Monday, May 30, 2011

Learn Writing from the Experts...for Free!

Newer writers face two uphill challenges: not only must they learn the ins and outs of today’s publishing world, but they must learn how to produce publishable manuscripts. Mastering one of these without the other might well prove fruitless.
          Multiple resources teach how to format manuscripts and how to approach editors or literary agents with book proposals. In a sense, this is basic, objective information that you simply tweak to conform for each agent's or editor’s preferences. But how does any budding writer grow more skillful at the actual craft of writing for publication? After all, any moderately educated human can peck words into a document, but a much smaller group understands how to shape words into articles, short stories, devotionals, or books that publishers will buy and that readers will read.
          Standard advice includes attending writing classes at a local college, attending conferences, subscribing to writers’ magazines, and joining a critique group. However, what if you live on limited income? What if you simply can’t find fellow writers in your community?  
          One simple technique may exist right on your bookshelf. Even without signing up for a writing course, you can learn from expert authors for free. Choose a book or a magazine article that represents your favorite genre. Now, starting at page one, sit at your computer and begin copying those words into a blank Word document. But don’t type mindlessly. As you keyboard those already-published words, temporarily “become” that author. Notice the clever way that “your” words arouse curiosity in the reader. See how the author you’re emulating finds more interesting verbs than the threadbare “has/have,” “was/were,” “went,” etc. Feel what it’s like to record descriptions replete with mood-evoking details, ominous sounds, tell-tale odors, possibly even the taste and feel of objects. Pay attention to how that author employs punctuation marks.
          Of course, your goal isn’t to become a second-class copy of some famous author. However, by allowing a professional writer’s words to flow through your eyes, through your brain, and through your fingertips, you should gain a feel for the difference between good, salable material and the hum-drum copy that anybody can churn out.
          Once, I visited a writers’ group held in a public library’s downstairs meeting room. “My problem,” lamented one woman, “is that I goofed off in high school and never learned to write well.” What a pitiful excuse. Above her head waited a library crammed with thousands of excellent examples to explore. Yet, she closed her eyes and clung to excuses rather than taking active steps to learn.
          Serious writers don’t make excuses. They read, they learn, and they put into practice tricks of the trade gleaned from those farther down the road of publishing. If you have that creative writer spark inside you, can learn from studying the pros.
         Perhaps you as a writer have found other tricks that helped you to mature in your writing skills. If so, many colleagues would like to hear from you!

Rick Barry

Friday, May 27, 2011

Writing With A Sense Of Urgency

I had a sense of impending doom as the deadline for this blog approached . . . and passed. Fortunately, the world didn't end with that missed deadline.

True, it was a self-imposed deadline. Technically, I need to have this finished by 6 am on Friday, May 27 (practically, by 5 pm the previous day). However, I intended to have this blog finished before 9 pm, Saturday, May 21. Maybe God knew I wouldn't have this blog done yet and postponed Judgment Day until I completed it.

I may joke about that self-imposed deadline, but not the sense of impending doom. First, I theologically see things getting close to the end. Second, I don’t have much help from the media (maybe because it seems that a lot of the news on CNN and Fox and the like seems to be written by either Mr. or Ms. Little – is “Chicken” a boy or girl's name?) Third, I believe that we may see persecution of Christians here in this country, and that road is already being well paved.

I have two options with this triad of fears. I can doubt there’s any need for me attempting a long term project like writing a novel and seeing it through the publication process, especially the traditional way. Or I can develop a sense of urgency in all areas of life including my writing.

One aspect of the sense of urgency is determining what I’m called to do. Even today, my wife suggested I take time to re-gain my skill at the 88 key keyboard. I’ve given up ceramics 30 plus years ago. I enjoy both clay-work and music, and am talented at both, but I believe I’m called to preach and teach, and that writing is one of those means.

I must be careful not to mistake the sense of urgency with either impatience and trying to do God's work for Him or getting into the panic-mode. Self-publishing seems like the way to go if you want a book out in the hurry. What we need to remember is that the urgency applies to our writing – getting it published is in God's hands. Yes, we can do our part in getting it published, but we also need to remember He's in control.

Another danger I need to be aware of is getting too preachy. I recently read a novel that resembled that remark. Our call as Christian novelists is to make the theme clear, but it needs to be done in a well-crafted novel, not a sermon with plot, characters, and setting.

The best thing about the sense of urgency is it gives our writing fire and energy. I could write a book about zoos (my wife and I have been to over 35 different ones), about the WNBA, or about Christian music, and I can do so with enthusiasm, but while that energy may keep the reader's mind occupied it may not continue the next eighteen inches to the heart.

I also need to realize that there is a spiritual warfare on the loose, and if my writing is a call then it’s a battlefield. I’m currently editing this blog Wednesday afternoon on a computer at the library, hoping to post this in the 30 minutes I have remaining. The reason I’m not on my computer is because it got infected with malware before I could finish and it’s now in the shop.

Of course, there is discouragement. If you heard of New Century Publishing last April (it hit the front page of the Indianapolis Star and was on three local news stations concerning investigation by the attorney general), you’ve heard of the company that was supposed to publish my novel. I’m discouraged with the state of the church across the country and the country itself. Work is at a phase of being a trial. Then, three stray cats have adopted me and my wife Becky who goes into asthma when exposed to cats. Of course, now I’m seeking an agent (like I should have done before New Century) and so far have gotten either no for an answer or no answer.

We need to remember though, that we have a sense of urgency. We can find inspiration in the answer Isaac Asimov gave when asked what he would do if he knew his life was about to end: “Type faster.”

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Lesson 5: For Love or Money

Some write for love, some write for money, and some write for both. But even if you write primarily for love, there's nothing wrong with receiving a fair royalty.

