The Oregon Christian Writers Conference


Agent Sally Apokedak at Red Lion Inn at Jantzen Beach, Portland, Oregon

Agent Sally Apokedak at Red Lion Inn at Jantzen Beach, Portland, Oregon

I number of years ago, I had an editing client, Carol S. Fitzpatrick, from Oregon whom I met when she and her husband were down in Southern California. They came to church with me, then took me out to lunch. We had a delightful time and became friends. I not only edited her middle grade novel but a nonfiction project she had—a help for classroom teachers in their task of teaching reading.

More than once she told me that I really needed to go to the Oregon Christian Writers Conference. Even after we both attended Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference (which I love), she told me how wonderful the Oregon one was and how she was sure I’d like it.

As it happened, another couple friends, agent Sally Apokedak and author Jill Williamson also raved about what a good conference OCW is. Well, I finally got my chance to go, and they were all right. The carrot on the top, though, is that I attended as a presenter, not as a conferee.

From start to finish, the conference was wonderful. Several weeks before the event I received a handwritten note from the prayer team with a beautiful, detailed prayer for this newbie. I suspect there’s a standard template they use from year to year, but that doesn’t minimize the effort, thought, and prayer that went into that note.

I had a very disruptive email glitch right about the time that Things Were Due for the conference. Except, I didn’t know that these things were due, nor that the things I was sending hadn’t gotten through. In spite of this, the organizers of the conference, in particular director Lindy Jacobs, were kind, professional, and unruffled.

We worked around the problem while I discovered what was happening with my heretofore exceptionally reliable email provider which I’d long recommended for its attack on spam without disrupting legitimate communication. (Needless to say, my faith in my email provider has taken a hit).

The overall feeling I have of this conference is calm. Yes, there was an air of excitement among the writers as they registered that first day. You could tell they were anticipating the conference with joy and expectation, but there wasn’t a frantic rush to get the attention of the top agents (there were more agents in attendance than I’ve found at any time at Mount Hermon).

There was a variety of “Coaching Classes”—morning instruction by a single writing professional centered on a particular topic. Sally Apokedak taught “Middle Grade and Young Adult Novels That Sell,” for instance, while Karen Ball taught “Taming the Most Common Fiction Dragons” for beginning writers, Jane Kirkpatrick taught “Weaving Story Threads in Fiction” for intermediate writers, Nancy Ellen Dodd taught “The Language of Screenwriting” for screenwriters, and Randy Ingermanson taught “How to Be an Insanely Great Indie Author.” There were others, some fiction, some nonfiction, some on marketing. The point is, there really was something for everyone.

On top of these great Coaching Classes, the afternoon included a wide variety of workshops (including “Blogging And Blog Tours—The Whys And Wherefores” by yours truly). There were also a couple panels—an editors’ panel the first day, then an agents’ panel on day two.

The evenings included excellent talks by our keynote speaker, Pastor Ed Underwood (Church of the Open Door in LA), followed by Night Owls—a pitch session one night (led by Jill Williamson, teaching writers how to pitch their books to editors or agents), a critique clinic the next (led by me, giving writers the opportunity to have the first three pages of a manuscript critiqued by a small group), and an autograph party following the awards ceremony on the last night.

Meanwhile, writers could sign up to have 15 minute appointments with agents and editors to pitch their work or ask questions.

The thing that I think set OCW apart from others I’ve attended were Mentoring Appointments. These were half hour writer-to-writer meetings. I had the opportunity of serving as a mentor and realized after a few appointments how great this aspect of the conference is. The other writers weren’t pitching me something. They simply needed someone to listen, offer advice, and pray with them.

To be honest, they were similar to the parent-teacher conferences I participated in during my years as a middle grade teacher. Then I was answering questions about how a parent could help his child do better in school. In the mentoring appointments I was offering advice about how the writer could help his writing project in one way or another.

That’s a bit of an over-simplification, but the point is, people often need a neutral individual with some experience to give them guidance. These mentoring appointments offer that opportunity to conferees.

Would I recommend the Oregon Christian Writers’ Conference? Absolutely! Would I return as a presenter? In a heartbeat if I were asked. It was a wonderful experience and I met some great people, reconnected with others I’ve met throughout the years. For instance, Sally Stuart, founder of The Christian Writers Market Guide, was there, and I was able to thank her in person for endorsing my first writing book, Power Elements Of Story Structure.

