Sunday, November 28, 2010

250 words.

‘I know it’s not easy to rid yourself of the notion that you need something important to commit to ... but the trick of life is to stop worrying about finding the perfect thing to commit to and commit to something, anything at all.’
--Merle Shain, author and broadcaster, 1935-1989.

Sometimes it’s the willingness to make a small commitment— when a big commitment just isn’t possible— that saves us. The longer you spend getting to know yourself as you wrangle with the empty page, the more you will see that some years are better than others. There are seasons in your life as an artist that are explosive, and the words rush onto the screen from your fingertips in a kind of furious bliss. But those seasons, for most, are the exception and not the rule.

There are other seasons— and sometimes they seem to stretch out in a rather unseasonable fashion— when the fits and starts of a once-reliable engine sputter out before taking hold. Momentum is like a dream from a more innocent time, one in which all you had to contend against was the cadence of dialogue— is it authentic?— or the color of your protagonist’s hair— can you genuinely relate to a redhead or does she have a short, brunette bob with the tips slightly longer toward the front, instead?

After you’ve penned your first novel, you feel you’ve scaled Everest and believe the industry is ready to toast your stamina. Hell, it’s finished. Surely it’s as good as the thousands upon thousands of stories which have already managed to make it into print. After the first revision comes the first submission. You’re shocked when the pass— even a provisional one— comes. So, you revise, again, and resubmit. And another pass comes and perhaps you start to wonder if you should shelve the project for a while. Or maybe you overhaul it.

Whatever the case, you are now in the thick of it— living the dark side of the dream. It’s the side that is often romanticized as being drenched in absinthe and smelling of cigarettes though the truth is far less sexy. Trying to break into the elite circle of publication is hard work, and if you’re really committed to seeing this thing through, you might even begin to hammer out your next manuscript while pitching the first.

And herein lies the rub.

Now you have industry feedback. Now you understand that you have to bear in mind truisms such as writing to where your passion meets the market— God help us. Now, you have tears. True confession: I cry when I query agents. I read essays on crafting the perfect pitch and the salt squeezes out of the corners of my eyes because the last time I wanted something so badly it was driving a hand-me-down Oldsmobile 88 and looking mighty tasty in broken-in jeans. At any rate, tapping out that next yarn after submission, for some, may not flow as easily. Mostly because whatever childlike enthusiasm you brought to the former project has been flattened a bit by its head-on collision with target demographics and branding and acceptable word count. The last panel of agents and editors at the conference claimed all you have to do is write the best novel of which you’re capable and let them handle the packaging. But the truth— you have learned— is that even before you’re signed you have to be both author and marketer, artist and salesman. And what can foster greater distaste for our tribe than to have to think commercial?

Scissoring to the proverbial chase, if you’ve arrived at the place where you’re all starts with no big finish— heck, no happy middle— then the key to mastering the maze, I hazard, is to make a commitment. It doesn’t really matter how you got a bit turned around, the vow to yourself’s the thing. And, ultimately, the promises you make to yourself are the ones on which you build a foundation. Then, a first level, next a spot where the windows go and, eventually, the drapes.

Think of this as my love letter to those of you who, at times, feel a bit small in the face of managing your careers in a seeming void. Being your own boss is both a wing and an albatross. So I say to you, today, do what you can— but do it every day. Whittle away at the slope one spoonful at a time, if a spoon is all you have for the moment. Perhaps, in the long run, it’s not about the glamour of having accomplished something big but the quiet dignity of having never given in— even when all you were capable of was 250 words a day. Until next time, dear reader.


Monday, November 22, 2010

You Can Open Your Eyes, Now: Writing Those Difficult Scenes Outside Your Comfort Zone

Too scared to write that scene?
When I joined my first critique group, I was definitely nervous about having my work read For. The. First. Time. Ever. by anyone outside my family. I had written scenes that were not only uncomfortable for me to write, but ones that made me squirm in my seat thinking that other writers were reading them. What if those scenes made them laugh, when in all actuality they were supposed to be serious? What if I sat down to a table full of weird looks? Or even worse, what if they flat out told me I didn't know what I was doing?

Well, to my utter relief, one of the very first comments I received concerning my writing was that I really knew what I was doing when it came to writing violence. What? Me? How did that happen? Surprisingly enough, quite easily.

