up to eat at the same time. Only the second day of shooting and Sara could already see why Ellen hadn’t liked the idea. Maybe it would be better when they were shooting out away from the café and they weren’t trying to feed the movie folks while keeping up with regular business. The only thing that helped them was that some of their regular crowd stayed away with so much commotion on Main street.

“Then I’ll see you around six,” Jill said, leaving through the front door.

Sara went back and laid the menus in front of the mother and daughter and Neal. She went immediately to the kitchen, where she saw one of the chefs gathering his things to go home.

“You aren’t leaving, are you?” she asked, knowing he was. “We’re going to have a crowd tonight.”

“Tonight’s my night off.”

“I just heard we have to feed the movie people tonight.”

“That’s your problem,” he said, jingling his keys in his hand.

Sara looked at Carla.

“You can’t make him stay,” the other woman said.

“But…” Sara stopped when she saw Carla shake her head.

“That’s alright,” Sara said, repressing the urge to argue, “I wouldn’t have asked, but we really are going to be swamped tonight. We’ll figure out something.”

“You’ll figure out something,” Carla corrected her, “or have you forgotten that I’m taking off tonight too?”

“You can’t be serious. Is anyone going to be here?” Sara asked. She could just see all of the workers abandoning her. As if it wasn’t bad enough that Ellen was gone. “Can’t you take off some other night?”

“Look girl, I’m not trying to make things hard for you,” Carla said. “You know I wouldn’t do that, but it’s my grandmother’s eightieth birthday party. It isn’t like that’s going to happen again.”

“Can’t you just wait another ten years and go to her ninetieth?” Sara saw the look Carla shot her, the look she gave people she found tiresome. Sara hadn’t seen that look directed at her for a long time. “I’m kidding. I hope you have a good time.” She went and gave her mother’s friend a hug. It was either do that or tell her she was sorry. A hug was easier.

“I’m sure it’ll only last a couple of hours,” Carla said. “I can come back afterward and help close up.”

“No, don’t worry about it. Maybe we’ll get lucky and have a lot of cancelations.” She knew better than to expect that, but she hoped it would keep Carla from feeling bad about being gone.

Sara returned to the dining room and the mother and daughter were ready to order. “What about you?” Sara asked Neal after the other two had told her what they wanted.

“Oh, nothing for me,” he said, handing her the three menus, but then he said, “Actually, a bowl of ice cream would be nice.”

“Can I have ice cream, too?” The young girl looked at her mother as she spoke.

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Even if I eat everything on my plate?”

“We’re taking too much from these good people as it is,” the woman said.

The little girl made a face with sad pitiful eyes. It made Sara feel sorry for her.

“Cut that out!” the woman said. “You remember what I said.”

The girl’s expression changed instantly, as if she were the happiest girl in the world and hadn’t even thought about ice cream.

When Sara got back to the kitchen, things had gotten worse.

“You’re missing one more chef for tonight,” Carla said. “Carlos just called in sick.”

“Guess that means I’ll be cooking tonight.”

“I would say that’s a safe bet, but have you thought about what you’re going to do for servers?”

Sara handed the order to the only chef she still saw in the kitchen. More would show up soon—she hoped. “I don’t know. Put the busboys on waiting tables?”

Carla rolled her eyes. “You want me to call around and see who I can get to come in?”

“Sure, that would be great.” Sara didn’t expect Carla to find anyone at home—not with the way her day was going. But she was also thinking about the busboys. She could put them upstairs, watching out off for the movie crew. They wouldn’t have to take orders or even talk to the customers. They could just make sure there was enough food in the pans and drinks in the glasses. The movie people could serve themselves.

She had a few things she wanted to get started, so she could be sure that she would be ready if Jill came rushing in later and said they wanted to eat an hour earlier than she had said. Sara didn’t bother to change into her chef’s jacket. She would put it on soon enough and for all she knew, Carla might find a couple of chefs willing to come in and the wait staff would be needing the most help. By the time she had finished what she needed to do, the other chef had finished cooking the order she had given him. She got Neal’s ice cream and went back out into the dining room.

She set their plates on the table. It felt strange, but she suddenly had plenty of time. The rush would hit later. She wished she could move part of that to an earlier time, so they could handle it when they weren’t so busy, but for now she had little that she could do. She decided to make good use of the time, pulled out the chair to Neal’s left and sat down. There was the mother and daughter she wanted to know more about and there was Neal, whom she hadn’t seen in several months.

“Are you from around here?” Sara directed the question at the woman.

The woman looked up from the fish she had on her plate. “No.”

Sara tried again. “What brings you into our area?”

It was Neal who spoke. “They have some business in the area.”

“What kind of business?” Sara continued to direct her questions at the woman.

“It’s…” The woman paused for a couple of seconds. “It’s a family matter.”

“What kind of a…”

“Sara, this is some really good ice cream,” Neal said, interrupting her. Sara took the hint and the woman looked a little relieved.

The other three ate in silence and Sara watched them until Carla came over to the table. “Sara, I’m sorry, but I couldn’t get anyone. I left them messages, but no one answered the phone.”

“Thanks for trying.”

“Is something wrong?” Neal asked.

“No, nothing’s wrong,” Sara said. “Mom’s out of town and we don’t have any chefs or any waiters. You don’t happen to know where I can find an extra cook or waiter, do you.”

“No,” Neal said, “I’d offer to help, but I think I’d just make things worse. Have you thought about asking Bumble Bee to help? She’s one of the best cooks I know.”

“Any other time, I might consider it, but she hasn’t been feeling very well the past few days.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“Yeah, it’s some kind of bug or something.”

“That’s too bad. I was going to ask her if she’d put these two up for a few days.”

“That’s really not such a good idea,” Sara said, “But if you’d be willing to help, I bet I could teach you everything I know about being a waitress in about five minutes.”

“I’m afraid I left my black skirt at home,” Neal said.

“You know what I mean.”

“Mom’s a waitress,” the young girl across the table said. “And she works at a fancier place than this.”

“Beth!” the woman stopped her.

“Are you really a waitress?” Sara asked. “Maybe you could help us out.”

“Yeah, I’m a waitress,” the woman said. “At least, I was until the place where I was working burned down. It was just a greasy spoon up in St. Louis. I’ve never worked in a place as nice as this.”

“But any experience is better than nothing. We would really use the help tonight.”

“Sara,” Carla said, trying to get her attention.

“I would, but we still don’t know where we’re going to spend the night.”

“You can stay here,” Sara said.

“Can I talk to you, Sara?” Carla’s voice became much more insistent.

“There’s an apartment on the third floor that…”

“Sara, now,” Carla said through clinched teeth.

Sara pushed back from the table and followed Carla until they were out of earshot.

“What’s wrong?” Sara asked.

“I don’t think this is a good idea. Maybe you should talk to you mother before you start offering them a room and a job.”

“It’s my apartment, or it will be once I get it fixed up.” Sara thought of the paint still sitting in cans, waiting for her to put it on the walls. Someday it would look nice. “And we are shorthanded tonight.”

“I know, but I don’t trust them.”

“You don’t trust anyone.”

