Friday, October 30, 2009

Writers Are Like Painters

When I was a teen, I took up oil painting. One of my favorite shows was The Joy of Painting on PBS, and I figured if Bob Ross could make happy little trees, maybe I could too. For awhile I actually thought I was going to be a painter rather than a writer, but that was before the writing bug bit me really hard. But here's the thing, and probably why I was confused for a little while---writing really is like painting.

These days I occasionally take up my oil painting between projects. Even though they're different (one changes a canvas, the other a computer screen) writing and painting have many similarities. One of the paintings I hope to finish someday features a rough looking cowboy (he's pictured above). He's been a work in progress for longer than I care to admit, but as I work on this painting, here's what I'm noticing:

Underpainting/rough draft

For this project I started with an acrylic underpainting, made up mostly of grays. It's like a rough draft. I can see the outline of what I want to accomplish, and the hints of where I want to be, but in no way is it complete.

Laying down the color/second draft
Then it's onto the color. I applied it generally with little thought to detail. The important thing was to get the darker colors where the shadows would be, and the brighter colors where the light would hit this character's face. Second drafts are like this for me. Since I tend to underwrite, often I'll be going back and adding layers of dialogue, character thoughts, etc. It's at this point I'll probably doubt my ability to see this project through. What was I thinking?

Getting the likeness/third draft
This is where things get tricky. This portrait must look like a human being. All the nuances of my character's face must be just right. It's the same with writing. The story needs to make sense. The character's motivations need to ring true. I'll need to sculpt away the excess, keeping only the important.

The fine details/final draft
I enjoy this step the most in both painting and writing. I can finally see I'm going to make it! I'm going to complete this project. The image in my head has finally (if I've done everything right) materialized. It's now I really step back and examine to make sure I'm satisfied. There might be some fine tuning still. I might decide I have to make the nose or chapter longer. That's okay. The hard part is done. The hardest part now is knowing when to sign the picture or type "The End".

[This is an edited version of an older blog post I wrote that's now being featured at the Scribble Chicks blog.]

Friday, October 23, 2009

Thicker than Blood back cover and spine unveiled!

I'm very excited to share with you the final cover, spine and back cover of my January 2010 Tyndale House novel Thicker than Blood. Click on the image to enlarge it and see how the designer Jennifer Ghionzoli managed to make the most beautiful cover ever! (I'm not biased at all, am I?) I LOVE the way this book looks like a rare, leatherbound book. So perfect as a used and rare bookstore plays a big role in this story. If you like what you see, and care to pre-order, the book is available to do just that at these fine online retailers:,,,, and

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Janet Kobobel Grant (Advice for Novelists, Part 107)

Here's another post in my Advice for Novelists series in which editors, authors, agents and publicists answer the question:

"If you could say one thing to aspiring novelists, what would you say?"

This time around, agent Janet Kobobel Grant gives us a poignant piece entitled "Begin at the Beginning".

I love that the Bible begins in just the right spot: “In the beginning God created.” Chaos succumbs to order. It’s the ultimate conflict! Genesis’s beginning makes so much sense to us; I can’t imagine a better opening.

Unfortunately, the choices aren’t so obvious when it comes to our own writing. I remember hosting a dinner table at the Writing for the Soul Conference a couple of years ago and asking each person what he or she was working on.

One woman recounted her novel’s storyline and then asked me if I thought she should cut the first couple of pages, which some of her critique partners had suggested. She was having trouble murdering those darling paragraphs that she had labored over for months.

I do believe a hush fell over the table as I said, “I think you should start the story in the middle of the manuscript. Everything before that point is backstory.”

Everyone at the table, including me, wondered how the writer would respond to such a radical concept. She chewed on the idea, and as she did, her expression lightened, and she exclaimed,
“That’s perfect! Why didn’t I see it before?” Then she rattled off how that would open up new vistas in the novel.

Now, I wish I could proclaim myself some sort of genius for having made the suggestion, but the truth of the matter is that I’ve read enough manuscripts that I know starting in the wrong place is a common malady.

I’ve been pondering why that’s the case, and I’ve come up with this premise: The writer is so immersed in the story, has done so much research, and knows the characters so well, that she is tempted to do a brain dump in the book’s opening. So much detail is clogging the writer’s mind that she wants to bring the reader up to speed right off.

