Thursday, April 30, 2015

Numbers and Writing: Just what do they MEAN?

Numbers are one of the not-often-talked-about topics in the writing industry. Everyone is curious about them and occasionally someone gets up the guts to actually ASK about them, but the answer, 99 times out of 100, is "It depends."

The sad truth is... it really DOES depend.

What constitutes if a book has done well? What are GOOD sales numbers... and what are bad?

Chances are, if you're a published author and have good numbers, you KNOW they are good without having a yard stick to measure. You've earned out your advance. Your publisher is asking for what other stuff you have in your magic hard-drive box of goodies. Your agent is sending you congrats letters. You might not know HOW good unless you are hitting every bestseller list, but you know that you haven't stunk it up.

And chances are, as that same published author, you know when your numbers are BAD. Your publisher isn't returning your calls. You dread that royalty statement you receive a few times a year. Your agent is giving you grim prospects about getting another book deal. This is no bueno.

It's that place in the middle that makes many scratch their head, and as an unpublished author, until you actually see YOUR numbers.... it's really hard to figure out what to strive for.

Then, if you're like me and take a dip into the indie-publishing world, you get a WHOLE other dimension of publishing and numbers. How much do people usually spend on publishing? How do you figure out how much you've made? What is a SUCCESSFUL indie? Can you actually make enough from publishing to be a job? Is that POSSIBLE?

Lots of questions.

Lots of "it depends."

And then Pepper and I were chatting the other day about this crazy thing called RANKINGS on Amazon and other sites... what do THEY mean? What is a GOOD ranking vs a bad one? How do you interpret them?

I thought I'd do a few weeks on addressing on a very basic level some "number" topics in publishing. There are others who know a LOT more than me, and I'll be quoting some of them! And remember, things change daily. So that's another problem with the numbers discussion. I can say something today, and tomorrow it could change drastically.

But for THIS blog post, I'll leave you with this overarching concept that I believe is SUPER important:

Numbers are important. Whether you view your writing as a ministry or a business or both.

In Matthew 25:14 - 28, Jesus tells the parable of the "talents." A man gave his servants silver based on their abilities.

The man who received five bags invested wisely and earned five more.
The man who received two bags went to work and earned two more.
The man who received one bag decided numbers weren't important. He buried his silver and ignored it, not even bothering to put it in a bank to get interest.

The rich guy came back and asked for an accounting... and was NOT thrilled with the dude that had played it safe and not risked anything.

I truly believe God calls us to be wise stewards of the gifts, talents, AND funds that He's given us.

BUT... don't let numbers rule you. Don't let them become an obsession. Don't worry over them and fret over them.

Let them be the reminder that they serve: That your talents should not be buried in the sand to rot. God has gifted and equipped you uniquely and demands that you look to HIM and work for HIS kingdom. This involves risk, putting yourself out there for rejection, even putting your money where your mouth is sometimes and investing in it.

So whether he's given you five bags of talent, two, or one, use them for Jesus. Grow them. Multiply them. Be good stewards of them. Just don't waste them, and don't bury them.

And be ready to give Him YOUR numbers when you're done :-)

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Mastering the Art of Brainstorming

A story idea seed sprouted while I read a book. It was a-mazing!
Another poked it's first leaf through the soil while I watched a group of people.

Right place. Right time. I don't know what caused the idea to push through all the other thoughts jostling around in my mind, demanding my immediate attention. But it did. And I loved it.

A kernel of a story idea is golden and to be treasured. It alone, however, does not make a novel.

I would love to be an accomplished author who wakes one morning ready to start a new novel. I'd ask myself the first layer of questions: 

"Who will the main character be?" 
"What is his/her journey problem?"
"What or who will trip her/him up?"
"What is the setting/time and how will it effect the story?" 
"What is the ending?" 

My fingers would fly on the keyboard. As I watch the story unfold on the screen, I'd ask more questions to form a second layer then a third layer, ever deepening the story. My fingers tap out the words and in a month--poof--I have a new novel needing only a minimal edit.


I am not at this point.

I sit at my laptop and draw a blank. Kinda like Snoopy sitting on top of his doghouse with his typewriter.

