Friday, February 27, 2009

Tag Team Post - Bonnie and Kathleen- Will Write for Love

We're talking about story this week on Novel Matters - the ones that mattered to us growing up, the ones that matter now - and the ones we are hoping to find in the future.

Reading engages us, shapes us and our culture. We know this to be true. But why? Why does it have such powerful sway over all of us? Well, according to Ray Bradbury the answer is: Love and vomit.

Kathleen says: Bradbury's little chapbook, Zen in the Art of Writing, was the first book on the craft I ever loved, and it's still a favorite. In it, he writes, "Every morning I jump out of bed and step on a landmine. The landmine is me. After the explosion, I spent the rest of the day putting the pieces together."Messy writer, isn't he? But what about those authors among us who carefully plan their stories before they write a single paragraph? What do explosions and vomit have to do with an outline?

Bonnie says: Explosions have everything to do with writing – outlines, plots, voice, characters, you name it. The explosion of self, the intentional dissection of what it means to be human, to feel, to die, to love, to suffer alone is daily in the life of a writer. Ray Bradbury speaks eloquently of the vomiting mess, the explosive chaos, the dizzying heights of love as the essence of writing because writing is, at its heart, the rendering of bare truth told in the most universal way possible. Writing a story takes courage, because it will always out you. It will always shine light on the buried source of that which makes us human. That is why we must write what we love. We couldn’t bear it otherwise.

Kathleen says: So even if you plot out your novel before you start writing, you can still spill your passion all over that plot. The key is, don't think. Just on paper, do a Jackson Pollock with your impulses, thoughts, ideas. Get angry. Get ridiculously joyful. Cry your private tears in public. What does your character do next? Quick, quick: what's the wildest thing she could do? What is the one thing that everyone says, "Oh no. No, no, not that! Noooo don't do that." But they secretly hope she will.

The story is the framework for how we organize and talk about the human experience. It's the frame that forces us to make sense, make connections, make magic on the page. The raw material for story is your own story - which, when turned into artful prose, becomes everyone's story.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Life Stages of a Reader

How have your reading preferences changed over your lifetime? Can you see some sort of growth or development in the choices you've made?

I once heard Leif Enger relate the inspiration for an integral part of his novel, Peace Like a River. His four-year-old son, John had wanted to know how the book was progressing. Enger answered it was going well, and was then confronted with a boy of four's next most logical question: "Got any cowboys in there yet?"

Thus the birth of Sunny Sundown, the epic poem woven throughout the novel.

It starts in childhood, doesn't it? This hope that the new book will be filled with beloved heroes and thrilling surprises. Think of the the time you were nestled on a soft lap, waiting to be both dazzled and comforted with a new - or familiar - mix of character, setting and plot. Do you remember the first thing you hoped for, in those earliest days?

Will there be magic?
For me, the burning question was, "Will you crack the lid of my little life wide open and show me that the things in my hands, that my hands themselves can do wondrous things?" And so the grownup person reads to us Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson.

Will there be cowboys? We get a little older, and we want more. We want to see ourselves in heroes larger than life, handsome, beautiful, brave, and always triumphant over the bad guys. Our parents read to us an illustrated copy of J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan. We take the book into bed with us, and we pour ourselves into its pages.

Will there be wonderful settings, unforgettable characters? Somewhere along the line we start wanting to travel - not to Neverland, but to real places we've never been. And for the trip, we want a best friend, someone so like us we wonder if the author's been talking to our grandparents. We pick up Lucy Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables and imagine we've found our kindred spirit.

Will there be nuance and complexity and importance? We enter high school and we think we know so much. We've learned life can be dark, that good doesn't always triumph, and if we're really intense, we feel ready to take on the important things. I was intense. My son is more balanced, so I'll have to tell you what I read at this stage: Franny and Zooey by J.D. Sallinger.

Can we just lighten up already? We grow up. We have kids of our own, and jobs, and bills. Life is heavy enough, thanks, so let's just read something light, shall we? We choose a story that will make us laugh, will move us to tears - but only the kind we cry at weddings, never funerals. Something like Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

Will there be nuance and complexity and importance? Okay, maybe the kids start school. We start to watch the news again. Sooner or later, we're up for a bit more oomph. We don't mind shedding tears over the genuinely tragic, we don't mind fleshing out the deeper issues. Maybe we read The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.