Author Jill Williamson, winner of the 2015 OCW Trailblazer Award

Author Jill Williamson, winner of the 2015 OCW Trailblazer Award

I was sitting with Jill Williamson during the awards when she won the 2015 Trailblazer Award. I attended Sally Apokedak’s Coaching Classes. I met Ben Wolf for the first time and was able to congratulate him for his engagement and for winning the book award in speculative fiction. I had a delightful dinner talking with Susan Maas, a long time member of the Oregon Christian Writers Association responsible for the conference. I met Sherrie Ashcraft and Christina Tarabochia who founded Ashberry Lane, the publisher whose author Angela Ruth Strong won the Young Adult/Middle Grade Book Award for The Snowball Fight Professional.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Great time hanging with writerly people. Such a wonderful conference.

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Rebels by Jill Williamson – CSFF Blog Tour, Day 3


Rebelscover

Rebels by Jill Williamson – The Review

Of necessity the following will contain some spoilers, though I will make every effort to keep them to a minimum.

Also, in conjunction with CSFF, I received a free review copy of Rebels from the publisher. This review is in no way influenced by that fact.

The Story. At the end of Outcasts, brothers Mason and Omar have been captured after their rescue operation. They’ve been slated for liberation, whatever that is. No one seems to know.

The rest of the Glenrock community under Levi’s leadership is now free—free to live underground with the Kindred, a group of people who have built a separate culture apart from the rebels and from the Safe Landers and who want nothing to do with outsiders. At least that’s the attitude of some, including the Kindred’s matriarch.

Levi’s next goal is to free the women of Jack’s Peak, their neighboring village, being held in the Safe Land harem where they are to act as surrogates. Once all the people from the villages are together, he wants to find a way out of the Safe Lands.

Meanwhile, Omar and Mason go through the liberation procedure and end up in the Lowlands with all the other liberated people—strikers, who received three x’s for crimes they committed, and everyone over forty, including the older citizens of Glenrock and Jack’s Peak.

Here everyone is assigned to heavy tasks which produce all the food and drugs and other commerce for those in the Highlands and Midlands. In essence they are in a penal colony.

Mason and Omar must first survive in the brutal prison environment, but they are as determined as ever to find a way to reunite their people and leave. But how? There is no way to communicate with the others to let them know they are alive.

Strengths. The list here is long. The series as a unit had incredible coherence—what was true in one book was true in the next and the next. A bit of backstory in one book becomes the central motivation of a character in the final book.

The parts all fit. This was especially impressive to me because I had so many questions at the end of Outcasts and saw no way they would all be answered in one more volume: who were the hooded, secret guild members, what was liberation, what would happen between Omar and Shaylinn, between Mason and Ciddah, would Mason find a cure for the thin plague, would Omar stay in the Safe Lands if everyone else found a way out? Questions, questions, questions. How could all these moving parts fit together and be resolved in one more book? Jill did a remarkable job to make it happen.

Further, the characters continued to develop and grow—even Levi. More than one CSFF tour participant has commented on how much they didn’t like Levi.

I never felt animosity toward him. He was the one who had to deal with the dead bodies of the men who had cared for him and mentored him and served as examples for him. Besides, Jemma loved him.

True, at first he didn’t do well as the elder of his people. He brought the same bullying tactics to the job as his father had used, but he learned. His change is most clearly shown by his agreeing to act as the Owl in Omar’s absence and his admission later to Omar himself that the subversive, secret message bearer of truth was a good idea.

Omar, of course, changed the most, but Shay grew up and learned to accept herself, even stand up for herself when she needed to.

Mason grew too, most clearly seen in his admission that he’d been arrogant to think he could find a cure for the plague on his own. In many respects, the Safe Lands were good for Mason because he finally got to use the abilities he had and to live the way he thought was right. He still had challenges, though, and found himself more dependent on God’s mercy at times than he ever had been before.

In short, all the characters grew and changed. But what’s more, they each seemed so real. As tour participant Meagan said, “I will miss them all and hope that at some point in the future we may revisit this land as they recreate what they once had.”

That’s one of the highest compliments an author can get, I think, because truly these characters became so real, they seem to be out there somewhere, living their lives, and it would be great to be able to “catch up.”

The story itself was full of intrigue and conflict and danger and suspense. But one thing I noticed. Through it all, there were partial successes and reasons for joy—the liberation of the Jack’s Peak women, the birth of Shaylinn’s babies, Mason getting to task in the medical facility, and the brothers finding their mom. The moments of hope offered a counterbalance to all the fear and loss and oppression, so the story had a great rhythm, not a monochromatic note of despair until the end.

