Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Recent Feedback

I’ve got six weeks ahead of me with some heavy writing to finish Coral Moon. At times like this—working hard, doubting that the story is any good, etc.—reader letters can sure keep me going. Especially from those who were spiritually impacted through the stories. Here are excerpts from some recent "spiritual impact" letters and reviews:

"Web of Lies made me realize that God does care for us, and He will provide answers in His time if we trust Him to do so. He also wants to heal our past hurts."

"The spiritual aspect of Web of Lies really spoke to me. Satan is relentless in his lies. I fight the same false guilt as Annie, and I battle feelings of unworthiness. I need to get rid of Satan's influence, not listen to his lies, and live in the freedom of Christ. But part of me feels I deserve to be bogged down. More lies, I know."

"Like Annie, too many times I listen to Satan's lies about my worth in God's eyes, instead of listening to and remembering the many, many truths about how God sees me. Having gone through a major job change this year at God's leading has had me questioning my worth again. God used Web of Lies to remind me that He called me to write. And He will enable me to do the best job I possibly can."

"The revelation that God doesn't let us know everything up front rang true with me. Web of Lies made me reflect on how so many times in my own life, God hasn't revealed things to me in advance, and that's a good thing because I'm not always spiritually mature enough or brave enough to face some obstacles. I think God allows us to see things only when we're able to handle those things and when we're strong enough to let go of our own abilities and rely on His strength."

"I love how Web of Lies provides engrossing entertainment but also a real call to action of turning to God for spiritual guidance."

"I loved the spiritual aspect of Web of Lies in addition to the greatly-entertaining suspense. Brandilyn's writing makes her readers think about how important prayer is in every circumstance in life, even circumstances as scary as the characters face in this book. This book is a great illustration of the importance of praying and putting one's trust in God."

"Dead of Night had me completely enthralled. On the Christian side, I am a Christian, but not as strong as [Annie] shows she is. I did pull out my Bible again and am trying to start this new year off right and spend at least a half hour reading and meditating as Annie did."

"I have been disabled for 10 years. When I am in pain, I READ. I recently found Dead of Night at the library and was so surprised. I love who-dun-its. I read authors like Janet Evanovich, Kay Hooper, Iris Johansen, and James Patterson. The only thing I have against some authors is their bad language. Thank you for giving me the type of books I love to read and yet you keep it clean. Thank you also for encouraging all who read to pray and believe no matter what. I've seen times recently when I've had trouble praying for a few people who have hurt [people I love]. I do love the Lord and know He takes care of things in his time. Thank you for reminding me that I am only human and that God understands."

Christian fiction does change lives. Even if it's about spiders and crazy serial killers. :)

Monday, January 30, 2006

Frey Updates

I left off Friday wondering how the repercussions on the Frey issue would play out. Here are a few immediate reactions.

From the New York Times:

And on the second day, Doubleday shrugged.

Two days after an investigative report published online presented strong evidence that significant portions of James Frey's best-selling memoir, ''A Million Little Pieces,'' were made up, the book's publisher issued a statement saying that, in essence, it did not really matter.

''Memoir is a personal history whose aim is to illuminate, by way of example, events and issues of broader social consequence,'' said a statement issued by Doubleday and Anchor Books, the divisions of Random House Inc. that published the book in hardcover and paperback, respectively. ''By definition, it is highly personal. In the case of Mr. Frey, we decided 'A Million Little Pieces' was his story, told in his own way, and he represented to us that his version of events was true to his recollections.

''Recent accusations against him notwithstanding, the power of the overall reading experience is such that the book remains a deeply inspiring and redemptive story for millions of readers.''

Quite a final paragraph. Nuh-uh, I say. Readers approach a novel and a nonfiction book in different ways. Both can be redemptive. I’ve had plenty of letters from my own readers whose spiritual lives have been impacted by my stories. But Oprah’s apparent indignation was that she approached Frey’s book as someone who was reading truth. And the “truth” of the story—that someone could really live through the degradation that Frey claimed he had and pull himself out of it—was “redemptive.” (If Oprah loves tales of redemption, by the way, I suggest she eschew the druggie stories and read the Bible.)

Despite Doubleday’s public reaction, I wonder what’s really going behind the scenes. It’s clear that Frey lied to his publisher, insisting everything in his story was true. (He made public statements to the same effect.) Is this a mere matter of money? Hey, author, lie to us all you want, as long as you sell 3 million copies?

Further on in the NYT article:

But William Zinsser, the author of several classic studies of the memoir genre, including ''Writing About Your Life: A Journey Into the Past,'' said the most important element in the genre's power is truth.

''I think that the strength of the memoir comes from history and from the truth of what people did and what they thought and experienced,'' Mr. Zinsser said. ''That is more rich, more surprising and funny and emotional and compelling than anything that could be invented.''

From another NYT article:

There was a bit of a panic among publishers this week. St. Martin's Press hurriedly put a warning sticker on Augusten Burroughs's latest memoir, "Possible Side Effects," due out this spring: "Author's note: Some of the events described happened as related, others were expanded and changed. Some of the individuals portrayed are composites of more than one person and many names and identifying characteristics have been changed as well."

Ballantine announced it would no longer ship two memoirs by Nasdijj, supposedly an inspiring Native American writer from the Southwest who said that as a child, he was "hungry, raped, beaten, whipped, and forced at every opportunity to work in the fields." The L.A. Weekly learned that Nasdijj was really Timothy Barrus, a white middle-class man from Michigan who had written gay porn.

Again from NYT:

One former publisher said he believed that the publishing industry would have to change its practices at the behest of its biggest patron, Ms. Winfrey. Laurence J. Kirshbaum, who recently retired as the chief executive of the Time Warner Book Group and who now runs his own literary agency, said in an interview yesterday that "there is no question what she said will have a far-reaching impact on our business."

"Agents, publishers and authors are all going to have to be much more cautious in the way they approach the nonfiction market," Mr. Kirshbaum said. "Traditionally, publishers have not done fact-checking and vetting. But I think you are going to see memoirs read not only from a libel point of view but for factual accuracy. And where there are questions of possible exaggeration or distortion, the author is going to need to produce documentation."

As for the author himself, this from CBS News:

Frey's career will likely never recover, although so far he has not suffered for sales. His book, a million seller thanks to Winfrey, remained in the top 5 Thursday on Amazon.com. A second memoir, "My Friend Leonard," was in the top 20.

He must still answer to his current publisher, Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Group USA. In a statement Thursday, the publisher said there "very serious issues" with "My Friend Leonard," which refers to the jail term he never served, and "we are treating them that way." Regarding his recent two-book deal, Riverhead said, "The ground has shifted. It's under discussion." A novel is scheduled to come out in 2007.

Speaking of novels, Frey’s “memoir” started out that way. (If you decide to believe Frey on this one.) From his interview with Larry King:

Larry King: There's a story around that you offered this to a lot of publishers as fiction. It was turned down, and then you changed it. Is that true?

Frey: We initially shopped the book as a novel. It was turned down by a number of publishers as a novel or as a nonfiction book. ... Nan Talese ... thought the best thing to do was to publish it as a memoir.

King: Why did you shop it as a novel if it wasn't?

Frey: I think of the book as working in a long tradition that great American writers have done in the past, people like Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Kerouac and Charles Bukowski.
King: But they all said fiction.

Frey: Yeah, they did. At the time they lived, the genre of memoir didn't exist.

Friday, January 27, 2006

James Frey on Oprah

Oprah’s shakedown yesterday with James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, and his Doubleday editor, Nan Talese, was a mixture of indignation (Oprah), anemic admissions (Frey) and denial of culpability (Talese).

Oprah approached the show with a somber tone, quickly quieting her applauding audience. Regarding her phone call to Larry King, in which she initially defended Frey, she said, "I made a mistake. I left the impression that the truth does not matter, and I am deeply sorry about that because that is not what I believe." She was “embarrassed” over the entire situation. Sitting down with Frey, she began, “I really feel duped. More importantly, I feel you betrayed millions of readers. As I sit here today, I don't know what is true, and I don't know what isn't."

Frey supplied often waffling answers to Oprah’s questions about events depicted in his book. Did he really spend 87 days in jail? Well, no it was only “a couple hours.” Did Lilly hang herself? No. She cut her wrists. Did he really have a root canal without Novocaine? Well, he wasn’t sure.

