Congratulations to Jennifer AlLee! Jen's novel Last Family Standing is a finalist in American Christian Fiction Writers prestigious Carol contest. Well done, Jen! We will be rooting for you on September 19.

Congratulations to Susanne Dietze and Gina Welborn on the release of The Most Eligible Bachelor Collection from Barbour Publishing. It's Susanne's debut!

Congratulations to Julianna Deering aka DeAnna Julie Dodson for Murder at the Mikado being an INSPY award finalist.

Monday, August 3, 2015

The Soundtrack of Our Lives

by Barbara Early

I recently had the joy of discovering John Williams’ music on Amazon Prime. I’d downloaded his “Greatest Hits” and listened to them on the way to church yesterday. Now, I’m not new to Williams’ music, and, most likely, neither are you. For he is the composer of many of Hollywood’s most iconic soundtracks. Star Wars. Superman. Jurassic Park. ET. Raiders of the Lost Ark. Jaws. Harry Potter. Seen any of those? Or watch the Olympics? 

And in case you missed those, he’s earned 49 Academy Award nominations (second only to Walt Disney), so I’m sure there’s something familiar there. I’ll leave the list to the good folks at Wikipedia.

Honestly, I was looking for instrumental music that I could write to. Something inspiring. And this is some of the best instrumental music out there. Encompassing almost every mood imaginable, evoking place, sparking drama, his music swept away me into the conflict of Star Wars. The soaring melodies of the Superman theme made me feel as if I was no longer confined to the passenger seat of our Civic, but as if I could leave the ground and fly. (Do not attempt this at home.) When Indiana Jones started, I found myself wandering  in some exotic bazaar. Many of the themes made me want to see the movies all over again, or interested me in films I’ve yet to see.

And I got to thinking of what a tremendous honor it would be to write a story that Williams composed a score for. What would it sound like? Could I ever develop a theme noble enough or a story that resonated enough to inspire such a lyrical tribute? (The answer is probably no. Never. Not on your life. Sigh.)

And then I got to wondering what the soundtrack of my own life would sound like. As a Christian, I would hope that it would contain the rhythms of grace as a central motif, but I must admit, I’d be afraid to listen to the score of my own life. There are probably many times when that central theme has been overshadowed by discordant dreams and ambitions, the more enticing themes of entertainment, and the steady, unrelenting beat of selfishness. While the Composer worked to create a masterpiece in my life, how often have I played back an uncertain tune, a blaring note, or forged ahead in inferior compositions of my own device, ending up in an atonal mess that leaves others grasping their ears.

O, Lord, today let me follow Your tempo and direction.

Question: What is the soundtrack of your life?

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Single Guy Reviews a Chick-Flick: A Walk to Remember

Guest blogger Calvin Chase
Hello everyone, this is Calvin, CJ’s son, and this is the first in my little series: a single guy reviews chick flicks. On today’s agenda is the 2002 film A Walk To Remember. My parents warned me before watching this movie that, according to critics, this movie would make me cry. But, shrewd analyzer that I am, I shrugged off their warnings with the claim that I don’t cry easily and braced myself for emotional drama. However, when the movie started, the very first thing I saw was a bunch of punk teenagers engaging in… explicit bathroom and lewd humor. My natural reaction to that was to be both surprised and unimpressed, but I settled in and waited to see what direction the film would take.

A Walk To Remember is about a popular high school senior named Landon, who holds a grudge against his father for divorcing his mother, and Landon’s unpopular Christian classmate Jamie. After Landon is involved in an accident that seriously injures a fellow student, the principle threatens to expel him unless he agrees to tutor other kids on Saturdays and participate in the school play. The grumbling teenager accepts these responsibilities, but puts no enthusiasm in his work. Jamie, the local pastor’s daughter who also participates in these activities, tries befriending him and encouraging him to make his life more meaningful. At first Landon rudely rebuffs her kind gestures, but as the play draws closer, he starts to worry about making a fool of himself onstage. Landon therefore asks Jamie for help learning his lines, and she gladly agrees with one condition: that Landon not fall in love with her.