I also thought the story shouted through the action and events which worldview is strongest and best, though clearly there wasn’t a black and white choice (how’s that for a bit of confusion—can’t say more without giving too much away). In the process, some of the hardest issues teens face today were addressed—suicide, drug addiction, illicit sex, friendship and betrayal, forgiveness, lust, guilt, and more.

But adults weren’t left alone either. The truth reveals that Levi’s dad abused his wife, and Levi’s bullying and Jordan’s anger are clearly shown as counter-productive. As Levi changes, another legalistic figure moves to the forefront—Tovah, matriarch of the Kindred. Except, as much as it’s tempting to hate her for how she treats the outsiders and how she tries to fence in her boys, she’s the one who steps in to help Shaylinn when she needs it most.

In short, no one is a caricature, not even Lawton, who does much of the evil he does out of a sense of self-preservation.

Weaknesses. The book isn’t perfect—I don’t think too many are. 😉 But the minor things I might quibble over aren’t worth detracting from the high quality of this story. OK, here’s an example. As Levi made his plans to escape the Safe Lands and return to Glenrock, I wanted to shake him—don’t you realize, they’ll just come and get you again? You couldn’t stop them the first time. What makes you think you can ever go back to your village and continue to live in such close proximity of the Safe Lands again?

See? Not a real issue because . . . well, because of what happened instead. 😀

Recommendation. The Safe Lands series is a must read for teens, for adults with teens, for Christian writers who want to see how to write believable fiction with a subtle Christian message that isn’t preachy, and for readers who enjoy a good story. (Yes, I’m a fan!)

Rebels by Jill Williamson – CSFF Blog Tour, Day 2


SafeLandsTrilogy

[The following post includes allusions to various events in the Safe Lands trilogy which may be spoilers to those who have not yet read the books.]

Rebels by Jill Williamson, the final installment of the Safe Lands trilogy, includes characters and events that today’s teen can relate to, despite the fact that the story is set in a post-apocalyptic world.

Perhaps the setting and the differences between that futuristic world and ours prevent this series from coming across as an “issues” book. If it took place today, the problems the characters face—teen pregnancy, illicit sex, drug addiction—might seem too pointed, to directed at solving today’s teens’ problems. Instead, the other-worldliness of the story creates some distance that allows an exploration of some teen issues.

In some ways, you could sum up the three books as a story about how a young person raised to be moral and upright can navigate the temptations of a godless, hedonistic society.

The three brothers—Levi, Mason, and Omar—who are the main point of view characters, show three very different approaches. Levi wraps himself in laws and contempt or, at best, indifference, toward the greater society in which the people of Eagle Rock have been thrust.

Omar embraces the new culture and for a time disdains all he knew as a child.

Mason complies with the greater culture, though keeping himself apart, all the while holding in tension the goal to escape and the goal to make a difference in the Safe Lands society.

It’s an interesting study. In the end the three brothers, having taken very different paths, end up with similar outlooks, though different missions and goals.

Omar, I believe, takes the hardest path, and author Jill Williamson has done an outstanding job portraying what he went through. First is his core desire to belong, to fit in, to matter. In Captives he comes to the erroneous conclusion that the Safe Lands aren’t harmful as he’d been taught and that his people, if they just saw the place for themselves would realize all the amazing advantages they’d been missing.

When Omar awoke to the fact that his people would pay a severe price for his choice, he drowned his guilt over leading them into the mess they were in and his sadness over a greater alienation from them than he’d previously known, by turning to the same things people today turn to: sex and drugs.

Before Omar knew it was possible, he was addicted. While he had easy access to drugs, sex ruled his thoughts, but when, in Rebels, his drug supply was all but cut off, his cravings for . . . not a high, but relief from the pain created by his unmet need, dominated his thinking and ultimately his choices.

I know there are some people who come to Christ and receive a near-miraculous release from their drug addiction, but I think many more people continue to struggle—their mind saying one thing and their body, another.

It is this latter situation that Jill Williamson portrays so convincingly. Omar had made changes and he wanted to be different. He tried to be different, but his addiction was stronger than he was.

In many ways, it is frightening to realize what Omar was willing to do to get his next fix and equally frightening to realize how despondent he became when he understood how incapable he was to break free from the hold his addiction had on him.

