Monday, June 29, 2009

Similes are like Metaphors...

I've been thinking a lot lately about metaphors and similes. (That's what authors do when they're supposed to be paying close attention to what others are saying to them, and what earns us the reputation of not listening. We do listen, but sometimes not to the voices outside our heads.)

You may remember from your high school English classes that both similes and metaphors compare two concepts. A simile usually employs a word such as "like" or "as" (as in, "Her crochet hook dipped like a frantic, starving duck into the tangled lake of thread in her lap"); whereas a metaphor makes the comparison with the "like" or "as" not stated, but implied.

Apparently these literary devices are something God really likes, the way His mind works. His Holy Spirit inspired the writers of the Bible to use them often. Almost all the parables Jesus told were similes: The kingdom of God is like yeast, for instance.

But similes are more difficult for me. God is love. I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

Maybe the challenge of these literary devices is why they delight us so. Recently I read (actually listened to the audio of) a book called I Was Amelia Earhart by Jane Mendelsohn. Since most people know of Amelia Earhart and her mysterious and unsolved last flight, many expectations come along with her book. Is it an autobiography? If so, from what point of her life? Why the "was"?

So imagine the drama, the anticipation, when the first sentence of the book is, "The sky is flesh."

That compelling, jarring metaphor sets the tone for the rest of this well-written and provocative book.

How about you? What is the most memorable metaphor or simile you have read recently?

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Saturday Night at the Movies

Welcome to the monthly feature here on Novel Matters: Saturday Night at the Movies. In celebration of the release of Talking to the Dead, we present, for your viewing pleasure, the book trailer to Talking to the Dead!
(Pssst, it's not a scary book - I promise!)

Friday, June 26, 2009

Pass the Locusts

You'll remember, a few weeks ago we announced that one reader who commented on a Novel Matters post in the month of June would win a copy of Bonnie Grove's new critically acclaimed novel, Talking To the Dead. We now have a winner, and that very lucky person is...

Jeannie Campbell! Jeannie, please email us, at novelmatters at gmail dot com, and let us know where to send your book.
Those who believe they believe in God, but without passion in their heart, without anguish of mind, without uncertainty, without doubt, and even at times without despair, believe only in the idea of God, and not in God himself. ~Unamuno
That's the beasty hard thing about writing fiction. It's our job to make sure you believe in God himself. That goes for Stephen King, and for James Patterson, and for Anne Rice before and after she wrote Christ the Lord. A writer may never mention the name of God, may not even believe in God, but she has to make us feel God, or she hasn't written a story.

We've all become pale half-humans in order to get on in this world. If that seems an overstatement, imagine Isaiah in the grocery checkout, spouting off about materialism and gluttony and the poor. Think of Elijah at the office, whining that everything is hopeless, his life not worth living. Care to guess how John the Baptist might do in a job interview, picking insect legs from between his teeth?

Too much life in all of them. Nowadays we've learned to tone it down.

But there is a price to pay. How often do you look at your own children and fail to see miracles? How often do you pray nice prayers while your truest questions ooze beneath the surface like a flood in the basement? (Those questions, the anguish, uncertainty and doubt are all very biblical, you know. Read the Psalms.)

We need our story-tellers. We have to get the truth back.

I think that's why great writers sometimes end up turning out contrived little stories about a god they understand - which is no God at all. They've rushed things. They've come toned-down to the work. They need to find their inner prophets, once again.

I'm open to disagreement, by the way. Do you agree with Unamuno's statement above, and with my thoughts, or do you see things differently? If you're a writer, please share your best method for finding your inner prophet.


Pass the locusts, please.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Is it me?

I'm nearly ill.


How could this happen?

She's been my favorite author for nearly 20 years. I buy her hardcover releases without flinching. Something delicious lies within, and I'm willing to see sparks fly from my credit card to partake.

I once drove 600 miles to attend a conference--dragging 2 friends along--where the author read from her latest book. I mouthed the words as she read.

I wrangled a picture with her. It stands with my collection of her complete works, even though I am smiling like an idiot in an incredibly ugly sweater I had no business wearing.

I aspire to be as authentic, as poetic, as tender with my reader as she is.


This is too sad.

