Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Writers Retreat

This past weekend was the time of the annual writers retreat at our Idaho home. There are 11 of us who come each year (although one couldn't make it this year). The retreat starts Thursday and folks go home Monday morning. We have a wonderful time of friendship, laughing, plotting, laughing, encouraging one another, laughing, praying--and did I say laughing?

Not too long ago someone emailed me, asking how the schedule for this retreat weekend goes. This person was interested in starting a group of her own. She asked--what are the plotting sessions like? How long are they? Are they really helpful? Etc.

Here's what's worked for us for the past five years.

People arrive Thursday afternoon. We have dinner together, then go into our worship/prayer session. Each one of us takes five minutes or so to talk about the struggles/successes for the past year, and what particular prayer needs we have. (Most of this is already known since we are connected through an email loop year round and are continually encouraging and praying for each other.) Then we go into prayer. We're blessed to have a couple great singers in our group, and they'll often lead us in prayer choruses and hymns.

Our plotting sessions run Friday, Saturday and Sunday mornings, and into early afternoon. Not all 11 of us are writing. We usually have about nine sessions during the retreat. If that's the case, we do three a day at an hour each. This year, having only seven sessions, we did three the first day and two for the next two days. Plus we were able to add an extra fifteen minutes per session. We start with devotions around 9:00, then go into the first session at 9:30. If there are three sessions, we'll do two in the morning with a short break in between, and the third after lunch. We're writing in myriad genres, so we schedule the sessions to have a variety of genres each day.

For the first couple years we tried the "list of 20" format for each session. The presenter tells the basis of the book (this can vary from knowing the basic plot to knowing very little to knowing nothing--"I need to figure out a proposal for genre X." Then each person would list ideas for plot points, characterization or scenes. In the last few years we've found that talking out the plot as a group works better. In the list format, folks can go off on different tangents. In the talking it out format, we throw out ideas until the right one registers with the presenter, then build on it from there. In sixty to seventy-five minutes, we can plot much of a story. It's amazing to see the synergy at work when you get that many minds together. And our group seems to get better at helping each other every year.

In the afternoons we rest or play. Go into town and shop, go out in the boat, whatever. Some may do some writing. After dinner we'll usually watch a movie one night. This time on another night we played the game Liebrary, which is great fun with a bunch of novelists. In Liebrary, players supply the first line to a published book, and others vote for the line they think is the right one. The librarian for each round has the real first line.

There are some logistics that help make a plotting weekend like this go smoothly. As the hostess, I want to make sure everyone's comfortable, and in a group of 11 there are plenty of needs/preferences for things to eat. How to feed that many people three times a day and not spend all day in the kitchen? How to pay for everything? Where does everyone sleep? And how to keep the group at the right number of people? Our group struggled with that question in the beginning. It's a hard question when all of us have lots of writer friends and would like to invite everyone. But our ultimate solution has worked well.

More tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Photo

The victim's crossed eyes. The assailant's maniacal grin. And it happened on the floor of ICRS.

This is the result of pairing a sweet young Asian chick-lit writer with a warped-minded suspense novelist. Brings a whole new meaning to Zondervan's motto, Live Life Inspired.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Book Expo

As promised, here's the second half of the letter from Michael Covington (posted with permission).


Lastly, I find it fascinating to see how enamored Christian authors are with the ICRS experience. As one who has attended more than a dozen of the summer shows and an equal number of the CBA winter events (which is being replaced with more of a conference event next year), I can understand the excitement of having that many people together in one place to celebrate all of the Christian wares that Christian retailers are offering these days. Blog after blog tell the story of how many authors look forward to the ICRS week. However, just as with data, those in attendance at this show, though a viable channel for the books these authors write, only represent a segment of their respective markets and ultimately they are not the final decision maker as to whether a book leaves the shelf or not (that would be the consumer). Trade shows have become a model of the past, it’s the reason that ECPA shut down its regional trade shows two years ago. Though our members found our shows to be very beneficial (retailers had their travel/accommodations paid for if they placed a min. # of orders), they felt that many stores no longer used trade shows to place orders for products, instead preferring to order from the convenience of their stores, utilizing their inventory control systems to make more informed decisions. In fact, in my former life as a retailer we stopped placing book orders at the CBA show more than ten years ago.