“This is different. There are some people that I don’t trust because I don’t like them and some people that I don’t trust because I think they’re lying.”

“And which are these?” Sara asked.

“I’m sure they’re lying about something,” Carla said, “I just don’t know what.”

“I think you worry too much. What could happen?”

“They could steal your stuff, for one thing,” Carla said.

“So what if the do? All I’ve got up there is some cheap furniture. I bought most of it at a yard sale.”

“I still think you should call your mother about this.”

“I know what she would say. I really don’t need to call her just to find out that she would do the same thing.”

“It would just make me feel more comfortable.”

“I really don’t have time. The evening crowd will be here shortly and is she’s willing to wait tables, it will help take the load off of everyone else.”

“And I need to be leaving,” Carla said, looking at her watch. “Just don’t complain to me if they walk off with all your stuff.”

Thursday, March 25, 2010

What Would Jesus Do If His Baby Mama Left?

I occasionally check my stats to see how people are finding my blog or websites. In the case of this blog, I get several hits a month that are somehow related to the question “what would Jesus do?” I suppose I asked for it, since I posted about the question “What would Jesus do in an unhappy marriage?” At the time, I thought it was appropriate because it is related to the theme of For the Love of a Devil, but this month someone found this blog by typing in “what would jesus do if his baby mama left.” You know, I really appreciate what Charles M. Sheldon wrote in In His Steps and I’m glad that a few years ago people started asking “What would Jesus do?” even if they didn’t read the book, but good grief.

What would Jesus do if his baby mama left? Nothing. The question doesn’t make sense. The fact is that Jesus wouldn’t be in that situation. In the little over thirty years that Jesus walked this earth, he never married. The only reference to his bride in the bible is a future reference that appears to refer to the church. When he died, he died without sin and he is sinless still, so he never had a baby mama who could leave. What would Jesus do? He wouldn’t have gotten himself into that situation.

As good as it may be to consider what Jesus would do in particular situations, I believe the real question should be, “What would Jesus have me to do in this situation?” Since we know nothing of the person who asked the question, let’s assume the worst. Let’s assume that this person isn’t married and shacked up with some young woman. As these things happen, she got pregnant and he is reasonably certain that the baby is his. He drinks a little. He occasionally gets drunk and abusive. The woman, though she doesn’t fear for her own safety—she got enough of that kind of stuff from her father—fears that he might harm the child and moves out. What would Jesus do? As I said, Jesus wouldn’t be in this situation. But what would Jesus have this man to do?

First, get saved. This man needs to get his heart right with God. He’s a sinner and he is on the road to hell. He needs to repent and trust Jesus to put him on the right track. Next, he needs to get in church. He needs the loving support of a church to help him overcome his problems. Then he needs to give up the alcohol. Get it out of the house, don’t go to places that sell it and sign up for Alcoholic Anonymous. Next he needs to start working on his relationship with the mother of his child. I don’t mean in the form of dating, but spend time getting to know her as a friend. Tell her he is sorry. Whether it goes any farther, he is going to be spending time with her, if he wants to get to know his baby. If she’s living with another man, it may not be wise to try to break that up. Witness to her. The man should tell her about the change Jesus has made in his life. The best thing for the child will be if she is saved also. If she accepts Christ and is no longer living with another man, only then should the man in question even consider the possibility of restoring the romantic relationship they had before, but only if she agrees to marry him. Jesus wouldn’t be in a position to need to do any of that, but it is highly likely that he would lead people who are in that situation to do something along that line.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A Wasted Effort

The picture above may not look like much, but it is my attempt at determining where each of the various elements of a three plot structure go. What I found interesting is that some of the structure elements seemed to line up and others seemed to be ofset. Plot A and C run together some at the beginning and the end. I think that is because Sara and Neal are both involved in these scenes. It makes scene that we would keep moving along our structure, as we move along. Plot B doesn't really get going until we get to about page 90. But plot C has a similar gap in comparison to Plot B. Near the middle, things seem to run together more for A and B. But keep in mind that we aren't necessarily talking about them having the same scenes here, just that the midpoints occur close together in time.

Anyway, the process wasn't very helpful, so maybe the best thing to do at this point is to start writing these scenes for each plot, with priority given to the A plot and try to work the others in where they seem like they fit.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

How Do We Show The B-Story?

Outlining a story is largely a problem of representation. When I outline, I begin with a generic structure and I fill in the gaps. In the end, what I have is a snapshot of the story and the beginnings of a synopsis. I focus on the A-Story because that is the most important part. That is where the primary action takes place. But in my latest outline I have a problem. Some of the subplots are rather healthy stories on their own. They tie back into the main plot, since part of what is happening in them is creating the antagonism for the A-story, but the outline for the A-story becomes very cluttered if we try to include much more than a reference to the subplots. What I have considered doing is outlining each plot separately, using the same generic structure. That isn’t hard to do, but it becomes a question of timing. In the novel, the various plots will all be taking place in and around each other, but how to tie the plot lines back together.

In the outline for the A-story, the reference to the B-story is supposed to come at about page 90. They cross each other at the midpoint, page 166. As we move to the third act, page 256, the two stories merge, but that tells us nothing about what state the B-story is in when we reach those points. The B-story can draw a great deal from the A-story, so we don’t need as much detail. By the time we get to page 90, we could have a B-story that is in full swing, or we could have some setup to do. In most cases, I think what we find is that the A-story incorporates enough elements of the B-story into it that we don’t have to worry so much about setup when we reach it. The two stories play out in the same world, so a lot of the details of the story are implied or are happening in the background.

In the case of the story I am referring to, the A-story involves Sara and a woman and child. Sara’s actions center on a man who is involved in the making a movie. Now, one of the sub-plots is that that man is attempting to get Kelly’s father to resolve some issues with his daughter. His goals are hindered by Sara’s goals and Sara’s goals are hindered by his. A third plot involves Neal and Kelly’s mother, but Neal is trying to help Sara, so what he is doing there may be hindered by what Sara is doing and what he is doing to help Sara my take a backseat to what he is doing with Kelly’s mother.

But how do we show all of that? If I were a movie guy, I would use a storyboard, layout each scene and we would have the whole script in a nutshell. But movie scripts tend to be less complicated. We have more space in a novel and more time, so we can show more detail in the subplots. For now, I think I’ll just work out the details of the subplots and see if I can draw a connection between them. Who knows, maybe I will draw out a storyboard, just to see where it all fits.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Awareness is the Key

When it comes to selling books, the most important thing is reader awareness. We can talk about craft a lot and that is important, but the fact is that if the author has put in the effort and enjoys reading the book he has written (if he’s honest with himself) there are other people out there who will enjoy reading it as well. My books have been well received by those who have purchased them. That says nothing about the people who looked at them and decided they weren’t interested. So let’s say that every book, no matter how well or poorly written has an audience that will enjoy reading it. The question that publishers are forced to ask isn’t whether there are people who will enjoy the book but whether the cost of production plus the cost of making those people aware of the book is low enough that the income from book sales will cover the cost. But there’s no need for me to restate the obvious.

