Saturday, August 15, 2009

Welcome to Christian Fiction 101

Welcome to the first annual Christian Fiction Online Writers Workshop. Today is all about you-the Christian Fiction writer-and your personal journey to starting and completing the novel you know is meant to be written. The market needs to read what you need to write. Any writer that has been called to write knows that it’s impossible to avoid writing. And every reader of Christian literature longs for the authentic, unadulterated and unfiltered message of hope. My personal message to you today is not to compromise, not to write to sell but to write for the audience. Write what God whispers to you and don’t worry about how popular that message will be or question who will want to read it. If he’s given you an idea, chances are, he’s already worked out the rest of the details. Be willing and be steadfast in your message.

Before we continue, I’d like to introduce the panel for today’s discussion. Chances are you have read one or more of their recent releases. Today, instead of being an author, they will be your mentor and guide as they counsel and reflect on what their experience has been.

Melea Brock-Writer and story teller

Mary Byers-Author and motivational speaker.

Margaret Daley-Author

Jeanne Damoff-Author and public speaker

Kathie Fitzpatrick-Author and public speaker

Scott Higginbotham-Writer and book reviewer

Debbie Jansen-Author and family activist

Karen Rabbitt-Author and MSW Write to Publish 2009 Writer of the Year

Let’s begin with how long it took you to write your most recent book.
Melea-“Step Inside… Where Stories Come to Life” is a compilation of stories (and a CD) I have told for many years (time-honored stories) and new stories. It involved artwork, cover design, format design of my artist, a CD of 6 stories with the help of my compose and engineer, and my own personal editor… all of these people are crafted full-time artists. The book took about two years from beginning project to finals. Then the process of making a book with some unique features took place overseas. Right-Side-Up Stories (my storytelling and writing ministry) co-published the book.

Mary-I wrote Making Work at Home Work in six months.

Margaret- It took me two and a half months to write my most recent book.

Jeanne- I'm honestly not sure. I tend to write large sections, then walk away from them for weeks or even months--partly because of other projects going on in my life, and partly because I like to edit with truly fresh eyes. In my ideal world I would always have at least a year to produce a good, clean draft of a new book. I wrote the first draft of my memoir, Parting the Waters, in two weeks, but that's unusual for me. Also, the draft in no way resembled the final product, which went through numerous revisions and wasn't published until five years later.

Kathie- It took me about 9 months to write ANGEL PROMISES...REMEMBERING THE YOUNGEST FIREFIGHTER, just like carrying a baby!

Scott- About two months, maybe a little less, but not counting editing.

Debbie- My first book was very short – only 26,000 words and it took about 30 days. Of course, I was rushing to meet a deadline and needed it finished for a large speaking engagement. It’s a book that goes along with my talks so the material was easy to organize. I do recommend a fantastic organizational tool I learned from Jim Denney. He calls it Brainstorm and cluster but I call it the sticky notes system. (pg. 114) He taught a class at the 2007 Mount Hermon Christian Writer’s Conference. He has a short detail of it in his book Quit your Day Job. Seeing it “live” is what allowed me to write so quickly.

Karen- Trading Fathers is my first book and it took three years.

What is your personal writing schedule-a few hours a day, when the inspiration hits, at night ect.

Melea- Every day I wrote something. It is important for me to let my fingers brush the keys of a keyboard. Sometimes it is very intentional on-purpose writing. Sometimes, it is a letter. My schedule changes as an author with my daughter’s school year. I think of summer as a creative and inspirational season with more reading, more observation, more dialogue with other creative artists, that then prepares for beginning a season in the fall where my craft is more daily. Fall and Spring allows me the daily-ness of writing from 9:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Because I perform my writing (I am a storyteller) my day might be about performing or preparing to perform and less about writing. I am inspired by everyday living. A pen and notepad are essentials. My prayer is that I am not so distracted by living that I miss the stories all around me. Inspiration doesn’t seem to be on my time-table but I am prepared and ready for it.

Mary- When you’re on a contracted deadline, there is no such thing as writing “when the inspiration hits.” When I have a project due I write a minimum of 1200 words per day.

Margaret- I work every day sometimes 8-10 hours, sometimes less.

Jeanne- I'm not the best person to answer this question, because I don't keep a very disciplined writing schedule. In addition to being a writer, I'm a speaker, choreographer, photographer, and musician. If I have a writing deadline, I can be very focused hour after hour, day after day, but if I don't have a deadline, I'm far too easily distracted by whatever is happening next on my calendar.

