Tuesday, November 29, 2011

How to Be an Ox-Writer

Coming July 2012
In my twenty-year editorial career, I've had the pleasure of working with some pretty amazing professional authors. I like to say that "my" authors (as if I get to claim them) have taught me everything I know about what it means to be a good storyteller. They are my models, my collective inspiration, my wise teachers. Each one has made a special contribution to my personal aspirations as a novelist.

Colleen Coble stands out with an exceptionally rare trait, and her peers will know what it is before I even name it: I don't believe there is any novelist writing today who gets as excited as Colleen does about the revision process. When I say excited I mean hovering-over-the-e-mail-in-box-while-waiting-to-hear-from-the-editors excited. Tweeting and posting and raving, "I just got my editorial letter!" excited. Devouring-the-notes-and-responding-POSITIVELY excited, sometimes with comments like, "I can't WAIT to tear this thing down and start all over again! It's going to be amazing!"


Yes, really. Most of her peers think she's crazy. Just ask them.

This week I'm editing Colleen's latest book, Tidewater Inn, the first book in her new Hope Beach series, and once again I'm deeply impressed by how her positive attitude and enthusiasm toward the revision process has transformed her tale from good to great. Having written six novels of my own, I'm aware of how hard it is not to get defensive about a manuscript that consumed months or years of creative sweat and blood. Colleen has written dozens of popular novels and could make the case that she doesn't need editorial input anymore. She could decide to ignore her editors. She could get defensive about her creative choices.

But she doesn't. So today I wanted to publicly highlight some specific qualities of Colleen's attitude that make her, and her work, such winners. It's a list I'll refer to when my next editorial letter shows up (which will be any day now):

  • My editor shares my yoke and will strengthen my efforts if I let him/her.
  • My editor wants the book to succeed as much as I do.
  • Every suggestion is worth pondering, and most are worth trying.
  • Every book is an opportunity to write a better story than the last one.
  • Good books don't write themselves, and the best creative choices are usually the ones that seem, this side of the effort, most difficult to pull off.

I'll never forget the time Colleen explained that she sees her editors as fellow oxen sharing the plow yoke with her. Two are stronger than one. Imagine my laughter when I found this passage in the King James: "Thou shalt not plow with an ox and an ass together" (Deuteronomy 22:10). I used to say to fellow editors, "Be your author's partner ox. Make sure you're not an ass." Now I say it to myself as an author: "Be an ox, not an ass." I can do this because I learned how from the strongest ox-writer of all: Colleen. Thanks, my friend.

You can learn more about Colleen and her terrific romantic-suspense novels at her website, and at the blog she co-hosts with fellow novelists Kristin Billerbeck, Diann Hunt, Denise Hunter, and Cheryl Hodde.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Do You Hide Behind What You Write?

Kay Garston “Hide Behind Truth”
Or do the words you choose to put on the page reflect the real you? I asked myself this question recently while I was reflecting on how many of us blog, tweet, write, and otherwise seek ways to be heard by the world. It’s a pretty noisy place out there where finding a voice can be difficult. The temptation, then, is to write wildly, into the extreme margins of life, where we can get attention because we’re so far “out there.” Or, on the flip side, we might write conservatively to the “largest common denominator” of an audience, because we’re afraid that real and deep honesty might alienate people. In either case, words become a shield that separate our true selves from the people we are trying to reach. That’s ironic and tragic.

It’s easy enough to put up a false front when we’re face to face with another person. How much easier it is in this techno-savvy era when we can be more verbose than ever while being more physically isolated than ever.  
I’m not trying to draw any conclusions or make any accusations with these thoughts. I’m merely sharing a question that I’ve found difficult to answer personally as a novelist. I want to be “real” without being offensive, but it’s not always possible to be both. Sometimes speaking the truth takes the courage to kick people in the pants; whether listeners will be offended is irrelevant. So these values I hold as a writer live in imperfect tension. But if I ever stop being aware of that tension, I think my words will lose their integrity.

How do you hold onto integrity when you write?

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Lis Wiehl, Best-Selling Author of Waking Hours

Maybe you've seen the analyst Lis Wiehl on FOX News. Did you know she's a best-selling author? Earlier this year my publisher asked me to read Lis's latest novel, Waking Hours, and consider endorsing it. I was happy to do this for a great publishing team and a talented author with a shared fascination for supernatural things.

