One of the most interesting aspects of the creative life as it pertains to writing books is something beyond craft itself. Let me see if I can explain it.

A few weeks ago we asked Harvest House author Mindy Starns Clark how she was coming on her Titanic novel (Echoes of Titanic) and she replied that all was well because she had gotten “the tingle.” The tingle, she went on to explain, is that point (usually several drafts in) at which the characters, the story, and the research all seem to come together and she knows that, yes, this is all going to turn out just fine. A book IS being born.

I love the word “tingle” to describe this sensation an author feels. Of course, other authors experience it in different ways or have different names for it. Another great Harvest House author is BJ Hoff. She says:

“I call it the ‘angel touch,’ after something my (very Irish) grandmother used to say when she had a ‘sense’ that things were going to ‘work,’ to be all right. It sometimes doesn’t come until I’m over halfway through a book (sometimes sooner), but once it happens, it’s as though as though all the pieces of the puzzle simply slide together, fit and lock in place as they should, and I actually get a physical sensation at the back of my neck that ‘this is it. It’s going to work.’”

A third Harvest House author, Murray Pura, gets his version of the tingle as he first begins the writing process. When I described Mindy’s tingle, Murray described what happens to him this way:

“I like Mindy’s description. But it’s not a ‘tingle’ for me. [It happens when] I start the real writing. It’s like something pent up has been let loose, I can feel the opening inside of me, and there is a strong and steady flow that can cut through rock and earth that bursts forth and begins to go steady and sure. It carries me with it to places and scenes and characters I did not always anticipate or plan for and it is irresistible and unstoppable. It can be like a fire too and hurt and burn if I do not let it out and hurt and burn even if I do. I am swept away with it until we empty into the great sea of the ending. This very much happened with Wings of Morning and Face of Heaven. There is a verse in Jeremiah 20:9 that describes something of this feeling. ‘…his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.’”

If you read enough books about the various processes writers go through as they create their books, you know that there are differences in how this creative animation (for want of a better word) happens. But at some point, the dry words on the page must leap to life in the heart of the author, for only then will they also leap to life in the mind of the eventual reader.

One problem I’ve faced as I teach workshops on writing fiction is how to teach someone this vital element of fiction writing. The truth is, I don’t know how…yet. I wonder, too, if other disciplines experience this. Do composers get “the tingle” when their music composition comes to life for them? How about sculptors? Painters? Quilters? (I’ll have to ask my wife about that last one).

How is it for you? Can you describe the sensation you get when your book finally springs to life on the page? Is it early on or late in the process? Do you always get it or only sometimes? Tell all!

In case you missed it or in case you’re not a Facebook friend of mine, I recently entertained this question: Can a novel for the Christian market be successful if it has a sad ending? Why or why not? Can you think of some examples?

The response on Facebook was great. I had 47 comments. Most responded according to their own personal reading taste—which was fine, but not what I really asked. Even if we personally approve of sad but hopeful endings, will those books succeed in our market?

I like a sad ending that offers hope, but I think those of us who feel that way are in the minority. A sad ending in a book for our market has an uphill struggle—both in being accepted by a publisher and then with the public too. As agent Diana Flegal reports below, a publisher asked her client to recast a sad ending into a happy one. And author Susanne Lakin reported the same thing happened to her.

My advice:

1. Write the book you feel you must write. However, be aware of the risks. If the ending is so sad as to harm sales, it may be your last novel with that publisher.

2. If your novel must end in a minor key, make sure there’s the promise of redemption after the book closes. In short, leave the readers hopeful about the characters they’ve just spent 300 pages with.

3. Sad ending or not, bring resolution to the story. An unresolved ending is failed book, in my opinion. And that applies to books in a series too. Each book must have some resolution to the story presented in that book. No cliffhangers allowed! I know one author who turned in his manuscript and his publisher literally took out the final pages that had resolved the story and added the words “to be continued” instead. The author was justifiably angry.

Here are some of the comments on the topic:

LouAnn Wennerberg Miller: I’m a reader who often states, “I don’t do sad”, but as long as the writer shows some type of redeeming factor, such as the character’s legacy… then I am OK with it.