One of the things I was better about doing when my first book came out was to compare what I have been doing to raise awareness of my books to what others have been doing. I always come up very lacking in that area, so it’s easy for me to get away from it, but the other day I ran a simple Internet search and compared the appearance of my name on blogs with that of Colleen Coble. I would tell you that I used some elaborate selection process to come up with Colleen Coble’s name, but I didn’t. It was just one of the names that came to mind and she is an author that Michael Hyatt calls “important.” By that, I assume he means that she keeps bread on the table of several people at Thomas Nelson. In any case, the results were disheartening.

My name showed up 127 times. Some of those referred to other Timothy Fishes, but most came from interactions I have had with other bloggers. Some referenced things I have written on my blog and some had to do with comments I have left in various places. Colleen Coble, however, showed up 3,320 times. I didn’t go through each occurrence, but her results seemed to be dominated by reviews. Many of the reviews contained the book title The Lightkeeper’s Daughter, which came out a couple of months ago. I also found references to Lonestar Secrets and some other books. I did find her name on a blog post about gout, but percentagewise, she had many fewer opinionated results than me and far more people talking about her.

Proverbs 27:2 says, “Let another man praise thee, and not thine own mouth; a stranger, and not thine own lips.” I’m sure there are many reasons that people are aware of Colleen Coble’s books and not of mine, but part of it is because strangers are talking about her. I labor over the stuff I put out on the Internet and occasionally someone will quote me or reprint something I said, but seldom do they mention one of my books. In my search I found Colleen Coble’s The Lightkeeper’s Daughter mentioned almost 100 times. Doing a similar search my Searching For Mom appears five times. And Thy House only appears twice. It isn’t because Colleen Coble is so much of a better writer than I am. (She may be, but that isn’t the point.) I’ve received feedback from enough readers who aren’t related to me to know that I’m not a terrible writer.

I think what would help me raise awareness of my books is for me to find more people to review my books. To be honest, I find that a scary thought. That, as much as anything else, may be why it is important to get other people involved in our publishing journey. Other people will prod us to take risks that we otherwise fear to take. My fear, whether rational or otherwise, is that when I hand my book over to the reviewers, I won’t get it into the hands of the people who will enjoy it but into the hands of people who either don’t get it or have a bone to pick or something along that line. But I suppose the old saying is true that all publicity is good publicity. Many of the best selling books have many bad reviews. In among the reviews for The Lightkeeper’s Daughter, there is at least one reviewer who writes, “I was actually a bit disappointed this time around. It just wasn't up to par with her other books. There was more fluff romance than normal and it just didn't grab me like her books usually do.” Had I not been looking for it, I might not have noticed it, but its there all the same. We don’t find those who will enjoy our books by picking and choosing, but by raising the awareness of as many people as we can, even at the risk of putting them in the hands of people who don’t like them.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Sara Doesn't Like My Story

With me thinking more about Sara’s next book, I stopped by Ellen’s café. She wasn’t there. I found her by the river, watching a barge make its way downstream. She was sitting on the ground. I sat beside her. We sat like that for several minutes, neither of us saying a word, while the barge went past.

Sara broke the silence. “I read your blog the other day—that post about what you’re going to do with the next book.”

“I haven’t decided anything for sure,” I said.

“I don’t like it.”

“I didn’t expect you would,” I said. “If I had a better story, I would use it instead.”

“It doesn’t fit with the other stories, you know.” She stared off at the distance bank on the Illinois side of the river.

“How do you mean?”

“You know,” she said. “All of the others were about someone trying to do something. My story was about me trying to get a mother. Then Neal was trying to become a Bible character. Then Mr. Mywell wanted to get Heather back. And all Martin wanted was for his family to be saved. Now you come up with this story where I’m supposed to be finding out whose been sabotaging a movie production. That’s more like a mystery.”

“You have a point there,” I said, “but what else am I going to do? What else would your brother getting hurt do if it doesn’t convince you to find out who was responsible?”

“Does he have to get hurt? Couldn’t I try to do something else?”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know, but wouldn’t it fit better with the other books if I were trying to accomplish something? Maybe I could look for a boyfriend. That would be sort of like the first book.”

“Yeah, sure, but that would also make it more like a romance and that wouldn’t fit very well either. Besides, it just isn’t very interesting for someone to be searching for a boyfriend through an online dating service. That kind of thing happens every day.”

“What if I tried to find Kelly’s Dad?”

“Oh, I know where he is.”

“You do, but no one else does.”

“David does. All you would have to do is ask him. That wouldn’t be very interesting.”

“What makes you think he would tell me?”

“Knowing you, I’m not sure he could keep from it.”

“I try,” she said. “What about that story you’ve got hidden away? Couldn’t you use it?”

“It doesn’t really fit either. Besides, it takes place in Fort Worth.”

“I don’t mean use it word for word.” She reached down, picked up a small stone lying on the concrete and turned it over in her hand. I thought she was about to try skipping it across the water, but she just held it and looked at it. “Couldn’t you sort of change it up and have it take place around here? And can you get rid of Fox? I just didn’t get him.”

“Let me think about this,” I said. “You might have something there. Let’s say you’re working in the café.”

“Where else would I be?”

I ignored her question and went on. “A woman and young girl come in. You can tell that they don’t have much money and can’t afford to be eating there of all places, but the woman tells you that Bro. Hiller told them that you would give them something to eat. Maybe I’ll have Bro. Hiller or Neal show up with them. Anyway, they aren’t very forthcoming about why they showed up in the area, but you talk to them enough that you discover that the girl’s father is involved in the movie that is being filmed on Main Street.”

“I bet it’s David.”

“Exactly,” I said. “We’ve got to get David involved in this, but unlike Grayson, David wasn’t married to the girl’s mother.”

“So, he had an affair. He denies the whole thing and I try to help the woman convince him that he should do what's right,” Sara said. “I bet David’s mother isn’t going to like me very much.”

“Probably not, but in the meantime, David is going to be busy doing something similar. Kelly is going to be spending a lot of time on the movie set as Ada’s assistant and David is going to get to know her a little better. David knows Kelly’s father and is trying to get him to patch things up.”

“That’s a little two faced, don’t you think?”

“Not everyone can be as perfect as you, Sara.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Forget it,” I said. “Anyway, Kelly’s mother is not going to be a happy camper, even though it's Ada and not Kelly who has a role in the movie. She’s going to have her part in messing with what David is trying to accomplish and this thing about David having a child is going to cause trouble between him and the girl he is interested in.”

“Who? Is it me?”

“Where would be the fun if I told you that?”

“There’s got to be someone for me; you promised.”

“What about Kyle?”

Sara frowned.

“I’ll think about it,” I said. “But moving on, I want to bring Neal back and there’s that girl he talked about being interested in in the last novel.”

“So am I going to meet her?” Sara asked.

“I don’t see why not, but I think Neal’s main focus is going to be on getting Rosalyn to accept Christ. I could have someone else do it, but that seems to be his thing. I might have him help you a little too. If he’s the one that brings the woman and the girl down to the café, that would make sense.”

“But I do get to be the protagonist this time and not him, right?”

“I already said that.”

