I leave early tomorrow for the Mount Hermon Christian Writer’s Conference. I’m taking a vacation day and will arrive a day early to relax at one of my favorite places on planet Earth.

Read more here.

One of the workshops I’ll be teaching will be a look at the popularity of the Amish fiction genre. At the end of the workshop I will be revealing my guess as to the next genre to enjoy a similar wave of popularity. Perhaps not the tidal wave of Amish fiction, but a wave nonetheless. Take a guess if you want to. If you’re right, I’ll find a nice prize for you. I’ll be back late Tuesday night and will try to post Wednesday or Thursday.

First a note to fiction writers. Even though I’m blogging about a non-fiction topic this time, you really do need to pay attention to what’s happening in the publishing world, regardless of whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. As I teach in my workshops, I fully believe that at least 40% of an author’s success will be based on factors other than his or her writing ability. Largely, those factors involve a willingness to learn about publishing as an industry.

So today, as promised, I want to blog a bit about the memoir/autobiography/personal experience genre. In the world of secular publishing, this genre is extremely successful. Books like Angela’s Ashes, All Over But the Shouting, and the more recent bestseller The Glass Castle have all found a wide audience. But in the world of Christian publishing, that’s far less true. Memoirs or personal experience stories that do well are extremely rare. And some that do succeed must appeal to the secular book buyers as well. A perfect example is the current Tyndale House bestseller Son of Hamas: A Gripping Account of Terror, Betrayal, Political Intrigue, and Unthinkable Choices by Mosab Hassan Yousef. That book, about the conversion of a Muslim, is in the Amazon top 100 and on the Publisher’s Weekly bestsellers list. Not only does it appeal to readers beyond the Christian community, it also affords the author a great opportunity to speak about his book. I’ve seen him at least once on a major TV program and no doubt he’s been on several others.

This genre has not always been so dead among Christian readers. Some of us remember books like The Hiding Place, God’s Smuggler, The Cross and the Switchblade, Run Baby Run, and others. Where are their counterparts today? It’s certainly not because editors want to say no to this genre. Most editors I know at Christian publishing houses are eager for this genre to pick up steam. We get excited at the occasional successes such as Don Miller’s Blue Like Jazz or Girl Meets God by Lauren Winner. The latter, though, was published by a secular publisher. Why? Would it have sold as well if a Christian publisher had published it? Likely not.

Another current personal story that’s selling well—due to the movie of the same name—is The Blind Side by Michael Lewis, published by….you guessed it…a secular publisher, W.W. Norton. There again, what if that book had been published by a Christian publisher? Would it have been as popular? Would Sandra Bullock have an Oscar on her mantle tonight?

Sports books as memoirs can do well. Tony Dungy’s books have been bestsellers. So was Kurt Warner’s. I see that Tyndale will be coming out with Superbowl winning Saints quarterback, Drew Brees’ autobiography. I hope it does well….but I hope we eventually see the breakthrough of other, non-sports related personal stories.

Will we? I just don’t know the answer. To be honest, the questions surrounding this genre baffle and frustrate me no end. I’ve had to pass up some very good book proposals because, even I’m convinced they won’t sell—unless like the Mosab Hassan Yousef book or a sports story, they can reach out to that part of the market that DOES read memoirs.

Right now in my role as a writer, I’m working on a memoir with an actress from Hollywood’s Golden Age and we are expecting it will take a secular publisher to see the potential in her book, even though it is a solid Christian testimony. Go figure.

Next week I’m going to be at the Mount Hermon Christian Writer’s conference. I hope to see some of you there. GO if you can! At this conference, I will likely buy the newest memoir that I’m aware of published by a Christian publisher. That will be Mary de Muth’s Thin Places. I hope it does very, very well. I hope, in fact, it opens the floodgate for more memoirs. Hats off to Mary–and to Zondervan–her publisher, if it does.

Finally, let me add that presently the best way to have your memoir/autobiography/personal experience book published is to self publish it and promote it like crazy. When it sells well, publishers will be interested.

