Camy Tang writes romance with a kick of wasabi. Out now is her chick lit Sushi series (Sushi for One?, Only Uni, and Single Sashimi) and her romantic suspense, Deadly Intent. Formula for Danger releases in September. Originally from Hawaii, she worked as a biologist for 9 years, but now she is a staff worker for her San Jose church youth group and leads a worship team for Sunday service. She has coordinated the ACFW Genesis contest for 5 years and runs the Story Sensei fiction critique service, which specializes in online classes and book doctoring. On her blog, she gives away Christian novels and ponders frivolous things. Be sure to visit her website.
Ron Benrey has been a writer all his life (his first job was Electronics Editor at Popular Science Monthly) and he subsequently held speechwriting and corporate communications positions at several large corporations. Ron has coauthored nine romantic suspense novels with his wife, Janet. The first was published when they were past 50. He has also written two novellas under his own byline, more than a thousand magazine articles, and ten non-fiction books. The latest “Know Your Rights — A Survival Guide for Non-Lawyers” — will be published by Sterling Publishing early in 2011. Ron hold degrees in electrical engineering, management, and law. He is a member of the Bar of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Ron and Janet live in North Carolina.
Why Are There So Many 50+ Novelists?
I’d scarcely arrived at the first writers conference I attended (I won’t tell you how many years ago that was) when I was struck by a curious fact. The majority of the participants who wanted to write novels were over age 50. Me included.
At the time, there seemed to be two “obvious” reasons for the large number of “authors of a certain age” who are writing their first novels:
The first is that late blooming novelists have distinct advantages compared to younger writers: more time to write, more room to write, (possibly) more financial resources, (possibly) a more cooperative spouse, and fewer personal responsibilities that have to come first.
The second reason is that late bloomers, by living longer lives, have accumulated more life experiences and more stories worth telling. Consequently, they are better positioned to “write about what they know.”
However, I soon realized that these explanations are incomplete. After all, many under-50 novelists find the time to write compelling original fiction without destroying their families, wrecking their marriages, losing their day jobs, or short-circuiting their other day-to-day responsibilities.
And as for life experiences — well, countless young novelists have survived novel-worthy experiences that make older people cringe. Moreover, “write what you know” is not a Commandment; many novelists (younger and older) others have written successfully about topics they researched rather than lived.
More curious than ever, I began to ask late-blooming novelists why they waited so long to start writing fiction. Here’s what I learned from my admittedly unscientific survey:
It happened one day. Many late bloomers told me that after decades of reading novels they abruptly decided that they wanted to write one. As one author explained, “I didn’t really think about it — I didn’t go through a long analysis of the possibilities — it just happened. I cranked up my word processor, started writing fiction, and discovered to my astonishment that I was determined to write a complete novel. Frankly, I wish I’d begun years earlier, but everything seem to click into place when I turned 50.”
Dealing with a steep learning curve. Other late bloomers reported that they wanted to write fiction years earlier, but that it took them decades to develop solid authorial voices — and to learn essential fiction writing skills — before each could tackle something as ambitious as a full-length novel. Many in this group had day jobs that required them to do lots of non-fiction writing — e.g. journalists, lawyers, corporate communicators, and technical writers.
As one of these authors noted,” I’d thought of myself as a part-time writer and had long been proud of my non-fiction skills. But I needed many years to “transmute” those writing skills into an ability to produce decent fiction.”
Time to amass sufficient confidence. A surprising number of older authors said that they tried to write fiction when younger, but the activity “didn’t feel right” to them. One late bloomer told me, “I didn’t see myself as a novelist when I was in my 20s, 30s, and 40s, nor did I have the required confidence. And then one day reached the point where I gave myself permission to write a novel. The next thing I knew I was writing one.”
I had to learn to like fiction. Several novelists of a certain age — most of them men — confessed that they disliked fiction “for most of their lives.” They didn’t think about writing novels until long after they discovered how much they enjoyed reading fiction.