Will there be wonderful settings, unforgettable characters? We catch on that settings don't have to be beautiful or even foreign to be compelling, and that characters can be heart-breakingly complex and still be our best friends. In fact, by their complexity they actually enter into our lives and change it forever. We read, perhaps, Leaving Ruin by Jeff Berryman.

Will there be cowboys? Can it be? Can a story take us on a steeplechase, and also plumb the depths of human experience? Can a novel be fun, and convicting and deeply affecting all at once? We read Enger's Peace Like a River and we know it can.

Will there be magic? Here we are again, back where we began. We know there is something more than the characters we meet, the places we travel, the issues we probe. It's hidden in all of these things, but we can't quite name it. We want so badly to touch that deeper world that shimmers in the air of our triumphs and heartaches. How can ink on a page, a story written by humans help us find it? It's a mystery, dear readers, but may I suggest, perhaps, River Rising by Athol Dickson?

I can tell I'm already in trouble here. The guys are going to gag at Anne of Green Gables and make cracks about canned testosterone. Some Jane Austin groupie is going to think I've implied Pride and Prejudice lacks nuance and complexity. (Not a bit of it.) Still others are going to tell me they progressed quite differently through the literary world. Oh please, do tell. We want to know the books that have mattered to you, and when, and why. We're writers, after all, and for us this is valuable information. We covet your thoughts.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Roundtable Discussion - How We Got Published

Patti here: On the last Monday of each month, we choose a topic all of us are eager to talk about. This week, we want to encourage you in your journey toward publication by sharing our unique journeys. We don't know each other's stories, so this will be a day of discovery for us, too. I suspect some distinct commonalities and surprising detours to surface. After all, some of us took the scenic route! We've agreed to keep our accounts short, so feel free to ask questions. We'll be here! We are also open to discussing your questions about the publishing process. If we don't have the answer, we'll find someone who does. Don't be shy - if you're wondering something, you can be sure many other people are wondering the same thing!

Patti's Story:
I first heard I should be a writer the year Jesus came into my life at age fourteen. My first novel, Like a Watered Garden, released 34 years later! In between, I wrote Christmas letters, the instructions for a new line of fertilizer, and tons of college papers. I fell 17 quarter units short of a journalism degree (got my M.R.S. degree instead), so I returned to college much later to get my English Literature degree. I taught for four years, but read books about novel writing and attended a fiction writing class during school breaks. It took me months and months to write the first chapter. I sent the chapter to a writers conference for a paid critique. The critiquer suggested I write two more chapters and send them to Bethany House, who eventually rejected the manuscript.

*INTERMISSION for 2 years to recover from injury. No writing! A difficult, yet rich time.

I submitted the completed manuscript to an agent who took it to ICRS. Six houses requested the manuscript and three made offers. Bethany House--hmm--made the best offer, so they published my first three novels.

Kathleen's Story:
I can't remember a time when I didn't want to write. At every stage in my life there was someone - usually a teacher - who encouraged me. But in my little bean, authors were like rock stars. I couldn't imagine ever becoming one of them.

Finally, in 1999, a friend encouraged me to attend the Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference. While I wrung my hands wondering if I should go, my husband helped me pack and pushed me out the door. I arrived at lunchtime just before the opening ceremony, and found myself in a dining hall full of really, really normal looking people. There were hundreds of authors in the room, some of them famous. Not only that, but there were editors and agents, and if authors were like rock stars, well, these guys were the erudite, all-knowing gods and goddesses of the publishing world. They scared me to death.

Except, standing in that room, I couldn't tell who were the editors, the agents, the really famous authors. When I did begin to sort them out, I was struck, more than anything else, by their chewed fingernails, their graying or thinning hair, their struggles with their weight. Their normal-ness. Their friendliness.

I returned every year, and in 2003, I showed a short story to Gayle Roper, who suggested I turn that story into a novel, the first I ever wrote. In 2004, I showed my manuscript to Jeff Dunn, then an editor at David C. Cook. In 2005, he told me Cook was buying my novel, and it now sits on bookstore shelves as To Dance in the Desert.

Yes, the first novel I ever wrote was bought by the first editor to see it. No, things don't happen that way very often. But yes, writers who attend conferences do gain the knowledge and confidence, and make the friendships and connections they need to succeed. That happens all the time.

