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Writing That is Powerful, Not Preachy!

by Karen Ball

dog_forgive_me_face

Thanks to Shirley Buxton for asking in the comments of my blog on writing that sings, “Can someone help me understand how to show spirituality without being preachy?”

Why, yes, Shirley, I can. At least, I can tell you my perspective.

It’s the difference between telling people how they ought to live, and showing them. It’s not spouting Scripture when someone is hurt or struggling, but coming alongside them, sitting with them, holding them, asking how you can help. It’s entering into their struggle and being Christ to them, acting as he would.

Think about it. When Jesus shared spiritual truths with the crowds around him, how did he do it? He showed those truths through a story. He didn’t say, “You faithless fools, God tells us to use our talents for him, not withhold them!” No, he told a story… “A man was going on a long trip. He called together his servants and entrusted his money to them…”

Whether you’re writing nonfiction or fiction, the way to communicate spiritual truths is to show it, not tell it.

Consider the following paragraph:

Forgiving in marriage is not an option. It’s a command, straight from Jesus. If your spouse had done or said something that hurt you, forgive them. If you’ve done or said something that hurt your spouse, ask to be forgiven. You don’t have a choice. Jesus tells us in Matthew 6, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” And a verse or so later, he says: ““If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins.” If you’re a Christian and you aren’t forgiving your spouse, you are in the wrong. And God won’t forgive you. It’s as simple as that.

Okay, feel beat over the head a bit? Yeah, me, too, and I wrote it! That paragraph is preaching. Telling you how you’re supposed to behave, and that you’ll regret it if you don’t. All of which may be true, but not many are drawn to right living by that kind of presentation of truth. Now, try this…

I’d only been married a few days when I made a shattering discovery: the man I married, the man I saw as a knight in shining armor, could do and say things that hurt me! It didn’t matter whether or not he’d intended to hurt me, all that mattered was he’d done so. And then I made an even more shattering discovery: Forgiving your spouse is hard. When I said I do, I knew he’d be there to shelter and protect me, to love me unconditionally. He wasn’t supposed to hurt me!

It’s hard, isn’t it, letting go of expectations, loving someone for who they are, warts and all? But here’s the thing. When we don’t forgive someone, we put them—and ourselves—in a kind of prison. I found that out all those years ago after nursing a hurt for days. I was miserable. Don was miserable. Even the poor dogs were miserable! Life at the Ball household was not much fun. Then, one evening, God tapped me on the shoulder and reminded that—ahem!—Don was not the only imperfect human in the marriage. And that love wasn’t about not hurting each other, it was about forgiving and surrendering my hurts to Him. When I finally did that, oh! the freedom that washed over me! My heart was light, our home was warm again, and I swore I could fly.

Friends, don’t let hurts in marriage fester. Don’t let them weigh you down and imprison you. Let them go. Forgive. And know the beauty of God’s freedom, not just in your marriage, but in your heart.

When you show truth in your writing, you draw people into the experience. They live it with you or with your characters, and they learn alongside you. In the process, they may even change.

So writing with power means you don’t hit people over the head with Scriptures, you don’t give a sermon, you don’t stick in a conversion scene unless it’s a natural outgrowth of the story. Writing with power means you show what’s right, through story or illustration, through your character’s journey.

So that’s my take. Now, how about you all? What do you think makes the difference between preachy writing and powerful writing?

Book Proposals I’d Love to See

by Tamela Hancock Murray

beautiful red rose flower on black background

By God’s will and pleasure, during my career as a literary agent I have been successful in representing authors writing Christian romance, Christian and general market trade book fiction, and Christian nonfiction.

My interests have changed very little since my first blog post for The Steve Laube Agency, “Happy to Be Here,” but here’s an update for you:

Do you still want to see Christian romance novels?
Indeed I do! I’m happy to say that this is one area of Christian fiction that continues to thrive and enjoy an enthusiastic readership.

I am still passionate about Christian romance novels. I respect and honor the fact that the editors of the romance lines are very specific about their needs and wants. They look for hardworking, dedicated, talented authors who are able to write a fresh story within the romance novel framework. Does this describe you? If so, I’d love to partner with you!