I was listening hard, but never did I hear Frey apologize. And although he admitted The Smoking Gun’s report of his fabrications was “pretty accurate,” never did he use the word “lie.” Some events in the book merely “were altered.” And he “made a mistake.” He used the word “mistake” so often that Oprah finally pressed, “Did you ‘make a mistake’ or did you lie?” Frey’s answer: “Probably both.”


Frey called the people in his book “characters.” Not real people with real stories, as he has insisted to the world since its publication in 2003. Just “characters.” Apparently fashioned as he pleased.

At the show’s end, Frey said, “If I come out of this experience with anything, it’s being a better person for it, learning from my mistakes and making sure I don’t repeat them.”

You go, guy. But your journey to that “better person” might be a little shorter if you fully admitted your wrongs.

Richard Cohen from the Washington Post noted, “The first part of getting over an addiction is facing the truth.” Seeing as how Frey’s “redemptive” book (as Oprah initially toted it) was all about his comeback from crime and addiction, his lack of veracity turns his entire bad guy story into pap.

Does anybody else see a cultural meltdown in this, by the way? Frey fabricated his crimes and level of debauchery to make himself look good. ?? What happened to the days when people used to lie to cover their crimes?

“Remember the truth,” Frey wrote in his book. “It’s all that matters.”

Editor Nan Talese took no blame for anything. She read the book, was moved by it, and wanted to buy it, period. During all the months of in-house process at Doubleday, she nor any other editor fact-checked the wild events in the book (They were obviously pretty easy to check, as witnessed by The Smoking Gun’s report.) Frey said they were true, so it must be so. She called the whole situation “sad” for everyone. She did note that further printings of the book will not take place until they can include a note written by Frey explaining what is true and what is not.

A day late for Doubleday, but a dollar short? We’ll see. The hold on reprinting may cost sales in the short term, but will this continued controversy sell more copies of the book than ever?

Journalist Roy Peter Clark, Senior Scholar at the Poynter Institute, got to the heart of the matter. If we know one part of a book is a lie, we’re likely to take all of it into question, he noted. Then we will question other memoirs. This is key to Oprah, whose next Book Club pick is Night, a memoir by a Holocaust Survivor. (Night was chosen before this controversy arose.) As Clark points out, there are those who already doubt the Holocaust occurred.

Here’s hoping Frey’s flagellation will lead publishers to check so-called memoirs more carefully. Not a bad thing in this age of fuzzy truth. At the end of her show, Oprah quoted one journalist who said this issue has shown “how much value contemporary culture places on truth.”

Does it? Let’s wait and see how all the repercussions play out.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Comments on Comments

I’m following up on some questions from yesterday. First, Karen, thank you for your kind comments about Web of Lies. Great to hear you read it twice.

Lori had this question on manuscript length:

What about us writers who write Big Fat Historicals? Before I wrote them, I read them, and am still inclined to pick up a book 500-1000 pages long over one that's 200 or 300 pages long. As a reader, I revel in the complexity of world-building (I don't mean fantasy, but historical world building). Do you see a market for l-o-n-g historicals in CBA?

Well, 500 pages and up is kinda long, but in general, historicals are longer than suspense novels. (Fantasy and sci-fi novels are longer too, due to that world-building aspect.) I’d say 100K to 120K words is considered pretty normal for a historical.

Acceptable page length is often directly related to the author. An established author can get away with writing what is considered a longer book for his/her genre than a new author. Longer books are more expensive to publish. More signatures (16 pages each) and more cost to ship. Plus they take up more shelf space. And in a cost-competitive world, the publisher can’t just raise the price of a book by a dollar or two to cover the cost of these extra pages. So, if you’re writing a novel, do remember that its page length figures into the projected bottom line when a publishing house is considering it. Doesn’t mean you write a one-signature book, of course. It’s equally important that the reader feels he’s getting adequate hours of entertainment for his money.

Now for the book cover comments.

From Becky:

So interesting that it was the ABA outlets that nixed the snake [for Violet Dawn’s cover]. I didn't even know they would see the cover before it was all ready for the shelves. Learn something every day. Add to my learning--ABA stores are as much "gatekeepers" as CBA stores.

I need to clarify. It wasn’t ABA store owners who said they didn’t like the cover. These folks, indeed, don’t see a cover in its tweaking stages. It was Zondervan’s own sales employees to service those ABA accounts. The sales and marketing folks at a publishing house often see a cover in its initial stages so they can comment on whether they think it’ll help sell the book. These folks know what their constituents like.

Now why would these ABA'ers want the snake gone??? It's a suspense book after all.

Although my books do cross the gender line, the majority of my readers are women (since the protagonists are women). The ABA sales people felt that women would be turned off by the snake.

Here’s the interesting thing. If you look at ABA suspense covers from the likes of Dean Koontz, Mary Higgins Clark or James Patterson, you’ll see that they’re not spooky. They have a suspenseful element to them, but nothing like spiders or snakes or skulls.

It’s an interesting phenomenon that Christian suspense has gone the more graphic cover route than the ABA. Now that CBA publishers and authors are reaching more ABA readers, we apparently have to scale back so we won’t offend their sensibilities.

From Johnny Dangerous:

I had no say at all in my book covers. Since a cover is a marketing tool above all, the marketing people made all decisions. I liked the first book's cover (The Throne of Tara, Crossway) and disliked the second book's cover very much (Relics, Thomas Nelson) since it looked like a romance novel. The German translations' covers were much better. When the first book went out of print I had it re-issued via iuniverse, and they asked me for cover suggestions. It turned out fine.

It varies house to house whether or not an author will have a say in his/her book covers. In all of my fiction with Zondervan, I’ve had a lot of say. First, months ahead of time the artist asks me about my ideas for the cover. What are aspects of the story that should be conveyed through the artwork? In time the artist comes up with around two to five ideas for the cover and presents them to the marketing folks at Z. The choices are usually whittled down, and I’ll be sent two or three. Usually. Last time they whittled Violet Dawn down to one choice before sending it to me for my reaction. Once I see the choices I can ask for tweaks. “I like this aspect on A cover, and this on B cover—can we combine them?” Etc. (It helps that I have a background in designing marketing materials.) The covers are then tweaked, sometimes twice, and then to final. The difference with Violet Dawn is that we had a final—until the ABA sales folks saw it. For some reason they were shown the cover late in the process. They were so strong in their opinion, apparently, that the snake simply had to go, and that was that. The result is a cover that Zondervan and I still like very much. In fact, the marketing person says she likes it better this way.

By the way, Web of Lies (just released) contains the beginning of Violet Dawn at the back. You’ll see a prologue and first chapter. Ahem. Let’s just say this changed a bit in the rewrite, but all in all, you’ll get the picture. And if you were wondering why the snake was placed on the cover in the first place—you’ll wonder no more.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Judging a Book by its Cover

A couple days ago Cara asked a question about the length of manuscripts these days. “Are publishers looking for shorter books? 80K rather than 100K?”

I think in general they are. 80K might be considered short, but it depends on how you write. (For example, my writing tends to be very tight, with dropped words and such, so my word count is under what someone might guess.) Generally, I think an 85K-90K manuscript this day is considered good. Especially for a first-time author.

Now for today’s topic. Well, well, guess what. Recently I had a phone meeting with the marketing person at Zondervan. She informed me that the cover to Violet Dawn had seen a change. Change? It was supposed to be a done deal. Those cool branches through my name. The violet colors. The water.

The snake.

Guess what got nixed.

Seems the serpent was thought a little too spooky for some. Who? you might ask. Answer—not the Christian markets. The general ones. Z’s sales people for places such as B&N, Costco, WalMart and the like said it should go. Meanwhile the sales folk for the mom and pop Christian independents said nothing.

What’s this world coming to?

The final cover is a “big book look,” according to Z’s marketing guru. It is nice. Great colors. And I still love the branches through the name thing. But I kinda miss ol’ Slither Face. It does make me wonder about the Hidden Faces covers and their spookiness. How’d we get away with that for the past four books?

You can see the final result for Violet Dawn

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

E-Mails From Characters--Part 3

Then came the message from “Alice.”

Saw your e-mail.

This one really got me. It happened so suddenly. Not fifteen seconds had passed since a character in my story had typed an e-mail to Alice. Had “breathed a prayer to any god in the universe” that she would answer. She had to answer—his career depended on it.

And there—at the top of my own inbox—she had.

I gaped at the name. No last name, just Alice.

I didn’t know any Alice.

Besides 99 percent of the time, e-mails arrive with a first and last name. How could this be, that a mere Alice would write?

But of course, it fit. The Alice in my story didn’t use a last name.