I've written a mixture of interesting scenes over the course of my writing. Some of it is quite obvious that it took some courage to soldier on through the tough parts, but others not as much. I'll give you a short list of the harder ones I've written (perhaps you're struggling with a similar one):

  • Violations against women -- This includes anything from rape to spousal abuse and everything else in between. This one is tough, considering I've never been through anything quite this difficult myself, so how could I possibly know what to put on the page? As a woman, I believe, in the very core of who we are, these are some of our deepest fears. Just the thought alone of being abused or raped sends a chill down my spine. If you're looking for a visual, then the film The Accused, starring Jodi Foster, contains a very vivid and heartbreaking scene about a woman being raped. (Caution: This is not for the faint of heart!) Or perhaps more recently with Private Practice's portrayal of the rape of Dr. Charlotte King. I think a good visual helps the writer break down what needs to happen in the scene (and often times see how the victim deals with it), even if it might be hard to watch. If you're going to write it, then you need to make it believable.
  • Race-related violence -- A theme that tends to thread through my novels is violence related, in some part, to race. Since my first novel takes place during slavery, I did intense research concerning slaves and plantation life, particularly whippings/beatings and with what sorts of devices (a very dark road of research to travel, my friends). My second novel deals with the 1920s KKK, so again, I did intense research concerning how the Klan tormented/tortured their victims. Depending on what part of the country they were located, the KKK targeted all different types of races, foreigners, religions, etc. Many people don't realize how active the Klan was throughout the lower forty-eight, but interestingly enough, one of the strongest divisions was the Indiana Klan. A good film for this category would be Rosewood. Very tragic and horrific what went on there. (Caution: Again, not for the faint of heart!)
  • Murder -- Again, something with which I have no experience. These scenes get tough to write and I always do a step-by-step visualization (kind of a murder Paint-by-Numbers). When finished writing one, always ask yourself -- "Does it seem believable?", "Does it make sense to the reader?", "Is everyone where they need to be in the scene?" and "Does it flow well?" If if feels herky-jerky, like you glossed parts of it over or just mish-mashed it together, then take a step back and go through the scene in your mind. For a visual, I would suggest just about any movie or tv show that allows the viewer to see how the crime was played out. The Changeling, starring Angelina Jolie, reveals the children's murders through how the young accomplice viewed them.
  • Sex/Love Scenes -- The bane of any non-Romance writer's existence! These, for me anyway, tend to be the toughest of all. I always want some amount of romance, but making it feel real can often times make it feel cheesy to the reader. Unless you're writing a Romance novel, try to avoid as much flowery vocabulary as possible. One thing I try to avoid until it absolutely has to be written into the story is, "I love you". It's so clichéd sounding when it gets used repeatedly in a novel. Every scene is different because every two sets of characters are different. Two teenagers are not going to experience their love the same way as a hardened cop and her murder suspect would. Search out visual representations of your characters together and watch how the actors' scene plays out. Then go from there.
One thing I don't touch upon here (except in making reference to The Changeling) is horrific crimes involving children. I've never had a reason to write one, and quite honestly, I believe that's where I'd draw the line. Although I haven't read it, I've heard that Alice Sebold's, The Lovely Bones, involves rather descriptive scenes of her main protagonist. I haven't been able to bring myself to read it but, well, there you go.

I'm a lot like many of you when it comes to writing my characters into incredibly difficult scenes. I want to do it with one eye closed. In truth, I know I have to face it head-on if this is what I need to put my characters through. Just keep in mind that you can do it and when you've accomplished it, it will be that much easier to write the next one.

Hang in there and you'll
make it through!
How about you? How do you deal with writing those difficult scenes? Is there a process you go through to make it believable and work really well on the page? Or do you avoid them, perhaps gloss them over? Or maybe you just don't write that kind of fiction to begin with?

Mary Mary
♥   ♥   ♥
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Everyone have a great Thanksgiving! Treat yourself to some holiday cheer and laughter and go watch Planes, Trains and Automobiles, the best Thanksgiving movie ever!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A Weekday Whisper

An Awesome Rating at The Written Connection!

 An extra helping of love was bestowed upon the Divine Sisterhood this week. Check out our awesome blog rating at Thanks a bunch for the fantastic 10/10 rating! 

