Rhonda McKnight Nain

Rhonda McKnight’s debut novel, Secrets and Lies (Urban Christian Books) will be released in December 2009. Rhonda is the owner of Urban Christian Fiction Today (www.urbanchristianfictiontoday.com), a popular Internet blog that highlights African-American Christian fiction and Legacy Editing, a free-lance editing service for fiction writers. She’s also the Vice-President of Faith Based Fiction Writers of Atlanta. When she’s not editing projects, teaching workshops about writing or penning her next novel, she spends time with her family. Originally from a small, coastal town in New Jersey, she’s called Atlanta, Georgia home for ten years. You may learn more about her at a href="http://www.rhondamcknight.net">www.rhondamcknight.net.

Victoria Christopher Murray and that “Ooh-Wee” Factor

The other night I opened an advanced reader copy of Victoria Christopher Murray’s new novel, Lady Jasmine. I read the two page prologue and literally screamed, “Ooh-wee, this is going to be good!” As I closed the novel, twenty-four hours later (that’s record time for me with the kids and all), I opened my blog to begin writing the review. The first line is “Lady Jasmine is without a doubt the best book I’ve ever read.” I think to myself, I said that last year about Too Little, Too Late, and the year before about The Ex-Files and for sure I said it about A Sin and a Shame. I’m starting to sound like a cliché, and that’s not good, because writers shouldn’t use clichés. But this is exactly what I think every time I close a new Victoria Christopher Murray novel; basically, I’m rendered speechless.

I’m a contracted author. Now that I’m writing under deadline I don’t have as much time to read, but like most writers, I love to read. With reading time cut by more than half, I’m very selective about what goes on my “to be read” shelf. I’m even more selective about what I actually finish reading. In my world, I read two kinds of books to the end: those I can easily finish and those that I can’t wait to finish.

The first type is a good book—good characterization, good plot, good description: lots of goods, including the ending. Suffice to say, it’s always a joy to find a good book. The second type of book, the kind Victoria Christopher Murray writes, is a great book. I can’t wait to finish these books. Simply switching out the word good for great in the above description to explain the elements of a great book doesn’t quite nail the definition.

Since completing my first novel I’ve spent quite a bit of time trying to find out what makes a great novel. I’ve employed several avid readers in this quest, and we’ve come to the conclusion that nobody really knows. I think that the best novels I’ve read are the ones I couldn’t really put finger on why it was so great. It’s just got that chemistry, that mix of character, plot, prose, dialogue, and conflict that makes me say things like, “Oh, my goodness,” or, “No she didn’t,” and, “Ooh-wee!”

Creating an “Ooh-wee book” is not easy. And I believe it’s particularly difficult to get an “ooh-wee” from African-American readers because by and large we love DRAMA. It’s evident in our best-sellers list. Bring the drama and keep it rolling till we close

the book if you want to hook us. That’s why even though African-American Christian fiction sales have increased exponentially over the last seven years, they’re still not where they could be. Many of the authors are writing nice stories, but the reality is that an untapped segment of their readership are drama junkies who don’t quite want nice. As I write, I pray about getting the ooh-wee in there without losing the ministry. As a student of the writing craft, I found literary agent Donald Maass teaches me how in his book Writing the Breakout Novel.

What I call good drama, he calls micro-tension. Micro-tension is the little bits of tension in every scene, on every page, in every paragraph, which keeps a reader turning the pages. Among other things, Maass says it’s characters we care about. The stakes matter to those characters, and therefore, by association, they matter to the reader. A continuing sense that something important is about to happen or could happen keeps us turning the pages. It’s the anticipation of change.

I’m inclined to believe he’s correct, because that’s what I love about a Victoria Christopher Murray novel. I never really know what those people in her stories are going to do. In A Sin and a Shame, she held me hostage until the final sentence of the book. I know a hair turned gray waiting to find out what Hosea was going to decide. She even does it with minor characters. In Too Little, Too Late, we had Kyla wielding the power to destroy Jasmine’s world with a single phone call. Does she tell or not tell? Good Lord, I couldn’t wait to find out what was going to happen.

I have no idea if Victoria has ever read Maass’s book, but I do know she broke out in her first novel and continues to break through with readers every time she releases a new book. It’s a blessing to have someone like her leading this genre for African-American authors because we have a model of ever increasing perfection to aspire to. Victoria has always gotten across the message of love, hope, faith, compassion, and redemption without losing the dramatic intensity. From her self-published version of Temptation to her upcoming release, Lady Jasmine, she’s continues to deliver the “ooh-wees.” She is the quintessential Christian entertainer, and I love her for it.