Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas, all. May you and your family have a blessed remembering of Jesus' birth.

Forensics and Faith will be back after the new year.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Amish Christmas

Cindy Woodsmall, NYT bestselling author of Amish fiction, talks to us today about Christmas.
The anticipation of celebrating Christ’s birth is all around us, and I can’t help but think of all the Christmases that have passed by so quickly. We are powerless to slow the movement of time, but we have the power to make this holiday season linger in the hearts of family, friends, and even strangers.


By mixing prayer, love, and time together into a beautiful concoction that makes good memories for others, helps out someone in need, and encourages everyone it touches.

It truly is an exciting season each year!

We don’t have to handle everything perfectly or try to fulfill each person’s wish list. We only need to follow Him and look for ways to touch hearts. Inside this newsletter, I hope you find useful ideas and encouragement for spreading love.

Romans 5:5 says, “And hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.”

First Peter 4:8 says, “Love covers a multitude of sin.”

If you get weary or stressed throughout the holidays, I hope you’ll take a relaxing breath and remember that the graciousness of love is the only way any of us can stand before God or each other.

The Amish celebrate Christmas in simplicity and tradition. They don’t include Santa, electric lights, tinsel, ribbons, fancy wrapping paper, or Christmas trees, but through simple and creative ways, they honor the season of Christ’s birth. Below are some ways we can keep our celebrations simple.

• Turn off the lights. Light candles (or even pull out old kerosene lamps) and set the mood for an evening of singing carols, telling favorite family tales, or reading Christmas stories with friends and family.

• Put away the tinsel and expensive decorations. Pull out old Christmas cards and string them along the walls in your living areas. Spend a moment thinking about each of the senders.

• Keep gifts practical. Think of “tools of the trade”—gifts that reflect and would be useful to what family members do in their respective professions. Additionally, homemade gifts are always appreciated.

• Show kindness to your neighbors. Bring your family and friends together to donate food, toys, and clothes to those friends and neighbors especially affected by the economy.

• Keep the kitchen a haven. Prepare food in advance whenever you can so that the day of festivities can be spent with ones you love. Don’t get crushed by the stress and expense of doing it all by yourself. Invite guests to bring their favorite traditional dishes.

• Make it a family affair. When it’s time to clean up, bring your family together in the kitchen. Talk about your favorite parts of the party while doing the dishes and wiping off counters.

• Be thankful. Giving thanks doesn’t have to end after Thanksgiving. Spend time telling loved ones how much they mean to you throughout the season and see how much joy it brings to them and you.

-- Cindy

About Cindy Woodsmall's latest--The Sound of Sleigh Bells

Remorse and loneliness echo inside Beth Hertzler from the life she once had. Children’s whispers and laughter call to her from a life she only dreams of. A gifted carver holds the answer to both within his hands—but can Beth step beyond yesterday in order to embrace tomorrow?

Friday, December 18, 2009 Launch!

A little over a year ago I and the other members of the ACFW (American Christian Fiction Writers) Advisory Board met with Christian bookstore owners and asked them, "What can our organization do to help you?" The resulting discussion was an exciting brainstorming session. What the bookstore owners needed, they said, was an easy way to lead customers to fiction titles to suit their tastes. is now that tool. Here's the press release on its launch:

ACFW, the nation’s leading Christian fiction writers’ organization, is launching, a new free resource for retailers, readers, media and other Christian fiction fans to search for authors and books. The search engine allows users to sort by author, title, genre, topic, publication date, and target audience.

Cynthia Ruchti, president of American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW), believes this trusted, easy-to-use resource is a significant development in the search for Christian fiction authors and new titles.

”The idea rose from a roundtable discussion between the ACFW leadership team and Christian booksellers looking for a better way to connect their customers with great Christian fiction,” says Ruchti. “ACFW responded by rolling up our sleeves and creating a comprehensive database to serve readers, booksellers, publishers, authors, book club coordinators, librarians and others on the hunt for information and inspiration.”

The site also allows readers to learn about the nature of the content of each book. Each title is rated for action, conflict, humor, mystery, romance, spirituality and suspense, in addition to more sensitive issues like language, sensuality and violence. Users can also post reviews to the site and learn more about soon-to-be-released titles.

The database is the first of its kind and is not limited to books written by ACFW members. The organization is also working with publishers to ensure Christian novels by other authors are incorporated as well.

ACFW’s presence as the voice of Christian fiction and its industry prowess has long been recognized, and its authors are a mainstay on bestseller lists. is the organization’s latest effort to make finding the best in Christian fiction as easy as possible for fans around the world.

Quick facts about

* Book information pages include facts about the publisher, main themes, setting and the author’s other titles.

* A special “similar books” section offers other titles the user may be interested in reading.

* Users can create an account with their preferences, making it easier to find new favorites.

Go check out right now.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Comparison of Bestseller Lists for November '09

The bestseller lists for CBA and ECPA are now in. CBA's "January" list and ECPA's "December" list both reflect sales in the month of November. Books appearing on only one list are highlighted in blue.