At the time this agreement is made, Landon laughs and says that he definitely will not fall in love with Jamie, but as time passes and he gets to know her, he begins to see something attractive in her. The potential budding romance swiftly ends, however, when Landon’s friends make fun of Jamie and Landon makes no move to stop them. Jamie instantly loses all hope that there is anything good about Landon and refuses to speak with him anymore, let alone help him. Landon in turn realizes he has fallen in love with Jamie and seeks to redeem himself in her eyes by working harder to memorize his lines and tutor the kids.

On the night of the play, Landon does an outstanding job portraying his character, but has a hard time remembering some of his lines when Jamie comes onstage wearing a beautiful white dress. Even so, the play is a smashing success, but Jamie leaves after Landon kisses her at the end of the play. Landon tries to go after her but loses track of her when his father, who’s trying to repair his broken relationship with his son, cuts him off to say how well he did. Landon huffs away from his father with barely a word.

In the days that follow, Jamie continues to ignore Landon, but then Landon’s ex-girlfriend, jealous about the attention he’s giving Jamie, convinces the other popular kids to bully her by posting her face on a pin-up poster and handing out copies to the whole school. Landon arrives to find one of the school jocks rubbing it in her face and stands up for Jamie by punching the bully.  After a short fight, Landon goes after Jamie, confronts her, and confesses his love to her. He asks her to go out with him, but even though she also confesses love for him, she replies that she’s not allowed to date. Landon therefore goes boldly before her father, the pastor who greatly distrusts him, and asks him politely but vehemently to let him date Jamie. After a heated argument, Landon convinces the pastor to allow it. From that point on, Landon does everything he can to make Jamie happy, particularly in his efforts to make her list of dreams come true.

Now, up until this point in the movie, I was rather unimpressed. This story wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great either; quite frankly it seemed too predictable for my taste. But then, just as I considered falling asleep, Jamie revealed a dark secret which changed my entire perspective of the movie. I’m not going to say what it was because that would spoil the latter half of the movie, but I will say that it made the movie worth watching in the end. Nonetheless, the twist comes late and most guys watching the movie would have fallen asleep long before then. Frankly if I had not been watching the movie for a review, I would have left and watched some anime instead.

This movie is rated PG but could have been PG-13 for cursing and vulgarity. The depictions of Christianity in this secular film seem stereotypical Hollywood at the beginning (judgmental pastor, etc.), but stick with it. This perspective changes as Landon’s attitude about faith improves.

The final verdict? This movie is good for a girls-night-out, but you probably shouldn’t invite a guy to watch it with you. And if he does agree, take it as a sign he really likes you.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Too Busy Researching To Write

Without giving away the plot of what must be the next bestseller, I really must ponder the fine line between wasting time and honest-to-goodness research. In the last three days, I must have spent at least 10 hours trying to find out where the nearest railroad lines were to a spot I’ve picked on the map.  Of course, this is not a contemporary novella, and it takes place in the west where railway systems popped up and died out by the dozens each decade.
When it comes down to it, it’s all backstory, with references that may come up as a sentence here… or there.  Does that mean I’m a slave to authenticity? No. Because I will likely have to blur those lines anyway. So what was the point?  I mean, I’ve MADE UP the story, so I CAN change it, right?
And I haven’t even written 95% of it yet, so why are such details so important?
I don’t know.
Well, maybe I do. It did keep me from actually having to write. 

I love to write, or 'to have written', and once I get going, I certainly can get obsessive about a story. I've NaNoWriMo'd 50k, and blown through 70k in 3 weeks  (love being in the zone).

I'd worry, if I'd never heard of Postponing Syndrome among my writing peers.  But I'm not alone!!

We all find ways to procrastinate, even for things we enjoy.  What do you put off? 

Monday, July 20, 2015

Book Reviews: What's Helpful, What's Not

by Susanne Dietze

Ah, book reviews. Love 'em and hate 'em at the same time? You're not alone.

This has been a big topic of conversation lately among some of my friends, women who are readers and women who are readers/authors.

