Monthly Archives: August 2006

Cracking the Glacier

My number one question to break the ice during a book signing is, “So do you read much fiction?” But I don’t ask this to everyone I see. No, I’m looking for a particular person to ask. You know the person. He/she is standing within earshot but far enough away to barely read your title. They really want to ask you what your book is about but for some reason they’re reluctant to ask.

The question is non-threatening and allows me to follow-up with a more focused question like, “Who do you read?” Be prepared for anything. Especially a follow-up question from them asking who you like to read. That’s why it’s so important to know what you like to read as a writer. Teresa is right on. This will enable you to relate to the reader. It brings you into a simple conversation among friends. They see that you’re human.

More importantly it gives you the opportunity to relate your work to other authors’ works. If you read Clive Cussler, you’ll know that he puts himself somewhere deep in his novels. He might be a drifter passing by the main character or a guy seated at the bar with a one-liner, but it’s a unique writing quality. He also likes to write about naval history and submariner adventure. It leads perfectly into a discussion about THE FOREIGNER and the beginning chapters which take place on a Naval Base in Rota, Spain.

The more you know about the popular and not-so-popular authors who write anything close to your genre, the better off you are. I like to ask people whether they like John Grisham or legal thrillers. Then I like to ask whether they like Tom Clancy or military intrigue novels. If I get a positive on both, then I let them know that THE FOREIGNER is a merger of the two styles into a single novel. Boom . . . people can relate.

Unfortunately, I no longer read fiction to simply read. It’s mostly with a purpose to see how other authors in my genre are crafting their works. I simply break down their plot and characters to see how they all fit. But lately, I will admit that I’ve been looking at more character-based romance novels to develop more of an appreciation for character-driven novels as opposed to plot-driven thrillers. This little shift in my reading (not easy for guys) has helped my writing and should provide some lasting dividends in the long run.

One page at a time,


ps: any other ice breakers you folks like to use at book signings?

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Is anybody doing it right?

Almost every time I go somewhere to speak about writing for publication, someone in the crowd asks me what authors I like to read and who has influenced me. And nearly every time I draw a complete blank. I mumble a couple of names of popular writers who I like well enough, but I can never think of a good examples. I know, I know, we writers are supposed to be quick on our feet. Not true. We just make ourselves look that way in print.

Sam’s non-exhaustive list of the signs of fiction done right made me think of a few authors that I really do enjoy reading, and more importantly, why.

I’ll begin my list for no particular reason with Daphne duMaurier, author of Rebecca and Frenchman’s Creek among others. Not only did her genre and the period and region of which she wrote appeal to me, I love her style. She always stands out in my mind as someone who did it right.

Jane Austen and Fannie Flagg are two more women writers I adore. Unfortunately I’m not smart enough to read much of Ms. Austen’s work. The language differences, coupled with her pacing and style of writing, leave my tiny little Midwestern brain spinning on its top. But I love the stories, her sense of humor, and her insistence that women had something to say at a time when no one else was listening.

I can’t say enough about Fannie Flagg. Her books are so funny and subtle and strike me where I live. Ms. Flagg’s characters ring true with people I once knew and take me back to a time before my experiences but where I can picture myself. She can take a story about dropping a mason jar on the floor and make it so real, you sweep your kitchen floor to make sure you got all the shards.

I also love reading Ken Follett and Robert B. Parker. Unfortunately because of the content and language of some of these books, I have to close them and put them aside. The last Ken Follett book I read was Whiteout, and I made it all the way to the end. A wonderful book. Again pacing and style are why I love his books. My sophomore high school English teacher handed me The Eye of the Needle by Mr. Follett and told me I’d love it. I handed it right back and said, “I don’t like spy stories.” She insisted I take it. Since I trusted that she knew me well enough to know my reading tastes. I read the book. I’ve never seen the movie, starring Donald Sutherland, but I’ve read the book several times and love it every time. It’s one of the few fiction books in the world I’ve read more than once.

My sister has become disabled from work so is toying with beginning her writing career. She told me the other day that her problem is filling in all the gaps between scenes. You know, Heroine goes to the market. Hero drops his kid off at soccer practice before discovering dead body in marshland. Heroine bakes cookies while pondering better place to hide dead body.

I assured my sister not to worry about the gaps and read her a page of a Robert B. Parker book I had on loan from the library. Sidenote: I couldn’t finish the book because of an annoying curse word that appeared too many times for my comfort level.

