I’ve previously mentioned pantsers and plotters as two commonly known ways of writing a novel. Plotters are those who outline their novel ahead of time and pretty much stick to the outline (with some bunny trails and replotting allowed). Pantsers are those who write by the seat of their pants, abhorring the idea of knowing what comes next in their story. Like the reader, they want to be surprised at what happens when they turn the page.

Today, I’d like to propose a third option. That third option is what I’ll call the flashers. (Don’t worry…I’m not going there). I bring this up because I’m somewhat of a flasher myself. A flasher is one who, after a reasonable time of brooding over his novel (read my blog on brooding here), begins to see flashes of his novel, not necessarily in chronological (or any) order.

As an example, for some time now I’ve been brooding about my men’s novel. I know the characters and generally where they’re going, but not specifically (in that way, I’m somewhat of a pantser). One of the men is the father of the main character. He’s about 70 and a lonely widower. Although this character is well known to me in my mind, he, as of now, is still nameless.

Well, last night I had a flash of this nameless character and in this flash (which I perceive as coming near the end of the book), the poor guy had a sudden unexpected heart attack. It struck me hard. I hadn’t thought that would happen….but now I know it must. I also saw in this flash what will happen in terms of his survival of this heart attack. I’m not telling that here, but suffice to say that knowing the outcome will give me some fodder for the ultimate outcome of the novel.

Oddly enough, only mere minutes after the heart attack flash, I had another flash about this same character. In this flash, he had signed up for an internet dating service and was matched up with a gregarious (too gregarious) woman named Dolly. The scene that flashed before me was humorous with our poor old man suffering through a date that he knew within five minutes would be their last date. Dolly, on the other hand, was charmed by our nameless character and chattered her head off for the three hours of their date.

Okay, so I got these two flashes. What now? Well, the important thing is to write these scenes as I saw them, without worrying where they’ll show up in the novel. As I continue to brood, get to know my characters, and experience more flashes, my hope is that the novel will gather enough momentum in my mind for me to begin to put it on paper. As I’m given to procrastination (as are many of you, I’m sure), I must be careful not to overbrood to the point of not beginning the thing. I’ve actually started a few times, but each time, deleted what I had. As you know by now, I’m absolutely obsessed with having the right opening page to novels. Sadly, none of my attempts at a beginning satisfied me. I suspect when I finally hit on that dynamite opening, I will begin the entire thing in earnest by assembling some of my flashes and see how they connect or how I can gently encourage them to connect.

How about you? Are you now or have you ever been a fellow flasher?

I love blogging, I really do. But as I recently told my Facebook friends, sometimes I get blogger’s block. In response, Facebook friend Caitlin Muir suggested a great topic: “Write about advice you wish someone would have given you.”

So, let’s take a stroll down memory lane and I’ll offer up five examples of what I wish I knew during the early years of my writing career.

1. We’ll start with college. Though this won’t apply to most of you who are in your post-college years, still it’s worth noting. I majored in English and minored in journalism. The English major was almost by default. The truth was, I didn’t have specific plans for a career, although, of course, I hoped to incorporate writing into whatever I eventually did for a living. The advice I wish I had been given is: Major in journalism. Since that’s not an option for most of you, can I suggest instead that you find some good books on the art of journalism and study them. Incorporate good journalistic techniques into your writing. Those techniques include: tight writing, word choice, asking probing questions, and writing for the market you intend to reach. This advice applies to both fiction and non-fiction writers.

2. The second bit of advice will be useful to most aspiring writers. Be patient. I know very few writers who were successful during the first year or two. I recently asked one new writer if she would keep on writing if she knew it would be five years before she was published. Would you keep writing?

3. Twenty years ago I wrote two novels. I remember when I finished the first one, I made a mental note: I did it! I wrote a novel. I must never allow myself to think I can’t do this. If I did it once, I can do it again! I must keep writing!

Well, I did keep writing, but I didn’t attempt a third novel. Oh, I did a couple of proposals with sample chapters, but when they were rejected, I returned to non-fiction. I certainly don’t regret the non-fiction I’ve written, but I do regret dropping the ball with my fiction writing. The advice I wish I’d had? Don’t let up on fiction writing. Keep at it. (Let me hasten to add that on my list of 50+ projects I’d like to write, there are still several novels. I haven’t totally abandoned fiction, I’ve just put it on the back burner…and I wish I hadn’t).

4. The fourth piece of advice has to do with the spiritual life of the writer. The advice would be: trust more, pray more, and listen more carefully to what God is saying. If God is in our writing, He will prosper what He puts on our heart, not necessarily our own ideas of what we should write.