Among the things I've heard from readers (and perhaps even thought to myself while I'm perusing book reviews for potential reads on Amazon):

"I really want to know what people think of a book, but some of these reviews sound like they were written by the author's friends. That means their reviews aren't honest."

"Why did this reader give it a 2-star rating and then say they liked it?"

Or, from an author's perspective:

"Someone gave my book a 1-star rating based on the packaging, not the story!"

"Someone gave my book a 1-star rating! It's fine they didn't like it, but why did they have to be so mean about it?"

Earlier, I posted on my blog on ways to help an author. Writing book reviews is one of the things I mentioned specifically as something that can help authors gain new readers--by letting readers know if the book is of a genre they like or worth their time, especially considering the price of purchase.

Reviews are also sometimes viewed by others in the industry, like editors. I'm not saying editors read every review (they're busy people) but some editors pay attention to authors' social media stats and reviews, along with sales and awards.

I'm not saying reviews make or break an author's career. But they can prove influential to prospective readers, and they often let authors know what's working in their writing...and what's not.

(Full disclosure: I only have one book out, and it's an anthology. Others are waaay more qualified to speak on this point, but here goes anyway.)

So what's helpful (according to the people I talked with) when writing a book review?
  • Know that readers, authors, and editors appreciate the time you're taking to write a review. Your gift of service is a blessing!
  • Some sites, like Amazon, require a review to accompany a rating, but others, like Goodreads, don't. Try to write a few words to explain your rating, anyway. I recently contemplated purchasing a sequel to a book I enjoyed. The reviews let me know that several readers finished the book feeling frustrated about their perceived regression in the characters' developments. That told me so much more than a 3-star review without an explanation.
  • State the facts about the story and why you enjoyed it/didn't enjoy it. Was the story engaging? Was there a specific reason you didn't like it? Is the issue you have with a book a major stumbling block... or personal preference? I've liked a few movies that critics graded an F, and disliked a few well-regarded movies, but I'd read reviews in advance and determined the critic and I judged on different merits. Same with books. One reviewer's three-star rating might be my perfect cozy afternoon read. Saying something's just not your cup of tea is perfectly ok.
  • Consider the book's audience. It's not fair to criticize a book for being what it's supposed to be, ie, by disparaging the spiritual elements in a Christian book, finding the hero too young when the book is a YA, or for bemoaning the lack of blood and gore in a cozy mystery.
  • Mention if you received the book in exchange for an honest, unbiased review. This is the law.
What's not helpful when writing a book review?
  • It's not an unhelpful thing, but don't stress about recapping the book. Some reviews summarize the plot or back-cover copy, which can be helpful to readers, but it isn't necessary.
  • Don't rate the packaging, shipping speed, book cover, or other things an author has no control over. Sometimes this extends to the title, too.
  • Refrain from spilling the author's private info. You may be the author's Facebook friend. Or their relative. You may know where she went to high school or where she gets her hair cut. This information, spread on the world wide web, is an invasion of her privacy, and to many readers, it negates anything positive that was mentioned in the review because it makes a review sound inauthentic or biased.
  • Just like sharing personal info about the author makes it sound as if a positive review is done by a positively-biased crony, cruelty or foul words can make a negative review sound equally biased, but to the other extreme. Harsh language isn't polite.
  • Avoid spoiling the plot. Announce if you're divulging anything twisty or pertaining to the end with an all-caps SPOILER ALERT.
Some other facts about book reviews?
  • Yes, authors do review their friends' work sometimes. Authors are big readers, too.
  • Mean-spirited reviews do hurt authors' feelings sometimes. Other times, not so much. But I think it's fair to say authors don't expect everyone to love their books, but nobody likes to be called names.
  • Book reviews last forever. Or until the internet explodes. Just as in real life, our words stick around.
What do you think when you read book reviews? Do you often review products you buy?