For this reason, ECPA has launched the Christian Book Expo. Far from a trade show, the CBE will be focused on connecting the author with the reader. The show will be marketed to anyone who makes or influences a book buying decision. Similar to a Book Fair concept, these types of shows are in a static location year after year (the first being in Dallas) in order to build a local brand and feature hundreds of author seminars, workshops, etc. to attract the person they really need to connect with. I am sending you an article from our monthly member newsletter, written by our board chairman Mike Hyatt (Pres. & CEO of Thomas Nelson) to give you a better, and more thorough description. You can also read his comments that he made from his blog during ICRS by going to:

At this point I am only sending this to you, because of all the blogging Christian authors I have found out there, you seem to really have a grasp on the information/data side of things as well as the importance of reaching the reader (the two not being mutually exclusive). My hope is that Christian authors will grab a hold of the vision for this show and make it a tremendous event that will help to raise awareness for Christian books, wherever the consumer decides to buy them. We officially launched the show last week during ICRS and already have formal commitments from more than 30 Christian publishers to participate. Indeed, this will be the only event of its kind and could attract upwards of 10 – 15k people. The Dallas/Ft Worth metroplex is the single largest mega-church market in America and it only makes sense to hold CBE there each year. If the format is successful and the metrics work for our members, then we will look at replicating the event in cities such as Atlanta, LA, and Chicago. But, one step at a time.

Sorry for the really long e-mail, but I have a sense this may give you fodder for your “bloggees”. Oh, and a curious side-note, your publisher helped us in designing the logo for the first ever CBE.

Best regards



Final note: Although I hear from many of you BGs that you are interested in being updated about issues in our publishing world such as data-gathering systems, these kinds of posts typically don't generate many comments. I think most people read the information, go "Hm, interesting, didn't know that"--but don't think of much to comment about. Today, I hope some of you will chime in and help me thank Michael Covington for taking the time to write this letter that is informative to us all. Thanks, Michael!

"Sneak Pique" for tomorrow ... The Photo from ICRS. You'll see it here first, folks.

Monday, July 23, 2007

New Info on Data Gathering in CBA

Last week
Michael Covington, Information and Education Director for ECPA (Evangelical Christian Publishers Association), wrote me a letter in response to a recent post in which I mentioned seeing nothing new at ICRS regarding how sales data are gathered within CBA. You may remember that Michael first wrote me back in February, taking the time to further explain issues regarding data gathering after reading my posts on the subject.

To refresh your memory, here's what I posted Monday morning, July 11 that prompted Michael's recent letter:

Someone asked the other day in a comment about any news in the data world. That is, the data system that creates our bestseller list. There's a lot of talk here about Above the Treeline and Cross:Scan, data systems that help booksellers keep track of sales and inventory, etc. However, I see nothing that speaks of a new reporting system for the bestseller list that would be all inclusive. Now I hear that, besides the large Family Christian chain, Lifeway also does not report to STATS, which supplies the bestseller list. Which leaves me scratching my head as to who reports at all, other than independents and some smaller chains.

Here is Michael's response (posted with permission):

I read some of your blog posts from ICRS with great interest today. Sorry I didn’t get to stop by the Z booth and say hi so that you have a face to go with the name; however, like you I was back-to-back all week long. A couple of things I wanted to bring to your attention. You made mention of the data landscape. If you were at the ECPA Christian Book Awards ceremony on Monday night, you heard Bill Anderson announce that CBA and ECPA were hopeful that a formal announcement could be made at ICRS regarding a Strategic Data Alliance between Pubtrack Christian and CROSS:SCAN, but due to the untimely death of CBA’s legal counsel we have had to postpone such an announcement until CBA can secure new counsel and the legal docs can be reviewed one last time before the deal is inked. I can’t go into the details of that deal, but I can tell you that we are hopeful that once done, it should go a long way toward securing more retail sales data for both Pubtrack and CROSS:SCAN. It is important to note, that at this point CROSS:SCAN is only providing sales data reports back to participating retailers and not to any publishers. The partnership between ATT [Above The Tree Line] and CS is one that allows ATT to send data from any of their subscribing retailers to CS [CROSS:SCAN]
and the retailers’ designation. In return, CS provides ATT with the same report they send to their direct submitters only through the ATT interface. At no point does CS send data they receive directly from retailers on to ATT.