What about other genres of fiction?
As those following the industry are aware, the trade book fiction market has contracted in recent years, but I have never experienced an easy time for authors to break in to trade fiction. As with modeling and acting, more people want those jobs than there are jobs available. This is a perennial fact.

However, I am always seeking a tale well told that I believe deserves a place in CBA. My personal tastes will always veer to heavy romantic elements. To wit, if my husband has a movie on television and I don’t see any women (e.g., cowboys sitting around a fire or a bunch of guys on a boat), I find something else to do until the movie is over.

But as long as there is a heavy romantic element, I’m open to all sorts of stories.

Are you open to general market fiction?
Yes. But the story must be so clean you’d be willing to share it with your most devout friend or relative. Nothing that would dishonor God or disrespect the faith of the church, as defined by The Apostle’s Creed, is welcome here.

Are you still open to nonfiction submissions?
Yes, and I continue to be highly selective. The importance of author platform here is magnified a thousandfold in comparison with fiction. I need to see an author who’s already connecting with his or her audience so I can show publishers the author has gained respect and credibility with current readers and will be a great partner with the publisher in expanding reader base. Nonfiction readers are looking for insight, consolation, help, knowledge, and encouragement. An author needs to come from a position of authority when delivering a book to these readers.

Platform must be accompanied by a great idea told in dynamic writing. Tell me why you have an audience eager to read what you have to say on your topic, and why. I love books that  make me want to read them even when the topic doesn’t apply to me. Now that’s a well-written and engaging book.

And in today’s market, that’s what you need.

Do you have a lot of slots open for new authors?
God has seen fit to allow me a client list that is fantastic beyond my wildest dreams. However, I am humbled and honored by authors who take their valuable time to learn about me and afterwards feel led to submit their ideas to me, especially when CBA is blessed by so many talented literary agents.

Although we are not perfect in our level of response (meaning it’s OK to follow up if you don’t hear from us), my assistant and I do consider submissions from new authors. I am thrilled to work with promising new as well as established authors. You can send proposals via email to ewilson@stevelaube.com (please visit the guidelines for specifics).

Are you still happy to be here?
Why yes, I am!

The Core of Writing Well

by Karen Ball

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A couple of weeks ago I mentioned I’m trying to learn how to make latte art. I’ve got the moves down…kinda. Hey, I’m a racquetball player—was, in fact, one of the top players in college—so I can do wrist action like a pro. But guess what I discovered? Having the moves doesn’t do you any good without the perfect foam. That’s the core of the beauty and creativity in latte art.

But foaming milk, my friends, isn’t just for creating those beautiful bits of art. According to The Milk Frothing Guide, the perfect foam “enhances and elevates the sensory experience of coffee, and espresso in particular.” Those beautiful bits of latte art aren’t the goal. Rather, the goal is to enhance and elevate.

I love that.

And it got me thinking

Having all the right moves as a writer—having the right look, knowing how to market or work social media, being at all the right places, and reading all the right books–without the perfect core, our works won’t accomplish the true goal: to enhance and elevate the hearts and minds of our readers.

This may seem like a no-brainer, but too often I hear writers say to me, “Just tell me what’s selling, and I’ll write it.” Rather than take that route, I encourage writers to share their passion. To stay true to what God is telling them to write. And to do that, you have to know your core.

And here’s the fascinating thing: my core is likely different from yours. What one thing sparks everything else? I’m going to trust that, for all of us, the heart of our writing is serving God. But what is it about your work, about your words on the page, that is at the core of who you are as a writer?

For me, it’s authenticity. Though I write fiction, I never want to craft a story that doesn’t resonate with both the beauty and the struggle of real life. So let me ask you: what is the core of your writing? And how are you ensuring you honor that core in what you write?

Peace, friends!

One last note: in my research to create the perfect foam, I found an utterly delightful—and often hysterical—website, which I mentioned above: The Milk Frothing Guide. I’m pretty sure this author’s core is “Make ‘em laugh!” So if you’re in the mood for a fun read—LOVE the bit about milking a buffalo!—or if you’d just like to see how writing humor is done well, check out the pages at  http://coffeegeek.com/guides/frothingguide.

