Surprised by Oxford certainly surprised me

NJwithCarolynWeberI first posted this review in August of 2013 after picking up the book at the Write! Canada conference.

This year, I was present at The Word Awards on June 11th where author Carolyn Weber won the $5,000 Grace Irwin Award for the best book published in 2013 from a Canadian writer who is Christian.

In the photo, I’m on your left and Carolyn is on the right.

I thought I should update and repost this blog in honour of her win – which in my opinion was well-deserved.

If you’re looking for a reminder of the “first love” you felt when you first realized that God loved you, this is the book you want to read.

Surprised-by-Oxford_CoverFrom the website:

Surprised by Oxford is the memoir of a skeptical agnostic on a surprising journey toward a dynamic personal faith in God. When Carolyn Weber arrived at Oxford for her graduate studies in Romantic literature, she felt no need for God. Her childhood in a broken but loving family taught her to rely on reason and intellect—not faith—for survival. What she didn’t know was that she was about to embark on a love story of her own—one much deeper, more colorful, and more surprisingly God-shaped than any she’d read before.

From issues of fatherhood, feminism, and doubt to doctrine and love, Weber explores the intricacies of coming to faith with an aching honesty and insight echoing that of the poets and writers she studied. Rich with illustration and literary references, Surprised by Oxford is at once gritty and lyrical; both humorous and spiritually perceptive.

Organized according to the Oxford Liturgical academic calendar, Surprised by Oxford tells the real-life tale of a young woman’s search for—and eventual discovery of—purpose, identity, faith and what it really means to be human.

My impressions

Carolyn Weber, author of the memoir, was a speaker at Write! Canada this past June. I bought her book partly to be supportive, and partly because of the obvious reference to the memoir, Surprised by Joy, written by one of my favourite authors, C. S. Lewis.

When I picked it up, I’m not sure quite what I expected. I was thinking it would be kind of literary and boring. I do know I had no anticipation of the joy I’d have reading this delightful memoir.

Nor did  I expect to be taken back to my own university days and realize how much I miss the mixture of friends from all over the place, the heated and often late night discussions, the joy of growing and learning, and the absolute thrill of discovering people who not only loved challenging intellectual discussions but also believed God was much more than a panacea for the masses, and was himself so far above our puny intelligence that he could be trusted in every way.

About halfway through the book, I got out a pen and started underlying passages I didn’t want to lose.

Definitely a keeper.

The book is much more than a progression of what happened during Carolyn’s first year at Oxford. It’s also a delightful romance, showing her burgeoning relationships with both God and with a certain young man; for anyone who has been in a university where learning was the goal, it’s a trip into the past. It will entertain you, make you think, and give you a good deal of pleasure. Check out Surprised by Oxford.

Carolyn’s website

My current works-in-progress and how I keep them all going

Okay, this is actually pretty funny. The topic I was given was: “My current work-in-progress.”

blog-hop-for-writersBut I don’t exactly have a current work-in-progress. I have at least six. I suppose I could just pick one and tell you all about it. But instead, I thought I’d give you a glimpse at how this writer is juggling projects.

Spinplates1. My third Manziuk and Ryan mystery, Shadow of a Butterfly.

To date, the book is at 150,000 words and I’m currently waiting for my first editor to read it and give me his opinion on the plot and characters.  Then I’ll go over it one more time before it goes off to another editor for copy-editing.

Here’s a tentative description:

When an elderly member of an exclusive senior’s residence is murdered in an unusual manner, Manziuk and Ryan are anxious to catch the killer before he or she strikes again. However, they have difficulty finding anyone with both means and motive, even though they dig into the past as well as the present.

If you like my mysteries, you might want to check out my other site, http://jamenzies.com.

2. Part 1 of LoveChild: Reflections from a Former Ugly Duckling.LCPart1ebookcover72

This is essentially a memoir, but I also talk about what I’ve learned and how various things made me who I am.

Part 1, which take me up to age 8, is more or less written, and I’m currently going over it one more time before I send it to the editor.

A bit of a teaser:

As an adopted child, I honestly believed God had put where I was for a purpose. Only later in life did I realize what at least a part of that purpose was.