Michael Reynolds: I’ve discovered from my blogging that readers are desperate for encouragement and hope. I do think they’ll get shared and have a greater audience if the endings are sweet rather than sour. I think the rule absolutely can be broken, but you’ll be sacrificing part of your reader base. I would consider a sad ending to be one that ends without hope. A book can be a tragedy, but if it completes its resonance with the sun rising in the horizon, I would still count that as uplifting. The message becomes perseverance.

Theresa Lode: Don’t tell anyone but….I’ll even peek to the end of the book of I suspect there’s a sad ending….and pass on reading it if does have one. To me, one of the best thrills about reading a good book is that warm fuzzy feeling that lingers after a happy ending. I just feel like there’s already so much emotion-overload everywhere else and I just don’t have it in me to weep over a fictional character.

Woodeene Koenig-Bricker: A lot of the great stories have more or less sad endings. Think of Gone with the Wind. It doesn’t really end all chipper dipper. Honest writing requires honest endings…and some endings are sad.

Michael L. Ehret:
I have thrown books against the wall that forced a ‘happy’ ending when that’s not the way it should have ended. Give me a real ending, whether happy or sad. I’m an adult. I can take it. By the way, Crossing Oceans by Gina Holmes is another with a sad, but sweet (and real) end. Extremely satisfying even though I boo-hooed big time.

Tim Riter: Nick, I would hope the Christian fiction market is mature enough to not need syrup. One of the most powerful novels I’ve read lately is Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. In it, he explores the results of relativism and a lack of respect for life. The ending has to be sad. The hope is unstated, but it clearly states a lack of respect has no hope. Do we read for affirmation of what we believe, or to be challenged in a thoughtful, well-written manner?

Gina Holmes: My thoughts are that the ending needs to fit. The ending shouldn’t be hopeless but one of my favorite movies is Seven Pounds. Sad but inspiring. I can’t stand a book, like Mike says, that sugars up an ending that could have been poignant. I want real life and the hope that is in Christ. Our faith is not always happy, it’s just always hopeful…It’s sad that this even is a discussion. Would a Kite Runner not have sold well in the CBA (a Christian version)? I don’t know but man how sad if it didn’t do well because of the ending. Crossing Oceans has sold quite well. I don’t think it would have if there was a miracle cure at the end. It would have been hokie and wouldn’t have stayed with people…We can’t put out a mediocre book with a sad ending and when the sales flounder, blame it on the ending. You write a GREAT book, despite a sad ending, and maybe even because of that perfect ending, it should sell if everyone’s doing their jobs in getting the word out. I think too often, we put out a mediocre book set in the depression era, (for example) and when the book fails to sell, we blame it on the era instead of the book or promo. I wish the Christian market would get ahead of the curve and start trusting what we know to be good. Great success often requires great risk.

Cindy Valenti Scinto: Absolutely. A sad ending is the sign of a courageous writer. I would welcome a real ending–something that happens every day. Being a Christian does not change the outcome of anyone’s life so why project a perfect world? Bring it on! But I still say, yes, it can be successful in the Christian market.

Angela Ruth Strong: Sad endings can definitely be more powerful.

Brad Sargent
: If it is redemptive/shows redemptive transformation, then it is good. I’m not sure “redemptive” is the same as “hopeful” or “sweet.”

Ane Mulligan: My personal opinion is it can if the end is “right” for the book. Case in point, Crossing Oceans, by Gina Holmes.

Janet McHenry: Hope is most important–not the “happily ever after.” –English teacher tired of teaching tragedies

BJ Hoff: If you survey the most successful books in CBA, you’ll not find many “sad” endings. Hope is the key. The ending doesn’t have to be “fluff” to satisfy the reader, but if it leaves no hope, most readers won’t pick up more books from the same author. I believe you’ll still sacrifice a portion of the reader base with genuinely “sad” endings, but it depends on the *degree* and type of sadness. A less than “perfect” ending may well survive the dip in sales if you can provide inspiration and hope. Never, never (in CBA) leave the situation … or the reader *hopeless.* But why would you? If you’re writing from a Christian worldview, how can you leave hope entirely out of the story?