This can’t be happening. I glanced furtively around the office, looking for Rod Serling. Waiting for Twilight Zone static to cue.

In Getting Into Character I admit that in times of real life high drama, I split into two people. One is the person caught in my body, reeling with emotion. The other is the Novelist, who floats up to the top of the room like some spirit fascinated by humankind to watch and record. Hm, interesting reactions. I’ll have to remember this.

My body felt the needles. The sense of a trapdoor opening to an unknown world, my neat little package of reality vs. fiction poofing away in smoke. These things I felt, while the Novelist greedily recorded.

This was what I put my suspense characters through every day.

As with Pat’s e-mail, Alice’s, too, I didn’t want to open. I didn’t want to lose that stunning sense of disequilibrium, of feet missing floor. The questions of what would come next, and how would I react? And what would I do?

And so the Novelist observed and noted. In time the notes ran out. Curiosity set in, then took over.

I opened the e-mail.

Had it been the Alice from my book, she would not have been happy. In fact, she’d have come out swinging. Threatening. Yelling. Because she would have been very, very scared.

The Alice in my post did not sound like this.

Quite the opposite. She was friendly. Encouraging. “I saw your e-mail on the loop,” she said, “and just wanted to tell you . . .”

Ah. A writers’ loop. I’d written some message to it. She’d read it and was intrigued. She was reaching out, introducing herself.

The rest of my memory is a blur. I can’t remember the post I originally wrote, or why she was responding. I’m not sure I even took it in as I read her words. My mind still throbbed with the memory of pinpricks and shock . . .

I’ve employed that eldritch moment numerous times in my writing. It’s become one of those rich bits of emotion memory—the anxiety and disquiet, the sense of estrangement from reality. And to think it all took place in such an otherwise quiet space of time. By myself. No dialogue. Little movement. Just sitting in front of my computer—reacting to an unexpected sight.

You never know where glowing pieces of emotion memory will come from. They are invaluable in writing. Soak them in, live the moment, record, record. Even now what I remember most of “Alice’s e-mail” is not the events, not the outcome. It’s my emotion in those interim moments.

Immersed in their richness, I can almost believe character Alice did e-mail me.

Monday, January 23, 2006

E-mails From Characters--Part 2

You think I’m making this all up, don’t you? Or perhaps at least embellished the stories a bit. After all, I am known for . . . giving the truth scope.

But these two stories remain unembellished.

There’s a nebulous, shifting line between novelist and created character. Sometimes I feel all too harshly the Novelist, driven to write, thanks to a deadline, whether I feel like it or not. I feel the weight of my own body in the chair, my fingers on the keys, my eye staring at the screen. Wishing I could block it all out and become the character. Push through that ethereal curtain into the dimension of my Novel World, feel the character as she fights her way through the impossible scenario in which she’s been placed.

I have experienced times of writing when I’m so into the character and scene that it’s hard to pull away. The clock says I must make dinner for the family, leave for an appointment. Without looking in the mirror, I know my eyes are glazed. I bang pots and pans in the kitchen or drive down the street, brain elsewhere, lingering in that Novel Dimension. In such frame of mind I almost expect to see my antagonist lurking on the street corner, or a Journey Mentor flagging me down to impart advice.

But this was not my state when the e-mails arrived from my characters.

Oh, I may have gone there sometime during writing those two books. But not on the auspicious days of which I speak. How I wanted to lose myself in the characters completely. But on those particular days, I was too firmly entrenched in the Novelist Groaning to Create. Trying to get things just right, but not really feeling it. Shoulders slumped under the despairing belief that my characters did not grip, the pages of type did not sing.

Then, whap. “Pat” e-mailed me from beyond the grave.

We haven’t talked for a while.

I stared at the subject line, my body suddenly ripped from Novelist to Novel Dimension. Only I got tangled in the separating curtain. Half of my mind believed the e-mail. I’d killed this character; no wonder Pat was ticked off and wanted to discuss a few things. The other half screamed it couldn’t possibly be true.

Novelist side won.

My brain started flipping through its address book. Who did I know named Pat? When had I talked to a Pat before?

Zilch answers to both questions.

Well. Thank goodness for Internet anonymity. No screen would show my face as I read the message. No telephone wire would transmit my voice, which no doubt would have trembled. All I had to do was click on the post. Absorb the words alone and unwatched.

Still I hesitated. Not because I was frightened to think a dead character had somehow managed to contact me. No. I was afraid to learn that he hadn’t. Because for that pendent moment I’d been flung closer to my storyworld than I’d been in a long time. And I didn’t want to leave it.

I opened the e-mail.

I tend to be a helping person. Glad to give, quick to encourage. Even then—a number of years ago—I’d been in contact with more people than I could remember about writing. Answering their questions, giving feedback on some scene.

Somewhere along the way, I’d evidently responded to this person Pat.

He wanted to tell me—the Novelist—the latest on his writing. How hard he’d been working. How he now had a lead on an agent. That he was so very thankful for the advice and direction I’d given him months ago, for it had placed him on the right course. How some day soon he’d be published, as I was. And we’d meet at some event, and he could finally tell me in person how grateful he was for my help.

I read the e-mail three times. Let the words sift through my soul.

After that, I gazed out the window for a while.

I’d so wanted to stay in my storyworld. But each time I looked back to the computer to re-read that post, I settled further back into the real world of mere Novelist.

Funny thing. At that moment it didn’t seem like such a bad place to be after all.

Read Part 3

Friday, January 20, 2006

E-mails From My Characters

To D. Gudger: Yesterday in the comments you asked a question about passive verbs. I suggest you google "passive verbs" and take a look at the six or seven first sites that come up. If you're still confused, please let me know.

And now, today--the story I haven’t yet told. How I received an e-mail from one of my characters. Twice.

Note: These strange events occurred before the days of spamming. At the time, if you received an e-mail, it was for you.

So as not to release any story spoilers, I won’t reveal the book titles or name of the characters.

Occasion one. I ended up killing off a pretty major character. (Whom I shall call Pat.) Had no idea I was going to do this when I started the book. But I realized, the way events were coming together, that I had to do it. The story written at its best required it.

Well, drat it all. Didn’t want to do it. I really liked Pat. I knew it would be a tearful time for me, forcing this character to kick the bucket. But I figured if it’s gut-twist time for me, it oughtta make for a gut-twist time for my readers, too. And I’m all into intestine-kinking, so there you go.

I did the deed.

Man. Then I had to deal with the fallout in the story. Some pretty hard stuff. I slogged my way through writing the scenes, milking ’em for all the emotion I could.

I reached near the end of the book. I was pretty emotionally spent by that time. The story had been one of the tough ones to write. I missed Pat. At the same time, I wasn’t sorry I’d made my decision to do Pat in. The story was, indeed, better for it, and went places it couldn’t have gone otherwise.

In the book, this character’s name is kind of an unusual one, and there’s more than one way to spell the name. I didn’t know anyone by that name in real life. Especially with that spelling. Leastways I couldn’t remember ever talking to anyone by that name.

One day after writing a particularly grueling scene, I finished my word count with must relief. Closed my eyes and rested a minute, thinking, “Sheesh, this writing thing is tough. Characters can really get under your skin.”

Thinking I’d better snap myself out of it, I clicked on my usual distraction—e-mail. Up came this message in my inbox. From line: the character’s first name. Spelled the same way.

Subject line: We haven’t talked for a while.

I blinked. Hard.

That was one surreal moment. My character was calling me from the grave. No doubt wanting to discuss a certain story decision I’d made . . .

Second occasion. I was slogging my way through another book, also very hard to write. The story had over a dozen POV characters and numerous subplots, all coalescing in the end. Each subplot and the main plot had all this . . . stuff going on.

Two thirds of the way through the book, one of the major characters stumbles on something big. I’ll call him Dan. He makes a terrific gamble, deciding to send someone an email. I’ll call her Alice. If this e-mail to Alice works, it could mean a huge break in the case for Dan. For his career. For his entire life.

He only knows Alice’s first name.

Keep in mind—in real life, I did not know an Alice.

So here I am, writing the scene. Really into it, but also longing to be done for the day. I’m sweating it out through character Dan, who’s about to send the e-mail. He’s figuring just what to say, how to say it. He has to get it exactly right. He has to convince Alice to write back . . .

I type the words to his e-mail.

End the chapter with this line: He clicked the send button and breathed a prayer to any god in the universe that Alice would respond.

