Turn Another World Upside Down with Andrew Rogers | A Breathe Conference Retrospective

andrew-at-jot2There are a few reasons why I attended Andrew Rogers‘ session at the Breathe Conference. First, I found the topic interesting. Second, I regularly write slipstream flash fiction and have a few science fiction/fantasy pieces in the works. Third, Andrew is my friend and fellow weakling, and I wanted him to feel my support. But whatever my reasons for attending, I am really glad I did.

Here’s the description:

Science Fiction. Fantasy. Slipstream. Mystery and Crime. In this workshop, we’ll discuss this question and learn how to start writing meaningful genre fiction.

Andrew opened his session with a question–the question, perhaps–which haunts every Christian writer. How “Christian” do I need to make my book?

It is a question that I have wrestled time and again, as a writer, as a reader, and as an employee of a Christian bookstore. Does every book written by a Christian need to adhere to some redemptive guideline? Does it need a three-point sermon and a hymn? Can is have cuss words? What if my characters don’t behave themselves?

Andrew asked us to write some questions in response to the main one. As writers of genre fiction, how do we approach the religiosity of our books? Are we hesitant to publish–or even tell our friends–about our work for fear of what they might say?

WriteMichigan-cover2-1_0A few years ago, Andrew won the Reader’s Choice in the Write Michigan contest. His story revolved around a mentally handicapped man living in a world where every aspect of life is recorded digitally. And though that is the way things seem to be now, the tale is set in the near future where it is even more the case. The thing about the story was that it didn’t have a hint of Christian message. The main character did not pray, did not worship, did not get resurrected on the third day. It was simply a story about a man dealing with issues of death and legacy.

As such, Andrew was afraid to tell certain friends and family members that he was in the running for the reader’s choice portion of the writing contest. What if they read it and asked him why his story did not share the gospel message? The fear of that question kept Andrew silent until about a week before the end of the voting deadline. With time running out, he decided to share in spite of his fears, and he braced himself for the question.

But he did not get negative feedback from anyone. Not even from the sweet little old granny that he was sure would question his faith upon realizing that his story omitted God.

Andrew realized something; books and stories written by Christians do not need slather the gospel on like a topping. In fact, those that do are worse because of it. Rather, our faith is baked into our work as an ingredient, and made evident by our writing. After all, we are made in the image of a creative God. Writing is simply the form of creativity which allows us special insight into who God is. Our stories are reflections of that creative nature.

As to the question of how much violence or cussing or whatever our books should have, that is something that the author must answer. Sometimes, publishers will ask the author to change this or that aspect of the story, but this is less of a reflection on the author’s state of faith than a consideration of the publisher’s buying community. And cleaning up the cuss words is just the cost of doing business with Christian publishers.

If this post seems a bit scattered, there was a lot to discuss in the workshop and my notes are about as organized as I am. But it was a great session and one that left me thinking long after about the intersection of my faith and my writing.

What do you think about “Christian” books? Should publishers be able to dictate how clean a character’s language should be? Have you ever not shared your work with others for fear of being labeled a heretic?

The Publisher Panel | A Breathe Conference Retrospective

books towerOne of the treats of any writers conference is the chance to hear directly from publishers. This year, one of the plenary sessions at Breathe was a panel discussion with representatives from Harper Collins, Kregel, Discovery House, Tyndale, and Zondervan. The panel was moderated by writer and agent, Ann Byle.

Here were a few of the questions that came up:

What are the considerations that go into a publisher’s choice of new book projects?

  • Is the writing good? If so, is the concept salable?
  • Is the author established?
  • How is their project different from what’s out there?
  • How does it fit in with the rest of the publisher’s line? Is there another book to be published that is too similar?

How important is an author’s reach into their target audience?

  • This is vital for non-fiction. Authors must have an authoritative voice on their subject matter.
  • Fiction is a different animal, but authors must still have access to their readers through online communities. Even if they don’t have 20,000 Facebook likes, they must show intention to grow their community.

What things should a writer not do?

  • Lack confidence.
  • Rush the process. Getting published is a long journey. Don’t get impatient.
  • Quote Wikipedia. Just go find the original source material, please.
  • Be inflexible with your agent/publisher/editor.
  • Have expectations about the process if you haven’t been through it before.

What can an author expect from a publisher after the book is published?

