I’ve been away for a few days and busy playing catch-up since my return. I hope I still have a few readers left! Thanks for being patient. Today I continue with one of the questions submitted to me by Kathy N.

Kathy N: Could you tell us about something in your writing career that has been especially fulfilling?

Nick: Like most writers, I’ve had my ups and downs. I’ll share one “down” with you first. About fifteen years ago I was out of a job, but wanting very much to make it as writer. I prepared a proposal and sample chapters for a novel I felt strongly about. I then went to the expense of flying to Atlanta for the annual CBA trade show. My major goal was to meet with the then premiere editor of Christian fiction and ask that person to take my proposal home to review.

It was hot in Atlanta, my budget allowed for only a cheap room quite far from the convention center, but at least I was there. And at long last I met with the editor of my dreams. But the meeting did not go according to my fantasy. The editor was kind, but firm about NOT taking my manuscript. The editor was heading for a vacation immediately after the trade show and would only see my manuscript when I sent it in through the proper channels.

The editor was right of course. Editors are constantly besieged by aspiring writers such as I was at that time. They have to learn to say no. And this editor certainly did. I left the appointment crushed. I’m somewhat embarrassed to tell you that I made my way to the men’s room, found a stall, and shed a healthy number of tears behind that closed door. It was a heart-wrenching experience. To this day, when I teach my workshop on succeeding as a writer, I give each student extra points if they have literally shed tears over a rejection. That too is part of the process.

Okay, now on to happier times. Only a year or two after that sad experience, I broke another rule. In my desire to make it as a writer, I chose my six favorite publishers and sent a letter to an editor (by name—I did my research) at each publishing house. Basically, I said I was a writer looking for a project and did they have anything for me?

I hope some of you right now are rolling your eyes at how unprofessional that was. I would never in a million years recommend you do such a thing. And yet I did it. I knew better, of course. But what did I have to lose, really?

And to my happy surprise, the editor at my number one choice was an editor I had interviewed for an article a few years earlier. To be honest, I had not remembered that interview. But she did. And she graciously responded with the suggestion that they were looking for a men’s devotional book to tie into the just blossoming Promise Keepers’ movement. She asked if I was interested in submitting a proposal. As the guy says on the Geico commercials, “Did the little piggy cry ‘wee, wee, wee’ all the way home?” YES, I was interested. I did the proposal lickety-split and the Monday after Thanksgiving I was offered a contract. The book was due February 1. I worked very hard and was only a few days late. You can see the book on this page: It’s called Promises to Keep. And the one that followed (also on my home page) was 365 WWJD (which is now my bestseller at more than 75,000 copies sold).

That led to other books, one of which has a more recent highlight attached to it. My two devotionals for Zondervan are Magnificent Prayer and His Victorious Indwelling. They are far deeper than my first two books and the sales confirm that. People do not apparently want “deeper” books. But for those who have bought my two Zondervan books, the letters I get are wonderful (as are the unsolicited Amazon reader reviews). Even more wonderful, in a way, was the news that pastor Chip Ingram has been mentioning Magnificent Prayer both from the pulpit and on his radio broadcasts. The excitement about this turn of events is that he did not know that he’s pastoring the very church in which I became a Christian more than forty years ago. Wow! When I heard what he was doing, I was amazed that God would so bless me in that way. It was like a word from God confirming what He’s doing. And when you’re a writer and there’s a desolate space between book contracts, it’s especially wonderful when God sends along little surprises like that.

If you’re at a low point in your writing career now, take heart. Keep writing, keep looking for opportunities, and start planning which writer’s conference(s) you’ll go to in 2011

Kathy, thanks for asking. Next time I’ll be answering Jan’s question about writer’s conferences, and then BJ Hoff’s question about my own reading preferences.

Finally, I think I’d be remiss not to take note that Chip MacGregor has decided to end his active blogging. I highly recommend you look through his archive if you’ve not followed his blog already.