Open any of Mr. Parker’s books at nearly any point and you will see mostly dialog. At the beginning of each chapter, he has a paragraph or two setting up the scene and then he hits the ground running. There is very little inner monolog that appeals to female readers, but with him behind the wheel you won’t even miss it. Everything is quick, quick, quick, ohmygosh, I never saw that coming.

This was definitely not an exhaustive list, but now I’ll have a few writers in mind the next time a reader at a book signing asks who I like to read.


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You Know You Are Reading Good Fiction When …

Hey Chris, nice picture. You crack me up.

You guys are putting out some great stuff on fiction. I don’t know who else reads this blog but I am really taking some of this advice seriously. Keep up the quality.

I was hoping and planning on reporting my great strides on my own fiction writing but … not today. The problem has been my shortage of time. A topic for another week.
Instead I will share some of the things I wrote down this week about what I enjoy in fiction when I read. I aspire to understand some of these well enough to duplicate with my own writing. We have some listing formats appearing in this blog and since I also like lists I will tell you SIX things [far from exhaustive] I personally jotted down for future reference for my own fiction writing. See if you agree.

  1. Anything that gets a reader’s head nodding is good writing.

You know when the book talks about a certain kind of person and you just start nodding your head in agreement because you know someone or several people just like that. I think this pulls the reader into a sense of reality that he identifies with.

  1. Forcing readers to go back to try and figure out who is who – is bad writing.

I have had to do this with a couple books. I wasn’t looking for clues in a fun way, but frustrated that I didn’t have a photographic memory and it seemed like the author expected to tie in something that I couldn’t remember. I don’t like it when I am forced to work when I’m trying to enjoy a good read.

  1. Fast reading is good writing.

Kind of the opposite of going back to put things together is when certain parts of the book flow so easily and the conversations are so natural to follow you zip through the pages. You aren’t reading, you are following the events and situations and the conversations. It doesn’t even feel like reading. I love that. In slower parts of the book you know you are reading and find yourself tempted to start scanning the pages to hurry up and get to a better part. It feels like listening to a boring high school teacher. You just don’t really want to be there. Still you read because you are afraid you might miss something you need to know about later.

  1. Anything that makes a reader respond out loud is excellent writing … as long as it is not an open criticism of the writing.

“No way!” You are so surprised that someone did something or happened to them that suddenly you unconsciously blurt out. If you did it in a movie theater you would cover your mouth surprised it slipped out. If you have your readers making exclamations out loud, you are really doing a wonderful job at writing.

  1. When readers worry about characters more than their real life family and friends, you know you are making real characters.

Have you ever read a book and almost everything else in your life felt a little bit like an interruption? The fictional characters in the book you are reading become so important to you that the real people in your life are becoming 2-dimensional by contrast. Imagine the power of such character development and story line. Sometimes a character can become so important to you, you read to spend time with that person; to be with them, to watch them, to enjoy them. This is star writing for sure.

  1. Americans and plenty of others, like to see the unrepentant bad guy get what’s coming to him. We seem to have an appetite for it. Don’t disappoint your readers too much but letting him off.

At first I thought about not putting this in on this blog because it is for Christians and I thought “Am I feeding the wrong appetites?” But I overcame my concerns with thoughts of Bible stories [true accounts] published for our observation to know with certainty that injustice may have a life, but it will end. This is an important conviction from God to all of us.

I certainly want to see the bad guy get something that satisfies my craving for wrongs made right. It delights me when it is done in a way that is unexpected and creative. I can’t think of a more classic example of a story that could actually be entitled “Poetic Justice” rather than “The Book of Ruth”. If you don’t know the story, read it this weekend.

The master writer is a master for a reason. Just like we can all talk about why we all love certain songs; turning around a writing a song to evoke the same response is extremely rare and reserved for either a master or someone very inspired. Still the artist must pursue perfection.

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What I Find Fault With…

…in myself? Where to begin…

O, wait; this is only regarding writing? Phew! You were about to read a pretty sorry session of verbal throwing up!

1.) Spelling. I think I’m a night-mare made manifest for my senior editor. She humors me, truly. But I wish I was a better speller. I have greatly improved and now make more “common” errors, though I still hate them. “Loose,” and “lose.” “Manner,” and “manor.” “There,” “their,” and “they’re.” I also struggle with simple things like conjunctions and possession. Anyone who owns the first edition of my first book knows what I’m talking about. And just think, for the editor to miss the things that slipped by means she was REALLY distracted by all the other junk!