A royalty is the amount the publisher pays you for each book it sells. Unfortunately, dealing with royalties in your publishing contract isn't as simple as asking, "How much?" You also need to ask, "How much of what?"

Some contracts base royalties on the suggested retail price, also called the list price, of the book. Since the list price doesn't change, you receive the same amount for every sale, and that makes the math easy. While a royalty based on the retail price locks in your return, however, it makes the publisher's share less certain. This is because publishers have to cut deals with booksellers to get them to add your book to their inventory, and not all deals are done at the same price.

Some publishers deal with this problem by basing royalties on "net." This can refer to either the gross amount the publisher receives from the bookseller or to the amount the publisher receives after subtracting its expenses. If your royalties are net, make sure the contract spells out how they are calculated. Either way, the net price is quite a bit less than the retail price and makes the author's actual return vary from sale to sale.

While there is nothing intrinsically bad about net-based royalties, it takes a higher percentage--often twice as much--to make the same income you would receive from royalties figured on the retail price. So if your royalty is based on net, make sure the percentage is substantially higher than you would accept otherwise.

But what is the standard royalty percentage? There is none. Rates vary with the publisher and the type of book (hardcover, trade paperback, mass market paperback). Some contracts also increase the royalty rate at set sales levels.

Even though there is no standard royalty rate, you still want to know if yours is fair. Unfortunately, I can't tell you. What I can do is give you some typical rates paid by established publishing companies. Small presses and children's book publishers often pay less.

Hardcover: 10% of retail for the first 5,000 copies sold, 12.5% for the next 5,000, and 15% after that.

Trade Paperback: 6-8% of retail for the first 25,000 copies sold, and 8-10% after that.

Mass Market Paperback: 6-8% of retail for the first 150,000 copies sold, and 8-10% after that.

E-Book: Not only is there no standard rate, but it may be a while before the industry reaches a consensus on what is fair. If you sign with an e-book publisher or a traditional publisher that also does e-books, it may offer anything from 10% of retail to 50% of net. If it is licensing the rights to a third party, you should get at least half of what the publisher receives for the license.

Other Subsidiary Rights Licensed to Third Parties: 50% of what the publisher receives. The author's percentage may increase for subsidiary rights with a higher potential return, such as movie rights.

Writers also ask, "Should I sign a contract with a publisher that doesn't give me an advance?" Again, it's up to you. Advances are always nice because you get to keep the money if your book bombs.* But advances are not bonuses. As the name implies, they are advances against royalties. If the publisher pays you a $5,000 advance and you make a $1 royalty on each book, the publisher won't send you any more money until it has sold 5,000 copies.

This is already a long post, and I'm almost done. But I want to mention one other matter that fits better here than elsewhere.

Most publishers give you a few free copies and let you buy additional ones at a discount, which is often 40-50% of retail. (And no, you don't get royalties on these copies.) You can give these "author's copies" to friends and relatives or send them to reviewers. If you want to sell them at speaking events or book fairs, however, make sure the contract doesn't prohibit it. A clause that says the books you purchase at a discount are "for the author's own use, and not for resale" means that you can't sell them.

And even if you write for love, it's always nice to have a little extra money.

Kathryn Page Camp

* If your contract allows the publisher to recover any of the unearned advance after the book has been published, turn and run. (Before signing, of course.)

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Color of Shadows

Monet's Saint-Lazare Station

“So what color is Aubrey’s top?”
My junior high creative writing students answer in chorus. “Blue!”
“All right. But what kind of blue? What shade?”
“Fine. What shade of dark? Blueberry? Midnight? Cobalt? Indigo? Slate? Royal? Lavender blue, dilly-dilly?” At this point, their eyes fix on Aubrey’s shirt. Some squint. Like an Impressionist, they peer through lashes to blur the edges and get a general sense of the color. “Or are they the shade of your brother’s eyes when he discovers that you have ransacked his room again, violating his clear directive to stay out?”
Why would I press them so?
It's not what you look at that matters. It's what you see.
~Henry David Thoreau
On another morning, we went out to look into the grass. Droplets of dew still clung precariously from the tip of each blade. They lay down on trash bags, tummy earthward, and peered among the leaves of grass. "Write all that you see," I adjured them. "And see what you cannot see when you're standing." After about twenty minutes, some began to whine. "I've written about all there is to write about?"
"Really? Have you really? Then look closer. There's a diminutive garden down there. Look. See it? How does it feel? The earth is damp; how does it smell?"

If you look at a thing 999 times, you are perfectly safe; if you look at it for the 1000th time, you are in danger of seeing it for the first time. ~ G.K.Chesterton

The next day they examined a dead fish, a rainbow trout, to be exact--head still attached. After the girls got over being squeamish and the boys were done trying to think of things to say to incite groans from the stoutest among their fellows, they examined the fish from every conceivable angle.
Forty minutes later, as they were leaving for their next class, some asked, "What are we doing tomorrow, Ms. Clifton?"
"I think we'll examine a fish . . ."
". . . on the inside." More groans.
What motive could I possibly have to torture them so with the carcass of a pitiable fish?

Look, look, look, look, look! ~ Richard Halliday

One who returns to a place sees it with new eyes. Although the place may not have changed, the viewer inevitably has. For the first time things invisible before become suddenly visible.
~ Louis L'Amour

I want to awaken them to their world. I want them to truly see--what is, what almost isn't, and what could be.

