Friday, April 9, 2010

Cover musing

I forgot to ask. Who is this model?

Michelle Obama?
Phylicia Rashad? (Remember Claire Huxtable from the Cosby Show)
What do you think? Who is this?

New Book this week!

It is finally here. The Six-Liter Club released this week on April 6. This baby has been a long time coming. I wrote the original version in 2003 during my first year in Kenya. Written initially under a different pen name for the secular market, when my agent shopped my alter-ego around, alas, the novel had too much Christian content for the secular market. But my protagonist, who is an African-American female, the first trauma surgery attending at the Medical College of Virginia in 1984, is not a Christian. Therefore, her lifestyle isn't Christian. She is definitely in need of redemption! For this reason, the Christian Booksellers Association publishers thought the book too "edgy" for publication by a Christian house. So, I was caught in the middle: too Christian for the secular market, too edgy for the Christian market.

After two years of searching, my agent (Natasha Kern) finally found a home at Howard Publishers (division of Simon and Schuster). They had a unique request for this book that they understood was "pushing the envelope": write something else first. They wanted the book for publication, but didn't want to publish it as their first Kraus novel. So, that's where Salty Like Blood came into the picture. I showed a Howard editor what I was working on and they said, we'll do that first, then publish The Six-Liter Club the year after that.
So that's why this book has been seven years in the making. I did have to do some revisions to make it a bit more acceptable for the Christian market. Don't get me wrong. I don't write anything graphic, but a few scenes were altered to soften its impact on very conservative readers.
I don't want to shy away from tough subjects just because the activity is unchristian. Think about the Bible. There is plenty of sin going on. It's just not glorified. That's where I draw the line. I would never write a scene involving sin and not show in some way that there are negative consequences to it.
This book involves some significant backstory from Africa. The protagonist, Camille Weller, is an orphan. Her mother, a Congolese native, was married to an American missionary surgeon. Her parents were killed during the Simba rebellion in the Congo in the mid 1960s. In my research, I read the accounts of several martyrs, Christian missionaries who were killed during that horrible time. When I realized that my immediate neighbor, Steve McMillan, shared the last name of one of the men I'd read about, I asked him about it. As it turned out, one of the missionaries who was killed was his father. Steve had lost his father at age eleven in the Simba rebellion and yet later returned to serve the Congolese people as a missionary himself.
The original idea for this story came to me as I was sitting in church one Sunday morning when my pastor, Phil Smuland started telling a story about some American missionaries in the Congo during the Simba rebellion. A missionary stepped out on his front stoop and looked to the north. The Simbas (the name of the group revolting against the new government of Congo) were going house-to-house killing all of the westerners. He looked south and saw the same thing. In a few minutes the slaughter would reach his home. In desperation, he killed a few of the family's chickens and sprayed the blood around the kitchen. He then hid below his house with his family. When the Simbas arrived a few minutes later, they saw the blood and "passed over" the home, leaving the family unharmed. What a beautiful picture of the Passover this is. I immediately started thinking about weaving a new novel and somehow incorporating this imagery. Again, I can't give away how this relates to the new book, because I don't want to spoil the story.
Anyway, I'm rejoicing this week because The Six-Liter Club is finally here. It is yet another witness to the grace of God in my life. I'm not foolish enough to take credit for this stuff myself. It is the God of grace who empowers imperfect fingers for his work.
Thanks and enjoy reading,
Harry Lee

Monday, April 5, 2010

Things I think about while weeding...

I love the Spring. Warm weather has finally graced Virginia and after a record-setting winter, it is time to get outdoors again.

