Melanie Wells ~ Author and Licensed Psychotherapist, Part I

A native of the Texas panhandle, Wells is a licensed psychotherapist, business owner, musician and author of the critically-acclaimed Dylan Foster psychological thrillers.

She attended Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, on a musical scholarship as a violinist. After graduating with a degree in English, she went on to obtain graduate degrees in counseling psychology from Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio and biblical studies from Dallas Theological Seminary in Dallas. She has taught at the graduate level of both universities.

Since 1992, Wells has been in private practice as a counselor. She is the founder and director of LifeWorks Counseling Associates, a collaborative community of therapists, in Dallas and is a clinical member of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.

Growing up in a musical family where one’s identity was determined by the art they portrayed, Wells was constantly surrounded by creativity. She began her literary career because she wanted to funnel this creativity and her everyday observations into a good book. She believes that the natural creative rhythm of music can be extended to the natural rhythm of the written word. Her own musical background and life experience as a psychologist has prolifically impacted her writing throughout the years.

Her debut psychological thriller, When the Day of Evil Comes, released in 2005 and sold more than 25,000 copies in the first six months. The Soul Hunter, her subsequent book, followed in 2006. Her newest book, My Soul to Keep, releases Feb. 5, 2008, from Multnomah Books, a division of Random House.

Wells currently lives and writes in Dallas.

Time to crow: What new book or project do you have coming out?

The third book in the Dylan Foster series, My Soul to Keep, just came out a couple of weeks ago. I’ll crow about that, if you don’t mind. I’m proud of this book. It’s the best of the three, I think, probably because I’m still a bit green as a writer and I’m improving with each book. The book is doing really well. Getting great reviews. And I really do love the story and characters. It’s the third of a series, so I’m not sure if there will be a fourth. I get asked about that a lot. That will be determined by the numbers and by the higher ups at Random House (hint).

How did you come up with this story? Was there a specific ‘what if’ moment?

In every story I write, I start with the opening scene or situation. The first two books, When the Day of Evil Comes and The Soul Hunter, naturally lead up to the beginning of My Soul to Keep. It’s become obvious by the end of The Soul Hunter that the evil Peter Terry wants the little boy, Nicholas. So it seemed natural to have Nicholas snatched away in the first scene of this book. Child abduction (and the often terrible things that follow) turns my stomach, so in that way, it was a difficult and emotional book to write. Since I don’t plot my stories out, my characters decide what happens. I was worried about little Nicholas the entire time. I choked myself up in several scenes. I should probably go back to therapy. After all, I did make these people UP. Why am I so emotional about them??

Every novelist has a journey. How long was your road to publication? How did you find out and what went through your mind?

I started writing in January of 1996. I was living in Steamboat Springs, Co, and it snowed 15 feet in ONE MONTH. Read that sentence again. 15 feet. One month. Do the math.

I had also been battling a serious illness for a few months, so I was house-bound and was reading a lot – really terrible books. I kept thinking, “I could do better than this.” Which, of course, I couldn’t. But I started a story, which eventually became a novel called The Permian Game, and which has still to see the light of day. I’m re-writing it right now, as a matter of fact. But that manuscript found its way – through a series of odd events – to an editor at Multnomah named Rod Morris. Rod liked my voice. He encouraged me to keep writing. For Multnomah, he would need something with more overt spiritual themes. Would I be willing to write something like that? Sure. So one night, I had a surreal dream which became the first chapter of When the Day of Evil Comes. It took me years to finish that manuscript. Partially because of the difficulties I was experiencing in my life, which were genuinely apocalyptic at that point. So I just wasn’t motivated. I was working hard to rebuild my life, to build a practice and a business called LifeWorks counseling associates (http://www.wefixbrains.com/) and I didn’t have the time to goof around writing a novel on spec.

A friend read the partial manuscript, though, and sat me down and told me firmly that I should finish it. So I did. I sent it in the day before I was left for a vacation in Paris with that same friend.

And then I made myself forget about it. Entirely. Until one day, I checked my email – this was months later – and there was an email from Rod Morris (who is now with Harvest House and to whom I still feel indebted for his commitment to me and my work). The email said, “I like it. I want to publish it.” I started to cry. I called that same friend and read the email out loud and we both were just stunned. Those two sentences. Every writer lives for that moment. It’s something I’ll never forget. Never take for granted.

Do you ever bang your head against the wall from the dreaded writer’s block? If so, how do you overcome it?