What a remarkable, believable warning without preaching a word. Rather, Omar shows readers the plight of the addicted. He was willing to betray the one person he had grown to care for most. He would do whatever demeaning thing was required of him while giving up on the hope he once had to make things better.

The other side of this accurate portrayal of addiction is God’s endless mercy. When Omar was weak and hopeless, God did not turn His back on him but used his despondency for His own purposes.

Honestly, I couldn’t help but think of apologist Ravi Zacharias who, in real life, came to Christ as he lay on a bed of suicide. In contrast, Omar’s heart transformation had come much earlier, but even as a changed man, he struggled with the ravages of addiction that held him captive and kept him from living the life he knew he was called to live.

This story is the kind that can help teens today make choices in their lives. They don’t have to experiment with drugs to see how alluring they are. Omar did that and they can know through him that the draw is powerful and the high, bedazzling.

But they can also see from Omar’s experience where addiction leads. There’s no greater warning.

– – – – –

Others on the CSFF Blog Tour are also talking about Rebels and the Safe Lands series and Jill Williamson, so be sure to check out the list of tour participants at the bottom of the Day 1 post.

Published in: on September 30, 2014 at 6:04 pm  Comments (4)  
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Rebels by Jill Williamson – CSFF Blog Tour, Day 1


jillwilliamsonnewsmallSpeculative fiction, and fantasy in particular, is known for its trilogies or tetralogies or series of five or of seven, or of an unending number. With few exceptions, of the various series I’ve read, I’ve thought book one is the best. This includes The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which, despite the chronological way the books have been packaged, was the first book C. S. Lewis wrote in the Narnia series.

I’ve heard a number of writers suggest the first book is the best because the author took as long as it took to write that first book, but then when he or she was under contract, and under deadline for the rest of the series, the writing gets rushed. This explanation may be true, and it certainly seems logical.

The thing is, the end of a series seems to me to be vital for the success of the author’s next book. For example, how many readers who were so upset with the way author Veronica Roth ended her Divergent series will pick up her next book?

All that to say, I think Jill Williamson, author of this month’s CSFF Blog Tour feature, Rebels, book three of the Safe Lands series, has positioned herself very well for her next series. Of the three Safe Lands books, without a doubt, Rebels is my favorite. I really liked Captives and loved Outcasts which seemed so real, given the story premise.

There were believable quandaries: interpersonal problems, situational difficulties, cultural conflicts. But Outcasts was a middle book, deepening problems and increasing intrigue. While there was some resolution, in the end there were more problems left unsolved than ones brought to a conclusion. The question I had when I finished Outcasts was, could Rebels deliver answers in a satisfying way? I honestly thought there was too much. I didn’t see how Jill Williamson was going to pull it off.

But she did. In my opinion, Rebels is one of the most satisfying endings I’ve read in a long time. Yes, there are some threads left open, but that’s as it should be. I’ll discuss that point in more depth later in the tour. For this post, suffice it to say, I think Jill accomplished what only the best writers seem to do—her series got stronger with each book, and the final installment in the trilogy was the strongest of all.

Of course the beauty of the CSFF Blog Tour is that you don’t have to take my word for it. You can compare what I say about the book with what others participating in the tour are posting.

See what the following CSFF members thought about Rebels. (Reminder: a checkmark takes you to a tour article I’ve already found). Also, note that a number of participants, thanks to the generosity of the publisher Blink, have an extra copy of the novel they are giving away. You might want to get your name into the mix at one of these sites. (Special recommendation for Audrey Sauble‘s giveaway because you can earn extra points by linking to another CSFF tour post!)

Published in: on September 29, 2014 at 5:40 pm  Comments (3)  
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Not Ashamed Of The Gospel


Love of Divena coverIt’s getting harder in western society, I think, to say we’re not ashamed of the gospel. Well, we can say we’re not ashamed of the gospel–free speech, and all. But taking a stand because of the gospel, especially on the hot bed issues of our day, is becoming risky. Hence, Christians are re-thinking whether or not they should let their Christianity be known.

For example, I or my beliefs have been belittled or vilified on my own Facebook page by family and friends because of certain positions I’ve taken.

Dovetail this with what some Christian writers have been saying: Christian fiction is poor art in part because it aggressively preaches.

The accusations about Christian fiction are anything but new. Often people have decried the loss of Christian influence in the arts. Once Christians dominated painting and literature. So what happened, they ask.