Kathie- When I am into a project I'm committed's nearly every day, especially if I have a deadline. I do experience "bursts of inspiration" that would not be repeatable, and I try to respect those moments, as they will not return and are not duplicatable.

Scott- I usually write at night due to my work schedule, but when inspiration hits, I will write it down in some form that I can return to and put into the manuscript.

Debbie- It’s a combination. If I’m on a deadline, there’s no choice. You have to complete the project on time and if that means pushing through the day – then push through the day. I’m a firm believer in the fact that this is a “business”. You wouldn’t go to work and tell your boss that you just don’t “feel” like working today. Being a good writer means that you stay with a project until it’s completed – no matter how you feel.
When I’m not on deadline I try to write at least 1,000 words a day. Since I have three blogs that’s not a problem. Most of the time I write more than 1,000 words because if I get a great idea, I’ll rush to get it on paper before it’s forgotten.

Karen- When I was writing the memoir, my writing goal was from 9am to 1pm. 4-5 days a week. I read memoirs and studied writing the rest of my work time. (I wasn't working another job. My husband is my "patron," i.e., the one who supports me--in every way.)

Have you experienced writers block and how did you overcome that?

Melea- Oh my, yes… It is easily remedied if I look at a “block” as something all together different. It’s a big giant boulder and I can glare and get angry and stand there or I can go around them. I read. I sit in nature and with the Word. I go spend time where people gather and listen for “the dialogue of the culture” –the concerns of being a human being these days. If you want real-life drama, watch or read the news every day. I find the news sensitizing to the dullness. I find, also, that when I try to force the writing it is stilted and wooden sounding. And yet, even the stiff and wooden writing is something to review the next day. I pray. Sometimes, I must surrender to it… if that makes sense. Say, “Oh, you have me.” And walk away from my desk and return after doing something rather dull and uninteresting like a load of clothes or a filling a dishwasher.

Mary- I use the “butt in chair” method of writing. I show up at my desk, put my butt in my chair, and begin writing, even if I know I’m writing drivel. The act of writing, even I’m writing “I’m stuck and don’t know what to write,” primes the pump and gets me started.

Margaret- I can get stumped how to write the next section of a book. When that happens I step back, mull over the story, talk with a friend or two about the story and do some brainstorming. Often I will sleep on the problem and the next day I will have a solution. I also pray a lot. The Lord is behind every word I write and I often need His help. When still nothing comes to mind, I go back through what I have and do edits on it.

Jeanne- When I'm writing on deadline, I sometimes experience lulls in creativity and have to take a break. I find that physical exercise is very effective for clearing my mind. Some of my best ideas come to me when I'm working out. I also like to get feedback from qualified critique partners. They help me see my weak areas and blind spots. A simple suggestion from an astute reader can jump start a stalled storyline

Kathie- Yes, I experience writer's block. I wait and pray, and God gives me the next piece of the story when he is ready. Sometimes I work on other parts of of the story within the book outline, and return to more sensitive and intricate areas of the book, when the pieces and parts of it are more in focus as God allows.

Scott- I never had a bout of writer's block, but I had trouble choosing between competing ideas at times. Some ideas for drama or thematic elements carried equal weight and I had to choose which one fit best, was more workable, and which connected better with readers. For example, I had a choice in "A Pilgrimage of Time" to make the character of Caitlyn change roles from a good to a bad character, and change another, Nora, from bad to good. Instead, I kept Caitlyn in her role and showed a process of renewal for Nora. This kept the theme of the story consistent, prevented alienation of my editor and future readers, and will connect better with future readers.

Debbie- I don’t suffer from ADD but I guess I’m a little like Robin Williams. I definitely don’t suffer from writer’s block. I like what Angela Hunt said, “There are always ideas circling around my head. It’s just a matter of which one is allowed to land.” I do suffer from what I call “sticky brain”. That’s when I have the general idea but I know what I’m writing doesn’t sparkle. It needs inspiration and pizzazz. That’s when I have to take a walk or sit on my front porch listening to music or a writer’s class.

Karen- experienced a few times of "Can I really do this?" which I overcame by reminding myself that God had called me to do it and he would give me what I needed. If he didn't, then I'd misread the call. So, I kept plodding along, writing it as well as I could. An enormous help was paying for a content edit when I got as far as I could. I'd completed the book but it was in a very rough draft stage. I asked specific questions of my editor, such as, "Is this scene right for the story?" "Does this scene work?" etc.

For fiction writers-Did you work from an outline, or did you type as you went and let the story develop along the way?

