Monday, July 30, 2007
King and I do have some things in common. We both started writing stories shortly after we could write words. Our first stories both contained plagiarized characters we admired. His were from a comic book series, mine were from Lost in Space. We both were influenced (I wanted to say greatly influenced, but I just finished his lecture on adverbs) by movies and books that weren't exactly high art. He adored horror movies, of course, while I went in for sitcoms and Westerns. We both started receiving rejection slips while still in our teens.
Then I started noticing the differences. First of all, King actually finished the stories he started. Lots of them. He considered writing stories a joy and an escape, and they were often influenced by the movies he'd just seen or books he had read. My stories were, too. But I started a whole lot of them and finished very few.
Even when he was a teenager, King seemed to have a good grasp of who he was writing for. While he was dashing out a story, he would be thinking where it would be a good fit. So he understood what he was writing and why. I still struggle with figuring out where exactly my writing fits into the big scheme of things.
He had good editorial criticism early, from an editor at a newspaper where he held a part time job. (This was while he was still in high school.) He changed his writing style a great deal due to this input. During high school and college, my teachers and classmates tended to gush over everything I wrote. This was extremely pleasant at the time, but it didn't teach me much. And boy did I have a shock when I started graduate writing courses at USC.
This next part, I think, is the most important difference between King's journey and mine. King's ability to create memorable characters of all ages and lifestyles always amazes me. How could he have created an entire town full of three-dimensional characters the way he did in Salem's Lot, including the middle-aged and elderly, when he was so young? It turns out Stephen King not only had a wide range of what I would call "life experience" early on, but he had his eyes wide open during those experiences. Raised by a struggling single mother, he worked a variety of blue-collar jobs and rubbed shoulders with all kinds of people. He talked to them, listened to the way they spoke, learned about their lives.
My upbringing was a lot more safe and insular, but more importantly, I wasted the opportunities I had. I went through my early life with my head in a book, frankly trying to avoid contact with most people. I think of the time I spent riding the MARTA trains in Atlanta and commuting downtown. On my lunch hours, I saw the homeless. I worked as a fund-raising consultant, so I held meetings and dinners where I rubbed shoulders with Atlanta's elite. And I learned almost nothing about any of them. I was impatient to get back to my books and my movies. Consequently, for years my writing reflected what I found in other people's stories. Not what I should have been discovering in real life.
I am pleased to say that I have learned from my mistakes. Now I tend to finish what I start, and I'm trying to be more observant. I'm studying my writing and the books I read and enjoy to figure out just what it is I'm trying to accomplish and where my writing fits. But I now see a little more clearly one of the reasons my writing journey has been so long.
One final note. King was still in his twenties when Carrie was accepted for publication. Soon after, he received word that his publisher had sold the paperback rights for $400,000. But at the same time, King's mother was dying of cancer. When I was the same age, I was already experiencing bouts of depression that I would never publish, never be a successful writer. But my family was healthy and happy. I wouldn't trade those early experiences with King, not even for the kind of success he's had. I wish I had realized how blessed I was and not wasted my time fretting over my lack of success.
Now for the tricky part. Can I remember these lessons tomorrow?
Friday, July 27, 2007
Wednesday, July 25, 2007
For me, the highlight was Ralph McInerny's keynote address. McInerny is an academic, a professor at Notre Dame, and a novel writer. In fact, he writes the Father Dowling mystery series. He presented a talk called "In Defense of Fiction," and he touched on a number of things that have been on my mind of late. Particularly, he asked the question, "Why are some books considered literature, and some not?"
I've been asking myself this question lately, partly as I try to figure out my own writing--and just what exactly I'm trying to accomplish. I've come to the conclusion that one of the reasons my journey to publication has been so long is that I haven't had a clear idea of what I'm writing. Comments in rejection letters I've received reflect that. I've had publishers of commercial fiction tell me my work sounded "too literary." I've tried literary publishers who told me my writing is commercial. Secular publishers said my stories were too nice and traditional. Christian editors have told me my characters weren't nice, or Christian, enough. And that's before we even come to the question of genres. No matter how I try, I can't seem to make my characters play nice and do the things they're supposed to for one particular genre. They're all over the place.