Well, what did not happen was a switch from not preachy to preachy. Milton, John Donne, George Herbert, John Bunyan, and a great list of other writers led the way in literature by writing about their faith or incorporating it in their works in very clear and obvious ways. They were not ashamed of the gospel.

The real difference between then and now, however, is in execution. Too many writers add on “faith elements” as an after thought or to fulfill a necessity for their publisher. Some, on the other hand, slather in gospel references in the hopes of . . . well, preaching to the lost.

Other writers would just as soon see the divide between secular and sacred erased–but the implication is that a story well told, without any “faith elements” is sacred by virtue of the fact that it is artistic.

I wonder if this isn’t the writer’s way of being ashamed of the gospel. If a story is well told and the gospel is front and center, why does that story automatically get treated as if it is second rate?

Well, some may say, those stories are too unambiguous. They don’t make people think, they give too many answers? Really?

Recently I’ve been discussing salvation in regards to “the unreached peoples” of the world, and those living in India have been mentioned. At once I think of Kay Marshall Strom’s series Blessings in India: The Faith of Ashish, The Hope of Shridula, The Love of Divena.

India 1990. In the final book of the Blessings of India series, Shridula, old and stooped at fifty-nine, makes her painful way to pay homage to the elephant god Ganesh, lord of success and destroyer of evils and obstacles. “Why are we Hindus instead of Christians?” her seventeen-year-old granddaughter Divena asked.

“Because we are Indian,” said Shridula.

So begins a spiritual journey for Divena as she struggles against an entire culture to proclaim a faith close to her heart while rocking the world of two families. (backcover copy quoted from Amazon)

Yes, those are stories about God at work in one of those unreached parts of the world. No easy answers, but no hiding God, either. No shame of the gospel.

Honestly, I don’t know why, in light of the vast number of people who don’t know Jesus Christ as Savior, all Christian writers don’t make it a mission to bring faith to bear in a discernible way in our writing, in our stories.

No, I don’t think every story needs to be a salvation message. Some can show a believer coping with anorexia as Running Lean by Diana Sharple does. Others like Firstborn by Lorie Ann Grover can address gender issues. Or how about the Safe Lands series by Jill Williamson that shows a character’s struggle with lust and addiction?

God can show up in dramatic ways or daily, gradually, through His people. He can show up through types and symbols and allegory, or He can be present, identified from start to finish as the Creator, Sustainer, and Savior of the world. The how isn’t the issue, I don’t think.

But a dying world needs to hear Truth, and I don’t think it’s time for Christian writers to shrink back, ashamed of the gospel.

Fantasy Friday – Project Gemini by Jill Williamson


Project-Gemini cover

A Review

Project Gemini, a young adult novel in the Mission League series by Jill Williamson, is a mildly speculative story most suited for young teens.

The Story. Spencer Garmond, AKA Jonas Wright, is a promising basketball player. He’s also been recruited into the development program of the Mission League, a secret branch of INTERPOL, which aims to collect and analyze intelligence regarding “rulers, authorities, powers of this dark world, and spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” As part of his training, he went on a practice mission to Moscow after his freshman year in high school. He’s now preparing for his second trip–this time to Okinawa, Japan.

The problem is, Spencer, who learns his real name is Jonas Wright and that he’s been in a type of witness protection program because his father betrayed the Mission League and killed his mother, has made some enemies–or so it would seem from the prophecies he’s received.

He himself is gifted with dreams and glimpses that show him snatches of the future, but so has the daughter of his instructor, Mary Stopplecamp. Because of what this thirteen-year-old middle schooler has dreamed, she warns Spencer not to go to Japan. He’s not convinced, however, that he can’t intervene to change these events, as if the prophecies are merely forewarnings, not actual predictors of what is to come.

Based on her dreams, Mary then tells Spencer to beware of foreign women. He himself has a dream of a beautiful Japanese girl, one who is sometimes in trouble.

Upon arriving in Okinawa, Spencer does in fact meet the girl of his dreams–or rather two of them since she has an identical twin sister. In addition, one of the assignments he receives is to keep track of and monitor the activity of his dream girl. Or her sister.

He’s drawn to her, and she to him. When her former boyfriend forces her to go with him, Spencer springs into action to protect her. The fact that he took a scooter without permission and left the group on his own, instead of calling for help, gets him into considerable trouble, however. And Mary’s continual warnings make him begin to question who he can trust.