I'm reading her latest. And no, I'm not telling who she is. She's earned the right to slip just this once. At least, I hope it's just this once.

What am I grousing about? Well, she's using italics like they ran a sale at the dollar store. And they don't make sense. She writes in present tense, which I find appealing, immediate, surprising. BUT she takes one small step forward in her story only to take five steps back in a flashback. Aack! I'm getting motion sickness with all the back and forth. Every chapter, several times each. And so much introspection. Pleeease. And get this, her main character is a writer who can't write after the death of her husband.

Hey howdy!

Or is it me? Am I so obsessive about the craft of writing that I can't enjoy a story that is structured differently or strays from the sacred cows of writing craft? Has being a writer ruined me as a reader?

Is that a price I'm willing to pay?

Am I alone? Do you find yourself editing published works as you read? Are we too hard on the writers out there? Do we criticize the speck in someone else's writing to ignore the plank in our own?


Monday, June 22, 2009

Audience-With-An-Agent Contest

We are so excited about our exclusive Audience-with-an Agent contest, found only here at Novel Matters. We are extremely grateful to our awesome agents, Janet Grant and Wendy Lawton of Books & Such Agency, for their willingness to review the winning manuscripts, and perhaps offer representation to the author. We hope you realize what an opportunity this is, and that you'll submit your entries on or before July 31.
Books & Such Literary Agency is truly one of the premier agencies in the industry. The six of us are represented by either Janet or Wendy, and I know I can speak for all of us when I say how blessed we are to be a part of the B&S family. Representation is so important in this current, ever-changing world of publishing, but signing with an agent is almost as difficult as landing a publishing contract. Getting an agent to read your manuscript among the thousands of submissions they receive is a daunting task.
That's why we're so thrilled to offer a leg up to the readers of this blog. We will carefully evaluate each submission, then pass on the winning entries to Wendy Lawton to review this fall. We will repeat this contest in the spring and pass on the winning entries to Janet Grant. This really is a remarkable opportunity. We hope you'll take advantage of it. Click on our Promotions tab, then carefully read and follow the contest guidelines. We look forward to reading your submissions.

Literary agents are workhorses, and if you're going to plow your way into publishing, life is a lot easier with someone pulling the plow. That wasn't the most flattering metaphor for my lovely agent, Janet, but she is a wonder.

She took my first manuscript, Like a Watered Garden, to ICRS when I had no idea what an ICRS was. Out on the floor, it's a trade show for retail folks to purchase faith-based items for their stores. Behind the scenes, agents are meeting with editors on a t-i-g-h-t, tight schedule, promoting their clients' book projects.

Janet presented Like a Watered Garden to at least six publishing houses, ones she knew were looking for a project like mine. She didn't waste anyone's time knocking on doors that didn't want contemporary women's fiction. She didn't have to. She spends all year with her ear to the ground. She knows the biz a million times better than I ever will. And that's why you want to polish that manuscript up until it sparkles and send it into the contest. This kind of opportunity is rare indeed!

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 out some feelers. 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 didn't know what I was doing.

I e-mailed a friend and asked "What would you do if you were me?" Her response was, "Girl, you need an agent. Now!" She offered to send a letter of introduction to an agent she knew well and I picked one I had heard many good things about. Later that same day, the phone rang. It was the agent. She had read chapter one on my website (You can read chapter one of Talking to the Dead there under the "fiction" tab if you like), and asked for the full ms. I sent it.

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.

Listen, I don't know much. I'm so new. I only know what happened to me (is happening). But from my story, I think you can see that I am pro agent. I've heard writer's ask "Should I get an agent?" My answer is, "I don't know. But I know that it has made all the difference for me. I'm a writer, not a business person. I don't have the ins agents have. I don't know the industry the way an agent does. If you do, then you might not need one, but think about this: Every huge, big name author you can think of - go ahead think of one. Yep. He has an agent. Yeah, her too. That huge name author, oh ya, she has an agent too. All of them do. Why is that? Because agents can do the job the writer can't do for herself. And with an agent you have an expert in your corner - a team member

working WITH you and FOR you.

You would think that someone who had published books with major Christian publishing companies wouldn't need an agent for, say, her fourteenth book, right? I mean, I had done all right, apparently, on my own.