One acknowledged,: “When the fiction bug bit, most of my friends and relatives thought I was nuts. They considered me the most unlikely person in the whole world to write a novel. I gloated when I sent them signed copies of my first novel. And guess what? — I still haven’t read “Moby Dick” or anything by Charles Dickens or Jane Austen.”
Interestingly, many late-blooming novelists tell me that their decision to start writing was abrupt, and seemingly unprovoked. One author described a “switch being flipped in her brain,” and also admitted that she “can’t explain why the urge to write fiction suddenly became so strong. All at once, I knew that it was something I had to do.”
Another curious phenomenon: Few late bloomers I talk to say that they took writing courses or workshops before they began to write fiction.. Most jumped right in: they started to write a novel — and then honed their developing skills by reading how-to books, going to writers conferences, and taking local fiction-writing courses. This explains why so many first-time participants I meet at writers conferences have finished several chapters of their first novel. A few have written complete manuscripts.
Why the write-first-learn-later attitude. I think it’s because most starting-out writers assume that it’s easy to write publishable fiction — until they actually give it a serious go. Fifteen years ago, I certainly assumed that I’d be able to sit down and write fiction merely by harnessing my determination to write a novel.
Naturally I wasted lots of time and effort — key resources that are in short supply for late-blooming novelists. Writing fiction is a mixture of art and craft: it takes time to know what you don’t know. Trial-and-error education worked in my case, but looking back I’ve decided that I paid too much “tuition” for my lessons.
Happily, writing fiction later in life is a grand tradition. Tony Hillerman wrote bestsellers in his ‘80s. Raymond Chandler wrote his first mystery novel at age 51. Agatha Christie wrote into her 70s — and James Michener into his 80s. And we all know the story of Helen Hooven Santmyer, whose first novel “And Ladies of the Club” was published (and became a bestseller) when she was 88. She needed more than 50 years to write it.
Few contemporary late-bloomers want to wait as long as Helen did to see their fiction in print (or on an ebook-reader screen). That’s why Janet and I recently launched Fiction After 50 a blog devoted to providing the resources and support that writers of a certain age need to become a successful late-blooming novelists. Our goal is to shrink the time it takes to master the skills required to write publishable fiction. (By the way, you don’t have to be over 50 to visit FA50.)
Alison Strobel writes stories that stay with you about life, love, and faith. She lives in Colorado with her husband, Dan, with whom she has co-authored a children s book, and their two young daughters. When she’s not writing, she’s spending too much time on the Internet, crocheting, or playing with her girls. Visit her website.
The Mechanics of Crafting
Brutally Honest Fiction
There’s a time and a place for books that spare us the burdens of reality, that allow us to lose ourselves for a few hours in stories that make us feel warm inside, and leave us with smiles on our faces. We need these books when we’re overwhelmed by the darkness of the world and tired of the depressing news we get from the media.
There’s another side to that coin—times when we need to grapple with life, to wrestle with the darkness and hear someone else asking the same questions that plague us, and doing it through fiction allows us that opportunity.
But writing that kind of fiction—brutally honest fiction that stares the sins of the world in the face and shines the light of Christ into them—is a difficult task, requiring the author to walk a tightrope between authenticity and voyeurism, between being honest and being graphic. It’s the challenge I faced when writing my latest release, Reinventing Rachel, and I want to discuss here the whys and hows for those who are seeking to write the same way.
Why Brutally Honest Fiction?
Not every reader is looking for this kind of writing. As with every book you write, think first about who your reader is before tackling brutally honest fiction. For me, the answer was somewhat unique this time around, as I wanted to target a segment of the market often missed by Christian fiction: college-aged readers.
My protagonist is a coffee-slinging recent Christian college graduate looking to apply to grad school. She is just a step or two ahead of my target reader in life, which makes her more relateable than the usually late-20’s/early-30’s protagonist of the majority of contemporary Christian fiction.