CBA (Numbers in parentheses reflect placement on CBA's Top Fifty List)

1. (3) Shades of Blue, Karen Kingsbury, Zondervan
2. (8) The Shack, William P. Young, Windblown Media
3. (18) Green, Ted Dekker, Thomas Nelson
4. (20) The Missing, Beverly Lewis, Bethany/Baker
5. (40) An Amish Christmas, Beth Wiseman & Kathleen Fuller, Thomas Nelson
6. (43) The Sound of Sleigh Bells, Cindy Woodsmall, WaterBrook
7. (45) Intervention, Terri Blackstock, Zondervan
8. Take Two, Karen Kingsbury, Zondervan
9. A Lineage of Grace, Francine Rivers, Tyndale
10. The Centurion’s Wife, Davis Bunn & Janette Oke, Bethany/Baker
11. Redeeming Love, Francine Rivers, Multnomah/WaterBrook
12. White Christmas Pie, Wanda Brunstetter, Barbour
13. Where Grace Abides, B. J. Hoff, Harvest House
14. Take One, Karen Kingsbury, Zondervan
15. The Great Christmas Bowl, Susan Warren, Tyndale
16. (Tie) Though Waters Roar, Lynn Austin, Bethany/Baker
16. (Tie) Plain Promise, Beth Wiseman, Thomas Nelson
18. The Silent Gift, Michael Landon & Cindy Kelley, Bethany/Baker
19. Measure of Mercy, Lauraine Snelling, Bethany/Baker
20. The Secret, Beverly Lewis, Bethany/Baker

ECPA (Numbers in parentheses reflect placement on ECPA's Top Fifty List)

1. (1) Shades of Blue, Karen Kingsbury, Zondervan
2. (6) The Shack, William P. Young, Windblown Media
3. (10) The Missing, Beverly Lewis, Bethany/Baker

4. (14) Intervention, Terri Blackstock, Zondervan
5. (23) An Amish Christmas, Beth Wiseman, Thomas Nelson
6. (24) Green, Ted Dekker, Thomas Nelson
7. (28) Take Two, Karen Kingsbury, Zondervan
8. (32) Where Grace Abides, B. J. Hoff, Harvest House

9. (34) The Sound of Sleigh Bells, Cindy Woodsmall, Waterbrook/Multnomah
10. (36) A Measure of Mercy, Lauraine Snelling, Bethany/Baker
11. (44) The Silent Gift, Michael Landon, Jr./Cindy Kelley, Bethany/Baker
12. (46) Redeeming Love, Francine Rivers, Waterbrook/Multnomah
13. (49) Though Waters Roar, Lynn Austin, Bethany/Baker
14. The Secret, Beverly Lewis, Bethany/Baker
15. A Lineage of Grace, Francine Rivers, Tyndale
16. Plain Promise, Beth Wiseman, Thomas Nelson,
17. Take One, Karen Kingsbury, Zondervan
18. A Cousin's Prayer, Wanda E. Brunstetter, Barbour
19. Cry in the Night, Colleen Coble, Thomas Nelson

20. Who Do I Talk To?, Neta Jackson, Thomas Nelson

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

What We Learned in 2009

Two days ago on Twitter/Facebook I asked, "What did you learn in 2009?" Turns out folks learned some pretty interesting things.

In 2009 I learned that:

A book doesn't get written by having good intentions. ;)

It's easier to bend when you are flexible (and I'm not just talking about yoga...)

More about Breast Cancer than I ever wanted to know!

"OPS" in baseball means "on-base plus slugging percentage." I always wondered.

A 5 y/o Musketeer's bar won't kill you (but it's still just as fattening).

Every dream is achievable...if you can dream it, you can BE it!!!

Some contracts aren't worth the paper they're written on. (Dial 911-LAWYERS?)

What a redwood looks like up close. A.W.E.S.O.M.E

Life changes and kids grow up whether you like it or not!

The only thing we can control in this life is how we react.

You can meet lot of new writer friends and network on Twitter.

How not to say something nasty about someone who hates you. Love can do wonders.

God truly blesses those who wait!

More about God's grace, how much there is, and how much I need it.

With God ALL things are possible!

A deeper understanding of trusting His timing.

God can perform miracles. It has possibly been the craziest and most wonderful year of my life.

The gift was not dead. Only hibernating.

This too shall pass.

Not to think I've got something nailed down too early.

I am a good writer and people will pay to buy my books.

I'm a pretty decent stand up comic. Fifteen hundred people can't be wrong, can they?

Life does get better after the death of a parent. The hurt scabs over, then the scab falls off and life goes on.

Jesus really does love me, just like the Bible told me so, and not in an abstract philosophical way, either. His love is fierce, protective, eternal and all powerful. No evil can stand up against it. Thank You, Jesus. Thank You for the Cross.

