Friday, February 26, 2010

What It's like To Be An Author

I spent three hours yesterday (three different class periods) as the guest lecturer in a high school English class. It was their chance to talk to a real author and my chance to rub shoulders with some great young teens who have their own preconceived ideas about what being a writer of novels is all about.

I showed them a slide of rhino grazing a few feet away from me, not bothered by my presence, nose to the task. I told them to get rid of the romantic notion of what it must be like being a writer. There is no life for me sitting in a comfy chair by the fireplace, smoking a pipe, laptop open, fingers pouring forth wonderful stories, taking breaks only to discuss Hollywood options with my literary agent or to collect my royalty checks from the mailbox. I told them writers need to be a bit like the rhino in the picture. Novels are long and they take a long time to write, so you have to be disciplined about staying at the task and ignoring the distractions. After the novel is written, I told them you need a thick skin like the rhino, because it's going to take some resilience if you are not going to cave when the editors give you a thousand suggestions as to how to do it better. And then, long after publication, there's the reviewers, some professional, but in the age of any one can review a book and post it for the rest of the world to see (ah, if only the rest of the world was searching my books on Amazon). While I was talking, the English teacher actually looked up a book of mine on Amazon and found a one star review. Turns out all the guy had to say was, "I had to give this book one star because I never got the book. So if you're the seller, I need you to contact me...." Crazy, huh? He doesn't get the book, so he takes it out on the author, as if I had something to do with it.
Luckily, thick skin like a rhino in place, I let that one go....
Then, I told them to be ready for solitude. LOTS of it. You're going to have to be comfortable spending time alone, because that's how novels get written. Of course, there's the occasional jaunt out into the public to do research or book promotion, but the vast amount of time is spent at the keyboard, conversing with your imaginary friends.
New writers need to be ready for an apprenticeship of years. From the time you first start writing, rewriting, getting advice, finding an agent, submitting proposals, writing again, starting the time you can hold that first book in your hand is going to be years. There are plenty of success stories in writing and very few of them didn't involve a long time and multiple rejections. For that reason, for new writers, the process has to be enough. You have to get to the point where you think that even if it doesn't get published, the process of getting story on paper was enough. If it isn't fun, don't even think about it.
All writers I know have to face the temptation of envy. I know I do. I look at the type of books I write, books laced with medical realism, an attempt at real characters with flaws, battling with obstacles, developing a conscience etc., and then I look at the fluff on the best-seller list and am tempted to envy. I think my stuff has more depth than the popular stuff. Maybe I should be writing Amish romance or vampire stuff. Why do some books break out and the majority of good writing sits unnoticed? I can't tell you the answer to this one, only that it's true and if the writer doesn't find joy in the process, he or she should do something else. Christian writers, God is in control, not us. We need to thank him for the grace to be able to pen a publishable story and realize that ultimately the results are up to God.
Of course, then there's the finances. Realize that there are very few authors making a living off of the craft. Writer-wannabes tend to think that with the first contract comes a guarantee of financial freedom. Time to quit the job at Burgers-Are-Us and make the down payment on that BMW you've been eyeing. Hey, the Stephen Kings of this world are the exception. The rest of us are the rule.
Writers (I should say successful writers) live a life of discipline. A few years ago, as I was getting ready to do a seminar at Liberty University on the craft of the novel, I wrote to a few writer friends and asked them to give me their top five things they wish they'd have known (that they learned on the road of experience) when they were just starting out. Jerry B. Jenkins (of the "Left Behind" series) said, "The need to put butt in chair every day." You see, without discipline, the novel-length project goes unfinished. You have to push past a lull in your own interest, writer's block and the agonizing revision process. You have to be willing to strip the slow parts and start over, if needed. In all, it takes a lot more than showing up at the keyboard, but Jenkins is correct: it all starts there. If you don't sit in front of the keyboard for the necessary hours, the novel just ain't gonna happen.
So, keep the romantic idea of the writer in your head if you aren't planning to do it yourself. The problem is, there are many who want to have WRITTEN a novel more than to endure the process of actually writing it. That reminds me of what my mother said to her home church as my parents were getting ready to leave as missionaries to Africa. "I've always wanted to be a return-missionary," she said. "Only one way to do that....go!"
I thought that was amusing then, but then, my mom was being brutally honest. Most people would like to be return-missionaries, to be able to sit around the roaring fire sharing amazing stories of sharing the gospel while facing down native's spears. Most people won't be return-missionaries because they don't want to endure the actual going and doing part.
And most people won't ever reach the point of having written a novel, because it's the doing part that's so painful.
Just thought you deserved to know in case you were thinking of putting your toe in the water to find out what the life is like.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to lay down my pipe, put another log on the fire, and check my mailbox for all those royalty checks!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Writing update