5. The final piece of advice is perhaps the most painful for me personally. I learned the hard way. In both fiction and non-fiction pay attention to voice. Several years ago I wrote a devotional based on the messages a popular singer had given during his concerts. When I was finished, his widow told me I had captured his voice perfectly. And I had. I was able to instinctively pick up the rhythms of the man’s voice. But then fast forward to about three years ago when I had a chance to help a famous actress write her autobiography. After several in-depth interviews and much research, I wrote my sample chapters. But somehow in all my enthusiasm for the project, I forget to pay attention to the voice of the author—in this case, the actress whose first person story I was telling. The book went unpublished. It was my biggest failure as a writer. (But also my greatest adventure…so far!).

How does that apply to you? Just this: no matter whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, your work-in-progress should have a voice. A distinct and true voice. Voiceless writing puts the reader to sleep. Some of the book proposals I review (and reject) are tedious because there’s no voice for any of the characters (fiction) nor for the narrator (non-fiction). They read like term papers.

So there you have the top five pieces of advice I wish someone had given me early on. How about you? What do you wish someone had told you as you began your writing career?

One of the several fiction authors I edit is Murray Pura. He’s one of the authors who makes my job easy. (Actually, I’m blessed as an editor because ALL my authors are very talented!). Murray’s writing is excellent and his manuscripts arrive pretty clean. You’ll find some of his Harvest House books here.

Because he’s so talented, so prolific, and so verstatile, I thought we’d all benefit from an interview with him. I know I gleaned some insight from his words of wisdom.

NH: Murray, how long have you been writing?

MP: I actually wrote my first real stories for my mom when I was about nine – they were Perry Mason stories because that was one of her favorite TV shows.

NH: Do you remember your first published work?

MP: Sure. It was a short story called “The Only Way” and it was published in Teen Power magazine when I was sixteen.

NH: You pastored for a long time. Were you writing then? How did you find the time to write?

MP: Yes, I’ve always been writing whether I was in high school, university, seminary or pastoring. I used my days off and quiet evenings to write when I served churches. I guess the other pastors played golf to relax and I wrote books.

NH: You’re a very versatile writer. You do both fiction and non-fiction, and even your fiction spans more than one genre. Do you have a preference for fiction or non-fiction?

MP: No, I like both, but I probably do four works of fiction for every work of non-fiction. That’s why I’m very grateful when an opportunity to do non-fiction comes my way.

NH: As I mentioned, you write fiction in more than one genre. Do you have a favorite genre?

MP: Probably historical fiction, I like writing about dramatic events in world history and putting ordinary people into the middle of extraordinary circumstances. However I would like to try my hand at more works of contemporary fiction in the future.

NH: In addition to your versatility, you’re also a thorough researcher and a fast writer. As to research, can you give us a rough idea of what percentage of your time working on a novel is research? And do you enjoy the research or is a necessary evil?

MP: I’ve always liked history and biography, and I do have an academic side, so doing research is painless, really. I thrive on the opportunity to learn more. I would say research takes up 25-30% of the time I spend writing a novel. Not all of it is done ahead of time. A good deal takes place during the writing stage.

NH: As to being a fast writer, what are your secrets? What does your writing day look like?

MP: Up at about 7 AM, exercise in my home gym, have a light breakfast, check emails and FB, then get into the author mode. I start writing about the images and visions in my head and away I go. A 2000-3000 word day is a normal day. A couple of hours into the writing I hit my sweet spot where material is pouring out of my mind faster than I can get it down. Sometimes I take a break around 5 or 6 and then come back a few hours later and write some more. If I’m making supper I knock off at 4. I no longer care when or where I write, I don’t need a certain setting and I don’t need to be in a certain mood, and if my muse isn’t around I write anyways. Actually, all of my life and faith is my muse, there is always a story or a scene in my head, I am always ready to type something out or jot something down. There’s never an absence of something brewing, it seems, whether it’s planned or unplanned. I hit the sack between 11 and midnight.

NH: As your editor, I’ve noticed you reply quickly to my e-mails. So I assume while you’re writing you also often access your e-mail and possibly social media. Do you consider these as welcome mini-breaks from your writing, and not a distraction? Do they not break your concentration while writing?

MP: If I’m in a light writing part I don’t mind answering emails, etc. And many times I’m letting an idea or scene brew a bit more so I don’t mind the distraction, that’s correct, because I want other images and ideas to gel a bit more. If I was in a really intense scene or scenes and the flow was going I would shut down mail and FB until I was done.