But I changed genres. With one exception, all my books had been non-fiction. True, they had become increasingly more "literary" in terms of technique (more narration as opposed to previous straight exposition; more analogies, playing with words, etc.) But writing a novel is a whole 'nother country. It was like starting over. Maybe even worse than starting over because other writers agree with me that it's hard to switch from the structure and strictures of non-fiction to the net-less high wire of storytelling. And marketing a fiction book -- though I had some connections, I didn't want to take time away from the actual writing process (and my life) to do the research and legwork.

If someone had told me about a contest such as NovelMatters offers, I'd be mentally camped out on its doorstep, polishing my proposal till it shone and submitting it early enough so it didn't get lost in the last-minute shuffle.

The moment I sold my first Novel, I turned around and started looking for an agent.

Why did I want one? Because I am a writer, not... well, not an agent. I'm not in close contact with all of the editors of all of the houses, I don't know all the changes that have taken place this week that affect my career. I certainly don't know how to read and negotiate a contract. And you know? I don't want to spend my time learning this stuff. I'm a writer, remember? It makes so much more sense to find a professional like Janet Grant to do this stuff for me.

That's why I'm so proud that we're offering this audience with our big shot agents to you. We're really offering a hand up in your career.

We're waiting for your manuscript! We won't bite and we won't tell you your 'baby' is ugly. As writers, we all start at 'Go' and work our way around the industry board, but we move along faster with the help of a good agent.

Agents know things. They know which house is looking for your type of manuscript and whether it's a good match. Often they know about changes at publishing houses before talk has even begun around the water cooler. They keep us from making big mistakes, sometimes potentially career-ending ones. They are the professionals that make us look good.

Your book may be calling you from the drawer or file cabinet where you've stashed it. So polish it up, and if it fits into the guidelines of our contest, send it in! If it doesn't, I encourage you to find out which agents represent other authors who write in your genre. Visit the agency websites, check them out in Sally Stuart's Christian Writer's Market Guide, follow their submission guidelines, and follow through today.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Guest Blogger Jeff Gerke: Cardboard Characters a Problem?

Welcome back, Jeff! Here's part II of Jeff's blog about plotting and character development. Last time, he helped writers with soundly developed characters find their story. Today, for those of you who are story-firsters, Jeff offers pointers on rounding out your characters. It seems Jeff understands your dilemma from a personal experience.
For those who missed Jeff last Friday, you really must scroll down and read his post. He knows what he's talking about. He has experience as an editor for the biggest houses in CBA, writes fiction, & heads a publishing house. All that & a new papa too!

Character Creation for the Plot-First Novelist arose out of a crisis in my own fiction writing.

I had this sinking feeling that I didn't really know what I was doing with my characters. I felt that my characters ought to be more...something...than how they were coming out in my stories. But I didn't know what to do about it so I just let them be.

Guess what the #1 critical comment was on those early stories? Somewhat shallow characters. The reviewers were actually nicer than I thought I deserved. I thought I'd used stereotypes and cardboard cutouts.

So began my quest to figure out how to create richer, more realistic characters for my novels. I hit the bookstore and tried multiple books on character creation. They were all very hard for me--like the calculus I mentioned last time--and I never felt like I'd figured anything out about my story cast, even after all that work.

When it came time to decide what my next fiction trilogy should be, I decided to set a challenge before myself: Could I write a character-driven series with an ensemble cast?

In order to do that, I knew I needed to radically improve my character-creation abilities. But that was kind of the whole point. I wanted to make myself learn it, so I committed to doing this series. Since the writing books didn't help me, I decided I'd better create a system of my own.

In the absence of an innate understanding of characters and personalities, I turned to psychology books. I eventually discovered Please Understand Me II by David Keirsey. Keirsey is a proponent of the Myers-Briggs teachings on temperaments.

The premise is that there are only 16 main personality types on the earth. In his book he identifies them very well, in terms of what they're like, how they talk, what jobs they gravitate toward, how they are as spouses and parents, what temperament they tend to marry, etc.

It's the kind of hard facts that a plot guy like me could wrap his brain around.