No shadow is black. It always has a color. Nature knows only color . . .
~ Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Writers can learn much from visual artists. My younger daughter, who has two art degrees (illustration and photography), taught me a few things about painting that so easily apply to writing, also.
It's fun to go shopping with her because she puts colors and patterns together in ways that never would occur to me. Her artist's eye pairs them up for stunning effect. She sees the colors that went to make the colors, and she knows what will complement.
To the artist, gray isn't simply gray. It is white with the merest touch of black. It is a warm gray, with some yellow or red mingled in. Or a cool gray with the faintest blue undertone. The artist works diligently to arrive at the perfect color mix. Should the literary artist be less precise?
The common eye sees only the outside of things, and judges by that, but the seeing eye pierces through and reads the heart and the soul, finding there capacities which the outside didn't indicate or promise, and which the other kind couldn't detect.
~Mark Twain

My daughter also taught me that shadows are not simply gray, that they have color. I still practice at seeing that color, but I'm learning. I want to write with the clarity and precision of an artist's careful eye.
Our gracious Lord gave us five senses with which to experience our world. May we use them to the full to communicate Him through our words.

Seeing is of course very much a matter of verbalization. ~ Annie Dillard

Note: Back in my college days, we read Annie Dillard's essay "Seeing." I recommend it highly.

Write on!
Because of Christ,
Sharon Kirk Clifton

Resource: Color list

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Day I Decided to Play Writer

So, I had my first baby in June and decided it was a good time to write a novel.

Perhaps it wa
s the smell of downy blankets, touch of tender skin, or sound of infant mewing that initiated the sentiment. Or perhaps it was my foggy, sleep deprived brain that conquered all rational thought. Whatever the reason, I found myself staring into my precious son’s eyes somewhere between dusk and dawn, realizing the family stories wouldn’t write themselves.

I had to write them.

That Christmas, My six month old and I sat down with dad, and I asked him to tell me the stories I’d heard as a girl in pig tails. The ones I’d listened to countless times while ripping off flatbread and sco
oping up curry—our family name change, his faith journey and immigration to a new country.

My son cooed on his Nana's (Grandpa’s) knee, and I laughed picturing dad’s bewilderment at having to pay for his own cup after his North American friend asked him to “go for coffee”. I cringed at the thought of him arriving on new soil with nothing but five dollars and a hope of a better life. And that afternoon, with my ears full of tales, I walked away with a new resolve.

I would write stories to leave a legacy for my kids, encourage others, and worship God with the gift He's given me, though I knew nothing about the craft of writing.

Two ye
ars and another baby later, I typed “the end” on my first manuscript. I made the mistakes of first time novelists: plotted by the seat of my pants, utilized clich├ęs like crazy, faced a sagging middle, and overused the semi-colon. And in just twenty four months, I faced the incredible highs and lows of the writer life. But, by God’s grace {and the help of faithful critique partners and writing friends}, I finished the novel.

I believe something happened the day I decided to play writer. God birthed a new desire within me--to leave a legacy with words. I’m not sure what this baby means. Publication? Maybe. Maybe not. Accolades? Probably not. Satisfaction knowing I’m leaving stories for my sons and using my gift for God? Most definitely. I don't know what the road holds, but it's going to be an incredible ride.

So, I’ll keep writing the stories God’s puts on my heart, keeping the reason I began at the forefron
t of my mind, and I’ll leave the results—the timing—up to God.

How about you? What propelled you into the writing life? What’s keeps you writing even on days where the cursor blinks hard and doubts assail?

Melanie N. Brasher is a full time mama of two boys and wife to an incredible husband who understands her bicultural background. She moonlights as a fiction and freelance writer, crafting stories and articles toward justice and change, and contemplates faith, family, and writing at her personal blog. Though she’s an aspiring author, she’ll never quit her day job.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

To Everything There is a Season: Spring

To Everything There Is a Season. In my office, right on top of my computer monitor, I have a little sign that sports these words. It is there to remind me that life is an ever-evolving journey and if I don't like the place I find myself in today, never fear, tomorrow the view out my window will be different.

One of the many hats I wear is that of "farmer's wife". Normally springtime on the farm is a flurry of activity, getting the crop in the ground. This year, however, spring apparently didn't get the memo. Cold, wet days with little sunshine are not ideal planting conditions. Now I've added to my job repertoire "farmer's therapist". I can sympathize with my poor, frustrated hubby, because I realize how similar writing and farming can be. Let me explain.

Before the seed can go into the ground, my hubby must prepare the soil. Plowing, fertilizing, praying. As writers, we prepare too. Whether you're a "plotter" or a "pantser", at least a little planning is first on the list of every new writing project. Research, plotting, praying. Getting it in our head before we get it down on paper.

There is more involved in planting than just pushing a little seed into the ground. Sowing, waiting, praying. Watching for those little shoots to burst forth from the ground. Praying that the fertilizer will make them strong. Guarding against weeds or pests that might choke out the tender plants. Keeping an eye out for hail or standing water or scorching heat that might damage the fragile leaves, stems, or roots. Praying that the one tiny seed that goes into the ground will result in tall, healthy plants heavy with bounty. Writing, rewriting, praying. Writers plant the seeds of words and ideas. We rewrite and delete, making our writing strong. We guard against pet words, passive writing, and head-hopping. We keep an eye out for industry changes, trends, and keeping a consistent voice. And, always, we pray that God will take our words and multiply them.

My hubby needs other people to help him on his way to harvest. Helping, supporting, praying. I run him between fields, helping him move equipment and seed. He heeds the advice of industry experts regarding pest infestations or weather cycles. I support him with food, running the house in his absence, and in prayers for safety, rest, and yields. Writers may write in solitude, but they aren't alone. Helping, supporting, praying. We network and grow in our craft with the help of those that are a little further down the writing road. Critique groups and writing buddies move us out of our comfort zones, pushing us to higher levels of writing. Industry experts support us with advice on trends and the ever-changing publishing world. And we share in one another's burdens and victories, always lifting up prayers for encouragement, perseverance, and steadfastness to the faith.

