Category : The Writing Craft

  • July 24, 2010

    Sex and Language in Religious Books?


    Elizabeth asked this: "With the rules relaxing on language in many general market books, it seems the rules have also relaxed as far as portraying sexuality in Christian books. I know you don't just represent religious books, but can you tell if this is the trend? How much is too much? How much can you reveal in romantic scenes?"

    When it comes to both language and sexualty, I think two questions must be kept in mind:

    1. Who is your audience?

    2. What is your message?

    If you're writing a romance novel for a CBA audience, any sort of foul language or explicit sexual description is simply going to torpedo your book. The gatekeepers of CBA are largely middle-aged, white, ultra-conservative types. (That's NOT a criticism, mind you, that's a description.) So any sort of over-the-line language will get you bumped, if not banned. (I know of an example where a CBA house rejected a manuscript because the author referred to a character's "silk underwear." Really! Apparently Christianity is a cotton-only kingdom.) Using curse words or describing any sort of sexual activity is not going to work in CBA.

    If you're writing for a more general audience (and I say that because I do a lot of Christian books, and some people sort of expect me to have religious overtones in a lot of the things I represent), I don't think readers expect religious behavior from unreligous people. You have more latitude because of your audience and the message you're trying to send. I'm assuming that, even with some rough language or descriptions of bodies/actions, you're still seeking some sort of redemptive message to your readership. (If you see me at a writer's conference this year, make sure to ask me about the British actor who survived cancer and his postmodern response to God. Very funny story that, if I told it here, would bring me grief and 300

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  • June 10, 2010

    Writing Basics: Write What You Know


    Ever read a bestselling novel in which
    the hero was a construction worker?

    Me neither.

    It's a story-telling basic that writers
    – even published authors – tend to forget. It's the reason
    Stephen King's characters tend to be novelists. It's the reason we
    haven't seen Khaled Hosseini stray too far from the Middle East. Or
    Jeffrey Eugenides from Detroit. And it's the reason bestselling
    authors rarely deviate from their chosen genre.

    Write what you know.

    It's almost silly how often I see a
    proposal come through from a published author who suddenly
    wants to take a stab at writing for teens. Or African Americans. Or
    the thriller/adventure crowd. And yet that author has done nothing to
    understand the basics (let alone the complexities) that surround
    their new target market.

    And if we're seeing this from published
    authors, imagine the type of stuff we see from unpublished ones.

    The goal of a novel, however
    off-the-wall or hokey the plot may be, is to get the reader's buy-in.
    With it, the reader is able to fully immerse themselves in the story
    and, to some extent, believe in
    what's happening
    . Without it, the reader spends his time
    picking it apart, analyzing the details and scoffing at its overall

    This is because when authors write
    outside of their expertise, the sense of reality that should surround
    their story starts to deteriorate. Readers begin to notice
    inconsistencies and begin to question whether the author has ever
    even seen the Eiffel Tower or heard an M-16 fire or ridden on
    Chicago's 'L'.

    A story can only be as good as the
    reality behind it, you see, and readers tend to be extremely educated
    in their genre-of-choice.

    So, if you're a homemaker, living in a
    suburb of Cleveland with field experience in Nursing and a few Horse
    Jumping trophies in your closet, it's probably not a good idea to
    come to us with your idea

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  • June 4, 2010

    Overcoming Doubt


    Great question for today. Chris wrote and asked, "What have you done, as a writer, to overcome and keep on writing in seasons of doubt and discouragement?"

    Okay, much as I hate to reveal this, here's what my head tells me at times:

    -Good Lord, you're awful.

    -Nobody is EVER going to read this piece of tripe.

    -You don't make enough money at this. Why don't you get a real job?

    -This isn't working. You should at least check into the openings at Target.

    -You're lazy. Your words are turgid. You don't know anything about this.

    -Go check your emails again. Maybe find out if there's anything new on

    -You're going to fail! You'll live in a trailer, eat lard, and they'll have to lift your lazy butt out of there with a crane.

    All of this comes to me, not with a subtle whisper, but in a screaming rush. Even now.

    Um…maybe some of it is true. So I can think of a few things that help me get over it.

    1. BIC. That's writer-talk for butt-in-chair. If I'll just sit down and start doing work, it's amazing how things start to get done.

    2. My "Sunshine" file. Yeah, it's true. I keep a file of emails people have sent to me that basically say, "You helped me" or "Thanks for being wise." For years I kept a file folder of cards and letters people had sent, just to perk me up. I might be a total putz TODAY, but I can always look back and remember, "Hey…you were BETTER THAN A PUTZ that time!"

