Friday, July 25, 2014

Summertime Reruns: The Joy Of a Slow Read


Maybe you have memories like mine, of waking to the delicious sound of voices at the kitchen table.

When I was a child my grandparents would come to visit, often at this time of year, and often arriving at night while I slept. They were retired, and always seemed schedule-less, beyond the basic schedules of grooming, coffee, meals and naps. Their days were all sabbaths, or so it seemed.

My mother would take time off from work when they came, so their gentle rhythms would, for a time, become our rhythms. When I woke, the voices coming from the kitchen were thoughtful and unhurried, filtered through chuckles and quiet pauses. I don't remember exactly what they talked about, but it seems like the topics ran more to the conceptual than the pragmatic. Politics, yes, but in broader terms. My sister and me, naturally, but about the sorts of people we were growing to be.

When we visited them it was the same, but at night, we would join them in the unfenced area between their house and those of two neighbors. We'd all set our lawn chairs under the clothes line, look up at the stars, and talk. My great uncle, who read a lot (I am getting around to talking about books), showed me constellations, and told me which stars were really planets, how unfathomably distant they all were. Curiosity and attention were my childhood luxuries, but in these slow moments, they became the order of the day.

I'm about a third into a book titled The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, by Elisabeth Tova Bailey. It recounts her observations of a common snail that lived in a terrarium beside her bed during her year-long convalescence following a mysterious illness.

It's not a page turner, not in the sense we usually mean. There are no heart-stopping moments, no smoking guns.

It is wondrously compelling. Reading it feels like listening to voices at the kitchen table, looking at stars with my great uncle who read a lot. Forced by an illness into an abundance of unstructured time, Bailey received a message to pass on to us, that each moment, each detail, the tiniest creature is fascinating if we take the time to look. I treasure books that remind me that time exists, and that there is enough of it to allow for curiosity and attention.

"Every few days I watered the violets from my drinking glass, and the excess water seeped into the dish beneath. This always woke the snail. It would glide to the rim of the pot and look over, slowly waving its tentacles in apparent delight, before making its way down to the dish for a drink. Sometimes it started back up, only to stop at a halfway point and go to sleep. Waking periodically, and without moving from its position, it would stretch its neck all the way down to the water and take a long drink."

Annie Dillard writes books like that. Her Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is all the permission you will ever need to lavish time on each microbe of creation.

"It could be that God has not absconded but spread, as our vision and understanding of the universe have spread, to a fabric of spirit and sense so grand and subtle, so powerful in a new way, that we can only feel blindly of its hem. In making the thick darkness a swaddling band for the sea, God “set bars and doors” and said, “Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further.” But have we come even that far? Have we rowed out to the thick darkness, or are we all playing pinochle in the bottom of the boat?"

There are other books that do the same. I pulled Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Gift From the Sea from my grandmother's bookshelf when I was twelve. A bit young, perhaps, to begin thinking what sort of adult one wants to become, but I began to think of it then.

"I want a singleness of eye, a purity of intention, a central core to my life that will enable me to carry out these obligations and activities as well as I can. I want, in fact—to borrow from the language of the saints—to live 'in grace' as much of the time as possible."

You may have noted that all these books are memoirs, not fiction, and for good reason. Fiction doesn't lend itself to leisurely exploration. Novels need things like conflict, suspense, and tension. Most readers, I'm told, skip over novels that are described as "meditative," or "contemplative." We want our stories to pull us through on a cord of anxiety. Yikes! Oh no! What will the character do now?

The only novel I know of that has managed to finesse the narrative arc in a voice straight out of those lawn chairs under the stars is Marilynne Robinson's Gilead. It's the reason I consider this the most perfect novel I've ever read, because its author understands so well:

"This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it." 

Now please tell us about the books that have inspired you to pay attention. Extra points if that book is a novel.

We love to read what you have to say.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Remind Us Why the Novel Matters

This is a summer re-run originally published at the end of 2012 - a gift to our readers to remind us why the novel matters.


Throughout 2012 we've been holding a conversation here at Novel Matters, a year-long exploration of the question, Why does the novel matter?