Bonnie's Story:
I wrote this novel, see, and then, when I was finished, I didn't have a clue what to do with it. I mean, don't these things just sprout legs and walk to their intended destination? Apparently not.

So, I sent to The Writer's Edge. I paid my money and I took my chances. Turns out it was a good move for me. A few months later there was some interest in the novel, then, there was more. Suddenly I had more interested publishers than I knew what to do with. A nice dilemma, but I still didn't know what I was doing.

I e-mailed a smart and well connected friend I trusted and asked "What would you do if you were me?" Her response was, "Girl, you need an agent. Now!" Then she offered to send a letter of introduction to an agent she knew well (actually she knows many agents and she sent me a list to choose from). I picked one I had heard many good things about and my friend sent the e-mail that day. I didn't think much would come of it, but I was grateful to my friend for sticking her neck out for me.

Later that same day, the phone rang. It was the agent. She had read chapter one on my website (you can too, if you like). She said "I wanted to ask to see the whole manuscript- if for nothing else than I wanted to keep reading. That's a rare thing for an agent with a pile of reading."
Geep! I sent her the manuscript (I LOVE e-mail and all it's instant goodness) and wondered what, oh what would happen. She called me the next day and said she would be happy to represent this book.

And Wow, that's when things started to move fast (well, fast is a relative term in publishing). She jumped on and starting pitching the book right away. Zip Zap Kapow! I was amazed. She knew things I didn't even know enough to know I didn't know. Within weeks she had a firm offer on the table. They didn't just want Talking to the Dead, they wanted a second book.

My book landed at David C. Cook. Wow. What an amazing group of people they have assembled there. I have loved every moment working with them. I'm currently working on that second book - due out June 1, 2010.

Sharon's Story:
Looks like mine's the most "scenic" route so far. It was 22 years from the time I began seriously writing, with an earnest view toward publication, until Every Good & Perfect Gift was released in 2008. I did have some articles published during that time, otherwise it was 22 long, frustrating, emotional years. I tucked away several hundred rejection letters, then I finally quit saving them. But like Katy, I went to Mt. Hermon Christian Writers Conference in 2004, met an editor who liked my work, and signed with my fabulous agent, who negotiated my first contract.

Well, not really my first. Not only was my route scenic, it was costly. Very costly. I'm going to be more transparent here than I've ever been publicly before to prevent others from falling into the trap I fell into. In 2000, I received an answer to a query letter for a suspense novel I'd written with the news that I was being offered a contract (by a publishing house that will remain nameless). In that moment I felt like I could fly. After so many years of rejection, finally a contract. I signed (I had no agent at the time) and things got underway. A few months later the top dog himself called and asked if I'd be willing to "invest" in the project to get things moving more quickly. Yes, this is where the audience sees the villain's mustache and cape, and gasps. Unfortunately, I didn't. My husband took $14,000 out of his business to help make my dream come true and we handed it over. Under the terms of the contract, they had 3 years to publish the book. They worked with me right up till the very end of that 3-year period, doing the edits, the cover, etc, in a grand and successful effort to string me along. But by then my husband and I had become very uneasy. I stayed in close communication with the company, hoping . . . hoping.

But one week before the contract expired -- with them still promising the book would be released as scheduled -- I received a letter saying the company had filed bankruptcy. The contract and the money were gone. I know you've heard it before, but take it from me. A legitimate royalty publisher will never ask you for money to publish your book. Never. If they do, run the other way!

It's hard not to be embarrassed by having been so blatantly duped. But I've put that behind me thanks to NavPress, the honest, reputable publisher who beautifully and with integrity produced my two novels released last year. I know my sister authors here at Novel Matters will concur that their publishers have been professional and aboveboard, performing their half of the publishing equation admirably.

Latayne's Story:
One accurate way to describe my path to publication is to say that the Lord's hand has been heavy on me, my entire life. Perhaps in a later post I will describe the command from Him that completely shut down my writing career for years. But His hand also nudged me toward publication initially and repeatedly. I won my first award for writing in the fourth grade when a teacher entered my essay on fire prevention to a contest. Later, in high school, a teacher noticed my poems and entered them into a contest. In fact it was another writing contest that awarded me a college scholarship. I took classes in poetry and magazine article marketing and believed I would work with such short genres all my life.