Susanne Lakin: I was told by my publisher to change my ending so it was happy. It was not a sad ending but it did show that people never change and they will still judge you by appearance. Although I felt it was the right ending and got a message across, CBA doesn’t want those kinds of endings. They wanted happy and everyone saved. But I was able to compromise and give a “hopeful” ending without the slant I thought would make it real. That’s why I’m sticking to writing for the general market. I think God values “real” and there is a lot to be learned from a sad ending as long as there is some joy and redemption in the learning process the character goes through.

Gigi Falstrom: Are you writing fantasy or real life. Bad things happen to good people, it’s a matter of what happens as a result. All of our lives, relationships and careers are not happily ended. Tell the truth as it is revealed to you.

Jennifer Erin Valent: I’d say your comment about hope is the key. I’ve written sad endings, but they’re capped off with a brighter perspective. Books that I’ve read that left off with just plain heartache left me feeling too broken for me to feel satisfied with the book. I’ve even lost sleep over it when I finished right before bed. 🙁 Life itself is so painful at times, when I escape into fiction I don’t like to be left feeling heartsick.

Michelle Wormell Hollomon: Sad? Yes. Hopeless? No.

Mary Ann Hake: Define sad. It can be sad to the world but Christians still have hope and can have joy in spite of bad circumstances. Everything working out perfectly with too neatly tied-up ending is unrealistic and not as satisfying to me.

Jeff Adams: Four words. Nicholas Sparks. Beautiful tragedy. I don’t know if he’s a Christian, but his books prove that sometimes life is painful, yet lovely. His stories are real and real sells. Do readers really want, as Tim said, syrup? Or do we want, as so many have noted, hope? Jesus died. He left us. That’s sad. But he rose from the dead and said he’d be back. That’s a story full of hope.

Rebecca Harrison Gores: Dad, I am not a writer by any means, but I’m a reader. I can tell you that what stirs me most about books – specifically Roxanne Henke’s – is the author’s ability to make me feel something. Even if it’s sadness, if I feel like I have connected with the characters emotionally, and that feels real (as real as you can with a fictional character) then I will buy his or her book again. I want to feel like the author actually “gets me”. I think this is a common theme among women, and if an author can succeed at this, he or she is likely to be successful, in my opinion.

Carol Genengels: Karen Kingsbury’s book Redemption had a sad ending but offered hope and I sure wanted to read the next 7 books.

Ellen Edwards Kennedy: In a book, especially a Christian-oriented book, I want resolution. That doesn’t have to be a so-called happy ending. What I find frustrating is when the ending just drops the reader. As a reader, I want to trust the author. Stories that I like head in some kind of direction and carry the reader along. A sad ending is not necessarily a bad ending. And I’m sure everyone is pointing out that death isn’t necessarily a sad ending for the Christian. Hope this helps somehow.

Laurie Alice Eakes: Nope. Won’t read a book with a sad ending however much hope it offers. If I want sad, I watch the evening news. Hope often there, too, and real life is too sad with the hope of a better afterlife. I don’t need to read about it. I read for entertainment and ripping my guts out with grief at the end is not my idea of being entertained. If I suspect a book has a sad ending, I skip to the end. If I’m right, I stop right there. When I’ve surveyed my reading friends–and I’m on a couple of genre fan, not writer lists–those people feel the same way.

Diana Lee Flegal: I was reading down the list to see if anyone had mentioned Nicolas Sparks. He is very successful but I will not read him because you know someone is going to die. And I just had a large pub house’s editor ask my author to change her ending to a happy one …. must mean the CBA market doesn’t do sad.

Creston Mapes: Although many Christian publishers don’t want sad endings, unfortunately, life is sad sometimes. I am okay with sad endings…especially if there is hope on the horizon. The Road is one of my favorites novels. Dark and sad, yes, but oh so powerful.