I do. In earlier days, when I had no deadline, no contract, I’d just quit writing until I felt like it again. That could be months. But if you’re writing fiction on a deadline, you can’t indulge yourself that way. I usually get stuck around chapter 10, which is the turning point between Acts I and II, if you will. One trick I’ve learned is that, when I finish a chapter, I always make myself start the next few sentences of the next one. No matter how late it is or how badly I want to quit. I do the next few lines. And then I’ve got a start and I’ve obliterated the natural stopping point. That one trick alone has helped me immeasurably.

Where do you write: In a cave, a coffeehouse, or a cozy attic nook?

I have a beautiful study at home. I mean… really beautiful. It’s funky and artsy and the colors are rich and there’s modern art on the walls and a big strange stained glass door I’ve got hung sideways over a daybed. It could not possibly be more groovy. It has great writing mojo. But I find that if I spend too much time alone, I don’t do well. I can’t write, and more importantly, I can’t function as a human being. So now I use that study mainly for business and do most of my writing at one particular Starbucks. I’m such an extrovert, I’m energized by the chaos of people around me. For some reason, I can tune all of it out and write like no-one’s business when I’m there. When I’m at home, I just get stuck and cranky and even more irritable than usual. No one needs that going on!

What does a typical day look like for you?

Depends on the day. I own a large counseling practice, which involves me running the practice (everything from writing payroll checks to finding disability insurance, to hiring a real estate agent to find space for our expansion office to … the list NEVER ends). And I have a full case load of my own. AND I’m the clinical director for the group, so I’m the supervisor of record for all the trainees and am thus responsible for their work. Three days a week, I’m there until about 8:00 in the evening. I come home whipped, have supper, and then go upstairs to the groovy study and keep working – usually on administrative tasks.

Two days a week, I take off to write. On those days, I try to sleep in to replenish myself (because I’m a night person, I often work until 1 or 2 a.m., then have to get up at 7 the next morning on LifeWorks days). I work out, I eat, I put out fires at LifeWorks, and then I head to Starbucks sometime in the afternoon and start writing. And I stay until I’ve gotten somewhere.

So my typical day involves work. And when I’m not working, I’m spending time with friends. I have a whole group of people who keep me breathing. I invest in those friendships. No TV at all in years and years. I can’t imagine where people find the time.

Some authors report writing 5-10 thousand words a day. Do scenes flow freely from your veins or do you have to tweeze each word out?

Scenes flow freely for me. Especially if I’m at a place in the story where the characters are making the next step clear. Sometimes I get stuck, but mostly, I sit down, I get in touch with the characters and the situation, and it flies out. I edit obsessively as I write – trying to get rid of every extra word, honing the rhythm and the timbre of the words. But I keep moving. Always, I keep moving. It’s an extension of my life philosophy. Never go down without a fight.

Briefly take us through your process of writing a novel—from conception to revision.

I start with a scene. One scene only. Nicholas gets kidnapped at a park. First scene of My Soul to Keep. So I ask myself – what are they doing at the park? I think backwards from that moment. Ah. Christine’s birthday. Dylan’s trying to improve her abysmal social life. She’s throwing a party for Christine’s birthday, and while they’re all at the park, Nicholas is snatched away.

And then, when it’s time to write again, I listen to the characters and they tell me what happens next. Which at times can be quite unnerving. Why is there a scream coming from behind the bedroom door? What is happening to Christine? Why can’t she breathe? These questions compel me forward. The story evolves from there, depending on how the characters respond to the situation at hand. My mind spins for the entire year or so it takes me to write a story. I’ve said before – it’s like being constipated for a YEAR. Brain constipation. Very uncomfortable, and unfortunately, no Ex-Lax!

When I’m finally done, I send the whole thing in and contemplate quitting my writing career RIGHT THIS MINUTE.

Then I hear from my editor and he or she says something encouraging, and my agent calls me and says, “Hey, do you realize what you have here?” or something like that. And then I re-enlist and hunker down for the editing process.

The whole thing is difficult for me, though. The story flows, but the time, the mental and emotional energy, the constant mind-spinning preoccupation. It’s not digging ditches in Alabama in the summertime, I realize. There are harder ways to make a living. But it is taxing. It takes every ounce of energy I have to do it and to keep the rest of my professional life moving along.

I’m lucky to have wonderful supportive people in my life. Including my best friend Trish Murphy, who is also a writer and who gets the whole crucible. And other close, dear friends, who willingly listen to me whine, often do my laundry, and the kick me in the rear and tell me to get back to it.

And then there are the fans. An email from somewhere – God knows where – Japan, Minnesota, Calgary – will come just in the nick of time. And I’ll think, oh, okay, one more chapter…

Coming in March…Part II of this fascinating interview with acclaimed author, Melanie Wells!

