Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Ken Petersen's thoughts on the Future of Fiction

Ken Petersen is one of the most brilliant and strategic visionary leaders in publishing that I have ever met. Previously at Tyndale, Ken had the foresight to acquire the Left Behind series written by Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye. Now as Publisher for Waterbrook Multnomah - a division of Random House, Ken brings his expertise to that company as well.

When I told him about my new fiction blog, Ken graciously agreed to take the time from his hectic schedule to answer a question that I could post. Here is the Q & A with Ken:

Q: As publisher for Waterbrook Multnomah, what trends do you see continuing, beginning or ending for strategic acquisitions as it pertains to fiction? And is there hope for a first time novelist to be acquired?
A: My answer to your questions about fiction has to be short. But I can say that my sense of things is that after a couple decades of growth CBA fiction has found its level of readership and is likely to stay there. Consequently (the bad news is) that fiction as a category is not likely to grow much more overall. The good news is that it may grow some in specific genres. My theory all along has been that CBA fiction has progressed chronologically through the various genres: Starting with “biblical fiction” in the early 80s to prairie fiction (Jeanette Oke) in the late 80s to romance fiction in the early 90s; then apocalyptic (Left Behind) and contemporary suspense (Dee Henderson) around the same time; recently Amish fiction, some relational romance (Kingsbury), and even futuristic/sci-fi. So the trend continues to be branching Christian themes into new genres. And now the new territory seems to be ”genre fusion”—pairing of romance and suspense, or bringing in vampires to a romance story with a Christian message or application. So some advice might be to look at genres that haven’t yet been tapped or combination of genres and styles that yield a new kind of fiction experience.

As for new and first-time authors, I know that we at WaterBrook still publish first-timers. I think actually it’s easier for an unknown author to break into fiction than non-fiction. More depends on sample chapters of a fiction author’s writing—an unknown, with a great read—can get published no problem…

So, my fellow writers and aspiring novelists, there is hope!

On a personal note, as I was putting the hand grenade to my fifth draft of my first novel and feeling a little discouraged, I found a precious handwritten note from my late mother stuffed in some files. I had just sent her a copy of a non-fiction manuscript that was about to be published. Here is what she wrote: “You write beautifully. Your prose flows smoothly and accurately. You’re honoring God with this gift of writing He has given you. Your writing will now be published! Your future is limitless! I’m very proud of you!” What refreshing words to renew my strength to yet again face another day of re-writes. I want to encourage you, too, dear writer. Don’t be discouraged. Keep clicking those keys and write the story that is in your heart.

Take-away tidbit:
Confession time: I misplaced Ken Petersen’s recipe for his pumpkin cheesecake. I know it’s stacked in a pile somewhere. I will need to ask him for another copy. Meanwhile, I thought it would be appropriate to share one of my mother’s recipes today. Her name was Carolyn Rhea, and she was a wonderful author. Here is an easy dish she would prepare while she was busy trying to meet a deadline for her own books when I was growing up. She had to write on the typewriter!

Potato Surprise

32 oz pkg of hash browns completely thawed
2 cans cream of chicken soup
16 oz size sour cream
1 cup grated cheddar cheese

Mix and sprinkle Parmesan on top. Bake at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Secret to a Breakout Novel

Ironically, I experienced my first “stranger than fiction” moment at a fiction writers’ conference last week. ACFW. In the middle of these courses in Denver, I received emails and recorded messages from the police in my Chicago suburb and from the superintendent of the school district. An armed convict had escaped, carjacked a Jetta by gunpoint, robbed a bank nearby and was fleeing in the suburbs. The schools were on a soft lockdown. Wow! And that was real life!

I’m glad to report that the armed and dangerous convict was caught, and suburbia has settled back into its comfortable and mundane normalcy. But what an important lesson to illustrate the secret to a breakout novel that Donald Maass shared at the ACFW conference in Denver: Tension.

His course literally has now changed the course of my writing. Yes, I returned home and began to completely rewrite and overhaul my novel, but I now have a mandated direction. He signed my copy of his bestselling book, Writing the Breakout Novel with the following inscription: “For Margaret. Tension on every page! Donald Maass.” That’s it! Tension on every page! An excerpt from an expert!

And for those readers of my From Finance to Fiction blog, I would like to give you a chance to win a signed copy of Donald Maass’s book. I purchased an extra one at the conference. Please post a comment and share your “stranger than fiction” moment. I look forward to hearing from you. And by the way, Donald Maass is holding on very tightly to his tomato sauce recipe. Please share your recipes with me. I’m always looking forward to a delicious dish that isn’t too time consuming.

Here’s a peek into some upcoming blog posts. Debbie Macomber’s advice to writers. Ken Petersen’s thoughts on what is next in CBA fiction, along with his recipe for pumpkin cheesecake.

Take away Tip:
Sample some figs this autumn season Cut them in half and spread a little cream cheese or goat cheese on them and enjoy! A delicious antioxidant. They also are scrumptious baked.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Grab a white flag and get ready to surrender!