“I just wanted to make sure.”

“Okay, so that ought to do for now. The story seems to fit in the series a little better than the one I thought of before.”

“And my brother doesn’t die in this version, right?”

“Right now, I don’t see any reason he should.”


Thursday, March 18, 2010

Review: DellArte Press

Earlier I reviewed Thomas Nelson’s WestBow Press. My primary focus was on the quality of book an author using that service would get. I didn’t review either of the books for content and I don’t intend to, unless I read one of them and decide I like it. In which case, I’ll be happy to give the author a plug. Today, I want to do the same thing I did before, but I want to focus my attention on a couple of books published by Harlequin’s DellArte Press. I also want to identify differences between DellArte Press and WestBow Press.

The books I purchased are Dargan’s Desire by Wendy Young and Half-Breed by Phylly Smith. You can’t tell by the picture, but these books are smaller than there WestBow Press brethren. The WestBow Press books are 6x9 and these are 5x8, but in this case I think the smaller size is a good thing. Half-Breed is only 107 pages and had 35 lines per page, with about 400 words per page. With about 42,000 words, it doesn’t even qualify as a novel. (And let me just say one thing, if you’re going to write a story, learn where you should insert paragraphs.) Dargan’s Desire is thicker, with 218 pages. The word count should be something over 80,000 words.

They’re stock photos, but the covers on these books are eye catching. Keep in mind that all four of these books are produced by the same company, but two are through an agreement with Thomas Nelson and two are through an agreement with Harlequin. The covers for the Thomas Nelson versions are blah and the covers for the Harlequin versions are eye catching. I would love to know why that is. So, Michael Hyatt or anyone else from Thomas Nelson or Harlequin, if you happen to be reading this, I would love to know why the covers are so noticeably different.

The interiors of the DellArte books have the same blank page at the front that the WestBow books have. I was expecting that. The pages of these books are also numbered correctly, unlike the WestBow Press books, but since neither of these books have a prologue, we can’t say that this is a true difference. I suspect that if the WestBow Press books hadn’t had a prologue they would have been numbered correctly also.

Now here’s the thing that will get you Harlequin authors out there. I don’t have many recent Harlequin books. I have a copy of First Mates by Cecelia Dowdy which is published under Harlequin’s Steeple Hill imprint. I can say that the physical quality of the DellArte books is noticeably higher than for that book, which from what I have seen is typical of Harlequin books. That must really burn some of their author’s up.

I’m still not sure that I would recommend going this route to publication, but based on book size and cover design, I think I would choose Harlequin’s DellArte Press over Thomas Nelson’s WestBow Press.

Now, on to the thing that would make either of these options truly worthwhile. I haven’t noticed with Harlequin or Thomas Nelson really getting behind these imprints. At the moment, I wonder if they might not be a little embarrassed by them. They’re trying to position themselves for success, just in case self-publishing gains market share, but they’re doing nothing to help their author’s. Consider that the Harlequin books and the Thomas Nelson books both have multiple blank pages. In a typical Thomas Nelson book and especially in a Harlequin book, these pages would be used to promote other books published by the company. Granted, Thomas Nelson seems to focus more on the next book by the same author, but in the Steeple Hill book I mentioned above, Harlequin advertises nine other books, a subscription service and a website. It’s unthinkable that they would allow four blank pages go unused unless they just don’t care. Given the flak they took over the original name they chose, I can understand why they might not want to mention their traditionally published books, but I’m surprised they don’t have other DellArte books plastered all over that thing. If I were publishing a book through DellArte Press or WestBow Press, I would hope that my book would appear in some of the other books published under the same imprint, but that’s just me.

E is For Erotic?

I’ve paid very little attention to EPIC, but I saw that Brandilyn Collins was bragging on her friend Stuart Vaughn Stockton winning an award from them. I followed the link to their list of winners and what I saw was shocking. Out of twenty-nine books that won awards for writing, ten of them included the word erotic or erotica in the category title. It made me wonder if EPIC, which claims to support electronic publishing, believes the “e” in eBook is for erotic. 10 out of 29—that is more than a third of the categories. I thought one category was very fitting. The winner of the category Erotica—Sinful.

I’ve never been real big on awards anyway. I figure organizations give awards primarily as a means to raise awareness of the organization. In this case, I didn’t see any names I recognized, which makes me question the creditability of the organization even more, but what particularly bothers me is that eBooks may become known as a haven for people who are out to peddle their pornographic wares. We have seen an increase in the popularity of eBooks recently. I would hate to think how much of that is driving by people who are looking for access to the pornographic material they find in erotica.

Pornography is a home wrecker and erotica is no exception. It is addictive. It encourages men to put unrealistic expectations on their wives and wives to put unrealistic expectations on their husbands. There is a desire for an increased level of stimulation and when their senses are deadened to what they find in erotica and to what their spouse can provide, they turn to other things and other people, hoping it will bring the excitement they once found through what they read. But spouses are jealous people and rightfully so. They quickly feel neglected and a rift is created in the home. For that reason, we should have nothing to do with it or the people who support it.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Robbing Peter to Pay Paul, Literally

On a blog I read the writer was talking about giving books away. He said that when he gives books to his church he asks them to make put the value of the books into the building fund in his name, then he reduces the amount of money he puts into the building fund by that amount. By doing that, he feels like he is avoiding the money changers in the temple issue, which caused Jesus to overturn their tables. It took me a little bit to figure out what he is doing. I even had to draw it out on paper, just to get it clear in my head.

It works something like this: Let’s say the church has a library or a bookstore. The author gives the library some number of books. Let’s say they are worth $50. Rather than paying the author for the books, the librarian has the church treasurer transfer $50 from the library fund to the building fund. At this point, the building fund has an extra $50 and the library has broken even. Had the author not donated the books, he would have given $100 to the building fund, but now, he gives only $50 to the building fund.

In actual fact, no one is getting robbed here, though it seems like a round about way of doing things. The author is donating $100 to the church, though it comes in the form of money and books. The library is purchasing books, but instead of paying the author directly, they are paying him indirectly. The only real difference here is that the church treasurer doesn’t have to cut the author a check.

This kind of thing could get complicated after a while. I am the clerk of an association that our church is a member of. As the clerk, I get a small salary. I’ve forgotten how much it is, but it is less than the amount of money our church gives the association each year, which is less then the amount of money I give the church. I could have our church reduce the amount of money they give the association by the amount of my salary, then I could reduce the amount of money I give the church by the amount of my salary and I wouldn’t have to write myself a check. As far as I know there is no difference in tax responsibility by doing that, so there’s no reason not to do that, other than it is so confusing. It is much easier to write a check to the church, let the church write a check to the association and then as a representative of the association write a check to myself.