Recently I read Ted Dekker's acknowledgement for his book Eyes Wide Open. He states a friend helped him bounce the ideas back and forth. Because of the friend, the story plunged into the depths of a fantastic world. He clearly stated, without the friend helping him brainstorm, the story would not have turned out so well.

I need someone to help me brainstorm for deeper ideas, too. I've turned the process into a game-- a writer's ping pong game. Practically an entire story can be plotted in one entertaining session.

I've played this game in a coffee shop, in a beach condo, in a conference hotel, at a friend's home, etc. The places are endless, and the fun is memorable.

Here are the rules: 

Mastering the Art of Brainstorming- 
A Writer's Ping Pong Game

1. Requires at least two players, more are encouraged. One player is the intended writer of the story. Best if players face each other.

2. Need one kernel of a story idea.

3. Each player is allowed unlimited turns to share ideas, but must allow others to have a turn.

4. Interruptions, interjections, blurting, talking over are allowed

5. Changing of mind is allowed.

6. Leaping forward and bouncing back in the story is allowed.

7. Laughing, pondering, rephrasing encouraged.

8. Body movements to enhance current thought highly recommended. This will help the writer to recall the idea later on.

9. Silence is golden. (Great ideas are being manufactured in the player's minds)

10. Writer's satisfaction is a must. This is where voice comes into play. If a player suggest an idea, no matter how great, the writer must feel comfortable about it. As the game is played, the writer forms a sense of story, the characters, etc. and can determine if the idea will really work or should be stored for a future novel. The writer then needs to inform the players of any problems and open the door for new ideas.

11. This game is not limited to a complete novel. Applicable for short stories, scenes, beginnings, endings, character flaws, villains, blogs, etc.

This game is not a Milton Bradley product, can be played by all ages, and works best with snacks.

Who would like to play? 
Who knows they need to play but feels shy?

Wave your hand in the comment section. Maybe we could get a group to play on FB chat or meet in Skype. We could play right now. Give me a second to round up the Alley Cats-the best brainstormers I know.

Go ahead. Fire your idea-tell us where you are stuck.
Go ahead. Request a partner to play in another social media.

The world is open to new and great ideas. Some of them are hiding with fairies or the little people. Some are in the treasure vaults of princes. Let's play Hide and Seek and find those buggers.

Photo Courtesy for top photo: by rahki-photo modified for this use.

If you found any typos in today's post...sorry about that. 

Mary has moved to Michigan with her husband, closer to her three college kids. She misses the mountains of Montana, but loves seeing family more often. She writes young adult mystery/adventure Christian fiction, is honing marketing and writing skills, and loves to pen missionary and Bible adventure stories on her ministry blog, God Loves Kids.

Visit Mary at her website and her ministry blog to families: God Loves Kids. Or chat on Facebook or Twitter

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

How to Resuscitate a Dying Dream {with Special Guest Ashley Mays}

Laurie here! I had the privilege of meeting author Ashley Mays at the ACFW conference this last year. We share a passion for the hearts of young women, a love for the magazine Brio, and our wonderful literary agent! Love her heart and love this message! Let's get a good conversation going :) 


I remember the day I thought my 13-year-old dream was dying. I’d sent my beautiful baby manuscript to an agent months before. Though many periods of waiting may feel excruciating and endless, I was hopeful. I was sure my wait to find an agent was nearly over. I’d worked hard to hone my craft. My platform was decent. Critique partners were complimentary. So when I received a kind but very clear rejection from the agent I’d queried, my robust, healthy dream suddenly went into cardiac arrest. I had no idea how to save it, so I decided to let it die.

I was tired of trying. Tired of putting my life so fully into something going nowhere. Tired of failing.
I stopped writing entirely. I told people I was no longer passionate about writing, trying to save face. I searched and searched for a new dream to replace my desire to be an author. Surely I anything else would be easier than the whole writing gig.

It turned out, though, my dying dream still had some fight in it. Novel ideas continued to bubble forth. I was miserable trying to stuff them down. Many months later, I realized I couldn’t. And at that point, I had to resuscitate the dream I’d actually tried to smother.