Trust in God, no matter what happens.

No matter how much faith you have in God, you still have to take action. He's not going to do the work for you.

You can meet lot of new writer friends and network on Twitter.

How not to say something nasty about someone whom hates you. Love can do wonders

God truly blesses those who wait!

More about God's grace, how much there is, and how much I need it.

With God ALL things are possible!

God restores!

God is present in all the transitions of life you don't want to go through.

You can't let circumstance get in the way of following a dream.

God does see our dreams and if we just believe he will make them come true.

No matter what happens, God is there. In the darkness, in the turmoil, in the fear, in the circumstance, He has already been there and will walk you thru it. EVERYTHING is Father Filtered.

A bit about the publishing process... and God used it to teach me patience.

No matter where I am the presence of God is.

Faith and trust is better for you than worry! I have put more faith in HIM and listened more for His leading and spent less time worrying about decisions in life. Turning things over and leaving it! It is AMAZING what God can do when you allow Him. More interesting things have happened to myself and my family this year because I learned to worry less and trust more.

I can actually write an entire novel (now 2)! I wish I had started sooner instead of being timid about it, but all in God's timing.

Patience, while waiting for answers from God; and a reminder that He is in total control, regardless of what the present circumstances might dictate.

Sometimes inquiry letters take time (years) to be answered, but when they are, it is quite profitable.

Inline functions are the work of the devil.

How to trust God for financial provision in a much deeper way this year. I've also grown in listening to the Lord with my husband - a new practice for us.

The US made a huge mistake on Election Day 2008.

To listen and act when I feel I am being led by divine intervention, instead of dismissing it as fancy.

How to make soap:)

That 2010 looks like it will be even worse.

How to get around with a broken foot.

God is more interested on our holiness than our happiness.

Being a grandmother is both a wonderful experience and a frustrating one...

"Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord."

After close calls with both my parents, I savor every opportunity to enjoy time with the ones I love.

Every moment with each person we love is so precious and fleeting. Enjoy it! That's the important thing I learned - well, I knew it already but was reminded. On the frivolous side, I learned the difference between a yo yo, saltine, and granny's daughter. LOL

I was putting my faith in someone other than He who is faithful. (Didn't realize I was doing that.)

I am not God. He has to remind me of this again and again when I get anxious about sales and other personal stuff.

How about you? What did you learn?

Yesterday I forgot to announce the winner for this month's Photo Friday. That winner is sharond, with this caption: "Gargle and spit" took on a whole new meaning when camping in the Smokies... Sharond, congrats! Please e-mail me with your address and choice of one of my novels at brandilyn (at) brandilyncollins (dot) com.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Happy 93rd Birthday to Mama Ruth

Yup, my mom, known to many as Mama Ruth, is 93 today. Going on, oh 45 or so.

This year Mom finally had to stop driving. Now she tootles around her retirement village in "Ruth's Rocket." Mom still does her half-hour exercises every morning, and can still bend over and put her hands flat on the floor. She continues to play a mean game of Scrabble. And those teeth of hers, which she decided to straighten with braces at age 88, are still doggone straight.

I am blessed to have the most wonderful mom on earth. A woman who loves deeply, gives generously, laughs often (including at herself), and embraces God and life.

Please take a minute and leave a Happy Birthday comment for Mama Ruth. She'll be so happy to hear from you.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Amazon's Book Upgrade

Sometimes a thing can stare you in the face, but you just don't see it. Such was the case with my discovering Amazon's book upgrade. As explained here, for a nominal extra fee certain books can be bought as a regular purchase, plus be available to you online. You can highlight the text, make notes, print it out, etc. This works great for how-to books, text books, etc.

For example, Amazon is selling my how-to book on fiction, Getting Into Character, for $10.85--a great price off the regular retail of $15.95. For an additional $1.59, still far under retail price, you can buy the upgrade.

Not all books are available for upgrade. If a certain book is available, you'll see the upgrade sentence right below the price information. Like this text, taken from the Getting Into Character page:

List Price: $15.95
Price: $10.85 & eligible for FREE Super Saver Shipping on orders over $25.
You Save: $5.10 (32%)

Upgrade this book for $1.59 more, and you can read, search, and annotate every page online.


The upgrade page gives details on how to buy upgraded books, and offers one for free, so you can see how it works. There's also an Amazon Upgrade store that you can peruse for available titles.

What do you think of this feature? Anyone ever used it?

Don't forget to vote for your favorite Photo Friday caption. (There's also still time to leave a caption.) Winner announced tomorrow.

Friday, December 11, 2009

It's Photo Friday!

And we're off again, with a picture worthy of winter. You know the game: write the most clever caption, win one of my novels (your choice). Write as many captions as you'd like and come back over the weekend to vote. I'll remind you to vote Monday also, and the winner will be announced Tuesday.

This picture was sent in by Jessica Collins. As a result, Jessica, you also win one of my novels. E-mail me at brandilyn (at) brandilyncollins (dot) com with your choice of book.