2.) Letting the reader assume the emotion of a scene. Meaning: if I have to explain the emotion that should be felt to the reader, then my writing is faulty and ineffective.

3.) Thought flow. Sometimes I can really make things confusing for the reader…you know, like not knowing who’s talking (especially when there are a lot of characters in a scene). This makes them stop reading and try to figure out who is saying what. Anything that makes the reader stop is bad (unless of course it’s emotional or thought provoking). They should never get “hung-up” because of the writing style. The converse is true, too. Sometimes I can be too emphatic about what’s going on and then it becomes tedious and overly critical. Again, the flow of reading is hindered.

4.) Mixing up people, places, and items. For this reason I usually write with three Word documents open at any one time. With a Mac (and using Expose) this is incredibly easy to have multiple windows at my fingertips. I keep detailed records of everything from plot to quotes to items to locations of special events. But even still my wife will say, “Huh? I thought [so and so] was back in Adriel still?” O yeah–he is.

There’s more, but that’s enough blood-letting for now. Thanks for reading!


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Flaws and Traps

Beside my grammatical challenges (this is where I would just list them but my list looked too similar to the table of contents to the Chicago Manual of Style!), I have a tendency to repeat the following flaws and traps:

1. Over use of narration to set the scenes. I need to focus more on letting the characters themselves set the scene through their own dialogue and action.

2. I don’t turn on the “engine” quick enough in the story. The “engine” is the point of the story where the reader can’t stop reading. I have to keep in mind that the reader is looking for an experience. I need to use more unexpected obstacles to build surprise and thus suspense.

3. Beginning too many ( three or more) consecutive sentences with “He . . . ” or “I . . .” I need to rework the sentence structure to communicate the points differently.

4. The speech patterns of different characters are not distinct enough. This is just practice but a very easy trap for me to fall into when I’m on a roll.

5. I forget to ask myself what the reader would feel after each scene or chapter. After all, I need to keep the reader emotionally involved. They need to be continually experiencing what I want them to experience. If my scene or chapter doesn’t move the ball in that direction, perhaps I need to eliminate it.

I have more but these are what came to mind.

One page at a time,


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Sorry for the late start. I had a doctor’s appt this morning that threw off my whole routine. Truth be told, I forgot it’s Monday. But here I am so let’s get started.

First off, a big apology to Sam. Non-fiction writers are just as important to this blog and I’m sure they have the same questions and starting dilemmas as fiction writers. Regardless of what genre or type of writing you do, I hope you can find answers and encouragement within this group. Personally I’m having a great time and can’t wait to learn more from each other.

Last week, Christopher mentioned reading his first draft through fresh eyes–as if he’d never seen it before. That is definitely hard to do. Mine is riddled with mistakes even after the third or fourth read-thru. This week, let’s show the aspiring writers out there how human and fallible we are by revealing our biggest challenges when it comes to producing a publishable manuscript. Be it fiction or nonfiction, song or screenplay, what mistakes do you find yourself making again and again? How do you identify these challenges? And are you any closer at defeating them for good?

This is a hard area to pin down because my challenges are many. I am blessed that I do not work outside my home. Besides taking care of an over-worked, ever-patient husband and two rescue dogs, my day is basically mine to do with what I want. By all accounts I should be producing much more than I am. I am a big time waster. Bad. Bad. Bad. (I am currently smacking the back of my hand with a pencil.)

But I consider laziness a personality flaw, not a challenge, so I’ll talk about the mistakes I keep making in every first draft I’ve ever done. (I hope my editor isn’t reading this, because she can surely identify at least 20 or 30 more challenges that drive her up the wall.)

Besides my shameless mutilation of the English language and simple rules of grammar, one of the first things I notice while re-reading a draft is how badly I repeat myself. I repeat myself. I repeat…

You get the picture. Like I said last week, the most important thing is to get the story down on paper. So I try (emphasis on try) to get the book down as quickly as possible. I shut off my inner critic and go to town. In other words, I dash thru it. That is if you consider a leisurely stroll a dash compared to some unnamed writers who spit out 4 or 5 books a year.