To help us poke around for some answers, we invited ten writers to weigh in with their thoughts. Those writers, Joy Jordan-Lake, Alice Kuipers, John Blase, Tracy Groot, Rosslyn Elliot, Sharon K. Souza, Athol Dickson, Claudia Mair Burney, Cynthia Ruchti, and Julie Cantrell, all offered their thoughts, impressions, and perhaps even more questions to why the novel matters.

Today, as a gift to our readers this Christmas 2012, we offer this “conversation” between 10 writers we love, to inspire you to read, write, create, and become who you were created to be. It is a conversation that never happened, but, of course, it did.

Novel Matters: Make room for Joy, everyone. She’s last to arrive. The room is a bit tight, but we’ll make do. Everyone smile for the group photo! Great. Uh, John? Rabbit ears? Really? Never mind, I’ll photo shop it out later. Sit, everyone, let’s talk about why the novel matters. What good does it do anyone anymore?

Alice Kuipers: Personally, the thrill of reading, of being consumed by a story so much so that the real world ceases to exist, is one of the great joys of my life.

Sharon K Souza (nodding emphatically): The novel matters for the sheer pleasure it provides. I often read two or three books at one time, a non-fiction of one type or another, a book on the craft of writing, and a novel. The novel is always what I conclude my evening with. I’ll read an hour or two before bed, and that hour or two is the dessert I look forward to all day.

Claudia Mair Burney (waving a hand): Novels take the edge off a brutal reality. Sometimes they distract me. Sometimes they make me laugh. Sometimes they remind me that I am not alone in my suffering, and often, they fuel the most reckless, glorious hope.

Tracy Groot (standing to address the group): Totally agree. Novels supply society with needed diversion, needed respite, and needed truth that may not come when it's served up cold.

Novel Matters: Oh, sorry Tracy, I thought you were standing so we could all hear you better. Could someone pass her the veggie dip? Thanks, Athol. Tracy, I love what you said about truth.

Julie Cantrell: There is no better way to deliver truth than through fiction. It’s as simple as that.

Tracy Groot (high fiving Julie): If we're really lucky, truth may come through a kid named Huckleberry, a ghost named Marley, a hobbit named Frodo, or a place due east of Eden.

Novel Matters: A ghost, a hobbit, and the Salinas Valley. How could this trio possibly have anything to do with truth? How do those stories manage to tell the truth about life while still telling a story?

Joy Jordan-Lake (looking professor-ly, but still very kind): As novelists, we have to figure out how to spin our stories for the modern, harried, distracted reader so that the old-fashioned words-on-page print form makes sense, is worth the time and trouble because the reader comes away changed—becomes a part of the Story, and the Story, a part of them.

Alice Kuipers: Novels allow me to live other lives, explore other realities, exist in places and in ways I never could otherwise. 

Athol Dickson (wiping veggie dip off his fingers with a napkin): The novel is uniquely qualified to weave the spiritual and physical realities of life together.

Rosslyn Elliot: Stories need to be told in a way that ignites our passion for us to imitate their sincere and courageous example.

Novel Matters: Great point, Rosslyn, but doesn’t non-fiction do that just as well?

Tracy Groot: the world is always looking for a good story.

Julie Cantrell: I believe that’s where sermons and non-fiction books can be useful. Novels should tell a good story that encourages the reader to close the book with questions. I’d much prefer to read a book that makes me think, than to read a book that tells me what/how to think.

Sharon K. Souza: The novel matters to me because a novel is a window into the soul of a society, an age, an era.

Alice Kuipers: The novel . . . is one of the best contemporary ways to encapsulate story without visual influence – letting our imaginations as readers do the work that other mediums may not allow.

Joy Jordan-Lake: . . . to allow ourselves to be transported to a different world, to see things from someone else’s perspective, to allow ourselves to be moved and frightened and inspired and entertained---and changed. It’s that chance to slow down and step away and look deep into what makes us tick as human beings, what really matters, what really doesn’t.

Cynthia Ruchti (jumping in): Every novel I've ever read has informed me, influenced me. Some have taught me what not to do or challenged me to write in a more compelling way. Some have edged me forward in my understanding of the human spirit and what it's capable of enduring, or strengthened my grasp of concepts like hope and grace.

Sharon K Souza (after the shouts of “amen” and “yep” and that’s it! Die down): You learn the things that make one age different from another, and that in more ways than not, we aren’t that different.