Have you taken a picture you think is worthy of Photo Friday? Send me a web-ready copy. I just might use it.

Now ... what is going on with this girl?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Things Look Bad? Make Them Worse

Want to write crackling fiction? Bestselling suspense novelist Steven James, author of The Pawn, The Rook, and The Knight, tells Forensics & Faith his secret.

Over the years as I’ve taught at writer’s conferences throughout the US and in India, I’ve found that too many people think of stories as a series of things that happen. But they are not.

When I was in elementary school, every year after we returned to school in the fall after summer vacation, the teacher would give us the same assignment: Write about what you did during the summer.

And we would write things like, “I went to camp and then I played video games and then I went swimming and then I fought with my brother . . . ”

I’m sure you can remember how brain-numbing these assignments were.

So, a few years ago when I was asked to speak to a fourth grade class on writing and telling stories, I said, “Kids, please do not tell me what you did over the summer, but could someone tell me about something that went wrong?”

A boy raised his hand and said, “My cousin came over to my house and we were having a contest to see who could jump the farthest off my bunk bed. ”
What a great opening line.

“He went first and he got pretty far and I said, ‘I can get farther than that. ’”

This kid was a natural.

“So I jumped off the top bunk, and the ceiling fan was on. I got my head stuck in the ceiling fan and it threw me against the wall, but I got farther!”
If I would have asked him what he did, he would have said that he played with his cousin, but because I asked him what went wrong he told me a story.

You do not have a story until something goes wrong.

I call this The Ceiling Fan Principle.

You do not have a story until something goes wrong.

At its heart, a story is about tension and tension is created by unfulfilled desire. So the secret to writing a story that draws people in and keeps them turning pages is to create more and more tension, not to make more and more things happen.

This shift in perspective will forever change how you shape and tell the stories that you write.

Romance stories are not about romance, they are about romantic tension. As soon as the actual romance happens, it is the end of the story.

Action stories are not about action, they are about unresolved problems. One event happening after another is not interesting for a reader, unless we can see what the unfulfilled desire of the main character is (surviving, saving the world, etc…)

That means that when you write a story, you are not asking yourself, “What should happen?” But rather, “How can I make things worse?” It also means that stories, at their essence, are neither character-driven nor plot-driven. All stories are tension-driven.

For example, you can write a fascinating description of a character or have five dozen chase scenes in your novel, but after a while we will grow tired of hearing about what the character is thinking or eating or wearing or doing if we do not know what their unfulfilled desire is. And we will grow tired of seeing car chases unless we know what the people chasing (or being chased) want.

Readers need to know what the character wants.

Readers need to know where the action is leading.

When I work on shaping one of my thrillers I am constantly asking myself how can I make things worse within the context of the character’s struggle. So, if the character’s struggle is depression, I have to lead them to the very edge of depression, the deepest and most hopeless situation imaginable. If her struggle is loneliness, I need to sharpen that loneliness to its most extreme limits.

Typically, the strongest stories will be centered on a protagonist who has both an internal struggle and an external struggle.

The internal struggle is a question that needs to be answered; an external struggle is a problem that needs to be solved.

Whether a story is considered character-driven or plot-driven, historical romance, cozy mystery, techno-thriller or literary fiction, this dual focus on the internal and external struggles of the main character will help snag readers’ interest and keep it. Genre will dictate which struggle takes precedent in the story, but all commercial fiction today needs both internal and external struggle.

To summarize, stop asking what should happen and focus instead on tightening the tension—making things worse.

Typically the worse you can make things for your protagonist (within the contexts of these two types of struggles), the better the story will be for your readers.

--Steven James

Steven is teaching a novel writing intensive, which accepts only 8-10 students. Four slots are left. For more info, go here.

Check out Steven's latest novel, The Knight, on Amazon.

Following Steven's advice--what can you make worse for your protagonist?

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Creating a Spiritual Theme in Your Novel

How do I weave a spiritual thread into my suspense novels with the intent of not sounding preachy? My main rule:

I don't think about it.

When my readers pick up one of my Seatbelt Suspense® novels, they can expect:

1. A fast pace, starting with page one
2. Multiple twists
3. Multi-layered characterization
4. A spiritual element that arises naturally from the cataclysmic events

When developing a story, I plot with points #1-3 in mind. In order to achieve #4, most of the time I set it aside completely. I plot what I can of the novel, then start writing. As I write, the characters deepen. My protagonist is always in a heap of trouble, to put it mildly. As she fights her way through the melee, spiritual questions will naturally arise. Most people, even if they've given little thought to God, tend to start thinking eternally when faced with crises and possible death. As I continue to write I ask myself:

1. Where was this character regarding her relationship to God on page one? Some of my protagonists aren't Christians at all in the beginning.

2. Given her background and the story events, what sort of doubts/questions would she begin to have? When a protagonist is well characterized, readers will feel her questioning in their own hearts.