I lean back with a huge sigh. Oh, thank goodness. Writing’s over for the day. I save the file, close out Word. My head still swimming with the story, needing some serious decompression, I click into email. Within 15 seconds of finishing that scene, I’m staring wide-eyed at the top e-mail in my inbox.

Subject: Saw your e-mail.

From: Alice.

Read Part 2

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Various bits of CBA News

From the CBA world:

1. Zondervan Releases iPOD Bible

Aspiring Retail magazine reports that this iPod TNIV version Bible releases in February and will be available in Apple retail stores as well as general and Christian bookstores. Selling for $39.99, it features the complete TNIV in both audio and text formats, plus study notes from the Student Bible, a subject guide, and 10 topical two-week reading plans.

The audio Bible DVD allows users to install audio and text files into their iPod. Then they can select a book, chapter and verse to begin to listen and read along. The iPod screen displays the text and links to the Student Bible study notes.

2. The Visitation movie releases this weekend

Fox Home Entertainment is releasing The Visitation, based on Frank Peretti’s novel of the same name, in at least 200 screens in 20 markets nationwide. The story is about a mysterious stranger who arrives in a small town and begins performing miracles. Some see him as a prophet, but others believe he’s a dangerous and evil fraud. The movie will also release on DVD on February 28. The movie is produced by Ralph Winter (Fantastic Four, X-Men). Fox’s million-dollar marketing campaign is targeting Christian as well as general audiences.

3. The Christy Miller series by Robin Jones Gunn is re-releasing in hardback

The Christy Miller series has sold over 2 million copies and has been an absolute favorite of preteen and young teenage girls for years. My own daughter grew up reading these books and loving them. I’ll never forget two and a half years ago, when my daughter was 13, and met Robin in person for the first time at the Christy Awards banquet (not to be confused with the name of Robin’s series). My daughter was so excited. “I love your books!” she told Robin.

Now these books will be available with new covers and in hardback for the first time. Each volume, selling for $14.99, will contain three of the Christy Miller books. Release dates: Volume 1, January; Volume 2, March; Volume 3, March; Volume 4, May.

Robin Jones Gunn is also the author of the contemporary Sisterchicks novels.

4. CBA Fiction Appearing More on Top 50 Bestseller List

This is a personal observation that I’m going to continue to watch.

You probably know there are various bestseller lists within the Christian market. You can access them at the
CBA Web site. The fiction list has sure seen its changes in the past few years. When my first novel was published in 2001, there were two lists—one for hardcover and one for soft cover. Then they spread to three genre-based lists—romance, historical, and contemporary, with hardcover and soft covers thrown together. About a year ago the list was narrowed down to only one with 20 slots, covering all genres and both hard and soft cover. Obviously, it’s a much harder list to make.

There’s another list within the CBA market that weighs in as the most important—the
Top 50 bestsellers. This list mixes nonfiction and fiction. Usually a nonfiction tops this list (although there have been some exceptions), and the entire list has been very nonfiction-heavy. The fiction bestseller list shows when a novel also makes the Top 50 list by placing its ranking on that list in parentheses.

At the beginning of 2005, if my memory serves me correctly, usually only about the top four books on the fiction bestseller list would make the Top 50 list. As I watched the Top 50 month to month, I noticed two things. One, the number of fiction titles included each month grew. Two, the ranking of those fiction titles moved further toward the number one slot of the Top 50 list.

The current Top 50 list (February) includes a whopping 16 fiction titles—the most I’ve seen to date. (Although CBA hasn’t posted its February fiction list yet, we can assume those 16 Top 50 titles will take slots 1-16 on the fiction list, which should be posted in a few days.) Granted, 5 or 6 of these fiction slots go to various editions of the Chronicles of Narnia books. These are selling very high right now due to the movie. Even so, that’s a lot of fiction titles on this Top 50 list.

Hm. Either the monthly numbers for units sold of bestselling nonfiction titles are way down, or the monthly numbers for units sold of bestselling fiction titles are way up.

I’m happy to bet on the latter.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

End of the Spear

In yesterday’s comments Bonnie asked a question about genres other than suspense—are they plot- or character-driven? Bonnie, I’d say most genres are plot-driven. Literary-type novels tend to be more character-driven. Women’s fiction can tend to be more character-driven, although mine had probably almost equal plot to character. In general, if the genre has strong conventions (that is, aspects to the story that are expected to be included), it will tend to be plot-driven. Suspense, science fiction, fantasy, romance, mystery—these are all genres with strong conventions. Although even in these it depends on the author. An inventive author can take any genre and turn it into a more literary or character-driven story.

Today I want to encourage all of you to go see the movie
End of the Spear, which releases this weekend. This is the incredible and true story of martyred missionaries in Ecuador, and their kin who went right back into the tribe to live among them and tell them about God. Steve Saint was five years old when his father and other missionaries were killed by members of the violent Waodani tribe. At age eight he went to live with his aunt (his father’s sister) among this same tribe. Now, fifty years later, this story of redemption is being told on the big screen.

Steve Saint was a guest on today’s
“At Home Live with Chuck and Jenny” show. (This is a show I appeared on a little over a year ago along with Bill Myers, James Scott Bell and Terri Blackstock, as part of our Zondervan book tour.) Steve appeared with Mincayani, one of the members of the Waodani tribe who killed his father. At the time Steve’s father was murdered, the oldest member of the tribe was only 32, due to their extreme violence. All they knew was hate and killing. Then, because of the missionary work, many members of this tribe came to follow God. Steve and Mincayani (through interpreting by Steve) told how the tribe at first did not want to participate in making this movie, but decided to do it when they heard how violent America is. Steve told them about gangs in our country, and all the murders, and tragedies such as Columbine. To paraphrase Mincayani: “After meeting God, we stopped killing each other. Now we want to send our message to America that they, too, can stop hating and killing each other if they come to know God.”

It’s a wonderful thing to see how Hollywood has opened up to films with a Christian message. Not that Hollywood at large cares about spreading Christianity. But they do care about making money, so as long as Christian-based films bring in the dough, they’ll keep making them. This film is opening in about 1200 theatres across the country. If it comes to your town, please support it with your dollars, especially on opening weekend, when numbers really count. It’s a story that will touch and amaze you. It’s a missionary story come full circle, from Americans taking the God-message to violent Ecuador, to Ecuador bringing the God-message back to violent America.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Story Resolutions--Part 4

I have to admit, I’m having trouble writing on this topic, because I can’t give you specific examples from my stories. I feel like I’m talking in too many generalities. I hope I’m managing to get at least one concrete idea across that will be useful to you all out there.

So let’s say I’ve figured out the basic setting and events for my resolution. Figured out a way to insert some conflict as I tie up loose ends. Now what?

On the personal side, I try to bring as many characters into the scene as possible. Either they are physically present, or there’s a phone call, or the main character is thinking of a recent conversation with that person, or all of the above. A lot of the characters will have personal details hanging that I will want to address in some way. I may resolve the issue, or if it’s a series, as in the Hidden Faces books, I may even insert a new question (say, a romantic one) that will carry the reader into the next book.

The harder issue is weaving all the necessary explanations/facts into the scene in a natural way. Because I’ve spent 98% of the book laying false assumptions for my readers, I have to untangle all of those, and spell out (again, without connecting every dot) what really happened. I also have to tie up the loose ends, letting the reader know what has happened between the climax and the resolution scene. The key is to focus on the emotion of the scene, figuring out how to slip information in as the characters deal with their issues. The dozens of pieces of information can be inserted in these ways:

1. Action. The main character can be confronting someone, returning home, dealing emotionally with the fallout of the trauma, receiving a package, reading a newspaper, talking on the phone, convalescing in the hospital, attending a final court hearing—the choices are endless. What action will give you the best framework in which to insert the necessary information?

2. Conversation. The trick here is that it has to be natural. The characters need to really be talking to each other—not you, the author, talking to the reader. The best dialogue slips in information a bit at a time. Good dialogue also skips over the details and makes a statement that sums up the basics of what happened, allowing the reader to fill in the logical blanks. For example, an unwieldy piece of dialogue that tries to impart too many details:

“I’m just glad the trial ended last week, and he was convicted. Now he’s been sentenced to life without parole. Still, it’s not enough!”

Here’s a better way, pumping up the emotion while slipping in the main info:

“Life without parole.” She aimed a bitter look out the window. “It’s too good for him.”

The facts that the trial is over and he was convicted are made obvious in those first three words.