Wherever you are on the road to publication, I pray for you today. I pray that you remember there is a season for everything. I pray that you are diligent and persevere. I pray that your hard work is rewarded. And always, I pray for you that you remain steadfast to the faith that is the root of all we do.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Tools in my toolbox

A few weeks ago, a new laptop entered my life. And, right on time, my faithful desktop computer died. My local computer guru might be able to resurrect it, but for right now I am learning the laptop.

On the plus side, I can write almost anywhere: in the Lazy Boy chair, in bed, at the dining room table, on the couch, even in the stands during Little League games. (Only when DS2 is in the dug-out)

On the down side, it's smaller and touchier than my desk top. I'm using some new software, too, which is another change.

I used to write in long hand on legal tablets. I think the Great American Western Novel fills a ton of those in one of those boxes in the basement. (We've only been in this house for 20 years and I've got some other things to do first.)

Sometimes I'd use my trusty electric typewriter to put my long hand notes in a more readable form, but once the draft was typed, it seemed written in stone to my mind. I wonder if anyone else felt that way about a typed draft.

My first computer booted up with big floppy disks, and had a tiny screen like a port-hole with little green letters floating by. It was compatible with a dot-matrix printer.

As personal computers became more affordable, we invested (because it cost as much as a couple head of cattle) in a laptop computer. We putted out onto the Information Superhighway at the speed of a golf cart, but eventually made it.

With the ease of writing and editing on screen, my productivity soared once I switched to using a PC. Strangely enough, though, I found no takers for a 400,000-word contemporary romance novel.

Now these two tools seem irreplaceable -- both a computer and the internet. Recently when plot ideas came to me when I could not find pen and paper, I jotted them down as a draft of a text message.

I would love to hear about others' work styles and spaces. Does anyone still write in long hand first? Or e-mail ideas to themselves? I'll check back after work tomorrow. Have a great weekend, everybody!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Photographers Own Copyrights, Too

Like the photo? You can travel to the Indiana-Illinois border at the southern end of Lake Michigan and take your own picture, but you can't use this one without my permission. That's because I own the copyright.

As many of you know, Hoosier Ink's new blog master has been busy updating the site and educating contributors on the most effective way to post entries. In that same spirit, I'm doing an extra blog post this month to educate contributors on the use of photographs in their posts. But others can benefit from the information, too.

Copyright law treats visual art the same way it treats the written word, and the copyright exists as soon as the image is recorded in tangible form. For photographs, that means the instant the picture is taken.

Just because an image is available on the Internet doesn't mean you have the right to use it any way you want. Copying it for your personal use, such as to give you an idea of what a character looks like, is okay, but if you disseminate the picture publicly, you have probably violated someone's copyright.

So what can you do if you want a picture to go with your blog post? Here are some suggestions.

  • Use a photo you took yourself. If you don't have anything on hand, be creative and "pose" a shot to fit the post. (Just don't pose it to duplicate someone else's photo.)
  • Get permission. This is easy if the photo was taken by a friend or relative, but harder if you don't know the photographer.
  • Find a reputable clip art or stock photo site that offers free images. (But royalty-free does not mean free.) Read the license/permission language on the site to make sure your use fits.
  • Pay a license fee. You probably don't want to do this just for a Hoosier Ink post. But if you already have a multiple-use or royalty-free license that allows you to use the picture on blogs you write for, it's an option.
  • Use photographs that are in the public domain. Finding out which ones are in the public domain takes more effort than most people want to put into a blog post, however. So unless you know the photograph was taken before 1923, this may not be an efficient choice.
Creativity is our business. If you can find a creative--and legal--way to add visual interest to your post, readers will appreciate it.

If not, copyright holders will appreciate your restraint.

Kathryn Page Camp

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

It's All in the Details

by Rachael Phillips

Are you a detail person? If we're speaking of knowing what to do with multiple dinner forks or making reservations before entering the front door of a hotel or airplane, I'm not. But I have learned in novel writing that while, as one dictionary states, details function as small, subordinate parts of a whole, another definition tells us these collectively constitute a work of art.

Details also can obliterate the work of art.

To a writer whose vision encompasses only the glorious dimensions of her heroine's character or her novel's teeth- and heart-grinding conflicts, which door the heroine uses for a dramatic exit appears irrelevant--until a prospective agent notices that, given earlier information, that particular door leads not to sorrowful moon-kissed paths of unrequited love, but to the junky shag-rugged '70s basement.

I mention this example because in my fiction, as in real life, I ignore spatial concepts, possess no sense of direction and occasionally defy gravity. My early drafts force characters to stoke fires in homes without fireplaces and send them through windows instead of doors. They drive to Chicago by way of Miami and frequently make left turns through barns. (How do I explain to an editor that I killed off a character who wasn't supposed to die?) And though I do not write sci-fi, my heroines and heroes show a marked tendency to float when no water or ballroom dancing are involved.

My solution: I draw crude house plans and furniture/yard/estate layouts and frequently study maps. I've considered installing a GPS in every story. And I chain my characters to sofas.

Readers do not not react well when Christmas arrives late, particularly in Christmas novella collections. Time issues, in general, must make sense. Cicadas should chirp during appropriate months; socks can't be knitted in one hour. If the heroine in my first novella hadn't stuck a Christmas cactus in a closet at the right point during its life cycle, the plant would not have bloomed at a critical point in the story, and its weighty symbolism [gasp!] would have been lost.

My solution: Print off a calendar and schedule plot events on it. I've never liked planners--but avoiding one may result in a lady character's 21-month pregnancy.

In editing others' manuscripts, I often encounter characters who switch eye color. Readers who fell in love with the emerald-eyed hero in chapter five feel betrayed when his midnight black orbs flash during chapter nine. I struggle less with character details than logistics in my novels, but occasionally I discover three walk-ons who all work as third-grade teachers, wear zebra socks and suffer from a tic.