3. How much time passes between the beginning of the book and the end? Many of my stories take place in very little time--some even in 24 hours or less. The spiritual character arc in such a short time can't be big, or it won't seem natural. But it's all relative. A match in deep darkness seems very bright. So a small moving toward God, or even a greater understanding in some way, can hit home as a bright spiritual truth.

Some tips to guide you in your own writing:

1. Story rules--let your characters drive the spiritual theme. Don't try to force the theme to be any stronger, or any more subtle, than what is natural for your story.

2. Take risks. Granted, the level of risk depends on many things--your publisher, your readership and genre. What about writing a story in which the spiritual element is entirely beneath the surface? Or writing a story in which the protagonist doesn't accept the spiritual truth presented to him/her?

Recently I watched The Godfather III again. In this final part of The Godfather saga, Michael Corleone desperately wants out of the Mafia. He wants to become a "legitimate" businessman. And he longs for true redemption, realizing that his style of life has cost him one family member after another. The movie incorporates the one-act opera Cavalleria Rusticana--which takes place on Easter Sunday and reenacts the crucifixion and resurrection. In attending this opera Michael is exposed to the promise of true redemption. He's also exposed to the promise of redemption through a conversation with Cardinal Lamberto, a truly spiritual priest who urges Michael to take his first confession in 30 years. Yet Michael keeps allowing himself to be drawn back into his old murderous lifestyle. In the end of the movie, Michael is an old man, sitting in a garden. There, all alone, he dies and falls from his chair to the ground.

I found the spiritual theme of Christ's offered redemption to be strong in this secular movie. In fact, I think it was strenghtened by the fact that the protagonist saw the Truth, was offered the Truth, but did not take it. And so he died alone and unredeemed. What a wasted life. But it was absolutely natural and right for the kind of man Michael Corleone was--and continued to choose to be.

3. Be prepared for some criticism. You won't please everyone with your level of spiritual theme, no matter how natural it is to the story. There will always be someone who says it's too strong, while another criticizes you for not including enough of it. But if you follow #1--Story rules--you'll know the spiritual content is just right for that particular story.

How about you? Do you find yourself trying to force spiritual theme/content into your novel? Do you think you have too weak of a spiritual theme? How might your protagonist(s) lead you in making it just right?

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Guest Posts on F&F

Do you have an idea for writing a guest post on Forensics & Faith? It would need to be a newly written piece covering one of the basics that we discuss here:

~ fiction craft
~ the writing industry
~ marketing and social media
~ the writing life

Remember that readers here cover the gamut of professionals in the industry--from aspiring writers to multi-published to editors and agents. Give us something to think about, learn from, act on.

If you have an idea in mind, please e-mail it to me in a one-paragraph summary. Send to: brandilyn (at) brandilyncollins (dot) com. If I think your idea fits our readership and isn't something we've recently covered, I'll get back to you.

Also, if you have ideas for certain guest posters you'd like to see here, please let me know in the comments.

Monday, December 07, 2009

What I Learned From Brandilyn About Writing Fiction

Today Forensics and Faith is pleased to participate in the official launch of the latest book from Christy-winning author, marketing guru, and Snowflake Guy Randy Ingermanson. Writing Fiction for Dummies is now hot off the press. Randy is running a special promotion today, Dec. 7, through Wednesday, Dec. 9, on his
web site. To see what kinds of free goodies you'll get if you buy Writing Fiction for Dummies (or if you've already bought the book), go here.

Randy Ingermanson is the award-winning author of six novels. He holds a Ph.D. in physics from the University of California at Berkeley and writes fiction about life at the intersection of Science Avenue and Faith Boulevard. Randy also publishes the free Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, the world's largest electronic newsletter on how to write fiction, with over 18,000 readers.

Here's what Randy has to tell us about Writing Fiction for Dummies:

I'm a big fan of Brandilyn's book on fiction writing, Getting Into Character. I'm a character-based fiction writer, so I'm always eager to learn more about how to develop characters in fiction.

One thing that I picked up from Brandilyn's book was the importance of "values" in defining a character. She talks about this in Chapter 1 of her book, and a lot of it was new to me when I read her book.

Please note that the word "values" is overloaded with all kinds of meanings. Different people use the word in different ways. In this post, I'm going to define exactly what I mean by "values"
and then explain why it's so critical to writing compelling characters in fiction.

I define a "value" to be "a core truth that is self-evident--a person believes this core truth without needing to give a reason."

Let's unpack that a little, since it seems different from what we usually mean by a "value." People often say that they value money, or family, or fame, or whatever. What does that have to do with "core truths?"

The answer is simple. If somebody "values" family, for example, then that really means that they believe the following: "Nothing is more important than my family."

Notice several things about this statement:

* It's stated as if it were a factually true statement.
* It actually is just the opinion of the speaker.
* It can't be explained or defended in terms of some deeper truth.

