Win a Free Book

Lena Nelson Dooley posted an interview with me on her blog.

Readers who leave a comment on her site before DECEMBER 10, 2011, will be entered in a drawing for a free copy of The Story in the Stars.

Stop by for a visit. You might win a book for Christmas!

 

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Moving On

Rustie, Mom and Me sometime in 1989

It’s been a while since I posted, for a number of reasons. I won’t bore you by listing them all, but the main one was simple indecision. With all the subjects I could blog about, which should I choose?

Thanksgiving was an obvious theme, but everybody was doing it, and I don’t like being redundant. Besides, I contributed to that discussion in the other blog of which I’m a part.

Thinking I might come at it from a more historical perspective (Thanksgivings past rather than what I’m thankful for today), I started looking through old photos, searching for a picture of a Thanksgiving from my childhood.

I have plenty of snapshots in my mind. One is of my mom, young and dark-haired, in dress and apron, setting the turkey on the table.  She wasn’t known for her cooking skills, but at Thanksgiving, she shone. (Until after her in-laws had passed and she no longer felt she had to impress anyone. That’s when she started serving abominations like turkey ham.) But clear as my memories are, I couldn’t find any photos – not without spending more time at it than I wanted, anyway.

When that plan fell through, I considered discussing the act of giving thanks. Today’s school kids learn about the Pilgrims and Indians, but are they taught that the Pilgrims thanked God for His provision?

How many families gathered last Thursday and enjoyed one another’s company, the food on the table, and the football on TV, without ever thanking anyone for any of it?

But no, whining about people’s attitudes goes against my resolve to complain less and praise more, so I rejected that topic too.

I could have blogged about Black Friday. I considered a discussion about self-publishing. And I contemplated writing about birthdays.

Our only son, our third child, was born the day before Thanksgiving in 1985. Sometimes his birthday falls on the holiday itself, and we used to call him our little turkey. By now, though, he’s neither little nor a turkey; he’s a fine young man of which we’re all proud.

Little Artie

While reminiscing about his birth, I realized that if he hadn’t been born on the holiday weekend, we wouldn’t have had our fourth child, either. Money wasn’t abundant, and kids are expensive; so now that we had them in both sexes, we asked the doctor to do a tubal ligation. He couldn’t, though, because no non-emergency procedures could be done during the holiday. “When you get home, call my office and we’ll schedule one,” he told us.

After further consideration, though, my husband and I decided not to be so hasty. We’d leave our options open. Nineteen months later, I delivered one more little option – an unexpected but delightful blessing. But it never occurred to me until yesterday that Rustie wouldn’t have joined our family if her brother had been born on a different day.

While I ruminated on these things, Thanksgiving, Black Friday, and the birthday came and went, all without comment on my blog.

Isn’t that a picture of life? I was going to… I’d planned to… I always intended… But before we know it, the moment is gone.

Looking through old photos reinforced the thought. We can capture a moment on film, but the clock doesn’t stop; the moments keep ticking.

Failing to decide is itself a decision. What decision does this moment call for?

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Artistic Differences

Had an interesting email conversation a month or two ago.

It all started when I read Larry Brooks’ book, Story Engineering.

Like just about every other writer and wannabe writer in the English-speaking world, I subscribe to Randy Ingermanson’s Advanced Fiction Writing e-zine; and in one issue, he highly recommended the book. Said it was the best explanation of plotting he’d ever read. Don’t know if the fact that he and Larry Brooks co-authored Writing Fiction for Dummies had anything to with his glowing recommendation. But, though Randy’s famous “Snowflake Method” goes against my natural grain, I do like his e-zine and usually find good stuff in it. I figured I’d buy the book, since he spoke so highly of it.

Well. As my mom always said, to each his own. Which is to say, it probably IS a good book, if you can make sense out of it. As for me, it was like reading something in a language I’m passingly familiar with, but in which I’m not quite fluent. Plainly, my mind and Mr. Brooks’ do not follow the same wavelengths.

But one thing I did understand – or thought I did – was his derisiveness toward seat-of-the-pants plotters.

It’s quite possible that he and I define the term “seat-of-the-pants” differently. But all the way through the book, I got the definite impression he had no concept of how pantsing works. Or at least, how it works for me.

I suppose if you sit down to write a book with no idea of what it’s about, you can expect to lose your way before long. But some of us pantsers have a general direction from the outset. Though we don’t arm ourselves with outlines, character sketches, note cards, synopses or the like, we manage to shape the story’s elements in more or less the proper proportions without having to make multiple false starts. And using a computer, as nearly all writers do these days, it’s a piece of cake to insert a scene or character, a foreshadowing element, or whatever is necessary, should we later realize we need it. In my experience, at least, it’s never been the utter chaos he seems to think.