So I'm making a great effort to understand the books that are already out there, and where I fit into the grand scheme of things. McInerny's question (which was originally posed by C.S. Lewis in his book, Experiment in Criticism) was therefore of great interest to me. According to McInerny, Lewis came up with the answer that "literature is anything you read again."
Doesn't Lewis have the most awesome way of getting to the heart of a complex matter? I'm sure many folks would like to argue with him, but for me, the definition was perfect. The books I consider "literature" are the ones that haunt me. That I don't forget. The ones that have created a world so vivid that I want to visit them again and again. McInerny also agreed with Lewis, and pointed out that there are worlds that are "Conradian" or "Austenian." Conrad's will haunt you; Austen's will cheer you.
That, I realized, is what I've really wanted with my writing. I want to create those places where readers want to live, those characters that people want to keep in their lives forever.
I don't ask for much, do I?
According to McInerny, it's not all black and white. All fiction can be seen on a spectrum. All fiction writers are aiming for the same thing, but to differing extents or powers. We don't all have to aim for Shakespeare's level. But at the same time, those of us writing popular fiction, he warned, may not take what we're doing seriously enough, because we're on that spectrum, too. All of us who write fiction are engaging readers, asking them to consider our philosophies, conveying some sense of what life is all about.
One more little tidbit from McInerny that I found interesting. He had a problem early in his career because he was too prolific. Can you imagine that! He said the perception was that you couldn't possibly write quickly and still turn out serious, quality works. That was one of the reasons he started to write mysteries, because he could turn out lots of books in that genre. What a change! I feel guilty, lately, because I'm constantly told that to be a serious writer I must turn out at least two or three books a year.
Monday, July 23, 2007
Friday, July 20, 2007
It was a cool autumn day when our tour bus chugged slowly up the road to Tuolumne Meadows. Majestic evergreens rose on either side of us and towered over the smaller bushes beneath them. I leaned over and opened the window, hoping to get a whiff of the sweet scent of pine. I took a deep breath and frowned. I didn’t smell pine. I smelled fire!
I stuck my head a little further out the window and searched the sky for the telltale smudge of smoke. There! A few hundred yards before us a dark plume rose over the trees.
I clutched the seat in front of me as the bus rumbled up the hill and headed toward the smoke. The road curved, and I saw it – a line of orange flames running low and fast up the bank to our right. The ground near the road was black and charred, and I knew that in minutes the entire hillside would look the same.
We pulled abreast of the flames, and I could feel the heat on my cheeks. My knuckles turned white on the seatback. Where were the helicopters? The fire trucks? The flashing lights that would tell me that someone was doing something to stop the blaze?
Then, I spotted something odd. Five rangers stood at the base of the hill not thirty yards in front of the bus. But they weren’t fighting the fire. Instead they were watching it progress.
I was about to shout to the bus driver when his voice boomed from the loudspeaker overhead. “Some of you may be wondering about the fire off to our right,” he said in the same calm, lackadaisical tone he’d used when pointing out a grove of giant sequoias ten minutes before.
“Why aren’t those rangers putting it out?” hollered someone from the back.
The driver smiled into the rearview mirror. “They aren’t putting it out because they’re the ones who set it.”
“What?” I, and about twenty others, gasped.
The driver chuckled and slowed the bus to a stop. “Yep, this here’s a controlled burn, folks. When the underbrush gets too thick the rangers burn it away to prevent wildfires later.”
So much for Smokey the Bear, I thought.