3.  In Time of Trouble, a novel about second chances. (Now titled My Brother’s Keeper)

This book has been updated and formatted for epublishing. What I’ve been doing is creating a new cover for both the ebook and a new printed version.MBKFrontCoverDec2015-72

As  you can see by the new cover here, this process is almost finished and the book should be available by the end of April.

Here’s the blurb for it:

Like Gary Cooper in High Noon or a tired gunfighter in a Louis L’Amour western, Shane Donahue wants out of the life he’s been living. But the only option he sees is suicide. When someone suggests he try God, he just laughs. Then he decides he has nothing to lose. But just as he begins to discover whether or not God can help him, Shane is arrested and charged with robbery and attempted murder (if the victim lives). Will Shane get a second chance at life?

More details here.

 4.  My four-book Circle of Friends YA series

I’m updating all four books and putting them into ebook format.TBOFCover72

I’m also working with a designer to create new covers for these books. You can see the front cover for Book 1 here!

The first book, The Best of Friends, is almost ready and will be out by the end of April.

Here’s a teaser:

As seventeen-year-old Glen Sauten gets caught in the middle of his new best friend’s obsession to date the prettiest girl in town, he opens himself up to major problems—some life-threatening, some life-changing.

 5. A new Hot Apple Cider book

My husband Les and I are currently beginning the process that will lead to the publishing of the next Hot Apple Cider book, and possibly more than one.

If you don’t know about the Hot Apple Cider books, they are two anthologies that feature 60 Canadian writers. Nearly 90,000 copies of the books are in circulation. We’ve also recently published Discussion Guides for each book.

Hot Apple Cider: Words to Stir the Heart and Warm the Soul

A Second Cup of Hot Apple Cider: Words to Stimulate the Mind and Delight the Spirit

6. Blogs, short stories, and articles.

I try to write a blog every couple of weeks.

At the moment, I’m also working on three short stories, all mysteries. One involves a murder at an ultimate Frisbee game; one involves the murder of a not-very-nice man; and the third is written from the point-of-view of a dog.

Plus last week I wrote an article for Mystery Reader, which will be published in a couple of months.

I also intend to start putting out a regular newsletter for subscribers to this site as well as subscribers to my other sites,  http://jamenzies.com and http://www.writewithexcellence.com.

So how am I doing all these things at once?

Seriously, it’s just like keeping a bunch of plates spinning. You give one a little push and move on to the next, and then the next, and so on.

1. Right now, I’m writing or editing the new book (either the mystery or the memoir) every morning Monday through Saturday. I aim at three hours but sometimes it’s more like one and sometimes it’s four or more.

2.  From roughly 2 to 5 PM, Monday to Friday, I work on cover designs, formatting, marketing, meet with Les to talk. Again, this may be one hour or it may end up being five or six.

3. I reserve my other writing (blogs, stories, etc.) for the evenings.

And when I complete these projects, I have several others waiting their turn.

If you want to be informed about what I’m working on and what’s coming out when, please subscribe to my newsletter. (See below or go to this page.) When you subscribe, you’ll also get a free ebook!

blog-hop-for-writers

If you want to know what projects other writers are working on, click on the Blog Hop for Writers logo.

Thanks to Ruth Snyder for organizing this Blog Hop for Writers and making me think.

You can see Ruth’s blog here.

Join me on April 8 in Toronto where I’ll appear (as J. A. Menzies) with 2 other mystery authors

Three great crime/mystery writers (J.A. Menzies, Cynthia St-Pierre and Alexander Galant) will be reading at the Annette Street branch of Toronto Public Library on April 8, starting at 7 pm. The branch is located at 145 Annette Street, Toronto.

The event is part of the monthly “Mystery Mayhem” series which sees authors from Crime Writers of Canada read from their work and answer questions about their craft. The CWC is a national organization representing fiction and non-fiction crime writers.

J. A. Menzies small photoJ. A. Menzies small photoNJL 131 jean jacket red 2012J.A. Menzies is the author of Shaded Light and Glitter of Diamonds, classic British-style whodunits set in contemporary Toronto and featuring police detectives Paul Manziuk and Jacquie Ryan. Library Journal called her “a master of plotting.” The third book in the series will be out shortly. J. A. is the alter-ego of author N.J. Lindquist.