If you have comments on why you think this genre fares poorly among Christian readers, I’m all ears. All the more ears if you have a solution.

Next time: back to fiction—and one of my pet peeves. Don’t miss it.

Here is an article from the current Publisher’s Weekly that is mandatory reading.

Having just returned from the Florida Christian Writer’s conference, I’m primed to blog about a topic that comes up again and again as I meet with aspiring writers. Many people go through extraordinary adversity and, understandably, want to write about how they came through it. But, sorry to say, these “personal experience” book proposals almost never find a home with publishers. The reason is, of course, that few people buy such books. I often ask the writer of such a book proposal how many books of this type did he or she read when undergoing their own trial. Usually they will admit to having read “none.” And yet they seem to think if they write a book, others will want to read it. That’s nice in theory, but it just doesn’t seem to work that way.

There are some exceptions, of course. An example is Kent Whitaker’s Murder by Family. I had to reject it, but it went to be successfully published by Howard Books.

Despite the difficulties, some writers are determined to write their story anyway. That being the case, here are a few hints for writers of all types of books, but especially those who are determined to write about a specific experience (usually bad, but not always) they went through.

1. Make sure your writing is absolutely stellar. Excellent writing will cause your book to appeal to a wider audience.

2. Plan your promotional efforts. Perhaps even more than other non-fiction authors, you will need to convince a publisher that you can generate sales through speaking engagements and/or other venues.

3. Consider aiming your book at the reading population at large, not just the smaller Christian audience. Secular publishers have taken note at how well books with Christian content sell, so while you may have to tone your message down a tad, you can certainly still weave it into your book.

4. Rather than seeking a large publishing company, you may want to consider a smaller company that isn’t as dependent on mass sales as are larger publishers. One of my favorite proposals that I had to reject went on to be published successfully at another house. It deals with the author’s father and his sometimes humorous and always poignant experience with Alzheimer’s. I love The Hedge People by Louise Carey and wish it could reach a large audience.

5. Don’t rule out self-publishing. If you believe in your story and are determined to see it published, you might save yourself a lot of time by simply going straight to a company like Winepress. They do a great job. And, if your self-published book sells well, a larger company may eventually offer to pick it up. At Harvest House we occasionally publish a self-published book that has done well.

Akin to personal experience books is the memoir or autobiography genre. I’ll blog about that next time. Stay tuned.

I’m preparing to leave for my second writer’s conference this year. I’ll be on my way to Florida on Thursday, hoping for warm sunny weather. But before I go, I want to give you something fun to read. Take a look at this article.

I love lists like this. I’ve seen Elmore Leonard’s list of rules before and some of his are also mine. Particularly the obnoxious offering up a weather report on page one. I hate that. I do not favor prologues either, mainly because they’re so overdone.

Some of the other writers in this article have some great “rules,” that would be good for discussion in a later blog. Do you see something here that strikes you as very wise….or perhaps one you disagree with?

I disagree with several. One obvious one is Richard Ford’s second point:

2. Don’t have children.

I’m hopeful he’s joking, but I have to say that over the years I’ve gotten a lot of material from my kids and now my grandkids.

Wow, what a great conference! I’m speaking, of course, of the Christian Writer’s Guild conference that Jerry Jenkins and his wonderful staff put on each year.

Naturally, I was there as an editor to represent Harvest House, but in so doing, I often listened to the speakers and the conferees through a writer’s ears.

Here then are some of the highlights:

* Phil Vischer, creator of Veggie Tales, was just great. I’m sure much of what he said is also in his recent book. I highly recommend it.

* James Watkins is a very funny guy. His best line: “Nothing terrible happens to authors….just terrific anecdotes.” That’s mostly true, of course. Who else but a writer would go through cancer and think I wonder how I can turn this experience into a book? (That was my response several years ago when I underwent successful treatment for cancer….so I must be a writer!)