It is so "obviously" true to the speaker, that it cannot and need not be explained. (If there were some deeper truth that explained your value, then THAT would be the real value.)

Most people have a number of values that they hold true. In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson held that certain truths were self-evident--that all men were created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, etc.

A self-evident truth is self-evident--it need not be explained. In fact, it can't be explained. It's "obvious." That's what I mean when I talk about a "value". It's a core truth that is self-evident.

Please note that what's self-evident to Mary may not be self-evident to Joe. Different people have different values. That's what makes life interesting, and fiction too.

Please note also that what's "self-evident" to Adolph may not even be true. Some people hold fast to "core truths" that simply aren't true. No matter--those core truths are still values for them. This is not relativism. It's the opposite of relativism. It's a recognition that people can genuinely believe things that are flat out wrong.

A person's values determine much of who they are and what they want out of life. For example, the value of the Jackal in Frederick Forsyth's novel The Day of the Jackal is this: "Nothing is more important than living the good life." The Jackal is an assassin. He kills for money because it lets him live well.

The Jackal knows that money is the necessary means to live the good life. So his value leads immediately to a desire to retire in wealth and security. This is what I call an "ambition"--an abstract goal of a character. Ambitions spring from values. A key point to notice is that ambitions are abstract. They're vague and fuzzy. What does it look like to "retire in wealth and security?"

The answer comes into focus for the Jackal when he's asked to assassinate Charles De Gaulle. He knows that it's a high risk proposition, but he's willing to do it for half a million dollars (in
1962 dollars) because he knows that he can then achieve his ambition to retire in wealth and security.

That then becomes the Jackal's "story goal"--which I define to be his concrete goal for the story. The story goal MUST be some concrete action or thing or achievement that will fulfill a character's abstract ambition.

A good story goal has these five properties:

* Concrete (you can visualize it)
* Objective (if you reach it, everyone will know)
* Worthwhile (in the light of the character's values)
* Achievable (not a pipe dream)
* Difficult (not a walk in the park to get it)

When you have a story goal that is all of those things, you have a great story. The story reduces to this: "Will the character reach his story goal or won't he?"

In a nutshell, a value (a core truth) leads to an ambition (an abstract desire) which leads to a story goal (a concrete way to achieve the desire).

But there's more to values than that! A really interesting character has multiple values and they conflict.

The Jackal is not a deep character. He has one value. So let's look at another character with more depth.

Don Corleone, the lead character in Mario Puzo's novel The Godfather, has several values. Two of them conflict right from the start:

* "Nothing is more important than family."
* "Nothing is more important than respect."

The conflict begins early in the novel when Don Corleone's oldest son, Sonny, shows him disrespect in front of a rival Mafia gangster who is trying to do a business deal with Corleone. Corleone doesn't like the proposition. Sonny does, and he shows it--thereby dissing his father's judgment.

Corleone's two values now come in conflict. Does he value his son more than he values respect? Will he punish his son to maintain his respect? Or will he let his son slide and lose respect? He can't do both!

In the novel, Corleone fails to punish his son. Soon afterward, the spurned gangster guns down Corleone in the street, in hopes of doing a deal with Sonny. This launches a bitter gangster war that carries the reader through a long and complex novel.

All because of two values in conflict. Values matter. Values matter enormously in fiction. When a character's values conflict, the reader can't predict what will happen next. But the reader will believe whatever happens next, so long as it's in line with one of the character's values.

This is the secret to balancing believability with unpredictability in fiction.

There's more to be said about values, ambitions, story goals, and all that. Much more. Some of it I learned from Brandilyn. Some of it I learned other places. Some of it I pulled out of my own twisted little brain.

If you're interested in learning more about characters (and plot and theme and storyworld), let me point you to my new book, Writing Fiction for Dummies. You can find out more

Randy's launch freebies includes excerpts from writing books by numerous other authors, including my Getting Into Character. Don't miss the launch!

Friday, December 04, 2009

Hard Truths About Soft Platforms

My pal James Scott Bell has just seen a new book release: The Art of War for Writers. In the introduction Jim says:

The publishing business is a messy affair ... What I want to do with this collection is offer you some helpful observations based on more than twenty years in the fiction writing game. This is not a comprehensive "how to" on fiction. I've written two other books in that form. Rather, I seek to fill in some "cracks" in what is normally taught in writing books and classes.

The book is broken into three sections:

1. Reconnaissance: the mental game of writing

2. Tactics: The craft of writing

3. Strategy: Advice on the publishing biz

In celebration of the release of The Art of War for Writers I asked Jim to stop by Forensics and Faith today to talk to us about what's on his mind.

It's a pleasure to be guest blogging for my buddy Brandilyn on this, the launch tour of my new book: The Art of War for Writers. It's available in all the usual places. You can even download a free sample just by going here. I'll just say that it's a "field manual" for those fighting the battle to get – and stay – published.

So since I'm here blogging about it, it seems an apt time to bring up a certain buzzword, one you're all probably familiar with: platform.