In my hurry to get the story down, I become redundant. Example: A little boy falls off a bridge into a rushing river. He manages to stay afloat until he is able to reach the safety of the shore a mile downstream.

I will write the scene thru the little boy’s eyes. Thirty pages later I forget I’ve already covered everything that needs to be covered so I retell the same story, giving the same information thru the little boy’s mother’s eyes. Then his father will tell the same story, once again giving the same rehashed information. By the end of the book, the same episode has been relived by everyone in the book, from the passerby on the bridge to the trout the little boy landed on.

During my read-thrus I do tons of slicing and dicing because I have gone over the same information for no reason other than I wasn’t paying attention as I was writing. Believe me, there are plenty more flaws and shortcomings I could elaborate on, but that’s the one that drives me crazy while editing. I catch most of those faux pas before I send in the finished work, but many have made it to my editor’s desk. Like the character who had two different eye colors. Or the woman who had 3 different last names, simply because I kept forgetting what it was and was too lazy to stop writing and look it up.

I believe there’s a special blessing waiting in Heaven for editors. They deserve it.

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What We Know Converted to Writing

Well, since I am NOT an experienced fiction writer I do not feel I really have any advice to offer on fiction. I look forward to additional comments since I am learning and want to learn much more. Hey, Aaron, I think I’ll check out that book you mentioned for myself.

It wouldn’t be sportsman like of me to simply duck out and I have no problem jabbering anyway, so I will contribute something here. First of all DITTO on what has been said but I will add some stuff from my perspective since I have the mic.

The “craft” of writing comes AFTER the ideas, not first. Aaron mentioned a synopsis which would quickly reveal if there is something there to start with. I have written a couple hundred songs in my life and it wasn’t because I wanted to write songs, it was because I was about to burst with emotion of some kind and I needed an outlet. Certain kinds of music suited the emotion I wanted to let out and other kinds of music didn’t work for that emotion. It was raw but still tangible to me. “I like that. I don’t like that. Yeah, more like that.” Etc.

I play something new for my wife and usually can’t hold her attention for more than 45 seconds. A year goes by and I have chipped away at the rough edges, made the rhythn better, changed words, minimized the lousy stuff and changed to the key to fit my range better and maybe added some catchy things as well. That is the “craft”. That comes AFTER. I play the song for my wife and she says “I like that song” and I tell her that I played it for her a year ago. She argues that she never heard it and I understand. From the inside of me it is the same song. It has always been about expressing the same emotion as a year earlier but by the time it is “done” other people can finally HEAR WHAT I AM TRYING TO SAY. Of course, this is a success story. Some songs never quite get there and I’m sure it can be true for books as well.

I love what Teresa said about “the book takes over” and how the writer is not really in control. Since practically everyone close to me wants me to start writing fiction [I have started, but struggling] I realize that my immobility is because I am not taking everyone’s advice here. I keep worrying that there are still too many unanswered questions and I have literally written down many, many questions about the characters and the plot twists and certain resolutions because I am assuming I need to know everything before I can write the whole story. Teresa’s advice is liberating because it says the book will take me where I need to go. It makes me feel less alone; as though the book and I will collaborate and write it together. I am freed from being omniscient [knowing everything] about every detail. It is worse than editing while I write, it is editing BEFORE I write. How nuts is that? [Oh by the way, it helps to be a little nuts to be creative so that’s the good news for me].

I have known these things in music because since I was a teenager and had a band waaaayyy back then, I would tell the members to put our egos aside and let the song be its very best. We were there to serve the song and let it manifest itself. The more we let it, the better it could be.

Translating all this to writing is identical and now easy for me to see but my point is that you still have to have something to say FIRST. What a bondage it would be if I really, really wanted to be a writer but had absolutely nothing I particularly wanted to say. Naturally, no book can work with a mental mute.

Thanks Teresa. I guess wisdom always has a way of sounding like we already knew it but still needed to hear it.

I guess my advice is also being the transparent student here. I hope I have a testimonial next week of genuine progress.

I’m liking this delayed chat the four of us are having. For readers that don’t know us, I will tell you without an ounce of exagerration, everyone here is genuinely easy to like and easy to get along with. I also know we are all humble enough and smart enough to know we NEVER stop learning and to stop learning is a type of death.

Proverbs 3:13 How blessed is the man who finds wisdom and the man who gains understanding. NAS

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