Today, I’m going to do an interview with bestselling author BJ Hoff. Her final book in her Riverhaven Years series, River of Mercy, releases this September. I’ll be editing it next month and I’m looking forward to it very much.

In a recent e-mail BJ said this about a future project we’re discussing:

“Before anything else, my anchor character has to show up. That’s how all my books begin. One character, and only one—always male—’appears’ in my imagination and won’t give me a rest. The only exception was my novella, The Penny Whistle. That began with Maggie MacAuley making her first appearance as a young girl.”

I find that fascinating. I know almost every writer has a different way of conceiving their novels. Perhaps I like BJ’s novels so much because they’re so much about character. So with that, I’m going to ask BJ to amplify on her statement above.

Nick: Is there anything that goes on in your mind before this character appears? For instance, do you ever think of an era you’d like to write about and then your anchor character from that era appears?

BJ: I really had to stop and think about this. What occurred to me is that most of my characters come to mind when I’m doing something entirely unrelated to writing. As unprofessional as it may sound, I might be baking a cake or shelving some books or taking a walk when a character makes his first appearance.

For example, Morgan Fitzgerald, the anchor character for The Emerald Ballad, first made himself known while I was walking around the neighborhood. I had long wanted to tell the story of the potato famine of the mid-1800s that brought so many Irish to America—but I wanted to tell it from both sides of the ocean, from Ireland and America. I’d been stalled at the idea for months while I was working on another project, because all I had was just that: an idea and a time frame. Before I ever reached home that day, the character of a renegade Irish warrior-poet dropped in on me, complete with a wandering soul and a small minstrel’s harp … and from that point on I was off and running.

I suppose that was a case of an event needing just the right character to drive the engine through what would become a five-book story. So, yes, apparently an era or a particular event of a certain era can spawn just the right character and characters. Because I write historical fiction, I can always count on the character being from the past.

Nick: Have you ever had an anchor character appear that didn’t result in a book? If so, do these unused characters linger in your mind for perhaps years or do they disappear as quickly as they came?

BJ: All kinds at all times. It seems that some instinct tells me they’re not “workable,” and I suppose my subconscious simply dismisses them, because they never linger but bow out fairly quickly. A couple of exceptions: I carried around the character of a blind musician for years, knowing he had a story, but not knowing what it was. There never seemed to be a place for him. Finally, though, he ended up as Michael Emmanuel, the anchor character in my book American Anthem. Oddly enough, another character (Renny Magee), who danced around in my mind for a long time first showed up while I was listening to a catchy tune sung by a favorite Irish singer. Renny eventually made her appearance as a Dublin street busker and ended up much later as a character in the same book. She was intended to be a minor character but took on a much more significant role than I’d intended.

So not only do some characters come and quickly go, but at times they stay around to play a different part than I’d originally thought they would.

Nick: Several years ago we discussed character interviews. Once your character has presented himself, do you do an interview to get to know him better? Are there also other ways you find out more about your anchor character?

BJ: I often interview my anchor characters. Sometimes on paper, sometimes only in my thoughts. Not the type of interview that addresses physical description so much—I always get a clear fix on their appearance from the beginning, but I like to give readers a fair measure of leeway in visualizing a character as they see him. I’m not concerned about a character’s favorite foods or hobbies and the like. That sort of thing is easily sorted out fairly quickly as the book progresses. Instead I try to get into his or her back story and emotions, reactions to various events, etc. I seldom do this with a minor character. But, then, for me, the only really “minor” characters are walk-ons that might bow out almost as quickly as they appear. Supporting characters, however, are more important, so even though I may not spend time on an interview, I make sure I know them well. I always look for identifying character traits or quirks that sharply define them, for myself and for the reader. Living with one’s characters—thinking about them, studying their interactions as the story progresses, indulging in a few questions about them—all that plays into giving them distinct “voices” and their personal impact on the story.

Nick: Are all your anchor characters readily to your liking….or have some caused you to ask, “MUST I tell your story? I don’t much like you.”

BJ: Your questions are really making me think! This one brought me to a total stop. I believe, though, I’d be safe in saying that I’ve never had this happen. I’ve had supporting characters affect me like this—and I usually shoo them out the door without much delay—but my anchors usually turn out to be just the folks I need for the story. I have had a few who puzzled me, or confused me, or even frustrated me, but I don’t think I’ve ever had one I disliked.

I’m thinking that’s a blessing. An anchor showing up uninvited who also turns out to be unwelcome could really throw up a roadblock in a story!

Nick: Once you have your anchor character firmly in mind, how does his story unfold? What’s the next step?

BJ: Naming the character. That’s crucial for me. Until the name fits the character, the character won’t fit the story. He’ll remain totally static. Occasionally the character shows up already named—both Michael Emmanuel and Morgan Fitzgerald being examples—but that’s the exception. I can’t explain why some names “fit,” and some don’t, but that’s how it is for me.

Next, I give him a problem. That has to happen right at the beginning of the story. To kick off Chapter One in the first book of the Riverhaven Years series, “Captain” Gant almost drowns in the Ohio River with a gunshot wound. In the Mountain Song Legacy, schoolteacher, Jonathan Stuart has a heart condition which could be fatal. Plus, his expensive and highly prized silver flute has been stolen, possibly by one of his students. Maggie MacAuley begins a “movement” with other students to help find the flute and “restore Mr. Stuart’s music.” Morgan Fitzgerald’s (The Emerald Ballad) family and friends are starving and dying in Ireland’s horrendous potato famine, and he’s searching for a way to save them. Michael Emmanuel of American Anthem is blind and isolated while he lives under the suspicion that he somehow might have been implicated in his wife’s death.

After I determine the problem, other characters almost immediately start arriving to help drive the story. Some are love interests, others are friends, a few turn out to be enemies. The engine is conflict—and most of the conflict comes from the characters. Relying on events or circumstances can be treacherous to the conflict in fiction, though to some extent of course, events will thwart the characters. But if too much conflict relies merely on external sources, that can drastically weaken characterization. Conflict that comes directly from the characters themselves, whether it’s internal conflict or conflict from interaction with other characters, is almost always stronger and works best to propel the story.

I try to make sure that the reader will care about the characters. Even an anchor’s enemy needs to be real and human enough that the reader will care what happens to him, if only to want to see him get “justice” for his wrongdoings. As for the anchor, as he develops, I like to see him making a few mistakes along the way because of a flaw or two in his makeup. My heroes are sometimes unlikely ones. I think that’s because they’re not physically perfect or emotionally together or spiritual giants. They’re more like us. I work for that.

Nick: Once the anchor character is known to you, do the supporting characters also present themselves to you or are they often created as foils for the anchor character?

BJ: Characterization is a genuine mystery to me. I wish I could understand—and explain—how it works, but the most honest thing I can say about my writing in general, and about my characters in particular, is that it’s all gift. I have no real process, no strategy, no self-written handbook on characterization or any of the rest of it.

As best as I can remember, I’ve never “built” or “created” a character, either an anchor or a supporting character. They simply come to me, usually full-blown. That doesn’t mean they won’t change during the course of the story. Hopefully, they will. And sometimes my editor (ahem) will point out that “I don’t think he’d do that” or “I don’t think we need that here,” and I have to reconsider or make corrections. I’ve also run up against places in the story where I sense a lack of motivation for a character’s behavior, so I have to figure out the why of his actions. But mostly, my characters walk into my imagination and onto the pages, and I end up following along after them to see what they’re going to do next.

I can’t emphasize enough the “mystery,” the gift, in this process. For me, it just happens. I love it when it works. I grind my teeth when it doesn’t and then try to figure out why. But after all these years of wondering about it and trying to understand it, I’ve simply accepted the reality that I probably never will, this side of heaven, know how I do what I do.

Nick: Has there been a time when you wanted to write about a specific era or locale and no anchor character appeared? If so, did you drop the project or simply work at creating your own anchor character?

BJ: Unfortunately, that’s happened. When it did, I put the project on hold until I sensed the time was right to think more about it and hope that the right character would show up to get things started. I have two of these projects on the back burner right now. A couple of times in my early writing years, I tried to create the right character, but I got nowhere and finally gave it up.

Nick: Are these anchor characters respectful of your schedule, waiting until you finish a current project before they knock on your door asking you to tell their story? Or do they rudely barge into your imagination without warning, even if you’re in the midst of a current project?

BJ: They pay me no respect at all! They’re like uninvited guests who show up when I least expect them and usually don’t have time to deal with them. But they hang around, generally making a nuisance of themselves until I pay attention. I actually have a fellow now who’s shoved his foot in the door so far I can’t slam it on him.

Nick: Creating effective characters is hard for most writers. If an aspiring fiction writer has a weakness for characterization, do you think your method of having anchor characters present themselves is something that can be taught? Is there anything you can recommend for writers who are weak on characterization?

BJ: Well, I’m confident I couldn’t teach it if I tried. As I said earlier, the characterization process is mostly a mystery to me. I might make a couple of suggestions, though. I believe the most important key to any part of the writing process is to commit every facet of it, from the time one begins to sense he might be called to write, to God—seeking his will and guidance, as well as trusting Him to keep it in its proper place in one’s life. Don’t be hesitant to pray about your writing—God cares about every aspect of our lives, so He’s certainly interested in something that requires as much time and work as our writing. If characterization—or any other part of the writing process—is especially difficult for you, bring it to Him and ask for help. You may be surprised how He delivers that help, but I believe you can expect Him to provide it.

I think it also helps to find something that evokes your emotions. In my case, that special “something” has always been music. Music has been a huge part of my life from the time I was a child. I’m a former church music director and teacher, and there’s no way I can explain how greatly music has impacted my life and added emotion and realism to my writing. I know I might be criticized for emphasizing emotion in fiction, but I’m not talking about sentiment or sentimental writing. But writers need to find the key that unlocks their emotions so their characters become as real as possible, and thus their readers will share the feelings of the people on the pages. The genuine emotion of the characters allows the reader to step into their world and live with them, at least for a brief time. So whether it’s music or art or nature—whatever connects with the writer and plumbs his emotions—should be cultivated, because it can help to generate realistic characters.

Finally, if you have a favorite author, or a few, whose characterization you believe to be excellent and realistic—read everything you can by those authors and try to figure out why you’re drawn to their characters. See if you can spot some traits, emotions, actions, that recur in their fiction and ask yourself why their characters work so well. You can also learn about the “wrong way” from books in which the characters seem stilted and stiff and one-dimensional.

Nick: Thanks, BJ! Great interview! Folks, be sure and visit BJ’s website at:

Or visit her Harvest House page here:

and, if you’ve never read any of her books, do so! You’re in for a treat. She’s among the best fiction writers in CBA.

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.