The driver continued his explanation as if reading my thoughts. “Not all fires are bad. This one will clean out the dangerous underbrush and return nutrients to the soil.” He pointed out the window. “If you look closely, you’ll see the big trees are unharmed. It may look bad now, but you just wait till next spring. This’ll be the most beautiful part of the forest.” With that, the bus jerked forward and continued down the road.
As the fire disappeared behind us, I sat back and thought about the controlled burn. I’d always considered fire a destructive force (unless of course, it was neatly contained within my fireplace!). But this was something entirely different. Here was a fire that cleansed the forest, nourished it, and prevented rather than caused destruction. Was this type of thing the Bible meant when it said “our God is a consuming fire” (Deuteronomy 4:24 and Hebrews 12:29)? I’d interpreted that passage as a picture of God’s wrath toward his enemies. But what if “consuming fire” wasn’t an analogy for destruction, but for purification? Perhaps what Hebrews and Deuteronomy were saying was that God wants to be like the controlled burn – he wants to sweep through my life and burn up those things that are stifling my growth. Maybe the purpose of God’s fire was also to nourish me and to safeguard me from wildfires of temptation and sin.
As the smell of smoke dwindled behind us, I decided that I wanted to be like the forest. I wanted to stand still before God’s cleansing flame and let his fire do its work in my life, even if the process seemed painful, even if it was a little scary.
These days, when I see parts of my life withering away beneath God’s hand, I remember the fire on the way to Tuolumne Meadows. Then, I can trust that when God’s done, I’ll see that I, like the forest, will be beautiful in the spring.
To find out more about Marlo’s thoughts on fire, read her new novel, VEIL OF FIRE, just released by Cook Communications. There, Marlo tells the story of the great fire of 1894 in Minnesota, and the mysterious figure who appeared in the hills afterward. Filled with betcha-can’t-guess mystery and deep characterization, Veil of Fire, is a compelling tale of healing through the firestorms of life. For more information, visit her website at http://www.marloschalesky.com/. Or to order on amazon, visit http://www.amazon.com/dp/1589190777?tag=marloschalesh-20&camp=14573&creative=327641&linkCode=as1&creativeASIN=1589190777&adid=023P57JJDCXB7VFCH9XZ&.
Wednesday, July 18, 2007
I hesitated to write about del.icio.us, because I was afraid you'd all groan and tell me, "Robin, please, we've known about this forever!" That's a possibility, but since I just found out about it a few months ago and fell in love with it, I decided to risk your scorn.
If you're like me, you do a lot of surfing on the web. I do serious research for my book as well as shopping for bargains and reading about my hobbies. I find some amazing stuff. Then, two days later, I want to look at one of the sites again. Okay, where was it? Did I do a Google search? I think so, but what were those magic keywords? Hmmm... Or didn't I start out on the site about sewing patterns and somehow end up on the one about braiding hair? How in the world did I get from here to there?
This is where del.icio.us comes in. Once you register for a free account, you can choose to add two buttons to the tool bar of your browser. You find a site that's interesting, and you hit the "tag" button at the top of the screen. Del.icio.us provides you with a box to enter labels for the site (like research, novel, writing, civil war, costumes, etc.). Any subjects that you want to assign to that site. You can also add a note of description. Hit save, and you're done.
So two weeks from now, when you want to find that handy article about women's clothing in the Revolutionary War, you simply hit the del.icio.us button at the top of your browser screen, and your list of sites comes up. The most recent ones are listed first, and you can see your brief description along with the URL and name of the website. Even better, there's a list of all your tags on the right, so if you want to go directly to the clothing research for your historical novel, you can click on those tags. But if you want to revisit those wonderful sites that sell toile fabric at a bargain, one click brings those up, as well.
Sometimes when I tell people about del.icio.us, they say, "But I already use the Favorites button or bookmark sites on my computer." I have to tell them, that's like using a bicycle instead of a car. With del.icio.us, I can borrow my cousin's computer in Florida, log in, and there's all my research. Plus, it's organized by all my tags--even if there are hundreds of sites, they're easy to locate. I don't have to scroll down a long list of random website names.
