Blog Cogs Or Blog Logs

Recently I read an insightful article about blogging entitled “Are You A Blogger Buddy Or A Blogger Bum?” In a succinct way, the author, John Sherry, pointed out ways bloggers can either make themselves appealing or odious.

It’s a sobering subject, or ought to be, for those of us who write regularly and/or who consider blogging a plank in our writer’s platform.

Just a short while ago, agent Rachelle Gardner wrote a series of posts on the difficult discussions agents sometimes have to have with clients. One of those had to do with a writer’s public image.

Has it occurred to you that as an author, you’ll be a “public figure” and people will form opinions about you based on every little thing? You want your public image to be inviting, so people will want to buy and read your books.

Now, if you’re unagented and uncontracted, and not trying to sell any self-pubbed books, then you don’t have to stress out about this quite yet. But keep in mind that when you’re out there trying to build a readership, everything matters [emphasis mine].

So I started thinking about blogging and what I appreciate or don’t. Mind you, I think Mr. Sherry’s lists are excellent. These are just my add-ons.

Blog Cogs
(or The Things Bloggers And Visitors Do That Make Blogs Better)

  • Give kind and encouraging feedback
  • Engage in discussions (and take part in polls 😉 )
  • Share articles on Facebook or Twitter
  • In their posts, link back to you and your articles
  • On their site, answer your comments so you know you’re not merely talking to yourself

Blog Logs
(or The Things Bloggers And Visitors Do That End Up Creating Rot)

  • Skim read posts but comment regardless
  • Nitpick posts
  • Critique posts line by line
  • Hijack post comments to discuss a favorite topic that has little or nothing to do with the subject at hand.
  • Refuse to admit an error or apologize for a mistake

Quite honestly, I find this an intimidating subject because I’m quite sure I’ve done all the Log things at one time or another and I’ve neglected the Cog things far too often. But writing about it makes me want to do better, and that’s a good thing.

What about you? What are some of the things you’ve observed as you bounce from blog to blog? Any blogger you want to give a special shout-out to for the excellence of their content or for the way they interact with visitors?

I think we’ll all be better Cogs if we limit the shout-outs to the blogs that are doing it right, don’t you think? 😀

Published in: on May 26, 2011 at 6:42 pm  Comments (8)  
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Fantasy Friday – The State Of The Genre

Author friend Mike Duran recently interviewed his agent Rachelle Gardner, discussing, of all things, Christian speculative fiction. I say “of all things” because Rachelle chooses not to represent fantasy or science fiction, though she will occasionally take a talent (like Mike) who writes supernatural suspense.

The odd thing to me about the interview is the “gloom and doom” tone regarding the future of speculative fiction in the market known as “CBA.” The abbreviation stands for Christian Booksellers Association, and does indicate who the heavy-weights calling the shots were some ten years ago.

But a couple things changed. One was “Left Behind.” With the huge sales of those Jerry Jenkins/Tim LaHaye books, suddenly big box stores wanted a piece of the Christian-fiction pie. Now books by Christians with Christian themes were finding their way into Walmart, Borders, and Target. CBA members no longer had an exclusive say on what books would get in front of the public.

Another thing that made a huge difference was the Internet. Now Amazon joined the party, and readers could voice their opinion about books and their quality in open, public forums.

Along with these two events was a cultural shift. Call it the Harry Potter factor. I tend to think the receptive nature of our society to a series about wizards fits with postmodern thinking and the awareness of the supernatural. In other words, Harry Potter didn’t “cause” it, but it came along when our culture was ready (as did the Lord of the Rings movies).

As far as Christian fiction is concerned, there wasn’t much interest in the speculative genre. The Christy Awards committee couldn’t even settle on a name for their award category that would encompass “those books.” (They finally settled on “Visionary”).

Winner of the first of four Christy Awards Hancock garnered

Karen Hancock came out of the starting blocks in 2002 with her first title, Arena (Bethany House), a science fantasy. She followed that the next year with The Light of Eidon, the first in her strictly fantasy Guardian-King series.