Your observations about LifeWay and Family not reporting to Pubtrack (STATS has now gone the way of the buffalo) is correct (nor do they report to ATT). We continue to talk with these retailers and are hopeful that publishers will ask them to consider participating once again in Pubtrack. On a related note, ECPA recognizes that Christian book sales, though once mostly sold through Christian retailers, can also be found in multiple other channels. Mass Market (Target, Wal-Mart, Costco, etc), General Trade (Borders, B & N, etc.), Internet/Book Clubs (CBD, Amazon, Crossings, etc.), Church Bookstores, and Direct-to-Consumer. In fact, though once the dominant channel for Christian book sales, Christian retail now accounts for less than half of many ECPA member publishers’ book sales in fact, for some the percentage can be as low as 10%. Don’t get me wrong, as a former Christian retailer myself; I still believe (as do most of my publishing colleagues) that the best place to purchase a Christian book is in a Christian bookstore. Nowhere else will a customer find a business with a ministry heart, which carries the full breadth of Christian titles and is more concerned about the content in the books they sell. However, with more than half of consumers buying Christian books elsewhere it is very difficult to fully grasp how Christian books are selling even if we had every single Christian retail store sending in data to one data aggregator, at the end of the day it’s still only a slice of a much larger pie. Pubtrack still maintains data for hundreds of Christian retailers and is a representative sample of the market with chains, franchises and independents evenly spread out across all regions and still boasts the highest number of subscribing Christian publishing houses. However, the future of book sales data has got to be more holistic, and you need to know that we are already hot on the trail of a new way of capturing data that will instantly give us a look at the sales of Christian books across all channels. So stay tuned...

I was impressed and very grateful that Michael would take the time to explain this information just after ICRS--when he had to be very busy in returning to his office post-convention. And, boy howdy, if ECPA can come up with a way to gather data across all sales channels, that would be fantastic.

Tomorrow: the second half of Michael's letter--on a completely different subject he wanted to tell us about.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Press Release: Zonderkidz Announces Fiction for Teens

“While revenue in other sectors of the book industry remains flat, YA is booming.”
—Los Angeles Times*

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich.-- Teens are reading like never before with books like Eragon and the Harry Potter series fueling the Young Adult market. The growing rate of teenage readers, who want entertaining books that meet their spiritual needs, can now look to Zondervan. In May 2008, Zondervan will launch their Young Adult line with fiction titles by three of the top five selling Christian YA authors: Melody Carlson, Bryan Davis and Bill Myers.

“Book sales to teenagers are booming in the secular market. But there is very little out there for Christian teenagers,” explains Alicia Mey, vice president of marketing for Zonderkidz. “We’re excited to be able to fill this gap with the best authors in the business: Bryan Davis, Melody Carlson, Bill Myers, Robert Elmer, Brandilyn Collins and DJ Reynolds.”

To meet the interests and spiritual needs of a growing youth market, Zondervan will publish in a variety of genres, including chick lit, supernatural, adventure and fantasy for teenagers 12 to 15 years old. Readers can look forward to books by bestselling fiction author Brandilyn Collins. Collins will make her debut in 2009 bringing her trademark “Seatbelt Suspense” to the YA market. Author DJ Reynolds, the author of Scarlet Moon and Midnight Pearls, which was recognized as an ALA 2005 Popular Paperback for Young Adults, will debut in 2008.

By entering this market, Zondervan will bring their family-friendly, Christian values to a group that is searching for the influence of Christ-centered books. In a recent study by the Barna Group, two-thirds of all born-again Christians make a profession of faith before age 18. Zondervan intends to publish ten titles a year to help provide the resources necessary for teenagers making this profession and commitment.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Partners in Crime

At ICRS 2006 I met with my regular editor and a second editor from Zonderkidz, the children's division. (These wonderful gals, if you remember, later came to my home in Idaho for a visit. In my blog posts about that memorable visit, I called them E1 and E2. E2 is the Zonderkidz editor.)