* Philip Yancey spoke about creating “gravitational force” in our writing. I’m going to save that topic and do entire blog about the concept.

There were other highlights too. Far more than I can write about in a blog–length report.

Of course, for me, one must-mention highlight was meeting with aspiring authors. This conference was particularly good in that regard. I found 8 or 9 projects that will require closer scrutiny. That’s a pretty high number, so I’m jazzed about that. For aspiring authors, I hope you can see why attending a conference at least once a year is vital to your success. In a couple of weeks I’ll be the Florida Christian Writer’s Conference, then at my personal favorite, Mount Hermon Christian Writer’s Conference (I joke to friends about wanting my ashes scattered at Mount Hermon). I’d love to see you at either conference.

Another fun aspect of conferences has to be the friendships that develop. It was nice to reconnect with other editors whom I admire and to meet some new ones I’ve wanted to know. Some of the writers are good friends too. One in particular is a dear lady who I see there every year. She inspires me. She’s 86, still writing, and a bundle of joy and energy. As we finished talking, after her pitch, she asked me if I needed prayer about anything special. I mentioned a writing project of my own, and she grabbed my hands and prayed heaven down into that meeting room. Included in her prayer was that the resulting book would be a bestseller. I have no doubt that God heard that prayer and will answer. So, you see, it’s not just writers who receive at conferences, but editors too. At some point soon, I’m going to blog about the place of prayer in the life of the writer.

Now go sign up for a writer’s conference somewhere this year. There are plenty to choose from.

Check here.

I’m leaving Thursday for my first writer’s conference of the year. I’ll be in Denver at this conference. I hope to see some of you there. If not, I hope I see you at SOME writer’s conference this year. It’s important to get to at least one conference a year if you’re serious about writing.

If finances are a problem, ask the conference director if there are scholarships available or perhaps a way to work in trade for tuition. When I was at my lowest as a writer, I drove a shuttle ferrying conferees from the conference grounds to the airport and back. (Thanks Elaine!). I did that at two separate conferences and on one trip to the airport, I had one of my favorite editors as my sole rider. I got her all to myself for the 45-minute drive.

Last year I know of at least one conference where scholarship money went unused. Don’t let that happen. Pray about it and see if a door opens up.

On another note, I want to remind you to read blogs carefully. This week I’ve read two blogs aimed at writers where something was said that I disagree with at least in part. I may be wrong or they may be wrong; but you need to read carefully and decide whether or not the advice offered is valid for you.

In closing, I’ll offer a quote from author Dick Francis who died this week at age 89.

“When you’re writing, that’s when you’re lonely. I suppose that gets into the characters you’re writing about. There are hours and hours of silence.”

I’ll try to report on the conference when I get back.

Some of you know I’m big on characterization in fiction. Yes, novels must also have plots, a theme, and all sorts of other stuff…but characterization is at the top of my list. (My friend and author, James Scott Bell, and I will be debating this topic again at the Oregon Christian Writer’s Conference this summer. I enjoy these exchanges immensely and the audience seems to like them too).

Like many novelists, I’ve composed an interview sheet for characters applying for parts in my books. I really need to get to know them well if I’m to determine if their story is worth telling. On my list are all the usual questions, such as:

* where were you born?
* what is your worst memory from childhood?
* what’s your political persuasion?
* who was your first love?

And so on. I have two pages of questions I ask, and of course most of the information will never appear in the book. The questions are simply designed to help me get to know the character. My final question is my favorite one and the answer usually doesn’t come from the character at all….it comes from….well, to be honest, I don’t know where. That question is: how will this character die? Even if he or she doesn’t die in the book, I’d like to know how and at what age (presumably years after the book ends) the character dies.

I bring this up now because I was just looking at an article that quotes William E. Barrett, author of Lillies of the Field. He brings another interesting element to this discussion that I’ve not thought of . He writes:

“I give each character a name and also a twelfth birthday observance. I have to know each person and in a formative stage. The twelfth birthday just struck me as being a time when somebody is shaping. He’s neither one thing or another. When I know a person when he’s twelve years old and still dominated by adults, and he’s got his own mind reaching out for things, it’s a very good time. I know his comrades, the people he plays with, his adults, his parents, all the casuals that come into his life. It makes me feel I know the character before I start to write a book about him.”