Since then, a good number of authors writing Christian fantasy have come and gone. Some have switched publishers, some are publishing independently, and some are continuing to publish with traditional houses.

Here are the ones I know:

      With AMG/Living Ink
      Scott Appleton
      Wayne Thomas Batson
      D. Barkley Briggs
      Bryan Davis
      C. S. Lakin

      With Bethany
      Karen Hancock

      With Crossway
      Bryan Litfin

      With Multnomah Books
      Chuck Black

      With Strang
      Eric Reinhold

      With Thomas Nelson
      Wayne Thomas Batson and Christopher Hopper

      With Warner Press
      Christopher and Allan Miller

      With WaterBrook
      David Gregory
      Jeffrey Overstreet
      Donita K. Paul
      Andrew Peterson
      Jonathan Rogers

Mind you, these are just fantasy, not supernatural suspense or horror (such as Ted Dekker, Robert Liparulo, Tom Pawlik, or even John Olson, Eric Wilson, Mike Dellosso, or Mike Duran) though Gregory and Litfin might best be called dystopian fantasy.

What’s the point?

If “fantasy doesn’t sell” why are so many fantasy writers still getting contracts from traditional Christian publishing houses? Why has the number increased so sharply in less than ten years?

Granted, some books evidently had disappointing sales because there are authors who are no longer under contract. But I know authors writing women’s fiction who are in the same situation. Are we to conclude then that women’s fiction doesn’t sell in the “CBA market”?

As far as I can see, these are the facts:

1. Our culture is still fantasy hungry, though dystopian and urban are dominating rather than epic or medieval.

2. Mormon speculative fiction is doing especially well (see Orson Scott Card, Stephenie Meyers, Shannon Hale, et. al.)

3. Traditional Christian publishing houses continue to increase their number of fantasy authors.

From these facts, I conclude that there is no reason to believe Christian fantasy will not continue to grow. Sadly, Christian fantasy writers don’t have the support from our faith community like Mormons obviously do (for a variety of reasons). But that doesn’t mean there is NO support or that it isn’t growing.

Till now I haven’t even mentioned small presses like Marcher Lord Press or Splashdown Books that are focused exclusively on Christian speculative fiction.

Clearly there is a desire from readers for more than what the traditional houses are producing, but that doesn’t mean the traditional houses are not buying fantasy at all. They are. Cautiously, perhaps, especially in the wild, Wild West of publishing and the slowly recovering economy.

One of the commenters to Mike Duran’s interview suggested we pray for the publishing professionals. What a great idea! If a genre like fantasy can tell powerful stories that can touch people’s lives and glorify God, why would He not be pleased to see more of those stories come to light?

If we can’t support speculative fiction with our dollars or with our word-of-mouth promotion, perhaps we can pray. That’s the best kind of support anyway.

What Do You Read – A Poll

Over on Facebook, I’ve been discussing super agent Rachelle Gardner’s recent blog post, “Book Genres And Book Stats,” in which she discusses the results of a recent poll she ran.

Part of her findings and musings have to do with speculative fiction. Here are two significant quotes from her post:

When the numbers first started coming in, I immediately noticed the large percentage who checked fantasy/sci-fi, and I wondered whether there might be a disproportionate number of writers in that genre vs. readers.

Then the conclusion:

While 26% of those voting report writing fantasy or sci-fi, sampling from two recent months suggests only 6% of book deals were done in those genres. That’s not a minor discrepancy…it’s a significant difference.

What do you make of this?

So I thought it might be interesting to run a readers’ poll here. I don’t expect to get as large a sampling as Rachelle received, but still, it might be interesting.

With one exception, I’ll use the same categories she used (which oddly separates supernatural from science fiction and fantasy — I’m under the impression this is the way book deals are reported to Publishers’ Weekly). The exception is the last choice which I’ve added – None of these.

      Fantasy or sci-fi
      General/other (non-genre fiction)
      Historical (romance or not)
      Supernatural or paranormal
      Women’s fiction
      None of these – I prefer non-fiction

Never fear, these choices will be randomized in the poll (here they appear in alphabetical order, except for the last one). The question is, Of these genres, which do you prefer as a reader?