I don’t know that this has any significance of any kind, but I just think it’s interesting the trouble that people will go to in order to avoid doing something they believe is wrong and yet do something that in the end will turn out with exactly the same results as the thing they are trying to avoid.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Creative Thought

Creativity is a fascinating thing. There’s a theory that says that if you put enough monkeys to work pounding on keyboards that one of them would eventually produce some great creative work, like one of Shakespeare’s plays or something. I very much doubt that. I tend to think that we would just have random garbage, though we might have the random garbage duplicated by many of them. But why worry about monkeys? If we wanted, we could put a bunch of computers to work generating every possible combination of words and given enough time, they would reproduce some great literary work. Having done that, we could then say that among the stuff they produced leading up to that event there are probably some fairly decent literary works that were produced that no human has written. We know they exist. The problem is that we don’t know which ones they are. We can thrust in our hand, pull out a manuscript and we will probably find nothing but garbage, a jumbled mess of words that don’t form sentences.

In the creative process, we bypass a lot of the garbage that a machine would create. Even if we had the machine throw out anything without complete sentences, it wouldn’t know if those sentences fit together well. But as writers we skip over a lot of the stuff a machine might do. Even if we don’t create a great literary work, we are able to know what we wish to communicate and then choose words that communicate what we like. It’s an amazing thing that no machine has ever been able to duplicate. For an author to be able to write a boring book is an amazing thing, though having that capability won’t produce much income.

Michelangelo is said to have claimed that to create David he chipped away everything that wasn’t David. I suppose we could say we do something similar as writers. We are throwing out all of the manuscripts that the computer could produce that aren’t worth reading. But the skill isn’t in knowing what to throw away as much as it is in knowing what to keep. When they carved Mount Rushmore, they first created some smaller models. From those, all of the workers knew what to keep and what to throw away. As writers, we are writing down examples of what we believe we ought to keep out of the vast sum of possible manuscripts. Personally, I don’t think that helps to explain the creative process any better than Michelangelo’s explanation.

The creative process is more about vision. The reason Michelangelo was able to free David from the stone was because Michelangelo saw David in the stone. There were an infinite number of other things hiding in that stone, but Michelangelo chose to free only David. Before we write, we see the story before us. We believe there is a story worth telling and we believe we can put it down on paper. The image we see is quite vague until we write it down. We move our words around a bit, hoping to change the written story into the thing we see in our heads. The better we are at reproducing our vision on paper, the better the story will be.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Just Peachy

I’ve been struggling with a plot. This is the most I’ve struggled with any plot. This isn’t writer’s block; I’ve got plenty of other plots floating around in my head. The thing that makes this different is that there are a significant number of restrictions on this story. They are all self-imposed, but it doesn’t matter where they come from, the fact is that they are there and that is making this process difficult.

The basic constraints are these: The story must involve Sara, Kelly, David, Neal, Kelly’s mother and Kelly’s father. Sara must be the protagonist. The movie studio from And Thy House must be filming a movie on or near Main Street. At the end of the story, Kelly’s mother must have accepted Christ, Kelly’s father must be back in her life, and Sara must be in love, or so Sara tells me. Add to that the fact that I want everything to turn out well. But it has to be a good story.

You’re probably starting to see the problem and just writing it out like this is helping me. I think the big problem here is that I’m afraid to follow Vonnegut’s sixth rule, “Be a sadist.” So far, what I have is a bunch of fun stuff that we would like to see happen to the characters. Kelly will be acting in a movie. David and Neal will be close to home. Kelly’s mother is going to get her life straightened out and Kelly’s father is going to make amends. That’s all great, but it makes for a boring story. So how do we fix that? What we need is to find some bad stuff to throw at the characters, especially Sara.

For Sara, about the lowest blow I can come up with is to kill off Ellen, Mark or Mark Jr. I’m not sure if I want to go quite that low, but it’s worth a thought. If we could destroy Ellen’s restaurant in the process, that would only add salt to the wound. So what we need is something to come crashing through the front windows of Ellen’s restaurant while one of the three is sitting there. Let’s say it’s Mark Jr. and he’s sitting there because Sara sat him down there with a coloring book to keep him out of trouble. Now she feels responsible. We need the movie studio tie-in. So whatever comes through the front window must be something related to filming the movie. It could be a camera crane, a light stand, a car used in a chase scene or whatever. It will look like an accident, but this “accident” must be directed at Ada, making it a sadistic thing to do to Kelly as well, since those of you who have read And Thy House know the relationship between Kelly and Ada. But it hurts David also, because he has grown to love the movie studio and this accident is going to hurt the studio financially, as well as in other ways. Then there’s Kelly’s mother, who may have done something to cause the accident, out of her hatred for the movie industry.

That gives us some strong emotion, but where’s the story? We find that in Sara’s reaction to what happened. Sara isn’t one to sit around the hospital waiting for her brother to die. She’ll sit there for a while, but if it doesn’t happen right away, she’ll go back to work. She’ll also start asking questions. She’s nosy; she can’t help herself. There’ll be other accidents or maybe some have already occurred. The police may not think there’s anything to it, but Sara won’t be satisfied until she understands.

It makes things a little messier, but it adds interest to the story. We can still stay within most of the constraints, without it seeming like everything is just peachy. But now we have to wonder if this plot is too much like so many others.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Questions and Answers

It's been a while since I visited with my characters, so last Saturday I went down to Ellen's Cafe with the intent of writing a blog post that answers some questions I received from a reader. It was sometime between when the breakfast rush had slowed and the dinner rush hadn't quite started when Sara came and sat across the table from me. I had what was left of my breakfast pushed off to one side. My laptop was in front of me with a streaming cup of coffee next to it. I had printed out the e-mail from my reader and it was lying on the table to my left.

"What’s this?” Sara asked, picking up the e-mail and looking at it.

I told her.

"That’s kind of exciting,” she said. “Someone’s reading about me. Are you going to let me help you answer it?”

"I already answered it. I’m just posting the answers to my blog.” I showed her the answers.

She looked at the answers carefully before she said, “These aren’t any fun. You should write something else. Take this first one for instance. She asked, ‘How did you come up with the title?’ and you wrote this thing about how Searching For Mom refers to me searching the Internet for a mother.”

”Well, it’s true.”

”But it’s boring. You ought to say that it came to you in a dream.”

”I can’t do that; it isn’t true.”

”It can be. You’re forgetting that you’re in my world, so whatever you say is true,” she said. “I just wish it worked that way for me. No matter, just write that down.”

I took the paper from her.

”What’s the next question?”

”Explain the meaning of the cover.”

She looked thoughtful. “I don’t know. Maybe it doesn’t have a meaning. Next question.”

”Where did you get the idea for the book?”

”That one’s easy. You came in here one day and Mom and I told you about it.”

”Hardly, but moving on. Did you get the story from a real event in you life or of someone you know?”

”Of course. You got it from my life.”

”How much of the book is realistic?”

”All of it.”

”Name a scene that you’ve written that you go back to re-read often because you like it so much,” I said. “What I wrote is that I liked that scene where you wake up in the hospital and Ellen is there. But maybe I should have said I like that scene where you look like a drenched rat.”

”Let’s not talk about that. Next question.”

”If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your book?”

”Wouldn’t that be like lying, if you told my story different than the way it happened?”

”Yeah, something like that,” I said. “What was the hardest/joyful part of writing the book?”

”I don’t care about that one,” Sara said. “What was the last question, something about future projects? I want to know the answer to that.”