What are you working on? Are you still writing? Any new books in the works?

The answer, as it always has been since the early 1990s is the same. I'm always writing. Not always physically hitting the keyboard, but always thinking, always plotting.

It's been a few years since I signed a new fiction contract, a two book deal with Howard (division of Simon and Schuster) for the books, Salty Like Blood and my upcoming book, The Six-Liter Club. I'm getting anxious to see my upcoming release, coming April 6. In it, I turned to a familiar setting, Medical College of Virginia set during the years of my own medical school years there. For that reason, the book feels personal.

But it's also scary: For the first time, I wrote in first-person through the eyes of an African-American. And not just A-A, an A-A female. I think I pulled it off, even passed it by the critical eye of an A-A female author, but only time will tell if the book will live up to the hype. Here's what Publishers Weekly had to say:

Surgeon and author Kraus offers his longtime fiction readers a
highly charged tale of overcoming prejudice both racial and sexual.
Set in 1984 at the Medical College of Virginia, its first black
female trauma surgeon, Dr. Camille Weller, gets a fast initiation
into the Six-Liter Club. Few physicians ever enter this „elite‰
group; entrance is gained by bringing a patient back who's lost six
liters of blood. Weller manages to achieve this honor on her first
day and then, in quick succession, also manages to break „house
rules,‰ which divide the male and female staff. Weller has a lot to
contend with apart from her duties as a surgeon. The young doctor
must balance a romantic relationship with a resident; deftly
overcome the barriers she encounters because of her skin color; and
move beyond nightmarish memories of her childhood in the Congo.
Kraus's story clips along at a fast pace, and his readers will
appreciate how candidly the surgeon writer portrays the real world
of operating rooms and their attending staffs.

I'm particularly pleased, as PW has a reputation for slamming inspirational "Christian" fiction after the compliments. Thank God for a little grace.

So what have I been doing in the months since writing and revising my upcoming novel? Writing something new. Not sure of the title yet, but it is set in Africa, and delves into corrupt politics, witchcraft, marriage betrayal, missionaries losing loved ones while serving on the field and coming to grips with God's grace. I just finished the rough draft this week and am anxious for my literary agent to show it around. It brings together two settings I know well: Richmond, Virginia where I attended medical school, and Kijabe, Kenya in a mission hospital where I worked for four years. It was a blast to write. Now comes the hard part: the WAIT for word from my agent.

On the non-fiction front, Domesticated Jesus is coming out in June with P&R publishers. I'm very excited about this book as it takes an honest look at how we routinely underestimate God in our thinking. (For example, every worry is an example of making Jesus small or domesticated in our minds as we are acting as if he is too small to take care of our problem.) I've seen a prototype of the cover. It is a shocking image of a dog collar with a tag containing the title. It is taken from the concept that we've made Jesus into someone who serves us (like a pet) not vice-versa.

In the upcoming weeks, I'm going to launch into another project, likely something I've been noodling on for months....more clues to follow.

Oh yeah, almost forgot, A Zebra Tale is coming out later this year with Word Alive Publishers in Nairobi, Kenya. It is a fun tale of the great flood told through the eyes of a zebra (ever wonder how God got all those animals to go against their instinct and follow a man? And what if God invited the very lion that killed your zebra brother? And what if no one in the herd, including your family, believed you when you warned them of upcoming catastrophe. The book will be distributed in Africa, but available here in US through internet sales via the Word Alive site.

