Start Here

Monday, May 30, 2016


The recent SCBWI Wild Wild Midwest Conference was both fun and educational. I especially appreciated the advice on how to start a story.

Several speakers quoted the same author as saying that a book should begin by telling the entire story. That isn’t an exact quote, and I can’t even remember who it was from, but it got me thinking.

In my school days, I was taught that a written composition should tell what it was going to say, say it, and tell what it had said. I could understand how that worked for an essay, but fiction? That would be silly. Who wants to read a story if the author has already given the plot away?

I would. Consider the following examples:

(1)        “Claudia knew that she could never pull off the old-fashioned kind of running away. That is, running away in the heat of anger with a knapsack on her back. She didn’t like discomfort; even picnics were untidy and inconvenient: all those insects and the sun melting the icing on the cupcakes. Therefore, she decided that her leaving home would not be just running from somewhere but would be running to somewhere. To a large place, a comfortable place, an indoor place, and preferably a beautiful place. And that’s why she decided upon the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.”

            This is the beginning of From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg.* And guess what the story is about? A girl who runs away and hides at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

 (2)       “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

            This is the first sentence in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin. And what is it about? Convincing rich single men that they want wives.

So why do these openings work? They give the essence of the story without revealing the details. We know that Claudia is going to run away from home and hide at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but we don’t know how long she can stay hidden or why she is running away in the first place. We read on because we want to find those answers.

I didn’t know about this principle when writing my first middle-grade novel, Desert Jewels, but I seem to have stumbled into it anyway. The first line is dialogue, and the words are “Dirty Jap!” The story is about discrimination against Japanese Americans in World War II, and I think those words capture it.

My current work in progress started differently. It adopted a lot of the conventional advice for crafting a great opening, such as starting with action that works with the story, introducing the characters, and establishing the setting. But it didn’t wow me. So when the SCBWI speakers told me to tell the entire story in the first sentence, I decided to try it.

Creating Esther is about an Ojibwe girl who goes to an Indian boarding school because she believes an education will help guard against the white man’s deceit. After the SCBWI conference, here is my new opening sentence: “School was the white man’s weapon and the Ojibwe’s defense.” Of course, I had to connect it to the story, so that line is what she is thinking as she walks to school. The original action kicks in immediately afterward.

The new opening isn’t perfect, and I may change it again. Still, it’s significantly better than what I had.

Obviously, there are many great novels that don’t begin by telling the story that will follow. But if your opening feels weak, give it a try.

It just may surprise you.


*  Technically, it isn’t the beginning. The book starts with a cover letter from Mrs. Frankweiler to her lawyer. However, the above quote begins the actual story.

Authors Guild v. Google: A Win for Authors, Researchers, and the Public

Monday, May 23, 2016

The Authors Guild lost the case, but is the same true for its members? In my opinion as an author and writer, the Authors Guild’s position was contrary to the best interest of its members. So when it lost, its members won.

How is the decision a win for authors? As I said in last week’s post, the Goggle books search engine does not substitute for the actual book. If the book seems to be helpful or interesting to the searcher, the searcher will track it down at a library or buy her own copy (assuming it is in print or readily available from second-hand booksellers), and the search results provide purchasing links to make it easy. That should result in more sales rather than less, particularly if the person was previously unaware of the book. And even if the searcher doesn’t purchase a copy or can’t find the book because it is out of print, the mere fact that it came up in a search gets the author’s name out there. As an author, I consider it a win for me.

I’m not alone, either. A number of authors have allowed Google to use more extensive portions of their books. Many think of it as free publicity.

The decision is also a win for researchers, and that includes authors like me who do a lot of research for their own books. If a book looks helpful, I will either purchase it or find it at a library (and increased demand on libraries may create more purchases by them). The search is one way to find things I wouldn’t have even know about otherwise. It can also help me and other researchers rule out books that aren’t helpful, saving valuable time. Even if I knew about the book in advance and now rule it out because of poor writing or apparently shoddy research, that doesn’t translate into a lost sale. If I can’t find out enough about a book, I’m unlikely to risk my time or money on it anyway.

Anything that makes access to information easier also benefits the public. So the public wins, too.

If you look only at the case caption, you might decide that Google won and the Authors Guild lost. And you’d be right.

But the real winners are authors, researchers, and the public.

Authors Guild v. Google: What Was It All About?

Monday, May 16, 2016

On April 18, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear arguments in Authors Guild v. Google, Inc., ending the Authors Guild’s attempts to stop the Google Books Project. This copyright case has important implications for writers, but they may not be what you think.

Article I, Section 8 of the United States Constitution gives Congress the power “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” In other words, copyrights are created to benefit the public by giving authors an incentive to write. But since the public—not the author—is the intended beneficiary, the law allows certain “fair uses” that overcome copyright protection when the copyright would actually inhibit new creative uses. That was the issue in Authors Guild v, Google. Was Google’s book project a copyright violation, or was it a fair use?

The case had a very long procedural background, and it’s too complicated for a blog post. But here is a quick summary of the significant facts and arguments when the case reached the 2d Circuit Court of Appeals for the final time.

In 2004, Google started making digital copies of books from hard copies owned by various research libraries. Google kept the original digital copy and gave a duplicate to the library that had provided the book, with a contractual provision prohibiting the libraries from using the copy for any purpose that violated the copyright laws. Google used its digital copies to create an online index to those books, most of which were non-fiction and some of which were out of print.