We’ve all encountered sputtering dreams before. But they’re dreams for a reason, and they can be saved especially if we’re willing to be intentional in our resuscitation efforts.

First, when we have a dying dream we have to identify the motivation behind our dreams so we can either move forward or move on. Are we motivated by a heart of helping other people? Maybe God brought us to this particular dream. There are lots of great reasons to continue working toward our dreams even when they’re agonizing and difficult. But our hearts seem to know it when those reasons aren’t so great. If we’re following a dream because someone else wants us to, because we feel like we’ll never be special without it, or out of some other less-than-wonderful motive…maybe it’s time to move on.

Sometimes we don’t need to move on completely. We simply need a “vacation” from our dreams. Passion requires so much from us all the time. When we’re exhausted, we start to feel like it’s an obligation. But burnout doesn’t mean a dream is dying. Dreams, like many other aspects of creativity, really seem to benefit when we take a few days away to let our minds and hearts recharge.

Once we’ve rested, we’re ready to take on our excuses. I find that the more important something is to me, the more I sabotage it with silly things because then at least the failure would make sense. It’s a stupid way to act toward something so dear to me! Are you frustrated because you’ve booked your writing time with coffee dates? Maybe you’re procrastinating with your daily word count. We’ve each got our vices and excuses, but that’s all they are: excuses. We can take control of our excuses. Figure out how you’re sabotaging your dream, and commit to leaving those things behind.

Finally, we’ve got to examine if we’re smothering our dreams by giving ourselves a self-imposed deadline for success. For me, especially as an author, it’s easy to imagine what success looks like and what I should be striving for. A bigger platform. A more engaged audience. Contracts! 

I wanted all those things to happen before my 25th birthday because it seemed like I’d be more successful that way. When 25 came and went, I felt like a failure. But God’s timeline for my dreams mattered so much more than my immediate and overwhelming idea of success. Sometimes we feel like a failure because we’re pushing our successes, or lack thereof, into the wrong timeline. When we let go of our self-imposed deadlines for success, it gives our dreams room to breathe and bloom.

Is your dream dying? Take heart. All is not lost. God is in the business of redeeming and reviving dying dreams. In the right time and in the right way, He’s positioned to do more through your barely breathing dream than you could ever ask or imagine. And isn’t God’s track record with resurrection pretty excellent?

Though they may be sputtering right now, it looks like our dreams may make it after all.


About Ashley: 

Ashley Mays writes fiction to inspire young women toward strength, dignity, and laughter. She is represented by Rachel Kent of Books & Such Literary Management. As a former member of the Brio magazine editorial team, she has a heart and passion to write for and work with teens from all backgrounds. She enjoys spending quiet evenings at home with her husband of almost six years. Ashley is a huge fan of North Carolina, camp counseling, and anything that allows her to be creative.

Facebook - Ashley N. Mays
Twitter - @AshleyNMays
Instagram - @AshleyNMays
Pinterest - AshleyNMays

Monday, April 27, 2015

The Trilogy - to Write or Not to Write by Rajdeep Paulus

So happy to have Rajdeep Paulus back with us on The Alley.

Her newest novel, Soaring Through Stars, is the final installment of her trilogy and has met with wonderful remarks such as "a beautiful whirlwind plot", "heart soaring", "compelling" and "hopeful". One reviewer said it is "a perfect conclusion".

What a wonderful delight then to have Raj with us to talk about writing that tricky trilogy - especially the kind which involves the same characters.

Welcome, Raj!

I recently attended a panel discussion by authors who wrote Young Adult series. A few had written a sequel to their first book and the rest had written a series. One particular author claimed that the trilogy was the perfect formula for a successful teen story. Her break down summed up like this: Book One – The problem, Book Two – Lead characters make out, and Book Three – Good triumphs evil and good wins.


Although humorous, I found her understanding of the trilogy rather simple and limiting. In fact I can think of many reasons why an author should avoid writing a trilogy. Here are my Top Five reasons to STOP yourself before you commit.