  • If editors make your book look good, marketers make it look better. Show some initiative and be involved in the marketing efforts of your book.
  • Author care should include a publisher keeping in touch with you, making sure that you have the information you need along the process.
  • Publishers will make sure that authors have a plan for how the book is going to be marketed.

What changes do you see in the publishing world?

  • The rise and eventual plateau of e-books.
  • The rise of self-publishing.
  • The emergence of hybrid authors (authors who use both traditional and self-publishing).
  • The downward pressure of price points at determined by e-books.
  • The loss of brick and mortar bookstores. Thanks to Amazon, the delivery system for books is still changing.
  • The loss of print book reviews due to the death of newspapers and magazines.

I’m thankful that the organizers of the Breathe Conference were able to get such a great panel together. Even though a lot of what they covered is probably common sense, it is good to hear that we needn’t always have the largest platform in the world in order to get published. We need only do our best and show that we are improving.

Well, that and have an amazing manuscript.

On the Making of Children’s Books with Kenneth Kraegel | A Breathe Conference Retrospective

Let’s continue the Breathe Conference experience together.

9780763653118On Friday, I spent my first two sessions with Candlewick Press author, Kenneth Kraegel. Kenneth wrote King Arthur’s Very Great Grandson, as well as the soon-to-be-published The Song of Delphine. Both sessions were (very) great and gave me plenty of ideas for publishing my long-awaited, barely anticipated Thom and Tom series.

The first session was titled “Children’s Books 1: Nuts and Bolts of Picture Books.” This was the description:

Discuss the many elements involved in making a picture book—writing the text, finding a publisher, working with an editor, understanding how an illustrator fits into the process, promoting your book.

That was a lot to tackle in an hour, but Kraegel rose to the task. Here are a few of the things I learned:

  • There are two main types of picture book authors.
    • Authors who are not illustrators
      • These folks start with the story
      • The publisher chooses the illustrator (It is frowned upon for the author to suggest an illustrator unless there is a compelling reason (like marriage) to do so)
      • Advances and royalties are split between the author and the illustrator
      • Manuscripts are submitted with the words only, images suggestions are sparing and indicated by brackets within the text
      • Examples – The Relatives Came & Button Up
    • Authors who are also the illustrator
      • These folks can start with either story or images
      • Advances and royalties go to just one person
      • Manuscripts are submitted as a “book dummy” – a black & white sketch book with typed text, either physical or in pdf format
      • Examples – Dr. Seuss & Mo Willems
  • Children’s books are typically 32 or 40 pages (or rarely larger by 8 pages at a time), though with endpapers and paste down pages, the copyright info, title page, and story only take up 26 or 34 pages
  • Most children’s books are 1000 words or less
  • Current trends lean toward very sparse sentences
  • There is no standard page size for children’s books (each publisher sets their own rules)

748879The rest of Kenneth’s presentation was practical across the publishing world. Things like: do your research on a publisher before submitting your manuscript to them, develop a routine for your writing/illustration, treat writing like a job to get into the habit once it actually is one, and make friends with your local indie bookstore in order to have an idea of what is published and what is needed in the marketplace.

After such great information from the first session, I couldn’t help but stick around for the second, “Children’s Books 2: Using a Storyboard to Write Picture Books”

After a demonstration of how storyboards are used, we will create our own and discuss the experience. Artistic ability is not required. Bring a work-in-progress or create a new story in the session.

My work-in-progress was a Thom and Tom story (“The Breadbox of Doom”) that I had in my notebook. Surprisingly, the story came out to the exact length of a 32 page picture book. But now I’m wondering how lucky I’ll be with the rest of the stories in that universe.

With one storyboard under my belt, I’m getting excited about the new publishing possibilities before me. I’ve got plenty of work yet to do in order to get my writing off the ground, but Kenneth Kraegel’s class gave me a kick in the right direction.

Thanks Kenneth!

Now, everyone do yourself a favor and go buy some of his books from an indie bookstore near you!

A Quick Breather | Finding Your Writing Rhythm

While at the Breathe Conference, I attended Erin Bartels’ workshop entitled “Finding Your Writing Rhythm”. Here’s how the official schedule described it:

This workshop will show you how to be a good steward of your time, space, and creative energies so you can stop making excuses and start writing!