My solution: I include all characters, named and unnamed, on a character sheet, plus details about each--physical characteristics, relationship to main characters and the reason for their existence. If no reason emerges, I may have to beam this superfluous character out of my novel. Editors, agents and readers are detail people, even if I am not.

How about you? How do you avoid the eye color switch?

Monday, May 16, 2011

Are You Ready for the Winner's Circle? (Redux)

If you'll indulge me, this is a partial "rerun" of my very first Hoosier Ink blog written about this time last year. I embellished on it after this year's running of the Kentucky Derby, but it ties in with the Christian testimony of the most winning horse jockey ever at Churchill Downs, Pat Day. Pat is now a resident of Louisville, active in several local ministries and a vocal advocate of the grace that can only come from the Almighty. In my estimation, it's worth hearing again and again, and there's a valuable lesson in it for writers. But first, a little insight into the Derby since there seems to be a definite mystique and fascination with that particular event.

In the first week of May every year, Louisville, Kentucky, is invaded. Athletes, B and C-list reality stars and celebrities, society mavens, and horse owners and trainers from all over the world congregate for swanky parties, balls, and charity galas. There are parades, fashion shows and concerts by major recording artists and local bands. Leading up to Derby week, there is a balloon race and what is now termed the largest fireworks display in North America, with a gorgeous waterfall of fireworks cascading over the sides of a bridge spanning from Indiana to Kentucky. All this merriment and hoopla culminates in the shortest annual sporting event in the world, the Kentucky Derby.

This year was the 137th Run for the Roses, and it is steeped in Kentucky lore and tradition. Fancy hats! Mint juleps! Derby pie (pecan pie with chocolate and a touch of bourbon)! Millionaire’s Row at Churchill Downs! Untold amounts of money are spent before, during and after the race in merchandise, wagering, tourism, and all manner of commerce. It's a huge boon for the local economy, and there's always a festiveness in the air unlike anything I've ever experienced.

I must admit to tears in my eyes every year when I hear “My Old Kentucky Home” play at Churchill Downs almost immediately preceding the actual horse race. As a college sophomore studying abroad (more years ago than I care to remember), I was staying in a hotel near Munich, Germany, that first Saturday in May. To be honest, I wasn't even thinking of the Kentucky Derby. But when we turned on the radio and found a U.S. military station, I heard "My Old Kentucky Home" come over the airwaves clear as a bell. I dissolved into tears and bawled like a baby (it was near the end of my three months away from home and I was ready to go back home to McDonald’s and Fritos). As much as I loved that trip to Europe and the experiences it offered, there's nothing like coming home again.

Guess you have to be here to understand the mystery and the craziness that is the Kentucky Derby. As a Christian, I have to shake my head over the fact that most downtown offices don’t let employees off early to observe Good Friday, but almost everyone gets off to pay homage to horse racing the Friday before Derby. You must understand that in the gorgeous, rolling hills of Kentucky, the thoroughbreds bathe in marble tubs and are more pampered than most people. It's a way of life foreign for most of the rest of the world.

Yes, in many ways the excess is nothing short of obscene, but in other ways, I find it absolutely fascinating. I’ve never been to the actual Kentucky Derby, and have no intention of ever being in the infield. I usually watch the Derby from the “best chair in the house” in our family room. Even those many years I lived away from Kentuckiana, I almost always watched the mile-and-a-quarter race, the most prestigious and first leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown.

In late May last year, I was privileged to hear one of the most winning horse jockeys of all time, Pat Day, speak at an event. He’s a devout Christian now and actively involved in several local Louisville area Christian ministries. What a testimony he shared, complete with a lesson for the writer in all of us. I’m so thankful I had the opportunity to hear Pat's testimony and speak with him personally. In some ways, his story put another “spin” on the whole insanity that is the Kentucky Derby (he won one Derby and many other races).

Here’s my abbreviated version of Pat’s story from his message that evening:

Pat Day didn't want to be a jockey, but God sure made him one.

Growing up in Colorado, Pat was hired as a teenager to help out on a ranch owned by a family who'd moved from Texas. Known as Bible thumpers and "Jesus freaks," they demonstrated a rare, gentle compassion. The lady of the house eventually began telling him about the Lord, hauling out her flannel graph board and her biblical figures. Pat sat and half-listened, hoping no one would see him there. One afternoon, sitting at the kitchen table, he prayed the sinner's prayer, as much to satisfy this kind Christian woman as much as anything else.

He had aspirations of being a champion bull rider, but kept getting thrown off, time and time again. He climbed into the saddle, becoming the most reluctant horse jockey, and found he was good at it. Really good. So he kept at it, and he started winning races.

Becoming one of the most winning jockeys on the racing circuit in the early 1980s, Pat won a major event in New York. When legendary sportscaster Jim McKay interviewed him on live television, Pat remembers saying, "I did it! I did it!" He didn't thank the owner, the trainer or the horse. He claimed the victory for himself. To this "Day," it is one of his deepest, most cringe-inducing regrets.

Not long after, lying in the dark of his hotel room, Pat turned on the television and listened to the program of a well-known televangelist. He listened to the words of Christ's sacrifice for our sins, and drank in the words of grace, redemption and forgiveness. Lost in a haze of booze and drugs at the time, it was only then that he remembered praying at the kitchen table with the loving Christian woman in Colorado all those years before. It was also on that night that Pat realized his personal need for the Savior to save him from himself.

Pat Day may be diminutive in size, but he is certainly statuesque in the eyes of our loving Father.

How many of us writers, like Pat, have a goal in mind, only to be thrown out of the saddle, again and again. It's all in how we react that makes the difference. We can stay on the ground, wallowing in our misfortune and misery, or we can stand up, dust off the seat of our pants, and get back in the saddle. Contest scores, critiques, rejections – and skewered customer ratings if anyone knows my trials the last few days – can be humbling, but they prove how hardy we are. The Lord has gifted us with words. Let's use them wisely. Stand up, not be ashamed of the gospel, and proclaim His glory and His word, and He will prevail. And when we reach a goal, no matter how small, or how significant, let's give the glory to the greatest Creator of all.

