Archive for May, 2010

This week I had one of those delicious publisher/editor/agent/author check-in phone calls with the inevitable scary question, “OK, now that this series is coming to an end, do you have any thoughts about What’s Next?” Inevitable because I have two more books to fulfill on my contract (believe me, I’m grateful to have work a while longer!), scary because I’ve come to the END of two series … and I have no idea What’s Next!

But I’ve been praying. Oh, how I’ve been praying. God! I need a story idea! And I’ve been so aware of the God-process in the two series I’ve been writing (more about that later), I know that without a Spirit-inspired idea, I’m dead. Or, to be precise, the book will be dead.

So in this phone call we talked about What Readers Want and tossed around a few ideas … and something clicked. An Idea. An Idea that might work. An Idea I could get excited about.

I went to bed that night still thinking about that Idea—and dreamed all night about it. Dreamed a strange scene that stayed with me when I woke up and trucked to the bathroom, then back to bed and fell asleep again. Same scene, wrestling with it. I finally woke up enough to grab the pen and paper I keep by the bed and wrote something down in the dark. Finally fell asleep.

In the morning I told my husband and laughed about it. “Listen to this!” and I read what I’d written in the middle of the night (barely legible). “Guess that sounds kind of silly now.”

My husband looked at me soberly. “Doesn’t sound silly to me. I think the Holy Spirit was talking to you.”

Well …

But if so, why should I be surprised? I’ve been praying, right? And to tell the truth, I’ve actually been mulling a lot lately about prayer and listening to the Holy Spirit and how it has impacted my writing journey. Early on, when I began to get reader letters that said, “Your novel helped me through a difficult bout with cancer” … or, “Your stories have revolutionized my prayer life” … or “After reading how your characters learned to pray, we’ve started our own prayer group.” These responses knocked my socks off! Only the Holy Spirit knew what those readers needed and brought my novels to their hands. Scared me, too. I began to realize how important it was to pray my way through each book I wrote, how critical it was to be listening to the Holy Spirit for the ideas and story, to be conscious that God was bringing His work to my work.

The whole thing felt bigger than me. So I asked some sister prayer warriors if they’d be my prayer team. (Bless these women who have prayed me through writer’s blocks, through sickness and surgery and family crises, who pray for readers who write me asking for prayer! That I ever even finish a book I’m sure is due to the prayers of these prayer warriors, bless them all!)

So what does it mean to be listening to the Holy Spirit while I write? Secular writers get “Ah-ha!” ideas too. Maybe for me—and you—it’s something as simple as acknowledging on a daily basis that our creativity, our ideas, that perfect concept to drop into the story, that sermon in church or something someone said on the radio just articulated the very thought you needed in your next chapter … that it all comes from the Spirit of God. To say, “Thank you, Lord!” Or even before that, “Help me, Lord!”

After all, the Spirit inspired the Word of God—why not our writing? No, no, no, I’m not suggesting my novels, or yours, have the weight or authority of Holy Writ! Please don’t misunderstand! I only mean that the Spirit of God is obviously in the business of using the written word (among other things) to reach and teach and comfort and convict readers. What you and I do as novelists reaches thousands of readers. Therefore we better be praying! And we better be listening to the still small voice of the Holy Spirit—which sometimes comes as a swift kick in the pants, too.

And then, we need to be thankful when God answers. Thankful for every idea that God knits together from “Once upon a time …” to “The End.” Thankful when we hear from a reader who, unknown to us, needed what God gave us to say.

Don’t know about you, but it leaves me breathless. Drives me to my knees. Gives me the courage to sit down at the computer one more time and write, “Chapter One.”


Neta Jackson


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Prologues are Overused

Too many novels have prologues that don’t belong. Prologues should be used sparingly and only if they meet particular criteria. I can only think of two scenarios where prologues are permissible.

  1. Necessary POV. If the information is needed from a person who doesn’t have a POV in the story. Another way to handle this is to bookend the novel in the same person’s POV who doesn’t have a POV in the other chapters (i.e. a sage character or a town observer).
  2. Jump in time period. If the reader needs to know something from a time period that doesn’t fit within the timeline of the story. I’m thinking of a novel that shares a scene of two ancestors performing a ritual. It makes no sense until the end of the novel when the protagonist and hero realize this was done for them.