Today, I tackle another question. This one from Dr. Richard Mabry, author of Code Blue and Medical Error.

Dr. Mabry: Would-be authors often think that once they’re published, they’re home free. Most of us know that’s not true. It appears that some houses are more willing to take a chance on a new author than one whose previous books sold a respectable but not earth-shaking number of copies. What kind of sales figures does it take to interest a publisher in a previously published author’s work?

Nick: My first response to a fiction proposal doesn’t factor in previous sales at all. Since I’m an editor, my primary consideration is an editorial one. Does this novel work? And if so, does it fit with our fiction program at Harvest House? If the answer is no, then an author’s previous sales history doesn’t really matter.

But let’s say the answer is yes to both questions. This is a good novel and it fits in nicely with Harvest House’s fiction program. To be honest, there again, I will not likely be swayed by an author’s previous sales. If I like the book and it fits us, then I’m probably going to take it to the committee. If the author has published previously and their sales are good, then naturally that fact will be part of my presentation to the committee. But if the sales were poor, then I’ll have to try and find a way to explain why, and hopefully overcome the reservations the committee will likely have. I’ll have to have done some homework for this tough question. I’ll have contacted the author and/or their agent to find out why, in their minds, the previous books didn’t do well. Sometimes there are valid reasons for poor sales. The wrong publisher, lack of promotion, the wrong genre, inferior writing which has since improved are all common reasons.

In the wording of Dr. Mabry’s question, he supposes an author whose sales were “respectable, but not earth-shaking.” Gosh, I’d love to find some fiction authors who write what we publish and whose previous books had respectable sales. (Earth-shaking would be welcome too!).

Having said all that, I will offer up a figure I might use as a gauge. If an author’s previous books have sold 15,000+, that’s not bad at all for someone just starting out. Numbers below that figure are going to have me asking the author and agent as to what went wrong with the previous books.

In a competitive fiction market, it’s understood that an author’s first book and possibly their second may not go gangbusters. If we believe in an author’s potential, we’ll stick with the author as long as we can. We stuck with one author I acquired for nine books, only to come to the conclusion that this very talented author was probably not a good fit for us after all and might do better with another publisher.

Write your best, submit to the right publisher, promote your books, and just keep going. Change publishers if necessary, but just keep plugging away—improving your writing and promotional abilities as you go. Most writing careers are built slowly over time. Instant success is rare and often short-lived. I’m thinking now of a novel that was all the rage several years ago, but the author of that book hasn’t published anything in years.

Just keep going. Write, learn, promote, publish.

Simple, eh?

I’m out of town later this week, so if I don’t get to it before I leave, watch for my next blog early next week. The question I answer then will be from author BJ Hoff and is about my own reading tastes.

The next question comes from Michael Reynolds and Shannon Dittemore who want to hear a “‘Fly On The Wall’ blog about Pub Board and Editorial meetings.”

The process goes something like this: I review many book proposals and manuscripts from authors who want to publish with Harvest House. Most are not good fits for us or are not ready for publication (the writer needs to improve his or her craft) and are rejected. But the proposals I review that seem like a good fit for Harvest House are scheduled for presentation by me at a “pubco” meeting. Pubco usually meets once a week, depending on the schedules of the five members. Although most publishers have their own versions of pubco, they’re pretty much alike. The committee includes someone from marketing, sales, editorial, and in our case, the president of the company.

When it’s my turn to present proposals, I have copies ready to hand out to the committee members. I then give a brief 5-15 minute pitch as to why I think Harvest House should publish this book. I answer questions and jot down any requests for more information from committee members. Once in a while the proposal is so obviously right for us, the committee says yes on the spot. But most often, they really do need to review all the materials and prayerfully render the right decision. That decision is usually reached when the committee convenes for their next meeting where they will discuss the pros and cons of the proposal and determine if the book is right for us.