3. Narrative. It’s really easy to do too much of this, so when I use it, I try to write really tightly, making every word count, and again, not detailing more information than I have to. The narrative is in the form of the POV character’s thoughts. I try to break up these passages, moving from action to conversation to a bit of narrative, back to conversation, etc. I try to structure the conversation into beats that will lead naturally to the character thinking about some aspect of the story that needs to be resolved. For example, let’s say the above bit of dialogue was spoken to the POV character. And one of the unresolved pieces of information is the number crimes for which the guy was convicted. The POV character then might respond:

“Yes, it is.”

She sank into a chair, exhausted, sick at heart. Feeling more frail than ever. If only they could have proved the second murder. He’d have gotten death. And death was what he deserved.

Sometimes to impart a lot of information I’ve structured a portion of the scene around a TV show about the case, or around characters reading a newspaper article. These techniques can work—again, as long as the scene focuses on the characters and their interaction and emotions, not the show or article itself.

Of course, some pieces of information can be effectively worked into the crisis/climax. An obvious one is the answer to who-dun-it. And in the midst of the action, you might be able to weave in a few bits of dialogue that will show the bad guy’s motivation behind the crime, or will show how he accomplished some bit of legerdemain. Just don’t slow the action to do this! Weave in only what’s natural, and save the rest for the resolution.

Hope I’ve made a modicum of sense on this topic. Anybody out there with feedback? Follow-up questions?

Monday, January 16, 2006

Story Resolutions--Part 3

Thanks, y’all, for hangin’ with me over the weekend. I really hadn’t intended to make you wait an extra day to continue discussion on this topic, but as I prepared to post for Friday, I realized this discussion could go a few more days, and I wanted to get out the word about River Rising.

One more thing I want to tell you before we get back to the discussion. Last Friday I received my first copy of Web of Lies. It’s always so great to see a book for the first time. This one is particularly satisfying to see, after all I went through to write it. Those of you who read this blog’s NES (Never-Ending Saga) last year may remember my telling you how I began displaying the first copy of each published book I received on top of a partition wall in my office. In April of 2001, with the publication of my first novel, I had three books on that wall—my true crime, A Question of Innocence; its German version; plus the novel, Cast a Road Before Me. Remember how I told you my goal was to fill that wall? Well, now with Web of Lies, it’s absolutely stuffed full of face-out books—28 in all. That’s 11 different books in their various forms (foreign translations, book club hard cover, etc.) Of course, more are in the works (foreign translations lag behind), so who knows where I’ll put the next ones. But I look at that wall and can only say, “Thank You, God.” That wall is a testament to His faithfulness to this writer, who is simply nothing without His guidance. I look at that wall and feel immensely humbled at what He has done.

Okay. Back to story resolutions.

I want to reiterate how important I think it is to push the action of the crisis/climax as close to the end of the book as possible. Too long of a resolution is going to drag out the book. And I’ll tell you, even a bang-up book, if it drags in the end, will leave the reader unsatisfied. You gotta leave ’em with a bang. And yet, by definition, a resolution is hardly the biggest bang of the story. Hence the challenge to write a satisfying one.

Recently I read a well-written suspense that disappointed me in the end. The crisis/climax took place a good four or so chapters before the end of the book. Those final chapters were all pure resolution in various parts of the main character’s life. No conflict, just tying up loose ends. It was boring.

We left off Thursday with this sentence: “To help find the right [concluding] scene, I ask myself two questions.” Those questions are:

1. How far into the future—that is, after the climax ends—do I need to go in order for the loose ends to be tied up?

2. What is the best scene in that time period that will (a) give readers a satisfying look at my character’s life after all the traumatic events, and (b) allow a natural insertion of necessary explanations regarding how everything during the main story really happened?

1. How far into the future? In Brink of Death I only needed to move forward two days for the resolution to take place. In Violet Dawn, (releasing in August), I had to move forward six months. As is typical with my suspenses, both of these novels push the action in the climax up to the last sentence. But in Brink of Death, all the fallout and sorting out from that climactic scene only takes a couple days. In Violet Dawn, the whole main story takes place in about 14 hours. But the fallout of those events takes months to resolve. If I wrote a scene two days later, I’d leave way too many loose ends for the reader.

So, time needed to resolve the story is the driving force. I don’t have any “rule” about how little or how long the time should be. It’s simply whatever will satisfy the reader for that particular book. This doesn’t mean, for example, that the bad guy has to go through a trial, be convicted, sentenced, put on death row and executed. It’s enough for the reader to know the bad guy has been caught, is off the streets, and there’s no question he’ll be convicted. Now, if there is a question as to conviction, that would be one reason to place the resolution months or even a year or so later, after the trial.

Problem is, the further forward you have to place the resolution, the harder it is to write. Readers may not be content simply to see the character that much later, all perfectly fine and emotionally healed after the ordeal. They’ll feel cheated if they’re not given at least a taste of the struggle to get to that place of strength. So this kind of resolution is going to have to creatively weave in some of those struggles of the past months, and show that the character is continuing to struggle in some way.

Some continuing struggle at the end of the book is a good thing, by the way. Life isn’t perfect, and even in a happy ending there should be signs of some challenges ahead.

2a. Give readers a satisfying look at my character’s life. Suspense may be a plot-driven genre, but I still say in the end it’s all about the characters. The character arc for the hero/heroine as well as other supporting characters is critical. This is why I ask myself the 2a question before the 2b—how to allow a natural insertion of all explanations. If I allowed 2b to lead me in creating the scene, I’d end up with a boring scene full of facts and tying-up-loose-ends narrative. When I structure the scene for the best picture of the character’s personal life, I’m far more likely to write an interesting, compelling scene. A shell of a scene for a mere “tell-all” will be boring, I assure you. But if the scene shows the character on the other side of the trauma, working on getting on with his/her life, there can be some natural personal conflict within it, and the reader will be able to see what the character has learned through the story events.

Problem is, a personal-based resolution is way harder to write, 'cause then you're really stuck trying to weave in all those explanations creatively. Tomorrow we'll look at some ways of how to do that.

Read Part 4

Friday, January 13, 2006

A River Rising

I'm interrupting our discussion of story resolution for today. We will get back to it Monday.

I’ve decided to start something new this year. Every once in a while—at least once a month, I hope—I want to tell you all about a novel published within CBA that I’ve found particularly well done. I’m no reviewer and won’t pretend to write a review. I just want to give you a flavor of the story and pass on my high recommendation, hoping you BGs will buy the book and see for yourselves. Together we can support great Christian fiction.

My first recommended book, just released, is
Athol Dickson’s River Rising.

From marketing copy: Welcome to Pilotville, Louisiana, 1927, isolated outpost on the Mississippi River--a stilt village bounded by swampland to the horizon, accessible only by boat, an island of brotherly love in a sea of racism. Meet Hale Poser, a stranger with a bad hip who’s come looking for his roots--a humble man, a righteous man, a miracle man. In the swamp beyond the cypress and the tupelo and veiled by Spanish moss lies a lingering evil. For years it slept in dreadful isolation. Now comes Hale Poser, and it will sleep no more. It will rain down on Pilotville, it will rise up like a river, and nothing but a miracle can stop this awful flood.

Story’s opening:

The colored fellow came early in the morning, poling a pirogue through mist so heavy on the river you could not see a stone's throw out. Jean Tibbits watched him from his chair on the wharf, noting the unruly brim of his black felt fedora, his white shirt buttoned to the top, and his black wool suit, shiny from wear. As the newcomer came closer, Tibbits realized his trousers were rolled up over his calves, something you did not often see on a man wearing a suit. At his neck a pair of brown leather shoes dangled from tied-together laces. The laces were white and did not match the shoes. The colored fellow stood at the back of the flat-bottomed boat, guiding it alongside the wharf in silence except for the musical ripple of the river against the hull and the soft bump when the lichen-streaked boat kissed a piling.

Jean Tibbits spoke to him without raising his voice or rising from his chair. "Hey, mon. What you do there?"

"Sir." The Negro touched the floppy brim of his hat. "I come looking for work."

River Rising has received highly favorable endorsements and reviews. You can read them at
www.bethanyhouse.com. (Click on new releases, then scroll down to click on the River Rising cover.) I enjoyed the book’s prose and unpredictability. I love the way the story drags you through the mud of bigotry, then washes over your soul. It leaves you staring into space, pondering redemption and grace, after the last page is turned. Athol is a skilled, insightful writer—the kind of writer you can trust, who can present a startling scenario and cause you to believe every word of it.