Mission-League-web-logoAfter all, there are some pretty bad players hanging around, some suspected of involvement with a notorious Japanese gang. And now Spencer has reason to suspect there may be a connection to his Moscow enemy, Anya.

Excerpt. Read a sample chapter of Project Gemini (Mission 2: Okinawa).

Strengths. One of Jill Williamson’s many talents as a writer is voice. She manages to capture the voice of a young teenage boy to the point that her character comes alive.

I’ve read a number of Jill’s books now, spanning three series and a stand-alone novel, and none of the characters has the same voice. Each is distinct, unique, individual.

Achan, the slave boy turned king in the Blood of Kings high fantasy novels, is a very different person from Mason, Levi, or Omar in the Safe Lands books. In turn, they are all very different from Jason, the cloned boy living in a laboratory in Replication. And none of them is like Spencer, the hero of the Mission League adventures.

Not only does Jill capture the voice of a teenage boy, she taps into his heart and soul–what motivates him, what he hopes to accomplish, how he processes the various things that pull him in one direction or another.

In other words, Jill has created a believable character who also happens to be a likeable kid. He’s trying to turn his life around, but he’s got enemies that seem determined to keep him from doing so.

The plot is action packed, with tension on every page. Who can Spencer trust? How can he complete his assignment and heed the warnings of the prophecies, too? And why does this new Mission Leaguer, Grace, have it out for him from the moment he met her?

Because Jill writes Christian fiction, she does not back off from dealing with the concerns that confront teenage guys: lust, girls, sex, sports, drugs, parties, and lying to get what they want. Interestingly she also shows the divergent paths adults can take in raising teens. (Or maybe that comes mostly in the novella due to release in a month or so). At any rate, Jill shows. She doesn’t preach. But Spencer eventually comes to understand where he goes wrong and what he has to change, and the reader follows right along with him.

Weaknesses. I know reviews are more credible if the person writing them exposes faults. The problem for me is that I get so caught up in Spencer’s story, I tend to gloss over any small inconsistency or plot problem. It’s a stretch for me to identify weaknesses.

I think the characters are all rock solid and believable, but on retrospect, I do think there is a segment of the plot toward the end that happened so fast, I wasn’t sure how all the developments came about.

There’s also some description that could bog down a reader (I sort of glazed over at places)–notably a section about ropes (anyone who has read the book will probably know what I’m referring to).

Recommendation. The Mission League books are terrific stories perfectly suited to younger teens–thirteen to sixteen, boys or girls. More mature pre-teens may also like the stories, but there is some frank discussion about attitudes toward and behavior with the opposite sex, so it would be good for parents to be aware of this.

Project Gemini (available on Kindle for only $2.99), and the previous books in the series, The New Recruit and Chokepoint, would make perfect gifts for anyone in the target age group and their parents. And if you’re like me, you’ll buy the book for yourself, because it’s just that enjoyable a story.

CSFF Blog Tour Wrap – Outcasts By Jill Williamson


CSFFTopBloggerJan14What a great tour for Outcasts, the second book in Jill Williamson’s The Safe Lands series. Not only did the tour participants provide great content, a number of people shared the posts via Twitter or Facebook. Reviews of Outcasts spread to Amazon and Goodreads and any number of other social media sites. In other words, buzz is happening.

RebelscoverIn the end, twenty-two bloggers posted about Outcasts. Notably Meagan @ Blooming with Books posted a short interview with Jill, asking specific questions related to the Safe Lands; Jason Joyner discussed why dystopian fiction is the perfect genre for Christians; Julie Bihn speculated about the third book in the series, Rebels, based on the back cover reveal at Goodreads; and Shannon McDermott took an intriguing look at the various factions opposing the Safe Lands regime. (Sadly, due to illness, Steve Trower was not able to regale us with his usual Tour Tuesday Tunes post. I’m sure it would have been remarkable!)

In all there are a grand-total of thirty-four posts connected with the tour about Outcasts. Several pointed to the captivating (pun intended) book trailer for the first in the Safe Lands series, Captives. If anyone is still vacillating about whether or not to jump in and read this series, perhaps the video will help you decide.

Also, the new plan, for now anyway, is for me as the CSFF Grand Puba or Overlord or Head Honcho–whatever names our members use–to choose the winner of the Top Tour Blogger Award instead of putting it to a vote. So, I’m happy to announce that the January 2014 winner is Julie Bihn! Congratulations, Julie, and thanks for giving us such interesting and original content in your posts.