Melody Carlson ~ Faking It

Melody Carlson is an award-winning, best-selling author of more than two hundred books for teens, women, and children, including her most recent Payback. She and her husband enjoy an active lifestyle of hiking, camping, and biking in the beautiful yet mysterious Pacific Northwest, where she says, “A new story seems to lurk around every corner.”

Faking It

I never trained to be a writer. Not in the academic sense anyway. I wasn’t an English major, I never took a writing class beyond high school, I’ve only attended a couple of writers’ conferences (as a conferee). And although I’d always admired authors, I never imagined I could be an author. In fact, despite having published around 200 books, I rarely use the word “author” when describing myself.

If anything, I say I’m a writer, probably because it sounds less presumptuous. Because the truth is I always have this underlying fear that someone is going to say, “You’re not really a writer, you haven’t been trained as a writer, therefore you must be faking it.” And maybe I am.

But I suspect that, from the very beginning, life was training me to be a writer. I could never really make up my mind about what I wanted to be “when I grew up.” As a result, I sampled a lot of jobs. I taught pre-school for a while. I spent a year in a third world country as I considered missions work. I worked for an interior designer as well as an international adoption agency. I dabbled at several other varied and unrelated jobs. But like shopping for jeans, it took a lot of trying on before I found what fit just right.

Even when I got the irresistible urge to begin writing, I had no idea where it would take me. I only knew that I had to write or burst. Sort of like my grandma’s old pressure cooker. She’d leave it on the stove for too long and too high and the next thing you knew green beans all splattered all over the ceiling. That’s how I felt. Like all these words and stories and sentences and characters and settings were boiling inside of me. The pressure was growing and I needed to loosen that release valve and get them out.

And so, without any real direction or (as aforementioned) real training, I began to write—on a yellow legal pad since I had no typewrite or computer at the time. Why would I have authentic writing tools when I wasn’t an authentic author? Then I joined a critique group of “real authors.” Naturally, that made me extremely nervous. Not only had these women been properly trained they were published as well.

I remember feeling like a total fraud in their midst. I even tried to “appear” more author-like by wearing tweed jackets (but hadn’t I always liked tweed?) and then I added dangly earrings (didn’t that make a person look more creative?). And although I loved being in this creative group, I couldn’t help but feel that I didn’t belong. I figured that eventually these genuine bona fide authors would figure me out and cast me from their midst.

Instead, they were encouraging. And they were amazed at how quickly I could “spit out” a story and then another and another. What they didn’t realize (and I probably didn’t either) was that those stories had been bubbling and percolating inside of me for years. But even as I completed several novels (three for teens and one for women) I didn’t feel like a real author.

Perhaps that was because “real authors” got published. And all I seemed to get was rejection letters. And so I began to think if I got published, I would become a “real author.” To my stunned amazement an editor became very interested in my work. She even presented my novels to her publishing committee, but for one reason or another they “declined” every one, which only seemed to prove that I wasn’t really an author.

But then she challenged me to write a nonfiction book, saying, “I think I can get that published.” So, feeling even more like a fake (since I was a fiction writer) I threw together a proposal for a nonfiction book. And they contracted it. But even a contracted book didn’t make me feel like an author. And then I began to work for a publishing company, interfacing with REAL authors (ones with BIG names) and I knew for sure that I wasn’t one of them.

Even as I began contracting more books (novels this time) I questioned my authenticity. I didn’t consider myself part of that elite group—real authors. After all, I didn’t know the secret handshake. I still don’t. Even if I got a good book review, I simply assumed I’d dodged a bullet. If a book sold well, I thought I’d just slipped beneath the radar. Even when I began writing full time, I was pretty sure the gig would soon be up…I’d get caught eventually. The Book Police would show up at my door and say, “You’re under arrest for impersonating an author.”

But then I discovered something that’s helped to change my thinking. Lots of other “authors” feel the same way—like they too are “faking it.” So maybe it just comes with the territory. After all, I am a fiction writer. Most of what I write is “made up” so I guess I am faking it.

Payback – available now.

If your vision asked you to risk your life to save others, would you have the courage? When Samantha McGregor tells her friend Detective Ebony Hamilton of her disturbing visions of a brutal murder at a high school, Ebony asks her to go undercover to help identify the shooter before it’s too late. The stakes are raised when Ebony discovers that the potential crime may be connected to a larger terrorism threat!

Meanwhile, Samantha realizes that her mother’s new boyfriend is a little too good to be true. Her unsettling visions, combined with Ebony’s investigation of Steven’s past, reveal him to be more interested in her mother’s money than her heart.