1.      Why say in three what you could have said it in one? Don’t drag the story on just to fill pages. If the story can be finished, don’t test your readers’ attention span and force them to walk down random alleys (YES-That was an intentional shout-out to the Alley Cats! J ) and side streets to get to the ending.

2.      The love story can taper off and become repetitive once the main characters have hit it off. How many more romantic scenes can you write in there that don’t repeat the same kinds of lines and try to evoke the same emotion from your readers from that first scene. Three books later and it is no easy task to keep the romance fresh and memorable.

3.      The villain must continue to be a threat, and unless we’re talking the kind of character whose name shall not be said that tends to disappear and resurrect every book, we’re likely to run out of ways to invite the antagonist to continue to evoke the suspense and setbacks of the first book.

4.      The cliffhanger ending of each book in a series is a tough one to swallow when your readers start giving you feedback and reviews. Accusations of “unfair” and “too many unanswered questions” follow you until the next book comes out. Questions are good. But every question an author lays down must be followed by an answer or a very good reason for not answering it.

5.      The third book let down. Sometimes, that third book just ends and there’s little sense of satisfaction and a feeling of betrayal, because the build-up of books one and two fills a reader with expectations of a grand finale. And when that doesn’t happen, you feel like the characters forgot who they were. The author rushed and had to turn the book in. Or, someone else wrote it. Not good.


BUT sometimes you MUST write on. A sequel. And the trilogy. Sometimes there’s room for more and here are several reasons an author should write on.

1.      The story demands more. There were questions in Book one too vast to answer in one book. The answers were too long to squeeze into a quick ending or epilogue.

2.      The characters’ voices needed to be heard. Sometimes a POV needs to change so readers can get to know the other key players in the story better. Sometimes that calls for another book.

3.      New characters and new settings are introduced. But not too new and no one that wasn’t sort of hinted at along the way, else chance falling into that side streets-distractions category. New members of the story create new interactions with the original team and lots of exciting things can happen.

4.      Character growth happens in stages and just because your lead character tackles and overcomes one challenge that helps him or her become more brave or more kind or more honest, there are still other areas he or she can grow in. This can lead to depth and complexity. And readers draw closer to the characters as they change, falter, grow and blossom.

5.      Readers will ask. Bear in mind: the answer isn’t always supposed to be yes. But if it is, send your characters to places that stretch them, push them to new limits, and find that most amazing journey that leads them to a place where you can walk away as a writer like a parent sending off her kids to college. Not that fictional characters can write their own happy endings [Did you catch that Regina? #OUAT,] but if we leave them in a place where readers can walk away with the words “Wow, just wow” on their lips—mission accomplished.

As an author of her first trilogy, I can honestly say that I never intended for Talia and Jesse’s story to turn into three books. BUT, I am so glad they hung around a little longer for me to find their journey of courage and hope. I never want to be that author who ties up every loose end and leaves a book with a bow neatly wrapped around it at the end. I also never want to be that writer who writes the story readers are expecting. Because life is full of the unexpected! And complex characters get permission to be larger than life when they walk through the door marked Fiction.


So go forth. Write on. Write well. And may the power of great stories be ever with you. J

Rajdeep Paulus, Award-Winning author of Swimming Through Clouds, Seeing Through Stones, and Soaring Through Stars, is mommy to four princesses, wife of Sunshine, a coffee-addict and a chocoholic. As of this June 2013, she’s a Tough Mudder. To find out more, visit her website or connect with her via Facebook, TwitterPinterest, or Instagram.


Saturday, April 25, 2015

New Releases are Blooming in May

Trees are budding. Flowers are blooming.

And new releases are bringing some sweet reads our way for May.

                                           Robin Lee Hatcher's Whenever You Come Around

Richard Mabry's Fatal Trauma

                                                                  In Firefly Valley by Amanda Cabot

The Proposal of Siesta Key by Shelley Shepard Gray

                                Lorna Seilstad's As Love Blooms

Chance of Loving You - a 3-in-1 surprise by Terri Blackstock, Susan May Warren, and Candace Calvert

                To Win Her Favor, by Tamera Alexander

And as weird as it looks to write it....Pepper Basham's debut novel, The Thorn Bearer

Friday, April 24, 2015

Pulling Words Out of Thin Air: The Writer's First Aid Kit for Survivng the Drought

Sometimes stringing words together is a breeze… other times it’s like pulling teeth!