Cristi Given: There’s enough sad in real life. If I wanted to read something sad, I would read more autobiographies. Hypocritical though from me as my favorite book is Les Miserables and favorite book type is triumph-over-adversity. Sorry, not much help.

Murray Pura: Define successful – but aren’t there Christian books besides Sue’s that are sad at the end yet uplifting and have made it?

Christina Tarabochia: As you know, you just referenced two of my favorite authors–and the reasons I wanted to become friends with you! I would add David Lewis’ Saving Alice to that category. I don’t mind a minor note ending, but that tone had better permeate the novel so I’m not caught unaware on the last page.

Your additional comments are welcome. Keep in mind, though, the real question: Will a novel with a sad ending find a large audience in our market?

Happy New Year all. I trust your prayerful writing plans for 2012—including attendance at at least one writer’s conference—are in high gear.

If so, good! Keep them that way.

For the first blog of the new year I’m going to start out with a complaint from Yvette, a Facebook friend of mine. Yvette is a reader of fiction and the other day she posted on my wall:

I’ve been reading some wonderful fiction lately published by small presses. The stories and especially the characters are riveting. There’s one problem. The foreshadowing is heavy-handed. Even if it’s a mere fleeting hint, it’s about as subtle as a bulldozer. I’m not a fiction writer, but I would like fiction writers to know that we readers are not idiots and we would appreciate more finesse when it comes to preparing us for what is yet to come. I can’t say what appropriate foreshadowing looks like. All I know is that what I’ve been reading isn’t it.

I agree with Yvette. One of the mistakes I often see in manuscripts is the tendency to overwrite. At its worst, this comes across as “telling” and telling too much. One of my artist friends once told me that a good artist knows that what he leaves out of a painting is as important as what he puts in.

That’s true of fiction too.

For your first draft of a novel, sure, throw it all in. Kitchen sink included. But one of the many tasks you’ll perform in your several subsequent drafts is the elimination of unnecessary information. Some of it may be simply repetitious or irrelevant to the story, but some of it may also be because you think if you don’t include the information, the reader won’t get it. If, through subtlety and good writing you’ve done your job, the writer will get it. Trust your reader. Learn to write with more nuance. A little foreshadowing goes a long way. Learn to know what to leave out. Park the bulldozer and throw away the keys!

I wonder if this problem of overwriting is also why conversion scenes are so hard to write? They can easily come across as cheesy if not done properly. I’d love to hear some examples of conversion scenes in fiction that you think worked well. To be honest, I’d almost trust a non-believing writer more with a conversion scene than a believing one.

Again, the key is in the ability to write an almost nuanced scene rich with poignancy and meaning.

Here’s an exercise that might help you learn to write with nuance. I want you to write an eight-line love poem without using the word “love.” It’s not easy….and yet the meaning is all richer for doing it well.

That’s true in fiction too.

(If today’s blog has been helpful, spread the word. Send the link to a writing friend).

I don’t know that I’ve ever seen this topic discussed before in our industry….so let’s give it a try.

The topic is: Writing as an obsession…is it good or bad? What does it mean to be obsessed with one’s writing? Is an obsession God’s way of maximizing one’s talent or is it man’s way of clutching a God-given talent too tightly?

What prompts this discussion is that I’ve had several encounters with the topic from various places in the past few days. Frankly, I don’t think I know any writers who are obsessed with their writing, but maybe they’re just not telling me if they are.

First, let me address the response I know you all have to this question. YES, I understand that Christian writers are to be focused fully on Christ (I won’t use the word obsession. It doesn’t seem quite right). God is to have our full attention whether we’re writers or not, right? So, with that point of agreement, let me move on.

Some of you may know I’m a big fan of music from the 1960s. I’ve always enjoyed the music of the Beach Boys and right now I’m reading Wouldn’t it Be Nice? Brian Wilson’s autobiography. It’s not a pleasant read at all. Brian’s dad was a horrible father. He physically and mentally abused Brian and his brothers on a routine basis. Perhaps that’s what led Brian into his obsession with music and the resulting mega-success the Beach Boys have enjoyed the past fifty years. By age twenty, Brian was consumed by his music—and his sheer drive to be the best songwriter/record producer in the industry. He HAD to be one number. He even admits to the word “obsessed.” Music was his life around the clock. He even slept next to his keyboard.