But Spring means I need to tackle the outside projects that have been idle and ignored. So Saturday, I spent hours weeding the shrubbery bed at the end of my driveway. The temperature was just about perfect and so I honkered down for the hours it would take to pull and dispose of the evil weeds.
The key is not to let the weed break off at ground level, but go deep and get the root. Oh, how fulfilling it seemed to be to pull out a long root snaking along under the surface. It's that same "ah, now we're getting somewhere" type of feeling that a surgeon gets when he or she finally breaks into a major pocket of pus while draining an abscess....but I digress.
A particularly popular weed (I'm not sure of the name, just that the darned things were everywhere) gave me the most challenge. I would pull up one plant only to find that just under the surface the roots were all connected into a complicated network linking all of the weeds. The most fun was to be had an inch or two below the surface when grabbing the hub of a root network would lead to pulling out a spider of roots in multiple directions.
Of course, the work was mind-numbing after a while, so I had to think about something else to keep myself amused. So naturally, my thoughts turned to writing. I thought about the individual weeds as situations or people in a novel. At first introduction or just a cursory look, each situation or character seem unrelated. But start digging and you will be rewarded with finding a root leading off in directions unimagined at first glance. The beneath the surface stuff is always the most interesting. A killer seems unrelated to the victim, but is later revealed to be a grade-school chum. Separate characters in a small town might have multiple, initially unseen, connections below the surface. They all shop in the same store, attend the same church or have been touched by the same set of undesirable circumstance.
In a story the length of the contemporary novel, events that seem random are rarely so. The reader digs a little deeper and is rewarded with a connection. Follow that lead and soon you will find a hub linking everyone together. It is this final discover of a hub that ties it all together that is usually at or near the climax. It is the discover of this network that leads to the "ah ha" moment for the protagonist. The knowledge of the connection is the final piece that pulls it all together and completes the change in the character (the character arc) that is needed for resolution.
In the craft books, the teachers refer to this as layering. The longer the book, the more intricate and connected the layers. Things in novels shouldn't just happen by coincidence. If they do, the reader feels cheated. Things happen for a reason. But don't give away the reason too quickly. The fun is in the gritty process of digging along the root until a connection is found. It is in getting your fingers in the dirt that the rewarding moments are revealed.
Say a new guy comes to town. Don't think this is random. He's got a past. Somewhere, somehow, he has a connection to the protagonist. Is it a blood connection, perhaps one that was hidden on purpose? An emotional one? A common love interest? Does the knowledge he has about the protagonist create a problem?
If you are working on a novel, I'd encourage you to look for the under-the-surface stories. These are the ones that will create the cohesiveness that the story needs. Yes, your story will have random characters that serve the purpose, bit characters who appear once and then disappear. But isn't it more interesting to find a secret link?
Maybe your protagonist eats sausage every morning. Coincidence? Or something deeper?Did he or she grow up poor and only had sausage on Christmas morning? Maybe he or she makes the sausage? Maybe it is a special sausage made from a yearly family hunting trip. Maybe it is made up of the human victims of some crime (ug, that's a sick thought, right...but it was an unexpected or hidden connection and that's what you want to some degree...the hidden surprise that rewards your reader with the ah-now-we're-getting-somewhere feeling).
You get the idea. When you read, guess ahead. What is this guy doing here in this circumstance? Is it random? If the author has layered the story correctly, there will be unseen and surprise connections all over the place. The waitress that serves the old man in the dinner is actually his granddaughter, the result of a secret affair. The truck driver that is so nice to everyone and leaves a big tip is a brother to the town's mayor. The protagonist is a heart transplant recipient whose donor had a scholarship to play basketball at the very school he attends. The possibilities are limited only by the imagination.
In my novel, Could I Have this Dance? I used the genetic illness, Huntington's Disease to create multiple connections through the novel. HD attacks in mid-life, often after the person has passed on the disease to the next generation. Let's say a person with HD (unknown to them because they haven't gotten old enough to show symptoms) dies after having a child and passes the disease on, unsuspected by everyone. Add in the spice of a grandmother who bears a child as the result of a hidden rape, a mother with a hidden affair with the local doctor and a disease which affects only half of the children of those affected and the complicated ins and outs of small town life and you have a story that is quickly layered and connected in ways the reader will be delighted to root out.
So the next time you're out in the garden facing those ugly weeds, just think about your favorite novels and the underground connections that you discovered on the way.
The next few days after the hours I spend weeding, my muscles told me I'd done something I'd been avoiding a long time. Hopefully, the rewards of uncovering the layers of a good novel will be more fun!
Until next time, keep digging.
Harry Lee

PS: Help me out with the launch of my new novel, The Six-Liter Club. It is coming out tomorrow (April 6, 2010) (finally!)! If you want, purchase the book off of between 5-7 p.m. Eastern Standard time tomorrow. If everyone buys at the same time, my Amazon rank will improve and it may catch someone's eye. Thanks to all my readers!!!!!