You can well imagine that it’s important for the representatives of the various departments to make sure their particular concerns are addressed in the proposal. The sales department will want to know if the book will sell successfully in our market. Marketing wants to know if the author has a way to promote the book. Editorial wants to make sure the writing is strong. The president of the company wants to ensure all of the above and to confirm that the project is indeed a good fit for us. Sometimes some very fine proposals are turned down because they’re not suited to our market. Those books go on to be successfully published elsewhere. And some books that did not fit at other publishing houses are a perfect fit for Harvest House.

I’ve been at Harvest House for ten years now and have pitched many proposals. And though I’m sometimes disappointed when I get a “no” to a proposal I’ve strongly believed in, I have to admit that I’ve often LATER seen the wisdom in having said no to that particular proposal. And when I get a “yes,” naturally I’m very happy about that.

Sometimes the committee’s response is neither yes or no. More than once they’ve said, “we like this author, but this proposal needs tweaking.” Or “although we’re saying no to this proposal, let the author know we’d look at something else he or she wants to submit.”

There are other variations on the committee’s response as well. And my response too. A couple of times I’ve taken a proposal back to the committee several months after receiving a no and asked them to reconsider. Usually this is because of new information I’ve received or a perceived shift in the marketplace or for some other good reason.

I hope the obvious take-away message for authors who want to write for Harvest House is that you need to make sure your proposal is editorially sound, your book is marketable, and will sell to a significant number of book buyers. Take into consideration that our mission statement is:

To glorify God by providing high-quality books and products that affirm biblical values, help people grow spiritually strong, and proclaim Jesus Christ as the answer to every human need.

Ask yourself, will my proposed book do this? Is my writing excellent? How will potential book buyers find out about my book? Who are my intended readers and does Harvest House reach those people?

Tomorrow (or possibly Monday), a question about sales figures. How many copies does an author need to sell to be considered successful?

I had a nice response from readers answering my plea for questions. I’ll try to reply to one question a day until I’ve answered them all. First up is author BJ Hoff.

BJ Hoff: Maybe you could do another post on why “literary fiction”—although hyped by some publishers and editors—does not work in CBA–and with only a few exceptions, doesn’t work in the general market either. It wins awards–but doesn’t draw sales, apparently not much of the latter in either market. And you could also discuss what literary fiction is. What makes it “literary?” I’m still convinced that in CBA, at least, there’s much confusion about what it actually is.

Nick: I’ll try to define literary fiction as I understand it. Another person’s definition may differ, though I think there will be some similarities among most lovers of literary fiction. The way I best define it is as character-driven fiction with plenty of what Henry James called “felt life.’ (Please don’t ask me to define “felt life.” I’m not sure I can). Also, I think it helps to contrast literary fiction with commercial fiction. Commercial fiction—in both the secular world and the Christian world—is simply more plot-driven fiction (page-turners) where the resolution of the plot is usually more important than what happens internally to the characters.

As examples, I often cite Danielle Steel, Tom Clancy, Nora Roberts, Stephen King, and John Grisham’s legal thrillers as commercial fiction. Literary fiction tends to be more like Anne Tyler, Toni Morrison, and Tom Wolfe. Some authors may fall in both categories. Joyce Carol Oates is one example. And John Grisham has tried his hand at literary fiction too (often to the dismay of his core audience). In years past, commercial authors included Edna Ferber, James Cain, Raymond Chandler, Peter Benchley, and Pearl Buck. Literary lions of the past would include Hemingway, Faulkner, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O’Connor.

I’m hesitant to name names in CBA publishing because, for one thing, literary fiction doesn’t fare as well in our marketplace. When it’s attempted, it doesn’t often succeed. I think there might be two reasons for this. One is that we’re not that different from our secular counterparts when it comes to which we prefer. In secular publishing the commercial authors sell many times more than the literary fiction authors (with some exceptions). And so when you have a smaller pool of book buyers (as we surely do in the Christian fiction marketplace), you’ll also have fewer of those readers preferring literary fiction.