It was a tough slog, but I finally finished the book, feeling a little frustrated that I’d spent good money on it, and a little irritated at his heavy-handed maligning of my writing style. Being a writer, I felt compelled to vent my feelings through the written word. So, after due consideration, I sent him an email in which I tried to be as neighborly as possible while still conveying my point.

Imagine my surprise when I got a response that very day. One that precipitated several more emails back and forth. A conversation that, from my point of view, was pleasant and civil on both sides.

During the course of the shuttling messages, he asked me if I’d be willing to do a guest post on his high-traffic blog, discussing plot construction from a pantser’s point of view. I was amazed that he’d ask – I am, after all, a nobody, and he’s made quite a name for himself over this plotting issue. I agreed to write something, asked for more details, and…

Never heard another word.

Looking back over our correspondence, it occurred to me that maybe he was being sarcastic the whole time but I was too dense to see it. Or, maybe he misunderstood something I said, and I’d unintentionally offended him. Or, maybe… who knows? I certainly don’t. I just know our conversations ended as abruptly as they began, and I was left more confused than when I started.

What’s the moral of this story? I guess simply that, like “normals” (i.e., people who aren’t writers), we wordsmiths are all put together differently. Though we all use words, our minds don’t necessarily process them the same way. An explanation or illustration that makes things crystal clear to one of us looks like mud to another. And there’s no point in taking it personally. That’s just the way it is.

So, Larry, if I offended you by something I said, I’m sorry.  But seriously, it is possible to write a well-crafted plot without going through the contortions you describe. And I still contend that, in the final analysis, when you read a good book, you can’t tell if the story was painstakingly plotted beforehand by a person who understands your method, or if the author started out with a vague idea and fleshed it out as he went. The basic elements of a good story are the same, however the creator approached the construction.

And that’s all I have to say on this subject.

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Book Signing Blues

Maybe you’ve seen this video by mystery author Parnell Hall, but if not, check it out. It’s fun.

And not far from the truth. Crowds of fans — and book purchasers — might be the norm at book signings by the rich and famous, but my guess is Mr. Hall’s video captures the more typical scenario.

Yesterday I was among thirty authors at the Gospel Book Store in Berlin, Ohio, participating in that town’s kick-off to the Christmas season.

I wish I’d have brought a camera, because it was a fun event. The majority of the authors were Amish (you might be able to tell that from the names on the list of participants), or wrote about the Amish, like Dr. Elton Lehman. We were all spread throughout the lobby of the German Village Shopping Center. I was situated outside the entrance to Mast Pharmacy, right beside the ATM machine. (Don’t worry, I was careful to avert my gaze whenever a customer used it.)

From the perspective of Eli Hostetler, the bookstore’s owner, the event was a success. I saw a lot of people not only browsing, but buying books. Several of them had big armloads, and one lady commented she should have grabbed a cart from the nearby grocery store. The crowd flowed through steadily all morning and well into the afternoon — the official hours were 9 am to 2 pm, but I left at 2:15 and several customers were still there, visiting with the authors.

The OTHER authors. The Amish ones.

As an Englisher and a science fiction writer, I was not exactly the most popular kid on the block. The ATM got more business than I did.

But it was a fun day, I enjoyed sharing a table with Lil Duncan, and I’m happy to report that I sold twice as many books as I did at my past two book signings combined. That’s right, I sold two yesterday.

Oh, and this is interesting. One of the other authors there had a familiar name: Trevor Littleton, author of Shadows. His name was familiar because he grew up a few houses down the road from me and is the same age as my second daughter. He’s now a pastor in Millersburg, Ohio, is married and a father, and in his spare time, a fiction writer.  Nice guy. I don’t know how many he sold, since I couldn’t see from where I was sitting.

I’m grateful to Mr. Hostetler for extending the invitation for me to participate in the event. His primary goal, other than offering good books to his customers, is to support local Amish authors in their efforts to memorialize a unique culture so it won’t fade away and be forgotten. His attempt to promote The Story in the Stars along with the rest was an act of generosity, and I appreciate it.

However, this was my second visit to his store, and neither was profitable. He’s invited me to come back next year, but I’m not sure I’ll accept — and I doubt he’ll be disappointed if I don’t.

I should have made a video.