But it instantly occurred to me that characters have to be more than just their temperament. Otherwise I would be a clone to the other 375 million people who shared my temperament, and I knew that wasn't true. So, what accounts for the differences in people beyond their core temperament?

I began thinking about the obvious: gender, age, physical appearance, ethnicity, educational background, intelligence, etc. Then the not so obvious: birth order, love language, spiritual gift, major life events, disabilities, and more.

By the time I was through, I'd created a system that began with a core temperament but then added layer after layer of specificity that further defined the character and made him or her different from every other person--even those with the same temperament.

The centerpiece of the system was the formation of the character's inner journey, or character arc. The best fiction, in my opinion, is that in which someone changes. Indeed, you might say that fiction is about change. I also liked the inner journey part of character creation because it felt a bit like plot creation. Familiar terrain.

The system culminates in a monologue scene in which the person is presented in the penultimate setting for that character, doing and saying things that reveal who this character is--and done and said in this character's characteristic way. Writing that monologue is like graduation. When it's done, the character is fully baked. And the monologue scene itself is actually something you can adapt to introduce the character the first time you bring him onstage.

After using that system for the new trilogy of novels--and no longer hearing from critics that my characters were flat (I heard the opposite, actually)--I realized I was onto something. Something that might help other writers who are character-challenged.

Character Creation for the Plot-First Novelist is exactly the system I use to create my own characters. It's a system of questions that you answer in the form provided. Then you summarize each section and synthesize the character as he or she exists so far.

At the end of taking a character through the system, you will utterly know this person, love (or love to despise) this person, and be champing at the bit to bring this person onstage.


Changing gears now, let's look at how I created How To Find Your Story and what it entails.

Plot creation comes easily to me, as I've said. But I'm a teacher, which means I enjoy explaining to eager learners anything I happen to know about. I also realize that at least half the novelists out there (and I suspect it's more like two-thirds) are character-first novelists. They create amazing characters but have little for these interesting people to do.

If I could create a system that allowed character-first novelists to create gripping plots that featured their terrific characters, I might stand to help a lot of people.

So I sat down to design what I was originally calling Plot-Creation for the Character-First Novelist, but which eventually became How To Find Your Story.

The key discovery I made was that the best way to build a plot was to grow it out of character.

I mentioned earlier that the creation of a solid inner journey for a character feels like plot work. I realized that, in truth, a main character's inner journey actually is 75% of a good plot for a novel. When I realized I could do this plot creation system from a starting point of character, I knew I was onto something that all those character-firsters could understand.

So the main character's inner journey becomes the first major component of plot in How To Find Your Story. The major movements of this character arc constitute the internal plot, if you will. What was left was to form an external structure that amplified this inner journey and gave it a stage upon which to play.

How To Find Your Story includes interactive discussions of genre, era, theme, backdrop, antagonist, and more. But the major pieces are the inner journey and the outer journey, which I talk about in terms of three act structure.

I have been so gratified to hear comments like Jeannie Campbell's on last week's blog: "I'm doubt. Jeff's books are amazing... I had a plot developed out of my character's intrinsic goals before I even knew what I was looking at!"

That's what I'm after: plot developing out of character. With that kind of system, character-first novelists are on familiar ground from the word Go, and they come up with page-turning, character-driven plots that satisfy the reader, feature the characters beautifully, and are certain to achieve what the author wanted to do with the story.

Both How To Find Your Story and Character Creation for the Plot-First Novelist consist of two main files: instructions and template. The template is a Word document that is a color-coded table. On the left are questions and on the right are blanks for your answers. This is the key piece of each system, and you go through it once for each story or character you want to develop. The other piece is a PDF document that expounds upon what to think about as you fill out the template.

When I teach the continuing fiction track at writers' conferences, I now use this system. First I have the class go through an abbreviated version of Character Creation for the Plot-First Novelist--right there in class--and then we take that character and build a plot around her using a scaled-down version of How To Find Your Story. It's been very helpful for many novelists, both those who are still aspiring and those who are multiply published.

To purchase Jeff's ebooks go here:

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

What do our characters reveal about us?