To make matters worse, Samantha has been having visions of an unknown boy who is mercilessly being bullied by his peers. Who is this teen? Can she help him?

This fourth and final installment in The Secret Life of Samantha McGregor series brings Samantha her biggest challenges yet, as she works against the clock to stop a mass murder, help a troubled youth, and save her mother from making a terrible mistake!

Interview with editor, Susan Downs — Part 2

An Oklahoma native, SUSAN K DOWNS is a descendant of Land Run pioneers. But life as a minister’s wife has taken her far beyond her roots. While living in Texas, Susan frequently traveled to Russia as an adoption coordinator. Though now settled in Canton, Ohio, this mother of five and grandmother will always be an Okie at heart.

Describe the qualities of a perfect author?

I like authors who make me feel like they’re happy when I call/email. A perfect author is one who is open to suggestions. . .no matter how many books they’ve published. I am not saying an author can’t disagree about suggested revisions but there is a WAY to do that without acting put out. Basically, the perfect author is much the same as the perfect editor–there when you need them and not when you don’t.

What are some of the pressures of being an editor launching a new line?

Heavens, I feel like so much of the responsibilty for the book club’s success rests on my shoulders. Of course, I know the marketing department is responsible for promotion
but if the finished products don’t measure up to the consumer’s expectations, I’m to blame. So quite a bit of pressure, particularly since the decisions as to what books we publish is left up to me. And then there is the perennial pressure of deadlines of every sort, from manuscript deadlines to content review deadlines, to copy edit and typesetting, proofing and galley deadlines. . . I have to make sure every project is flowing smoothly down the pipeline
and make adjustments where needed, but let me hasten to say I absolutely LOVE my job.
I thank God for it every day. I mean, how many people are blessed like I am. . .to get PAID to read great books and to work with Spirit-filled authors?

What is your favorite moment as an editor?

My favorite moment as an editor may have come just last week when the finished product of our first cycle of books arrived. I pasted cover flats of the first eight books all over my office door. 🙂 Some of the other department folks walked by and laughed at my enthusiasm, but it was almost like holding my own published books. There’s no feeling like it! Years of work finally coming to fruition.

Another favorite moment has to be ACFW conference when I’m surrounded by all my mystery authors at the dinner table. I felt like a mother hen with her chicks. Oh, and offering the first contract to Cynthia Hickey was a huge thrill.

What are some of your pet peeves being an editor?


Pet peeves? Well, I’m really not much of a peevish person. Well, maybe one thing. Getting phone calls from authors who want to check on the progress of the proposal they submitted two weeks ago. Send me an email if you must, but don’t call me. I don’t like losing my place in a reading project to pick up the phone.

If a book doesn’t sell well and has already been contracted for a sequel, is the solution to simply not contract for further series?


If we have already signed contracts, then we will fulfill those but not contract others. Many times we will contract the first with an option for subsequent books and wait to contract others until we see how that first one is received. I can only speak for myself, but I like to feel the author’s personality coming through, rather than seeing a sterile, formula presentation Especially since cozy mysteries require a certain amount of quirk, I want to see that an author can express the quirky side of his/her own personality

What happens to a manuscript after it is contracted?


Once a contracted manuscript is received, I process it and send it to Candice Speare, who serves as my freelance content reviewer. As the title implies, she checks for accuracy issues in police procedurals and plot discrepancies or character issues. She will also look at the overall plot and characterization. She then interacts with the author directly to suggest revisions

Rethinking Writing Rules — Pt. 2

By Mike Duran

Mike’s stories have appeared in Relief Journal, Coach’s Midnight Diner, Forgotten Worlds, Alienskin, Infuze Magazine and Dragons, Knights and Angels, with articles in The Matthew’s House Project, Relevant Magazine and 316 Journal. Mike is currently part of the editorial team for the Midnight Diner’s second edition. He and his wife Lisa live in Southern California, where they have raised four children. You can visit him at his website, deCOMPOSE.

After my last post, one commenter called me “a brave, brave man.” I couldn’t help but translate that as “brainless buffoon.” Sure, “I Fought the Law (and the Law Won)” was my theme song in high school. But now having raised four children (none of whom are incarcerated, addicted to illegal substances, atheists or liberals), I can attest to the necessity of rules.

However, so did the Pharisees.

I recently submitted a story to a Christian writer’s contest. The judges follow a checklist that contains 20 categories, with a maximum of 5 points per category. Some of those categories include these items:

  • Has the author observed the required manuscript format? (Courier or Times New Roman 12 pt double spaced) Is the type neat? Does it have 1 inch margins all around?
  • Is the point of view consistent? Are POV changes smooth and logical?
  • Does the writer utilize showing and telling skillfully?
  • Is there an opening line or paragraph that immediately hooks the reader into the story?
  • Are character motivations powerful enough to create sufficient conflict?
  • Is the dialogue between characters natural and not stilted, revealing plot and emotion in a way that narrative cannot?