Blessings, my friends. Let your light shine!

Below is the link for Pat Day's website. As he says, "The Lord has orchestrated a great career."

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Writing in the Dark

I began writing about six years ago. Little did I know the steep learning curve that came with that particular “hobby” or the things God would teach me through the process.

At first I wrote scenes that came to me. I fiddled around with plots, never quite knowing where I was going. As I wrote, life continued to roll by. God move my family a couple times. I had a daughter, then along came the twins. When the twins arrived, I put writing away. My days were consumed with diaper changing, feeding children, and keeping the house from burning down (forget about cleaning it… Dan did that, bless his heart lol).

By this point, I came to realize writing is hard. I thought about putting the whole endeavor behind me. After all, when could I write with four little ones running around the house? But I could not shake the bug. I had to write. I had to finish the story inside of me.

When the twins were about one, I went back to writing. Sometimes only a hundred words a day. Sometimes I went weeks without writing because my family needed me. Life interfered again and my family found ourselves on the not-so-thrilling roller coaster ride of unemployment. It was then I started channeling the fear, heartache, and my deep search for God into my writing. I finally began to understand my characters. I understood their search inside themselves to choose the easy way or to choose God’s way: many times a path of hardship. I now had a plot.

We finished the roller coaster of unemployment (and lived!). By now I was half way through my first book. I was on a roll. I began to have goals of finishing the book and trying my hand at finding a publisher for it. Then I heard God speak. I knew in my heart he was telling me to wait an entire year. I balked at the idea and pushed forward with my own goals. God slammed back (note to anyone thinking about going through a door God is closing… don’t! He can slam hard lol).

I stopped fighting God and listened to him. I quietly put my goals of publishing away and instead continued to write. I finished my manuscript halfway through that year. I had two trusted friends critique it. They found all the things I knew in my gut I needed to work on with the story. I cried (yeah, its hard to work on something for years and find out you’re not quite there yet), then picked myself up by my flip-flops straps (I don’t wear boots) and began to work on the rewrites in earnest.

I learned a lot that year. I learned to finish a book. I learned to push through writer’s block. I learned to take criticism and use it to make my book better. And I was learning to put my work as a writer into God’s hand.

December came around again. Instead of my own plans, this time I asked God his. I felt his nudge to go ahead and start exploring the world of publishing. I signed up for the Mt Hermon conference. I tidied up my one page and pitch. And unlike last year, I totally felt scared about the prospects of publishing.

I met some amazing people at the conference. I had people interested in my manuscript. And I learned even more about writing. I came home refreshed.

During that year I also came to realize how much I had learned about the gospel through the writing of my story. Its not just about being saved from hell: it’s about being saved from something inside of us, something we cannot save ourselves from. It’s about God saving us and healing the darkness inside of us. What a beautiful picture!

The story of my writing is not done yet. No, I don’t have people knocking down my door wanting to publish my book. In fact, no one has knocked. But I felt God speaking to me again last week.

He is asking me to write in the dark now.

I can’t see where my story is going to go; I don’t know if it will ever be published or if it will only be something I leave behind for my children to read some day. What I do know is that I need to be faithful in the little bit of writing I do each day. And leave the rest to God.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Two Great Novels for Writers (and Readers)

In her Monday blog, Lisa Faye Harman asked how we writers can find the right words so our language will have power. That's a great lead-in for my blog today, and a question with many inspiring replies. But I'll give just one.

My reply echoes the first reply of many others, I'm sure: read reAD READ excellent writing by others! And jot down the impressive words and word combinations we read (and hear)! Even if we never review the list, just making the list makes the words more available for our own use.

I'm eager to recommend today two great novels I've recently enjoyed that fit the "excellent writing" category.

PEARL OF CHINA by Anchee Min
THE HELP by Katherine Stockett

In Min's novel, Pearl is Pearl Buck. And of course, with my China heritage, I've read nearly everything by and about Pearl (as well, my family knew the Bucks and Sydenstrickers in China). So I can vouch for the PEARL OF CHINA's historical accuracy. Plus, it's a wonderful, fascinating story and excellently written. The additional attraction for us writers is that one of the main characters is an internationally famous author, so reading her story is extra interesting. (YEP! I overused "is" in that sentence, alas.) The novel handles well her loss of evangelical Christian faith. While a huge disappointment to us Christian writers, it's true and it happens. Perhaps Pearl Buck can serve as a caution to the rest of us.

I'm guessing most of you have read or at least been told to read THE HELP. Every accolade it's earned is deserved, including two years now on best-seller lists. WOW! What novel, what a story, what excellent writing! And just like in PEARL OF CHINA, one of the main characters is an author, whose kindness, perseverance, courage, and orginality can inspire all of us.

If you've already read either of these novels, how about a comment?! :-)

Closing thought in honor of KJV's 400th anniversary last week: "For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace." (I Cor. 14:33 KJV)

Word blessings,
Millie Samuelson

Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Find and Replace Command for Writers

The FIND command in Microsoft Word is always a significant time-saver for me. Following are four helpful ways I use the FIND command on my WIP.

1. Name changes.
Have you ever completed the first rough draft and decided your character’s name or the spelling of his or her name needs changing? Maybe everyone isn’t aware that a writer doesn’t have to go through the entire manuscript and retype the new name for the character.

Instead, hold down the CONTROL key and press F. This brings up the FIND and REPLACE window. Click on the REPLACE tab, and depending on which version of Microsoft Word is on your computer, you may have to click on the MORE button near the bottom of the new window.