I chose this workshop over the others because I know how valuable time is to both me and my family. I’d love to get more use out of the time that I have without eating into the time I have dedicated to my wife and kids. I never want my family to question whether my writing is more important than they are.

The session opened with a Calvin & Hobbes comic to which I unfortunately relate.


After going through the comic, Erin asked us to close our eyes and imagine the perfect writing scenario. There would be a never-ending pot of coffee, a complete lack of noisy children, plenty of natural light, and a chair that was impossibly comfortable. Of course, stuff like that just doesn’t happen in the real life.

Instead, we went over the various things in our lives than can make writing difficult. We listed the things that steal time, create space problems, and starve our creative energies. After we had a pretty impressive (sad) list on the board, we started going over ways to take back time, create a space for creativity, and feed our muse. Here are some of the ideas that were mentioned.

Make More Time

  • Quit your job
  • Get up early, stay up late
  • Take writing vacations
  • Learn to say no to hobbies; prioritize the important ones
  • Let yourself/your housework go a bit
  • Take your novel on a date (build writing time into couple time)
  • Down time redemption (waiting = time for research/note taking)

Make a Better Space

  • Take back a room’s use for writing
  • Convert a closet
  • Take advantage of mobility. Find a space that you don’t need to change: Coffee shops, library, bars, nature
  • Create invisible boundaries in your home (Ex. “Mom won’t be disturbed for one hour…”)
  • Change a current space to make it more fun to be in
  • Indoor Date Night – Let the kids have free rein until they require intervention, then all the fun ends

Make More Creative Fuel

  • Stay away from things that drain you
  • Ask yourself if a hobby or other interest is siphoning off your creativity
  • Stop squandering your brains on mobile devices/the internet
  • Start conversations with people who are very different from you
  • Take a moment to notice the world around you
  • Read
  • Turn down the volume of your inner critic
  • Think about your project throughout the day so you are ready to write it down when you get the chance
  • Bring a notebook everywhere
  • Start or join a writers group
  • Agree to disagree with naysayers

I am thankful for the amount of time that I have to write. I am also thankful that I don’t need extravagant spaces at home or in public to write. For me, the biggest takeaway from the session was in refueling my creative tank. In truth, I am a sucker for mindless activity. I could spend hours playing silly games online instead of writing. But the thing that rang true to me was to think about the project throughout the day in preparation for writing time.

When I was preparing for my first 3-day-novel competition, I spent many mental hours in imagining a world where sound was illegal. How would people communicate? How would they get from place to place? How do you deal with crying babies? It is a concept that still fascinates me. I filled a little notebook with idea after idea of how this society would work and those ideas helped me form a plot and my characters. It’s been a while since I have given that much mental energy to one of my projects and I’m kind of excited to get back into the world of one of my other unfinished novels.

But enough about me. What tips ring true to you? Which ones seem too extreme or unfeasible?

What I hope to get out of the Breathe Conference.

I’m speaking at the Breathe Writers Conference today on flash fiction. And as fun as it is to share what I know, the things about which I am most excited are learning new things and being around other writers.

I’ll take a stab at the second thing first. There is a sense of belonging when you spend time with people who share your struggles and goals. And this conference is just small enough to foster relationships with strangers (who may one day become writing pals). At writers conferences, no one gives you the gimlet eye for pursuing such unlikely dreams as publishing books. Instead, people ask about what you are writing, what books interest you, and what you are hoping to learn.

And that brings me to the first thing about which I am excited. I love learning new things. Since I came to an interest in writing after my college years, I missed out on many basic principles of the craft. And even when I hear things that I know, it is good to hear them again from a fresh perspective.


Latayne Scott

For example, I’m excited to hear the Keynote Speaker, Latayne Scott, on Friday night. She’ll be speaking about the Rule of Three. Sound familiar? If you read this blog regularly, it should. I used it just yesterday in the flash story about the sea serpent, and I linked from there to an earlier post in reference to my experience with Rumpelstiltskin. So, even though I have an idea of what the Rule of Three is, I have no clue what Latayne is going to say about it or how it’s truth will make me a better writer. But I’m excited to find out!

Mainly, what I hope to get out of the Breathe Conference is encouragement. It will be wonderful to add some new tools my me writing belt, but if I am not motivated to write, they will never be used. I’m excited to connect with other writers and share story ideas and discussions about the craft. And all that interaction can be incredibly healthy for a group of people who sit alone for hours on end staring at a page as they slowly fill it with words.

