What is “Good Enough”?

just got back from the American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW) conference in Dallas. This is an annual event and is the largest gathering of Christian fiction writers anywhere. Close to seven hundred (that’s right– a reverse 007!) writers attended. I know because my good friend’s name ends with a Zw, and she was 688/688.

Amazing.

While there, I attended a talk given by a MAJOR Christian publisher about a relatively large survey they did on Christian fiction readers. Don’t quote me, but the survey included over 200,000 participants and focus groups were conducted in three large cities. Just to say a lot of people participated–not just me and Grandpa Joe.

Since many of you may be salivating over some of those results, I’ll share a few here. The largest categories selling are: #1 Amish (shouldn’t be a surprise, just look at any CBD catalog and they are leading by 5-10 pages), #2 Mystery/Suspense/Thriller (my eyes glazed over with excitement right here!) ,and #3 Historical Romance. The romance categories were split among three genres: Contemporary Romance, Historical Romance, and Romantic Suspense so if all three were lumped together, the romance category may have had a higher overall percentage.

They asked “what would you like to see more of in Christian Fiction?” and the intriguing answer there was gritty is okay. Not everything needs to be wrapped up in a pretty bow at the end. Dangling questions are okay.

What surprised me was when one of the presenters said, “Should we move away from highly curated content to just good enough content?”

To be honest that floored me–in a bad way.

What is the purpose of a traditional publishing house? Some say they are gatekeepers. I like to view them more as museum curators. What is the benefit of having a museum curator? It’s so that my seven-year-old’s finger art isn’t next to Rembrandt. That when you pay your money, in the form of a museum ticket or as a book on the shelf, you know someone somewhere who gets exposed to LOTS of art and books picked the very best ones. And you’ll be getting your money’s worth.

Are there some self-published authors who are putting out high quality novels? Yes, absolutely. Are they the majority? No. If we are honest, they are not.

Can you buy a horrible, traditionally published novel? Yes, but it should be edited to near perfection. That’s the other part you pay for.

Proof, my debut medical thriller, went through four rounds of edits. Are there typos–yes. But I can guarantee there are fewer in the whole novel than in the first chapter of a few self-published novels I’ve started to read.

What disturbs me is when a curator/publisher says perhaps we don’t need as many editing runs. Perhaps “good enough” is okay for the masses. They won’t notice the difference anyway. Those are my words–not hers.

But isn’t that the implication? There are so many “so-so” things out there that we really don’t need to be consumed with quality anymore?

To me the quality of the editing is the one thing differentiating traditional and self-published books in many cases. So, if that’s gone, the strive to put the best product out there–what will be the difference then?

Will traditional publishers actually place the last nail in their own coffin if they adopt such an attitude?

What do you think? If you’re published, do you think there are too many editing rounds? Would fewer be better? How should traditional publishers continue to offer value in ways other than editing?

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Making Dialogue Work

Dialogue is one of the hardest working tools we have because we ask it to do so much. It has to convey information, develop and move the plot, increase tension and conflict all while sounding natural.

Perhaps most importantly, dialogue must engage the reader through revealing our characters. It brings them to life and shows their personalities, their quirks, their goals, and their fears.

The most effective and real dialogue comes when we know our characters as intimately as possible. Whether our story is plot-driven or character-driven, we have to invest the time in writing biographies, character analyses, Meyers-Briggs assessment, journals, interviewing them, and experimenting with how they speak, act, think, and feel. And they’ll still surprise us.

In my first novel, Journey to Riverbend, I had a problem with the story arc of my female protagonist, Rachel. She was a former prostitute who received Jesus. She was also striving to open a dress-making business in a town where many were hostile to her because of her past. It wasn’t until I interviewed her that I learned Rachel was a feisty, determined young woman with numerous questions about her new-found faith, anxieties about her future, and wondering if love could ever be part of her life.

And I discovered her voice changed depending on her situation. She had a business voice she used with customers and an almost child-like awe when she talked about her faith. At times her prostitute “don’t mess with me” voice came into play. When the mayor attempted to get too familiar, Rachel stopped him cold with the whispered line, “I’m making dresses for your wife. I can make her look like a laughing stock while convincing her she looks like Queen Victoria.”