Thanks for asking.
And thanks for reading.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


I want to tell you about Bob. Bob isn't worth much in the eyes of a discerning public. He's never held a job, never wrote a poem, isn't much of a conversationalist and he can't bake a casserole for a church pot-luck. He doesn't come from money, he has a pot-belly and he has bad complexion and doesn't put much effort into personal hygiene.

Nonetheless, Bob became quite precious to our family, especially my son Evan. He took Bob along with us on numerous vacations. I've got pictures of Bob at the Statue of Liberty, the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro, and the Eiffel Tower. We even took Bob to a presentation of the radio show, "Prairie Home Companion" and had his picture taken with Garrison Keillor.
The reason I love talking about Bob is because the relationship Evan had with Bob is such an example of grace. Evan loved Bob, but Bob never expressed any favor back. The relationship was lopsided. Some would say dysfunctional. Why give love when nothing is ever reciprocated?
Did I mention that Bob is a rubber chicken? We purchased him at Walmart for a buck and change. In the pictures, you can see Bob at the Eiffel Tower and Bob touring the Louvre looking at Michelangelo's famous statue.
Our relationship with Bob came to a tragic end in Paris. Our family had stopped to see a friend on our way back from Kenya. We'd taken Bob to the Eiffel Tower and were on our way to Notre Dame, one of the world's most amazing cathedrals. From the Tower, we took the subway and then were on a bus across Paris when Evan looked at me and said, "I left Bob at the subway station."
Now Evan was about fourteen years old at the time, a critical juncture between boyhood and manhood and I knew he didn't want to cry, but I could tell his heart was breaking. He brushed away a tear and stayed quiet.
"It's too late," I said. "We've taken the subway and now a bus. We can't go back."
My mind wandered back over Bob's crazy life and a knot formed in my throat.
We toured Notre Dame, looking at unparalleled architecture, tall columns, arches of stone, paintings and sculptures by renaissance masters and stained glass windows that sprayed a rainbow of color across an expansive seating area. The west front contains 28 statues representing the monarchs of Judea and Israel. Three portals depict, from left to right, the Last Judgment, the Madonna and child; St. Anne, the Virgin's mother; and Mary's youth until the birth of Jesus.
But did my heart soar at such magnificence?
The atmosphere was surreal, but my soul was crusty, unresponsive.
All because of a rubber chicken named Bob.
Is it conceiveable for you to understand such a competition for my thoughts? The Last Judgment...or a rubber chicken; The Madonna and child or....A RUBBER CHICKEN?
After the tour, our family remained sober. There was little excitement to continue seeing one of the world's great cities.
At that point, Evan and I made a decision to separate from the rest of the family. We would attempt a rescue mission to find Bob.
We started back across Paris, walking the crowded sidewalks. And as we walked, we began to hum the theme for "Mission Impossible." You know--dum dum da de dum dum da de dum dum....It was the Kraus version of no chicken left behind.
We took another bus, finally arriving back at the entrance to the subway. At that point we were facing the turnstiles that require the purchase of a ticket. But I didn't want to pay if I was only going to search the platform and not ride the train. So, with all the appearance of someone trying to steal a ride, Evan and I jumped the turnstiles and jogged towards the platform. Perhaps I should have been thinking about how I would explain it to the authorities if they observed my antics, but I wasn't thinking about that...our focus was on Bob and our plan of rescue.
We arrived at the platform and searched the area. We looked on the concrete bench where Evan was sure he'd placed him. No Bob!
Our hearts sank again.
But we widened our search. There, off to the side in the gutter, Bob had been discarded.
Evan scooped him up. Other than being a little dirtier than usual, he was no worse for the adventure.
Why tell the story of Bob?
Because in some ways, we're all a bit like that rubber chicken. God has chosen us, independent of our worth, and lavished us with his love.
Did Bob diserve an expensive European vacation?
Of course not. He's a rubber chicken.
Do I diserve the lavish attention and love of my Heavenly Father?
Again, no way.
But that's what is so special about grace: God's favor given freely to the undeserved.
The next time you see a rubber chicken...remember that you are loved!

~Harry Lee