First type the character’s original name in the FIND window, and next type the new name in the REPLACE window. Click on the REPLACE ALL tab and instantly all 2,000 entries of your character’s old name is now replaced with the new name.

Keep in mind, this program recognizes spaces also. If you type a space after your first entry in the FIND window, and you do not type in a space after the name in the REPLACE window, you’ll end up with words running together—so use accordingly. Remember if you mess up, you can always use the UNDO command to return to your prvious setting(CONTROL Z). Even so, my suggestion is to save a backup copy of your work before you begin experimenting.

2. Overuse of my favorite words.
"Just" and "because" are two of the most overused words in my WIP. (I'm from the South). I use the FIND command to locate all uses of the offending word in my WIP, (for example just). I like to check the HIGHLIGHT ALL option before I click the FIND ALL. (This HIGHLIGHT ALL command highlights every use of the word for which I’m searching.)

As soon as I click FIND ALL the computer finds all entries of just and highlights them. At this time, before I click the mouse or type a letter, I press CONTROL B to bold all of the words I just highlighted. After doing this, I can review and evaluate each time the offending word is used and decide whether to keep it or not.

Another option is to hold down the CONTROL key and press PAGE DOWN. Doing this will take you to the next highlighted word in your FIND search.

Sometimes I’m looking for a certain scene or situation in my WIP and if I can’t find it, I might type in a word or phrase I know was used in that scene; such as handgun, boat, etc. Using the FIND command, and then holding CONTROL and pressing PAGE DOWN allows me to scroll through the WIP and find the exact paragraph for which I’m searching.

3. Expunge those nasty extra spaces at the end of a paragraph.
Sometimes at the end of the paragraph I press the spacebar after the period before I press enter (it’s a habit). I know it isn’t important, but we all want to send in a tidy MS. When I’m finished with the MS and I’m ready to polish it, I use the FIND and REPLACE command to find all periods, spaces, and paragraph marks, and I change them to eliminate the unwanted space after the period.

This is where that SPECIAL tab at the bottom of the screen comes in handy. When you open this tab it gives you a list of formatting characters you can use in your search, such as PARAGRAPH MARK.

4. Character speech tags.
The find command is great for improving a character’s consistency in speech patterns. For example, some of us say “all right”, while others use “okay”. Some say “perhaps” and others “maybe”. Using the find command, I can tighten up the speech patterns of my characters by searching these words and making sure my characters talk different.

Of course, we all need to occasionally check how many times we have a character; nod, shrug, eyes roll, etc. Somtimes I discover characters imitate bobble-headed dolls the way they nod and shake their heads all the time. The FIND command is a great help for this.

Perhaps you have other uses for the FIND command which you’d like to share. If any of this is interesting to you, but you're still confused, let me know and I'll break it down in layperson's terms.

Happy finding!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Win One for the Gipper (Or Lessons on the Field of Writing Dreams)

Who is your most inspiring writing coach and what's the hardest lesson he/she's taught you on the field?

Ellie Kay once asked this question and it was tough question and memory-producer by the sheer act of posing a question. Most inspiring? Sigh. Many inspiring coaches. Hardest lesson?? Ack! Who wants to recall the “agony of defeat?” But that comes along with “the thrill of victory” (you have to be old to know where I got all of these quotes…)

I’ve played sports most of my life. Not very well, mind you, and I’ve also coached teams (and was paid.) I coached one team that won the girls' city track and field championships. One of my girls I worked with in physical education classes later went on be a state HS and college women’s standout in basketball. (But she was good, and all I did was encourage her, even though I teased it was all of those basketball scrimmages I played with her.)

I have my favorite teams and sports to watch and play, and get this, I wanted to be a sports newspaper writer when I graduated from college. In fact in high school I was the sports editor—the first female sports editor—of my high school newspaper, The Clan Courier. It was my sports writing that won me a journalism scholarship to Ball State University.

I also wrote the copy for a two page-sports spread in our high school yearbook. It was all about girls getting into organized sports, something that was new to our high school and the state, and about sweating. So, when you think of a coach, you might think I would say my best coach was some sports coach I had.

I can name one coach in sports who motivated and inspired me. But this question was about my best coaches in writing, and I have two standouts in this field who coached me and taught me the tough lessons. They taught me to pick my mouse up, get my fingers back on the keyboard, rewrite, and go on (wiping all that blood off the monitor.)The hardest fought and learned lessons for me seem to be echoed in the words from a golf coach: “Wipe the blood off--and continue.” Didn’t know golf could be bloody, huh? Well, yeah, even golf can leave a scar.

Dr. Dennis E. Hensley was my first official writing coach, when at age 40 I decided I wanted to try writing again and get back into the game professionally. He not only taught us about writing, but made us critique in the circle of doom with our classmates. (Ooooo. Scary. Ask Diann Hunt about it.) He also made us submit our work for publication as part of the class assignments (professional writing course.) It is one thing to turn in a paper for a grade, but it is quite an experience submitting your work to an editor. And critique is tough, but Doc taught me how to take critique. And from whom to take it, which is just as important.

Fiction is my first love and that was my first class with “Doc.” We experimented with all sorts of fiction assignments, and in one assignment, it wasn’t in the classroom where I got my first major critique, but on a break in the hallway early on in the semester course. On that now-burned-into-my-emotional-memory-banks evening, I chatted with classmates trying to get to know them in the 7th-inning stretch of the class. I got a drink of water from the fountain, and was strolling back to the classroom, when Doc stopped me in the hallway. He moved into my “personal space” and came within inches of my face.