We'd like to welcome our new followers. Please join in on the conversations. We love hearing from you.
Don't forget our exclusive Audience With an Agent Contest. Agent Wendy Lawton of Books & Such will read the winning entry. Submission guidelines are under our Promotions tab. Please read and follow the guidelines carefully.
A good friend is visiting for a couple of days while my husband is out of the country on a missions trip. Gerri and I have been close friends for a quarter of a century. Our kids have been good friends most of their lives, and now our grandkids are good friends. As much as we enjoy each other's friendship, you couldn't find two people more different than Gerri and I. She's a sanguine-choleric, oozing confidence, while I'm a melancholy through and through.
One of our more pronounced differences is that Gerri, a respected Bible teacher in our circles, almost exclusively reads non-fiction, while I, of course, am a novelist. I finally persuaded her to read Lying on Sunday, and tonight we had a most interesting conversation about her take on the book (which she confesses has become like dessert at the end of the day). Well then.
On Monday, Katy asked, "What lengths will a writer go to to write great dialogue?" To take it a step further, what does that dialogue--and characterization and theme--reveal about the writer? According to my friend, plenty.
She said to me, "You're a vault, Sharon. No one knows the real you, because you have the key well hidden. But you express your deepest feelings, elequently I might add, in your writing. And I'm amazed because I've known you for 25 years, and I've never known you to express your feelings the way you do through your characters. But make no mistake about it, they're your feelings." She went on to say an author has to be in touch with her own feelings in a finer way than she lets anyone know, for she couldn't possibly know her characters so well if she didn't know herself to the same degree.
Having done a good deal of teaching on the four personality types: sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic and melancholy, Gerri said, "Reading your novel has helped me understand how a melancholy--a personality type whose language I don't even speak--thinks. (Kind of tough since she's been married to a melancholy for 40 years.) When I pick up Lying on Sunday I'm in Abbie's world. I see that her biggest problem is that she could never measure up to her own expectations--let alone her husband's or God's. Because of your novel I have a greater understanding of family and friends whose personality types are so different from mine. I've learned more about you through the pages of this book, than through hours of conversation."
The thing she said that meant the most to me was that women will be touched by this story; that it will help them through some difficult situations. Honestly, I couldn't hope for a greater result for my efforts. I believe it's the ministry God has given me, the way Philippians 2:13 is worked out in my life: "For it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose."
I wonder, what fictional character, most unlike you, has helped you learn more about the people around you--or even yourself?

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Things We Say

Elizabeth McKenzie where are you? We've still got two copies of Zora and Nicky by Claudia Mair Burney, just for you! Please, oh please send us your address! And don't forget, dear readers, that this month we will be giving away a copy of Talking to the Dead by our own Bonnie Grove. Leave a comment, and we'll enter you into the drawing. If you have recently started following us, we at Novel Matters want you to know that we are thrilled to have your company, and we hope you will chime in on the stimulating discussions that take place in our comments.

What lengths will a writer go to to write great dialog? I once took a course from T. Davis Bunn, in which he revealed that he had once frequented coffee shops with a voice-activated recorder tucked into his pocket. Later, he transcribed the overheard conversations, so he could study the rhythm and pattern of speech.

All to improve his writing, you see.

I ended up buying myself a recorder after that, but never had the nerve to use it the way he did. I have, however, been known to take some very, very detailed notes in church.

When I wrote To Dance in the Desert, I watched Hugh Grant movies to think through the way two of my characters would talk. I wish I'd known my friend, the British poet Mandy Sutter at the time. If I had, Tom and Jane might have, from time to time, admitted that they were "chuffed" to hear some bit of good news. If they were really happy, they might have been "dead chuffed," and if they were delirious, they might have been "chuffed to little mint balls." Talk like that tempts me to write another British character.

I hope it's no surprise that I love language. I'll bet you do, too. You probably have a whole lexicon of funny sayings you were raised with that you've passed on as a (perhaps dubious) legacy to your children.

I grew up hearing about loud noises and sudden appearances of quiet folks who "scared the piewadden" out of others. Then one day years ago, I'd dropped in to pick my son up from third grade, when I heard a little girl demand, "Alex! What's a piewadden?"

The answer? I haven't the slightest, though it seems to be a substance that bursts out of frightened people.