”I said I was thinking about writing another book about you and Kelly. There’s a movie studio that’s going to be filming a movie here in town. Ada’s in it, but there’s someone who wants you to convince Kelly to take her place. That’s about as far as I’ve gotten so far.”

”Do I get to fall in love this time?”

”We’ll see.”

”Is it someone I know?”

”We’ll see.”

”I bet you let Kelly fall in love.”


“It’ll be with Neal and they’ll go off to some foreign mission field together.”

”Could be. I haven’t made any firm decisions yet.”

”Well, I want to fall in love and maybe you can fix it so it’ll be with him.” She nodded in the direction of a customer who had just come in. He seemed like the kind of guy women would find attractive. She got up and walked in his direction. I didn’t tell her, but the guy is a real jerk.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Review: WestBow Press

Today, I’m writing a book review unlike any I have written before. Actually, I’m going to I’m reviewing two books and I haven’t read either one. As you may recall, some time ago, Thomas Nelson announced that they were entering the vanity press market, using the imprint WestBow Press. The first books out of that arrangement are making their way down the pipeline, two of which you can see here.

The first thing I noticed when they arrived was the size of the box. I arrived home and saw the box sitting on my front step. My first thought was that they had only shipped on of them. The box is the same sized box uses to ship individual copies of my novels. I opened it up and found both novels stacked neatly, one on top of the other. Both books have the dimensions 6” x 9”, a fairly standard size for non-traditionally published books. Publishing a book with that dimension simplifies the process when a book will be published both as a paperback and a hardback. One of the books is printed on bright white paper and has 135 pages. The other is printed on ivory paper and has 203 pages.
I looked for e-mail addresses for the authors, but I didn’t find them. I had hoped that I could ask them which publishing package they went with. I think it’s safe to assume they didn’t choose the same one because the covers are noticeably different. The one the The Faraway Land has what I’ll call the fifteen minute cover. It has a generic stock photo on the front, the title and the author’s name, with some text on the back. I’ll call the one for In the Unlikely Event the thirty minute cover. The photo on the front looks like it might have been taken in western Arkansas, which is where the story takes place. The image extends to the back and the title on the front has a little extra special treatment than the title for the other book. Also, there is a picture of the author on the back, adding just that much more work for the cover designer to do. The spines are disappointing. Place the books in a bookcase and all you will see is the title, the author’s name and the WestBow trademark, all on a dark, one color, background.
Upon opening the books and thumbing through them, the first thing we notice is that the text seems small. A point size of 9pt will give you a good approximation of the text if you are trying to duplicate it in Microsoft Word, but that may be a little too large. There are 41 lines per page with margins set at one inch at top and bottom, 0.75 in the gutter and 0.625 on the edge. But don’t let that put you off. It is approximately the same sized font that Thomas Nelson used for Eric Wilson’s Field of Blood. But his book was over 400 pages and had they used larger text it wouldn’t have fit within a reasonable number of pages. Robert Liparulo’s House of Dark Shadows, in contrast, has 26 lines per page, which you would duplicate with a font size of more than 13pt. Needless to say, WestBow Press has no intention of wasting pages.

Actually, that’s not true. Open the cover of both books and the first thing you see is a blank page. It isn’t just blank on one side, it is blank on both sides. After that comes the title page. In the back, you will find additional blank pages. Some of those may be explained away by saying they kept the page count evenly divisible by some number and the last page can be explained by the printing process. The POD printing company has some information that they need for their purposes, so they add one more page, that way, they don’t have to tell the publisher to add the information.
Overall, I’m not displeased with the interior design. The margins are at a comfortable place. The tops of the pages look nice. The page numbers don’t look cramped. The chapters all begin on an odd numbered page with no overrun from the previous chapter. There graphics highlighting the chapter titles and they aren’t the same for both books. I half expected that I would open both books and see the same graphics or none at all.
But the interior design isn’t without its problems. Aside from the unexplainable blank page at the front, the next thing we notice is that the book is numbered incorrectly. This tells us that though Thomas Nelson puts their name on the copyright page, the book itself is not up to the quality standards of the company. According to the Chicago Manual of Style, page one is to be the beginning of the text. It’s a little more complicated if we’re dealing with a second half-title, but we aren’t, so we can simply say that for a novel the beginning of the story should be numbered page one and anything before that should be numbered with roman numerals. Thomas Nelson did this correctly in House of Dark Shadows as well as in Field of Blood. In both cases, the story begins with a prologue. The first page of the prologue is numbered page one. The Faraway Land and In the Unlikely Event also have prologues, but they are not treated as part of the story. Instead, they are treated like a preface and numbered with roman numerals, which will do nothing but encourage readers to skip the prologue, which I have heard many readers do already.

I have also noticed by thumbing through In the Unlikely Event that some of the text is indented incorrectly. We can probably blame that on the author, but its actually the typesetter’s responsibility to check for things like that and not just dump the text the author gives him into the book.
My overall impression at this point is that I would not want to publish a book through WestBow Press. I realize that there are limits to the services they can offer for a reasonable price, but when we hand our work off to someone else to publish, we hope that they can produce something better than what we can produce on our own. The weak cover design along with the quality problems in the interior is enough to make me question spending so much money to get a book into print. I hope that Thomas Nelson will do something to improve the quality of these books. They may not be able to do anything about the covers. They may not even be able to do anything about the odd appearance to the indenting, but they can certainly educate the typesetter on how to number the pages. We can only hope.

Pick up Book Cover Design Wizardry: For the Self-Publishing Author today.

From the Mailbag

A few weeks ago, I received an e-mail message from someone who had ordered one of my books, but had not yet read it. From that e-mail, I learned that this person was a student learning English who had a class requirement to read an English novel. After that, I received an e-mail asking several questions, which I happily answered. I also posted the answers. Today, I am posting the latest e-mail:

Dear Timothy,

I enjoyed reading and studying your book. I had learnt a lot of new English words and phrases during my reading. I loved all the characters in the novel they were easy to follow and down to earth. The character I like most is Sara’s father Mark Dawson. The way he treats, teachs and raises his daugther is admirable. He listens to her and always try to do his best. My favourite episode with him is when Mark and his daughther go out to the restaurant after visiting the bookshop and meets the waitress. He teaches Sara some important lessons that may help her in the future. My personal opinion is that every working parent can identify himself with Mark.

Many episodes capture my attention. The one I remember most is went Sara was printing out Ellen’s profile from her father’s computer. It made me say hurry up, hurry up.

The characters’ belief (Sara, Mark and Ellen) gave me comfort throughtout the reading. Their simple but effective prayers made them more practical and sensible.

I loved Searching For Mom. Your writing had been a blessing in improving my English and I had learnt important lessons for life by reading your novel. Thank you for aswering all my questions.

You are a good writer and I can gladly recommed Searching For Mom to anyone who wants to read a good comtemporary fiction novel.

I wish you the best in the future.