11736839-19111616-thumbnailCynthia St-Pierre has penned articles for the business and corporate worlds and co-written the novel, A Purse to Die For for mystery fans. As a mystery writer, Cynthia has received a York Regional Police Citizens Awareness Program certificate, presented and signed by Julian Fantino, former Commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police. Cynthia blogs at vegetariandetective.blogspot.com.

5158053Alexander Galant was awarded ‘Finalist’ in the International Book Awards 2012 as well as the USA Best Book Award, for his debut novel: Depth of Deception (A Titanic Murder Mystery). He was also the historical researcher and ghostwriter for the novel “Dracula the Un-Dead” which was on the New York Times Best Seller List in 2009. Alexander has also written and directed award-winning short films.

nate website photo 3The evening’s host is Nate Hendley, a Toronto-based freelance journalist who has written a series of true-crime books.

Admission is free and open to the public.

For more information on the Annette Street library, click here.

For more information on anything else, contact Nate Hendley, VP for Toronto/SWOntario Crime Writers of Canada at nhendley@sympatico.ca

Please don’t make me choose – or – why I stopped talking to editors and agents

For 30+ years, whenever I talked to agents or editors, they’d ask me what I was writing.

iStock_000004773808SmallAnd I’d tell them. “A mystery.”

They’d nod and look vaguely interested.

But before they had a chance to say ask another question, I’d add, “And a novel for teens.”

And they’d raise their eyebrows.

“And discipleship manuals.”

By now they’d look like they might be getting a headache.

“And a fantasy. And a memoir. And a book for writers. And—”

At which point, they’d heard enough, and they’d interrupt me to ask, “But which one do you like best?”

My answer was always the same. “Depends on what day it is. And maybe what time of day.”

Their eyes would glaze over and they’d make some sort of remark about my need to choose, and our conversation would be over.

But seriously, all I have to do to get “into” a specific genre is to think about the story I want to write/am writing, and I’m excited. Okay, provided it’s not a news story, a press release, a profile, or a feature article. Yes, I can do them, and I can even do them well, but I don’t enjoy them much. I prefer writing things that allow me to insert my opinions. Or, as I usually say, “I hate having to stick to the facts!”

The odd, really brave editor or agent might follow up our conversation with one last question—something along the lines of “But which genre can you write best?”

And I’d shrug.

The truth is, I’ve won awards for everything from mysteries and teen fiction to various kinds of articles and even blogs.

At which point, the few who made it this far would give up on me in frustration. Because in the publishing world, writers are supposed to choose a genre and stick with it. Which assumption, in my mind, is silly.

It’s about branding and having a platform and, ultimately, selling.

The idea is that the writers’ names become synonymous with their specific genre.

When you think of Dr. Seuss, you think of children’s rhyming picture books. When you think of Supostit note genre choicese Grafton, you think of mysteries. Betty Crocker equals cookbooks. Terry Pratchett equals fantasy…. I’m sure we could easily come up with 100 names of writers for which we’d immediately know the genre they write.

But not every writer fits into a particular box.

C. S. Lewis doesn’t. The author of Mere Christianity also wrote the Narnia series and science fiction and The Screwtape Letters. Linwood Barclay wrote a humour column in the Toronto Star for many years before he became much better known for writing thrillers. And there are actually all sorts of  writers who use pseudonyms to disguise the fact that they write in more than one genre.

Looking at it from the other side, how may of us only read in one genre?

Not me, for sure. I’ve often said that my preferred reading material is a really good mystery, but the truth is I’m just as likely to get excited about a memoir, a how-to book, a blog, or pretty well anything, as long as it’s written well.

Actually, the only books I reviewed last year—because they really impacted me—were a woman’s memoir on escaping domestic abuse, a baseball pitcher’s memoir involving sexual abuse, a bunch of non-mystery stories by a mystery writer with a difficult childhood, and a memoir about finding God at Oxford. So much for my preferring mysteries.

So, can you get away with writing in a variety of genres?

Every writer is different. And every writer has a different reason for writing.