If you are attending the Breathe Conference today, I’d love to meet you and hear about what brings you out. And if you can’t make this year, stay tuned for future conferences. It’ll be worth it.


Breathe In, Breathe Out


breathe2012-300x225This Friday, I’ll be doing a workshop on flash fiction at the Breathe Christian Writers Conference.

This will be my third time presenting something at Breathe, and it’s always an honor to be there. The first year, I did a team presentation with my friend Andrew Rogers on What Publishers and Bookstores Want Authors to know about Marketing. The second year, I did a thing on Creating Successful Bookstore Events. Those events made a lot of sense, given my job in marketing for Baker Book House.

But this year, my credentials are a bit thin. Sure, I write flash fiction. Sure, I think everyone should write flash fiction. And sure, I think that flash fiction is going to be the next big thing in the mainstream. But outside of my personal blog, my flash fiction has never been published.

Is that a problem? I hope not. Since the goal of my workshop is to introduce people to the idea of storycraft on the minor scale, I don’t think it makes a big difference whether my name is recognizable for flash fiction or not. In fact, virtually no one is famous for their flash fiction, so even if I were one of the greats, there is a very small chance that someone would have heard of me anyway.

I think the biggest asset I can bring to the Breathe Conference is my passion for an underutilized fiction form. I didn’t realize how committed to short-form fiction I was until I spoke with people after the last Jot Conference. I found myself inserting it time and again into conversations with my fellow writers, perhaps even when it didn’t belong. And that’s okay (or so I tell myself), because if people can walk away from my workshop as energized about writing as I am while speaking about flash, my talk will have been a success.

I know that online registration for the conference is now closed, but if you are interested in attending, I’m sure that you’ll still be able to pay at the door. Check out the conference line-up here. I hope to see you there on Friday!

Oh, and one last plug for Chad Allen’s event at Baker Book House tonight. Be there.

Breathe Conference Keynote with Terry Whalin

Last Friday evening, my wife graciously encouraged me to attend the Breathe Writers’ Conference Keynote Address with my writing pal, Bob Evenhouse. She did this even though it meant that I wasn’t around to help with putting the girls down, finishing the housework, or taking the dog for a walk. That shows two things in itself: I am loved by a wonderful woman, and she believes in my writing dreams.

Oh, so tasty!

And so, Bob and I met at my house and went on a man-date. We hit up Wendy’s for dinner, where we were given some lovely coupons by an even lovelier little, old lady. After dinner, we made our way over to the church where the Breathe Conference was being held.

One really nice thing about having been to Breathe before is that I recognize so many of the attendees. It wasn’t a full minute after I had walked in before I was greeted warmly by someone I knew. After a few minutes of chit-chat, Bob and I found our seats in the auditorium and waited.

Our friend, Andrew Rogers, got up and introduced the evening’s speakers. Before Terry Whalin spoke, we were blessed to hear Alison Hodgson, member of the Writer’s Guild and speaker extraordinaire. Alison meant to speak on how the publishing process is like a courtship, where each contact is like a date and we endlessly primp ourselves and our manuscripts in order to be loveable by that special publishing house. But she ended up speaking more about how our lives and our writings don’t always go according to our plans. She spoke about the fire that consumed her home. She spoke about the opportunities that are borne out of hardships. She spoke eloquently about poignant matters in a funny way. It was quite a thing.

After Alison’s opening, Andrew popped back up to introduce Terry Whalin. As I mentioned previously, Terry has written and published a number of books and has held many positions within the industry. Now, he is an acquisitions editor for Morgan James Publishing. His talk was an encouragement for writers to “never give up”, and his points were practical and thought-inspiring. Included below are the points that I found it helpful to jot down.

  • Figure out your goal. What is your plan to get there?
  • What is blocking you from achieving your goals?
  • Take control of the things that distract you.
  • Overcome the Catch-22 of publishing (only published writers get published) by starting small. Write for magazines.
  • Seek out apprenticeships and critique groups to hone your craft.
  • Read. Read your genre. Know your readers. Make sure that reading is part of your plan.
  • Join an organization of the type in which you write. (e.g. Fiction writers should join a Fiction Writing Professionals organization)
  • Build your platform. Work at it consistently. For a free e-book on how to do this, visit terrylinks.com/pb
  • Engage your marketplace by blogging, etc.