I like that. Age twelve. Yes, I think that knowing what was happening in the life of my now adult character when he or she was twelve would help me immensely in understanding his or her present situation. I’ll be adding that twelfth birthday observance to my list.

But while we’re at it, do any of you have interesting questions you ask your characters as you get to know them in their pre-book existence?

I enjoy hearing about the experiences of fellow writers. I think most of us do. In this first interview for my blog, I’m turning to Linda S. Clare, author of The Fence My Father Built. I had the honor of reading Linda’s manuscript a while back. I loved the story, but it wasn’t a good fit for Harvest House. Linda kept going and when the time was right, she connected with Abingdon Press. Their recently developed fiction line under the guidance of Barbara Scott has been impressive indeed, including at least one starred review in Publisher’s Weekly. That’s something many authors would give their first born to receive.

Here’s Linda’s book on Amazon:

Q. Linda, your previously published books were non-fiction. Isn’t The Fence My Father Built your first published novel? If so, what was the transition from non-fiction to fiction like?

A. Fiction was my goal all along. At one time, common advice to writers was to publish nonfiction to establish oneself and then move to fiction. It’s not the case anymore—nowadays, many nonfiction writers need a built-in platform, or reader base, in order to succeed in nonfiction. So when I finally made it to fictionville, I was thrilled. The switch was natural for me. I love making stuff up.

Q. I know this novel has been one you’ve been passionate about for some time.

A. You mean like 15 years? Maybe rabid is more like it. It was at times hard to be passionate, but I will say I never gave up on my characters. The novel would come “close but no cigar” at some pub house and I’d put it away, only to take it out and revise it later. One day I even drove around lost, in a pouring rain, looking for a certain editor’s office. He turned me down and he knows who he is.

Q. Can you give us a brief history of how it came about?

A. I took a fiction workshop in the mid 1990s from Melody Carlson, a chum of mine, and Muri Pond simply appeared. She told me she had to find her long lost father. I kid you not. I just wrote down what she told me to write.

Q. What was the initial seed-idea that resulted in The Fence My Father Built?

A. The year before Melody’s workshop, I’d written a novel called Edge of Wonderland. I’d secured New York representation and thought it was going to launch my writing career. That book, set in the desert, also had strong themes of father-daughter relationships.

Q. The road to publication for any novelist can be paved with rejections. Was that the case for you?

A. It might surprise some readers, but big-shot New York agents don’t sell every book they represent. Mine couldn’t find a home for my novel. She told me to “go write another one.” That’s when I wrote The Fence novel. If so, how did you handle rejection? It was devastating at first to come so close and ultimately not be published on that first book. You will note I don’t say I failed. Many author’s first novels are lying in a drawer. You must pick yourself up and go on, keep honing writing skills, learn the business. That’s what I did.

Q. What is your writing schedule like?

A. I used to be a morning writer but for the past 10 or so years, I’ve taught college writing at night. Now I generally write my blog, etc in the morning and work on my WIP from 1PM until 4PM.

Q. What authors have influenced your writing?

A. First and foremost, Barbara Kingsolver, especially her Bean Trees, Animal Dreams, and Poisonwood Bible. We’ve both explored similar themes of relationships and the desert or unfamiliar environment. Others include Jodi Picoult, Elizabeth Berg, Marilynne Robinson and Sherman Alexie. I also love memoir, especially Frank McCourt, Kaye Gibbons and Jennifer Lauck. My favorite kind of novel is a coming-of-age story told in first person. As far as Christian fiction goes, I’m a newcomer. But I really think Joyce Magnin, (The Prayers of Agnes Sparrow) Mary De Muth (Daisy Chain) and Susan Meissner (The Shape of Mercy) are strong writers who are changing the face of Christian fiction. And watch out for Southern writer (also Abingdon) Christa Allen (Walking on Broken Glass).