We love all of our fans!!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

No novice writer needs to apply: the myths surrounding that first novel

More myths have been created around the publishing of a first novel than about JFK’s murder. The “experts” agree that publishing houses prefer to stay clear off first literary attempts and even if a novice writer gets the longed-for breakthrough, he or she must never expect instant fame, invitations to Oprah or even a decent amount of cash in exchange for the untried manuscript. Is that ominous scenery even close to truth?

Go back in time and remember that first time you went looking for a job. Remember how your eyes scanned the ads and kept meeting those ominous words “experience required”? It seemed like nobody wanted you and yet you did get a job. The same goes for novice writers. Somewhere, somehow, unless their MS are written in Pidgin English, every writer gets his day. Hundreds of new writers emerge every year. And wait! Some make it to that iconic honor roll, The New York Times Bestseller list.

A couple of years ago, I went cross-eyed, reading article after article declaring that first novels, even if published, were just rehearsals into the Real McCoy. And then I heard of Jo Graham. Today, Miss Graham is a well recognized writer who merits her own Wikipedia entry, but back in 2008 she was a newcomer to the business. However, her first novel Black Ships, a retelling of the Aeneid, could be found among Amazon´s bestselling historical fantasies.

I had never seen a picture of Jo Graham, but she became my idol, the person I wanted to be when I grew up. Here was a novice writer who, at the noble age of forty, had published a historical fantasy, and yet was not hiding in some dingy bookstore, boring housewives to death. She was in Amazon‘s list off successful books, and would eventually go to win the Locus Award for First Novel. Jo Graham was a success story incarnated. She had proven all the prophets of doom wrong. Moreover, she had broken a tremendous taboo. She had published excerpts of her novel in the World Wide Web for all her friends to read!

Was it sheer luck or are there more Jo Grahams in the making? Well, the fact that Locus, a well known magazine devoted to Science Fiction and Fantasy grants a yearly award to the best First Novel is a telling sign. If you examine the list of winners you´ll find two of my favorite historical fantasies: Naomi Novick’s Temeraire, and Susannah Clark´s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Temeraire was the first volume of a very successful series, and Ms Clark´s first novel has been sold to Hollywood. Not bad!

There are plenty of literary awards for a first book so not everyone in the industry is unwilling to touch newcomers. And even novels that get no critical accolades can make it big. Let's see, what about an improbable plot that has a shy teenager, living in a tiny village in the Northwest, and falling in love with the most enigmatic boy in school who also happens to be a one hundred yea- old vampire? Yes, Stephanie Mayer was a newbie in the writing craft and yet she scored a home run with Twilight.

The love story of Bella and Edward was not only a first novel but (and it was clear by its open ending) part of a series as well. Don´t they say that first novels that are part of a series are not welcome by agents and publishers? Those who believed in that clause were the twenty publishers (some say they were sixty!) that turned down Susan K. Rowling’s manuscript. They are still kicking themselves for missing the chance to publish Harry Potter and the Philosopher´s Stone!

I left the juiciest tidbit for dessert. The Historian was a first novel that came out with such buzz that a couple of publishing houses bid for it believing the novel to be the next Da Vinci Code. Little Brown eventually paid 2 million dollars to the author, Elisabeth Kostova, who even won an award when The Historian was still in progress.

So novice writers have plenty of reason to dream, won´t you agree? And the best example is Rosslyn Elliot, whose interview, may be read in this same blog. Her first novel landed her a three book contract, despite the fact that she delves into a complex and uncommon genre.

Do you know any other first novels that went on to become bestsellers? Do you still think a first novel has fewer chances if it is part of a series or if the author post chapters on the Internet?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Weekday Whisper

The Querying Funk
Like a few of you out there, I tend to get what I call The Querying Funk. Every one of us has a system to the way we query, and I'm not any different. I look at agent websites, peruse the most recent Writer's Market or Jeff Herman's Guide, and hop over to querytracker from time to time. I keep a personal list of all the agents I have queried and a separate one of those I plan on querying (I keep a list of the latter on my computer, so as not to confuse myself). 

After I've queried about four or five agents, I sit back and wait to see what they have to say. My most consistent feedback is that my work is "something special" or "highly marketable", but alas, we have no room for a new author. At this point, I go through my "funk".

We are told to grow a thick skin as budding authors, but that doesn't mean we still don't take a beating. Your self-esteem gets knocked around a bit with all the rejections, and besides, what can you do when they love your work but don't have time or space to take you on? Nothing, I suppose, except to move on to the next agent on your list.