Chapters: How Long is Too Long?

by Karen Ball

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I’ve had a number of people ask me lately how long their chapters should be. My answer has been: “As long as they need to be.”

Now, it would be nice if I could give folks the “industry-standard” answer: “Chapters should be no less than xx and no longer than xxx,” but the truth is there isn’t a real standard in the industry. And frankly, I think that’s a good thing. I’ve never been one to count words on chapters, but then, I’m a seat-of-the-pants writer. The measuring stick, so to speak, that I use–as a writer, an editor, and an agent–to determine if chapter length is what it needs to be is whether the chapter flows well. If I either find my eyes glazing over halfway through or if I reach the end so fast I’m left wondering what in the bald-headed dog snot just happened, there’s a problem. (Thanks, by the way, to my dad for that “bald-headed” phrase. <grin>).

Generally speaking, many writings tend to aim for 2500 to 3000 words per chapter. But there are so many variables. Such as:

Genre:

Fiction–suspense fiction is all about keeping the reader on the edge of their seats, which lends itself to short chapters. Whereas chapters in literary fiction sometimes are longer.

Nonfiction—likewise, popular self-help fiction seems to favor shorter chapters whereas memoirs, not unlike literary fiction, take a bit more time (and page length) to say what they have to say.

So the kind of book you’re writing will have an impact on chapter length.

Your Voice
Some authors have a wonderful, lyrical tone that just kind of ambles on out, like sitting on the porch in the South, sipping tea and leaning your head back to savor a summer day. Others deliver their words in an almost machine-gun patter, hitting readers with one truth after another such that readers race through the pages. As you consider the length of your chapters, be sure you honor your author voice. Your readers can tell when you’re cutting yourself short, or when you’re trying to draw something out for word count. It’s letting your voice come through that matters most, not word count.

Reader Expectations
That being said (the bit above about voice), do keep in mind that readers have a certain expectation of the books they read. If you’ve developed a certain pattern and pace in your books, don’t change that up unless you have a solid reason for doing so. Readers love to “feel at home” with their favorite authors, and though they may not be cognizant of things like chapter length, they will notice the difference in how a book
feels when they read it.   

Publisher Production Costs
Some books are written to a specific format, and as such word length for chapters matters a great deal. Holding to the set format makes the costs predictable and standard. Make sure you know what your publisher is looking for, or you—and your editor—could end up with some very unhappy surprises when you turn your books in.

So if you’ve been wondering about chapter length, my best counsel is to:

  1. Check with your publisher to be sure there isn’t a set format for chapter length
  2. Take the kind of book you’re writing into account. Check out similar books that are on the market to see if there seems to be any consensus on chapter length.
  3. Just write the book. End the chapters where they need to end, but as you go, use readers to tell you if it comes across the way you want it to. 

Happy Writing!

When You are on the Bench

by Steve Laube

Colby-College-basketball-bench-celebrations

The NCAA Basketball Tournament is upon us with lots of drama accompanying March Madness.

As you watch a game, of any team sport, the focus is on the players in the contest. The camera follows the stars and their every move. What you rarely do is watch the bench or the players on the sidelines.

I find this to be a fascinating metaphor for the writing and publishing “game.” There are mega-stars with household names. There are the “up and comers” carving out their place. And with each publishing release a new name steps forward displaying their talent.

But what about those who are left on the bench? What do you do when someone else takes what you think is your place in the spotlight? Or what if you used to be on the starting team but can no longer get a new contract or the attention your books deserve?

I observe at least three types of writers who sit on the bench:

The Intentional Critic

I have often observed the sneer of disdain when a famous author is being discussed. “Oh their books aren’t that good. I couldn’t finish even one.” “I can write so much better than so-and-so.” You understand what I’m saying? And I have likely willfully participated in the criticism.

There is a legitimate place for critique and published reviews (both online and print). They provide a valuable service in helping us discover whether a book is worth the time to read. And yet I once looked up every review written by an individual on Amazon out of curiosity (it is easy to look those up). This particular reviewer did not like a single book they had reviewed. Not one. It made me wonder if they were being intentional about their criticism in order to bring other writers down.