What is a platform? It comes from the world of public speaking. It's something you stand on so you can yak at people. A lot of people.

Metaphorically, if you have a lot of people listening to you, you have a platform. And publishers like that because it means many of those people may buy your book.

Sounds simple. But platforms for fiction writers may have a trap door. We'd best talk about it so you don't fall through.

We have to distinguish between non-fiction and fiction. Non-fiction writers who specialize in a subject, or are known for something they’ve done, have a natural platform, namely all the people who are into the subject matter or celebrity thing.

So Suzie Orman, a recognized financial expert, can sell books because of her expertise. She can speak, and people who want financial advice will come and listen. At the back of the room her staff can sell books and DVDs. It's a money making operation.

Not so the fiction writer. We write stories intended to reach a diverse readership, which translates into: people who are hard to find.

The Internet seemed to be the way to handle that challenge. After all, a billion people use the Internet. All we have to do is set up a blog about our books, and we have a billion potential hits! Wow! Get just one percent to buy your novel (and they will, because of that snazzy book trailer!) and you've sold ten million books!

Of course, that was fifteen years ago in a dream. The reality is that in the flurry of Internet fog it's hard to get any attention at all. And even if you do (here it comes, the takeaway): That does not guarantee a fiction writing career for you.

As writer Simon Wood recently put it:

"There's a massive pinball effect with a writer’s work. Someone reads a story and likes it, so they check out something else I’ve written. That only works if what is out there is good. If it’s bad, it has the converse effect and they're unlikely to seek out other works."

Writers have simply got to understand it's not pervasive marketing that sells, but the stories themselves. You can market yourself to an introduction, but the readers will base future purchases on how much they like what they read, not on how many titles you have available on the Internet in digital form, or how many Twitter followers you have.

Unpublished fiction writers need to quit obsessing over platform, quit re-designing fancy websites, quit posting first chapters on Facebook, quit trying to jump start careers via Twitter. What they need to be concentrating on is writing a book readers can't put down--can't put down because the writer has spent years bleeding desire and passion and is unashamedly putting that on the page, using all the tools of the craft learned bit by painful bit by writing every day.

When you write books readers love, platform takes care of itself, because word-of-mouth and repeat readership are the only two planks that count.

Am I saying don't do any of this Internet or social networking stuff? Of course not. I do some of it. It's out there and you have choices. What I am saying is this:

Do what you can in the marketing/promotion matrix without:

1. Harming the quality of your writing;

2. Harming the quality of your family and personal relationships; and

3. Going into debt.

Follow those guidelines and write your best stuff. Doing so will drain all the anxiety out of the word platform.

Visit Jim's web site
Check out The Art of War for Writers on Amazon

What do you think? Do Jim's ideas of building a platform decrease your stress over the issue?

Thursday, December 03, 2009

My Top Ten Christmas Wish List

Now that the Christmas season is officially upon us, I present to you my wish list, taken from an original post I wrote four years ago, with updates. Some items haven't changed at all. Others definitely have. Anyone out there looking to send me a present, please feel free to select from one of these items:

1. New plastic packaging for CDs that a person can actually open. I would like to buy a CD, return to my car and not have to stab the thing, bite it, jab it with the car key, and generally make all manner of frustrated remarks about lack of user-friendliness.

Update: I rarely buy CDs anymore. Now it's iTunes. You can buy me a gift card there instead.

2. Decent customer service at businesses. You know, simple things, like—when you arrive, they look at you? Acknowledge your existence? Instead of focusing only on the current top person in line for minute after minute, after five, after ten, pretending you are not there so they don’t have to worry about all the time you are waiting when you really could be doing something else because goodness knows, you have better things to do than—

Update: No change here. Bad customer service still brings out the ranter in me.

3. A national rule that all online stores must include a phone number. There are times in life when the computer freezes, or we mess up in online ordering, and just might like to talk to a real person.

Update: Ditto #2.

4. A new DNA “I love to clean my room” gene that automatically kicks in during teenage years.
Update: All our children are now out of the house. Amazing how rooms stay clean. (I trained my husband years ago. Or did he train me?...)

5. While we’re at it, another gene for the teenage years that makes one violently sick to the stomach the minute the cell phone call/text message limit has been exceeded.

Update: I gave up long ago on this one. Put the ever-texting daughter on a plan with me and bought unlimited texts and oodles of minutes. It's cheaper.

6. A face cream that really does take away wrinkles. Every blessed one of them. Forever.

Update: Are you kidding? Need this one now more than ever.

7. A million new loyal readers. Overnight shipping on this one, please.

Update: Make that 2 million. Inflation, and all that.

8. The need for only four hours’ sleep a night. That way, when my entire day is unproductive, I can still crank out the pages from two to six in the morning.

Update: If only ...

9. A body that simply will not gain weight, whatever nonsense I eat.

Update: Ditto #8.

And most of all . . .