I personally like to read in a variety of genres, though I’ve concentrated a lot more on speculative fiction since becoming a writer. But if I were to answer this question, I’d think of having someone hand me two books by authors I’ve never heard of, one in genre A and the other in genre X. Which, then, would I be most apt to read first? That’s what I’d consider my “preferred genre.”

If you’re so inclined, please share this link/poll with your friends (Facebook or other 😉 ) The greater the sampling, the clearer the picture about reading preferences, I think. Thanks for participating. I’ll post the results in the middle of May.

The Swiss Courier – A Review

One of my little known secrets is that I was a history minor in college. I fell in love with studying European history my junior year and would have changed my major from English except for a two-year foreign language requirement I couldn’t fulfill and still graduate with my class.

Now that you know that little tidbit, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I enjoy historical novels. Some of my favorite books fit into that category—Gone with the Wind, The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Count of Monte Cristo, Exodus.

Hence, when I had a chance to read The Swiss Courier by Tricia Goyer and Mike Yorkey, I was happy to take a holiday from the norm and plunge into a World War II novel set in a location I knew little of—neutral Switzerland.

The Story. Germany is involved in research of a powerful weapon, one they believe will insure victory over the Allies. When a group of German officers attempts to assassinate Hitler, however, the secret police work overtime to ferret out traitors from within the ranks. One diligent Gestapo officer discovers that a scientist working on the ultimate weapon is a Jew—hence, in the twisted Nazi thinking, an enemy of the state.

As the Gestapo plans to take this scientist into custody, the freedom fighters within Germany work with the American Office of Strategic Affairs plan to smuggle him into the hands of the Allies. The success or failure of the plan lies on the shoulders of a young Swiss courier named Gabi.

Strengths. This was a delightful story because it had believable, interesting characters and a plot filled with intrigue. There was some necessary violence (it does take place in wartime!), but it was of the mildest sort.

I especially liked seeing the war from the viewpoint of a neutral country (though there were precious few of those, hence the name “World War”), especially one so close to Germany that the threat of invasion hung over the Swiss year after year.

The theme of the book was woven through the story naturally.

Weaknesses. In some places, I thought the historical data was too much—types and descriptions of weapons, airplanes, even some places seemed more detailed than necessary, and consequently a little distracting from the story. Also there was a plot point I’m sure was meant to be a surprise but in fact it was predictable, though I haven’t figured out why.

Recently agent Rachelle Gardner did a blog post on Foreshadowing vs Telegraphing. I’m not sure what elements tip a reader off rather than give a proper hint. Maybe there are no particular guidelines—one reader may be surprised and another saw the event coming from the first chapter. It may depend completely on the experience of the reader. Well, not completely. At any rate, I saw the twist coming. I was pleased with it—glad, even, that I was right, so it didn’t spoil the story, but neither did it surprise.

Recommendation. If you enjoy historical fiction, especially that set in the World War II era, I recommend you read this book. It will give you hours of reading pleasure.

Published in: on November 4, 2009 at 6:25 pm  Comments Off on The Swiss Courier – A Review  
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Good Works and Self-Help in Fiction

I read a couple blog posts this morning that put me off what I’d intended to write (about promoting books without compromising the principle of contentment). One was Karen Hancock’s post connected to a comment I made during the recent blog tour for her book The Enclave, and the second was a post by agent Rachelle Gardner about truth.

Karen focuses on human good as actually being a part of evil.

Rachelle talks about finding truth in secular sources. She deals particularly with secular entertainment and the TV show “Desperate Housewives.” The thing is, the “truth” she writes about seems to me to be a description of human good. Here are two telling quotes:

[The show] explores human truth at its essence, and is constantly pointing out how we all have so much good inside, but we all have a dark side too.

Then this one:

Even though Desperate Housewives has a reputation for being raunchy (and parts of it definitely are), the themes are solidly on the side of good morals.