Another reason might be that literary fiction often goes deeper than commercial fiction and many times readers in our market simply want a good story to read without the kinds of problems sometimes dealt with in literary fiction. Another way to put it is that, in my opinion, much of secular literary fiction deals with issues that for many Christians do not exist or is not as important. For instance, estrangement from God. That would make a dandy theme in a secular literary novel, but most Christians do not want to read about estrangement from God, since that’s not part of their day to day world. Sometimes literary fiction is “dark,” and Christians generally do not like dark fiction. I do have an amusing anecdote about this. A Christian who happens to be an editor at a secular publishing house was constantly sending her mother copies of the novels she had recently edited. The mother eventually asked her if she ever published anything that “wasn’t so dark.” The editor had to admit that, no, she didn’t. Most of what she worked on did indeed have a dark side to it.

By the way, the literary versus commercial divide isn’t confined to just books. It exists in the world of music and art as well. “Pop” music (both Christian and secular) far outsells the more serious (and accomplished) music. And I think most of you can name an artist whose commercial works sell extremely well, but who is not generally highly regarded by serious art critics.

Well, that’s my brief take on literary versus commercial fiction. I’m sure there are editors who disagree. As it turns out, I really do prefer to read literary fiction. Not for the darkness, but for the depth of characters. I’m much more interested in the characters in a story than in the plot they must live out on the pages. But that’s NOT typical of most readers of Christian fiction.

Perhaps some of you can offer your insight into this great divide. Tell us which you prefer and perhaps name your favorite literary or commercial fiction authors.

Next time I’ll tackle a question about what happens during a publisher’s committee meeting.

I’m sort of stuck on what to blog about next. I could do Q and A if people want to send me questions. If so, don’t respond in the comment section. Email your question to me at nick.harrison@harvesthousepublishers.com

In the meantime I’m going to offer up a quote from The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers by Betsy Lerner. It’s an excellent book so far. (I’ve only read the first two chapters).

In the paragraph that follows, the author has just written about whether “natural talent” is inborn or not and now relates that to aspiring writers who eventually give up.

Some let the dream go gracefully. Others do not go gently, attempting to write over the years, beginning journals only to let them lapse, showing up for a writing workshop only to disappear after the first session. If this describes you, it does not mean that you lack ability, though it may mean that you lack ego. But if you can’t give it up, if hearing how impossible the odds are only makes you dig in deeper, it doesn’t really matter if you have natural talent. Your job is to marshal the talent you do have and find people who believe in your vision. What’s important, finally, is that you create, and that those creations define for you what matters most, that which cannot be extinguished even in the face of silence, solitude, and rejection.

By way, if you’re on Facebook, please “friend” Harvest House Publishers. Lots of good posts there too.

For a change of pace, I thought today I’d do an interview with Shane White. Shane is our National CBA Sales Manager at Harvest House Publishers and has been a great advocate for our fiction with his numerous accounts.

Nick: Shane, you were early to spot the trend of Amish fiction in the CBA marketplace. Did you suspect this genre would have the staying power it’s had?

Shane: I always thought Amish fiction would become a permanent genre in CBA. Even when the sales slow down from the peak there will still be loyal Amish buyers.

Nick: Is it just Amish fiction that’s doing so well or anything that’s historical romance?

Shane: Amish and Historical Romance are the two categories where I am seeing strong sales. In the historical category the best sellers are set in 19th or early 20th century America.

Nick: The question on the minds of many fiction authors (after how long will Amish fiction be popular?) is what’s the next trend? Any predictions?

Shane: I’ve heard that historical southern novels are doing well. Like I said earlier I think we will always see Amish fiction in the CBA market.

Nick: Beyond the genre question, are there other ingredients in a book that your accounts want to see in a novel?

Shane: Romance, Romance, Romance. Romance is so strong in CBA. Setting and cover are also very important.