Obviously, If I were trying to support a family or even just myself, I’d focus, at least a majority of the time, on a genre where I could make the required amount.

Scratch that. Since the best way to make money as a writer is either editing or writing the types of things I like least (profiles, feature articles, technical writing, etc.), if I really needed to make money, I’d be either teaching writing or English. The truth is I already make more money speaking and teaching than I do writing, but that’s a different blog.

However, I’ve been fortunate enough to have a husband who not only made enough money to support our family but also encouraged me to write what I love, I’ve been able to have fun and switch genres without having to worry about the consequences to our bank account.

What genre have I chosen to write?

Well, basically, I decided some time ago to ignore the agents and editors who threw up their hands and just write whatever I want to write. Yes, I want to sell my work, but I want to write what I love even more. Maybe soon I’ll make those things work together. Or God will.

I do appreciate the one editor who really listened to me and at the end of our conversation, shook his head, and said, with sadness in his eyes, “We’re not very kind to our Renaissance writers, are we?”

Up until that time, I hadn’t thought of myself in that way. As a Renaissance writer. Someone, like Leonardo da Vinci, who dabbles in all kinds of things. But I love the comparison. And for now, it’s working for me.

Plus I’ve had so many positive reviews and comments for my efforts to date that I simply can’t stop doing any of them.

So from now on, I’m going to forget about genre and just say that my favourite stories—to read or write, in both fiction or nonfiction—are “hope-filled stories with compelling characters, intricate plots, subtle humour, and satisfying endings.”

If you want to see what projects I’m working on now, in a variety of genres, you can check them out here or look at the thermometers at the bottom of this page. Or check out this blog on my writing targets for 2014 and how I plan to hit them.

blog-hop-for-writers

If you want to know what genres other writers prefer, click on the Blog Hop for Writers logo.

Thanks to Ruth Snyder for organizing this Blog Hop for Writers and making me think. You can see Ruth’s blog here.

Nice to be recognized as a Canadian Christian woman who leads

I just got a sweet Valentine’s Day surprise!

40TrOne of my Facebook friends shared a link to an article she was mentioned in, and I kind of randomly clicked on it, only to discover my name was there too! It was a list of 100 Canadian Christian women who are leaders.

Mark Peterson of the Bridgeway Foundation posted the list.

Why? In Mark’s words…

“Rachel Held-Evans recently posted a list of (mainly American) Christian women speakers in response to her dismay over the realization that women were mostly represented at conferences/events in a token way.

In seeing her list, I was challenged to create a list of 100 fantastic Canadian Christian women leaders in hopes of highlighting and cheering on female leadership in our world….”

Read Mark’s list here: 100 Fantastic Canadian Christian Women Leaders

A character sketch of my hero – Glen Sauten

If pressed, I usually say my favourite character is Shane Donahue, the “hero” of the New Adult novel, In Time of Trouble.

blog-hop-for-writersBut to be honest, there’s only one character who has four books written about him. And that isn’t Shane; it’s Glen Sauten.

And, funnily enough, in many ways, Glen’s story is that of a hero.

Mostly, Glen is a perfectly average, normal, teen.  At 17, he’s in the grade 12 class that’s headed to university but he has no idea why. He’s only a C student, and no one seems to expect more from him—especially Glen himself. He’s not much of an athlete. He can’t even beat his dad at Ping-Pong. He isn’t known for having a specific talent. He’s not the least bit adventurous. One of his favourite activities is to go for a walk in the country and listen to nature. He’s neither a rebel nor a teacher’s pet. He likes his parents and doesn’t have any problems at home. He’s the youngest of six, so he’s kind of used to going with the flow and having other people look after him. He never makes waves. He’s easy to ignore. He just is.

And yet, I wrote four books about him. Just over 273,000 words in total.