I can’t help but think that both these posts, though they seem diametrically opposed, say something significant.

Karen Hancock backs her views about the vanity of Man’s goodness with Scripture. Irrefutable (though I disagree with other parts of the post).

Rachelle Gardner applauds a secular work for upholding Biblical concepts of right and wrong, for seeing the good in Man as well as the evil.

So the question is this: Does a work of literature, secular or Christian, that points to a moral good apart from God harm or help?

I asked in “More Thoughts about Worldview,” part of my recent Christian worldview posts,

Should our stories reinforce God’s Law? Or point to Him? Or to His grace? Or do we need a healthy mix of them all?

I think of the book of Judges in the Bible—all about Man doing what was right in his own eyes. And the consequences that came from such. Or the life of Daniel and his three friends, living as captives, yet holding to their faith no matter what.

These and many others in Scripture don’t connect the dots. There is no note in Judges to believe in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins. There is no note in Daniel saying he was hoping in the coming Messiah.

In many regards, these stories can be misconstrued. Sunday school teachers can tell their little charges they should dare to be a Daniel or flee immorality. And they wouldn’t be wrong. Just incomplete.

Yet there are people out there trying to do good as part of a self-help program to reach God because they see good more often results in good things and bad, in bad.

So should Christian writers stop writing stories about moral living because their readers might mistake moral living as the answer? Or should we write more such stories because they will create a longing while simultaneously exposing the impossibility of living the good we know we should.

My thinking is, stories cannot tell the whole truth, even ones pointing to Christ (do they show He is both God and man? that He is a person in the trinity? that He is coming again? that He is prophet, priest, and king? I haven’t read a single story that shows Jesus completely the way the Bible does). Why do we think they should try?

Christians should write the story we believe God wants us to write, just as we should live all of our lives the way we believe God wants us to live—consistent with Scripture, guided by the Holy Spirit.

That my story looks different from someone else’s is probably a good thing. It means God can reach more people rather than the same audience over and over.

Published in: on July 29, 2009 at 11:06 am  Comments Off on Good Works and Self-Help in Fiction  
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What’s in the Beginning

I keep changing my mind about today’s topic! First an announcement. Recently agent Rachelle Gardner ran a fun contest, which she does with some frequency. This one was a 100-word story based on a writing prompt—a picture of a young girl seated on a small suitcase. Today she posted the finalists, and wonder of wonders, my story made the cut. Thing is, Rachelle’s blog visitors are voting on the winner, so if you’re inclined to read 600 words (6 finalists), I encourage you to click on over to Rachelle’s site and vote for your favorite teensy-weensy story.

Actually, the finalist thing plays into what I finally decided to talk about today. I read an article in the latest issue of Writer’s Digest, and the author, Steve Almond reiterated what he considers to be the writers Hippocratic oath: “Never confuse the reader.”

Even at the beginning.

Initially this may seem to clash with the advice I’ve heard, often from those with literary leanings, that writers don’t need to put everything up front, that readers are far more patient than we think, and, in fact, enjoy being led into a story, enjoy figuring things out rather than having all handed to them.

In other words, one sign of an amateur is too much description, too much back story at the beginning. But Almond’s article is saying that a sign of an amateur is to leave the reader in the dark.

Are these two points in opposition, as they appear to be? I don’t think so. I think there’s a huge difference between being confused and being curious. The best story piques a reader’s interest. I don’t think that will happen successfully if the writer gives too much information. Neither do I think it wil happen if a reader is confused.

So what about it? Take a look at those shortest of stories (you can read all contest entries here). The ones you liked best—did the writers ground you quickly in the what and wherefore? Or did they leave you wandering—and therefore wondering—a bit?

Published in: on June 16, 2008 at 12:12 pm  Comments (5)  
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Safe Fiction – Part 1

I mentioned that agent Rachelle Gardner recently had a post on her blog entitled “The S Word,” only her “S,” in contrast to mine which stood for sin, represented safe. Then yesterday Decompose blogger Mike Duran tackled the topic. Why should I be left out? 😉

Mike actually formulated his comments based on the responses to Rachelle’s questions. He concluded that there are two camps associated with Christian fiction—the “holiness” group and the “honesty” group. (If you take time to read Mike’s description of the two, you’ll be able to spot his views rather quickly—I mean, what Christian would choose law as their driving principle rather than grace?)