This reader is also inherently skeptical and, in the case of those at secular colleges, living alongside people whom frequently making God-dishonoring decisions. This kind of reader isn’t as interested in softer stories. They’re in the process of grabbing life with both hands, and I believe they will more deeply connect with a story that depicts characters doing the same.
How Do You Write Brutally Honest Fiction?
For me, successfully writing brutally honest fiction requires attention to three things. The first is the fine line between being honest and being graphic. Honesty makes sure the reader knows what happened—but being graphic gives the reader every gory detail.
Honesty means allowing really awful things to happen, because that’s what happens in real life—but being graphic means explaining those really awful things gratuitously. I don’t think graphic writing has a place in Christian fiction. It is not edifying, and can leave images with readers that soil their minds and are difficult to shake.
Think of the difference between a movie scene in which two lovers are seen kissing as the scene fades away, as opposed to a scene in which we witness their naked roll in the hay. With the first scene, we get the idea—we know they’re in love, and for the purpose of the story that’s all we need to know. In the second, we’re witness to the most intimate form of that love, a form that we have no business watching. We must include what is necessary to be true to the story, but not embellish it with unnecessary details that paint a lurid picture.
The second thing to which I pay attention is real-life reactions. When I write a scene about a Christian character, I don’t consider whether his or her actions are Biblical. I consider whether or not they’re believable. Character driven fiction has to judge how a character would respond based on who they truly are, not why they wish they were or who we, the writer, want them to be. I try to be as skeptical as I can about my characters’ actions. If someone said or did this in real life, would I roll my eyes? If so, it gets deleted. (Unless, of course, an eye-rolling reaction is what I’m going for!)
Bending the wills and words of characters to achieve an end goal or fulfill an agenda leads to stilted and inauthentic stories. It robs the reader of any measure of trust in the character—trust that they will live their lives in a way that makes sense in the world we know.
The third area I watch is my own expectations. I try not to think about the expectations people have of or for Christian fiction. In all honestly, I don’t think of myself as a Christian fiction novelist. I think of myself as a novelist who writes fiction that features Christian characters and which are written from a Christian worldview. I think there’s a big difference between the two, too nuanced to go into here, but it affects the expectations that I—and, I think, my readers—have of my books.
I also try not to think of my books as having a message until after I’ve written them. Writing fiction to get across a particular message almost always comes across as preachy and heavy-handed. Instead, I focus on the characters and their goals and the events that shape them, and let them live out their lives and see what happens. When the story is over, the message is always loud and clear, but it’s because the characters have conveyed it—not me.
Reinventing Rachel went through four distinct forms before becoming what it is now. That’s because I was working through these things—the fine line between honesty and being graphic, depicting realistic actions, and removing my own expectations and message from the story—as I worked on each draft.
Once I managed to figure out the appropriate approach to each area, the story came together. Take a look at your own manuscript and think about how you can pull back on the graphic details to let readers use their own imaginations, how you can tweak your characters’ actions to reflect how people really act, and how you can erase your own expectations from the story so it blooms and grows more organically. What you’ll be left with is brutally honest fiction that can open the door for readers to grapple with their own lives and struggles—and a story that grips the reader every time they open the book.
God let Rachel Westing down. For twenty-six years she’s done everything by the book; she figures He should have her back. But then she learns her fiancé is cheating on her. Her parents are getting a divorce. And her Christian mentor has a pill addiction. Where is God in all this? Nowhere, as far as Rachel can see. Wounded, bitter, and with a shattered faith, she quits her job and goes across the country to live with Daphne—her childhood best friend whose soul Rachel once thought she was meant to save.
Confident, successful, fun-loving Daphne sets about helping Rachel reinvent herself, and for a while it’s exciting. But when another tragedy shakes Rachel to the core, what little bit of self-possession she has left begins to unravel. A true-to-life story that will draw you in and keep you biting your nails until the end.