And, of course, it paid off, big time. Brian Wilson is one of the legends of rock music. But had Brian not been obsessed with his music, he would never have been the legend he is today. Was it worth it? Would you pay that price to succeed?

On my “to be read” pile is a book about Michelangelo. I’m hazarding a guess that he was obsessed with his art. I read somewhere that Alexander Cruden was obsessed about compiling his concordance to the Bible. (One would just about HAVE to be obsessed to list every usage of every word in the Bible. 🙂 But in his case, surely it was a God-given obsession….or was it?)

Another quote I came across was from the very prolific late writer Isaac Asimov. He once said, “I write for the same reason I breathe – because if I didn’t, I would die.”

Can any of us say that? Is saying that even healthy? Is that making an idol out of our writing?

Asimov also said, “If my doctor told me I had only six months to live, I wouldn’t brood. I’d type a little faster.” He also claimed that his experience with writer’s block was the worst ten minutes of his life. I strongly suspect that an obsession with writing does tend to eliminate writer’s block.

Okay, a few more quotes:

“I have always been in a condition in which I cannot not write.” Barbara Tuchman

“A writer is someone who write, that’s all. You can’t stop it; you can’t make yourself do anything else but that.” Gore Vidal

“A good writer always works at the impossible.” John Steinbeck

“When I’m near the end of the book, I sleep in the same room with it. Somehow the book doesn’t leave you when you’re asleep next to it.” Joan Didion

I could go on—I love quotes by writers and have several books of them—but you get the idea. I will, however, mention one more anecdote that bears on being obsessive. This comes from the late chess champion Bobby Fischer. When he was asked why he was able to defeat Russian chess grandmaster Boris Spassky, he replied, “Boris has said that, to him, the game of chess is like life. To me, chess IS life.”

The difference was one of obsession.

So, what do you think?

Is obsession about one’s writing healthy or unhealthy?

Are you obsessed?

And if so, are you obsessed with writing itself or with becoming a published writer? There’s a huge difference.

Do you think an obesessed writer is more likely to succeed?

I’m tempted to write more about this. It’s a fascinating aspect of our craft and one I don’t see discussed in Christian writing circles.

What say you?

I’ve been super busy with projects at work, so I’ve had little time to blog. Today I want to pop into your day and invite you to send me the first sentences (up to a first paragraph) from your current work-in-progress. Post it in the comments section and whoever wishes can react to them. I’ll offer up an opinion too. The pivotal question we’ll all be asking is “Would I keep reading to see what comes next?”

Second, I want to make sure you check out these YouTube spots by James Scott Bell. Clicking below on “Watch on YouTube” will allow you to see Jim’s other spots in the right hand margin of the YouTube page. These are great. Jim is doing a great service for us all. I hope he does more.

I think next time I’ll talk about “the tingle.” Stay tuned for that!

As promised, we’re going to have a short exercise for fiction writers today. Yesterday I emphasized how important the first page of a manuscript is. But to make that first page effective, the first line itself must start the process of drawing the reader in. Then the second sentence continues the work of sustaining the reader’s interest. Then the third, fourth, and so on, all through to the last page.

So today I’m offering up four first sentences for you to play with.

First, I’d like to know if you would keep reading after these sentences to see what happens next?

And then, choose one or more and offer up the next sentence or two or three. Hopefully this will be fun….and perhaps it will help you with your own first sentences. Hint: don’t try to make it humorous. Go with the tone of each first sentence. I think I’ll ask even seasoned and published writers to enter if they want to. The more the merrier–and, I just might award a prize for the best entry. 🙂 Spread the word to your writing friends.

Here we go:

When at age sixteen Corbin Drake’s mother told him he had a twin brother who had died at birth, it came as no surprise. He had long felt a piece of him was missing.

Amy Breslin watched as the old man began to shovel dirt back in the hole where her father’s coffin had just been lowered. Then she turned and walked alone back to the buggy by the side of the cemetery lane.