    3. Friends. Cec and I send each other encouraging notes once in a while. Steve Laube too. Keri Kent. Greg Johnson. My buddies. I occasionally get the nicest messages from Jenny B Jones, or Rachel Hauk will say something nice on my blog. I sometimes call my best friend Mike and he'll remind

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  • February 8, 2009

    Sandra Shares a Word


    Hey, now that Chip's off sunning himself in Maui, I figure it's a good time to jump in and answer a few questions. I'm Sandra Bishop, the other agent at MacGregor Literary. 

    Here's one from Angel: "It seems like the books that do well and are worth reading are those which are big surprises. Is it really possible to set out to write a breakout novel? Don't breakouts just happen because a publisher decides to get behind a book and doggedly promote it until it gets noticed?"

    There's some of that going on in publishing — Chip wrote about the practice of "Making a Book" not too long ago. But that, obviously, is out of a writer's control. I'm guessing what you really want to know, Angel, is how to write a book publishers are willing to get behind. 

    For those who don't know, literary agent Donald Maas wrote a great book in which he goes into the why's and how-to's of writing a breakout novel. In his book, Maas covers the reasons, mechanics, and philosophies behind doing so. It's worth a read, and definitely worth the money. If it's mechanics you want, go get his book. But I'm guessing you're not necessarily asking about mechanics with this question. We get this a lot in many different forms, and most people seem to be asking, "Is it really possible to make it big as a writer, and should I bother spending my time trying?"

    Here's my short answer to that question: If you're crazy enough to try, go for it. Seriously. Publishing is a crazy business in which to try and make a living. But if you're willing, and have talent, and the energy to keep after it without losing your marbles, more power to you. Lots of people talk about and work at writing, but never really get down to honing the craft. The thing is, we can
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  • January 3, 2009

    More Fiction Questions


    Happy New Year! I hope you had a fun-filled celebration, got home safely, and this morning you're probably asking the same question I am: What in the world is ABC thinking by having Dick Clark on the air? Look, I loved Dick Clark's American Bandstand. He's an iconic figure in American music, and looked 25 for roughly 40 years. But…the man had a stroke, for goodness' sake. You can't understand him. He's lost his voice. He sometimes can't think of the word he wants. He screwed up the countdown as the ball dropped (how hard is it to count down from 30?). It's like watching somebody's ancient grandpa on TV. Yikes. It makes you sad just to watch him. Why doesn't somebody put their arm around the man and say, "Times up, Mr. Clark. You've had a great run. Now we're going to let Ryan Seacrest run it on his own…"

    And with that happy opening, I've had a bunch more fiction questions come in…

    Patricia wrote and asked, "What's the difference between a fiction 'series' and a 'trilogy'? I understand in a series each book must stand alone, but what about a trilogy? It's all one big story broken up into sections, therefore each book does not stand alone. If you pick up the second or third book in a trilogy, you'll be lost because you need to start from the beginning…like the Lord of the Rings."

    A series is a list of books that generally have a continuing character, though sometimes it's the place that continues, or it's a family saga with various characters all related. John D. MacDonald's wonderful Travis McGee series is a great example, featuring the yacht-living fixer getting in and out of scrapes. Sherlock Holmes, Jules Maigret, and Adam Dalgleish are other well-known examples of series characters, as are the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Nick Carter, Perry Mason, etc. The 82nd Precinct series uses a setting

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  • December 6, 2008

    Talking About Fiction


    Teresa wrote to me and said, "I'd like to know about creating stronger characters in my novels."

    There are a bunch of books out there on creating great characters, and all of them point to one basic idea: Give your characters something unique so that they are memorable. Let me toss out five quick things I think help make characters stick in the minds of your readers:

    1. Give your characters something to do. This is a piece of advice I got from my writing instructor in college (famed fantasy novelist Ursula K. Le Guin). She pointed out that I was trying to describe interesting people, or have them use colloquial terms, or have them dress a certain way…but they were flat. I was trying to tell about the characters, rather than allowing them to reveal themselves. As the author, I could picture them in my head, but my readers couldn't picture them on the page. The solution to making them more full? Give them something to do. That allows the characters to demonstrate who they are and what they're like, rather than forcing me, as the narrator, to simply tell everyone what they're like.

    2. Show, don't tell. Yeah, yeah, you've heard this a million times from fiction editors. But it's one of the easiest ways to create more interesting characters on the page. Think about it…let's say you're trying to create a tense, Type A businessman as a secondary character in your thriller. If you tell the reader ("He felt nervous"), the character remains flat. It you show the reader ("He paced back and forth, chewed on his pencil, picked up his coffee cup, and wiped the sweat from his face"), the character begins to take on his own identity.