That doesn’t mean give up on that novel. It means give into it. Nancy Woodruff, a dear friend and an incredibly talented novelist who teaches writing part time at NYU, emailed me today with some excellent advice that I’d like to share. Maybe I can call these insights Excerpts from Experts.

Nancy has been such an encouragement to me through my many rounds of rejections. Nancy’s new novel, My Wife’s Affair will be released on April 15, 2010 by Amy Einhorn Books, a Penguin imprint. This is the same publisher that launched The Help– a fabulous book. When I asked Nancy how she applies what she teaches to her students at NYU to her own writing, she answered:

“Although I write mostly fiction and my students write mostly nonfiction (including personal essays and memoir), I always tell them that the writing process is the same for both. You always need to surrender to the material as it comes to you, to "write it out" first without worrying about the final product. You have to acknowledge that much of what you write on a first draft is not going to be very good or perhaps not useable at all. The important thing is to get a first draft! Then you can go through cutting and adding and changing and shaping for as long as you need to until the piece pleases you.”

What great advice. Surrender to the material. I have often battled my thoughts and my words – fearful to click the computer keys - knowing that the dialogue and the details will not be perfect. Instead, I should just battle my fears and “surrender to the material.” Have you faced the same dilemma in your writing? What holds you back?

I also asked Nancy about her biggest challenge in writing her newest novel. Here is what she said:

“My biggest challenge in writing My Wife's Affair was the long path I had to follow before publication. The book took less than two years to write initially, but with feedback from friends and potential agents and editors, I rewrote it for years. Very often it seemed the book would never see the light of day, but the truth was, once someone believed in it and sent it out, it was accepted almost immediately. What I have learned from all this is that you have to trust your material and stick with it as long as it takes. Don't give up!”

Amen to that! Believe in yourself and the story that is in you. And as Nancy says, “Don’t give up!”

Take Away Tidbit

My assistant Amy is a total foodie (and former caterer). She's offered to share a few time saving tips with me because she knows that being a writer is just one of the many things I do. My writing comes after my responsibilities as a wife and mother. One way she suggested I carve out a few extra moments in my day is to plan each weeks meals in advance. That way I'm prepared each day and know exactly what I need to do. Far too often I find myself staring at the empty fridge at 5:00 and asking myself, "what could I possibly through together for dinner"? I love that planning my meals in advance takes the stress out of dinner time. I just look at my list and it tells me what to do.

Amy also suggests buying a few prepared foods, "While I would LOVE to make our dinners from scratch every night, I've learned how time saving it is to just pick up a roast chicken to serve with my Quinoa salad and asparagus, rather than to make everything myself." Another idea Amy suggests for family night is picking up a pizza or two and serving it with a homemade Cesar Salad. Another quick dinner idea her family loves is flank steak (on the grill, 8 minutes a side - done!) with a selection of deli salads from a quality market.

What about you? What are your time saving tips for mealtime?

Oh, and enjoy this scrumptious Quinoa Salad recipe Amy gave me!

Quinoa, Black Bean and Corn Salad

1 Cup Quinoa
1 1/2 cups black beans
1 1/2 Tbl red-wine vinegar
1 1/2 cups cooked corn
1 medium sized green pepper
2 pickled jalapeƱos, seeded/minced
1/4 cup fresh cilantro
1 Cup Quinoa prepared with 2 cups chicken stock (follow directions on Quinoa box)

While Quinoa is cooking toss beans with vinegar and salt & pepper to taste.

Transfer cooked Quinoa to bowl to cool. Add beans, corn, bell pepper, jalapenos and cilantro - toss well.

Make dressing:
Whisk together lime juice, salt, cumin and add oil in a stream while whisking.

Pour dressing over Quinoa mixture and stir well. Adding salt/pepper to taste.

Serve room temp.

(recipe adapted from

Friday, September 11, 2009

And here’s the pitch…..

Baseball season and writers’ conferences share that in common. The pitch! As I prepare for the ACFW Conference in Denver next week, I am doing a lot of practice pitches in anticipation of having a few moments with some editors. So if you catch me in the carpool line talking to myself, I assure you that I am not crazy – I am just polishing my pitch. The proverbial “elevator pitch” - describing the manuscript in thirty seconds or less. Bottom line, here is my really, really fast pitch: My novel is Eat Pray Love meets Steel Magnolias.

Hopefully that introduction of tying in a best selling book and a beloved movie will encourage a “swing” by an editor to learn a little bit more. I also plan to bring along a “one pager” with a brief synopsis and overview of characters.

In addition, I am thrilled to be signed up for Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel course.

I am frantically clicking the computer keys in an effort to rewrite my manuscript. That’s the one drawback for first time novelists – Before a publisher will purchase your novel, you have to have it finished. So if I’m not practicing the “pitch” in the carpool line, I am practicing dialogue between my characters.

Some good news for you aspiring and established novelists. According to Donald Maass, you don’t have to have or build a “platform” for your fiction. In a recent email, he responded to my question:

“There really is no “platform” for fiction. The best promotion for novelists is bringing out great novels on a regular basis. Everything else is secondary.”