If you are on the bench be careful not to let the jealously bug bite and infect you with bitterness. Caustic words tend to burn the giver as well as the receiver.

The Student

Teams practice nearly every day. It creates a “muscle memory” for certain plays and for the interaction with other team members. They learn from each other and from their coaches.

It is the same in the writing world. This season may be one where you are on the bench. Use that time to improve your craft. Watch how other authors market their new books and keep a notebook of ideas. Make note of promotional things that don’t work as well as those that do. Read widely in your genre and outside. Your non-fiction may improve after reading a great storyteller. Or your fiction may have a new layer of fascination because of some non-fiction piece you read.

I have met a number of very famous authors in our industry who have attended a writers conference as a student. They were not there to teach or speak. They were not there to mentor. They were not there to critique. They were there, paying their own way, to sit quietly in the back and learn how to improve their craft.

So even if you are on the bench you can still learn something. And be prepared for the day when your name is called.

The Cheerleader

The video at the end of this piece is absolutely delightful. See how the bench celebrates the success of the other players. It is inspiring. Why?

Because it is a lesson to the rest of us. No pasted smiles on our faces when our friend gets a contract and we don’t. You’ve seen the smile that doesn’t travel up to the eyes. No empty words like “I’m so happy for you” said with gritted teeth.

Instead bring unbridled enthusiasm to the game. This is about changing the world. The non-fiction piece inspires and instructs thousands of people in far flung places. That novel warms a heart or challenges a reader through a character who has come alive on the page. This miracle of the written word is something to celebrate, truly celebrate.

Of course not every book is made equal. That is why there are so many and why our tastes are so varied. But if you find yourself on the bench for whatever reason. Take the chance to send a note of encouragement to that author. Not just gushy fan letters, but a note that only another writer would understand. Use your blog or Facebook page to celebrate those new releases. Let your network know there is an alternative to the drivel found on most TV stations and in movie theaters.

Meanwhile, enjoy the rest of March Madness and this video. Next time a new book hits a home run or scores a touchdown or sinks a buzzer beater or gets past the goalie, celebrate like these guys:

How to Be A Reader’s Favorite Author

by Dan Balow

Woman with book

Last week in this space, I wrote about how you could become a publisher’s favorite author (other than selling millions of books).  Today, we’ll go a little different direction and talk about what you would need to do to become a favorite author to your readers.

A key difference between how you relate to a publisher and how you relate to a reader is that one is business and one is personal.  An average publisher will invest tens of thousands of dollars to get your book to market, while a reader might only need to pay $4.99 for an Amazon Kindle ebook.

Just like I wrote last week, regardless whether you are published or not, you should think now about what sort of relationship you want to have with your readers.

Last week I suggested that you should develop a publisher relations strategy for yourself. What I suggest this week goes a lot deeper. The closest thing I can think of for this discussion is to consider yourself as a “customer service” representative for your books. 

The Nordstrom retail company is legendary for their customer service.  They even have a manual, The Nordstrom Way.  To them, customer service is not a strategy, it is a “way of life”. 

So, among all the things you need to think about as an author…your platform, financial plan, professional growth and your relationships with your publisher and agent, I am suggesting you also need to decide on a way to treat your readers that becomes a way of life for you.

How would you become a “linchpin author” who inspires a reader to buy your next book and talk about it with friends?  I said last week that the obvious answer to that for the publisher is to write a best-selling book and making them a lot of money, but readers will be even more challenging.  Other than writing a great manuscript that will inspire wonderful comments from your readers, here are some thoughts on an effective “author way of life”.