If he had known marriage to Cath would be like this, Tony Leonetti would have joined the Army with his brother Michael instead.

“Never again,” Justine said beneath her breath. “Never again will I set foot in that church or any other church as long as I live, so help me God!”

And, finally, as a preview for next week, I think I’ll ask you to compose a first sentence. That, too, should garner an award, don’t you think? Watch for that on Tuesday or Wednesday.

Previously Dana asked: What are the worst mistakes in writing and how can I avoid them?

The answer varies from editor to editor. Some editors, for instance, will reject a manuscript that isn’t perfectly prepared. If it’s single-spaced or if the margins aren’t one-inch or if the font isn’t Times New Roman, they may simply set the manuscript aside and mentally label it “unprofessional” and therefore “unpublishable.”

I like professional looking manuscripts too, so do NOT take this as an invitation to send me sloppy submissions. But good writing trumps even a poorly prepared manuscript. It’s a lot easier to teach someone how to prepare their manuscript to look nice than it is to teach them how to write well. That said, here are a few of the mistakes that bother me. I’m sure, given time, I could come up with more. But these will do for now. And keep in mind that other editors’ lists will look a bit different.

1. For fiction AND for non-fiction, I MUST see a compelling first page. In fiction, do not give me a weather report or a geography lesson on page one. You’d be amazed at how many authors start their story by telling me what the weather is like or what the landscape is like. No, give me a person. Even more, give me a person of interest. Someone I will immediately bond with and want to follow for the next 250 pages. In non-fiction, pull me in right away, don’t start out trying to teach me something.

2. I hate what I’ve come to call vertical writing. I’ve promised to blog on this concept and I will soon, I promise. Briefly, what I call vertical writing is writing that is just one boring sentence following another boring sentence. I contrast that with what I call diagonal writing. This is writing where each sentence leans against the next, moving the story effortlessly forward, without strain and without boredom. After that compelling first page mentioned above, the flow must go on without stopping even once. This is true of non-fiction as well as fiction. Most writing I see is vertical.

3. As might be expected “show, don’t tell” must be on this list. Fiction that tells a story is deadly. Learn to write in scenes, showing the actions and emotions of your story.

4. Know the CBA market. Don’t submit manuscripts with elements that are not reader-friendly to CBA readers. Learn the publishers and what they’re publishing. When I meet a new writer at a conference, I’m immediately turned off when he or she asks, “So what kind of books does Harvest House publish?” Familiarity with the publishing industry is important. Learn the strengths and weaknesses of the various publishers and submit to those that publish the kind of books you write.

5. Writing that is so out of the box, it’s of interest to way too few readers. Even if the writing is good, some historical eras and some plot situations are of too little interest to most readers. A novel set in 1167 AD is going to appeal to far fewer people than one set in 1867. That’s just the way it is. The Civil War is more appealing than the War of 1812. The Amish are more interesting than Presbyterians. There are plenty of topics that are “in” right now. Your job is to find the place where your writing interests intersect with what people are reading and will be reading in the next few years.

A final element that really isn’t related to the writing, but is important to me is the temperament of the writer. What I mean is that I’m a better editor for authors with whom I get along. Most of my authors I consider friends, not merely “my job.” Don’t be a high-maintenance author. Pray that your editor will be someone whose judgment you can trust, not challenge.

I hope this helps, Dana. I like your idea of having me offer an opening line and have commenters add the next few lines. I’ll do that in the future—as soon as I come up with some good opening lines myself. 🙂

Over the past few days I’ve come up with two subjects I want to blog about, but I’m determined to answer some more questions first as promised.

Mike Reynolds had five good questions, so this time let’s address those.

1. The Second Book Syndrome: How does one avoid the trend of having a disappointing second book and what do these books typically lack in comparison to the debut novel (other than time spent in development)?

Time IS a crucial element. Most first books were written over the course of many months, if not years. And then when the book is contracted, it’s likely to include an expectation for a follow-up book in several months or up to a year at the most. That creates a pressure to write that usually is counter-productive. And pressure—for most writers—hampers creativity.