These don’t cover everything he said, just the bits that I thought to jot down. And while many of these may seem obvious, they probably should. These are the tactics that have worked for many successful writers.

And above all else, Terry said, never give up. The forward for his book Jumpstart Your Publishing Dreams is from Mark Victor Hansen, co-author of Chicken Soup for the Soul. Time and again, Terry mentioned how Mark Victor Hansen was rejected by publisher after publisher for a total of 140 rejections before finding one who would publish his book. And the publisher that did take a chance on Hansen has sold millions of copies of his books. As for how Terry got the forward from Hansen, it was eerily reminiscent of how I got into Honors College at WMU. He wrote it himself and then had Hansen look it over and sign off on it. Terry said that the key to getting endorsements like that is by asking. I agree.

And after the keynote speech, I got to mingle with my fellow writers. It was like walking into the cafeteria in high school and every table is saving a spot for you and the jock table is nowhere to be seen. I even set up a meeting with an agent to discuss some of my projects and talked to a published author about submitting a chapter for one of their upcoming books. It was a really good time.

If you are a writer, or if you are afraid to call yourself a writer, or if you are thinking about becoming afraid to call yourself a writer, the Breathe Conference is a great place to mix and learn. I’m already looking forward to next year.

Breathe Conference Reminder

The theme for this year’s Breathe Conference

I know that I’ve written about the Breathe Conference before, but since it is happening this week, I wanted to toss another plug for it onto my blog.

The Breathe Conference is a writer’s conference unlike other writers’ conferences. That is to say, while it still has sessions with amazing speakers that talk about the many aspects of the writing life, it is a conference where writers feel welcomed, supported, and worthwhile. I’ve been to some conferences where you walk away from a session feeling lost and intimidated. The Breathe Conference isn’t that. Attendees come away encouraged and with the tools they need to make their writing dreams published realities.

The main speaker for this year’s Breathe Conference is Terry Whalin. When I heard that, I said, “Who is Terry Whalin?” A common response, I think. But when I read the biography from his website (posted below), I feel a bit foolish for not being familiar with him before now.

W. Terry Whalin understands both sides of the editorial desk–as an editor and a writer. He worked as a magazine editor and his magazine work has appeared in more than 50 publications. A former literary agent, Terry is an Acquisitions Editor at Morgan James Publishing. He has written more than 60 books through traditional publishers in a wide range of topics from children’s books to biographies to co-authored books. Several of Terry’s books have sold over 100,000 copies.  Terry’s newest book, JUMPSTART YOUR PUBLISHING DREAMS, INSIDER SECRETS TO SKYROCKET YOUR SUCCESS is packed with insight. Also Terry has an innovative online training course to help authors effectively connect with literary agents and editors called Write A Book Proposal. Terry is a popular speaker and teacher at numerous writers’ conferences and an active member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

I’m looking forward to this weekend. My friend Bob and I will be there Friday night to hear Terry speak. I’m pretty sure that the title for Friday night’s talk is “Never, Never, Never Give Up”, but I could be reading the schedule wrong. Anyway, it sounds like a good session and a good reminder if nothing else.

I’m probably just as excited to hear Alison Hodgson open for Terry. I’ve been reading and enjoying Alison’s blog (olderthanjesus.blogspot.com) ever since I found out she had a blog. I’m proud to count Alison among my friends-who-are-also-writers, and can honestly tell you that she is one of the funniest people I know. But she’s also had a bunch of bad stuff happen to and around her, so she is also one of the most poignant people I know. I don’t know if she’ll be doing a funny talk or a serious talk, but I do know that whatever it is, it’ll be good.

It isn’t too late to sign up for Breathe. I hope to see you there!

The Most Important Thing I’ve Learned about Writing at the Breathe Conference

It’s been a few years since I attended my first Breathe Writer’s Conference. My friend Andrew and I were asked to lead a joint session on marketing from the perspective of publishers and bookstores. Andrew was representing his employer, Zondervan. I was representing my bookstore, Baker Book House. It was a great session, mostly because of Andrew’s part, but still.