Leaving Mormonism at age 21, after ten happy years, was a devastating, emotionally-draining experience. I wanted to keep writing but the idea of writing religious materials never entered my mind. I enjoyed a small group Bible study with some other women, and when the author of one of the books we used, Joyce Landorf, came to my hometown I wanted to go to the bookstore where she was signing books, just to tell her how much I appreciated her books.

In a way that could only be described as extraordinary, the packed bookstore suddenly emptied out, leaving only me, the bookstore owner, and the author. I was so bashful and awkward that Joyce began making small talk with me (just to set me at ease, I think), in which it came to light that I had published some magazine articles. I told her that I'd only been out of Mormonism a couple of years and she said, "One of my publishers would love to publish a book by an ex-Mormon!"

I really thought I'd made her uncomfortable and she was just trying politely to get rid of me. But she'd given me her mailing address, so I went home and began writing the book that would become The Mormon Mirage (in longhand, nursing my new baby.) I typed up and sent the first part of it to Joyce, who sent it to Thomas Nelson.

An editor from TN called me with a problem -- if they published the book, they would lose their largest KJV Bible customer: the LDS Church. So in an unprecedented move (in a string of unprecedented events) the head of TN sent it to the head of Zondervan.

And Zondervan published it. Just like that.

Debbie's Story:
I sold the first article I ever submitted to a publisher and never sold another thing for about 16 years. The article was purchased for future publication and the magazine folded before it was published. So I had gotten a taste for writing and I began to write a novel during the nap time at my home day care when my children were young. Eventually, I had a manuscript to take to the Mt. Hermon Writer's Conference, where it received good reviews, but the market was saturated for that genre and I put it away in a drawer. After breast cancer treatments, I 'sold' my personal experience story to Coping With Cancer magazine for copies, and finally saw a byline! I sold a few more articles and personal experience stories (Chicken Soup for the Bride's Soul) for real money because I enjoyed the structure of articles and having a finished product. On the day of my last radiation treatment, my family waited in our packed car to go to Disneyland, and on that road trip I began writing Tuesday Night at the Blue Moon, which helped to land an agent and a publisher. It was published in June 2008. I will add that I work full-time and it's been a wild ride, but it's a life I feel called to.

A footnote to this post about the current state of Christian publishing: Allow us to point you to this insightful article from the people at Publishers Weekly regarding the various publishers and what they are currently able to sell in this tightening market.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Go Ugh

Before we get into the hoopla of the blog post - there are a few things we at Novel Matters are excited to share with you.

In the weeks to come we will have things that will make you smile, things that will get you excited, and things that will make you have to pick your jaw up off the ground. And a couple of things that will require someone with a spatula to scrape you off the ceiling. Boo yay!

Yep, it's starting to get revved up around here - and we are thisclose to announcing major contests on the blog. How major? Could change your life. We strongly suggest you follow the blog, or subscribe so you'll be among the first to hear. Yes, that's all I'm going to say about it for now. Yes, I enjoy torturing you. It's fun.

This is on top of our monthly give-aways (books, gifts, and more!), guest bloggers (folks like Andy McGuire, Sally Stuart, Karen Ball, Jeff Gerke, and more!), and the other surprises we have up our collective sleeves. Fasten your seat belts, faithful reader - things are about to get very, very interesting.

And now we return to our regularly scheduled programming:

Sometimes a voice comes along and rocks the visible universe. Like William Goldman's The Princess Bride, and no one asks why. We just know, somewhere in what Carl Jung would call the collective conscious (or unconscious, depending on his mood), we just get it. No one needs to explain it. We read, and we understand. It's a bestseller because it is wonderful. It's a phenomenon because everyone gets it on a primal basis. The fact that Rob Reiner can come along and make a bang-on fantastic movie out of the book is a total bonus - and helps us to keep the love alive for generations to come.

I finished a novel the other week and my husband asked what I thought of it. "It was good, but I didn't go 'Ugh'".

"Ugh" is the sound of my primal instincts becoming fully awakened -it is the noise of my most basic emotions zinging to the forefront. I laugh, I cry, I yell at the text, I plead, I threaten, I run and hide, I clap my hands. All the right buttons are pushed and somewhere deep inside, I hear the sound of "Ugh". My primal, inner cavewoman is satisfied.