What the novelist forgets is that the reader isn’t ready to discover the complex underlying motivations for the protagonist’s first actions. Rather than introducing the character to us, the author in essence pulls out the character’s entire psychological profile. I’m so not ready for that! Why, I’m not even on a first-name basis with the character yet. Ease me into the relationship with a gentle introduction.

I also don’t need the complete physical description. Don’t provide me with any until it naturally fits in the story.

In addition to wanting to provide too many details about the character (or characters), writers are tempted to start with the backstory. I just finished reading a manuscript in which the story began with a woman calling a restaurant to make a reservation. The next thing I knew, I was being told the restaurant owner’s life history. Totally backstory stuff. I didn’t care yet. I hadn’t even met that character; I’d only been introduced to the woman phoning the restaurant, which made the backstory material all the more confusing for me. I wasn’t sure who the novel’s key character was.

The more complex the story, the more tempting to provide too much information too soon. The political atmosphere, the setting, and the main characters all demand to be front and center on the first pages, which quickly turn into a traffic jam, with the poor reader overwhelmed by all the detail.

As a reader, what I look for are “anchors” that settle me into the story and keep me from being carried off by strong winds. I want to care about the protagonist; give me reason to do so. I want to know the elemental details about the story’s setting. And I want to know what conflict the character is facing right now. Drop the anchors in the middle of a pensive moment. Fill in details later.

How do you know where to start your novel? Often it’s in the middle of the story as you’ve outlined it. Go ahead, be daring, give it a try.

I’m currently reading Leif Enger’s
So Brave, Young and Handsome. The story had me from the get-go. The protagonist is sitting on the porch of his home, trying to write a novel. He hates his character. Then a man, standing up in his boat, rows past on the foggy river, and the author hears the Siren call of doing something besides write his novel. Two straightforward conflicts are introduced: the writing isn’t going well; the man in the boat refuses to stop and talk.

Every author’s challenge is to begin at the beginning, if he only can figure out where that is! The point to remember is that often the beginning isn’t where the writer wants to start. Therein lies the challenge.

--Janet Kobobel Grant understands the inside scoop on publishing both as an author, publishing insider, and literary agent. She has written numerous books, helped to launch Here's Life Publisher, managed her own imprint with Zondervan, and served as managing editor of books for Focus on the Family. She established Books & Such Literary Agency in 1996 after working in the book publishing industry for more than twenty years.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Author Melanie Wells's ambitious campaign

I've been a fan of author Melanie Wells ever since I read her first novel When the Day of Evil Comes (Multnomah). So when she announced the I Told Two Friends campaign, I knew I wanted to help spread the word.

Here's a special message from Melanie about the ambitious I Told Two Friends campaign:

Hi. It’s me, Melanie.

Someone asked me recently – why literacy? Why would anyone give away $100,000 (100% of my profits from sales of My Soul to Keep) to teach illiterate adults how to read? (Okay – fair question. I admit it sounds a little crazy. It’s not like I’m dripping with cash).

Two words: compassion fatigue

Here’s the deal. I support several causes vigorously and regularly (and so should you!) In fact, if you’ll notice, each of my books centers around a cause. When the Day of Evil Comes concerns family violence and suicide. The Soul Hunter references violence against women and lost teens. And My Soul to Keep is about child abduction. I don’t write about these things because they’re morbid. I write about them because they’re IMPORTANT.

But the truth is, I sometimes feel exhausted and overwhelmed by the number of problems out there. Don’t you?

Illiteracy, it turns out, is linked to just about every evil under the sun. Child abuse, poverty, disease, hunger, violent crime, violence against women, HIV/AIDS… . You name it. In fact, illiteracy is one of the FEW things in this world you can actually do something about! A little money goes a LOOOOONG way. And the ripple effects are exponential.

Did you know 33 million adults in the United States can’t read at an 8th grade level? Do the math, folks. That’s 10% of our population. Wow.

17 million American adults can’t read well enough to earn a living wage.

62% of prison inmates are illiterate. Imagine getting out of jail and trying to make a new life for yourself when you can’t even fill out a job application. Do you want that guy back on the street with no job and no skills? Or do you want him to have every opportunity to become a productive member of society?