Claudia Mair Burney: And when the pages are all read, we put the book down with a sense that our lives matter; our troubles and our trifles. We matter, because we see ourselves right there in print. And we find ourselves in the work. Sometimes we say, "amen." Other times we say, "I'm sorry."

(there’s a little hush here, while we all absorb the wonder of this statement.)

Novel Matters: What we’re talking about is transformation. Or, maybe better, human formation. The novel matters because it helps us form as human beings?

Cynthia Ruchti: Every time a reader opens a novel of any significance ... [she doesn't] walk away the same.

Athol Dickson: Art is one of the objective proofs that human beings have a soul or spirit, and novels, of course, are art, so novels matter for that reason. Only in a novel can we become a kind of proxy for the work of art itself.

John Blase (raising two fingers to indicate he has something for us here): For example, a lower middle class poet (me) can read about a man dying of ALS (Jim Harrison’s Returning to Earth) or about two sisters being raised in Fingerbone, Idaho (Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping) or about the lifelong friendships of two married couples (Wallace Stegner’s Crossing To Safety) and to some extent I become a better person for it because I’ve entered into these lives that I have never lived and might not want to lead but nevertheless it stirs, I think, the sense of possibilities within life. . . You understand to some extent their lives, plus your own a little more, and to a greater degree this mystical incarnation we call life. It’s quite beautiful, really, this becoming more sympathetic or human. It entails becoming more compassionate and friendly and sensitive. I like that.

Novel Matters: Thanks, everyone. Can we try for another group picture, this time without the rabbit ears?
~



Monday, July 21, 2014

Ten Ways to Bomb Your Budding Novel Career

(This post is kind of a summer re-run. Except I've added to it.)

You can find a bazillion pieces of advice online on how to make it big as a novel writer.

Now I must share with you some ways to torpedo your career. I must admit I haven’t tried all these things (thank goodness) but will lean heavily on the warnings of other industry professionals.

Here in no particular order are some likely career crashers for novelists who write from a Christian worldview:

1) Get into it for fame, money and/or the desire to bare your soul. If the first two are your motives, you are statistically unlikely to succeed. (Think of the market as grading on the curve, except almost everyone gets an F, a few get Ds and Cs, fewer get a B and you can count the As in the hundreds, not in the thousands or millions.) And God isn’t much interested in blessing – you know, supernaturally helping and ennobling – people who do things in His name who don’t have His interests at heart.

Want to bare your soul? Unless you have a compelling story and/or can tell it exceptionally well, best to keep that soul modestly covered for now. Maybe later….

2) Approach your writings and publishing decisions from a business point of view instead of after prayer and fasting.

3) Trash-talk an agent, editor, fellow author or other industry professional in public. Christian publishing is a very small world. Many professionals in it have worked for several publishers. They talk to one another, even to their competitors.

4) Criticize anybody or anything in public without a Biblical basis for doing so.

5) Jump around from genre to genre. I admit I have done this:  Fifteen non-fiction books (several co-written or largely interview-based), one children’s fiction, and now onto novels.) I say it is because I have written what I believed God wanted me to write.  It hasn’t killed my career but I’m hardly a household word for any of those genres. (Well, I may be a household word with some Mormons but it wouldn’t be a very nice word.)

5) Listen to and take to heart only opinions about your writing that are offered by people who love you and/or are not industry professionals.   You’ll have that warm glow with you always as you get to sell four dozen self-published books to them.

6) Don’t study and absorb your Bible. Consider its stories and counsels as outdated and inferior to more modern works.

7) Refuse to take the time and offer the vulnerability of letting other authors critique your work. They might steal your ideas and write them faster and better than you and beat you to a publisher. (Yeah, right.)

8) Lament the lack of quality in Christian publishing but do not read the books that have won awards recently.  If you do read them, borrow them so that you don’t directly contribute to the financial wellbeing of the publishing companies nor the authors.

9) Don’t keep up with how the publishing industry is changing. After all, a book is a book, right?

I’ll leave #10 to you. What would you add?


Friday, July 18, 2014

Looking for the Extraodinary

Until I read Elizabeth Berg's novels, I didn't even know I wanted to be a writer.