There is no cure for the various writing ailments that plague us but in order to survive the inevitable ups and downs of life as a writer you’d be wise to get prepared for when you get sidelined by a nasty virus. And as luck would have it, you have more quick fixes in your arsenal than you probably realize. These are free, easy remedies to help cure what ails you.

Ready to unpack your kit? First things first, assess the damage.

1. Have a story chat with a friend.

Whether it’s a writer friend or a normal ;)  if you are finding your words are blocked it’s a good idea to pull them out of your mind and air them out in the open. Sometimes they take shape when they are introduced to a new environment. Or sometimes you just need an outsider’s perspective. The diagnosis might be scary but at least you’ll know what you’re up against!

2. Take a walk/run.

Find a place where you can unplug for a bit and leave it all behind. Move your body. Get your blood flowing. When the pressure is off and you aren’t nearly seizing from that ever blinking cursor, the stress falls away and underneath the tough shell is the tender meat of your story ready to be plucked out and arranged on the page. Sometimes a drink of fresh air is all you need to clear your head.

3. Watch your favorite movie or tv show.

This is a different medium of story but it gets your gears going nonetheless. You start thinking about the way the plot unfolds. You make guesses. You get enrapt in the dialogue and character dynamics. Getting engaged in another story often helps you draw conclusions about how you want to craft your own.

4. Similarly, read a GREAT book!

Never stop being a student. Study craft, sure, but learn by example. Read something great that inspires you to greatness!

5. Eavesdrop and people watch. (mwahahah!)

Life imitates art! Real life is the best fodder for story! Pay attention. The plot is unfolding all around you.

6. Have a good cry.

Sometimes we’re all pent up dealing with life that we get congested on the page. There are times when the best remedy for that is a good old fashioned cry-fest. Let it all out. It’s healing, cathartic, and cheaper than any shrink in town. And once you’ve sobbed it out, just maybe some of that emotion can rearrange itself on paper to show more vulnerable, genuine emotion. If your dam is clogged your genius might not flow out onto the page. Just maybe try not to cry one your computer. Water and electronics don’t mix!

7. Pray.

This should probably have been number 1! When we don’t have the answers, HE always does.

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. -Phillipians 4:6-7

8. Dig out the chocolate…

The ultimate BRAIN food and mood-lifter. Simple pleasures work wonders! And well, chocolate sure never hurt so dig in and find your bliss!
<3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3
Amy Leigh Simpson is the completely exhausted stay-at-home mama to the two wild-child, tow-headed toddler boys, one pretty little princess baby, and the incredibly blessed wife of her hunky hubby.
She writes Romantic Suspense chalked full of grace that is equally inspiring, nail-biting, and hilarious. And a little saucy! Okay fine, a lot saucy. :) She is an active member of American Christian Fiction Writers, and now uses her Sports Medicine degree to patch up daily boo-boos. Her greatest ambitions are to create stories that inspire hope, raise up her children to be mighty warriors for Christ, invent an all-dessert diet that works, and make up for years of sleep deprivation. 

She is represented by Chip MacGregor of MacGregor Literary, Inc.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Protecting Your Dreams

I first wrote this post a year ago, but I felt it was really relevant to the changing and often-challenging face of CBA lately. Left and right, we're hearing discouraging reports about bookstores folding, filing bankruptcy, etc., and publishing houses having to bear the brunt of those changes. As a result, agents, authors, and those of us dreaming of book publication are all being affected. I hope this post encourages you today to hold fast to the dreams God has given you, and to remember that God is bigger than any industry variables that may catch us off-guard.


"He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it." -- 1 Thessalonians 5:24 

Hi, writer friends! Today I want to talk about something that-- after five years of being a part of this writing journey-- is close to my heart. And that is... disappointment. I see so many friends go through the ups and downs of hope and disappointment, and believe me, I've been there myself. Maybe that's how you're feeling today. Perhaps you didn't get the feedback you were hoping to receive from a contest, or an editor you really respect recently rejected your manuscript.