The other main obstacle is that often an author’s first novel is written out of a passion that may not be present in subsequent novels. An obvious solution for serious fiction writers is to have several red-hot ideas for books going at once. Not necessarily actively writing several books at once, but at least keeping a notebook on each one, adding tidbits as necessary to keep the fire going.

Interestingly, not all authors realize that when a novel is sold, they’re entering into a career of sorts. One truly gifted novelist I acquired told me (after writing eight books for us) that when she approached me with her first novel manuscript, she had no plans for future books. She was taken aback when we asked her what her next book was about and when could it be ready?

2. What are the Ingredients of a Great Lead Character?

The top three ingredients on my list are:
• A likeability that will cause the reader to identify with the lead character.
• The usual assortment of strengths and faults
• A tad quirky, but not TOO quirky.

What I don’t like in a lead character is genericness. I may be alone in this though, because I do see generic characters in CBA novels that sell well. Even so, I find it makes for a boring book.

3. The Supporting Cast: How do I surround my lead character with compelling co-stars?

Let the star of the book choose their co-stars. Imagine them with various sorts of characters and see how they react. Recently on Facebook I mentioned that I was having an argument with a character in a book I’m thinking of writing. She is a supporting character, but she doesn’t’ seem to know that. She introduced herself to me as Dixie Matlock. I told her that “Dixie” was okay, but “Matlock” was a TV lawyer and would have to go. She didn’t like that at all and she let me know about it no uncertain terms. From our brief exchange, I can see that Dixie will be fighting with the two lead characters for on-stage time throughout the book. As much I want to dislike Dixie, I realize that she has some sassiness that will add spice to the book—and perhaps even more—she’ll provide some good turns of the plot because she is so unlike the two leads.

In short, choose characters (or rather let your leads choose characters) who will act as counterpoints to the leads. And NO stereotypes. I may face this problem with Dixie. She may yet want to trot out all the sassy-lady stereotype traits. THAT argument is one I will insist on winning.

4. Not That Again: The most hackneyed plot lines you see and how to avoid them.

To be honest, it’s not the plot lines that are hackneyed, it’s the writing. I can take a common plot and love it, if the writing is good. But even if the most unique plot will bore me if the writing is bad. So concentrate on the writing and let the plot—whatever it is—happen.

5. The Cliff: How a promising start of a novel often loses its steam.

I do see plenty of manuscripts where the story starts well, but does lose steam eventually. Fortunately, it usually happens early, so I don’t waste a lot of time on a novel that goes nowhere. I think what happens is that first the novelist loses his or her steam and that simply results in a novel losing its steam. Part of the author’s job description is to keep his or her enthusiasm at a high pitch all the way through at least the first draft. Preferably, of course, through ALL drafts. But the first draft is crucial in capturing the story’s passion. At least it is for me. Other authors may find that it works best to add the passion later. Either way, I think a novel that has lost its steam is simply revealing an author who has lost his steam for the story. And the reader will likewise lose steam and close the book.

Next time we’ll answer Dana’s question and an exercise she is proposing. Stay tuned!

Today I have two small bits of advice for writers, but first I want to answer Barb’s question about a writer’s voice. Barb writes, “I feel like it’s easy to engage with my class members when I teach and with friends when I write, but as soon as I start writing a book, I clam up. How can I take my teaching style and voice and transfer it to a non-fiction book?”

I’m not sure the process is any different for non-fiction than fiction, but here’s my take on it. First, I’d say that in writing a book, the most important thing is to just get it written. Don’t worry about voice right now. Don’t allow yourself to clam up. If you’ve got something to say in print (and obviously you do or you wouldn’t be writing a book), then just spit it out. This is why there’s such a thing as first drafts. Just get the thing written.

Then, in subsequent drafts, as you line edit, I think you’ll find yourself editing through your “voice” in your head. At that point, the voice will tell you how to revise sentences and paragraphs to match your voice. In Bird by Bird Anne Lamott talks about the necessity to write several pretty bad drafts before she’s ready to let anyone see her work in progress. I think that one of the problems she likely finds in those early drafts is that it isn’t fully her voice yet. Editing a manuscript into shape involves, in part, making it sound more like you. Each draft should bring you closer to perfecting your voice on paper.