The Google Books project allows researchers to find relevant books by searching key terms selected by the researcher. The search shows all books that include those terms and gives the number of times the term is used. For example, someone who searched on “World War II” would find millions of books, each listing the number of times or pages that search term appears in the book and one or more very short excerpts (snippets) that include the search terms. Unless the book is in the public domain or the publisher or copyright holder has given permission to provide more, this basic information (title, author, etc.; number of “hits” within the book; and a snippet or two) are all the viewer will get. In most cases, it will be enough to tell the researcher whether the book is worth tracking down. If the book is in print, the search results also give links for purchasing it from unaffiliated retailers. The information does not, however, provide enough of the text to substitute for the book itself.

That’s important. Without going into the intricacies of the fair use analysis, suffice it to say that indexes are a fair use of copyrighted material if they are not a substitute for the original text (or art or other creative matter). This is true whether the index is of the old-fashioned printed type or an online search engine. Nor is it copyright infringement to make a non-public digital copy of the complete work for the limited purpose of creating that index. This principle is well settled in the case law.

I think the result in Authors Guild v. Google is consistent with the U.S. Constitution, the copyright statutes, and prior case law, so I’m not surprised by the result. But I am surprised that the Author’s Guild thought they had a chance of winning it. Or maybe their original strategy was to force a settlement that resulted in some payments to their members. If so, their strategy failed.*

By now, it should be clear that I think the 2d Circuit’s decision is legally correct. But does it help or hurt me as an author?

That’s the subject of next week’s post.


* The parties did reach a settlement agreement in which Google would have paid for uses that included but were more extensive than the ones involved in the final decision. The district court rejected the proposed settlement as unfair to some of the authors who would have been bound by it. At that point, the Authors Guild filed an amended complaint and continued its lawsuit against Google.

Teaching Generosity by Example

Monday, May 9, 2016

Christians can learn from children’s authors and illustrators.

At the end of April, I attended SCBWI’s regional Wild Wild Midwest Conference. SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) is a secular organization for—as the name states—children’s writers and illustrators.

The conference brought together approximately 500 people from the Midwest and beyond, and on the second day we listened to a report from an affiliated organization called We Need Diverse Books. The presentation covered WNDB’s initiative to break into the hallowed halls of the almost exclusively white New York publishing industry and to encourage and promote minority writers and other outsiders (e.g., LGTB and people with disabilities).

At some point during the presentation, an audience member stood up and suggested that each person at the conference consider donating $5 to WNDB. The conference organizers took that suggestion to heart and provide a box for cash donations. As soon as that opportunity was announced, conference attendees jumped up and streamed by the box with their offerings. When online donations were included, the conference attendees donated almost $4,000 in a little over 24 hours.

I wasn’t surprised. The entire conference was characterized by friendliness and a “we’re all in this together” attitude. The financial generosity was just one more example.

Contrast that with the last time I attended an American Christian Fiction Writers Conference (in 2014). The conference organizers said frequently and proudly that only Christian writers rooted for their competitors to succeed. But they were focused on the financial bottom line at the expense of graciousness and generosity. That conference had also become stale, and I have no desire to attend another one.

What’s more important, the financial bottom line or an open heart? For Christians, the answer should be obvious.

Even if they have to learn it from a secular organization like SCBWI.

A Tale of Two Mothers

Monday, May 2, 2016


My mother died in December, and my mother-in-law is under hospice care. With Mother’s Day coming up, this is a good time to reprint a post from May 14, 2012. I have updated the pictures and changed the text slightly, but the substance is the same.
A Tale of Two Mothers 

My mother-in-law and my mother lived two very different lives. 

Mom Camp was born in Youngstown, Ohio but moved to “The Region” in Northwest Indiana as a child. She married a region native and continued to live there until she and Dad retired to Missouri. 

My mother was born and raised on a farm in Iowa, but she moved frequently during her years as a minister’s wife. It was only after Daddy retired that Mama got to settle down again. 

Mom Camp rarely traveled and never needed a passport. In her later years she and Dad took vacations to Hawaii and Puerto Rico, but those were the only times she crossed an ocean. 

Mama knew she had married a man who loved to travel, and getting a new passport became as common as getting a new driver’s license. When I was a child we started counting the number of states and countries we visited, but at some point we lost track. We even lived in Amman, Jordan and Edinburgh, Scotland, traveling around the Middle East and Europe during vacations. After my parents retired, they often wintered in a small town on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, where they volunteered their time and talents at a Presbyterian school. 

So Mom and Mama lived two very different lives. 

On the surface. 

Where it matters most, however, the two mothers could be twins. 

Both have always been strong Christian women. Both were active in their churches until age and circumstances intervened. Both worked hard all their lives and taught their children good Christian values. 

And both have children and grandchildren who appreciate what the family matriarch did for them. 

The first picture shows Mom Camp with four of her five children this past Christmas (2015). 

The second shows my mother with my oldest brother, my daughter, and my son-in-law on her 96th birthday, June 19, 2015. 

I’ve thanked both of them, but probably not often enough. 

If your mother is still living, make sure you thank her this Mother’s Day.