NH: How do you approach a new novel you’re writing? Do you outline or do you just start with a basic idea and let the story take you for a ride?

MP: I do both. There is a general outline, things that need to happen, places I need to go, people that need to be around. But I’m well aware that everything can change after you write that first page. Characters do different things than you imagined they would, new characters pop up, some plot ideas don’t work after a while so you jettison them. There’s a kind of ultimate destiny over everything that you plan for, and that’s supposed to rule, but the free will of the characters always brings in new scenes and new plot developments you didn’t count on. That’s when you feel like the story is writing itself and you’re simply the first writer that’s handy to pour itself through onto a WORD doc.

NH: In addition to the several excellent novels you’ve written for Harvest House, you’ve also been writing for some online publishers. Tell us about that and give us a link.

MP: Well, you know there’s an ebook revolution going on. One aspect of this is episodic fiction or fiction written and released in installments. This is like a TV series or similar to the way Dickens published his novels 150 years ago or Conan Doyle published his Sherlock Holmes’ stories in papers or magazines. People buy an ebook volume for 99¢ and wait 3 weeks for the next one. I’ve written two books that way so far: The Rose of Lancaster County (the Amish in Colonial America) that came out in ten ebook volumes of around 7000-8000 words each, and A Road Called Love (the Amish in a contemporary setting) which came out in four larger volumes of 25,000 words each. Currently I’m working on two more: The Painted Sky, a western set in New Mexico in 1866, and Seven Oaks, a Civil war romance set in Virginia. I’m also editing a Civil War series called Cry of Freedom and a romance series called Blue Heaven – I recruit the writers and then get the stories out every two weeks. I work with Helping Hands Press and all the ebooks are posted and reviewed on Amazon Kindle and released via Kobo and Nook too. Eventually they are published as paperbacks as well.

NH: Are you at liberty to say what you’re working on next?

MP: I just finished a big project with Harvest House, a novel entitled London Dawn, the third and final book in the Danforths of Lancashire series. For Helping Hands Press I have my first foray into Arthurian and Christian fantasy coming up in another series of ebook installments – The Name of the Hawk. As well as another Amish romance in the fall or winter.

NH: Do you have any authors you consider mentors?

MP: Hemingway, Faulkner, Joyce, Tolstoy, Chaim Potok, Jack Kerouac, Rudy Wiebe, Annie Dillard are some of the novelists. But poets have also had an enormous influence on me: Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, Langston Hughes, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Dylan Thomas, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Tennyson, Dante, and Milton are some of those. I think Franklin W. Dixon must have affected me because I read the Hardy Boys with a passion and Lloyd C. Douglas too (The Robe, The Big Fisherman). Douglas made a huge difference because he taught me that I could write about my faith by means of dramatic and interesting stories.

NH: What are you reading now?

MP: Jack Kerouac’s Visions of Cody. That’s one. I like books on Celtic Christian spirituality, the Irish and Scottish churches of the Middle Ages, so I’m reading those too. The Celtic churches were absolutely centered in Christ and spoke about that commitment with so much poetry and power, it never fails to inspire me.

NH: Is there a greatest story?

MP: Everybody has different opinions and favorite authors. The gospel story remains for me, as Fulton Oursler called it, The Greatest Story Ever Told – it’s appeal is perennial and immortal, it will never die. Similarly, to borrow from Fulton Oursler again, the Bible – with its scores of books, its multitude of authors and characters and stories set in the midst of prophecies, bloody battles, rambling birth records, great good and great evil – is for me, in all its raw and rugged beauty and complexity, The Greatest Book Ever Written. The Gospels and the entire Bible itself have had more impact on me as a man and as a writer than any other works on earth. Together they constitute a masterpiece in which no final chapter is ever reached, no final page ever turned.

NH: Thanks, Murray!

Simply because I can’t think of a better topic, I’m going to vent about the top ten [current] things that make me crazy. Editorially and authorially (is that a word?) speaking, that is. The top ten things that drive me crazy personally are better left to a good therapist.

1. I hate it when good books—I mean really good books don’t sell. I won’t name names, but some of the best authors I know have lesser sales (in some cases far lesser) than mediocre writers. At times like this, I want to throttle the entire book-buying public.

2. I hate it when writers with potential won’t listen to good advice. When I say “with potential,” that means they’re not yet good writers, but might be if they would work on their craft. But no, these writers I’m talking about think their writing is just fine and that it’s my poor editorial judgment that’s a stumbling block to their career. Don’t let this person be you. No matter what your present status as a writer, GET BETTER with every book and every proposal.