The Breathe Writer’s Conference was my first writer’s conference, either as a speaker or as an attendee. I was still new to calling myself a writer then.

Cynthia Beach

That’s an important step, calling yourself a writer. It is a difficult step to make. Self-doubt is so much easier. But that year, I heard Cynthia Beach speak on the creative process and tuning out our internal doubts.

The most important thing I learned about writing at the Breathe Conference was that I was a writer, in spite of my doubts.

In Cynthia’s session, I heard exactly what I needed to hear as a fledgling writer: My creativity is important and good. Our tendency to believe the worst things about ourselves and our writing is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we believe that little voice of dissent when we sit down to write, we won’t stick with writing very long.

Near the end of the session, Cynthia invited some questions. One writer said something like, “I’m just a genre fiction writer…” and Cynthia stopped her before she could finish the question.

“Don’t say just,” said Cynthia. “The word “just” is a tool of the enemy to kill our creativity.

How many times have you said something like, “I’m just a writer,” or “It’s just something I do in my spare time,” or “It was just one story, I’m not really a writer until it gets published.” Using “just” is an attempt to apologize for trying to do something great. We are trying to justify our identities in the face of others’ disapproval (or most likely, our own disapproval of ourselves).

I had heard that one of the things that set the Breathe Conference apart from other writers’ conferences was how supportive everyone was there. After that first year, I understood what they meant. I wholeheartedly recommend this conference for anyone willing to call themselves a writer. And for the rest of you still convinced that your writing is “just” a hobby, go anyway. Learn the truth.

You are a writer. You have something to say. You are great.

Check out more information about the Breathe Writer’s Conference here.

Breathe Rachelle, the Baker Can’t Be Older than Jesus – or – Links

Link and Report Card Day! I hope you are as excited as I am. I’ve scoured the internet in search of the best, and I’ve come back with 4 links that won’t disappoint.

Breathe Christian Writer's ConferenceFirst is the website for the Breathe Conference. It’s a writers’ conference organized by The Guild, a group of published ladies who live in West Michigan and gather regularly to support each others’ writing. The Breathe Conference is unlike other writers’ conferences in how incredibly supportive it is. When other conferences leave you feeling intimidated and unfit to write, Breathe encourages while it teaches. The conference is in October, so there is plenty of time to sign up. There are even scholarships available, so if you want to check it out, try for one of those.

Older Than Jesus is the blog by Alison Hodgson, a member of the Guild and one of the organizers of the Breathe Conference. Alison’s writing captures her personality well, both the funny bits and the more serious bits. She’s one of the nicest and snarkiest people I know, and she holds a special place for me as a reader in that she was the person who introduced me to the writings of Jasper Ffrorde.

Rachelle GardnerI learned about Rachelle Gardner’s blog from my coworker Chris Jager. Chris runs the fiction department at Baker and writes for the store’s fiction blog as well as the online magazine, Family Fiction. But back to Rachelle’s blog… Rachelle is a literary agent with a lot of great information for writers about the world of publishing. If you are a writer, do yourself a favor and check out her blog.

The final link is for the academically-minded Christian. My friend and coworker Louis McBride started the store’s academic blog, The Baker Book House Church Connection, at the behest of Andrew Rogers as a way to connect to churches in the area and inform the pastors about the newest and best books available to them. I remember Louis being skeptical, but like he does everything else, he grinned and gave it his best effort. Now, it is a well respected blog among Christian academic circles, the influence of which spreads far beyond the West Michigan church arena. Louis is always insightful, and if you don’t feel smarter after reading his blog, you may not be able to read (how are you reading this right now then?).

How I did this week. Also, fun links!Now for the report card portion of the post. I only added about 500 words to my novel this week, so I could have done better there. On the upside, my blogging is going like gangbusters. If today’s post goes over like last week’s post, I’ll get pushed over the not-at-all-important-in-the-long-run number of 1000 all-time visits, which is still a pretty cool thing. Overall, I’m going to give myself a B- for this week’s writing. Better luck next time, me!

Two last plugs, if you somehow missed the contests that I am running, this one ends Monday and is super easy, and this one ends at the end of the month and is considerably more difficult. Either way, I’m giving away books, so check it out and share the news with your friends. Thanks for reading this week!

PS – I’ll be continuing my Bookstore Symbiosis series next Monday, in case you were interested in such things.