My "funk" lasts about a month and then I start in again. In the meantime, I'm always working on my next project, occasionally entering a contest, and keeping in mind that when the time is right, that door will open. As we speak, I'm emerging from a time of hibernation and setting foot in the querying world once more. I want to get a few sent out before the end of this month because, as one agent told me, agencies tend to get bombarded by queries in December and January for a mixture of reasons (primarily because NaNoWriMo is in November and because people finally have time to get to querying at the end of the year. Go figure!).

How about you? Do you find yourself in The Querying Funk from time to time, or perhaps you just push on through? What kind of process do you go through to keep yourself motivated?

Monday, November 8, 2010

Interview with an Author: Rosslyn Elliott

Have you ever wondered what it's like to have an agent or to be signed by a major publisher? We have author Rosslyn Elliott here today to answer these and other questions!

Rosslyn has recently signed a three-book deal with Thomas Nelson and her first book, Fairer than Morning, will be published in April 2011.

Rosslyn, welcome to the Divine Secrets of the Writing Sisterhood!

1. Could you tell our readers what your novel is about?

Fairer than Morning tells the story of a saddler’s daughter who dreams of marriage to her poetic, educated suitor—until a runaway apprentice shows her that a truly noble man will risk his life to free the oppressed.

My novel is an adventurous, inspirational love story based on the Hanby family who lived in Ohio and worked to free slaves before the Civil War.

2. I know that you recently visited the site where your novel takes place and even the house where one of your characters lived. Could you tell us what that experience was like?

I was really moved by my visit to Westerville, Ohio this September. I lived in Westerville from 2002 to 2006, and my initial visit to the Hanby House museum in 2006 inspired me to write this trilogy.

Before this visit, I had not returned to Westerville in the four years since my family’s relocation to the southwest, and so going back at last was a momentous occasion for me.

Two things really hit home. The first was the gratitude I feel to all those who have preserved the Hanby legacy over the years. Our local history in America stays alive primarily because of the efforts of thousands of volunteers across the country. Were it not for historical societies, many of our historic homes would be long gone. Pam Allen is the director of the Hanby House now, and I’m sure she knows more about the Hanby family than anyone else alive. Bill and Harriet Merriman run the Westerville Historical Society. These leaders and their volunteers are saving our past from oblivion, and I see my mission as a joint effort with theirs. Amateur historians save our physical artifacts and historical records, while novelists breathe life into the stories of our ancestors.

The other major event of my visit was seeing the graves of the real people who appear in my novels. Most of the Hanby family is buried in the Otterbein College cemetery. I’ve lived with this family for four years now, thinking about them and getting inside their heads in order to portray them. My visit to their graves was almost like seeing the resting places of old friends or great-grandparents.

3. How did you find your agent and how long did it take you to find her?

A national writer’s organization (ACFW) sent out word on its email loop that Rachelle Gardner was seeking quality historical romance. I had just finished my first novel, and I sent a query letter to her. She was exactly the kind of agent I thought would be a good match for me. She was able to see past the very rough edges of that novel and detect long-term potential, so she signed me as her client. That first novel garnered some interest, but in the end, it wasn’t contracted. As it made the rounds (a process which takes months in the publishing industry), I was writing my second novel, which would eventually be titled Fairer than Morning. I knew it was much better than my first, and that if I had a chance to be published, this was probably it. This was the best I could do. So I was immensely relieved and delighted when Thomas Nelson offered me a three-book deal beginning with Fairer than Morning.

4. What can writers expect from an agent/writer relationship? How often do you communicate with her?

My communications with Rachelle vary widely depending on what’s going on in the publishing cycle. Right now, for example, my edits are finished and we are waiting for the first book to be typeset. There’s really no reason to communicate with my agent—I just need to keep working on my second novel for the series, which is due in January. The last time we emailed and spoke by phone was about my novel’s cover. When the design came out from the publisher’s art staff, I consulted her to see what she thought. Fortunately, we both thought it was a lovely design that would attract readers.

Different agents have different strengths. Rachelle and her agency, Wordserve Literary, are known to be strong editorially. Rachelle was formerly a top-level freelance fiction editor, so she really knows what she’s doing with narrative. Other agents may have legal backgrounds, or marketing backgrounds. Of course, an agent should be competent in all areas, as Rachelle is, but I think several of her clients would give her credit for helping them get contracts as a result of her excellent editorial advice. In my case, she didn’t give a lot of editorial feedback because the story of my novel naturally lent itself to a strong plot and theme. But I certainly will consider her editorial opinion should she offer one in the future!