Nick: Many of the readers of my blog want to write contemporary fiction. Can you offer any hope for them? Any suggestions?

Shane: From what I am hearing, Karen Kingsbury is the only author who can sell large quantities of contemporary fiction. It is a hard market for contemporary fiction. I was just looking at a catalog from a major CBA retailer and less than 20% of the titles shown were contemporary.

Nick: In your years working with CBA fiction, what’s been the biggest surprise for you?

Shane: How big Amish has become. I knew it would be big but I had no idea how loyal the readers would be to the genre.

Nick: Probably the most talked about Christian novel in recent years has been The Shack. Did the success of that novel surprise you?

Shane: I was very surprised. The Shack was one of those once in a lifetime books. People were talking about this book even if they didn’t like it.

Nick: In her recent blog, Harvest House author BJ Hoff lamented the trend away from longer “mega-novels” with 400+ pages. Are larger novels making a comeback with your accounts?

Shane: I have seen some “mega novels” do well. But I think most readers are looking for smaller more consumable books in the 300 to 350 page range.

Nick: In non-fiction, we hear about the importance of authors having a platform from which to promote their books. Is a platform helpful or necessary for a gifted fiction writer?

Shane: Not so much a platform as having a presence with your readers. Websites, newsletters and contests are great ways to connect to readers.

Nick: Is there any hope for authors wanting to write fiction for men?

Shane: Men’s fiction is a tough sell in CBA but there have been success stories. Joel Rosenberg and Ted Dekker have both been promoted to men in CBA.

Nick: Any other words of wisdom for fiction writers?

Shane: Be original! Don’t try to be a copycat of bestselling authors.

Nick: How about non-fiction? Are there any trends there we should know about?

Shane: Women, Bible Study and Prayer are currently strong categories.

Nick: What are your reading tastes? What’s on your nightstand now?

Shane: I love World War II and Spy Novels. Some of my favorite authors include Daniel Silva, Jack Higgins and from CBA I am anxious to read the new Ted Dekker.

Thanks, Shane for your insight–and for the great way you represent our books into the CBA market.

There you have it, folks. It’s not too late to begin working on that Amish novel. The genre will be around for a while yet. A long while.

Susy Flory suggested I blog on a “day in the life of an editor.”

I work best from lists, so I always have a list of to-do tasks close at hand. Every day I work down the list and if I finish that task, I cross it off. Most tasks stay on my list for several days as I like to break up my work into small chunks when I can. (Sometimes I can’t…especially if there’s a printer date for a book looming). Here then are some of the tasks on my daily list:

* If you’ve read my blog, you know I’m very big on staying in touch with the publishing industry. I work, really, in a community (as do you, if you’re a writer). A community of editors, writers, readers, and various and sundry other interested people. Staying in touch with that community is important for both editors and writers. So, for that reason, my day begins with about a half an hour of checking the blogs and the publishing news sites I like. I hope you do that too.

* At any given time I almost always have one or more manuscripts that I’m actively editing. I’m a substantive editor, so what I do is make sure the book is what we want from the author and that it “flows” well. If not, I either make some changes or ask the author to make those changes. A substantive edit usually takes me 30-50 hours depending on the manuscript. When I’m finished, I turn it over to the copyeditor for yet another edit. When an author is late turning in their manuscript, I may have to hurry my edit. That will mean spending several hours a day on it. I’d much rather spend three or four hours a day on it and then set it aside and move onto the next thing on my list. Editing requires intense focus. I can only maintain that focus for so long and then I temporarily burn out. I like to avoid that, so I love it when manuscripts are turned in on time or even early.

* Next on my list is looking at new submissions. I’m the manuscript coordinator at Harvest House, so I maintain the log on which we keep track of the solicited manuscripts we want to review. I log them into the appropriate editor and log them out when they are either rejected by the editor or contracted for publication. This takes about 45 minutes to an hour a day.

* Then I have my own pile of manuscripts to review. These are proposals from authors I’ve met at conferences or have agreed to look at by some other means. The time I spend on this usually depends on how far behind I am and how much other work I have to do. Right now I’m able to review and get back to an author within about a month. If I hold something longer than that, it’s usually a good sign for the author (but not always!). I know someone will ask how long do you spend reviewing each manuscript? There again, it depends. The longer I’m reading, the better for you. It is true, however, that sometimes I can tell within the first 30 seconds if the book will be a good fit for us. Certain genres of fiction, for instance, just do not sell well for us, no matter how well written. If I see a well-written manuscript that’s not a good fit for us, I do tell the author why it’s not a good fit and I usually suggest their next step is to find an agent who can take the proposal to a more appropriate publisher. Believe me when I say that the hardest part of my job is turning down truly wonderful manuscripts that deserve to be published, but are not a good fit for us.

* My list of daily duties includes several that aren’t work related. I have two short breaks where I go down to our “quiet room” at Harvest House and do some stretches or exercises.

* I also have on my list some very short tasks that help break up the day. For instance, I have on my list “clean desk.” That means every day or two I just take five minutes or less and try to keep my desk organized. Another short task is “clean email.” I have about 600 emails in my inbox. Most are old and I’m keeping them for one reason or another, but some of the newer ones need attention and for ten or fifteen minutes a day, I work through the accumulated email. (Most emails I respond to when I get them, but others I leave for this particular part of my day’s duties).

* On my list I have the names of the authors I’m either working with now or will be soon and as I come to their name on the list each day, I ask myself if there’s anything I need to do regarding that author. Usually it’s about checking on their progress on a project. Sometimes it’s more along the lines of writing their back cover copy or catalog copy for their upcoming book. Or perhaps “merging” their galleys or doing a “final read” check. Every manuscript we’re going to publish goes through several stages, most of which involve some sort of action on my part if it’s by an author for whom I’m the editor. Usually this part of my list is reserved for tasks that are short (5-30 minutes) and not part of the substantive edit mentioned above. There are currently seven authors on my list.

* I do also have on my list time to take a five-minute prayer or Bible reading break. There are a few other minor five-minute duties such as “tend to the plants” in my office, straighten shelves, or read from a book on writing (right now I’m reading The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers. It’s excellent. I highly recommend it–though the edition I’m reading is an earlier one than the revised edition in the link).

* Finally, there are always a few unexpected tasks that come up. Meetings, phone calls, interacting with my colleagues here—really just a lot of unpredictable duties that find their way into my day.

I usually conclude my day by seeing where I am on my list and taking stock of what I’ll be starting with tomorrow. (I don’t always make it through the entire list in one day and so I begin again the next day where I left off. I do read blogs every day though).

That’s pretty much it. I love my job, but to keep it fresh, every couple of weeks I’ll rearrange the order of my list. And, too, the names of the authors change as new projects are assigned to me.

If you’d like any more information about any specific part of my duties, ask away.

My friend Michael Reynolds suggested that I blog on “what is writing talent from an editor’s perspective?”

Wow. That’s harder to answer that you might imagine, but I’ll give it a try. First, let me stipulate that the operative words in the question are “from an editor’s perspective.”

Good editors acquire books based on what they believe will sell to their market. Publishers (even within CBA) are different. Some publishers do very well with contemporary suspense (Zondervan, B&H). Others do well with historical romance (Harvest House, Bethany House). Some specialize in a very limited genre—such as Jeff Gerke’s Marcher Lord Press. Jeff publishes speculative fiction—and thank God he does. If it weren’t for Marcher Lord, several very fine books would likely remain unpublished. The extent to which any publisher is successful is largely dependent on offering books in the marketplace by authors to which readers will repeatedly return. Unfortunately this can mean that if and when a publisher ventures out into a new and untested genre (for their market) or with a new and unknown author, it doesn’t always work out the way the publisher would like, no matter how well-written the book is. I often reject a manuscript with the words, “this is well-written, but does not reach our market.”