Q. Has procrastination or writer’s block ever been a problem for you? If so, how did you handle them?

A. Writing is my therapy—seriously. The incident with the New York agent sent me into a tailspin for several months. It was difficult to climb out of that snake pit. But here I am.

Q. You occasionally teach writing workshops and classes here locally. Has that had an effect on your writing in any way?

A. Of course! I learn as much if not more than my students do. Since teaching was my first career (I taught art in elementary schools) teaching writing keeps the basics in front of me all the time. Problems my students face in fiction are the same as what I face as a writer: writing interesting characters in trouble. Keeping them interesting and in trouble isn’t always the easiest way to write. But it’s the only way that works.

Q. How did The Fence My Father Built find a home at Abingdon?

A. I know this isn’t helpful to up-and-coming novelists looking for a sale, but once again my friend Melody Carlson rides to my rescue. She happened to chat with Abingdon editor Barbara Scott, who said she was looking for a few good manuscripts for a start-up fiction line. I sold The Fence My Father Built unagented. The rest is history. But if I had to give a new writer with a hot manuscript advice, it would be this: Write, write, write. Read, read, read. Revise, revise, revise. Find a good critique group. Produce, produce, produce. Try getting some articles published in magazines. Network. Keep writing. Never give up.

Q. The Fence My Father Built has gotten some very nice reviews. I notice that one Amazon reviewer said, “I was pleased to find that this is not a ‘religious’ genre book…” Is it hard for a Christian writer to not be message-heavy in his or her fiction?

A. First of all, I have been so pleased by the reviews. But part of my story as a novelist lies in the timing. My novel had to wait for the market, I think. Readers increasingly want to find their own conclusions and meaning. They demand complex characters who reflect our complex world. Christian fiction readers want good, clean entertainment, but they also want deep meaning and poignancy. It just so happens that Abingdon promotes a solid message of the human condition illuminated, showing characters who struggle with real life problems—whether they’re looking for a long-lost father or facing the “big” 5-0 birthday. The authors I’ve worked with at Abingdon make you laugh, cry and shout for joy at the redemption, faith, hope and love in the stories. All without shoving the Christian message down readers’ throats. I don’t know about other writers but my style is to show how God is for us but without the shoving.

Q. Is there any particular part of writing fiction that is hardest for you (plotting, character development, dialogue, etc)?

A. Shhh! Don’t tell anybody but plotting is difficult for me. I tend either toward the melodramatic or the desolate ending. Sometimes I take awhile to get the climax scenes right. I think most writers exhibit their own world view in their characters and in their plots. Mine is, “We’re all really messed up but hey! God’s going to sing us through whatever we face.” I believe in the ABCs of redemption: God Always with us, Bringing us eternal life in Christ our Savior.

Q. Have you always been writer?

A. Yes! Well, at least from about age 10 or so, when I was quite sickly with chronic bronchitis and asthma. I stayed home and wrote stories and poems on my great-aunt’s enormous black Underwood typewriter. Mother sent my stuff to children’s magazines. Later, at age 16, my first publication was a poem I sold to The Denver Post newspaper. I was thrilled—and hooked on writing.

Q. Do you have a goal for your writing?

A. Beyond becoming a bestselling household name? My goal is to write as many good books as I possibly can. I’m a polio survivor with a crummy thing called Post-polio Syndrome—I tire very easily and I type one-handed. I’m not sure how much I’ll be able to do, but you can bet I’ll be doing it with gusto and style.

Q. What are you working on now?

A. I have several works-in-progress. I’m nearly finished with a stand-alone novel called Hiding from Floyd, about redemption for a family still grieving ten years after Floyd, who was seven, died tragically while playing Hide and Seek with James, his very strange brother. I’m also pitching a sequel to The Fence My Father Built called The Hallelujah Gate, starring Nova, Muri and the Red Rock Tabernacle Ladies. If it’s contracted I get to write more about Native Americans and vortexes. And I have a completed memoir about my childhood stays in a Shriners Hospital, called, One Hand Clapping.