Lest you think that only novels like Anna Karenina should make us go "Ugh", (and they should!), I need to remind us that primal feelings are not pristine feelings. They are messy, strange, difficult feelings and the things that can stir them are often surprising - even to the one being stirred. Oddities can bring out our primal response - like the runaway train that started out as Lynn Truss writing a humble book about punctuation Eats, Shoots & Leaves. There are nearly 600 reviews total of the book on How odd is that? Doesn't make you want to run out and see what all the fuss is about? What made that happen? A particularly virile gang of English teachers out to raise the profile of the comma no matter the cost? Probably no. But there is something about the book that makes us go "Ugh". The fact that our "Ugh" is wrapped in proper punctuation matters not. A connection has been made. My guess on this one is that the primal Ugh here is the "I'm a smarty-pants" feeling.

Sometimes the Ugh comes from the sappy melodrama of a book we "shouldn't" love, but we do. The guilty pleasure we don't talk about, but read over and over again with the covers pulled over our heads. I had two children (a toddler and a newborn) when I read The Nanny Diaries. Oh my, I was Ughing all over the place! Primal emotional chords being pulled every third page. At least that was my excuse for reading it the first time. I confess, when I read it again, it was just for fun - just to let it touch those particular feelings again.

And the number one Ugh we all want to feel rising up from our primordial bellies? Love. Ah, love. Twoo Wuv.

Shaken, not stirred. Unrequited. Passionate. Godly. Brilliant. Consuming. Love. Enter the Twilight series, and The Shack. Both books about love. Both are romance novels. Both stroke the same deep chord, and ask the same question we've been asking since the dawn of time....

Does he love me?

Oh we need to know Does he love me? Whether "he" is God, a lover, a vampire, our dog - if the story asks the question well enough, and if it can take us to a place where we find our answer is, "Yes", then we go. Masses of us, running to the Yes we need so much it hurts. But these books go one better. They don't talk about just any love, just every day love. They talk about impossible love. Girl and vampire. God and humanity. Love that just cannot be, yet is.

And that is the deepest Ugh of all.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Fictional Phenomenon - It's Just Divine

Gene Roddenberry, Hollywood screenwriter and creator of Star Trek, once said, "No one in his right mind gets up in the morning and says, 'I think I'll create a phenomenon today.'" Fiction author Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond, would probably agree with him, yet these two writers created story worlds and characters who have become deeply ingrained in our culture. Will they be considered to be some of the greatest writers of our time? Possibly not, but characters like Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock and James Bond will live on in the imaginations of fans.

Sharon posted about the amazing recent popularity of The Shack and Twilight, and made the observation that perhaps story trumps craft. I would agree and go a step further to suggest that, in addition, story world trumps craft. The proof of this is in the vast proliferation of fan fiction. Fans refuse to leave the richly textured worlds that their favorite authors create--along with the characters--and continue with their own stories in order to perpetuate that story world. The Lord of the Rings would also fall into this phenomenon category. The hippie catch-phrase, Frodo Lives, showed up as early as the 60's and 70's on t-shirts, buttons and graffiti, but even today, the story sells in book form, on DVDs and online gaming programs. Forty years later, fans are still churning out fan fiction starring their favorite characters in Middle Earth.

I began the first book in the Twilight series, just to see what all the hoopla was about, but the teen perspective didn't hold my interest. I get the forbidden allure of the brooding Edward --perhaps Meyer's answer to 'Mr. Darcy' as a vampire. However, I did get a taste of the story world and I can see how it could easily become a brooding character in itself. If I were a teen, I would probably be camping out at Barnes & Noble at midnight waiting for the next installment to arrive.

So, while story world could help explain Twilight's shot to stardom, what about The Shack? I pushed through The Shack in anticipation of the out-of-the-box personifications that had caused a major rift in the Christian community, and I have to say that I think Divine purpose was responsible for its meteoric rise. Does anyone remember a sleeper movie about a dedicated Christian who refused to compromise his ideals, called Chariots of Fire? In a surprise upset in 1981, it took 4 out of 7 academy awards, including Best Picture. (I'll never forget the look of utter shock on Warren Beatty's face when Reds lost the Oscar.) Now, I only compare the two to illustrate my belief that God is in control, because Chariots was extremely well done. It had stiff competition, just like The Shack, but the story was divinely inspired, rising to the top like cream over big-budget movies such as On Golden Pond, Reds and Raiders of the Lost Ark. It was found winsome and worthy in the eyes of the Academy judges, and had something to say at a time when we desperately needed to hear it. There is no way to predict such divine phenomenon.

Monday, February 16, 2009

We'd like to welcome and thank some new followers: Loren, Brenda, Ty, LL Hargrove, Krishna Chaitanya, Tracy, Stina Rose, Grace Bridges, Tracy Ruckman, Steve Grove, Kathi Macias, Tiffany Stockton, Mott, Don Thomas, Cherri, Macromab, Carla Gade, Susan Storm Smith, Kathleen Y'Barbo, Beecher M, Pen & Inklings, Laura Davis, Brenna, Kellie, Cynthia Ruchti, Lipstick & Laundry, and blueeyedchic. We look forward to your comments.

The Making of a Phenomenon

Every few years a phenomenal work of film or literature comes along to the great applause of consumers. There are two such works in the publishing world today: The Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer, and The Shack by William Paul Young.

The Shack has sold nearly 4 million books since its release last year, while the Twilight series was the biggest bestseller of '08, selling 40 million books worldwide. The four books of the series held the top four spots on the '08 USA Today year-end bestseller list, the first time a single author has accomplished such a feat. Editor Megan Tingley said as she read Meyer's manuscript she knew she "...had a future best-seller in her hands." Meyer was given a $750,000 advance for her debut novel, and I'm willing to bet a lot of money went into the marketing and promotions of Twilight.

Theology aside in both cases, neither Twilight nor The Shack are particularly well-written books. The Shack, a self-published, self-promoted book, would clearly benefit from the help of a good editor. Twilight received mixed reviews for its literary quality. "Natalie Pompillo of the Philadelphia Inquirer said Meyer "loves adverbs, adjectives and any word that can stretch out a sentence." This in stark contrast to Mark Twain who said, "If you catch an adjective, kill it."

And yet, The Shack is such a phenomenon that Patrick O'Hannigan has written a book called The Shack Phenomenon! What makes books of less than stellar quality soar to such heights? If it's clearly not the quality, it must be that STORY trumps CRAFT. And, mostly, I get that. I can stay with a not-so-perfectly-written novel if the story grabs me, easier than I can stay with a novel that uses the English language superbly but doesn't engage STORY to its fullest effect.

But how does such phenomenal popularity happen in the first place? The Twilight series has a huge online fan community that has greatly contributed to its cult-like popularity and success. The Shack began to spread by word of mouth, and then by its controversy. The Internet has certainly changed the way we get the word out, but can any good story generate the buzz necessary to come even close to these staggering heights? If so, how does it get started?

Finally, I wonder, are one or either of these hugely successful books destined to find a place among best-loved literature for years to come? Or are they a comet of success -- blazing hot one moment, then gone? I'd love to hear your opinion.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Sharing the Love

What a delightful surprise that so many people contributed to the discussion on Sally Stuart's new book, Christian Writers' Market Guide 2009.

How did we randomly choose the winner? Before writing the column, I "purposed in my heart" to choose the fourth, non-NovelMatters commenter.

And thus, it is Susan Storm Smith who will receive the book! Susan, would you please tell us a little bit more about yourself and how you plan to use the book? And then please use the "contact" function on the site to let us know a mailing address to which to send the book.

We are going into a holiday weekend where "love is in the air." I'm not a fan of romance novels -- give me either blood and guts murder mysteries, or exquisitely-written character studies.

I believe one of the most profound descriptions of love I ever read was Toni Morrison's, in Beloved:

"She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in the right order. It's good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind."

In trying to analyze what makes this so moving and effective, some of its qualities are elusive.  For instance, with the quote alone (which appears at the end of the book), one cannot understand the context of the identity of the speaker nor the events that led up to the statement.

On the other hand, it is universally true.  From ancient times people have known the destructive power of personal disorder. In fact, most of ancient Egyptian ritual and much of ordinary daily life for millennia focused on keeping a concept known as chaos at bay, and elevating the principle of ma'at, or order.  In the Old Testament, one of the most overt actions of God against the enemies of His people was to send His terror ahead of them, throwing the foe into confusion.

Morrison's simple, unembellished and even conversational description speaks of the power of a relationship -- indeed, of a person in a relationship -- to be able to take the condition of scatteredness in another and make order of it. While the body may be indeed as the apostle Paul described as wasting away, the mind persists. In such a gathering action of other-centered love, the enduring part of us is at least temporally saved.