774 million adults worldwide are illiterate. 2/3 of them are women.

If a mother can’t read, chances are her children won’t be readers either.

It all adds up to one simple thing. A literate population is a healthier, safer, and more productive population.

If you’re reading this, I guarantee you that you take the ability to read this sentence for granted. Millions of other Americans can’t read it. They can’t read the aspirin bottle either. Or the street signs. Or a note from their kid’s teacher.

Most of us are completely unaware of this shadow population. How is it possible that millions of adults in the richest country in the world can’t read? (Click on Rosetta’s story. She’ll tell you all about it.)

The I Told Two Friends campaign was designed to give you a simple, painless, fun way to share the gift of literacy with millions of Americans. All you have to do is buy a couple of books, give them to two friends, and ask them to do the same (and so on, and so on, and so on…).

25 bucks and two friends can change the world. YOU can change the world.

Join us and be part of the solution!


Visit the I Told Two Friends website to learn more!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

What would you like to see at this blog?

Hi, friends! I need your help. I want to make this blog a fun and inspiring place to hang out. But I sometimes don't know the type of posts everyone would most like to see. So, if you have a moment, please respond to this poll. And you can feel free to leave comments too. Thanks so much!

Friday, October 09, 2009

How can you know you're called to write? (Scribble Chicks)

How can you know God’s calling you to be a writer? It's a question all of us have asked ourselves. If you knew you were called, then you'd stick through the tough times a lot easier, right? You'd press on and pursue your dreams knowing you were on the right track.

Read the rest of my post on this subject over at the Scribble Chicks blog this week!

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Andrew Peterson (Advice for Novelists, Part 106)

Welcome to another edition of my Advice for Novelists series in which editors, authors, agents and publicists answer the question:

"If you could say one thing to aspiring novelists, what would you say?"

Here's musician and author Andrew Peterson's response:

“Don’t write bad books.” Which is to say, don’t settle. Aspire to be an excellent writer, or don’t write at all.

--Andrew Peterson, author of the YA fantasy series The Wingfeather Saga. Visit his website to learn more about his books and music.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Intervention by Terri Blackstock

As a fan of the tv show Intervention, I was immediately drawn to this title by the talented Terri Blackstock. I plan to have a full review up at soon, but suffice it to say this was a suspenseful read! It kept me turning the pages for sure. Bravo, Terri!


Barbara Covington has one more chance to save her daughter from a devastating addiction, by staging an intervention. But when eighteen-year-old Emily disappears on the way to drug treatment—and her interventionist is found dead at the airport—Barbara enters her darkest nightmare of all.

Barbara and her son set out to find Emily before Detective Kent Harlan arrests her for a crime he is sure she committed. Fearing for Emily’s life, Barbara maintains her daughter’s innocence. But does she really know her anymore? Meanwhile, Kent has questions of his own. His gut tells him that this is a case of an addict killing for drugs, but as he gets to know Barbara, he begins to hope he’s wrong about Emily.

The panic level rises as the mysteries intensify: Did Emily’s obsession with drugs lead her to commit murder—or is she another victim of a cold-blooded killer?

If you would like to read the first chapter of Intervention, go HERE

Watch the book Trailer:

Friday, October 02, 2009

Writing Helps that Won't Break the Bank (Scribble Chicks)

Let's face it. If you go into this writing profession expecting to become rich and famous you'll probably be sorely disappointed. Most writers keep their day jobs.

We usually can't go out and by the latest MacBook or expensive writing desk. But don't let this discourage you! There are so many cheap (or free) writing helps that can make the journey a little easier. Here are a few I've found:

1. Google Maps

I can't tell you how excited I was when editing my novel to realize I could actually see the street view of where I wanted to set my scenes. Not every street is available, but in major cities they are. In one scene, I had a character who traveled to the Albuquerque Greyhound bus stop. I looked it up on Google Maps and was actually able to see the Alvarado Transportation Center. This prompted me to research the place a little more and add some description I wouldn't have known to include otherwise. We're no longer limited if we can't travel to where our stories take place!

Read the rest of my post over at the Scribble Chicks blog to learn 3 more of my favorite writing helps!