Susanne Dietze writes historical romance. You can find her on her website,

Friday, July 17, 2015

Ode to My Hymnal

by C.J. Chase

When I was a girl…no, wait, not even that long ago, congregational singing at church involved a piano, an organ, and a hymnal. The music leader would announce the next song and the hymn number, then we in the congregation would reach forward to grab the volume of songs from the rack on the pew in front of us. If you were daydreaming and missed the announcement, it was generally okay because most churches also posted the numbers on a board at the front of the church.

The hymns themselves were almost always in four-part harmony. Four verses and a chorus was a common pattern, although there were variations (like three verses and a chorus, or four verses and no chorus). At some churches, we sang all the verses all the time; at others, the minister would instruct the congregation to only sing selected verses—usually because he ran overtime on the sermon. (Later, as an organist, I discovered I had to pay special attention during this time. And yes, I am guilty of both the started-an-extra-verse after the congregation finished and the didn’t-start-the-last-verse while the congregation gamely tried to sing without me mistakes because I’d miscounted verses.)

I knew the era of hymn singing was coming to a close when I recently attended my mother’s very small, very traditional church in a yet-rural part of the country. The words are now on a screen and a bass guitar accompanies the piano and organ. While the congregation hasn’t yet exchanged the old hymns for modern praise music or added drums to the ensemble, I figure it’s only a matter of time. How much longer before hymnals disappear from sanctuaries altogether? I expect it to be within my lifetime.

And I find that rather sad. I always enjoyed checking out the hymnal when I attended to a different church. You could tell so much about a congregation just by peaking through those pages of songs, recitations, catechisms, responsive readings, and service forms. Do the stately hymns and precisely-worded forms suggest I will get a formal, liturgical service? Will the congregation recite creeds? Or are those pages filled with handclapping, power-in-the-blood, old-time-religion songs? And since I can read music, the printed notes and rhythms let me participate even if I encountered a new-to-me tune.

Typical hymnbooks were arranged by subject—all the Christmas songs together, for instance. In addition to the music itself, most listed the names of the composers and lyricists, sometimes with their birth/death dates. Oh, the names I saw over and over: Fanny J. Crosby, Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, Philip Brooks. Some books included a tune name (if the music was composed at a different time from the words), a suggested introduction for the accompanists, and the meter. Meter is the number of syllables per line—for example, “Amazing Grace” and “O God Our Help in Ages Past” both have a meter of 8 6 8 6. You could sing either lyrics to either tune and come out with the correct number of notes. (Go ahead, try it. It really works. In fact, the 8 6 8 6 meter is so frequently used, it’s also known as “common meter.”)

Hymn singing is on the decline, particularly among evangelical Protestants (I did a Google search on “hymn singing decline” and got almost half a million links), which is rather ironic given that the hymns themselves were designed to be sing-able. They had simple melodies and straightforward rhythms so ordinary people wouldn’t find the range beyond their ability or the rhythm too complicated for a group of people with widely varying skill levels. The music is relatively easy for a keyboardist of intermediate ability to play (a necessary quality from the time when many churches were small and lacked professional musicians), and yet, the songs are complex enough they can be arranged for virtuoso musicians with amazing results.

While I enjoy contemporary Christian music (in fact, I enjoy most music, except perhaps bluegrass, rap, and jazz), I feel like something valuable is rapidly disappearing from our culture. Protestants have been praising God through hymns for nearly 500 years, since Martin Luther penned “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” shortly after he nailed those 95 theses to the door. It was revolutionary at a time of Latin-only services—common people praising God in their native languages. During our Sunday singing only old hymns (from the screen, remember), I noticed that my younger two sons were a bit lost. I’m sure they’ve heard the songs since our church incorporates a mixture of music into services—but they just weren’t familiar with them like I was at their age.

I have somewhere around a half dozen different hymnals in my house. Sometimes I open them up to random pages and play favorites I haven’t heard in years. Here are two versions of a favorite (one of too many to list) I love to pull out and play. The first version, performed by a small a cappella group, shows the simplicity of the song. The second, an arrangement for virtuoso organ solo, demonstrates what a proficient musician can do with such a seemingly simple piece.

Please share some of your favorite hymns. I'll be happily humming them over the weekend.