Now, I had heard all kinds of stories about Doc Hensley. One was that he hated it if you were late, and would lock you out of the class. Another was that he had fought in and survived Vietnam. So, here he was within inches of my face, and all I had at that point were hearsays about him. It was a tense moment--wannabe writer eyeball-to-eyeball with the legendary Doc Hensley. I decided to stand my ground and not move. Good grief, I had survived worse, I reasoned in my mind. Being raised up with boys, having my own 4 boys and marrying into a family with mostly males, being the first female sports editor, first female on an all-male school, being a trapshooter, when it was still male-dominated, amongst other heinous acts of survival. I had learned to never give up an inch of ground when confronted.

“I haaaaate you," he said. Yeah. Right in my face. I'm sure I blinked.


Well, I couldn’t help it, even though I hesitated a second. I laughed. Right out loud.

“Ok, Dr. Hensley…why do you hate me--exactly?” I thought I saw a glint of humor in his eye.

“For what you did to me in that story. You tricked me.”

I was thrilled. He actually knew my story and that I wrote it! I didn’t even think he knew my name. But he sure knew my story.

“What do you think I should do differently?”

And so he coached me through what was wrong. He showed me how I could do it right, and he let me rewrite. And I did it again until he, as the reader/editor, was satisfied with it. I learned a lot about critique in that first personal reader confrontation.

A good coach not only makes you get up again, but makes you do it right. He finds a way to jolt you into reality and then, makes you do it again until you can do it. It’s not enough to just tell you something is wrong. It’s not enough to make you do it over and over, or punish you, because you could just be repeating the same wrong move again and again. A good coach MOTIVATES you to do it beyond of which you even think you are capable.

Since that early meeting on the playing field with Doc Hensley, I have learned so many things from him in writing and perseverence. But that first shock and awe of meeting face-to-face and toe-to-toe with one of the best coaches I’ve ever had was memorable—and we laugh about it even years later.

I really cannot leave this question without acknowledging another coach who has taught me many lessons in writing, and some really tough lessons, too. Terry Whalin was one of the first editors I ever "faced" at a writer's conference. I had written a few articles and had a nonfiction women's humor book I was hoping to sell. That manuscript met with a lot of rejections, but not so much because it was bad, as I didn't have the credentials or the platform from which to write it.

Essentially, Terry Whalin was the first to sit me down on the bench. Even though he rejected the manuscript,he's not the kind of editor, writer, teacher, coach who leaves writers without good, solid advice and plenty of encouragement to continue on.Get back in the game, Crystal!

Most importantly, he taught me that just because an editor rejects your work, (pretty hard lesson, even for the toughest among us,)this doesn't mean that's the end of the road for either the editor/writer relationship, or the manuscript.

Years later he encouraged me to break up that rejected manuscript into articles, other types of pieces, and send it out some more, and that was after I'd placed it into some long-ago-pushed-to-the-back file. Because I continued to listen to editors and their comments, and even an agent who rejected me (on that same manuscript,) I still have relationships with these people and have even done work for them. That is mostly due to Terry Whalin, who continues to ask about my writing and to encourage my work. (And I'm not the only one by a long shot.)

These people and so many more now, show me how to deal with rejection and losses and how important relationships are.

Never give up. Keep knocking on doors. Onward.

Writing is a very tough business. Even the best need help with their manuscripts, and even the most published continue to get rejections. I know this now.

These two coaches are effective in their coaching because they've been through almost every kind of playing situation that can be thrown at a writer. And what makes their coaching inspirational is that they care about the players (writers)and know how to motivate and teach.

While they aren't afraid to call a player out and deal with him, they also care about the player so much that they push him to the best that he can be. That's what your next editor, or if you're looking for an agent, the next agent who reads your proposal can be. Or maybe it will be that published author who takes interest in your work or a really good critique partner.

Tough lessons. Tough coaches. I count many now among my friends, and as well as count them as my mentors.

So, who is your most inspiring coach, and what hard lesson did he/she teach you?

Crystal Laine Miller

Monday, May 9, 2011


If you're a writer, I know that at some point you've struggled to find the exact words needed to share your thoughts or feelings. Not just any words will do. The right words can help your readers see the world in a new and unexpected way. Stephen Lawhead, author of The Paradise War, describes the power of the language in his fictional world below:

"there were no dead words. No words that had suffered the ignorant predation of a semiliterate media, or had their substance leached away through gross misuse; no words rendered meaningless through overuse, or cheapened through bureacratic doublespeak. Consequently, the speech of Albion was a valued currency, a language alive with meaning: poetic, imagaic, bursting with rhythm and sound. When the words were spoken aloud, they possessed the power to touch the heart as well as the head: they spoke to the soul."

I want to give that type of language to my characters, my story world!

Any tips on how you find the right words?

Or if you're a reader, would you share an example of a fiction book where the words reached out and grabbed you?

Sunday, May 8, 2011

More Reasons Not to Waste Your Failure

Four more weeks and I've discovered twice as many reasons not to squander the gift in the brown bag, failure.

1. I will waste my failure if it skews my view of God.

“For the LORD is good;

His lovingkindness is everlasting

And His faithfulness to all generations” (Psalm 100:5).

2. I will waste my failure if I do not know God’s nearness.

“The LORD is near to the brokenhearted

And saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18).

3. I will waste my failure if I do not humble.

“Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you” (James 4:10).

4. I will waste my failure if I turn inward to self-protect.

“But even if I am being poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I rejoice and share my joy with you all” (Philippians 2:17).

5. I will waste my failure if joy disappears.

“You, too, I urge you, rejoice in the same way and share your joy with me” (Philippians 2:18).

6. I will waste my failure if I my thinking remains unchanged.

“And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).

7. I will waste my failure if I do not ask to be taught.

“You are good and do good;

Teach me Your statutes” (Psalm 119:68).

8. I will waste my failure if I do not consider God may have something greater.

“But just as it is written,





(1 Corinthians 2:9).

It's tempting to rid myself of any trace of failure, but I have a suspicion that would be a little like pawning family silver. I'd regret the waste.