It was my turn to choose a book for book club. I hadn't been a member of the group for very long. The weight of choosing a book to suit varied tastes made my pits sticky. I wandered around Barnes & Noble for hours reading back copy and first paragraphs, beginning to believe the perfect book didn't exist.

And frankly, I was looking for more than the next book. I was looking for a new direction. We'd read about plague years and dream-seeping violence and horrendous violations. Don't get me wrong, I'm not squeamish when it comes to hard-hitting fiction, but a steady diet of the stuff had left me battered.

And so, the search labored on. My checklist included these requirements: rich language that wasn't syrupy or distracting, a story that valued the small things that tower large in our lives, a story about familiar things portrayed in surprising ways. That's all. Simple. A story that is neither contrived nor soul-crushing.


Why was this so hard?

And then [cue the rapturous music], I picked up Joy School by Elizabeth Berg. My prize! The story is ordinary and extraordinary. Human. Winsome. Transparent. The girl's mother wears Tabu perfume, for heaven's sake.

I read the book quickly and set it down, only to pick it back up again. I read random scenes. Underlined favorite passages. Carried the characters around in my head for days, maybe weeks. Is anyone gagging yet?

I'd read many wonderful books up to this point--classical, popular, and literary. This is the book that made me want to be a writer. But why?

I wanted to spend my days playing with words and writing stories that become friends to the reader. That's my goal, anyway.

BTW, I traveled a thousand miles to attend a writers conference where Ms. Berg was the keynote speaker. I sat in the front row at all her appearances. The poor lady was on the tail end of a long book tour. She looked ragged. Did that keep me from schmoozing my way into a conversation with her? No! Are you kidding? I have the picture to prove it.

Update: It's been awhile since Ms. Berg has hit the high bar she set for herself with the Katie stories (Durable Goods, Joy School, and True to Form, plus What We Keep), but I still credit her for showing me the extraordinary in the ordinary.

Who has done this for you?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Sagging Middles

As Bonnie explained on Monday, June 23, we are re-running some of our favorite posts from the past few years. This post first appeared May 30, 2012.

A novel, at its basic reduction, is a series of scenes cohesively held
together by narrative. Picture what we used to call a "granny quilt." It's a collection of crocheted circles or squares attached in rows by basic crochet stitches. Then the rows are connected by another basic stitch. When completed, it's a lovely work of art, that serves a useful purpose.

Scenes in a novel are like those circles and squares. According to The Scene Book: A Primer for the Fiction Writer, by Sandra Scofield, "The scene is the most vivid and immediate part of the story, the place where the reader is the most emotionally involved, the part that leaves the reader with images and a memory of the action" (pg. 3).

That's not to say the narrative is unimportant. Remember, narrative is the stitch that holds the scenes together. It should be written with as much care as the scenes themselves, and should be as engaging as possible. One of my favorite authors is Jamie Langston Turner, who uses a lot of narrative in her novels. I know it's not everyone's cup of tea, but I enjoy her writing very much because her narrative is written with such care, and with such an engaging voice.

But back to scenes. Scenes are immediate. They happen in the present as you read them. Scenes are mini-stories, self-contained, each with a beginning, middle and end. Each scene should contain new and pertinent information, should have a degree of tension, and most importantly, should move the story along. If a scene doesn't accomplish these things it should be re-written with those goals in mind, or if it's entirely superfluous it should be cut altogether. Elizabeth George, in Write Away, has this to say: "Be careful that the scene adds something necessary to the story's development: information, revelation, discovery, sudden change" (pg. 139).

The middle section of a novel is most vulnerable to bogging down the story. If you find your WIP falling victim to a sagging middle, evaluate the story, scene by scene. Is the scene itself tight, adding ever-increasing tension, and moving the story forward? Are the stakes raised with each succeeding scene, resolutely moving toward the climax? If not, re-work your scenes until they are. And if they can't be rewritten to that end, don't hesitate to cut them. "Each scene has a dilemma or a pressure on the POV character, and it is sufficient in its importance that it drives the action and feeling" (The Scene Book, pg. 60).

The antagonist should oppose the protagonist at every turn. The tautness of a scene can be likened to a cord held tightly at one end by the protagonist, and held just as tightly at the other end by the antagonist. One is always pulling against the other. That's what creates the type of tension that makes a book impossible to put down. Tension is built by "holding back information from the reader; introducing questions and then intensifying concerns about the answers; making the reader uneasy about the harmony of relationships" (The Scene Book, pg. 73). Sol Stein in Stein on Writing acknowledges that, "Our instinct as human beings is to provide answers, to ease tension. As writers our job is the opposite, to create tension and not dispel it immediately ... and when it comes to moments of tension, to stretch them out as long as possible" (pg. 106). Elizabeth George says, "And make that conflict rise, as all good conflict should. Don't jump into it with people yelling, screaming, shooting, and having swords drawn" (pg. 139). Stein adds this great piece of writing advice: "The most important moment of tension in a novel is its first use, which should be as close to the beginning of the book as possible. It puts the writer in charge of the reader's emotions" (pg. 107), and that is an important goal of the author.

The narrative between scenes gives the reader a moment to catch her breath. So it too serves an important part. But remember, the narrative shouldn't be expendable, but should be as engaging as any scene.

I'm the type of reader who doesn't ever skip over anything in a novel. I read every word, every time. I love being rewarded with scenes that draw me in and raise my heart rate. And I love narrative that takes me back to level ground without a sense of let-down.

There's so much more to writing scenes that keep the middle from sagging. I recommend all three of these books, but especially the great little primer by Sandra Scofield.

What problems do you run into in the middle section of your novel? How do you evaluate the problems, and what do you do to resolve them?

Monday, July 14, 2014

Summertime reruns: Starting a Novel

Today's Novel Matters rerun comes from Bonnie Grove. It first appeared in May, 2012.

Happy summer!

I’m not in the habit of quoting Zig Zigler, but the dude once said, "You don’t have to be great to start you have to start to be great." 

It’s a nice quote if you can picture saying it sans the fist-pump and jazzercise music playing ubiquitous at those brain-washing seminars.
 
Beginning a novel is daunting. Ever since Patti Hill talked about writing as stuffing an octopus into a mayonnaise jar, I haven’t been able to get the image out of my head. 
 
How does a writer go from holding an octopus in one hand and a mayonnaise jar in the other to a tidy stack of papers with his name neatly typed on the cover page?
 
If starting is the most crucial step (and it is), then starting well will save hours (months? Years?) of frustration in rewrites. 
 
Fiction is personal. No two writers come at it in the same way, and no one can say, “This is the definitive method of how to begin writing a novel.”
 
One writer begins with a character that shows up in her head and won’t go away. Another follows the crumbs of a plot, a series of “what if” questions. For another it’s the setting. Yet another (and this is how I usually begin) it’s theme. (update: I no longer begin a novel with theme alone. I've come to a point where I realize I must wait until a number of idea coalesce into a rich soup headed up by plot.)
 
Regardless of what jump-starts you to dive into writing a new novel, there are two questions you need to ask yourself before you put pen to paper. 
 
The first question is: Who is telling this story? 
 
When you discover the answer to this question, you lay the foundation for a myriad of complex literary devices. Discovering your narrator means you’ve discovered:

 Your setting. Real people live in real places—they come from somewhere. 
 When (in time and history). Narrators live in the present—even if they are dead (The Book Thief, American Beauty). 
 Which tense you will write in. Past tense (the current champion in novels everywhere), present tense? Which is best. Is anyone out there writing in future tense? 
 Voice. Ah voice, that misunderstood device of writing. Both simple and baffling. Knowing who is telling the story means you can listen deeply to that voice that lifts the words off the page and lives in the reader’s heart and mind. 
 And the biggest of them all Point of View (POV). Knowing your narrator means the POV (almost) decides itself. First person? Third person limited? Omniscient? Second person (rare, but wonderful when it’s done well)? 

Now, I’m not going to say that if you choose this kind of narrator then you automatically will have this kind of POV. It doesn’t work that way because each novel is different, and the more complex the story, the more layers of questions arise. 

But. 

If you spend a good chunk of time fiddling with the question of who, something amazing happens: you get traction under your story at the very beginning.
 
The second question to ask is: Why must this story be told now?

The word “now” is key to the question.  It’s not asking “is my story timely?” or, “is this culturally contextual?” Those are questions about things that lie outside your story. 
 
Why must this story be told now is a question that, when answered, brings a sense of intimacy, urgency, and intrigue to your novel. That tingly feeling you get when you open a novel and feel pulled in immediately. 
 
Why now? What desperate thing has happened that means the narrator is compelled to speak today. Now. Immediately. That not telling the story now would be wrong, perhaps tragic. 
 
Why is now the best time to tell the story? Knowing this will help you know where your story begins.
 
If you’re starting a new novel, ask yourself:
 
Who is telling this story?
Why does the storyteller need to tell this story NOW?

 
These questions will lead to more questions, which will lead to answers, which will lead to you typing THE END with a flourish.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Summertime Reruns: Swatting the Monkey


Once upon a time, Bonnie and I discussed in conversation certain changes she was making to the manuscript of her not-yet published novel, Fish.  I begged, “please, don’t change your protagonist.”

“What do you like about her?” Bonnie asked.

I explained that I like those times when I strongly suspect the character is clinically insane, but also suspect, just as strongly, that she may be God, himself. Something she says or does suggests a kind of wild love, and a profound knowing that gives me shivers.

Bonnie observed, “You like thin places.”

And I thought , “Of course. Don’t we all?”

Don’t you?

You know what thin places are, right? The ancient Celts used the term to describe places that were both one thing and another, and neither. The slope between the plane and the mountain is not mountain or plane,  and it is both. The shore between the land and the sea. The age between childhood and adulthood.  It was thought that these locations and times were holy places, where the veil between the physical and the spiritual was so thin, you could touch hand to hand with God through the cloth.  I’ve always wanted to touch hand to hand.

And after talking to Bonnie, it came to me that yes, this was exactly why I read.  The books I love are full of thin places, and the ones I don’t love… well, they aren’t.

There’s a book on my shelf, Christian Mythmakers by Roland Hein, that puts a name to this kind of writing. The name - you may have guessed – is “Myth,” and the definition Hein gives to myths is “stories which confront us with something transcendent and eternal.” Thin places, those stories that offer, as J.R.R. Tolkien said in On Fairy Stories, “a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the Walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

Joy poignant as grief. Couldn’t you spend a week thinking on that one?

One definition my dictionary gives for the word, “poignant” is “Keenly distressing to the mind or feelings.” I’ll admit, it’s the second definition, the first being simply, “arousing affect,” with little or no negative implications. But the kind of stories I like arouse a kind of joy that is heart-breakingly close to grief. I think that’s why I like the faith aspects of novels to stray into the unexpected. We expect God to peek out through the eyes of Father Flanagan. But when he reaches through the hands of the mentally ill, he touches me in the places of my own neuroses. When he descends on a cloud, that’s impressive, but when he calls through the voice of a broken minister (see Leaving Ruin, by Jeff Berryman), my own broken shards  become puzzle pieces, with at least a hope of wholeness.

It’s why crazyness and brokenness are so vital to a story. As GK Chesterton put it, “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”

We are all children in the inner layers, and we all have our dragons.

I think of a favorite scene in Pirates of the Caribbean, (the first one). Do you remember? A moonlit night, and Elizabeth (Keira Knightly) climbs a rope ladder to board The Black Pearl, even though the ship is overrun with cursed pirates that look like rotting corpses. Just when things are really tense, Jack the monkey confronts her full on, looking like the picture here. You can see what a terrible moment it is. But then it dawns on Elizabeth that this is just a monkey, after all. She gives the creature a look that says as much, swats at him, and he ducks his head and skulks away.

The new testament tells us of a devil defanged, defeated already, no matter what he tries. Oh Hell, where is your victory? Resist him and he will flee from you.

It’s like the story about Martin Luther – which may or may not have happened:  Luther awakes to find the devil himself seated on the end of his bed. He springs upright, prepared to scramble, till he takes a good look and says, “Oh, it’s only you,” and goes back to sleep.

What a story that is! Even if it isn't factual, it's true.

Just as thin places are true. We touch our hand to the veil, and another touches back.

What books are thin places for you? What about the story places your hand on the veil?

Do tell. We love to read what you have to say.