 


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Questions For Thought

Clicking links on Twitter a couple days ago, I ran across a random blog post that got my mind whirring. Its intent was to create controversy, and it succeeded. The post began with a list of what sort of people are destined for hell, and ended in an argument in the Comments section between two readers. One commenter declared that there’s no heaven or hell because God doesn’t exist, and another tried to persuade him otherwise. An ancient discussion, with no new ground covered nor points scored on either side.

Particularly in matters such as this, it’s hard to change someone’s mind. Unless both parties are willing to honestly and openly consider the other’s view, and unless both agree the other’s fact source is reliable, the discussion will go nowhere.

Those who believe the Bible use it as the arbiter of truth. But for a person who considers it just an old book, no scriptural argument will be convincing. It would be like someone trying to prove something by saying he got his evidence from an email forward.

Bible believers can, however, go to the scriptures for guidance in dealing with these situations. For instance, God tells us that though many people turn a deaf ear to His written word, He still speaks to them – to everyone — through the created world.

God has made Himself readily apparent to mankind, but we have a long track record of obtusely turning a blind eye and deaf ear to His revelations.

So instead of thumping the Bible when dealing with those who reject its authority, let’s direct them to what some call “the real world.” That is, what we can see with our mortal eyes.

Because of the evolutionary brainwashing going on in academia, it’s difficult to point to the Creation as demonstrating God’s existence. Never mind that the physical evidence overwhelmingly supports the scriptural account of Creation and the flood of Noah’s day. The unenlightened person doesn’t see that, in order to embrace the explanations modern science insists upon, we must lay aside the scientific process, deny physical laws, narrow the focus to consider only the data that tends to support a set of preconceived ideas, and throw logic and mathematical probabilities to the winds.

The argument against God doesn’t seem to attack the generic, impersonal idea of the kind of Force who might be with us in our lofty imaginations. That, apparently, is harmless, because it requires nothing from us. What people find offensive is the God of the Bible: the immortal, invisible, only wise Jehovah, Who is holy, merciful, and righteous.

And if a person attempts to use reason to disprove the existence of this God, it’s usually on a basis similar to this: if God is so good, then why is there evil? If God is so powerful, why does evil prevail? If God is so loving, why doesn’t He do something about the suffering of innocents?

Good questions. But here’s mine: if God is God, what gives me the right to judge Him?

If He is God, His understanding is infinite; mine is not. Do I see all? And even within my extremely limited vision, do I understand every nuance of what I see? Have I ever been mistaken? Have I ever misunderstood something? Have I ever overlooked something? Have I ever been confused? How then can I, with limited perception and comprehension, be in a position to say what’s right? Do I honestly think I’m qualified to pass judgment on the One who is truly perfect?

The bottom line, of course, is what a person chooses to believe. We can disbelieve God exists if we want to; we can refuse to change our minds about that, even when reason argues against us. It all boils down to what we choose to accept.

But if your mind isn’t too tightly closed to let a little light in, let’s take another look at the world.

If the biblical concept of God is wrong, why do we place a high value on justice, or honesty, or graciousness? Why do we define “good” the way we do?

If the presence of evil disproves God’s existence, what does the presence of mercy prove?

If there is no God, why is there beauty in the world? If there is no infinite God, why is the universe beyond our reckoning? If there is no God of redemption, why do we continually look for hope? If man merely created god in his own image, what compels every culture to do so?

To say there is no God is as logical as saying there’s no such thing as oxygen because we can’t see it, hear it, taste, smell, or feel it.

To say there is no God is as reasonable as insisting there is no sun because half the world is always  in darkness.

To say there is no God is the same as saying there is no order to the world, no organization of the elements, no infinite intricacies of genetic coding, no consistent natural processes or physical laws.

If you believe that oxygen is essential to human life – if you believe the sun will rise in the morning – if you believe in photosynthesis – if you believe that love exists – then you believe in the existence of God.

The real question: what will you do about it?

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Meet Paul Baines

In the last installment of the Lost Genre Guild guest blog series, today we meet self-described nomad Paul Baines.

Q. Welcome, Paul. How long have you been writing?

A. I used to mess around with short fiction at school, but I only started writing seriously about fourteen years ago.

Q. When did you feel called to write?

A. Fourteen years ago. I asked God for something that I could do for Him and the desire to write hit me within a matter of weeks.

Q.  Where do you get your ideas for your stories?

A. I usually start with thinking about an interesting situation or scene. Occasionally, one will stick and I then start thinking about events surrounding the scene. If end up with enough material to work with, it may end up on my list of potential stories. At this point, I write the opening chapter. This is usually enough to tell me whether or not it can work as a novel.