So we're at the meeting. E2 starts talking to me about a new YA (young adult) line that Zondervan plans to launch. YAs are huge in the general market, but that readership has been largely untapped in the Christian market. That's now changing. Z wanted to "get into the YA act" with a full line of novels representing numerous genres. In the summer of 2006 E2, the acquiring editor for the line, apparently found herself in the position to handpick the authors she wanted for various genres. She zeroed in on me for suspense.

To be honest, I wasn't interested. I really didn't need more books to write. And I certainly didn't want to be pulled off my target market, which is adults. Any YAs I did would have to be squeezed in between the adult novels, without spreading the latter novels any further apart.

However, E2 is a shrewd business woman. Her eyes lit up with this bright idea: "Don't you have a daughter about the age of our YA target audience?" [around 13-16-year-olds). "Why don't you write the books with her? Just think of the marketing opportunities for a mother/daughter team!"

That got me. A contract for my 16-year-old daughter? Wow. How cool would that be?

I ran the idea by Amberly, who was thrilled. With the help of our current agent, we figured out a series that intrigued Amberly. She agreed that she would help plot the books and work on the characters. She would also edit as I wrote, making sure my 16-year-old POV sounded right. She would fully earn her name on the cover of the books.

In the month of January, during her charter high school's "intersession"--a month-long tailored and intensive study of an elective, Amberly worked on studying characterization and plotting techniques. I wrote the curriculum for her. At the end of that month, we plotted the novel. So she earned high school credit while she worked on the series.

The three-book Rayne series features Shaley O'Connor, 16-year-old daughter of mega rock star Rayne O'Connor, lead singer in her band Rayne. It's an intriguing idea for teenage readers. What would life be like for the daughter of a famous rock star? In the first book Rayne is on tour, and things are going fine--until Shaley discovers the body of a tour member backstage. Worse, the victim is her closest friend on the tour. The books are written in first person from Shaley's point of view. This first book, currently titled Always Watching, is now about half written.

This YA series is a wonderful opportunity to capture some of the younger suspense readers and bring them on into my adult suspense. From what I've seen, many teenagers read both YA and adult novels. The main differences are that the YAs are 2/3 the length of an adult novel and feature a teenage protagonist.

Books 1 and 2 of the Rayne series will be published together in the spring of 2009. Book 3 will come out in the fall of 2009. We decided to hold publication of book 1 so there will be little time between all three books hitting the shelves. Teenagers are impatient, and suspense-readers are also impatient. Mix the two together, and you really don't want your readers to have to wait long between books in a series.

My husband and I thought carefully and prayed long before making the decision to do these books because of what it would do to my schedule. With 3 YAs being slipped in between 4 adult novels, that puts me writing 7 books in two years. I realize there are authors out there who do this on a regular basis. (Yes, I'm thinking of you, pal Angie Hunt.) But lemme tell ya--this is a hefty undertaking for me.

Then of course--what happens during my first of these 7 books? My snowmobiling accident. Big help.

This writing challenge has forced me to weed out what busy work I can in my daily schedule. Hence my need, at least for now, to blog less.

I hear there's a press release from Z floating around somewhere regarding the new YA line. I'll try to get hold of it to fill you in on the other writers and their genres.

Amberly and I had an interesting time last May touring backstage at the HP Pavilion in San Jose, the arena in which the murder in the first book takes place. (I had to do the tour in a wheelchair.) We needed to see the dressing rooms, how band members would get to the stage, and what outside exits they'd use. Plus hear tidbits on how the band members behave, what they tend to demand in their dressing rooms, etc. It's been fun research.

Even more fun will be the mother/daughter marketing. We're open to ideas from you creative BGs.


On blog tour this week: One Step Over the Border, by Stephen Bly.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Whazza Photo

The photo of me and my daughter, Amberly:

What are we holding?

Amberly just graduated from high school. Now we're not only mom and daughter. We're also _________ (fill in the blank.)

More tomorrow.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Blame It On Family

Happy Monday. Hope this thing posts. I'm on Mama Ruth's computer and Internet, which is terribly gummed up this morning.

Sorry I've been so absent lately. This is the time of year when various trips and reunions are back to back. I am still in Kentucky with the family. We (daughter Amberly) and I leave later today. We will arrive back in California late tonight. When we arrive, I'll be headed for bed, not for Blogger to do a post. :)

I have held back on my bit of news with Zondervan because there's a photo on my California calendar I want to use. I will post it Wednesday. Holding back on this news for so long makes it sound like it's some sort of earth-shaking announcement. It's not.

But it is kinda cool.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Howdy, all. Today I am leaving Atlanta to go directly to our annual family reunion in Kentucky. That's right--tonight I'm sleeping at Mama Ruth's house. :)

On Monday I signed copies of Coral Moon at the Zondervan booth on the ICRS floor. Camy Tang signed her new novel, Sushi for One, at the same time. We had a long line that just kept coming. The signing started at 2:00. At 3:20 I had to leave for a meeting at the Zondervan suite. When I returned at 4:00, Camy was still signing with no let-up in the line. Waytago for a new author!

Intersting, the line dynamics at ICRS. Lines beget lines. There are, unfortunately, too many signings with no takers in line. But when a line starts forming, it draws attention and more people come.

The Z folks finally just had to break it off. Camy was out of all her 250 books. I moved to the other side of the Z booth and sat in an armchair to sign what copies I had left for some particular people. (At Z's request.) Next thing I knew, a line was forming where I sat--which wasn't a signing area at all. Oh, dear! I can't say no to anyone. So I gave out books, but scurried over as soon as I could to ask for help from a Z person.

Best photo of the day--Suspense Author Strangles Asian Chick. Yup, we did it--as many folks in our line looked on. Camy's strangulation face was perfect. The photo is currently in some Z employee's camera. She promised to email it to me. I'll put it up as soon as I get it--probably after she gets home from the conference.

And thanks to Angie Hunt, my daughter is being mailed a signed copy--by Angie and Mandisa--of Idoleyes, their new book. Yippee!

Someone asked the other day in a comment about any news in the data world. That is, the data system that creates our bestseller list. There's a lot of talk here about Above the Treeline and Cross:Scan, data systems that help booksellers keep track of sales and inventory, etc. However, I see nothing that speaks of a new reporting system for the bestseller list that would be all inclusive. Now I hear that, besides the large Family Christian chain, Lifeway also does not report to STATS, which supplies the bestseller list. Which leaves me scratching my head as to who reports at all, other than independents and some smaller chains.

Anyway, a full change of scenery for me today. Away from convention, to family. I'm ready.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Greetings From Atlanta ICRS

Happy Monday.

I am in Atlanta at ICRS (International Christian Retail Show). Thursday through Saturday Chi Libris had its retreat. (Chi Libris is the organization of Christian novelists.) Always so fun and refreshing to hang out with the author pals. We have two days of meetings, discussing the business, marketing, career paths, that sort of thing. Typically we don't focus on the craft of writing, but this year we had a full day with Donald Maass, agent and writing guru. His teaching is very instructive, no matter how many novels you may have written.

Saturday evening was the Christy banquet. Lovely night. Wonderful speaker. Very encouraging to us novelists. To see the list of Christy Award winners, visit the Christy web site.

Today is the first day of the convention floor opening. I sign copies of Coral Moon at the Zondervan booth at 2 p.m. Wouldn't you know it--that's the very hour that the one person whose line I wanted to stand in for an autographed book is also signing. Those of you who watch American Idol will remember Mandisa from the fifth season. She teamed with Angie Hunt to write a book about her experience at AI. That's the book Mandisa is signing. I want one for my daughter. I'm gonna have to get over to that booth early and see if I can sweet-talk someone into getting Mandisa to sign one, using my daughter's name. I can trot over later and pick it up. Hope this works.

Actually, I'm not trotting. I'm still limping a little--worse as the day wears on and the foot swells. I want to walk as little as possible, which isn't easy at a huge convention.

Tonight is the Personality Party. You know, the one I'm not invited to. Sigh.

Oh, well. After years of teasing about The Party, I may as well give you the real scoop. It's a signing party. For two hours. Publishers pay for a "booth"--a table, really, for an author to sit at and sign. It's in a big room, and booksellers only have those two hours to get to all the authors they want books from. Zondervan, my publisher, chooses not to participate in the Personality Party. Thing is, if I signed there, I wouldn't sign at the Z booth on the convention floor during the day. (1) Why pay for a table at The Party when Z can offer me a full hour of taking over their booth for a signing--for free? (They paid for the booth but don't have to pay any extra to have me sign there.) (2) Signing on the convention floor-especially on Monday, the busy day--arguably gives an author higher visibility and time with booksellers than competing with a whole room full of people during the same two-hour period. I have never wanted for people in my lines. Usually once I start signing I keep at it until the books are gone. So in truth, I believe the floor signing is a better way to go.

Man, the truth is so boring. It's much more fun to kid about not having a personality.

Did I mention new author Camy Tang is joining me for the signing? Her first book, an Asian chick lit titled Sushi for One, is just out. I figure we can do our own personality thing to attract crowds: Suspense author strangles Asian Chick.

Think that'll work?

Tonight is the ACFW dinner. I'll try to post about that for tomorrow.

For now, signing off from Atlanta.

~ Brandilyn

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Interesting Article on Christian Fiction

Happy post-fourth. Hope yours was happy. As usual, we had a houseful and then some at our Coeur d'Alene home. Seemed every time I turned around I heard more people were coming for dinner and to view the town's megal-cool fireworks. Our son kept inviting people. I think he put up signs all over town. It's always a lot of fun--as long as we have enough to feed everyone. Our house is made for those types of summer parties.

Today I am flying to Atlanta for the Chi Libris retreat (organization of Christian novelists), followed by ICRS--International Christian Retail Show. I will try to post info the convention as I can.

For today--The recent issue of Christian Retailing contains an article on Christian fiction with some statistics that I didn't know. Here are some highlights:

According to ECPA (Evangelical Christian Publishers Association), in 2006 Christian publishers put out 528 novels. That number was up from 471 in 2005--an 11% increase. In that same time frame, however, sales rose 38%.

I like those numbers.

Mark Kuyper, president of ECPA, sees continued growth for fiction. He noted that one analyst believes sales of Christian fiction can easily double and "still be nowhere near the category's potential."

Numbers of published novels are up this year at both Zondervan and Thomas Nelson. Zondervan published 19 novels in 2006 and plans for 25 this year.

There is also continued growth in the book-to-movie category. A few new ones include Karen Kingsbury's novella Gideon's Gift, which is being made into a movie by Paramount Pictures for this Christian season. Zondervan is exploring TV tie-ins, such as The Wager, a TV movie starring Randy Travis based on Bill Myers' novel of the same name.

The growth of Christian fiction continues to attract secular publishers. Among the new lines--Avon Inspire, part of HarperOne; and Berkley Praise, part of Penguin.

The article also deals with the term "Christian fiction"--and just what is it? This is a subject that's been around awhile, and the debate goes on. Some think that the term may need to be replaced. Sue Brower, senior acquisitions editor for inspiration and fiction at Zondervan, prefers "fiction written from a Christian worldview." Allen Arnold, senior vice president and publisher at Thomas Nelson agrees. Arnold's point is that most readers don't define themselves as "Christian fiction readers." Most just want to read well-written stories that honor their Christian worldview.

Pop culture and crime writer Chris Well (published by Harvest House) notes, "Look at the success of authors like Ted Dekker and Brandilyn Collins and Colleen Coble," and adds that there are "great choices for readers of suspense, thrillers, mysteries, even crime fiction." He adds, "...these authors are exploring dark territory and themes that are ucomfortable. Christian novelists are working to create a more realistic world in their books. They have come to the conclusion that if Jesus is Lord--and He is--that means we really need to demonstrate that He is Lord of all, not just the comfortable stuff, not just the safe stuff, not just the sanitized stuff."

Ted Dekker talks about the difficulties publishers face in drawing in the "emerging generation while serving the older one." He opines that "young adults tend to avoid Christian stores like the plague--and no wonder." The reason, he says, is that "there is little inside [the stores] that speaks their language." Ted concludes, "I want to give CBA stores novels ... that younger readers will line up at the door for even if the owners of those stores don't totally identify [with the stories] themselves."

Criag Stoll, merchandise manager for the Mardel chain, responds that Christian retailers are rallying around emerging genres. As for the mystery and suspense genre in particular, he believes it will "continue to grow because both the readers and the authors are becoming more sophisticated." He cites historical fiction as still being very strong, but believes it may have reached its plateau.

Agent Steve Laube notes he receives 1500 proposals a year, 85% of which are fiction.