And now the video:

Published in: on January 23, 2014 at 6:53 pm  Comments Off on CSFF Blog Tour Wrap – Outcasts By Jill Williamson  
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CSFF Blog Tour – Outcasts by Jill Williamson, Day 3


Outcasts cover

A Review

This month the CSFF Blog Tour is featuring the young adult dystopian novel, Outcasts, second in The Safe Lands series by Jill Williamson. Several of our tour participants have remarked about dystopian fiction and its predilection for gloom.

In my view, this genre is one of those that can show how the Christian worldview stands in stark contrast to that of a view that ignores God.

My introduction to the genre was Brave New World, followed soon after by 1984. I believe I came to understand the world better for having read those books, yet I wouldn’t want a steady diet of that kind of literature. It is, quite frankly, so hopeless, it’s depressing. Until a person realizes there are key components of truth left out.

Jill Williamson has not left those out. The picture she creates in her Safe Lands series, of a hedonistic society literally rotting away, could be depressing, but there’s more to the story. There are characters working to escape, bring down, and cure the corrupt society. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Story. Continuing the story begun in Captives, Outcasts features the three brothers from Glenrock–Levi, Mason, and Omar–as they deal with their present circumstances. They have rescued their women from the harem and now must do the same for their children who are either in the state boarding school or nursery.

Omar and Mason continue to live as nearly normal lives as possible while plotting with the people of Glenrock who live in hiding. Levi has taken up the mantle as elder and leader of his community, though he’s finding the role much more challenging than he could have imagined.

Who is he to trust? How can he get everyone on the same page, with Omar making his own superhero plans and constantly vapping and consorting with Safe Land women, even as Shaylinn is carrying his baby; with Mason bent on finding a cure for the disease the flakers carry. What hope does Levi have to reunite all his people and get them to safety?

Strengths. I’m not sure where to start. The characters are so strong in this book–with complex motives and heartfelt struggles, both internal and external. They are captivating, so much so that when I finished reading the book, I found myself planning to go back to the story in the evening, only to realize that I had to wait until the next book comes out. The point is, I wanted to know what happened to the characters I’d come to care about.

But just as strong is the worldbuilding. The Safe Lands have their own entertainment, society celebrities, fads and fashions, slang, cliched greeting, technology, political system, and state secrets. The place feels real!

Which brings me to the plot. So much is going on in this story. There is the overarching question–can the Glenrock citizens escape? But there are relational questions for various characters, too, and then there is the greater question about the Safe Lands and what they are hiding, what they are doing to their citizens, and who might be behind the whole thing. It’s intriguing on some level on every page.

More importantly, Outcasts and the other books in the series are addressing important issues, without preaching. Rather, the choices the characters make show all that a reader needs in order to discern what worldview addresses the pressing problems best.

Weaknesses. I have no serious complaints. I’m sold on this series and find myself lost in the world and engaged with the characters and the ideas presented in the story. It’s entertaining and thought-provoking at the same time.

But there was one place where I felt the story could have been stronger. Without giving spoilers, it’s hard for me to discuss in detail. Suffice it to say, one character seemed to act in a surprising, if not uncharacteristic, way, with consequences that turned the story (and still must be dealt with in the next book). Perhaps a little more foreshadowing or a closer look at this character’s development would have made the story stronger at that point.

Recommendation. Outcasts and The Safe Lands series are must reads. Not just Christians can embrace this story because it is one of struggle between two distinct ways of life that anyone can understand and appreciate. It is also about how the gulf between the two can be bridged and how the leadership of the two sides can go astray. It’s a big story, a powerful story and shouldn’t be missed.

It’s also clearly targeting older teens, but adults can appreciate the story just as well. The third book in the series, Rebels, is due out in June, so I suggest you read Captives and Outcasts between now and them so you won’t be left out.

In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.

CSFF Blog Tour – Outcasts by Jill Williamson, Day 2


SafeLandslogo

Second Books

Most fantasy series are actually one story told in multiple books. The Safe Lands series by Jill Williamson is no different. The story opened with Captives, continues with Outcasts, and concludes with Rebels, due out this summer. Which makes the January CSFF Blog Tour feature the second book in the series.

More often than not readers find second books to be a bit of a let down. In writer parlance, some suffer from “sagging middle” syndrome. Often times the pace seems slower, with nothing of particular note taking place, and/or a “been there, done that” feel to the plot.