* The Holiness Camp — These writers emphasize our separation from the world; we are saints and our conduct, values and entertainment should be categorically different from secular society. Law is their driving principle.
* The Honesty Camp — These writers emphasize our association with the world; we are sinners and sin takes on monstrous forms — even in believers! — which we must look at with unflinching candor and deep empathy. Grace is their driving principle.

All this, and a discussion on an email group I’m on, has me thinking about the topic. Here are the beginning ruminations. I expect over the next day or so to actually say something … not definitive, necessarily, but maybe something that will bring some balance to what appears to be a polarizing subject.

First observation. “Safety” is one of the basic needs psychologists and theologians seem to agree we humans have. Therefore, I don’t find it helpful to intimate that people who want safe fiction are somehow lesser people, not quite in touch with reality. In fact, wanting safe fiction is often a result of the realization that the world is not a safe place.

Interestingly, in general women have been identified with a stronger bent toward achieving safety (or security). Men, on the other hand, while wanting safety (there is a strong self-preservation drive in all of us, after all), lean more toward the need for significance.

Second observation. Ultimately, the world is not a safe place. Regardless of our drive for self-preservation, we will all die, barring God’s special intervention. In addition, because of sin and the sin nature (see posts from Monday and Tuesday ), the world is not a safe place spiritually either.

And yet, it is this world to which Christians are called to go. In fact, quite purposefully God has left us in the world. From Jesus’s prayer in John 17, talking first of His First Century disciples, but ultimately about us, too:

I am no more in the world; and yet they themselves are in the world … keep them in Your name, the name which You have given Me, that they may be one, even as We are. While I was with them, I was keeping then in Your name … and I guarded them, and not one of them perished but the son of perdition … I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world … I do not ask You to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world … I do not ask in behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word.

So what can we conclude? If Christ prayed for our safety, then perhaps we should trust Him for our safety. Too often we may be trying to keep ourselves safe instead of entrusting our lives, our children, our spiritual well-being to Him.

And this relates to fiction? It does. I’ll have thoughts on how next time.

Published in: on June 5, 2008 at 12:31 pm  Comments (9)  
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The Nature of Sin

I had to laugh. Last Saturday, agent Rachelle Gardner of Rants & Ramblings titled her post, “The S Word.” You may remember, this was the same title I used for my Thursday post. Rachelle, however, was talking about “safe” fiction whereas I was talking about sin.

So, to dispel any confusion, I’m forgoing the obscure title and calling sin sin.

I also have to admit, Kameron’s comment to my Thursday post shook me. I thought only a certain segment of people calling themselves Christians would see sin in a different light, a liberal light that pretty much denies Mankind sins, claiming instead that we only make mistakes, most of which are too ordinary to require any special attention like forgiveness or the blood sacrifice of God’s perfect Son.

But I know this is not Kameron’s view of sin or forgiveness or the cross of Christ.

The result was, I went back to the Bible, asking, What does Scripture show about the nature of sin? Somewhere in college, I learned the importance of going to primary sources, so I went to Genesis to see what exactly the Bible had to say about that first sin.

Apart from Adam and Eve hiding from God, Him confronting them, and assigning their punishment, not much. Not here.

But I don’t want to rush past God’s confronting them. His first question was, Where are you? His second was, Who told you that you were naked? After assigning punishment, he came back to what had happened and said this: “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil.”

In other words, something fundamental changed in Adam. He lost his innocence. This was not just one isolated sinful act which required payment. His sin changed the way he saw the world.

Chapter five is significant in light of this radical change in Adam.

This is the book of the generations of Adam. In the day when God created man, He made Him in the likeness of God. He created them male and female, and He blessed them and named them Man in the day when they were created. When Adam had lived one hundred and thirty years, he became the father of a son in his own likeness, according to his image, and named him Seth.