5. Once you sign a contract with the publisher, what is expected of you? How often do you communicate with your editor? Is it necessary to meet in person?

Communication with my editor is also on an as-needed basis. This usually means I will exchange emails with my editor an average of once a month. But when we do contact one another, it often is a four-or-five-email conversation, as novels are complex and discussion takes time. We’ve also spoken by phone a few times. I met her in person at a conference recently. I highly, highly recommend that an author meet her editor in person as soon as possible after signing a contract. My dinner with my editor and the Thomas Nelson publishing family was a valuable time to get to know one another and establish fellowship and trust. My editor is wonderful, and I’m not at all surprised that she was the ACFW 2009 Editor of the Year.

6. Writers often wonder what will happen to the title of their novels once a publisher buys them. Can you share with us your experience with your book title?

My debut novel’s working title was The Saddler’s Daughter when it was contracted by Thomas Nelson. I wasn’t wild about that title, but it was the most obvious choice for a novel in this genre. My editor asked me to come up with some new titles for the books in the series. She suggested that they sound like scriptural poetry, given that my writing has lyrical tendencies. I was really excited by this suggestion, and I invented six sets of titles by looking in old hymnbooks for ideas. My editor and my agent each picked the set that included Fairer than Morning, so I had confidence we had found the right titles.

7. Do you have any input on what the book cover will look like?

I gave them a one-page description of several of the main characters, plus some important objects and scenes (sidesaddles, pistols, etc). Other than that, I left it up to them. However, I know other authors who have suggested very specific scenes for their titles and had their suggestions accepted. That can depend on the publisher and their way of operating. But most authors have only a little input on their covers.

8. How has your life changed since you were signed? Or has it not?

Not too much. I suppose I receive a little more understanding from casual friends, now that I have a contract. They realize that a published writer needs to spend time writing, and so I don’t get funny looks if I say I can’t do something because I’m on deadline. But I had to take myself seriously as a writer before I had a contract in order to work hard enough to get that contract. So I encourage all pre-published writers out there not to be discouraged by those who don’t take your writing seriously. You have to treat it as a real job if you want it to become a real job. :)

9. Are there any tips you can give other writers on how to become published?

First, study the craft and write good fiction. I was signed by an agent in mid-2008, but I didn’t get a contract until eighteen months later, after I had written the best novel I was capable of writing.

I also recommend looking for agents who are just entering the business, as long as they are well-qualified. One good move is signing with a new agent at an established agency. They will be hungry for good work and not overloaded with clients.

10. Do you think Inspirational Fiction is a promising market (more so than the secular market)?

I think inspirational fiction is flourishing, but I also have a friend who just signed a contract for middle-grade fiction in the secular market. So it all depends on the quality and marketability of an individual writer’s work. The inspirational market is smaller, which means it’s easier for a new author to make connections, but also that there are fewer ‘slots’ for debut authors. Also, my genre is hot right now in the inspirational market. For those trying to publish inspirational sci-fi or fantasy, the going is much tougher. Even contemporary romance is less popular than historical romance in the inspirational market. But as any publishing insider will tell you, these genres cycle in and out, and what’s hot today may be out tomorrow, whether you’re in the inspirational or the secular market.

11. Have you ever considered writing for the secular market?

Not yet. Because I love historicals, and because I’ve been Christian for ten years (though I spent my young adulthood as an agnostic), the inspirational market was a natural fit for me. I knew that clean, thoughtful historical romance would be an easier sell in the inspirational marketplace. I don’t preach to readers, but my historical characters were sincere Christians and that informs the way I characterize them in my novel. That worldview plus the fact that I do not have any interest in writing explicit sex scenes would make my work uninteresting to some types of secular publishers. The fact is, inspirational publishing exists not because Christian authors want to segregate their books onto a different shelf, but because so many mainstream publishers won’t publish novels featuring a positive Christian protagonist who thinks about faith in her everyday life.

Someday, I might like to write some crossover historical novels for a wider audience, but right now I have my hands full with a looming deadline and parenting! :) Thanks so much for having me on your blog.

Thank you, Rosslyn, and best of luck with your new book!

Rosslyn Elliott

For more information about Rosslyn, please visit her website:

(Don't forget to stop by her popular blog: