Monday, April 14, 2014

What J.D. Salinger Got Right

I recently watched a documentary called "Salinger", and when it was over that sadness that always lingered after reading his stories was present in the room.

Media called Salinger hermit and recluse. Clearly he was neither of those as he was constantly seen about the small town near where he lived, took frequent trips to New York and Florida. He wasn't hermiting, he was simply trying to live out the last thread of sane left to him after surviving WWII, and then surviving the crashing success of Catcher in the Rye--the same novel that would be fingered as the reason and justification of three high profile shootings including the murder of John Lennon and the shooting of then President of the US, Ronald Reagan.

It's possible that Salinger decided to withdraw from life in public because he understood his capacity to be a dangerous man if allowed to stew too long in the soup of public pressure. Men and women hunted him down believing he had answers to their chaotic, hopeless lives. He didn't. And he knew it.

It's possible that Salinger's own writing left him with no alternative but to turn his back on the media lest he become entrapped in the same poser culture he railed against in his theology thinly disguised as fiction stories (he was a follower of Vedanta, Hindu philosophy and his stories always preached the tension between    body    and     spirit).

No doubt, Salinger walked a tightrope of being and maintaining his status as public figure and being fully dedicated to writing itself. Pure writing without any distractions.

It's murky and complicated (just like life), but there's one thing that stood out for me, one point where I believe Salinger was right: you can't talk about writing and be a writer. You must write. Only that.

There's a discipline to this, especially in the world of the internet where it is (literally) possible to glean so much information about how to write fiction that you could--in time--present college level courses on the subject and yet not be able to execute any of it.

A writer could, in theory, spend every weekend at one writer's conference after another soaking in so much knowledge he or she might feel a brain burst coming on. But so what if you can't actually do it?

I'm not against writing conferences. If you have a plan and have carefully selected workshops that will actually benefit your writing, and leave the conference with measurable ROI (return on investment), then great. Rare. But great.

But.

Nothing trumps the doing.

Write.

Read.

Write.

Read.

Don't stop.

Remember that well hashed saying that it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill? My husband recently pointed out that I've passed that milestone. I am, according to the hour formula, a master writer. (Can you see me giggling right now?)

What's the singular biggest lesson those 10,000+ hours of writing have taught me?

I can't talk myself into becoming a good writer.

I can only write, and write, and write some more until I find my true self and then write that.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Out of the Garden - Part Eleven


by Sharon K. Souza
(Catch up on the story here.)

There you are? My heart felt like it would burst through my chest. I threw my legs over the side of the bed, stood, and nearly fainted again as the blood rushed to my head.

            “Easy there,” Peta said, as I dropped to the bed.

She lowered herself to the floor with uncanny ease. Then, with a smirk, she tugged out the shoe box. She paused for a moment, looking me square in the eye, as if giving me a chance to confess to its contents before she discovered for herself. But what could I say? Wordlessly, my eyes dropped to the box.

            “I really thought it would be me she visited,” Peta said. She tossed her frizzy, silver ponytail back over her shoulder.

            “Sh-she? She who?”

            Peta laughed that biting laugh again. “Oh, Cuz. This is me, remember?”

            I did remember. All too well. I remembered that summer I first brought Don to meet my family, to meet the cousin who was more like a sister. The same sister-cousin who betrayed me.

            The smile faded from Peta’s face, and I knew she remembered too. “You’re not still holding a grudge, are you? After all these years? We were kids. I mean, what’s the point? He went back to you.”

            “Why did you do it?” I hated that there was still pain in my voice.

            “Honestly, Maeva, that’s ancient history.” She said it like it was no big deal, and yet she squirmed, adjusted the shoulders of her peasant blouse, fluffed her skirt.

            I lowered my eyes, let her off the hook, because she was right, what was the point? I was about to say as much when all at once she lifted the shoe box and placed it on the bed beside me.

            “Peta, wait—”

            With a devilish grin she lifted the lid. Then she sat back on her heels with a huff. I looked ever-so-slowly at the box on the bed. Blinked. And blinked again. Inside were a pair of green pumps, one with a broken heel. I looked back at Peta, gave her a weak smile.

            Suddenly, Hector appeared from beneath the bed. Peta scrambled away from him, got to her feet and backed to the door. “I know it’s here,” she said. “I know it.” Then she turned and hurried away.

            I dug through the shoe box looking for the Her, but there was nothing inside but the shoes. Shoes I’d never purchased.

            “Hector?” I said, thinking the unthinkable.


            He sat there and swished his tail with a smile on his face.

Thank you, Sharon!

Sharon is the author of three published novels, Every Good and Perfect Gift, Lying on Sundays, and Unraveled. She doesn't shy away from the hard questions and the emotion that draws us into a story. Her storytelling is powerful.

ATTENTION! We need one more author to participate in our story in the month of June. Contact us at novelmatters@gmail.com if want to make your splash. 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Back to the Whiteboard


Did you notice we have updated photos? Mine kinda looks like I'm wearing a feather headdress.  Hmm.  I might have to do something about that. 


In Latayne's last post, she shared her students' responses as to what makes Christian fiction, well, Christian.  This has been a hotly debated topic from time to time, with no definitive consensus reached.  So the debate continues. Here are my whiteboard choices for Christian fiction:

  • The story reveals the characteristics of God - love, sacrifice, redemption, grace, for example. These shine more brightly when contrasted with the evil, sin and godlessness in the story world.
  • Gratuitive sex, violence and foul language cheapen storytelling and don't have a place in Christian fiction. There are ways to get around these without being explicit or titillating.  The story can still be true and relevant without leaving the reader with a film of ick. 
  •  There are no fairytale endings, nor are all the loose ends tied up prettily, but the reader is left with a hopeful, positive resolution.  Despair, if present, is short-lived.
  •  Characters are authentic, flawed, unique individuals on spiritual journeys.  They don't have to stop and pray before every move, but they do come to recognize God's hand in their lives and grow in some way.
  • The story doesn't force an agenda or try to manipulate the readers' responses. The author trusts that if the story is told the way it was intended, God can be trusted to communicate with the reader. C.S Lewis' Narnia series is an example of great storytelling without preaching.
  • If appropriate and not contrived, a character can make a statement of faith as part of the character arc, but a really well-written story handles this with a light touch. Most publishers clearly state their their guidelines in no uncertain terms in regard to the manuscripts they purchase. You should check the guidelines of publishers you have in mind before you get too far along in your story.
  • Stories don't have to mention God or Christ by name to be Christian fiction. Aslan in Lewis' The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a Christ-figure in that he takes the punishment for Edmund and overcomes death. But there is no footnote that says 'Aslan is really Christ.' I have seen other Christ figures in literature written by authors who are not categorized as Christian fiction authors specifically. That does not lessen the impact they made on me. God communicates in whatever way He chooses.
This is my basic but ever expanding, ever changing definition of Christian fiction. What would you leave out, or leave in? What would you add?  We'd love to hear.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Make Your List


I like to perplex my students. Recently I asked my teenagers at Oak Grove Classical Academy what makes a novel “Christian.”

They answered cautiously. After all, at this Christian school, we study lots of works that aren’t Christian at all, like The Epic of Gilgamesh and Rosemary Sutcliff’s Eagle of the Ninth.

I drew a line on the board. I wrote “Yes” versus “Disqualify.”

Then I gave them the markers and said, “Go for it.”




Here’s what they said disqualified a novel:

Rewarding evil, sexual-lust (I think they meant lots of the steamy type), themes that motivate sin, and atheist.

Here’s what they said would be characteristic of Christian fiction:

The author’s mindset, characters and storyline, morals, plot+author, helps reader spiritually via a story, testimony, point of view=self, reactions of the characters, theme, punishment (of evil), redemption, comes together to reward good, and God’s love.

So what would you put on your “yes” and “disqualify” lists?

Friday, April 4, 2014

Out of the Garden, Part 10

Read the story from the beginning here.

Part 10 by Margaret Terry

My hands flew up to cover my face. No no nooooo ... thinkthinkthinkthink, I commanded. This is grief. Yes. Grief makes people see things that aren't there. Dr. Marigold had warned me about that. A fairy under my bed. A cousin with wings. Grief. I wasn't losing it. I just missed Don, that's all. I turned to face Margaret, whose lips were moving like she was speaking in slow motion, but there was no sound coming out of her mouth, or if there was I couldn't hear it because the thunder in my head boomed so loudly. My last thought before the black veil fell and took me with it was my head was going to crack open.

Peta was sitting at the foot of my bed when I woke. "Been a long time since we shared a bed, cuz." Her eyes were dancing. "You've been fainting a lot, haven't you?"

I felt like my head was stuffed with cotton. Maybe Peta drugged me, put something in my tea. Of course she didn't have wings. She was the same old hippie Peta, wearing the same long skirts and floral peasant blouses she wore forty years ago.

"How do you know about my spells?" I hadn't told Margaret or even Dr. Marigold about the fainting.

"Same way I know you have a Fayette in the house." She stood and began to rifle through my dresser. "Why do you think I'm here after all these years?" She finished with my drawers and threw open the closet door.

I pushed myself up and leaned against the headboard. "Get out of my closet, Peta." My throat was so dry it felt like I had swallowed sand. "You're talking nonsense. I have no idea what a Fayette is."

Peta came out of the closet empty handed and approached my bed. I could smell lilacs. Granny, I thought. She smells like Granny. She leaned close to my face and whispered, "You saw them, cousin. I know you did. But don't worry. No one else could see them. You and I are the only living Fayes in the family ... so far." She dropped to her knees and looked under the bed. "Ah. There you are!"

Margaret Terry is the author of Dear Deb, a non-fiction compilation of letters from Margaret to her friend, Deb, who was dying of cancer. Watch the book trailer here.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Sorry, Virginia, There's No Such Thing as a Completed Manuscript Either

Bonnie did a great job of popping our bubble about the first draft on Monday here. In short, first drafts are not really first drafts. If we're lucky, they're third drafts. Sometimes, they're 27th drafts.

It's all good.

Now, for the bad news: Even if you don't demonstrate symptoms of OCD in other areas of your life, you will never have a completed/perfect manuscript either.

Take a minute to let that soak in.

It's the truth.

I speak from personal experience. And just to be clear, I am not medicated for obsessive behaviors. I'm a novelist.

So, once the manuscript gets to the point where Bonnie left it--friends are begged to read it--the manuscript will come back marked with circled words, bold question marks, and the abbreviation: awk in the margins.

Back to the drawing board!

Page by page, each suggestion and question is evaluated for verisimilitude. You learn to trust certain readers more than others, and some are gifted at critiquing certain aspect well: dialogue, story structure, or grammar.

Changes are made.

Before I send off a "completed" manuscript to an editor, I pay to have it printed and 3-punched to put in a binder. And then I read it out loud in a southern drawl or a horrible British accent, something that will get me out of my head and paying attention to each and every word.

Lots of slashing at this point. Extraneous words are such slippery devils.

This is the copy I eventually let people I want to respect me read.

Next, my husband talks me out of the tree to push the send button. I hate pushing the send button. I never feel more vulnerable.

This is why deadlines were invented. If we didn't have deadlines, not one novel would sit on the shelf.

With my manuscript on my editor's desk, I begin the next story. I need something to keep my mind from asking, "Was the motivation for the hero strong enough? Was the whole thing with the subplot character too clownish? Did you put your name on the title page, dummy?"

Editors notes come back much too quickly. (Where do these people learn to read like that?) I read the notes with one eye closed. S/he is almost always right, but I would be a fool not to carefully consider all their remarks, especially if they ask, "Did you leave out a chapter?"

OOPS!

Corrections are made--Are we keeping track of how many times we comb through a novel?--and the manuscript is sent off to the publisher again.

The manuscript returns as a galley, a mock-up of the novel. The accompanying letter says that I can only change up to 20%.

I'm up for the challenge.

But I don't take it. Deadline.

I do change more than I thought I would. I add addendums and use Wite-Out when I don't like the changes I made.

I read the novel out loud very slowly, again. I find more words to slash.

Finally, the novel is published. It's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen.

But...

At every reading I do for an audience, I revise as I read from the published novel. (I read somewhere that William Faulkner made changes in the margins before going on stage for his readings.)

Time passes.

Several of my novels go out of print (ouch!), so I decide to reissue them as ebooks. I read each aloud for the third, fourth, or fifth times. I can't remember which. I cut out passages that weigh the story like a sinker.

How did those get in there?

And so, Virginia, no novel is perfect. It is only your best effort, and that is magic enough.

It's good magic. Very good.




Monday, March 31, 2014

No Virginia, There's No Such Thing as The First Draft

Last week, I announced on Facebook that I had completed the first draft of my WIP.

My mother read on Facebook that I had completed the first draft of my WIP. She asked to read it.
I laughed and laughed.

No way anyone is reading that puppy.

I lied about completing the first draft.

Or. Maybe not.

I can't be certain.

What I know is if anyone read the draft it would be like what I imagine a magician would feel like revealing his or her secrets.

My first draft is a blabber mouth. It explains how I do all my tricks.

There is so much rough stuff inside that first draft, so many side notes, and highlighted ALL CAPS messages to myself that should anyone read it they'd think, Shazam, I know exactly how she twists the plot, rearranges time, and spaces out plot reveals that I could just go home and write the thing myself.

And we can't have that.

I have come to a startling conclusion:

I don't believe in first drafts.

Meaning, I doubt they exist. I would love to believe there are writers out there who pound out a story so well crafted that the second draft is only so much polishing. If you told me that is exactly how you write, I'd smile and nod and later I'd draw pictures of you with the eyes X'ed out.

My second draft isn't polishing. It's major reconstructive surgery. And not the out patient kind. The you're going to be here for awhile so you might as well get comfortable and for heaven's sake stop abusing the nurse call button.

You can't read my second draft, either.

Sure, I've tucked away most of the dead giveaways, spun the scenes so they glisten just enough to distract you from what I don't want you to see.

But.

And I'm being butt-neeked honest here.

But, that second draft (meaning the manuscript after I've moved through it fully from the opening chapter to THE END) has a face only a mother could love. Still more voice and jazz hands than breathless pacing and didn't-see-it-coming-but-now-that-it's-here-it-couldn't-have-happened-any-other-way plot twists.

After the third time through the novel I've tucked away the how-to secrets, buried the plot twists, sped up that pacing and layered on the subtle elements of story-world, sub-plot, running jokes (this story has a few running jokes. Cuz I like running jokes and it's my story so there), character traits, time line (cursed thing, that time line. Bane of my writing existence), and break-neck speed ending.

After the third time through, I might consider letting some very close friends have a peek. Only because I begged them.

And what would I call that draft?

In my email to my close friends begging them to read the thing I would say this: Please, please, please, pretty please read this first draft and let me know how much needs to change/be rewritten/be burned at the stake.

Yep. I'd call that one my first draft.

Which is total ca-ca.

And also absolutely true.