Another excerpt, which you won't find online--a dark night in the hero’s soul (used with permission):

Hale lifted his shovel a little, thinking violent things. He knew the others believed he had gone crazy, but they were wrong. Actually, it was just the reverse. His thoughts had never been so clear. They consumed him, demanding everything. He had been thinking about violence, examining it with curiosity and reaching the conclusion it was something one should practice if one could, to get it right. He did not recall ever harming a man deliberately. He had always feared the Lord. But now the divine whisper had been silenced, and in the remaining void he recognized a righteous provocation for unfamiliar dreams of violence . . . Though he supposed he might feel something again one day, for now this numbness, this sense of distance, was all-consuming . . . Just as he had not become a minister overnight, it would take time to learn how to do violence correctly. But with patience the learning would come, for here were expert teachers.

The novel is a January publication. Great way to start your year of reading.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Story Resolutions--Part 2

Sorry for the late post, east-coasters. I couldn't get on blogspot last night.

One thing I need to clarify from yesterday’s post. When I asked how much needs to be told to the reader in the resolution, I wasn’t questioning whether we should leave loose ends—that is, parts of the story that are not wrapped up. I think it’s tricky to leave loose ends. And in a suspense, readers pretty much want to see how the different parts of the story end up. Rather, I was questioning how much “connecting the dots” we need to do for the reader. I am for tying up loose ends. I am not for connecting every dot. I like to think my readers have the intelligence to do that on their own.

I can’t get specific here, because I’m not about to give away the ending to my stories. So hang with me in a theoretica.

Let’s say I write a book in which the killer could be A, B or C. There’s also been a kidnapping, and readers are led to believe the perpetrator of that crime could also be A, B, or C. They’re further lead to believe (through that whole assumption-building process we’ve talked about) that whoever did the killing did the kidnapping. And it’s an absolute known fact that the kidnapper also committed a certain robbery. Turns out the killer is character D. And the kidnapper is character E. (Those twists again.) The revelation of these truths occurs during all the action of the crisis/climax.

Next comes the resolution, in which any loose ends are tied up. I don’t think I need to say in the resolution that character E did the robbery. That the kidnapper did the robbery was made clear during the story. I think I’d be talking down to my reader to “connect those dots” by stating the obvious.

Now, that’s a very simple example. Unfortunately the issues I tend to deal with in my resolutions are much more convoluted. Sometimes the lines connecting the dots aren’t so easy to understand immediately. Sometimes they require a little logical thinking.

Ever come out of a movie theater after watching a twisty-plotted film, and as you’re walking to your car you’re saying to yourself, “Okay, so if this and that, then what about thus-and-so?” It takes a few minutes of putting together all the data points you were given in the resolution to answer your questions—but they are answerable.

If I took the time to connect every dot of logic in my resolutions, with all I have to cover, they’d be 25 pages long. And boring as all get out. And the reader would feel like I was talking down to him/her. On the other hand, there’s definitely a balance. The reader is expecting a satisfying ending, and doesn’t want to have to logic through details for an hour or more. They should be able to connect the dots pretty quickly.

At any rate, this approach helps me make the resolution as short as possible. But at the same time, there’s yet another very important thing to balance—the reader’s need to see a satisfying conclusion in the personal lives of the characters. Not just does the heroine live to tell the tale—which is pretty much expected to happen. But how has it changed her? Where will she go from here? And what about those little romance nuances that were woven through the action? Does she get with the guy or not? Or is she at least thinking about it? And what spiritual revelation has she had, whether large or small? What does she intent to do about it? Etc.

So on one hand, I’ve got the dozens of details of how and when and why and by whom the myriad crimes occurred. On the other hand, there’s all the personal stuff. How to create a resolution that will cover all these very necessary aspects, and satisfy the reader? Let’s say I have no idea what the resolution scene will be. (Which is usually true. The right scene becomes apparent after I’ve written the crisis/climax.)

To help find the right scene, I ask myself two questions.

Read Part 3

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Story Resolutions

Sometimes it’s tough resolving things.

Especially if you have (1) dozens of details to cover, and (2) insist on covering them in a believable, natural manner, and (3) want to cover them in as few pages as possible.

This is the issue I face at the end of my books. In my earlier women’s fiction stories, I didn’t have half the problem I do with my suspense novels. As a part of my “Seatbelt Suspense” mentality, I like to push the high action of the crisis/climax as close to the end of the book as possible. Collide, collide, bam-bam-bam, action to the last line of that penultimate chapter. (Or maybe the last chapter, if I use an epilogue.) Throughout the course of the book, I’ve done my best to take the reader through twists and turns of plot. The final answers to those puzzles are presented in the crisis/climax. But how everything happened that lead up to that point has still to be explained, plus what happens after the crisis/climax. Therein comes the resolution.

I particularly had a lot to resolve in the last two books I’ve finished—Web of Lies and Violet Dawn. Web of Lies, because of the convoluted twists of the story that need to be straightened out, and Violet Dawn, because so much happens between the crisis/climax and the resolution scene. How to summarize all that off-stage action in a compelling way?

The problem with resolutions is, one, they’re so easy to write as mere narration of facts; and two, by their very definition, they’re not conflict-oriented. But a scene without conflict is boring. And I sure don’t want to end my book on a boring note.

I’ve always disliked the bad-guy-with-the-gun-pointed-at-the-soon-to-die-hero-explaining-everything-before-he-shoots ending. First, because it’s false dialogue. The character is not really speaking to the other character; the author is speaking explanations to the reader. Bad, bad, bad. Second, it stops the action in the crisis/climax to explain details. Another bad. The crisis/climax is not the place for details. It’s the place for action. I will weave in a little explaining in the crisis/crimax, but only in tiny bits. Only if it’s a perfectly natural bit of conversation or epiphany of the hero/heroine during the action.

Most of the details I leave to the last chapter/epilogue. I don’t have a written list of all the details I need to cover. They’re all shouting pretty loudly in my head by that point. Still, I’ll usually write the ending, and as I read over it a couple of times, another point will come to mind. Problem is, there’s just so doggone many different kinds of details to wrap up in my suspense stories. They can include (1) motivation for the crimes, (2) how they were committed, (3) personal issues for the characters, including character arcs, (4) events following the crisis/climax, and (5) spiritual thread. And each of these five main areas can encompass dozens of information bits.

Another kind of ending I dislike is when the author leaves the wrap-up details for the resolution, but again makes the “false conversation” mistake by basically having two characters sit around and explain to each other how everything came about, and what happened after the bad guy was caught. Again, this tends to sound very unnatural. And there’s no real scene—only the shell of one.

So how to write a resolution that will satisfy the reader? That covers all the necessary details—within the aura of a compelling final scene? And just how much needs to be told to the reader, anyway? Does everything have to be laid out in full explanation? Or can we present the needed details and allow the reader to come to his own understanding of how they all fit together?

More tomorrow.

Read Part 2

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Web of Lies Influencer List

Interested in receiving a free copy of Web of Lies? I have a number of slots on my influencer list that are waiting to be filled. In keeping with my pledge to give opportunities to BGs first—well, here it is. This opportunity is for those who haven’t already received an ARC of the book.

Important note—if you were on the influencer list for Dead of Night or any of my previous novels, you will not automatically be on the one for Web of Lies, so please respond if you’re interested.

A good influencer’s list is important for a book. It helps spread a buzz, helps get the word out on a grassroots level. Every person who reads a book has his/her own sphere of influence. I’m looking for folks who’ll be willing to spread the word about Web of Lies to their own spheres of influence and online. In return for a free copy, I’d request these simple kinds of things from influencers:

1. Write an online review (without giving any plot points away!) at such places as amazon.com and christianbook.com.

2. Also post the review on any blogs you write.

3. Talk up the book on various e-mail loops you’re on.

4. Tell family and friends about the book, directing them to my Web site (where signed bookplates are available for free).

5. Send me the address and contact person for your church library or bookstore, it if has one, and tell the person in charge about my books.

6. Any other ideas? I love a creative influencer!

If you’d like to be placed on the list, please e-mail me right away and tell me what kinds of things you could do. (Remember, I’ve only got a set number of slots, so don’t dally.) By the way, if you end up not liking the book, you don’t have to do any of the above. I’m not asking folks to promote something they don’t like, even if they did receive a free copy. But I’m confident you’re gonna like this story.

Tell you what—I’m so confident, I'll make a guarantee to every influencer. Enjoy Web of Lies—or your money back.