Del.icio.us is a "social bookmarking" site, meaning that if you want to, you can share tags with other users. So if you want to see who else has labeled sites about historical fashion, or toile fabric, you can. You can make your tags private or public, so if you want to, you can share with others--or keep your research to yourself. Groups with certain things in common may share tags. For example, I took an online course back in January for my job, and the students were scattered all over the world. But as we found articles and such, we labeled them with the name of our class so we could easily share research with each other.
I have to confess, though, my use of del.icio.us is pretty basic. Just having a tool that helps organize me and keep me from losing important information is plenty for me!
So, did y'all already know all this? Or do you use something similar--or better?
Monday, July 16, 2007
Friday, July 13, 2007
I don’t use the word “godsend” lightly. Here’s how the Oxford English Dictionary defines it: “Some desirable thing received unexpectedly and as it were from the hand of God, esp. something of which the recipient is greatly in want.” This describes perfectly how I received the gift of ACFW and its conference.
A few years ago, I was trying to write for the secular market. I experienced a lot of frustration because I would get great feedback on the quality of my writing, but would be told the stories were “too traditional” or some such thing. I interpreted these criticisms as “too Christian.” I attended a couple of secular conferences and had a really bad experience with an editor at one. It was the most discouraging day of my writing life. In fact, I made a decision that I had had enough and was quitting altogether. God, however, had other plans.
One of the ways he nudged me was reminding me of days past when I was trying to write for a Christian market and went to Christian writers’ conferences. He reminded me of the worship services, the prayer, the fellowship with other believers. In other words, even if I hit a bump in the road, folks were helping look after my wounded spirit. At a secular writers’ conference, it’s easy to focus on “me, me, me.” At a Christian conference, there’s a lot more emphasis on finding God’s will for our lives and our work—whatever that might be.
So that started me thinking about Christian conferences. But I had never heard of ACFW. There was a particular agent I wanted to meet, and one day I did some research to try to find a place to meet him. And I discovered ACFW. I was astounded. A whole organization not just for Christian writers—but for Christian fiction writers! I, for one, am a fiction writer. I’m not particularly interested in writing articles or nonfiction or plays for my church. Most Christian conferences I’d attended in the past tried to be all things to all writers. As a result, I paid a lot of money and was thrilled if there were two fiction editors in attendance.
Reading the list of fiction editors, agents, and authors in attendance at an ACFW conference almost made me swoon! I felt like a child locked in a candy store overnight. In the past, if I had the opportunity to meet one well-known author, I was amazed. I can’t begin to tell you how many amazing, successful authors I’ve had the opportunity to meet and get to know at the ACFW conference. And they’re so willing to help and share their knowledge.
For years, I prayed that God would help Christians to be influential in the area of entertainment—movies, books, whatever. I had a really emotional moment at an ACFW conference dinner last year, when I looked around at these hundreds of writers and thought, “This is what I prayed for. This is God’s army that He’s raising up to influence hearts and minds. These people aren’t my competition. We’re all fighting together.”
I assure you, I never got that feeling at a secular conference.
(The ACFW conference is scheduled for September 20-23, 2007, in Dallas, TX. For more info, go to http://www.acfw.com/conference/ .)
Thursday, July 12, 2007
On an entirely different subject, if you'd like to see some gorgeous photos taken by my colleague Felicia at the college where I work, check them out at her blog, Fluffy Flowers. Our grounds are actually a botanical garden. How cool is that!
Tomorrow (Friday) I'm on the ACFW conference blog tour, so be sure to come back to talk conferences past and the upcoming conference in September.
Wednesday, July 11, 2007
First of all thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to share my heart with your readers. Helping people reach their goal of becoming authors is my passion and I’m thrilled to be able to talk a bit about the journey today.