3. I hate it when I start to read a fiction manuscript and in the opening lines I’m subjected to a weather report (“The gray skies hung over the city like a dull blanket”) or a geography lesson (“The land was rocky and barren, punctuated here and there with small hills of red earth”). Okay, I realize sometimes it can work—but not often. Start with a person. Hopefully the main character.

4. I hate it when someone mentions “branding.” Even though I understand why it’s important for a writer to develop a “brand” and cultivate a “tribe” of followers, I think it can be very limiting to creativity.

5. I hate that it takes so long to get an answer from a publisher or agent. Yes, I know. I’m an offender here. Manuscripts and proposals sit begging for attention while I’m busy editing manuscripts on their way to production. As an editor, I understand, but as a writer, I wish my writing would always flow to the top of the pile.

6. I hate it when life crowds in so much that I can’t find time to write. I really do love to write (when I have something to say), but 24 hours in a day isn’t enough!

7. I hate it when I have a full blown idea for a book in my head and it doesn’t come out right on paper. The manuscript in my head is worthy of a Christy, but the finished product is worthy only of the recycle bin.

8. I hate it when a fiction manuscript is peopled with stereotypes. I meet the same characters over and over. In one manuscript her name is Megan and she’s a flight attendant and in the next manuscript (by a different author) her name is Heather and she’s a PI. Both women, alas, need personality transplants. They’re way too generic. So are the men. Garrett may be a lawyer or he may be a fireman named Lance, but it’s basically the same guy. Give me someone with a distinct personality please.

9. I hate it that memoir and autobiographies don’t sell well in our market. A few decades ago we had the likes of The Hiding Place, God’s Smuggler, The Cross and the Switchblade, Joni, and Run Baby Run. This genre does well in the ABA market. I wish it would transfer to our CBA market. Occasionally one sneaks through. I’ve been astonished and delighted at the huge success of Eric Metaxas’s Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.

10. Finally, I hate it that more of the good books by CBA publishers don’t “crossover” into the ABA market. Sure, some do. But not many. Right now on Amazon’s top 100 there are only two books by CBA publishers. Two! I check almost weekly and usually there are about five, so two is a new low. Such a shame. We have fiction that certainly rivals ABA fiction. And goodness knows we have life-changing non-fiction that belongs high on the list. I’m glad to report that not too many weeks ago the Bonhoeffer book was well within the top 100.

Well, okay. Rant over…for now.

I’m sure I’ll find something more to grouse about in the future. Or I might even blog “I LOVE it when that happens.”

As some of you may have heard, the sad truth is that in our industry, fiction sales are presently in a bit of decline. At least if what agents and authors are telling me is true. I say “presently” in decline with some optimism that we will have another upturn in the future.

But in the meantime, what’s a fiction author to do? Stop writing?

Certainly not.

Here are some suggestions on what to do while waiting for the hoped-for turnaround in Christian fiction.

1. Although I’ve long said that following trends is not the way to write fiction, still it’s going to be important to notice what types of fiction are still doing well. If you’re a versatile writer of fiction, you might turn your talents to an up and coming genre. A quick look at the present bestselling fiction shows that although Amish fiction is strong, the books on the list are by the better-known Amish fiction authors: Beverly Lewis, Wanda Brunstetter, and Cindy Woodsmall. How many of the authors on that list have you read? Can you determine why those authors are successful and what you can do to emulate their success? Can you hazard a guess as to what kinds of books will be on that list a year from now?

2. Prepare a “one-sheet” for about 5-8 different novels. Describe each one in a paragraph. Create a good lead character for each. Let your imagination go. Maybe try an Amish novel, a contemporary romance, and something out of the box, like, perhaps The Shack. Pretend that someone has said to you, “I will give you one million dollars to write a book like ___________.” Could you do it? I bet you’d at least try. So do try. What have you got to lose?

3. Read more. The best writers, by far, are also readers. What fiction are you reading now? If you’ve been too busy to read, then be assured it will show in your writing. If necessary, devote part of your writing time to reading.

4. Make yourself stay excited about your writing. When you’re down in the mouth about your writing future, head over to Barnes and Noble, buy a chocolate chip Frappuccino and spend an hour browsing the fiction shelves. Open several intriguing novels and read the first couple of pages. See if the author succeeds in capturing your interest. Tell yourself I can do better than that.