I have on my desk a lovely book titled Informal English by Jeffrey Kacirk. I'm not certain it's much use when determining what a particular character, with a particular background would say in a given situation, but it's still great fun for browsing.

You do browse dictionaries for fun, right?

Here are a few that I like:

box of teeth: an accordion.

happifying: making happy.

Mississippi marbles: dice.

Jump in, please. Tell us the turns of phrases you hold nearest your heart.

We'd love to hear what flips your switch.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Guest Blogger Jeff Gerke: Plot-first or Character-first?

We invited Jeff to blog today and next Friday because he asked us to test drive a plotting tool he developed for fiction writers a while back. I like what Katy said about her experience with Jeff's book: "It's like having a brilliant editor at your elbow for the whole process." Curious? You should be. Jeff brings years of experience as an editor, novelist, and publisher to your elbow too.

I believe there are two kinds of novelists in our world. Of course every writer is an individual and no one writes entirely like anyone else. But when you break it all down into its simplest elements, I think you can put every novelist into one of two groups.

You're either a character-first novelist or a plot-first novelist.

A character-first novelist has character ideas all day long. Interesting people populate this writer's imagination. This writer is constantly coming up with cool issues and fears and backstory for fascinating story people. This kind of novelist will have more heroes and best friends and mysterious women in black than she has stories to put them in.

A plot-first novelist, on the other hand, gets story ideas like crazy. Ooh, this guy could totally be a double agent and that's why he's here with the bomb before the president makes his speech that starts the war! Plot-first novelists create fascinating stories and nail-biting plots that make their character-first brethren's minds spin.

The problem with being a plot-first novelist is that most of her characters are more like furniture than people. They don't have real personalities. Typical characters in these writers' books are "the girl" and "the friend" and "the bad guy," which is to say they're basically just more plot elements. They're in the story so that when the truck blows up and they're killed, it gives the hero a reason to go on his rampage.

The problem with being a character-first novelist is that her books are filled with beautifully drawn, realistic characters--who sit around doing nothing. We get manuscripts full of exquisite dialogue and unforgettable story people, but then we fall asleep because there is no story for these interesting people to live out.

A great novel has both strong characters and a strong plot. But how do you do both if you are, like most novelists, naturally better at the one and weaker at the other?

The solution is twofold. First, you have to dedicate yourself to doing the very hard and counterintuitive work it will take to produce excellence in the area you're not strong in.

Plot-first novelists draw shallow characters partially because they don't think they're important but also because it almost hurts mentally to put in that work. It's like making yourself do a semester of calculus if you're terrible at math. It's the same with character-first novelists trying to come up with good stories. It's so much easier just to do one more exploration of a relationship than it is to figure out three-act structure.

So the first thing needed is to agree with yourself to do the work to get better at what you're weak at. Until you decide that crafting a great character is just as important as writing the scene in which the plane crashes, you're never going to do it. Until you decide that it really is vital to give your story a satisfying structure, you'll simply skip it. Your novels will all remain lopsided and defective. And probably unpublishable.

The second thing you need to do is learn how to get better at the thing you're weak at. There are many books and electronic writer's helps tools that can help you. I have developed two myself: one for character creation and one for plot creation. These are the tools I use in my own writing, and I know they can help you.

Next Friday, I'll summarize Character Creation for the Plot-First Novelist and How To Find Your Story, but for now it's enough that you 1) recognize whether you're a plot-firster or a character-firster and 2) commit to doing what it will take to strengthen your skill in the area where you're naturally weak.

By the way, some writers say they are setting-first novelists. I know what they mean, but usually you find out that the setting is, to them, really more like a character. Like Narnia or Middle-Earth or Avonlea. These people are usually character-firsters. Others tell me they're murder-first novelists, but these are really plot-firsters who begin with that element of plot and build the story from there.

You can purchase Jeff's e-books mentioned in this blog at

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

It's Just a Name...

Most of my writing career, I’ve published non-fiction. Once I wrote a short article about a woman who I’ll now call Gertie McGuiness, who lived next door to me when I was growing up. After I was married, I read a death announcement that put me into tears. I read the names of childhood playmates who were going to be pallbearers for Gertie McGuiness, other relatives I recognized. My husband and I rushed to the visitation at the funeral home – me sobbing, him holding me by the elbow.