I hope that helps. Others may chime in in the comments section.

Now let me mention my two bits of advice. The first tidbit harkens back to my previous entry about “beauty and depth” in writing. Sometimes authors hoard their good stuff. They think, Oh I don’t want to use that now. It’s too good. I’ll save that for later. That may be true on the rare occasion (and if that’s the case, jot it down in your writer’s notebook), but good writers realize that you should use the good stuff now and trust that the well will soon fill up again. Draw deeply and write deeply. The water is plentiful. The springs that feed the well are flowing steadily.

The second item has to do with a submission I received yesterday. The first sentence in the cover letter said the manuscript was “unique.” I know the author thinks that’s a plus, but often it’s a negative factor. The truth is that “unique” doesn’t often sell. Readers tend to enjoy favorite and time-tested genres or styles of writing. For instance, most of you fiction writers know that Amish fiction is still very strong in our market. That means that publishers are, for the most part, still looking for well-written Amish fiction. But well-written Amish fiction is no longer “unique.” As an editor, I’d much rather read that the manuscript you’re sending me will “appeal to readers who love Amish fiction” or “is in the tradition of Janette Oke.” Very few “unique” books make it to print and very few of those sell well.

Next time I want to answer some more questions. Michael Reynolds has five great questions (see them in the comments in my “Various and Sundry” entry). I’m going to save those for a more lengthy blog (so hang on Mike!) and move to Dana’s great question wherein she asks about “the worst mistakes in writing and how to avoid them; querying 101 and beyond.” I’ll try to get to Tami’s question too. And then a few others. I do appreciate the questions. They let me know what you’re most interested in. If you’ve asked a question and I’ve not answered it, ask again. I’m sometimes a bit absent-minded about these things.

In my most recent blog I asked for suggestions for future blog discussions. Several of you posted some really fine ideas and I want to follow up on those for my next several blog entries.

First up is Paula’s concern. She said that she recently received a contract for a novella and “I’m intimidated about discovering how to write with beauty and depth in such a short world count….maybe you could blog about that: layering in beauty and depth no matter what the word count.”

Well, I’ll try, but I’ll also invite others of you to join in with your advice.

When we talk about things like “beauty” and “depth,” in writing, we’re talking about a writing style that touches the reader in a deeper place than most writing. (At least, I assume that’s what Paula means). We’re talking about touches the reader emotionally, too.

Without knowing specifics about Paula’s book, we can only offer general advice and let her apply it to her situation—just as I invite you to do with your writing.

Here, then, are some tips:

1. To write with depth requires reading with depth. Reading with depth will result in thinking more deeply. Thinking deeply should result in writing that’s deeper and richer than if our reading consists solely of The Wall Street Journal and People magazine. Find authors who touch you deeply. Drink often from their well.

2. Train yourself to become a “watcher.” Watch people. Watch nature. Keep your eyes open and translate what you see into mental writing. Mental writing is, of course, the writing we do in our head when we’re not at the computer. Most writers do this daily. They see something and immediately find themselves composing an article or story about it. Sometimes that mental writing will later transfer to a manuscript. Sometimes it’s just an exercise and will be lost forever. But keep doing it.

3. Keep a notebook. Some of my “deepest” insights are thoughts I had two or three years ago on the spur of the moment and which would have been lost forever had I not written them in my notebook. What fun it is to go through one’s notebook and stumble on some thought jotted down several years ago that now sparks a creative urge in you to put that thought in a larger piece of writing.

4. When you down at the computer to begin the day’s work, have at your side some book you deeply love (see number one above). Start the day by typing word for word what that author has written. It will loosen you up before you begin and, hopefully, you will pick up some rhythms from that book that will continue as you begin your work for the day.

That’s all I can think of right now. Perhaps others will add their two cents. And I may chime back in later too, if something more occurs to me.