Melea-Much of my work is story-boarded. I love the visual and use a wooden “grandstand”—card bleacher--for 3 by 5 cards Levenger—when I can SEE the phrases of dialogue or outline, I can eliminate or add or change it more easily. Some of my writing seems to pour out quite easily in a whole short story. However, I believe I have been “banking” when that happens. Many times, a story’s beginnings was in my files and waiting in some very form—title, paragraph description, quotes, etc. I had been reading, observing, praying and thinking on this story—banking.

Margaret-I work from a brief outline but most of it develops as I write. I need to get to know my characters and the more I write them the better I get to know them.

Jeanne-When I wrote my first novel, I developed a detailed plot outline that I referred to often. The story took some unexpected turns as I wrote it, and I adjusted the outline accordingly, but having one kept me on track and seemed to stave off writer's block. Right now I'm working on a novel that is based on a true story. The basic outline exists in real life, but I'm inventing a lot of life details for the characters. This is a different sort of challenge, but I'm enjoying it.

Kathie-I did a science fiction piece for the Christian market, years ago..Fiction or non-fiction, I always work from an outline. Otherwise, things reeeeaaaly tend to wander. It may do that anyway!

Scott-I used a basic two to three sentence outline for each chapter and allowed the story to develop within those loose parameters. I found that the story flowed better.

Debbie-I have to have a destination in order to carve a path to get there. I don’t think I could just write and see where it leads. The Fiction book I’m working on now is so detailed with cloak and dagger that I keep character cards in front of me to make sure I’m on the right track. I follow a thin outline that shows me where I’m going but I allow the characters to develop within the frame.

Did you use an agent or go directly to a publisher when submitting your query? What is the preferred method?

Melea-Right-Side-Up Stories has produced its own audio and books since 1990. The co-publishing was so that we couple partner with a company and double and triple the efforts for publicity and marketing. An agent is something we are seriously considering for some future books. We have some houses in mind that require an agent. And so the task the becomes for me, finding the agent that will understand that I am uniquely a writer and performing artist. I think the agent and the writer must truly be partners in this endeavor seeking the same goals for the project.

Mary-Most publishers prefer agent-submitted proposals these days. Because of that, I work with an agent. All five of my books have been agented.

Margaret-I have an agent. I have worked without one, but overall if the agent is good I prefer working that way.

Jeanne-Most publishers prefer agent submissions, and you stand a better chance of your proposal receiving serious consideration when a reputable agent adds his/her seal of approval. But if you don't have an agent, I recommend attending writers' conferences, meeting editors, and pitching your projects to them in person. Meanwhile, research agents to find out which ones represent your genre, then query them. There are excellent materials available (some free online at writer's and publisher's websites) to help you craft a stellar query letter and proposal. Whatever you do, don't lose heart or give up. I do have an agent, but before I did I submitted to acquisition editors at writers' conferences. Some showed serious interest in my writing, and I also made some wonderful friends. Social media (twitter and facebook) are also good ways to get to know agents and editors. It takes time to build relationships in the industry, but the effort eventually pays off.

Kathie-I went directly to the publisher as I was working with "Print on demand" with Pleasant Word/Wine Press Publishing Group--a hybrid between self publishing and the traditional publishing concept. I had been involved in the true life news story of The Thirtymile Fire for years, but needed to come out quickly in order to open at Border's Bookstore with already known author, John Norman Maclean, THE THIRTYMILE FIRE, as a duo opening...a national event for Border's Bookstore with the media and public both present which took place June 30, 2007. It was a huge kick off for both of us!

Scott-I have queried agents, publishers, and use Christian Manuscript Submissions' website, but have no preferred method.

Debbie-I hate the query process! So, to teach myself how to do it – I started submitting to magazines. I found out though that the best process to any writing career is to attend writer’s conferences. I use the plural because no matter what success you have, you need that interaction. I have been very blessed to meet editors and make friends. The submission of my first fiction book landed me an agent - but guess what??? He still wants my proposal and a query! So…learn the process.