L. J.

Needless to say, I love getting letters like this, especially from people who don’t know me from Adam. It’s letters like this that keep us going, even if the money doesn’t. And this is the type of letter you hope for when you put your e-mail address in the book.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Till The End Do We Part

Do you love your characters? Personally, I would be surprised if you said no, but just the other day I was reading a blog post by Tamela Hancock Murray in which she talked about an author who used what appears to be a type of ambulance chasing decision process. When vampires were popular, he started writing about vampires, though he didn’t care anything about vampires.  I’ve got mixed feelings about that. If we seriously want to call ourselves writers and not just authors, I think there comes a time when we have suck it up and write what people want to read, not just whatever it is that we prefer to read. But I also see her point about the problems of writing about it being difficult to write well when our heart isn’t in it. In part of her argument, she mentions that the author she is referring to hasn’t made it into publication. Though that may seem to settle the issue, it may not mean anything; there are many authors who write only what they personally want to read who are also not in print.

But she raises a point about a character being hated by his creator that I feel is worth our consideration. I suppose there are two types of love here. I think what Tamela is referring to is whether at the end of the day we are glad that the character made an appearance in our story, but there is another kind of love we have for our characters. I love Sara and Ellen and Geoff and Mark and Martin and Neal. I love spending as much time with them as I can. Faithful readers of this blog know I sometimes visit them on Fiction Friday. It hurts me when I have to put them through pain, even though I know it is best for their stories. But there are other characters that I dislike. I don’t like Mr. Squashed Head from For the Love of a Devil. I’m glad he’s in the book, the story wouldn’t have been complete without him, but I really don’t like the man. I don’t care if you tell him that either.

CBA or no CBA, I really don’t think we must love our characters, but I do think we must be passionate about our characters. For most of us, this isn’t a paying gig, life is too short for us to write stories about characters who don’t move us in some way. We should love the protagonist from page one until we reach The End or it will be hard to convince other people to stick with him, but with the other characters all that is required is a strong emotional response. It’s okay to hate the villain. In fact, if we don’t we haven’t done our job properly. So, love your characters, or hate them, but don’t be neutral.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

It Doesn't Have to be One or the Other

One author says, “I write character based fiction,” another says, “I write plot based fiction.” To hear some people talk, you would think that there are some major philosophical differences here, but it doesn’t have to be one or the other. Any writer worth his salt is going to end up doing both and will probably end up doing both in the same novel. Continuing to draw upon The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as our example, Dorothy is clearly quite ordinary and she experiences fascinating things, making the book a plot based story, but a novel is a conglomeration of stories that are tightly woven together. As we look at some of the other characters and the stories surrounding them, we find that they are far from ordinary. Take the Tin Woodman for example. When Dorothy and the Scarecrow find him, he is able to do nothing but grown because he has rusted. There’s something inherently interesting about a man made entirely of tin and the plot of his story is about the most ordinary things. He has been chopping wood and it rained on him. His story appears to be a character based story. From his perspective, we are fascinated by the ordinary.

That’s part of why we mix ordinary characters with the extraordinary. The extraordinary characters give us an opportunity to appreciate the ordinary. Consider the following scene from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz:

When Dorothy awoke the sun was shining through the trees and Toto had long been chasing birds around him and squirrels. She sat up and looked around her. Scarecrow, still standing patiently in his corner, waiting for her.

"We must go and search for water," she said to him.

"Why do you want water?" he asked.

"To wash my face clean after the dust of the road, and to drink, so the dry bread will not stick in my throat."

"It must be inconvenient to be made of flesh," said the Scarecrow thoughfully, "for you must sleep, and eat and drink. However, you have brains, and it is worth a lot of bother to be able to think properly."

We ordinary creatures take it for granted that we need water; it is part of life, but for the Scarecrow it is a fascinating thing. We look through his eyes and an ordinary girl like Dorothy is one of the most fascinating creatures in the world. She isn’t fascinating because she is unique, but because she is like us. So by proxy, we are fascinating too.

We often see a give and take in stories. If our protagonist is ordinary, then we add interest by putting him in extraordinary situations, but extraordinary situations often require extraordinary characters, which in turn are interesting in how they interact with ordinary situations. We can also turn that around. If our protagonist is extraordinary, then we add interest by putting him in ordinary situations, requiring ordinary characters that are interesting in how they interact with extraordinary situations. It often works well that if the protagonist of the A-plot is an ordinary character in extraordinary circumstances then the B-plot character is an extraordinary character in ordinary circumstances. Conversely, if the A-plot protagonist is an extraordinary character in ordinary circumstances then the B-plot character is an ordinary character in extraordinary circumstances. In Oliver Twist, Oliver is an ordinary character who has many interesting things happen to him, but the Artful Dodger is a colorful character who is a common thief.

In terms of crafting our story, the way we should use this is to look at the characters and scenes that come to mind and ask ourselves whether they fit well together. If we imagine our extraordinary protagonist in an extraordinary scene, we ought to move that scene to the B-plot and let an ordinary character experience it. Or if we have an ordinary protagonist and he isn’t involved in interesting activities, we might throw him some of the more exciting stuff and let the extraordinary B-plot character have the ordinary scenes.

Monday, March 8, 2010

What is Ordinary and What is Extraordinary

When I talked about Character Based fiction versus Plot Based fiction, I made the distinction between the two by saying character based fiction involves extraordinary characters in ordinary circumstances and plot based fiction involves ordinary characters in extraordinary circumstances. Allow me to clarify that, if I can. Depending on how you read that, you might be thinking that an extraordinary character is someone like Superman and an ordinary character is someone like Barney Fife. If that’s what you’re thinking, you’re thinking wrong. Barney Fife is also an extraordinary character who plays out a role in a story with ordinary circumstances.

A better way to look at this is to say that every story needs something that connects with the readers and something that is a new experience for the readers. When we write the story, we will either connect with the reader through the characters or through the plot. The new experience will come from either the characters or the plot. When we have what I call ordinary characters, we are connecting with the reader through the characters. The reader looks at these characters and sees himself. There are some differences, but the character handles things about like the reader would. He’s the kind of guy that we wouldn’t think twice about having in our living room. He’s the any-man. He may be rich or poor, strong or weak, but he is like us.

If we connect with the reader through the characters, then we offer a new experience through the plot. As much as we love our friends, we don’t want to listen to them complain about doing something ordinary like laundry all the time. That would get old quickly and hearing an ordinary character talk about laundry would be no different. We want our friends to talk about new stuff, like how they narrowly missed being in an accident or getting home to discover that someone had broken a window. So as we follow our ordinary characters, we want them involved in stuff that doesn’t happen every day. That doesn’t necessarily mean they have to be in some big disaster. It can be small stuff, but it must be unusual.

Extraordinary characters give us a new experience because the characters are inherently interesting. They aren’t like our friends. Take Barney Fife for example. How many people actually have friend with his propensity for shooting himself in the foot? We may see some similarities to ourselves, but he is more of a caricature of people we know. We don’t have friends like that because it would wear us out. His is extraordinary because he stands out as someone unlike us. Or look at Dicey Tillerman. Cynthia Voigt crafted her to be quite different from ordinary. She doesn’t see things quite the same way that most of us see things. At times, she comes across as almost emotionless. We don’t follow her because we connect with her, but because we are curious to see how see will handle things. She’s no Superman, but she is an extraordinary character.