The Circle of Friends series (Best of Friends, Friends Like These, Friends in Need, and More than Friends) came about because I’d been teaching high school, and I n

Best of Friends Moody cover web
The first appearance of Glen Sauten in the Moody Press book, 1991. I cried when I saw it because although Nicole and Charlie looked perfect, Glen look grumpy, which he never was. But I get that they wanted to show conflict.

oticed that a lot of teenagers (and many adults too) tend to judge by superficial things—not just appearance, but also athletic ability, the kind of car one owns, the kind of house one lives in, popularity, and so forth. But the Bible says that God judges us by our hearts. (“Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” I Samuel 16:7. I wanted to write a book that would illustrate that who you are inside is ultimately way more important than who you are outside.

It was obvious to me that I needed a very ordinary person with a good heart (although he may not know that yet); and someone who seemed to have it all but was empty inside.

I developed Mr. Average—Glen Sauten. As I mentioned, he’s nothing special. Okay-looking but not spectacular. He has a few good friends but isn’t popular. He’s 17, but hasn’t dated a girl. He’s not a glib talker. And his mom still buys his clothes. From what I knew about teens, I figured that Glen kind of fits the demographic for most teens who don’t see themselves as anything special.

Then I developed Mr. Everything—Charles (Charlie) Thornton. Charlie is blond and gorgeous. He’s an A student, the football quarterback, a smooth talker, smooth dresser, smooth everything. Everyone loves him. He has all the money he wants, and he got a new Mustang for his 16th birthday;

In order to have a story, I needed to create a few other characters and then turn them loose, letting the reader see everything through Glen’s eyes.

So I added another guy: Phil Trent, Glen’s best friend since kindergarten.

And then I added three girls: Marta Billings, who Glen finds really annoying, but Charlie likes; Nicole Grant, the pastor’s daughter, who’s not only the prettiest girl in town, but the only one who refuses to date Charlie; and Nicole’s best friend.

At this point, I should probably mention that Glen is the kind of character most editors hate.

That’s because he’s exactly what most readers don’t want the main character to be: he’s a reactor, who doesn’t do anything on his own.

If the main character doesn’t do anything, the story kind of either dies or goes nowhere.

Best of Friends
A second try to get Glen right by my company, That’s Life! Communications, in 2000. Somewhat better, but not quite what’s in my head. 🙂 We’re aiming at a third attempt.

So basically, as a writer, I did two things wrong when I wrote Best of Friends, the first book in this series. I started with a “theme” I wanted to get across and I started with a character that presumably wouldn’t carry one book , never mind a series.

But it does work. Why? Because I knew my character so well, I might as well have been living in his skin. (By the way, if you’re a writer, see below for my Character Assembly Sheet and subscribe to my newsletter at Write with Excellence because I’ll be teaching more about developing characters there.)

In many ways, Glen is me. No, I was never a boy, and I was an only child instead of the youngest of six, but I grew up in a small town and I closely relate to the feeling of being nothing special. Honestly, I think most of us do.

And that’s the primary reason the book works. Because deep inside, most of us identify with Glen, and because of that we’re cheering him on and hoping that Charlie loses—that this one girl holds out. And more important, we’re hoping Glen wakes up to his real potential.

Of course, eventually Glen has to act. He starts out watching as Charlie tried to date Nicole, but ends up trying to help Charlie, trying to keep Charlie and Phil from killing each other, and eventually trying to figure out what he’s learning along the way as he and Charlie attend church in order to impress Nicole. Gradually, Glen begins to discover who he is and what he wants in life.

Unfortunately, I can’t tell you a lot more Glen and how he really does become a hero without giving away the plots of all four of the books! But as his new friend and mentor John, an African-Canadian mechanic in the local garage, says, “I think a hero is just someone who’s in the right place at the right time, and does what he can to help, usually without stopping to think. Because if he did stop to think, he probably wouldn’t do it.”

I will say that reducing the books to the original theme I started with doesn’t even begin to do them justice. As the characters developed and took over the story, it became their showcase, not mine. Ultimately, the story is about coming-of-age, relationships with families and friends, dating, school, our need for God, our need for a support group, how broken many of us are, how God forgives, and many other things.

I’ll let a few reviewers give their opinions of Glen.