Agents and editors out there who'd like a copy—just send me your address, and I’ll make sure you get one.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Breaking News on Web of Lies

“Collins deftly finesses the accelerator on this knuckle-chomping ride. Only a master storyteller could pair two strong heroines and juggle first- and third-person narration to achieve a harmony of plot and voice.” --RT Bookclub

1. Web of Lies releases this Friday, meaning that it begins to ship from the Zondervan warehouse. It should start showing up on shelves in the following two weeks. By beginning February, it should be available in most stores.

I am thrilled with the sentences from the RT BookClub review, above. Not merely because they’re favorable, but because the reviewer got it. Looked deep into the structure of the story and understood my difficulty in writing it. Mixing the two heroines, plus mixing the different POVs that came with them just caused all sorts of issues. Whose story was it? How to move seamlessly from one POV to another, while making an especially complicated series of subplots and twists work? I’ve been pretty honest with you all in saying how hard the novel was to write. Entrenched in the process, I thought I was making a terrible mess of things. It was only after the book was written, then rewritten, and I had some time away from the manuscript, that I began to feel it all had, in fact, worked out very well. I’m now very excited to see its release approach.

2. Twenty or so folks (can’t remember the exact number) won a contest a couple months ago and received an ARC (advanced readers copy) of the Web of Lies. Feedback from them (in letters to me or to e-mail loops) has been particularly good. A few samples:

“Absolutely magnificent! . . . You wove the two characters together with ease. The storyline was THE scariest, yet also meant a lot to me spiritually . . . gave it to my son to read, who LOVES those freaky books, and he even got his atheist grandpa to read it!”

“Just finished Web of Lies. I want you to know I am no longer a black person. I’m a blue person . . . from holding my breath. It was FABULOUS!”

“Wow. What an awesome combination of the two series! I was totally enthralled from start to finish. My sister read it, and now she wants all of your books.”

“Absolutely fantastic! . . . I loved the spiritual aspect . . . [such as] how to put your trust in God . . . The revelation that God doesn’t let us know everything up front also rang true.”

“I’ve loved all of Brandilyn’s books, but this is even better than the rest . . . Although [Web of Lies] is a nail-biting page-turner, Brandilyn expertly weaves in threads of spirituality and reliance on God.”

“Brandilyn is a master at the craft. But she just keeps getting better . . . The Christian thread is woven in so seamlessly as a part of the characters that it flows into the story.”

3. Upon the release of WOL, it and two of the other Hidden Faces books—Brink of Death and Dead of Night—will go into 360 Costcos across the country. In the regions where I live (northern California and Idaho), the books will have “local author” stickers. Each of these 360 Costcos will stock 24 copies of each book. (I think they only had slots for 3 of the 4 books, which is why Stain of Guilt isn’t included.)

4. Web of Lies will be featured in the major spring/Easter catalogs for Parable stores, Lifeway and Family Christian. These promotions will run about the beginning of March through Easter (mid-April). WOL will have featured placement in these stores, and many of the stores may offer a discount.

5. By the way, WOL has a surprise dedication. (If you received an ARC and saw it—remember, mum’s the word.) Yup, been keeping the secret for over a year. A couple people are going to be very surprised . . .

6. The prologue and first chapter of WOL are now posted on my
Web site.

Tomorrow—an opportunity to receive a copy of Web of Lies, hot off the press—free.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Nappy You Here--Part 4

And so, following Stanislavski’s teaching that a set of physical actions aimed toward a goal can create the desired emotions—I put my pursuit of joy aside and took a good, hard luck at my daily work schedule.

It hadn’t been working very efficiently lately.

Mired down in whatever book I was working on, once I reached my office I’d find all kinds of reasons to procrastinate the opening of my book file. First, of course, I had to do devotions. Then e-mails. Then there was always marketing stuff. And I write a blog. When I finally did open my book file, my attention wouldn’t seem to last for very long. I’d write a couple of pages, then need a mind break. So I’d check e-mails again. And maybe one linked to an interesting article on the Web. Which mentioned a specific blog I didn’t know about . . . And before you know it, my “mind break” had stretched to an hour. All of this because I couldn’t get a handle on the story. And I would wish and wish I enjoyed writing more. But how could I enjoy it if I wasn’t feeling productive? Meanwhile the deadline would draw nearer. Now, I’ve always managed to pull off the book in the end, and once it was done, I could actually like the thing. But how about liking it while I’m in the midst of it?

With prayer and an open mind to change, joy, I set my work day as the following:

In the office first thing in the morning—somewhere between 6:00 and 7:00. I no longer think about running first thing, which is a major mind shift. I’ve run 5 miles a day for over 20 years—usually first thing after getting up. (With a day off about once a week.) Now I run later in the day.

In the office (coffee in hand), I immediately sit down to write. I can do nothing else until my page count is done. No opening e-mails! If I mind starts to wander, I pull it back. I focus.

After the pages are done, I turn to devotions. Reading the Bible, praying, praying my daily 10 Psalms.

Then I do email. By this time I’ve sat at my desk long enough that I don’t want to linger. Get the things done, and get on with it.

Some quick blog reading. Check comments on my own blog and skim a few other blogs that I keep an eye on.

By this time it’s about noon. Sometime in the afternoon I run, plus take care of marketing issues (which continue to increase), write my blog. Actual hours in my office can still easily run 9-10 hours, but now they’re productive.

A few things help to keep me on schedule. One—appointments during the day are killers. I’ll keep those to a minimum. When I must have them, they’ll be in the afternoon. Two—this one’s a biggie. My 16-year-old daughter is about to take her driving test. License in hand, she’ll be driving her own car to school. This will be the first time in 23 years I haven’t had to structure my work schedule around a kid’s. Do you realize how huge that is? This week I’ve been making my morning schedule work even though I’m interrupted to take her to school. And I’ve managed to fit in my run and other work in the afternoon, even though I had to structure it around picking her up. Soon I won’t have to do that anymore!

Freedom will be sweet.

These last four days I’ve followed this schedule. I’ve not focused at all on emotion. I’m not praying that God will “make me happy.” Joy in my work is that distant goal. But my focus is on the action, the step-by-step objectives of fulfilling the day’s requirements. That is what I pray God’s help for. And, boy, did I run into problems right away that could have upended my schedule if I'd let it. Back in my California office on Sunday night, I discovered my computer had crashed. Before, I would have chucked the next day's page count in order to pursue getting that computer fixed first thing Monday morning. But I didn't. I got up Monday and did my page count and other tasks first, using my laptop. Then with the time I had left in the afternoon, I dealt with getting the computer in to be fixed. I also had some appointments that I'd made last month. But I worked around them.

Already I feel happier. I’m more productive, and in that productivity, I feel more competent. I’m convinced that tasks achieved, day by day, will one day lead to having the real joy and excitement in my work that I once had.

One of the BGs wrote me an e-mail today. Said while she was praying for me, God told her “in her spirit” that my joy for writing would be restored, and that He would reward me for writing even when it hasn’t been a joyful task. That resonated with me. I felt God’s promise in my soul. I’m claimin’ it.

2006 is gonna be dynamite. Already is.

And that’s the way my year has started. Hey, only took me 4 days to tell the story. Better than four months, which I’ve been known to do.

Besides my new schedule, there’s all kinda cool stuff I have to look forward to this year. I’ll be filling you in on some things soon. Good things happening with books, that unique marketing for the Kanner Lake series that I’ve hinted at, Web of Lies releasing next week, my first foray into Costco, and more.

And speaking of the Web of Lies release—they’re baaaaack. The spiders, I mean. Last night one sat on my bedroom ceiling above my pillow. Just waiting for me to lie down in the dark . . .

See ya Monday. If I’m still alive.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Nappy You Here--Part 3

In Constantin Stanislavski’s third of his so-called ABC books, Creating a Role, he includes a chapter called “Creating the Physical Life of a Role.” Here is the crux of the chapter:

“My system is based on the close relationship of inner with outer qualities; it is designed to help you feel your part by creating a physical life for it.”

Tortsov (Stanislavski’s fictional director who imparts the knowledge in these books) requires his acting students to play the first scene of Othello—without script. Merely by creating the action as they remember it in the scene. What follows are some muddled and rather humorous attempts at making a believable entrance and performing the actions required to awaken a household at night. Tortsov has to lead his acting students step by step through the physical actions they would go through to obtain such an objective. Slowly, as they delve into the physical movements, the actors begin to “get it.” They begin to feel more comfortable in what they’re doing, and in fact, begin to feel their roles.

It is only when you seek out the physical truths of a series of actions, says Tortsov, that “your . . . faith in the actuality of your physical acts will follow of its own accord. And faith, in our kind of work, is one of the most powerful magnets to attract feelings . . .”