What is your favorite description of love from a novel?

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Essentials for Novel Writing

What’s something that an aspiring Christian fiction writer can’t do without?

I wanted to say, underwear and a good reputation, but I believe you readers want to know about a resource or tool you may not have considered. (I’m pretty sure you already would consider a Bible, a computer, Internet access and other things as essential too. But we all know that.)

You may not know about the incredibly useful Christian Writers’ Market Guide 2009 by Sally E. Stuart. In fact, we at NovelMatters think so highly of it, we are going to give a free copy to a randomly-selected one of you who post a comment on this post!

What makes the Guide so useful? First of all, it excludes all book and magazine markets that don’t apply to your writing career as a writer of Christian fiction. Another thing that makes it incredibly useful is that it comes with a CD of its contents – which means you can search for important details. And you can check on the author’s blog for updates.

The Guide has done a lot of the work for you. For instance, there are 52 publishers who want books on church management. (Who knew?) But as you will want to know, there’s a list of book publishers who are in the market for literary fiction with Christian themes. In fact, 62 of them. 

And I loved just the sound of some of the literary fiction book publishers: Quintessential, Ravenhawk, Salt Works, Invisible College Press.

This book is a must-have for marketing your fiction. So, readers, what else do you consider essential to writing and/or marketing a novel?

Monday, February 9, 2009

i found my voice in emails, love and anger

I don't think I have ever written a poem using lower-case first-person pronouns (i thank you God)*.

If I did, I'll never admit it. As it is, my poetry leans toward the just awful. I don't need to broadcast my ineptitude by making the the beginner's mistake of trying to be e.e. cummings.

Not that I don't understand the impulse: cummings was my high school crush. To this day, when I read his "everything which is natural which is infinite which is yes*," I am so overcome by his breathless extravagance, I feel that a rush of wind has blown open my windows and caught me by surprise.

Or something.

Whatever that feeling is, I want to give it to my readers. Or I want to give them Walter Wangerin Jr.'s grandeur. Or Marilynne Robinson's gentle intelligence. But I can't. When I try, I only embarrass myself.

The lower-case cummings himself offered me the cure, and the challenge, when he said:
To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.
What an act of faith it takes to be nobody but myself. To do that, I have to trust the God who made me, and trust him in the face of the most distressing limitations of energy, wisdom, and creativity. I have to believe that I am fearfully and wonderfully made, and since he looked at what he made and said, "It is very good," then the thing that makes me unique must be a good thing.

Wow. Who'd have guessed?

But I still have a problem. I have fallen in love with so many authors, and I have swallowed their voices whole. How do I know whether the voice that emerges from me is my own voice, or a bad imitation of theirs?

Emails have helped. When I shoot off a note to my friend, it's generally me talking, especially if the friend is one I've known for a long time, one I feel comfortable with, one who would answer with a rolly-eyed emoticon if I said anything that sounded false or pretentious.

Anger helps. If I write about something that makes me so angry the words shoot out my fingers, so angry I spit lightning onto the page ...well, if I spit fast enough, it's probably my own lightning I'm spitting.

Love helps, but I must be cautious with love. Nothing so profoundly inspires imitation. Fall head over heals for a lover, a dog or a sunset, and I'll be quoting Shakespeare, cummings, Billy Crystal and John Denver, all in the same paragraph.

Love is the thing that impels me to truly examine things. What is it - specifically - I love about this person, this object, this situation? I write down every answer I can think of, and then reject all answers that seem familiar or commonplace. If I'm not left with one or two that are mine alone, I try again.

What a surprise. In writing, as in all of life, love is the thing that demands eyes of our own to see, and ears of our own to hear.

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)*

*Poetry snippets from i thank you God for most this amazing by e.e. cummings

Friday, February 6, 2009

Loose Ends Require Good Listening Skills

Debbie and Bonnie have done an amazing job talking about those pesky loose threads at the end of a story. Writers are admonished to write tantalizing openings to their stories, but a strong beginning only sells the first book. A satisfying ending builds reader loyalty.

Endings are extremely important.

Objective readers can help you develop your writing rhythm, knowing when to quick step past a dangling thread or to pause to tie a lovely bow, but only if you listen.

Here's a tip:
Mothers are not objective readers.