The challenge for any good publisher—in my opinion—is to continue to successfully publish to their core market of readers, while gently reaching out with quality fiction into new areas. To take an example, let’s look at the current (and longlasting) fascination with Amish fiction. We, along with several other fine publishers, have found some very talented authors who can write well in this popular genre. But ten years ago, Amish fiction wasn’t the phenomenon it is today. And ten years from now, it will likely have waned. So the trick—for both editors and authors—is to publish what readers currently want, but always keep our editorial antenna up in an effort to gauge what readers will want next.

I would define talent then as the ability to

1) discern the current reading tastes of fiction buyers

2) as accurately as possible predict the reading tastes of fiction buyers three years from now

3) write compelling stories in those genres

Earlier I said the key words were “from an editor’s perspective.” All I’ve written above is relevant to that. But from a personal standpoint—as an editor who is also a reader—I think talent is the ability to create a world that I , Nick Harrison, would enjoy living in for several hours. Part of that is, of course, introducing me to characters I’m willing to follow through 200+ pages of their lives.

Happily, sometimes the two worlds (my life as and editor and my life as a reader) overlap. I do personally enjoy the books I edit. I take it very hard when a book I’ve acquired and edited does not find its place on bestseller lists and, instead, sells poorly. (Thankfully, that doesn’t happen too often). Often, I’m sorry to say, these are the books that are very well written, but are not specific to a popular genre. So in that respect, talent in writing is not enough. Sometimes the best-written books do not sell well. That’s just the way it is. It makes me mad, but what can I do about it?

In my workshops I often mention that success for a writer is only about 60% writing ability. The other 40% is knowing the market, meeting editors and agents at conferences, and generally keeping up with what’s going on in the publishing world. Writers who do that will have an advantage over more talented writers who don’t or won’t do that.

I hope that helps. If not, ask away.

Next blog I’ll tackle Susy’s suggestion about “a day in the life of an editor.”

When I think about the writing of fiction, I tend to think best in images. What I mean is that instead of just saying that a novel needs to have momentum from the first page to the last, I use the image of dominoes falling. I tell writers that on the very first page they need to knock down the first domino and make sure the following pages keep the rest of the dominoes falling.

Lately, another image about writing fiction has come to mind. I think it all started when I realized that I was seeing some very fine writers producing novels that really could not be faulted technically. The characters were okay, the first domino was successfully toppled, the plot was good…..so why was I rejecting this novel?

The image that came to mind was that of a large woods thick with trees in the middle, but with fewer trees on the outer edges. In short, it was a woods that began with a few trees and as you walked deeper into the woods, the thicker the trees got. I don’t know about you, but a woods thick with trees is a lot more interesting to me than one with a few scattered trees. The heart of the woods is really the best part of the woods.

So it occurred to me that although some of the novels I was reading were okay, perhaps even good, they were still skirting the edge of the woods. The writer was content with just being a good writer technically. And yet, to me, as a reader, I wanted more. I wanted the fullness of the story the writer was seeing but not fully communicating. And I knew the fullness of the story could only be found if the writer would venture deeper into the woods.

I hope that makes some sort of sense. I suppose I could also liken it to a swimming pool. The shallow end of the pool is fine, but to really swim, you need to get out in the deep water.

Years ago (many years ago), I had an enjoyable job driving a bookmobile for the county library. I loved that job. I did it for several years and could imagine doing it for the rest of my life. But then I got to thinking….do I really want to stay here, unchallenged, and not find the (hopefully!) deeper and more rewarding life God may have for me elsewhere?

In talking to a job interviewer, I explained my problem. He pointed me to Psalm 107:23-24 which says

Others went out on the sea in ships;
they were merchants on the mighty waters.

They saw the works of the LORD,
his wonderful deeds in the deep.