With these new insights, Rachel’s dialogue became stronger, more connected to her emotions at the moment, more realistic. It revealed more of her personality, her dreams, her fears.

Rachel came to life through her dialogue.

Make the time to know your characters. They’ll reward you with stronger personalities and become people that readers will keep turning pages for.

How has dialogue allowed you to develop your characters even further? What have you learned about your characters through dialogue that surprised you?

SEVEN TIPS TO MAKE THAT NEW YEAR’S WORD WORK FOR YOU

As a writer, the idea of designating one word for the New Year, in lieu of resolutions, appeals to me. Perhaps it’s because I’ve always been a bit lackadaisical when it comes to actually making those resolutions (not to mention keeping). 

Writers are wordsmiths and so it seems all the more appropriate. But wait. How does a writer select just one word for a whole year when there are myriad beautiful words floating around out there for the picking? Here are seven suggestions:

1) PRAY: After Christmas, I began tumbling words in my brain. I wasn’t sure how I would spot “my word”.  I wanted something with a ring to it. Maybe something catchy. Pretty, musical, a poetic word, I hoped. New Year’s Day arrived and I still didn’t have my word. Every time I gave it some consideration the word “return” popped into my mind. What kind of “word for the year” is that?  

As the end of January approached, I despaired of finding my word. And then I did what I always do when I feel hopeless: I prayed. I read my Bible. Of course, the answer I received was my word was there all of the time. And the lesson well learned? Don’t wait until you are discouraged to RETURN to our heavenly Father. 

2) USE IT: Once you know your word, use it. At least once a day. Include it in your prayer time and if by the end of the day you find you have not used your word try to think of as many ways it fits into a sentence. A favorite of mine is to write a short story, one paragraph long, using my word as many times as I can. How refreshing to give yourself permission to break the rules! 

3) SHARE: Don’t be afraid to tell people what your word is. You don’t really have to know how your word applies to you. Part of the fun is finding out why the word is “your word”. You will find your friends are curious about your progress and provide motivation to continually strive to decipher the meaning of the word in your life. 

4) REFLECT: At the end of each month, think about how the word worked in your life. Or didn’t. Ask yourself questions. Does it have a different meaning for you than it did at the beginning of the month? Did it make a difference in your life? In what way? Does it make you view your world, your writing, your family and friends in a new way? In a positive way? Great! If not, why not? What can you do to change that? 

5) REVISE: Begin each month afresh. Be flexible in your interpretation of your word and what it should mean in your life. That is the power of a word. It will not always mean the same thing to different people. And it won’t always mean the same thing to you. 

6) BE OPEN: This is so much more than being flexible. Embrace the possibilities. It’s amazing how much one little word can mean to you when you open your arms wide and let it flow over you. Sing it, shout it, whisper your word. Think musically, think poetically, draw your story out. Express your word in a way that really moves you. 

7) RETURN: This is your chance to shrug off those resolutions that frequently cause so much regret by the end of January and live your word. Then RETURN often with prayers of thankfulness and give the glory to God.  

I can’t wait to see how my word RETURN directs my life next month! Returning to my roots come to mind. Hmmm, I write historical romance, so maybe. And I really look forward to finding the meaning of RETURN this December. I can’t wait!

What is your word for 2012?

Rebecca DeMarino is a retired United Airlines Service Director and worked as an Office Manager at the Natasha Kern Literary Agency from March, 2008 until September, 2010. She currently works part-time as a Carnival Cruise Line representative from her home office. She recently signed with literary agent Barbara Scott with WordServe Literary.

The Standalone and the Series

Which is better, a standalone novel or a series?

This is a complex question, given each writing career is unique; but here’s what I’ve learned:

Sequel plots evolve naturally.

Most often while writing a novel, an author gets ideas that can spin into sequels. Sometimes minor characters beg for their own stories. Such inspiration is useful in layering the plot of a standalone or planting leads into the first novel of a series.