In my own work—writing—I wanted not to just to portray, but to really again feel joy. But, as Stanislavsky points out in his unique way, any emotion—whether portrayed on stage or felt in real life—doesn’t always come by our focusing on and pursuing the emotion itself. Sometimes the emotion must arise from action.

Tortsov tells his students, “You did not feel your parts intuitively, so I began with their physical life. This is something material, tangible, it responds to orders, to habits, discipline, exercise, it is easier to handle than elusive, ephemeral, capricious feeling . . . The spirit cannot but respond to the actions of the body, provided, of course, that these are genuine, have a purpose, and are productive.”

If the nickel ain’t droppin’ for you yet, read that paragraph again. In fact, it’s so good, it’s worth reading in any case.

“One of the most irresistible lures to our emotion lies in the truth and our faith in it,” concludes Tortsov. “An actor need only sense the smallest modicum of organic physical truth in his action or general state, and instantly his emotions will respond to his inner faith in the genuineness of what his body is doing.”

And so, as I planned an all-out attack for reconnecting with the joy in my writing in 2006, Stanislavski’s teaching came back to me. I knew the “physical action” for me lay in how I structure my work day. My actions lately had not been “genuine,” had not had strong “purpose,” and were certainly not “productive.” As my ideas for my story waned, I found myself floundering in general. Floundering led to yet more unproductivity. Which made me feel miserable. And misery led to overall fear that I would fail. In short, everything Stanislavsky taught proved true—in the negative form.

I was determined to make it positive.

Tomorrow—the few "action" steps I set for myself, and have put into practice this week.

Yesterday two people made almost the same comment, basically hoping to see if what I’ve discovered can be applied to life “across the board.” Now you know the answer. I’m wondering, as I’m sharing what I’ve learned—to what struggle in your life should Stanislavski’s teaching be applied?

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Nappy You Here--Part 2

I must have been brain dead when I made my resolutions last year.

Either that, or feeling mighty incompetent.

Probably the latter. After all, I was in the midst of writing Web of Lies, and the book was killin’ me. I never had a good day writing that story. Not one. Every day of the rewrite was just as bad.

(By the way, now that it’s all said and done—and Web of Lies is about to release in about two weeks—I think it’s a great story. I really, really like it. Just got a good review, too. Amazing. And when I was writing it, I was sure it would end my career.)

And so around the popping fire my family and I first reviewed last year’s resolutions, Mark reading The Paper pulled from the mantel. All of my family members did fairly well. They may not have hit every resolution, but everyone at least partially fulfilled their list.

Then it was my turn. Oh, joy.

Resolution #1: Finish two books.

Huh? Like I had a choice.

Then again, ditto paragraph three, above. Writing Web of Lies, I was probably quite convinced I’d kick the bucket before the book was done. Which wouldn’t have made the resolution so easy after all.

Resolution #2: Continue with daily devotions.

Huh? again. Why was I even doubting I’d do this? Devotions and praying the Psalms are what keeps me going.

And so I gave a hefty shrug. I’d fulfilled my resolutions, but hardly felt any pride in the fact. It was kind of like a nuclear physicist pledging to remember her multiplication tables.

Hey, well, be happy. Better than failing, right?

Next up—this year’s resolutions. Oookay, I was ready. I had some hefty plans this time.

Twenty-two-year-old son went first. Surprisingly, he couldn’t think of many goals to set.

Mom coulda supplied him with plenty.

But I had my own battles to fight. When it came my turn, I sat up straighter, folded my arms, and announced, “I have only one. I’m going to reconnect with the joy of writing.”

There. I’d said it.

See, I’d been doing some serious thinking during the holiday. I realized that I was currently in the midst of a real struggle to write Coral Moon, and not enjoying it in the least. Before that, I struggled to write Violet Dawn. Before that, I really struggled to write Web of Lies. And before that, Dead of Night.

Are you catchin’ a pattern here?

The reality of my situation hit me before we ever left California for the break. I wrote our annual Christmas letter in early December—and happened to look back in the file to our letter of 1996. As any of you who’s read this blog’s NES will know, in 1996 I was writing like mad, but was unpublished. But guess what? I loved writing. I talked in that Christmas letter of “riding the wind” with my characters—what an exhilaration it was to be caught up in their lives and troubles. How I sometimes chose to stay up all night because I couldn’t quit pounding the keys.

Truth is, once I started being published, that joy ended. Writing became a job. A deadlpressureine. An advance already half paid. A blank contract, with a major publisher perfectly certain that I could come up with a great story. And my constantly upgrading standards in what I allow myself to create. In other words—pressure.

Don’t get me wrong—I love being an author. I love the lifestyle, the friendships, the feel of a newly published book in my hands. I love everything about writing—marketing my books, teaching the craft. I just didn’t like the writing part. And after feeling crummy about this issue for a number of years, finally during this Christmas season, I decided I’d had it. In the proverbial phrase, I wasn’t going to take it anymore.

But guess what—you don’t just decide to be happy about something. And I knew the pressures on me weren’t going to change. So how to take this here resolution bull by the horns—and make it work?

I had a plan.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Nappy You Here--Part I

And we’re back! Glad you’ve returned, too.

Revvin’ up for 2006. I had a splendid two-week break in our Coeur d’Alene home. Each morning hubby and I woke up whenever we felt like it (what a treat!), fetched fresh-ground coffee that was set to go off automatically, and laid in bed, talking and gazing out the floor-to-ceiling (well, almost) windows at the lake. I didn’t do much e-mail, didn’t write at all. Toward the end of the break, I did spend a day and a half plotting the rest of Coral Moon. I knew I really needed to get back into work with full energy, and to make each day’s page count, I needed to be clear on the building of scenes.

Didn’t get the whole book plotted. As usual, I know the ending but not quite how I’ll make it all come together. But at least I know what I’m doing for the next 3-4 weeks. I was really faltering toward the end of last year. Just couldn’t seem to get a real sense of the book—and fear was really trying to hone in on me.

Honest moment—fear was honing in on me.

So now I’m back in my northern California office. Um, in case you haven’t heard—it’s raining here. Evidently it’s been raining since we left. Today it’s finally supposed to clear.

How considerate of the weather, dumping the worst rains in my absence.

We’ve established a new tradition in our family for New Year’s Eve, ever since we began spending the Christmas holiday in our Idaho home (four years now). We gather around the fireplace in our great room to discuss resolutions. Playing a major part in this process is, of all things, the mantel.

According to the builder of the house (it was constructed in 1992), the original owner who hired him hailed from back east, where he owned a large estate. Apparently he didn’t mind moving from the estate, but couldn’t bear to leave the house’s exquisitely carved mantel in richly colored wood. (Sure wish we knew the origin of the mantel. Made here, or created in Europe? I wouldn’t be surprised to discover it’s the latter.) The mantel has carved posts on the sides, intricate flower patterns running across the shelf’s front piece, then continues on up with more of the same, framing a large mirror above the fireplace. The top of the mantel, some twelve to thirteen feet from the floor, curves inward toward a central round ornamental piece with curved perimeter, about another foot in height.

Although the builder didn’t add details about this mantel, we’ve surmised from his story that our entire house was built around it. The same deep color of wood is seen throughout—on the hardwood floors, on all the wainscoting, and surrounding the windows.

Apparently the huge thing was shipped to Idaho in two pieces—the mantel shelf and below, and the framed mirror part above. Between these two parts, where the back of the shelf meets the upward section, is a slight space. More of a crack, really. Just enough room to slide a piece of typing paper into.

Strange how such piece of paper disappears when slid in sideways, even though the depth of the mirror piece is less than 8 ½ inches. It's almost like magic. The first edge that goes in evidently curls downward back where mantel meets wall, making room for the rest.

It is in this discovered hiding place that my inventive husband first thought to try storing our new year’s resolutions—and found that it worked. The paper remains there all year long, untouched, its edge nearly invisible. But we know it’s there. It now has four years’ worth of resolutions written upon it.

And so around the crackling fire we gathered—hubby and I, 22-year-old son and his new fiancĂ©e (who was present as girlfriend last year), and sixteen-year-old daughter and one of her friends, who’d flown up for the weekend.
Mark pulled out The Paper, and we prepared to review—and renew.

Two things I should mention at this point. One—I don’t make resolutions lightly. I’d rather not make them at all than make them and fail. Two—I couldn’t for the life of me remember what I’d resolved last year.

Not a good sign.