In just a few short chapters I completely forgot that I was supposed to read as a professional. I forgot I was ever trained as an editor. The writer part of my self read on with admiration, and Erin the reader got lost in a riveting, frightening tale. What a great book! Easiest endorsement I've ever had the pleasure of offering. So I thought you'd enjoy hearing a little bit about Waking Hours in from the source herself:

What inspired you to write Waking Hours?
I’ve so loved the experience of writing fiction—always the kind of stories I like to read, so very true to me! My Triple Threat books have been great fun, and I’m so excited about this new East Salem series. Inspiration for Waking Hours came from wanting to create strong yet fallible characters in Dani and Tommy, who have a romantic side to their serious selves, and to layer that with exploration of the major theme: good vs evil. Set that in a town named East Salem, and there you go.

How does your unique background inform your fiction writing? 
As someone who prosecuted crimes and who now works in the news, I see some heinous things. This new series explores the good and evil behind the surface of what we see. I've been so blessed that I can weave in the reality of crime-solving because of both my prosecutorial and media background. Colleagues and other professionals write to tell me that the stories feel authentic, and that’s a huge compliment. But perhaps the best praise comes from readers who say that my stories helped them understand the interworkings of a newsroom, courtroom, or law enforcement office in ways they’d never considered—entertaining them, but also granting new perspective.

What’s next for East Salem and Dani and Tommy?
Erin, I’ve been sworn to secrecy. Suffice it to say, Dani, Tommy and I are working on the plot and I’m buying the pizza as we develop it. But a little hint: their story is just beginning. Darkness Rising is set to release October 2012.

Be sure to get a copy of Waking Hours. You can learn more about Lis's other books at LisWiehlBooks.com.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Words to Motivate Your Writing

So the first week of NaNoWriMo is complete. If you don’t know what this is, it’s “National Novel Writing Month,” a wonderful community effort to encourage writers to put down a complete fifty-thousand-word novel in a single month—November. If you’re participating, one of the perks of writing with community is the encouragement you’ll get from other writers.

When the romantic notions of being a writer wear off and all that’s left behind is self-doubt, a lonely room, a totally empty bag of potato chips, and a blank page (or a trashcan full of crumpled paper balls), it becomes clear that most of us writers need plenty of encouragement to keep us going. NaNoWriMo is one great place to get it. I’m fortunate to have a family, a group of close friends, and professional colleagues who support my work and seem to have a bottomless supply of rah-rahs to keep me fueled.

Once during a down spell I complained to my friend and co-author Ted Dekker that I felt like an illegitimate writer. He said, “Don’t be selfish. Don’t withhold your stories because you don’t think they’re good enough for the world. Everyone suffers the same. It’s the author’s job to process the suffering and make sense of it on behalf of others.”

Don’t be selfish. A kick in the pants and a great motivational word rolled into one. I value this kind of inspiration more than any other.

What motivational words keep you going when your creative efforts stall? 

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Are You Comfortable with the Mysteries of God?

When I set out to write my antagonist for The Baker’s Wife, Jack Mansfield, I was nervous about how people would respond to him. Though I’ve always thought the most frightening villains are the ones in whom we can see ourselves, Jack is my first bad guy who is also a Christian, a deacon, an upstanding citizen in his church and community. I feared he would offend my fine, church-going, upstanding readers.

Instead they’re saying that he’s my best villain yet. They don’t know I put some of my own worst qualities into Jack: the overwhelming need to be right about God, for example. I spent a lot of years believing (as Jack does) that if I just lived a “right” Christian life, God would bless me. Always. If I had trouble, God would point the way out of it. My faith would help me shine through the character-building trials. I would always come out on top.

photo credit: Maciek Pelc

Here’s the problem with this way of thinking:
(1)    It locks God away in a box.
(2)    It emphasizes me instead of Him.
(3)    It lacks humble awareness of my own humanity

Again and again, I am confronted with my capacity to be very, very wrong. Sometimes trouble gets the best of me. Though I cling to faith and ask God for wisdom, the best choices are not always clear. The longer I persist in my faith journey, the fewer answers I seem to have about the way God works in the world, and the more mistakes I seem to make.

And the more I have to trust Him.

At such moments a person who doesn’t want to abandon faith can make a choice: She can turn away from her own understanding and learn to get comfortable with the mysteries of God (as we are advised to do in Proverbs 3), or she can go off the deep end, as Jack did, insisting that human understanding is the pinnacle of godly living.

It sounds silly to state it that way, doesn’t it? I don’t want to be Jack. But in order not to be Jack, I have to be comfortable walking with God and admitting I don’t understand everything about Him. It’s a limitation of this life:
For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror,” Paul said. “Then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12).
Does it make you uncomfortable to admit what you don’t know about God? Why or why not?