“Glen is forever in the middle: between two friends who hate each other, between the worlds of childhood and adulthood, between living and simply observing life. Watching Glen try to straddle these worlds, and finally decide to choose life on all levels is exciting stuff.” ChristianWeek, reviewed by author Fay S. Latka

“I have a 14-year-old son who never reads. I gave your book, Best of Friends, to my son and he absolutely loved it. I read the first couple of chapters to him to get him interested. He finished within a week. He thinks he is a lot like the main character. He can’t wait for me to get the other books.” Alison Piercey, United Church Book Store, Newfoundland and Labrador Conference

“Glen, despite his quiet nature, is never wimpy and makes a fine, heroic role model for the book’s readers.” Rosemarie DiCristo, Christian Library Journal

“The authenticity of Glen’s (main character) journey is impressive…. Each book got better and better.” Herbie Kuhn, In-house Voice of the Toronto Raptors

“Glen Sauten captured our sympathies as we rooted for him to stand up and discover himself…. Lindquist has found the teen voice, but writes to the emotional needs of all ages.” Stephen and Janet Bly, authors of 100 books

Read the first 3 chapters of Best of Friends

See all my Coming-of-Age novels.

*Note:  Those of you who are writers should be hearing a big warning bell right now. The worst way to write fiction is to start with something you want to say, and here I am freely telling you that’s what I did!

Okay, so if you do start with a theme—an idea or concept you want to get across—you’d better go into it prepared to be flexible. The key is that you must allow the characters room to breathe. In the end, it’s better to change the theme to fit the characters and plot than to force the characters and plot to fit into your preconceived theme. When you’re married to your theme and you make the characters and plot fit it, the chances are very good you’ll end up with cardboard characters and a manipulated story. Ideally, you’ll get so caught up with the characters that they become real to you, with minds of their own, and you’ll care more about them than about getting your theme across. Characters who surprise you a little are the best.

But you don’t have to let them have complete control. It’s a little like walking a tight-rope, but there is a fine line between your controlling every aspect of your book, and your characters suddenly gaining control of the dialogue or the plot and taking over. (In other words, if your sweet little 15-year-old princess suddenly shows signs of becoming a serial killer, it’s perfectly okay for you to call a halt, erase the last paragraphs, and go back to where you can steer her down a different path. Of course, if you really like where the serial killer thing is going, it’s okay to change your mind and follow her there.)

Bonus: My Character Assembly Sheet
blog-hop-for-writers
Bonus: My Scale for Judging the Quality of Characters
You can find Ruth Snyder, the organizer of this Writers’ Blog Hop, here.
Click on the Blog Hop for Writers picture to the right and meet many other writers’ heroes.

A Second Cup of Hot Apple Cider wins another award!

I’m very pleased to announce that A Second Cup of Hot Apple Cider, edited by Wendy Elaine Nelles and me, and featuring a total of 37 great Canadian writers, finished in third place for 2013 “Non-fiction Book of the Year” at The Book Club Network!

Book Of The Year NonFictionThanks to EVERYONE who voted! This truly is the little book that could.

We were edged out by Mary Englund Murphy’s Joseph: Beyond the Coat of Many Colors and Liz Curtis Higgs’  The Girl’s Still Got It!

Please read the interview Janet Sketchley did with me on pages 154-157 of the February issue of Book Fun Magazine. I think you’ll like it. 

You’ll also find out who won “Blog of the Year” and “Fiction Book of the Year.”A Second Cup of Hot Apple Cider ebook cover

If you missed the story I wrote about how I came to publish and co-edit the Hot Apple Cider books, go to page 96 of the September issue of Book Fun Magazine.

By the way, we also have a print or digital Discussion Guide for A Second Cup of Hot Apple Cider.

If you missed the video trailers for A Second Cup and the first Hot Apple Cider book, check out my YouTube channel.

A peek behind the scenes at how I write….

Scrivener layoutIn case you’re not aware, I have another website where I’ve posted some tips for writers as well as a couple of webinars. I have plans to do more there in the future, when I’m not in the middle of writing two books.

Yesterday, I posted a blog on the topic, 10 Writing Tools I Can’t Live Without.

Whether you’re a writer or a reader, you might be interested in knowing about some of the tools I’m using right now, as I work on my next Manziuk and Ryan mystery and a memoir.  Just click on the link above to get an idea of how I work.

And yes, the image to the left shows the opening of my next mystery.