This is Camy Tang and I’m thrilled to be able to guest blog on Novel Journey today!
I also run a critique service, and lately I’ve been critiquing a lot of query letters, so I thought I’d share some thoughts on them.
Not all query letters are set up this way, but here’s a quick and dirty skeleton structure:
Name, title, house, address
Name, agency, address
Greeting (make sure you address the person by name—for example, Dear Ms. Lawton)
First paragraph. Some people start with a hook, some people start with the info line. It’s up to you, although I have heard of some editors/agents who detest the hook opener—including rhetorical questions—so I usually play it safe and start with the info line.
I am excited to present my novel, The Twelve Dates of Christmas, a completed 75,000 word Inspirational Christmas romance set in San Jose, California.
Info line should include:
If it’s completed or not
Story blurb. Typically they’re one to two paragraphs long, and they can be similar to back cover blurb.
Issues, hook, appeal. What makes this novel unique or different? Is the storyline high-concept? How would it appeal to readers? How would it be similar to but different from other books out there? If you’re targeting a certain house, it would be a good idea to mention a book in their catalog for a comparative market analysis.
Your bio. What makes you qualified to write this story? Include publishing credits (and any awards), clubs, and/or experiences that are relevant to the story or your writing.
Closing thanks and polite nothings. Keep it short. Also, either here or in the first paragraph, you can include any personal notes if you met the editor or agent at a conference, just to jog their memory.
Camy here: I want to point out some key places to focus on:
Story blurb. A lot of query letters I’ve seen need a stronger story blurb. Many writers get too caught up in the details of their story and don’t take a step back to give a general overview instead. Make sure you mention:
Character external goal(s)
Optional: Character internal conflict (This is mandatory if you’re writing contemporary fiction or women’s fiction, since the internal conflict tends to overshadow the external conflict)
Issues, hook, appeal. This is a key paragraph in a query letter, in my opinion. The editor or agent is looking to see how your book stands out from the THOUSANDS of other manuscripts and DOZENS if not HUNDREDS of published books they have read in the past year.
That can seem daunting, but if you’ve done your homework and have read extensively in your genre and/or the books put out by that publisher, you’ll know exactly how your book is unique from the other books out there.
For example, Cheryl Wyatt wrote not just about a military hero, but Pararescue Jumpers (PJs) for her debut manuscript, which immediately garnered the editor’s interest. There had been Army and Navy and Marine heroes published by that house, but not PJs, who are also paramedics and have a natural compassion aspect of their exciting job.
When Mary Connealy debuted in the Christian historical romance market, there were one or two humorous historical romance writers at the time, but Mary’s humor was unique in that her books are like Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus set in the Old West. Her “war of the genders” brand immediately caught the attention of the editor reading her single title manuscript, Petticoat Ranch.
When I submitted my debut manuscript, there were absolutely no Asian American authors in the Christian romance market, and no novels with Asian American characters, as opposed to overseas Asian characters. My editor immediately saw the marketability and appeal of my brand.
Your bio. After you’ve set up your uniqueness in the market, then show why YOU are the writer to write this book. Cheryl is from a military family. Mary’s husband is a rancher. I’m, well … Asian.
If you can tie your bio in cleverly with your hook, you’ve nailed the query letter.
One last thought: You can have a rockin’ query letter, but don’t neglect the manuscript. A good story, well told, is what sells to the editor.
Thanks for having me here on Novel Journey today, guys!
The Grant family’s exclusive Sonoma spa is a place for rest and relaxation–not murder! When Naomi Grant finds her client Jessica Ortiz bleeding to death in her massage room, everything falls apart. The salon’s reputation is at stake…and so is Naomi’s freedom when she discovers that she is one of the main suspects! Her only solace is found with the other suspect–Dr. Devon Knightley, the victim’s ex-husband. But Devon is hiding secrets of his own. When they come to light, where can Naomi turn…and whom can she trust?