He said that to see the works of the Lord, you had to go out to the deeper water. I followed his advice, took the job he offered me and the rest is history. A glorious history, really. God has led me into a remarkable ocean of discovery in my life. And hopefully, there are even greater depths ahead.

In fiction–as in real life–the wonders are in the deep places. Your novel will be best written as you take yourself into the deep end of the waters….or deeper into the woods of your story. That’s where the riches are to be found.

How to do this, you ask? One way is to let each succeeding draft take you there. Every draft of a novel should not only become better technically as you iron out the grammatical and copyediting mistakes, but it should also take you deeper into the woods. Deeper into the real story that you’ve only seen from afar before now. Perhaps one entire draft could be devoted to adding depth to the story….taking it deeper into the woods.

Another way is to make sure you believe your novel is really happening. It sounds strange, but when an author is writing a novel, he must, on a very real level, believe the story is happening. To the extent the story is real to you, so will it be to your readers. This brings up the Mary Gordon quote I often cite. Ms. Gordon says her characters are so real to her that when she gets to heaven she plans to look them up and ask them how things went for them after the novel ended. That can only come from a willingness on her part to believe in her characters and in the story they have to tell. To walk deeper into the woods with them.

I believe this relates to what Henry James called “felt life” in fiction. Does the reader feel the life of your story….or is he merely observing the actions of the characters you’ve created?

I’m sure writers who have mastered this aspect of fiction have their own ways of taking their story deeper. Try to find your ways. If nothing else, invest a full next draft of your story in finding ways to take it deeper into the woods. It will be well worth it…and perhaps the most important element of fiction writing you will master.

I’m sure I touched on dealing with setbacks and discouragement in my earlier series on How to Succeed as a Christian Writer, but today I want to revisit it for a minute. Not surprisingly, this is due to a bout with discouragement I had earlier this week. Yes, even after eight or so books, I still face discouragement. Not as often as I used to, praise the Lord, but every so often I still hear the inner voice that says, Pack it in, Nick. You’ve done all the writing God has for you. You’re at the end of your road. Enjoy life. You don’t need any more rejection. Maybe the voices in your head say slightly different things, but the result is the same: dejection and a sense that maybe you should take up bungee-jumping or macramé or something else that will prove more productive and less stressful (bungee-jumping certainly qualifies there).

Well, thankfully, my melancholy mood passed rather quickly and I’m now able to once again face the blank computer screen with hope. Some of you, though, are likely to be in the midst of a bout with the writing blues. I know some of you wish you were on your way to ACFW…but aren’t. Others of you recently got word of a rejection. Still others are facing writer’s block or some other writing-based trauma that’s causing you to consider chucking it all.

Below are three suggestions on how to handle discouragement that have worked for me. Earlier this week, it was idea number one that got me through.

1. Just hang on and wait it out. Time heals this wound rather quickly. In the midst of my dejection earlier this week, I told myself, Nick, just get a grip. Sure you feel like throwing your computer out the window right now….but give it a day or two. Then you can do the window thing if you still feel this way. Sure enough, the mood did eventually lift. My computer is safe and the window remains intact.

2. Browse at a local bookstore. Read the opening pages of a few books in the genre in which you want to write. For me, being around books is therapeutic, no matter what my problem. A trip to Barnes and Noble is cheaper than an hour on a psychiatrist’s couch. Get a nice mocha while you’re there and just browse and relax and don’t worry about your latest failure.

3. Commiserate with a good writing buddy. I have to laugh as I write this one. During my misery this week, I emailed one of my closest writing friends and basically cried on his shoulder, knowing he’d sympathize. Imagine my surprise when he wrote back saying that he hasn’t faced discouragement as a writer since he was a beginner. (Okay, window, get ready. Computer comin’ through!).

Other ideas include listening to a specific genre of music, walking through a cemetery (I’m sure you’ll want to hear more about that in another blog), or just getting some exercise at a gym or taking a long, long walk.

Those are some things that work for me, what works for you?