  • Be a real person.  If a reader contacts you, write them back within 48 hours or less.
  • If you receive too many responses each day than you can handle, then have a friend, intern or even hire someone part-time to help you.  For most, the volume is not a problem. If it is, let someone else answer the questions about when your next book is available or if you plan on visiting Michigan any time soon.  A few “copy and paste” templates will suffice for those. For deeper issues, handle yourself.
  • Read a book by Gary Vaynerchuk…Crush It!, or The Thank You Economy or his newest, Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook.  Gary is a social media guru who is highly successful making money from his social media strategy, but his approach will surprise you.  I think you will actually feel comfortable with it. (He will urge you to be real!)
  • Follow through on commitments.  This is also in your publisher relationship, but important for readers as well.  If you say you will do something, then do it.  If you promise to answer all letters within 48 hours, then take your laptop on vacation and continue to do it.
  • Minister to the readers.  In your books, blogs, anything you do, show that you treat people with grace and with fruit of the spirit.
  • Be aware of other books or authors and recommend them.  Chances are you won’t write ten books each year, like a store recommending another store to simply serve a customer well. You don’t lose a thing, in fact you will actually grow in stature with readers because you helped them.
  • Pray for your readers without telling them.

Of course, write a powerful book that positively affects lives and you will go a long way to becoming a favorite author, but it takes more.  Be real.

What ideas do you have to make yourself a linchpin author to readers?  

Who Are You Hanging Out With?

by Tamela Hancock Murray

Bored asian girl lying on the couch watching tv at home in the sitting room

During a recent television program, realization struck. I didn’t like anyone on the screen. So why was I spending time with them?

I don’t think I’ll be returning to that program soon.

When you are writing a story, you are asking your reader to hang out with your characters. For a very long time. Will they want to do that?

Granted, you’ll be providing drama and conflict. For the sake of the story, a couple of your characters may be stinkers. But in the end, the reader will need to like your protagonists. Or at least be intrigued enough by your anti-hero to stick with your story. Whatever you do, make your characters worth your reader’s time.

Your turn:

What is the most sympathetic character you can remember? Why?

What characters do you feel have become fictional friends of yours?

How Much Back Story?

by Tamela Hancock Murray

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Sometimes in my review of a novel, I find that the story doesn’t pick up soon enough. I’m not sure what I’ll be reading about and my interest may lag, though I can still eye great writing.

“But I wanted my readers to know about my characters,” the author may protest.

Understandable, indeed.

However, I believe it’s important to lay out the basic conflicts for the reader early on so she’ll know what she’ll be exploring with you and will be eager to keep diving in. Before I learn that the hero had a difficult childhood and the heroine struggles with lingering effects of poverty, I want to know their immediate obstacles to their current goals. Those goals may be (whether they know it or not) their ultimate romance. Or they may be involved in a quest. Or perhaps solving a mystery. In any event, the reader wants to know what type of book he’ll be reading and will want to learn what obstacles he’ll be overcoming with the characters right away. Then, once the reader is interested in the characters’ journey, their back story will be all the more fascinating and relevant.

Spring is Here!

by Karen Ball

[caption id="attachment_7939" align="aligncenter" width="456"]2014 spring flower A picture of a beautiful flower I took this morning in our garden.[/caption]

It started two weeks ago. Little green sprouts poking up through the frozen, barren ground. Ground that, thanks to a winter of record-breaking cold, was so hard just a month ago that not even my shovel made a dent in it. So you can imagine my delight when I spotted those bits of green pushing their way through that same, dead earth. I checked them every day, watching and waiting. Because I knew what was coming. And sure enough, last week those hardy green shoots boasted buds. With unseasonable frosts in the forecast, I worried they wouldn’t make it. But hallelujah! Not only did they survive, but this week they exploded in beautiful blossoms. Now, instead of empty ground, crocuses and miniature irises paint my yard with purple and yellow. And today, the daffodils and jonquils joined in, bringing a smile to my face and heart with the news:

Spring is here!

Rooting for the Bad Guy?

by Tamela Hancock Murray

Man with mysterious eyes

Last week I blogged about amoral protagonists. But what about protagonists who are unquestionably immoral?

Some general market books make their readers root for the bad guy. Think about accounts of bank robbers Bonnie and Clyde, written from their points of view. Or a book written primarily from the point of view of a courtesan, such as Amy Tan’s The Valley of Amazement. These books set the reader in a life where there is no Christ, yet the reader can’t help but feel sympathy for the protagonists by coming to an understanding of how circumstances combined by the moral failings of others set characters in one unhappy situation after another. 

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