Many people ask me what a Writing Career Coach is. What I do is help people create a plan, a system, to go from writer to author. I like to tell people I help them go from “dream of writing” to “plan for publication”. That is really what I do in a nutshell.
Even if you’re not the planning type if you don’t create a plan you have no benchmarks to know if you’re progressing towards your goal. That is why I created my course, The Writing Career Coach Course. When I was starting out in writing an publication I was blessed to find the Christian Writer’s Guild. It was an excellent program that helped me hone my craft and grow as a writer. I still refer back to my binders periodically.
The one thing it didn’t cover in much detail when I took the course is the actual business side of writing. That is fine, because it was a course on craft. Many writers, authors, and musicians shy away from “business” because we focus on the art side, the creating. That is very important but as most successful authors will tell you, once you’re published the bulk of time is spent marketing your work while you write the next one.
I believe strongly that the way for new authors to get “discovered” is to create buzz and create a story worthy of buzz. That is why my website delves deeply in to my strength, marketing and business development, as well as pointing you to resources on developing craft that I personally value. I show people what it is I did, not what I heard works.
I’d like to ask your readers, what is your writing dream? Do you have a plan to get there? What are you doing today to move forward? What is stopping you from moving as quickly as you’d like?
When I’m not an author I’m the mom of 4 girls ages 4-8 ½. I recently went from being a SAHM and Homeschooling mom to working full time and letting my husband teach the kids. We both own businesses [my husband and I] and are helping our girls launch their own first “corporate venture”. We lead a very busy life which is why it’s easy for me to lose sight of my writing goals. It’s also why I do the daily reminders with my free monthly E-lessons. Some days all a person can do is spend 15 minutes reading a book. That will move you forward. Maybe you can only come up with two parts to your business plan. That’s fine.
I really like to look long term. Next to my desk is the first story ever published [besides stuff at school]. “Reflections on Cinderella” is beginning to yellow inside its gold frame but I look at it throughout the day [in fact, I’ve looked at it once or twice while writing this blog]. I will never forget the excitement when that was accepted for publication [the only payment being the joy in my heart] and I continue to be amazed at where I am now in my writing career.
It took a long time but once I created a plan and treated it like a business I felt like I went from traffic jam to autobahn in a split second. And while I now have dozens of articles under my belt and have experienced the excitement of picking up the phone and having an editor say “Mrs. Colter, you don’t know me but I’m with xyz publication and I’d like to talk to you about working as a freelancer for us,” I still go back to that first article, that first moment as a REAL writer.
And I have within me a burning passion to help others experience that moment.
Thanks again Robin for letting me blog here. I’d like to invite your readers to come to my website www.WritingCareerCoach.com there is information on my free E-lessons, my Writing Career Coach Course [as well as scholarships they can buy for others], suggested readings with links, and ways they can contact me.
I hope all of you will come over to my site and visit or drop me a line.
Your coach for the journey,
Tiffany Colter, the Writing Career Coach, has written for local and national publications. She has students across the US and Canada and as far away as Australia. You can learn more about Tiffany at:
Tuesday, July 10, 2007
Maybe, but the feeling seems to mean more than that. Almost as though the story in question had created a world so real that you could almost step into it—almost but not quite. As though characters had become so vivid and alive that you could touch them and talk to them—but then you couldn’t.
Kristi then asked me if I had read the C.S. Lewis book, Surprised by Joy. A fair question, since she gave it to me for Christmas a couple of years ago. I had to reply that I had only read part of it, but when she told me that Lewis dealt with that same kind of longing that can come from experiencing literature or music, I had to go back and read it.
Lewis describes his first encounters with these emotions when he was a child, after reading Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin. (I love it that Lewis’s examples range from the high and lofty to the simple and innocent.) Here is what he says: “…I loved all the Beatrix Potter books. But the rest of them were merely entertaining; it [Squirrel Nutkin] administered the shock, it was a trouble. It troubled me with what I can only describe as the Idea of Autumn…as before, the experience was one of intense desire. And one went back to the book, not to gratify the desire…but to reawake it…It was something quite different from ordinary life and even from ordinary pleasure; something, as they would now say, ‘in another dimension.’”