No doubt there are rules that govern good stories, not to mention rules that govern good contests. I mean, who would argue that “sufficient conflict” and “natural dialog” aren’t essential to a well-told tale? But do these types of checklists ultimately help or hurt storytellers? Dotting our i’s and crossing our t’s is necessary in a court of law. Yet in the court of public opinion, how important is a consistent POV? Does the “checklist mentality” place style above story, and potentially produce Pharisees whose primary aim is to follow the rules rather than spin yarns?

I recall submitting a piece to my writing group once, and a moderator pointed out my repeated use of “was,” a dreaded passive. “It was shrill.” “She was dwarfish.” “The prosthetic leg was really a telescope.” In the throes of frustration, I submitted this post to the entire group as penance:

was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was,was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was, was

There. Now I’ve got it out of my system.

Mike

I eventually became so paranoid about using passives that I would spend hours, literally, weeding them from my work. (Remember, I’m a legalist.)

And that legalism eventually robbed me of reading pleasure. Passive tenses began popping up everywhere — most notably in books endorsed as must-reads — and I nit-picked them to death. For instance, I happened to pick up Winter’s Tale, Mark Helprin’s acclaimed novel, and read the first sentence:

THERE was a white horse, on a quiet winter morning when snow covered the streets gently and was not deep, and the sky was swept with vibrant stars, except in the east, where dawn was beginning in a light blue flood. (italics mine)

Four passives in the first sentence! Where were the gatekeepers when you needed them? Here I’m busting my ass to weed out was’s, and some dude pops out quadruplets in the first sentence. My writing group would have a conniption.

Do you see a pattern here? I learned the rules and rigorously applied them, only to see them broken. Repeatedly. Something had to give.

There’s no question that:

“The prosthetic leg was really a telescope.”

is not as good as

“The prosthetic leg unscrewed to reveal a telescope.”

But what’s ideal and what’s acceptable are two different things. The Master of Horror concedes as much. Stephen King, in his wonderful book On Writing, says this:

I won’t say there’ no place for the passive tense. Suppose, for instance, a fellow dies in the kitchen but ends up somewhere else. The body was carried from the kitchen and placed on the parlor sofa is a fair way to put this, although “was carried” and “was placed” still irk the shit out of me. I accept them but I don’t embrace them. (pg. 123)

Well, there it is. Bells, whistles and angelic choirs. “I accept them but I don’t embrace them.” The use of passives is tolerable, but not ideal. Just like the rest of the “writing rules,” their bend-ability is in the eye of the beholder.

So I took back a few was’s.

Think about it: If the primary goal of a story is to take us somewhere, then the “writing rules” must be subservient to that end. Much like a map, the aesthetics are secondary to the functionality. It is required first of the mapmaker to know which way North is. A colorful, good-looking map that replaces roads with rivers and cities with salt plains, is moot. Try as I might, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings maps will not get me to the Shire. However, his stories will.

Perhaps this is what we should first teach aspiring novelists, not about passives, POV, and show v. tell, but about getting people to the Shire.

After four years of straining at gnats and swallowing camels, the following observation has been painfully liberating: The majority of readers aren’t writers; they read to be entertained, mystified, scared and inspired, not to be enthralled by style. The style of the story — and the rules that govern its writing — are not nearly as important as the story itself. The public hardly seemed concerned that the DaVinci Code was, at best, stylistically pedestrian. They wanted to be transported to a world of religious intrigue, which they were to the tune of 60 million copies worldwide.

The moral: It’s up to the reader to decide how many passives are tolerable.

It’s true that aspiring authors need rules. Just like that 5 year-old who lunges into the street, the author with a propensity for passives deserves a spanking. While the 16 year-old who lunges into the street deserves to get run over, the novelist who overuses the passive tense risks only readers, not life and limb. Either way, the rule is not a magic formula for safety or success, it is simply meant to get one across the street.

Far too many aspiring authors are looking for formulas. I say that as an aspiring author. And sadly, far too many teachers are available to accommodate us. It’s created an echo chamber of sorts, a community of overly-eager authors determined to cross their t’s and dot their i’s, ceaselessly pining for the Holy Grail of publication, ever enforcing and venerating the commandments of their own making.

The writing rules have their place, but they can also blind one to the destination. After all, the ultimate goal of the storyteller is not to obey all the rules, but to get her readers safely to the Shire.