    3. Give them attitude. One of the things I often see in historical and romance manuscripts is that the characters are all bland. The heroine probably has

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  • September 14, 2008

    Creating Characters


    Since many people are about to board a plane for a huge fiction-writing conference, let me continue in that vein… Some people have written to ask about creating strong characters in their fiction. If you're going to establish strong characters, the best things you can do are to give them dialogue that demonstrates who they are and give them something to do. Don't feel like you have to spend a lot of time describing your characters (unless there is some unique reason for doing so, like they are seven feet tall or they have a tattoo of Ohio on their forehead). Often writers will offer one descriptive fact, as sort of an advance organizer. But don't bother describing everything about their history, physical description, dental records, etc. And, of course, to create a great character I think you have to have somebody in mind — a real person, whom you've met and found interesting, and who you can talk about from your experience… not just some mystery individual you created in your head.

    With that as an introduction, let me offer six tips for keeping readers talking to your characters…

    1. History is made by big people. Big personalities, big dreams, big ideas. However, most stories need more conflict than "the big guy doesn't get what he wants." Interesting stories are often made by small, weak people. So give your characters (even your big characters) some weakness and you'll discover the readers can relate to them.

    2. At the same time, page-turning novels are stories about special days, not ordinary days. So take that small, weak character, put him or her into an extraordinary circumstance. Kurt Vonnegut once said the best thing you can do in a novel is to create wonderful people and have the most awful things happen to them. He was right. So get the character to act big and strong after showing they are not

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  • September 10, 2008

    Advice for Novelists


    Since many of us are heading off to the great ACFW conference in order to rub shoulders with novelists, I should probably take on a "novel writing" question. Somebody wrote to me and asked, "As a first-time novelist, what advice can you give me to create a great, page-turning novel?"

    My reply: Dialogue and action. That won't necessarily make for the deepest, or most thoughtful, or the most life-changing sort of book, but it will make your book a page-turner.  A high sense of drama is necessary, of course. So is telling an interesting story at a brisk pace. (Whoever read a slow, rambling thriller?) Unresolved conflicts help. So do plot twists, and fascinating characters, or characters I like who are placed in tense situations. But if you stick to dialogue and action, you'll make your book more of a page-turner.

    This leads to the age-old writing question about plot vs character, I suppose. When it comes to page-turners, I think the plot takes precedence. The action and situations dominate the nuances of character in a thriller or suspense novel. People in publishing have a saying: "Editors love characters. Readers love plots." That's a nice way for highbrows to basically tell you "deep thinkers love interesting characters in their novels, so if you focus on plot you're probably shallow." I've never really agreed with that assessment — in my view, everybody loves an interesting character…but it's the action that gets me turning pages in order to find out what happens next. 

    Years ago, in an interview in Saturday Review, novelist Elmore Leonard was asked what made his novels so successful. Here is a guy who has written at least a dozen bestsellers, and has kept up his success for a couple decades, so I was really focused on his answer. It was brilliant in its simplicity: "I tend to leave out the parts people skip."

    That's great writing advice.

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  • July 2, 2007

    What drives you crazy?


    Back from soggy Scotland (just missed the terrorist attack on Glasgow airport by a few hours) and hoping to get caught up. Jennifer wrote to ask, "As an agent and a reader, are there writing errors that drive you crazy?"

    Yes! Of course! Here’s one! Novelists who use exclamation points as though the period key didn’t work! I hate this! Really!!!

    Here’s "another" one: The "author" who feels a "need" to put emphasized words in "quotes," since they apparently think it makes them look more "official." This is particularly tiresome when a "funny" author decides to put his "punchlines" in quotations. (Does anybody remember the episode of Friends where Joey kept putting "finger quotes" around certain "words," even though he didn’t understand how to do it?) Here’s an "idea" — cut the quotation marks in your "epic."

    And a third (related) item: People who use an open parenthesis but no close parenthesis. (For example, this kind.

    Fourth is the serial comma. Drives me crazy. The rule for using commas is that there should be ONE LESS COMMA THAN THE ITEMS IN YOUR LIST. So if you list five things, you’d use four commas. An example: "Farnsworth visited Scotland, Wales, England, Ireland, and Djibouti." Note that there are five countries and four commas — one less than the list. Writers often drop the last comma, in an apparent attempt to make "Ireland and Djibouti" one country. (Similar to Trinidad and Tobaggo, if you’re into geography jokes.) Makes no sense at all.

    Fifth is the adverbial ending "ly," which some authors insert regularly in an attemptly to sound scholarly. Note that this paragraph doesn’t start with the word "fifthly." From a strict editorial perspective, "fifth" is an adverb. To add  "ly" to the end is to adverbialize an adverb. Why write "firstly" when it is clearer to write "first"? (Besides, if it’s a long list, can you really defend "thirteenthly"?)

    Sixthly, :o)

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