For example, the second book in the Hunger Games series, once again threw the heroine, Katniss, back into the games she had just conquered.

None of this is so for Jill’s Outcasts. This book two is a different story while still moving toward a resolution of the greater question.

For one thing, the protagonist is a different character. Yes, there are multiple points of view and the same characters that appeared in Captives are also in Outcasts, but this is predominantly the story of a different individual than was the first book.

In addition, there isn’t any territory covered in the first book that’s repeated in this one. Sure there are similarities. After all, the story is about escape, and there are many people who need to get away. But the circumstances are different, the people are different, the methods are different, the dangers are different.

In short, rather than sagging, this second installment of the Safe Lands series ramps up the tension. I haven’t gone back to compare ratings or comments with the reviews CSFF participants gave Captives, but the comparatives I’m reading would indicate that Outcasts is an even stronger book than Captives.

Here’s a sampling:
* “Outcasts is a first-class dystopia – realistic characters in a riveting but believable world that brings all sorts of ideas into play against each other. I am planning to continue with the Safe Lands series; this is a world still to be explored – beginning with what, exactly, it means to be liberated.” Shannon McDermott

* “If Outcasts is any example, this series should end in a fantabulous manner. . .” – Meagan @ Blooming with Books

* “I actually really like Mason, Shaylinn, and even Omar, as well as the rebel Zane–so much that I actually very much care what happens to them, something I don’t feel at all in maybe half the books I read.” – Julie Bihn

Clearly, there’s no drop off with Jill Williamson’s book two. Readers are in safe hands!

But again, don’t take my word for it. Check out what the other tour participants are saying. You might want to read Nissa’s insightful comparison between The Safe Lands series and Hunger Games.

Or how about Julie Bihn’s revelation of Safe Land SimTag technology, or something quite similar, in existence today.

There are others (see all links at the bottom of my Day 1 post) you won’t want to miss.

You also might enjoy exploring the Safe Lands site. Lots to see and do.

Published in: on January 21, 2014 at 7:01 pm  Comments (6)  
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CSFF Blog Tour – Outcasts by Jill Williamson, Day 1


Outcasts cover

Addressing Frank Topics

This month the CSFF Blog Tour is featuring Outcasts by Jill Williamson, book 2 of the young adult dystopian fantasy series The Safe Lands. Because of Jill’s experience working along side her husband with youth in churches, she understands the pressures and temptations, hopes and desires, teenagers deal with. Rather than side-stepping frank topics, Jill faces them head-on, and I think this series is the richer for it.

I can’t think of the last time I read a book in which one of the point of view characters was struggling with lust and addiction. If only those twin demons were not part of the inner life of today’s youth. Unfortunately, I think the truth is the opposite. Our culture has held up sex as the Great Desire and the Inescapable Conduct. Consequently kids from homes and churches that teach abstinence automatically are faced with a struggle.

Their own desires are fanned into flames by the music aimed at their demographic, TV and movies, their peers, and sometimes even their parents (some wishing to live vicariously through their teens). When the culture tells them sex is natural (it is), and all that matters is that they do it safely (it is not), but the church, and more importantly, the Bible tell them sex is to be reserved for a monogamous marriage relationship between a man and woman, teens are bound to struggle. Their own passions align with the culture. Their head says one thing, their desires another.

Who helps teens navigate across this divide? Too often this is a period of their lives when they are distancing themselves from their parents as part of their growing-up-and-becoming-independent stage. Do youth leaders talk frankly with teens about how to handle the urges they’re experiencing? I suspect so. But I also suspect these kinds of talks simply give teens more information.

Stories are different. They show. Outcasts shows. Here’s a teen, two teens, three teens dealing with the same stuff, the same sexual desires, the same craving induced by mood-enhancing substances. The characters take different paths and the outcome of their choices is a natural part of the story. No preaching. No lecture. No one drawing conclusions for the reader.

Instead, the story itself gives models for teen readers. They can draw their own conclusions, understand, perhaps, their own feelings a little better in light of the struggle they see the characters experience.

The subject matter is frank, not graphic or indulgent, but not pretending that things are better or easy, even when a character wishes to change. Outcasts is an honest treatment of sensitive material, without making it The Focal Point of the story.

I think this is a huge triumph for both Jill Williamson and the editors at Blink for bringing this book, this series to readers.

Other CSFF members participating in the tour are listed below. A check mark links to a CSFF post about Outcasts.