10. A perfectly executed, all-the-reviewers-love-it, internationally best-selling masterpiece that writes itself.

Update: Ditto #8 & #9. Times 1000.

Dare I ask what lovely new item might be on your list?

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

New Issue of Christian Fiction Online Magazine

The December '09 issue of CFOM is now out. It's full of helpful articles on the craft of writing and the fiction industry. Here are a just a few of the many:

1. Lying To the Reader, this month's article for my column "Making a Scene." This article on the balance between surprising a reader and lying to him/her grew out of the "Readers' Rants post done here on F&F back in June.

2. Do Book Trailers Work? by marketing guy Jim Rubart.

3. Being a Christian Writer in a Changing World by agent Terry Burns.

4. Author interview with Christy-winning thriller writer John Olson.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Five Top Reasons Why Aspiring Novelists Should Not Self-Publish

My word to the aspiring novelist who's thinking of self-publishing--"Don't."

These days self-publishing is easier than ever. Now even traditional publishers are starting to tout self-publishing arms. But that doesn't make SP the best choice for those who want to pursue a career in fiction.

Just to be clear before I continue--I'm not talking about self-publishing nonfiction. Nor am I talking about an established novelist choosing to use POD (print on demand) to reissue a novel that's fallen out of print. I'm talking only about the new novelist.

Five Top Reasons why aspiring novelists should not self-publish:

5. Self-publishing is Plan B. Let's be honest--what aspiring novelist would choose shelling out dollars to self-publish over being paid for a novel by a traditional publisher? If you want a career in fiction, Plan A is worth striving--and waiting--for.

4. Distribution. It's one thing to print a book. It's quite another to sell the printed copies to stores. First you must convince the bookstores to stock your product--and book shelf space is particularly tight these days. Stores are stocking less books even by novelists who've already made a name for themselves. Don't expect stores to readily stock your self-published book, regardless of the promises SP companies may make.

3. Marketing. It's bad enough now with traditional publishers. They all want to know how you will help market your novel. But at least you're part of a team. Going the SP route, it's just you. What's your platform? If you're not getting distribution to stores, you need to sell directly to readers. Are you willing to merely cover your costs? Even lose money? Are you prepared to see the novel you worked so hard to write sell only a few hundred copies, if that?

2. Editing. Yes, I know the SP companies may promise editing, based on how much you're willing to pay. In most cases the level of "editing" is far under what you'd receive from a traditional publisher. Sometimes it's nothing more than copy editing. The substantive "macro" edits for fiction--dealing with characterization, foundational story structure, dialogue, etc.--are likely to be lacking. Not good. Every novelist needs a good, hard edit. After writing 21 books, I sure wouldn't want to be without one. Even if you're promised a macro edit--how skilled is that editor in fiction? (All fiction editors are not created equal.)

And the #1 reason:

There's no shortcut to craft. This one's the hard truth, folks. If your novel has been rejected by numerous traditional publishers, most likely your craft hasn't yet reached the publishable level. I know this from firsthand experience. It took me ten frustrating, heart-wrenching years to learn my craft to the publishable level. If I had succumbed to the temptation of self-publishing anywhere along the way, I would have shortcut the learning of my craft. Instead I rewrote and rewrote my novels until they were ready. I became skilled in story structure, dialogue, multi-level characterization, symbolism, foreshadow and red herrings--all the aspects that make up my craft. I had to. It was either that or quit and abandon my dream. Learning to write fiction is hard work. It takes diligence and time. Self-publishing is a quick fix to the problem of multiple rejections. But it does not take the long-term view of building one's craft for a lasting career as a novelist.

Yes, I've heard of The Shack. To most rules you'll find a few exceptions. But for every The Shack, there are thousands of SP novels that sold little and did nothing for the writer's career. And yes, I've heard the arguments that a first novel may be ready in craft--but no publisher will touch it because of content. That's rarely true. If it's craft-ready, someone will eventually pick it up. Again, I speak from experience.

I could so easily have self-published Eyes of Elisha, my first suspense. Even when it was craft-ready--enough to garner the attention of multiple pub boards--the door was slammed on it again and again because of its content. That was only in 2000, but CBA (Christian market) fiction has vastly changed since then. Now CBA publishers wouldn't even blink at such a story. But I kept trying through my agent--and finally a door opened through Zondervan (a division of HarperCollins). Eyes of Elisha was published in 2001 and went straight to the CBA bestseller's list. Eight years later it's still in print and selling. I have two folders overstuffed with hundreds of e-mails and letters from readers who love Eyes of Elisha, and I now need to start a third.

I'm well aware of the controversy on the subject of self-publishing for a new novelist. I'm well aware that emotions tend to run high on the issue. I do not write this post to cast aspersions on those who have done so. I write it to encourage aspiring novelists to stay the course, keep learning, and earn your way into a traditional house. Those of you who have self-published your fiction--I encourage you also to keep learning your craft (as all we novelists must do) and work to see your next novel bought by a traditional house.