Karen-I contacted a publisher directly at Write-to-Publish, an excellent writing conference. He asked for the proposal, but left the company before he gave me feedback. His interest, though, encouraged me. But because that process took six months, and I knew enough of the publishing industry to know that finding a royalty publisher could take 1-3 more years, I decided to self-publish with Winepress, the premier Christian custom publisher. Since I began writing at 52 years old, I didn't feel I had enough time to work through the process. Typically publishers prefer to meet aspiring authors in person at writing conferences or to work through an agent. Getting an agent is like getting a publisher. You need to research them carefully and approach them professionally. Each of them has specialties in terms of the books they represent as well as the kinds of help they offer. Among other kinds of help, some help with fine-tuning a project, some primarily shop your book around to publishers where they have contacts, and some help with shaping a career. Be sure you educate yourself about the industry. Read Chip MacGregor, Terry Whalin, and Rachelle Gardner's blogs. Read publisher's weekly. And, most importantly, learn the craft of writing. Mary DeMuth has a "writing spa" where she offers personalized help (for a fee) for aspiring authors. Pay for a critique from Susan Titus Osborne. The internet is your best friend when researching the industry. My first advice to any new Christian author who believes God is inspiring them to write: "Don't say, 'God told me to write this' to an agent or publisher. It's the red flag of an amateur." Almost everyone in Christian writing feels God told them to write what they write. It's a given. Instead, tell them the genre of your work and the value to the reader and who that reader is. (e.g., My genre is memoir, the reader value is to help them understand how much our relationship with God is affected by our relationship with our fathers, and my target audience is Christian women, 30-65, especially those who've questioned where God is when they've suffered.)

The panel has offered some outstanding advice regarding writing and submitting your work. Before we ask the final question, let's take a look at some invaluable resources that you may be using already, or may be new to you.

For 88 years, Writer's Market has given fiction and nonfiction writers the information they need to sell their work--from completely up-to-date listings to exclusive interviews with successful writers. The 2009 edition provides all this and more with over 3,500 listings for book publishers, magazines and literary agents, in addition to a completely updated freelance rate chart. In addition to the thousands of market listings, writers will find up-to-date information on becoming a successful freelancer covering everything from writing query letters to launching a freelance business, and more.

For 24 years running, the Christian Writers’ Market Guide has remained the most comprehensive, complete, essential, and highly-recommended resource for Christian writers, agents, editors, publishers, publicists, and those teaching writing classes. And it’s the tool for both for beginners and industry veterans.
This perennial guide contains a variety of indexes–listed by topic, alphabetical listing of publishing houses and agents, and more–to more than 1,200 markets. Those markets include greeting cards and specialty writing, e-book and traditional book publishing (32 new listings), and periodicals (52 new). Also listed are 96 literary agents, more than 100 new writing resource listings, and 166 contests (29 new).

As with the guide for the last couple years, a CD-Rom is included and contains the text of the book for simple, electronic searches. But the 2009 Guide is handier–a more reder-friendly page count with 100 pages or so of traditional content (like indexes and contest listings) now exclusively on the CD-Rom.

The Christian fiction genre has been around since the late sixties, but the Left Behind series made it explode. This book walks you through the genre—what it is and isn’t, how plot integrates with a Christian message, how to approach edgy subjects, how to navigate Christian and mainstream publishers, and more. Coverage includes discussion of everything from mystery and romance, to historical and young adult.

Jerry B. Jenkins writers guild Specializing in writers conferances, contests and critiques.

Submit your manuscript online Post your manuscript, find an agent, editing/critiqueing services, conferances and more.

The largest Christian based talent agency When you are ready to add public speaker to your resume, this is the place to turn to. From their website: Ambassador is the oldest and most established Christian-based talent agency in the United States. The company was founded in 1973 by Wes Yoder to represent many emerging contemporary Christian music artists. During the next ten years Ambassador became the premiere agency for Christian musicians and artists. Ambassador Speakers Bureau, established in 1984, provides speakers for special program events around the world. We are the leading provider of speakers for the Christian and faith-based community and conduct a thriving business providing speakers to university, education, religious, non-profit, political and business meetings.

Ambassador's Literary department represents a growing list of best-selling authors. We represent select authors and writers who are published by the leading religious and general market publishers in the United States and Europe, and represent television and major motion picture rights for our clients. Authors should e-mail a short description of their manuscript with a request to submit their work for review. Guidelines for submission will be sent if we agree to review a manuscript.

For speakers and authors with high media demand, we schedule network television and national print interviews providing a thoughtful public relations strategy for each client. National media and literary clients have included the McCaughey Septuplets, Darrell Scott (Columbine), Afghanistan aid-workers Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer, Rick Warren, best-selling author of The Purpose Driven Life,the Van Ryn and Cerak families whose story is told in their # 1 New York Times Bestseller, Mistaken Identity (Simon & Schuster, March 2008), and The Shack, the current New York Times Fiction Bestseller.