Q. What are your thoughts on critique groups?

I was invited to one a couple of years back, but I have never actually taken part in one. The problem is a lack of time. I simply don’t have enough sand in my hourglass to do everything I want to do. If they could find a way of adding another eight hours to the standard day, I would be a very happy scribbler.

Q. Was it hard to develop a writing style?

A. For me, yes. It took most of the past fourteen years for me to find my voice. My first attempt at a novel was described as “solid but not slick enough.” Since then I have worked diligently to find my own voice. I’m not sure how “slick” my writing is now, but at least it is mine.

Q. Who is your favorite author?

A. Stephen King.

Q. Have you dealt with writer’s block? If so, how did you overcome it?

A. I get a mild version of writer’s block fairly regularly. Sometimes the words just flow. Other times I can spend days in a staring contest with my monitor. I get over these blocks by reading. I find that the act of reading will often be enough to jump-start my own creativity.

Q. Do you find a part of your personality sneaking into any of your characters?

A. I once read that you should write what you know. I am pretty certain that, in the act of creating a character, we all draw on our own experiences. So, yes, definitely.

Q. Were there any scenes you found difficult to write? Made you angry or made you cry?

A. The hardest scene for me to write was a church scene. I was desperate to avoid being preachy, yet the scene was essential for the story. I think I managed to avoided making it preachy in the end (at least I hope I did). As for making myself cry, I did manage to make myself choke up one time. I was reading a chapter that seemed to make everyone who read it a bit teary. I wanted to see if I could identify exactly what it was that triggered the emotion. While reading it, I choked up. And, yes, I did identify the trigger.

Q. Do you use outlines or let the story develop on its own?

I like to have a very broad outline. I liken it to remembering an old film I’ve seen years before, in which I can remember the mood of the film, and the general plot, but not the details. That way, I can let the story grow, but without getting lost on the way.

Q. What do you want your readers to take from your book(s)?

A. A sense that God is in control and loves us more than we can ever imagine.

Q. Can you share any upcoming projects with us?

A. Hmm. Well I have two finished stories with my publisher at the moment. Plus a long humorous poem for kids, written in the style of Dr Seuss. At the moment I’m busy writing a sequel to my debut novel Alpha Redemption. And I have another story waiting to be written, plus an old story that I want to rewrite and another that I am thinking about.

Q. How do you respond when someone comments that certain elements (magic, vampires, zombies, etc.) in your story does not fit in what they consider to be Christian?

A. Jesus was a story teller. He used stories to help explain difficult concepts. On ten occasions Jesus started a parable  with the words: “The kingdom of heaven is like. . .”. He could have just “told” them about heaven, but he knew it would be more effective to “show” them through a story. If someone ever suggested that certain elements of my story were un-Christian, I would probably direct them to go and read through their Bible again and underline anything that they would consider to contain “un-Christian” elements if they encountered it in a modern novel. I think most of Revelation would qualify, as would much of the account of Moses’ time in Egypt.

Q.  Tell us a little about yourself. What do you like to do when you are not writing? What is your temperament, etc.?

A. I love to watch a good film, or listen to some music. When I’m not relaxing I am usually exercising, or watching sport. I used to be a fitness instructor so cannot imagine not being fit. I’m not a fitness fanatic, but I do like to train.

Q. With a full schedule, how do you find time to write?

I commute six miles to work and back on my bicycle every day, which means I have about an hour-and-a-half with nothing to do other than watch the world roll by. What I started doing a few years ago was to write my novel on the way to work. I would run through plots and narrative and dialogue in my head, and then write them down as soon as I got to a computer. It is quite effective.

Q.  When creating a character, where do you begin? Do you give them a background even if it may never be mentioned in the storyline?

A. I tend to concentrate on the main characters. I don’t do an outline, but I imagine what they are like, and how they fit into the story. Then I let them grow organically with the story, adjusting and tweaking as I go. Sometimes this means rewriting a part of the novel, but that is just a part of writing so I don’t mind.

Q. Can you share one or two nuggets of wisdom to those wanting to travel down the writing road?

A. Be prepared for rejection, criticism, and a lot of hard work. Forget those fortunate few who beat the odds and became instant bestsellers. Focus instead on becoming a better writer. God may not want you to sell a million copies, but then again He might. Focus on the pleasure of writing. Be prepared to market yourself and your book, even if you cringe at the very idea.

Q. Where can readers find your books and contact information?

My personal site: www.pabaines.com
My publisher: www.splashdownbooks.com
Amazon: http://amzn.to/pFKFca

Q. Do you spend time in prayer before you write or begin a project?

A. Yes, enormous amounts, especially for any work that I consider a part of my ministry. I feel that, as a Christian writer, I should do nothing without God’s blessings. My prayer used to be: please let my book be published. Now it is: please don’t let my book be published, unless you want it to be.