5. Many fiction authors fail because they assume that good writing is all that’s necessary to succeed. They think that “platforms” are for non-fiction authors only. Not true. You need to do the things that will put you on the radar screens of potential readers. Make a list of ten things you can do in the next year to build a platform for your fiction.

6. Don’t overlook the option of self-publishing your first novel. At Harvest House Publishers we have occasionally picked up a novel or an author that started through self-publishing. Yes, distribution is harder for self-published books, but it may be the only way you can break through. Count the cost before you take this step, but don’t discount it as a viable option.

7. Last and certainly not least, make sure you’re writing dreams are in line with God’s will for you. Are you writing what He wants you to write? Are you daily praying over your writing career? Has God given you a word of encouragement about your writing? LISTEN to Him. He may even tell you that writing isn’t your calling after all and it’s time for you to move on to something else. Something that IS your calling.

Okay, your turn. What are YOU doing right now to advance your fiction writing career while waiting for an upturn in the fiction market? How are you avoiding discouragement? We’re all ears!

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).

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!

When many aspiring fiction writers think about the novel they want to write, they often think in terms of their proposed linear plot. This happens, then that happens, which causes the next thing to happen, and so on until the end of the book. In short, they piece together a credible story and if they’ve done a good job of piecing their story together, the book gets published.The writer has succeeded with his or her book on the story level. That’s good. Those books can sell like crazy.

But in my ongoing attempt to pinpoint what I prefer in a novel, I’ve come up with yet another way to describe this notion of going beyond the storytelling level and entering into the “felt life” level that Henry James championed. This new way is to suggest that just as a reader likes a book he or she can successfully follow (track) on the plot level, so too do most readers like a novel that allows them to track the inner life of the novel’s characters. (Without realizing that’s what they’re doing, of course).

The plot is what is happening in the story. But how are those events affecting the characters? I don’t mean does the fact that Joe dies in chapter one mean that we are then told that his widow Sally is sad (or happy) about his passing. That too, can just be something described on the basic plot level by giving us Sally’s facial expressions, dialog, and/or actions.

But to fully enter this next level of character development (that I crave as a reader), requires more than description, dialog, and actions. What more is there? you’re probably asking. And this is where it gets dicey. The truth is that it’s hard to infuse your fiction with this second level of “life.” Hard do describe and hard to do. It’s especially hard to do in such a way that the reader is tracking the character’s inner life on an intuitive level, not a linear level.

To be honest, I’m not even sure this aspect of characterization can be taught at all. But maybe it can. So in that hope, I’m going to offer some suggestions.

1. First of all, make sure you understand what I’m after. If you don’t get it, stop reading this blog entry and come back next week when I’ll be on to another topic. It’s not important that every writer understand this. I’ll settle for only a few.

2. Lack of an inner life in your characters may be simply because you don’t know them well enough. I’d suggest interviewing them about their past, their future, and how they got in this present predicament that is your novel. Most good characters are very forthcoming about their life. Some need coaxing, but it’s quite worth it when you get them to finally open up. Be advised that it’s often the interview questions that have nothing to do with the novel that are the most revealing. Ask lots of those.

3. Describe your characters, one by one, to a friend. Perhaps someone in your writers group. Let them come up with interview questions for your characters.

4. Read published fiction that has succeeded on this deeper level. And when you sit down to write, take a few minutes to warm up by typing word for word a few paragraphs from the book you’ve chosen. Particularly paragraphs that are themselves revealing of a character’s inner life.

5. One hint that your character’s inner life is boring is if their emotions are predictable. For instance in my example above (Joe’s death and his wife Sally’s reaction) the predictable response is sadness at the death of a spouse. But for a woman to be happy at her husband’s death suggests either something about Sally or about Joe that is worth exploring.

6. Find ways unique to your writing that will help you set on paper the words that will open up the inner life of your characters to your readers. When you find something that works, let me know or post it in the comments section. This process of tracking a character’s inner life is one of the most mysterious aspects of writing fiction that I know about—which is why few seem to attempt it and yet fewer succeed when they do attempt it.

If you have a finished novel that hasn’t sold, maybe this one single thing is what you need to do to break through and capture an editor’s heart. Go back through the book that you’ve completed on the primary plot level and this time write strictly to the second level–the deeper level. Ask yourself: is my character’s inner life worth tracking for the reader? If not, you need to do another rewrite and make it so. Just be very careful that this is all done invisibly…subtley…silently.

And even if you do master it, as I said earlier: Deepening the inner life of your characters may not help you sell your book to an editor—in fact, it may be a hindrance. Still, I want you to do it anyway. It will make me happy. 🙂