Q. Any parting advice for fiction writers?

A. As I said earlier, write, write, write. Read, read, read. Revise, revise, revise. Smiling doesn’t hurt. And never give up.

Early next week I should be posting my first interview here. I hope you’ll watch for it. In the meantime, today’s entry is repost of something I wrote for another blog a couple of years ago. Most of you will not have seen it, but if you’re a writer, you’ll relate to it. Here ’tis:

I’m in a bad mood today. Give me a couple of days and I’ll bounce back—I always do. My bad mood is from the same source as your bad moods: a rejection. This one was particularly painful because it was from a publisher I’ve published two prior books with and my new proposal was for my best book yet….in my opinion. They did not agree.

I wish I could say that rejections get easier as the years go by. And for some people, I suppose they do. But I’m not one of those people. I actually have warm blood running through my veins. Smiley here.

If you too have warm blood, you likely go through some variation of the following stages when faced with a major rejection:

1. The first stage, of course, is the What are those stoopid editors thinking stage. This proposal is GOOD! Why can’t they see that? And compare my novel with what IS selling these days! Ack! (Of course, when I reject a novel from an author, it’s always the right decision. I’m clearly exempted from the inept editor category). Another smiley here please.

2. Next comes: I’ll show them! I’ll send it out to a really knowledgeable editor who will publish it to great acclaim. A year from now they’ll be holding meetings trying to remember which editor was responsible for letting this masterpiece slip away!

3. Step three is the food and TV stage. Lots of feel-good food, like pizza, donuts, chocolate chip cookies, Breyer’s ice cream (vanilla, of course). TV-fare like old “I Love Lucy” reruns. Anything that’s funny and mindless. Barney Fife is a great restorer of one’s soul at times like this.

4. Next (after a day or two of misery) I might actually pray about the rejection. Okay, okay, I know this should be step one….but somehow ranting for a couple of days is more fun, if less spiritual. But after the rant and after the gorging, there has to come a time where I must acknowledge that which I’ve known all along: God is my agent. God is the one who directs my writing path. Long ago all of this was surrendered to Him. And yes, another rejection is a clear reminder that God has not seen fit (once again) to consult my timetable. Prayer calms me down. It starts to bring me back into focus. During this phase I may even do some repenting for steps one, two and three.

5. When I think I might be ready to face life as a writer once again, I usually drive over to Barnes & Noble, get a venti-sized mocha, and browse awhile. Usually I’ll pick up a few attractive books and read the first few lines. For some reason, this motivates me. Why, I could have written this, I think. Being in the company of all those books is like finding comfort among close friends. No doubt many, if not most of the books on the shelves at Barnes & Noble were rejected at least once before finding a publisher. I recall the story of Patrick Dennis and his manuscript for Auntie Mame. He started sending it out by working his way through an alphabetical list of publishers. It was finally accepted by Vanguard Press.

6. By the time I’m ready to drive home from the bookstore, I’m beginning to think clearly again. Actually there are two places where I do my best thinking about my writing: in the driver’s seat and in the shower—neither of which is conducive to jotting down all the insights that sprout up. But somehow on the drive home or somewhere during the next day or two, the creativity kicks in once again. The well that I thought was permanently parched by rejection has once again started to accept the trickle of ideas and what-ifs that might make for a great new book idea—or an improvement on the tear-stained manuscript still sitting where I left it after reading the dastardly rejection.

Hope springs eternal for the writer who won’t allow himself to become hardened by rejection. And even if I never publish another book, I’ll still endure gladly (okay, gladly probably isn’t the word here) the process that includes rejection. It’s in my blood, after all. That same warm blood coursing through my veins doesn’t know what it means to give up writing. I suppose that’s a good thing. I’ll be in a better position to decide in about 48 hours.