All in all, the Christian Retailing article is an indication of the continued growth of Christian fiction (or whatever you want to call it) in sales, number of titles and readership.


Crimson Eve

Coral Moon

Violet Dawn

Monday, July 02, 2007

A Lesson for Writers From a Singing Coach

Saturday evening I sank into an armchair with a footrest to get my poor ankle up for awhile (the tendons and ligaments are still healing). I picked up the TV remote and started flipping through channels. Landed on "Making the Band IV" on MTV. Now first of all, I generally do not like MTV. Second, "Making the Band" is produced by Sean "Puffy" Combs, the rapper. I do not like rap. In the show--this being the fourth season--P Diddy (same guy, for those of you who don't know) holds American-Idol type auditions for singers and puts together a band. This year he's putting together an R&B/soul band. Now that I like. I also love seeing unknown talent be discovered and grow. All the auditioners were singing songs from Boyz II Men and that ilk. Man, I love those songs.

Anyway. In two back-to-back shows, a final fifty-eight guys from all across the U.S. were whittled down to the big 20. These talented 20 go live in a house owned (rented?) by P Diddy in New York City. (Hey, a rapper rhyme.) Then they have to get down to business and work real hard to perfect their talent. Only a handful will be chosen for the final band. They exercise, learn dance routines with a choreographer, and work on their singing with a known vocal coach.

It was vocal coaching scene that totally enthralled me.

The vocal coach is an older black man with the name of Ankh Ra. (People always call this guy by his first and last names and run them together. It comes out like "ANKra.") He's sort of a Yoda-like, wise mentor figure. One by one the 20 guys had to sing a song and be critiqued. A cute young black man named Chris introduced his song as being about someone who died. He launched in and immediately began snapping his fingers. Ankh Ra stopped him. (I will paraphrase the conversation.)

"I thought you told me this is about someone who died. And you're already snapping your fingers?"

Eventually Chris said he did that to help him "cover the pain."

Ankh Ra said huh-uh. "I don't want you to cover up your pain; I want you to feel it."

As Chris stood in front of the 19 other guys, Ankh Ra talked him through what the song meant.

"Who died?"

"My grandfather."

Ankh Ra asked Chris what his grandfather would say to him right now, seeing him in this competition. Chris gave a long answer about trying hard and believing in yourself--and started to cry. Ankh Ra kept at him. In a gentle, understanding way, coaxing out of this young man why he was so pained about his grandfather's death. Finally the answer:

"I never had the chance to tell him I love him."

By this time a bunch of the other guys in that room, most in their twenties, were teary-eyed.

"Tell your grandfather now," Ankh Ra said.

And Chris did.

Finally he sat down without finishing the song. He was crying too hard to have the needed open throat to sing. Ankh Ra hugged him. Told him he'd done some good work. The coach's point to the guys was--singing isn't just about notes and words. It's about emotion. A singer is an artist who must project the emotion of the song to the audience. Without that emotion, the song isn't believable. The best voice in the world won't carry it.

Then Dan got up--one of the few white boys. He started to sing a love song. Dan's got a great voice, but Ankh Ra stopped him after about four lines. The coach shook his head. "I don't believe you. I don't believe you."

He talked Dan through the song. Why had he chosen it? Because the words meant something to Dan. He told the story--a long friendship, with the guy thinking this girl should be more than a friend, that "this girl's the one for me." Finally he gets the courage to tell her so.

"What happened?" Ankh Ra asked. "What's the end of the story?"

Dan broke into a smile. "It worked. We're together." And the kid just beamed.

"There, see that?" Ankh Ra said. "That's emotion. Give me that when you sing."

Dan started in again. This time he felt the performance. And it worked. The song just rolled out of him. His vocal inflection, facial expression, body language--all worked together to make the audience feel. The other guys nodded their heads and smiled. You could see them feeling it.

At the end of the session, Ankh Ra told the guys, "You all have stuff in you. Let it out. That's what makes you an artist. If you stuff it down, it stops the flow."

What a brilliant lesson for a group of young men who thought singing was just about--singing. No, no, Ankh Ra says. Their artistry comes not just from their throats. It comes from inside them. It comes from who they are. The more they're in touch with who they are and what they feel, the better singers they'll be.

"Don't be afraid to let it out," Ankh Ra said. "Don't be afraid to let it out."