Return your power tools to the shed. You don’t have to build Noah’s ark! Instead, craft your words and write great stories.

Take-away Tidbit:

I asked Donald Maass about his favorite food to cook. Here’s what he said:

“I make the best tomato sauce in America, bar none, bring on the challengers!"

Okay, readers. Let the games begin! Please provide your best tomato sauce recipes. I will see if Mr. Maass will provide his recipe at the conference next week.
As an incentive, I’ll purchase an extra copy of his Writing the Breakout Novel and send it to the winner. Bon Appetit!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Life Changing Moments

In April 2005, my husband came home from work and said, “Honey, I think I’m going to quit my job and run for U.S. Congress.” That was a life changing moment. After winning a heated primary, he came very close to unseating the incumbent in the general election. I’m so proud of him.

After several years, I am still processing this incredible experience, full of campaign events with many high profile leaders, including President Bush, First Lady Laura Bush, Vice President Cheney, Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Senator John McCain, and even Mike Ditka. I invite you to put any partisanship aside as I share some personal moments from the campaign trail. I promise to tie all of this into writing a novel.

It’s funny what I recall and learned during this 18 month campaign – many lessons involved high heels. In the summer of 2005, my family and I walked in countless Fourth of July parades. Trust me. Never wear high heels on a parade route. Also, never wear high heel sandals when you’re walking through a kitchen with the Secret Service. I slipped on some cooking oil or something that had fallen onto the floor. I went gliding toward a near wipe-out.

On a serious side note, I will always treasure a true moment of history. A dear friend of mine is Lisa Jefferson, the operator who took the phone call from Todd Beamer on the United flight 93 on September 11th. She wrote an incredible book entitled, Called. I was surprised when I heard that Mayor Giuliani and Lisa Jefferson - both heroes on that fateful day, had never met each other. When Giuliani came to Chicago to campaign for my husband, I invited Lisa Jefferson to the event. In a private moment, I introduced these two wonderful people.

Perhaps in other blogs, I will share additional highlights and lowlights from the campaign trail – if you’re interested. But for now I want to focus on novels and life changing moments. My novel opens with the following scene: My 33 year old character receives a letter from her birth grandmother asking to meet with her. The challenge I, and all of us writers, face is how to present emotional drama without being too dramatic or maudlin. Maybe the answer is to insert the “high heel” factor. Something uncomfortable that the character is enduring or discovering can still provide some levity. (However, I vow that I will never subject any of my characters to my own humiliation of sliding across a greasy kitchen floor.)

What have some of your life changing moments been, and how have you applied those experiences to your own writing?

Take-away Tidbits:
This past week, I heard a tip from a wonderful suspense novelist. Colleen Coble recommends getting the DVD The Hero’s 2 Journeys by Michael Hauge and Christopher Vogler. This DVD presents the two journeys a hero must take: Physical and Emotional and provides instructive writing techniques. Colleen heard Michael Hauge at a seminar and said this DVD changed how she looks at story.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Lessons from the Produce Aisle.

Okay, I am about to make an embarrassing confession. I am 47 years old (that’s not the embarrassing part), and until yesterday, I had no idea how to select good fruit. Growing up, I never went grocery shopping with my mother. And also, I never quite learned how to cook. My dad was the ultimate “foodie” and hosted several gourmet club dinners at our home. I know firsthand that there is no such thing as a “cooking gene.” My local fire department knows that too after my salmon fiasco. (That’s another story)….

Yesterday, I met Frank, the delightful produce manager at my grocery store. I put on my reading glasses to get a closer look at the pluots. Overcome by curiosity, I just had to ask, “What are these things?” He leaned against the mop and smiled. “Those are sweeter than the plumbs.” He then showed me the different varieties – the dinosaur egg type and the deep purple ones which reminded me of a smurf’s hairdo, only smooth and pointy.

Frank has worked in produce for 45 years at the same grocery store chain, and I was so happy that he took the time to share his knowledge. “Have you seen the grapes yet? They’re on special and are really good.” I walked around the colorful assortment of fruit on the table. “Here, try this one.” He pulled a grape out of the plastic bag. At first I looked around for a veggie and fruit spray to “wash” the grape, but then realized I was with a seasoned professional. I plopped the grape in my mouth. It was delicious. “Always sample a grape before you buy the bag.” Frank reassured me. “It’s okay. And also you can take some grapes from one bag and put them into another.” I was shocked. I never would have thought of this. These fruits are not considered “pre-packaged” so it’s not like you’re opening a bag of chips to mix it with another bag.

We then went to the apricot section. “Choose one that has a blush to it. That means there is more sugar content and it will be sweeter.” He then lifted a plump peach that was next to the apricots. “See, you can see where there was a leaf that covered most of this peach from the sun. Only a small part of it is pink.” He was right. The leaf had left a large tan line as if wearing a one piece instead of a bikini while ripening on the tree.

What a great lesson in faith! If we are covered in the fig leaves of our humanity, trying to hide ourselves from the Son, we will not get pink. The sweetness of God’s grace will not fully ripen. Our faith will be more tart. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control.” Galations 5:22

Let’s choose to be pink!


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