His next example moves to the high and lofty, in a translated poem called Tegner’s Drapa. Of the lines he read, Lewis says, “Instantly I was uplifted into huge regions of northern sky, I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described.”
I’m fascinated by Lewis’s experiences for several reasons. First, because I know exactly what he’s talking about—but I never heard anyone else describe emotions quite like this. Second, because Lewis eventually connects this desire and longing for a world we can never quite possess here on Earth to our longing for God. And third, because I want to know what causes some works of art to have that effect on me—on us—and not others. Obviously, I want to be able to write novels that are that powerful.
I’m reading another book by Lewis now about writing and reading and stories, so I’ll return to this subject soon. In the meantime, have you experienced anything like the above? If so, what book or movie had that effect on you?
Sunday, July 8, 2007
Just a couple of quick pictures for you. My husband's garden has been amazing this summer. While I have started knitting projects I haven't finished and struggled to produce a few good pages of my novel, he has grown enough food to feed our neighborhood out of a pretty small patch of ground.
This photo is a few weeks old. Since then, the tomato plants have grown taller than me, and boy have they produced!
These are my latest excuse for not writing. We couldn't let the tomatoes go bad, could we? We've had tomato sauce, spaghetti sauce, tomato sandwiches, dried tomatoes. Dave even made tomato ice cream. It wasn't bad, actually.
I wonder what my excuse can be this week?
Below is a picture of me, taken in Hawaii last year. Yes, those are real birds that I am covered with--or with which I am covered. Whatever.
Needless to say, this picture was not my idea. It was my husband's. He seemed to enjoy the experience a lot more than I did.
Anyway, here's the contest. How many birds are perched on me in the photo? It's trickier than it sounds. Some of those guys are camouflaged pretty well. Email me at robing8300 at gmail.com and tell me how many. First one with a correct response wins.
Hey, when I promise humiliation, I deliver!
Thursday, July 5, 2007
Monday, July 2, 2007
This time, I was struck by the different paths and different lessons from my last two guest bloggers--Marlo Schalesky and Jenny Jones. Marlo is all too acquainted with the long road, the years of waiting and frustration. God eventually asked her to let go of her dreams of publication and simply trust him. He asked her to long for him more than for that publishing contract.
For Jenny, on the other hand, publication came about very quickly. She, too, felt God speaking to her through the experience. In her case, he prompted her to expect more, to believe that he was capable of doing incredible things. Jenny mentions being amazed at how "personal" God was during all this.
That personal touch strikes me in both stories. Whatever we're striving for, God will use it to shape us as we need to be shaped. If we're letting our dreams consume us instead of being filled by him, he may tell us to wait awhile, to focus on him instead of ourselves. If we're dreaming too small, putting God into a little box, he may just ask us to step out of that little confined space and see how much he can do.
Likewise, Jesus dealt with the people he met on an individual basis. How many times did he tell someone to lay down their fishing nets, leave their lives and follow him? The "rich young ruler" was confounded because Jesus told him to sell everything he had and give it to the poor, then come follow him (Matt. 19:21). Jesus knew the young man was holding on so tightly to his wealth that he couldn't focus on God.
But when Jesus cast a demon out of a man, who responded by begging Jesus to let him follow him, Jesus told the man, "Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you." (Mark 5:18-19, NIV)
In my own case, I know God has asked me to let go of my publishing dreams, too--maybe not forever. But for a lot of years I held onto them way too tightly. Right now, I'm not sure whether he's going to ask me to just tell my family what he's done for me, or whether he'll want to open up the world and write his messages through my novels.
Either way, I know he has that road planned just for me.