Image by  Evgeni Dinev from
I'd venture to say that every. single. writer. experiences disappointment in this journey. For some, the disappointment cuts so deeply, they feel like giving up. Others actually do give up-- they walk away when their hearts just can't seem to take anymore rejection. The mountains just seem so high.

Let's get real for a minute. Writing is not for the weak of heart. It requires diligent adherence to deep vision, and dismissal of all those outside voices vying for your attention. You know the ones. Over time, they just seem to get louder, don't they? Have you ever caught yourself letting these sentiments echo in your heart?

  • An editor isn't going to like that.
  • Your hook isn't strong enough.
  • Why are you doing this, anyway? It's not like you have any actual readers.
  • Your characterization falls flat.
  • Your dialogue is stilted.
  • A scene describing a pencil would be less boring.
  • Wait a second-- did you just rehash the exact plot from While You Were Sleeping?
As writers, we have this crazy hard job of simultaneously putting 100% of our hearts into our stories-- weaving the fabric of our being into the fabric of our characters' struggles-- and protecting our hearts from criticism and rejection. Have you ever noticed that some people are better at one than the other? When I first graduated with my M.A., I was excellent at receiving criticism. Believe me, I was well used to professors criticizing my rough-draft essays-- it was just part of the process for everyone. But you know what? As I've gotten farther along on this writing journey, criticism has actually gotten harder-- in a way-- to receive, because I find myself investing more and more emotion into each story. And that's okay.

Some people think, "If I could only get published, everything would be easier." And while, yes, I personally think having real-life readers (as opposed to merely imaginary ones) does make things easier, at the same time, publication brings its own set of rejection and disappointment. Maybe your sales numbers aren't what you want, or you're having agent troubles, or you got a round of really harsh reviews on your story.

The writing world goes a little something like this: rejection. rejection. rejection. rejection. rejection. rejection. rejection. hope. rejection. rejection. a sale!!! rejection. rejection. rejection. rejection. a sale!!!

And repeat. 

Image by vorakorn,from
But here's the thing. If we aren't careful, we can allow ourselves to become crushed in this process. It's like we've been in an emotional battle of sorts, and we come out wounded and scarred along the way from overly-harsh criticism and dreams that seem to have crashed and burned. 

That's where 1 Thessalonians 5:24 comes in. "He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it."

And with that in mind, I want to issue a challenge to you today.

God. is. faithful.

Do you believe it? 

Do you really believe God is faithful? And if so, that leads to my second question. Do you believe God has called you?

Because if you do, then you have a responsibility to protect and to chase your dreams. Through all the pain, and all the disappointment, and all the rejection, the One who has called you is stronger. He has a much bigger plan through it all, and He has not led you down this pathway only to desert you. If you feel like giving up, hold on-- cling to Him as you never have before, and you may find unexpected growth and opportunity when you least expect it.

God has a purpose for your stories. That purpose is greater and bigger than anything you can imagine. He's promised that. So don't give up on Him. There is a reward for those who are faithful to the calling. Imagine if your favorite novelist had thrown in the towel just before publication. How would your own life be different? Your writing journey? What if God wants you to be that author for someone else? Maybe even for the next generation?

And don't forget that God's promises are sometimes different from our own. Maybe God never intended for you to be a NYT bestseller, but He does want your story to forever change the life of the elderly widow down your street. Be open to where His plan leads, because the ultimate fulfillment is in following Him, and learning to see writing as a form of worship.

So, what do you think? Do you ever find yourself discouraged by the ups and downs of writing? What promises do you hold on to to keep you going?


Ashley Clark writes romance with southern grace. She's dreamed of being a writer ever since the thumbprint-cookie-days of library story hour. Ashley has an M.A. in English and enjoys teaching literature courses at her local university. She's an active member of ACFW and runs their newcomer's loop. When she's not writing, Ashley's usually busy rescuing stray animals and finding charming new towns. You can find Ashley on her personal blog, Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter. She is represented by Karen Solem.