Start with the members of your critique group, and if you don't have a critique group, fast and pray until God sends incredibly gifted and fussy writers your way! My critique group is commited to my success, so they happily bracket wordy passages to delete and laugh heartily at my confusing descriptions. And, of course, they let me know if an ending leaves them feeling empty. This makes a critique group worth their weight in chocolate. Endulge them.

And listen to your editor. They are not three-eyed ogres out to ruin your art. Your success is their resume. You've already won them over by your voice and craft. Now, let them use their broad exposure to literature to advise you in writing a satisfying ending. There's always room for discussion and disagreement, but you won't know if you don't listen.

I know this to be true. I added 50 pages to the end of my first book at my editor's suggestion. She was so right.

And just a thought: The most satisfying endings offer hope of a continuing story. At the end of Gap Creek, Julie and Hank walk toward home under a burgeoning sky and a baby on the way. In
Levi's Will, Dale Cramer manages to bring hope out of a funeral when a shunned son reconnects with his high God and the coming of a buried spring. And Sara Gruen sets an old man free to join the circus in Water for Elephants.

I'm hungry to read more of each of these writers . . . thanks to their endings.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Which Ends to Tie?

We're talking about loose ends this week - which ones belong in a novel and which ones must be snipped, tied, and put into place.

No quick answers here. There is no clear template to apply (thank heavens!), which dictates which elements of a story must be tidied up, and which are allowed to flow on, drift toward a yet unwritten future.

But how can you decide?

It helps to understand how words work.

Words move us. The communication of ideas happens most effectively when multiple senses are employed in the reading of words. We read a phrase:

She washed berries by the handful.

And it sends a picture - no, not a picture, but a multitude of pictures nearly simultaneously - until a favorite picture takes precedence.

We picture "she"
Not any "she". Our "she". The best "she" for us. The one we want to picture.

We sift through our ideas, our notions of "she".

We settle on the one we want her to be.

We picture "berries"

Our favorite - red and perfect.

Or exotic and wild.

I see in my mind the ideal berry. I see what "berry" means to me. I imagine what it means to you.

. . .and "handful"

Two full hands, or one? Rough or smooth. Stained or wet.

. . .and "washed".

. . . from a garden hose or a kitchen sink.

We settle on one aspect of the image, then another, rapidly viewing, discarding and deciding on components of the scene until our mind forms a complete whole. The process takes milli-seconds.

This is why the question of loose threads is difficult. Because irresistible fiction becomes a nearly endless procession of deeply personal images in the minds of each reader.

We take the words on the page and recreate their meaning in our minds - and the images we form become the truth about the book. They become the book's meaning.

The author then, must think about the best possibilities the best collection of ideas to wrap up, complete and finish off in the book - and then must consider which threads to leave loose, which elements of the story to leave untamed in order to best serve the story and the reader.

It's not a crap shoot - it's not a guess. It is instead the writer's artful dancing with the reader she loves - they dance to the music of the story.

We do the same thing with a story - when we read, we begin to "own" the story. We recreate it in our minds. And we build expectations in our mind about what we need to know (to be told) and what we already know (want left latent in the story). What we want to have happen, and what we are willing to let go of.

Loose thread should never be an excuse for not finishing a story - rather they will, by the images they create, the feelings they evoke, reveal themselves to us - but only if we dance to the music long enough to learn all the steps.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Tying up Loose Ends

I once had an interesting conversation with an editor at a writer's conference regarding the reluctance of some publishers to purchase manuscripts that don't tie up all the loose ends by the last page--books whose theology perhaps isn't explicit enough or that leave the final interpretation to the reader. Their mission statements charged the publishers to clearly communicate the gospel, and they rightly measured each submission against this criteria.

I polled the web sites of the major publishing houses and found a wide spectrum of mission statements. Some were very general and focused on well written books that incorporate Christian values and others specifically mentioned pointing the reader to Christ. All of the mission statements communicated a desire to responsibly uphold the high calling entrusted to them.

So, what is the author's responsibility to communicate the message of the gospel? Does the author lead the reader to a carefully crafted conclusion with no loose ends, or enter into a trust agreement that the Spirit will work through the art?

I tend to lean toward trust, I think. All of our loose ends in life are not tied up--sometimes, not even in our lifetimes. To say to the reader that they could be seems incredibly patronizing, and we do not want to appear false. But life is a journey, and we can impress on the reader that there is hope in the One who travels with us in spite of our loose ends.