Consider NOT including your prologue if it only accomplishes the following:

  1. Previews a scene that the reader will encounter later in the novel.  If you need to give the reader a sneak peek of a critical scene in a prologue, I suspect your first chapter may lack the hook and vibrancy it needs.
  2. Fills the reader in on information that occurred in the previous book in the series. If the series is serial (vs. episodic) then you can fill the reader in on critical details they need to know to understand something by adding a sentence here or there. Sometimes what you think is critical info may only seem so because it’s the order that you came to know the story, but the reader is fine. And when they read the other book, they’ll feel “smart” to have picked up on the crossover threads.
  3. Sets the story up so chapter 1 makes sense. This is similar to number 1. I would challenge the author to make chapter 1 work on its own and perhaps move the original chapter 1 to chapter 2.

What’s the big deal? One problem is that prologues can be mistaken for front-matter material (introductions, forewords, author notes) and readers may just skip them not realizing it’s the beginning of the story. Typesetters and editors should be careful that the page numbers on epilogues don’t have roman numerals, a clear indicator that it’s front-matter material. The other problem is that many prologues are shortcuts. They are trying to achieve something quickly instead of threading it throughout the story. I contend that it’s more rewarding for the reader to reveal the information they need as they need it or else it suspends their satisfaction.

Take this test: Pick up a couple of novels that you’ve already read that have prologues. Now imagine that prologue was deleted. Would the story hold firm or would it all fall apart? If prologues were banned, could you get that information to the reader another way? With some distance and perspective, which option works better? Does one demand more skill from the author?

No rule in writing is iron-clad so if you know of another scenario where a prologue is helpful, please share it with us.  We want to hear from you!


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Got Fear?

That terrible secret carried since childhood.
The time you didn’t get busted for something bad, because nobody witnessed the crime.
How you feel about that person — that person everybody else adores.
Painful, personal things. We want to avoid thinking about them.
And writers need to do the exact opposite.
Writing books — novels in particular — is a perennially weird journey. With every book, the writer begins with a flat field of good intentions, but by the time the manuscript goes to editors, everything has been tilled, furrowed, seeded until it finally produces some unexpected harvest, the kind of odd fruit that causes the writer utter defensive statements such as: “Well, I know you said a book about quilting, but that was before I realized the quilters were serial killers.”
Writers sympathize with bad guys, because an author who doesn’t creates cardboard villains. We show the worst things happening to the nicest people, because conflict turns pages. We dig down to the messiest parts of the soul because –you are digging down to the messiest parts, aren’t you?
Because that’s where the reader needs us, and wants us.
More importantly, it’s where God wants us.
Consider the disciples in the boat:
“On that day, when evening had come, [Jesus] said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”  He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”  Mark 4:35-40 (NRSV)

If I could invent one tool for writers it would be a Fear-o-Meter. Looks like a hand-held compass but emits an ear-piercing screech when pointed at the writer’s biggest fear. Not just a humiliating device for a humiliating profession, the Fear-o-Meter’s real purpose would be for pausing, and considering. Perhaps what’s needed is confession and repentance. Maybe more trust in Jesus Christ.
But usually for a writer, fear is the signal to start writing about swirling emotions.
Of course, that means hard work. Really hard work.  And writers have thousands of ideas. Hundreds of stories. Dozens of great characters.
Unfortunately, most of them are worthless.
Nobody can guarantee that writing about what scares you will automatically bring a best-seller. But it does mean your book is much more likely to have that passion, that life, that undefinable quality that draws in a reader who later says, “Gee, I thought I was the only one who felt that way . . . .”
Last September, two highly esteemed theologians, Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello, sat down for an interview before a live audience at the Apollo Theatre. Springsteen offered some insights into writing songs, and since his songs always sound like short stories to me, I sat up to listen.
Well, no wonder those songs hit so many nerves — Springsteen’s got a Fear-O-Meter!
And he doesn’t leave home without it:

“I’ve always believed the greatest rock and roll musicians are desperate men. You’ve got to have something bothering you all the time. My songs are good because … it’s like in art and love, hey, one and one makes three. In music, if it makes two, you’ve failed, my friends. You know, if you’re painting, if all you’ve got is your paint and your canvas, you’ve failed. If all you got is your notes, you’ve failed. You’ve got to find that third thing that you don’t completely understand, but that is truly coming up from inside of you. And you can set it any place, you can     choose any type of character, but if you don’t reach down and touch that thing, then you’re just not gonna have anything to say, and it’s not gonna feel like it has life and breath in it, you’re not gonna create something real, and it’s not gonna feel authentic. So I worked hard on those things.”

Fearfully and wonderfully made,


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