With extraordinary characters we have ordinary events. The Tillermans do one of the most ordinary things in the world, they walk. People do that every day and yet that is what the plot is about. We might find it boring if our ordinary friends told us about how much they walk every day, but when characters as interesting as the Tillermans walk, it’s interesting. But it also gives us a connection. Even though we know the Tillermans are doing things differently than the way we would do it, we can easily see ourselves in that same situation. We can see ourselves out on the road with little money and no transportation and we know how we would react. If we can easily imagine ourselves in a similar situation, the event is ordinary.

Friday, March 5, 2010

More Character Based versus Plot Based

Last time I talked about Character Based vs. Plot Based stories and after a lengthy post, about all I did was define what they are. Today, I would like to revisit the topic and discuss the topic Rachelle Gardner’s reader originally asked about, are there differences in how we should address sagging middles with character based versus plot based stories.

To reiterate, a character based story is one in which extraordinary characters are thrust into the ordinary stuff the rest of us do every day. A plot based story is one in which ordinary characters who are like us are thrust into extraordinary circumstances. With character based stories, the conflict exists because the character isn’t prepared for the ordinary. In plot based stories, the conflict exists because the character isn’t prepared for the unusual stuff he faces. In plot based story The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy is on a mission to get home, but between her and home is some of the strangest stuff you ever saw. In character based story Homecoming by Cynthia Voigt, the children are very distinct in their personalities, and they too have a journey they must take to find home, but it’s the ordinary that they struggle with. Just getting enough money to buy food is a struggle for them.

One of the best ways to avoid sagging middles is to write to the midpoint. In the middle of the novel we should have either a high point or a low point in which it seems like the protagonist has either succeeded or failed, but then we turn it around and discover that his success isn’t so great or his failure isn’t so bad. In The Wizard of Oz, the midpoint of the book is exactly the point at which Dorothy and her company meet the wizard. To this point, we thought that if she could just get to the Emerald City, the wizard could send her home, so this seems like the point at which the book is about to end, but it turns out that the wizard has no power to send her home.

In both kinds of stories we need that high point to prevent sagging, but the nature of what constitutes that high point is different. In Homecoming, the midpoint finds the children in the home of family. In a way, it seems like they may have found a place to call home, but we discover that it isn’t for them. The high point is ordinary in nature, whereas the wizard was extraordinary in nature. The reason the midpoint solution in Homecoming is unsuitable has to do more with the internal conflict of the characters, while in The Wizard of Oz it is more external. So, when you get down to it, there really isn’t that much difference in how we handle a plot based story and a character based story when dealing with sagging middles. The rules of what makes a good story apply equally well to both.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Character Based vs. Plot Based Stories

No doubt, you’ve heard of character based stories and plot based stories, but do you know the difference between a character based story and a plot based story? I get the impression that there is some ambiguity about the subject among writers, as is evidenced by the comment made by one reader to Rachelle Gardner’s blog, asking for a discussion of plot-driven stories versus character-driven stories. I don’t know if Rachelle will eventually address the comment on her blog. If she does, she may disagree with me, but here are my thoughts on the subject.

One way to look at the difference is that Character Based stories are about how interesting characters handle ordinary situations. Conversely, Plot Based stories are about how ordinary people handle extraordinary circumstances. That may seem simplistic, but it isn’t so far off. You may be wondering about stories involving interesting characters in extraordinary circumstances and ordinary people in ordinary situations. These stories almost always fall flat. We want our characters to be fish out of water as much as possible. Placing the extraordinary with the extraordinary and the ordinary with the ordinary doesn’t prevent us from telling a story, but it certainly doesn’t help.

Interesting Characters in Ordinary Situations

Superman is an interesting character. He’s "faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound." He’s the kind of guy that you would want to go shake his hand if he came into the room. He does fascinating things, but when we look at the stories told about him, it isn’t the stories of him overpowering the most powerful weapons that draw us in and hold us. The most interesting thing about the Superman stories are his relationship with Lois and his other friends. Superman is great, but Clark Kent’s struggle to maintain an ordinary life is what makes the story truly interesting.

Monk is another interesting character. He has an extraordinary ability to see things that other people miss. While we want to see him solve the crime, what made the show particularly interesting was that he was afraid of everything. Something as ordinary as walking down the street becomes an adventure. We don’t care to see him in a truly dangerous situation—anyone would be afraid of that—but we want to see how he handles everyday life because he handles it so differently than we would expect.

Ordinary Characters in Extraordinary Circumstances

Dorothy from Kansas with her little dog Toto has got to be one of the most ordinary of characters we can imagine. Had she stayed in Kansas, we wouldn’t have given her a second thought. There are so many people who have lived a similar life. Her story only becomes interesting when she visits the Land of Oz.

Where We Start

We sometimes get the impression that Character Based stories and Plot Based stories are a matter of the preferences of the writer. One writer likes to start with the characters while another likes to start with the plot. There may be some truth to that, but I think it is more about the source of inspiration. As a writer, I may see someone and because I am fascinated by this person, I try to think of what kind of story I might put him in. On the other hand, I might think of a fascinating story and wonder what kind of characters might be involved.

Suppose you were tasked with writing a story about an ordinary girl who lives with her step-mother and two step-sisters. We could have her run away and find a place in the forest to live, but it wouldn’t make much of a story because the problem is solved. She has moved to better living conditions and life is good. Instead, we introduce a prince who is looking for a bride. We forbid her to go to the ball and we give her a fairy godmother who will give her a way to go—the ordinary in the extraordinary.

Suppose we want a story about a beautiful princess who also has to deal with a wicked step-mother. We could send her off to live in her uncle’s palace in a far country, but that would be boring. Instead, we send her out to live with dwarves in the forest. Her step-mother discovers her hiding place and attempts to kill her with the most ordinary of things, an apple. After sleeping in a glass case for a long time, a prince kisses her and carries her off to live in his palace—the extraordinary in the ordinary.

Where the Work Is

In a character based story, the work is in creating the characters. Not everyone is interesting, so we have to spend some time thinking about what will draw our readers to the character. But once we figure out how the character will handle any given situation, it gets easier. The plot isn’t as important. Send Superman to the supermarket and he ends up stopping a car before it runs down an old lady with a shopping cart, but he has to do it without the people he is with discovering that Clark Kent is Superman.

For the plot based story, we don’t have to pay as much attention to the characters because they are like us. They are ordinary, average Joes. If you were to pull Oliver Twist out of the Dickens’ novel and send him to Oz, he would handle the situation very much like Dorothy did, though he might not be as anxious to go home. To make these stories worth telling, we must turn our attention to the circumstances of the story. These characters experience something that doesn’t happen to most people, but they are us and we experience these things vicariously.

In Closing

If you aren’t sure whether a story is character based or plot based, look at what happens and the characters involved. If exciting things happen to ordinary people, it is plot based and the focus is on the action. If interesting people do ordinary things, it is character based and the focus should be more on the personal relationships and internal conflict. If the two are intertwined and you can’t tell, then something is wrong and the story will be weak.