Clearly there’s a shift. Adam, created in the likeness of God. Adam sinned, gaining the knowledge of good and evil. Adam gave birth to a son in his own likeness, not God’s.

And the question. Do people today know good and evil? Inherently? Not just as something taught? Human experience certainly points in that direction, but so does the Bible. Romans 1, for example, supports that fact:

That which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God, or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened
emphasis mine.

Interestingly, Kameron, in his second comment, said something to support this point.

Granted, Christ had his divinity, which made it possible for him to obey the law perfectly where the man could not, but that does not change the fact that it is by choice that we sin,
emphasis mine

What is it that prevents Man from obeying perfectly? I understand this to be the whatever changed in Adam, the thing he passed on to his son. This knowing good and evil we all experience, this darkening of our foolish hearts. Sin.

Published in: on June 2, 2008 at 11:37 am  Comments (11)  
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Great Writing

I don’t know how to make the step from good writer to great. There’s an intangible quality to art that separates good from excellent and I yearn to discover it and apply it. I’m sure there’s a lot to be said for practice and dogged determination, but there’s also a magic that makes some writing sparkle. Where can I get me some of that pixie dust?

Recently agent Rachelle Gardner, in her blog, Rants & Ramblings, turned the tables and invited her readers to rant about the publishing industry, and quite a number of us did. Towards the end, however, thoughtful commenter Patty made the statement I quoted above.

I agree about the intangible quality, the “something” that makes good writing better and better writing great. Can it be captured? Isn’t that what all of us writers aspiring to publication would like to believe? I know I’ve been there. Just give me the five secrets, and I’ll work to get them right. And when I submit, if some editor could just please tell me which of the five I haven’t yet mastered.

The thing is, the more I tried to adhere to the five or ten or twenty-five secrets/rules/principles of writing good fiction, the more I saw my writing morph into blandness. And what did the editors want? Something fresh. Unique. Original. They want a story with a high concept. They want characters with depth. They want stories that hook you early and don’t let you go.

But great? If Patty really means great, which I have no reason to doubt, I don’t know that a killer premise, wonderful characters, and a page-turner plot adds up to great. Probably sale-able. Why, maybe even a best-seller. But great?

I think great writing takes what few Christian novelists talk about—time. Not just time coming up with a story. I actually think that can happen fairly quickly. I’m talking about time to craft a story, looking at the sentence structure and word choice as well as the character development and plot structure.

Mind you, I’m not saying there aren’t writers doing this. I can think of several off the top of my head. But I don’t think very many are talking about it. I suggest a good bit of our writing instruction is geared toward beginners and perhaps intermediates. I went to a particular conference some time ago and noticed that for the “advanced” and “professional” tracks, the topics were about marketing, promotion, spiritual substance. All good, but no craft. As if we in Christian fiction are content with average, not great.

Maybe if more of us asked the question Patty asked …

Published in: on May 9, 2008 at 3:23 pm  Comments (4)  
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Scene and Narrative, Part 4

Agent Rachelle Gardner recently held a two-part contest she dubbed Finalist

This was an enjoyable writing exercise, one I needed to get me back into creating a character, a scene, a scenario.

But here’s the interesting thing. The winning entry, posted today at Rachelle’s Rants & Ramblings, is almost all narrative. Not scene.

Contrast it to my honorable mention entry that jumped into a scene as quickly as possible.

Is there a lesson here? I wish I knew. Of the six honorable mention first pages, three were primarily exposition and three were primarily scene.

I’ve decided that my strength as a writer is in creating scene. I tried a different style and have learned some things in the process, but more than once I’ve had readers tell me that the scene version of a passage rather than the exposition of the same events is stronger.

So maybe that’s the point. A writer needs to create a story using his or her best tools.

Of course, I’d love it if my pieces of exposition were as strong as my scenes. I suppose that might be what an editor is looking for. 😉

Published in: on April 16, 2008 at 12:00 pm  Comments (4)  
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