Q. What is your writing routine? Do you need peace and quiet, soft music, or does it matter?

A. I actually do most of my writing during my lunch break at work. My office can get quite noisy, so I usually listen to music through my headphones. I like Rachmaninoff, or a movie soundtrack if I need some inspiration.

Thanks, Paul, for stopping by.

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I Don’t Call Many Books a Must-Read; But This One Really Is

I met Jeanette Windle in the spring of 2008, at a Heart of America Christian Writer’s Network mentoring retreat outside Kansas City. Though I’m not a member of HOACWN, a writer friend wanted to go to the retreat and invited me to join her.

I was working on The Story in the Stars and thought some knowledgeable, one-on-one input might be a worth the investment. Jeanette Windle was to be the mentor for aspiring novelists. We each provided her with a synopsis and sample chapters ahead of time so she’d be ready to give us personalized input.

I’d never heard of Jeanette before, perhaps in part because I usually avoided Christian fiction. So to help prepare for our meeting, I decided to read some of her work. I checked out her first novel, CrossFire, from the library. I also read what at that time was her most recent release, Betrayed.

Both of these were well-plotted, fast-moving stories. They demonstrated that Jeanette has knowledge of and insight into the realities of life in South America.  But I must be honest; despite these books’ notable strengths, both of them disappointed me on a couple of levels. Most notably, they seemed to shrug off what, to my way of thinking, is a key function of Christian fiction: pointing the reader to Jesus Christ.

Mark Littleton met me at the airport. Along with a couple others, Angela was already in the van when I got in, and we had time to chat and get acquainted with one another while we drove in circles, waiting for Jeanette to join us. We finally found her, and while Mark loaded her luggage, she opened the passenger door and climbed into the van as I was running my mouth. I have no recollection what I was talking about; I was just babbling, as usual.

Jeanette gave me a glance as she took her seat. “You’re Yvonne.”

“And you’re Jeanette,” I said. “But how do you know who I am?”

She shrugged. “I read your manuscript. I recognize your voice.”

I decided right then, she must be brilliant. How could a person recognize another’s speaking voice, when all she’d ever known in the past was the speaker’s writing? And she’d only heard me talking for a matter of seconds. I still can’t answer that question, and the event remains in my memory as a “wow” moment.

But nowhere near as big or significant as the wow I experienced while reading the novel that was, at the time I met her, her current work in progress: Veiled Freedom, released by Tyndale in 2009.

When I met Jeanette, she’d recently returned from a visit to Afghanistan and still frothed over the things she’d seen and learned there. Seeing her passion for the subject, I wanted to read her book even though I hadn’t been wild about the two I’d already read. And eventually, after the release of her second in the series, Freedom’s Stand, I made it a point to check out the first of her Afghanistan stories.

I can’t begin to tell you how much better this book is than the other two of hers I read. Well, okay: where beauty of language and writing style is concerned, it’s only a little better. But the content? Breathtaking. The breadth and depth and power of the story not only exceeds that of the author’s other works, but is far superior to anything I’ve read by anyone recently. The issues that bothered me most in her other titles are resoundingly absent here.

But don’t take my word for it; I’m a know-nothing. Chuck Holton (former U.S. Army Black Beret, now a multi-published author), is in a better position to judge in a case like this. Here’s his assessment (this and all three of the following quotes are taken from the book’s endorsements): “If you’ve never been to Afghanistan, Veiled Freedom will put you there vividly. But be prepared: this novel pulls no punches—your comfortable sense of American cultural logic will be stripped away as Windle exposes the thorny issues that plague this ancient land. The result is a brutal but fascinating portrayal of life as it really is in this crossroads between east and west… It’s fiction, but just barely.”

Abdu Murray says: “Windle’s storytelling… is so vivid that I could practically feel the dust from Kabul’s streets on my skin…. This book is for the casual reader and the deep thinker alike.”

And Joe DeCree, retired Army Special Forces major and private security contractor, declares: “The technical aspects of the book are spot-on. Jeanette has the gift of making the complex cultural, political, and personal issues understandable and believable. She really understands how the multitude of subplots that are the central Asian states make life hard for both the citizenry and those trying to help.”

But what impresses me the most is the sensitive way she compares the tenets of Islam to the foundational truths of biblical Christianity. This story deals with critical issues that we cannot afford to ignore, and does so with amazing grace. Its sweet sound is just what this wretched world needs to hear.

Listen closely: This. Is. A. Good. Book. Read it. You’ll be better for it.

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