Most publishers want sequels written six months apart.

This means a solid eighteen months or more of the author’s time is contracted. With so many unknowns for a writer, this brings a sense of security. Since the advance represents the entire series, the extra money is valuable upfront for marketing purposes.

Usually less research is needed for a series than subsequent standalone novels, which gives the author extra writing time. With successive deadlines, he is forced to write consistently which also hones his skills and productivity.

Series are popular with publishers unless

the first book doesn’t sell.

If the first book doesn’t sell, it makes the sequels harder to sell. By the time the author discovers what went wrong, he’s probably already into the third book of the series and finds the publisher less willing to spend marketing dollars on the sequels.

For newbies, a series leaves little time for conditioning;

you hit the ground running.

The character roster quickly snowballs, yet needs to be worked into the ongoing series. Since each book also stands alone, there is back-story to incorporate. It takes skill to tie it all together. Maintaining consistency makes record keeping imperative from character charts to research files. There’s a struggle against boredom, and if the author gets bored the reader will too.

Deadlines threaten quality and marketing time.

It’s difficult to write quality work with tighter deadlines and also find time to market the first story which is the most important story for the success of the series. Usually the first story is quite detailed in the original book proposal. But one of the sequels may need major time-consuming revisions once the editor sees that story evolving.

Why not write a standalone with a series option?

While it sounds like the perfect solution, it’s always harder to go down a path when you don’t know where it’s leading.  It’s not impossible, but it makes writing the book proposal and novel trickier.

My personal experience – writing a series is like running.

At the beginning, I was excited and fresh. The middle book was written under the most duress. I was struggling uphill because of the increasing time crunch, revisions, and unexpected personal obligations. But the final book was like getting my second wind. It was exhilarating. With writing muscles in peak condition, it was the easiest and most enjoyable to produce. And just beyond beckoned refreshment and reward.

What about you? Are you a sprinter or a marathon runner?

The Hero Within

In a writer’s world we are the masters of the pen (actually a computer keyboard, but that didn’t sound as cool). We create complicated characters through various techniques and tell them what to do.

But then they take on a life of their own and begin to tell us what the story is about. This can be quite fascinating, like sitting at a movie, watching the story unfold. Other times it’s frustrating because these life-like characters make bad choices or behave poorly (there’s always at least one), resisting our intended purposes for them.

When I think of writing in these terms, my thoughts drift to our Creator, and I wonder if God sees us in similar fashion. Aren’t we like His characters, created with His purpose in mind? Yet we have free will and the ability to choose poorly, or wisely.

God gives us that room, though I know we must frustrate him terribly at times. The Israelites certainly did. (Aren’t we still Israelites at times?) But part of the joy I experience in writing a powerful scene with my characters is seeing them grow and embrace God’s love and truth. There’s a sense of victory there even though these characters exist only in my head.

I remember as a kid imagining these scenes where the heroine (usually me, of course!) persevered and made this huge impact or discovery. I walked into the sunset as a new inspiration to my fellow underdogs (the theme of many teen movies).

The funny part of all this is, the longer I write and study the books and movies that are popular, the more I find a universal theme there—of a nobody discovering they have some kind of special gift that helps them save the day. A gift that comes from somewhere outside them and suddenly this feels-like-a-nobody character blooms into someone unique.

Now the amazing part. It’s a story theme that’s existed for thousands of years. The one I like best? The one in the Bible.

Jesus was just an ordinary carpenter. He didn’t look like much to those who resented and envied Him. He didn’t appear a whole lot different from the men He walked with. He started out as a nobody in the eyes of those around Him. But to know Him was to know He walked in greatness and humility.

He walked this earth like a man, yet within He holds a power to “save the day.” And every person who knows Him.

His is the story of the ultimate Messiah, the one true Savior of the world. He was and is the true Hero of the story—of the world and of our lives.

And the absolutely mind-blowing final part? He lives in us, changing us from nondescript nobodies to uniquely gifted individuals created to fit into a true story.

His story.