Ok. Back to the panel for one last question which also happens to be my favorite in the bunch. How important is spiritual content to you and your books? How do you ensure they contain an element of spiritual enlightenment? Melea?

Melea-Very important. However, I prefer a method of allowing the story to speak Truth by way of an allegorical style, or characters that seem very familiar to the readers everyday life wrestling with an issue with God or their personal faith journey. I stay away from what is “churchy language” as my hope is that my books are read by the believer and the pre-believer. This sounds simple, but I let God choose the element and task of spiritual enlightenment in my story. I turn it into God’s agenda with the reader—“Father what do you want to say to your children in this story?” I stay true to the work of preparing and getting to the page. I read His Word, I am in community with other believers, I read a variety of Christian material, I study my audience, but He is the one who is credited with the spiritual enlightening that happens through any story I have written. I also run (read) my stories past mature believers and pastors. This is very important to me. It’s a mentoring process really. Great editing happens. Great dialogue! I ask God to be the first and final editor of any work I write.

Mary-I write non-fiction and all of my books so far have had an element of faith in them, some more than others. It depends on the topic and how seamlessly I can tie my faith into that determines how this element will look in the final manuscript.

Margaret-Spiritual content is important to each of my books. I like to show a Christian dealing with different aspects of life, wrestle with their problems. I don't want to preach but I do want to give readers hope in the Lord.

Jeanne-I'm not willing to invest the time and energy it takes to write a book unless I'm passionate about the story. Any book I write is going to have strong spiritual elements, but I don't try to manipulate that aspect. An author's worldview always shows up in his/her writing. If you try to force a gospel message into the narrative--by dropping a sermon into the mouth of one of your characters or some other device--readers will recognize that and be annoyed. I like to let the truth permeate my stories the same way a sunrise fills the sky with light, naturally and organically.

Kathie-Spiritual content for me is very central in why I write. The Lord gave me a message to get out there..and I try to be faithful to it. In the urgent days in which we now live, little else is so important as "What is God saying to us right now?

Scott-This is the most important aspect of writing for me, and it is the only reason I undertook this challenge. For me, writing books is not just a job, but a passion to see change in people's lives. Writing a Christian novel should not be written to simply please people. I have found that when I sought to please God with writing and editing, that the words flowed better, I did not feel as though I was compromising, and that my characters stayed consistent. Proverbs 3:6 states, "In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths." That scripture kept me focused and was a thematic element in "A Pilgrimage of Time".
The end result? With my editor's promptings (the creator of this blog-Mary Nichelson), the spiritual aspects, the godly romance, and the timeless qualities of faith in the impossible, hope, and love were refined and strengthened without sounding preachy nor compromised. She has said that the story is fast-paced, entertaining, humorous (at times), and full of twists that keep the pages turning.

Debbie-It’s everything. I pray before beginning and at every junction I ask God to “inspire” what I write. I like to imagine that he’s sitting beside me with a cup of heavenly java, watching every word. I try to listen for those “inspirational” nudges that will lift my writing to a higher plane. You can’t be worried about “making” it or being famous or having a successful book. Your writing must be a calling first, talent second and hopefully financial third. First I make sure I have something to say. Then I pray about it and let it simmer in my mind. Finally, I put the initial idea to paper. Now it’s break time. Time to stare out my window and think about my readers. Time to wonder how they are feeling and how can I word this so it will touch their hearts. Time to ask God to show me their pain and their hurts. Time to look upward and recommit my life as a vessel that He can use. I’ve repeated this phrase every day for years…. “Please God; enter my heart and my brain. Help me to hear and see your purpose for my writing. Inhabit me. Become such a part of my writing experience that when your children read my work – they will see you!”

Karen-My memoir is all about wrestling with God and how he changed me as I sought him with my whole heart, so spiritual content is crucial. Readers are finding help and healing as they see themselves in my story of spiritual and emotional growth.

I appreciate the panel taking time out from their busy schedules to discuss writing with us. They want you to succeed just as they have, because the bottom line is, God is talking. The question is, who is willing to listen and write the message we need to hear. Debbie has a website devoted to mentoring writers at authors just Just for the soul of the writer. I'm sure anyone on todays panel will be happy to discuss any part of the journey with you. They can be reached through their website or email me and I will put you in touch with them.

Thank you so much for participating in todays workshop. Let me know you were here by commenting or sending a quick email. I always love to hear from you, the reader. And to the panel, you guys are the best!! Good luck in your endeavers and may God continue to bless you!