We entered a crowded room of mourners and then – Gertie McGuiness walked toward me and said, “Hi, Latayne.” My husband said he had to hold me up.

“I th-thought you were dead,” I said. She chuckled, put her arm around me, and led me to the coffin where her sister-in-law – a woman also named Gertie who married one of the McGuiness brothers – lay serenely. Others in the room brushed aside tears and smiled at my sputtering delight at finding that my friend, the other Gertie McGuinness, was still alive.

So I wrote an article for our hometown newspaper (later reprinted nationally), called “Saying Goodbye to Gertie.” It was about redemption, getting someone back from the dead. I was eminently pleased with the whole matter.

But the next time I saw Gertie McGuiness, she seemed miffed. When I asked her what was wrong, she said, “You said I laughed. It was my sister-in-law’s funeral. I didn’t laugh.”

Of course she (like Sarah of old, now that I think about it) did indeed laugh. But she didn’t want to be remembered for insensitivity. It was her name on the line, after all.

You would have thought that lesson would have stuck with me a little better, but I thought fiction was different. In my novel Latter-day Cipher I named a minor character after a rather silly-sounding alias, something like “Rocky Richochet,” used briefly 20 years ago by a friend’s rebellious son. I characterized the character through the eyes of the villain, who called him “a punk kid.”

Imagine my distress last Sunday when my friend accosted me in the geographical middle of our church right after services and said sternly, “Did you or did you not call Rocky Richochet a punk kid?” He was angry.

I explained that in the book I had used versions of my own childrens’ names – of those characters, one died, two were infants, another was mentally unbalanced. They had been delighted in seeing details or names slipped into the narratives. He wasn’t dissuaded from his anger. (I have to admit I too began to become upset at the accusative tone, the public setting my friend chose.)

It was fiction, I kept saying to the man, it’s fiction.

But not to this man. I think he saw himself as the protector of his son's reputation, and he was not a bit pleased. And I don’t think he’ll get over it, though I apologized over and over.

How about you? Have you ever had any repercussions from using a name in your writing?

Friday, June 5, 2009

When the Muse Strikes

I'm so excited about this month's give-away! Yes! Talking to the Dead has been unleashed! And in my giddy happiness, I'm likely to give away more than one copy of the book (hint, hint) - so keep those comments coming! We'll announce the winner(s) later in the month!

I admire sci-fi writers, fantasy writers too. They literally create other worlds - new languages, culture, ways to communicate. They invent religions and rites and often include maps of the lands they have created on the front flap of the book. Maps! I can't even draw an accurate map of the house I live in, never mind some place that doesn't even exist. And the names! How do they keep those strange names straight? No Bob and Sue for them - they choose mythical names dripping with historic meaning. Names like Oyrasa and Mabh.

I read those books and I think, where did all this come from? How did they invent all of this? And while I enjoy reading the books, the thought of inventing an entire world from the ground up (or in some cases several worlds), exhausts me. At least, that's what I used to think - before I starting writing novels.

Writing, like all art, is an uneven partnership between talent and tenacity, skill and sheer determination. It is the oil and water blending of spiraling creativity and 'pull up yer big boy pants and git 'er done' scheduling. I've learned that creating the inner life of a character is just as complex and perplexing as creating a new language for the inhabitants of planet XYZ to speak. At least, if I do it right.

It is the core of what makes the reading experience so enjoyable - the transmission of self into a world that is 'other'. It is not my world, but it is a world that I can navigate with ease because the author has placed all the landmarks exactly where I need them, and has crafted the path I will take through this land in such a way that it blends with the landscape, and I don't even think of myself as being on a predetermined path at all. The 'other' world becomes my world - at least for a time - and I accept the lie of fiction as a bearer of truth.

But when I began writing novels, I came to an understanding about creating fictional worlds. The answer to my question about fantasy and sci-fi books, "Where did this come from?" was answered as I grappled with my own imaginary worlds. It all comes from the foundations of literature, the traditions of art, history, religion, and philosophy. In other words, it all comes from us. The fictional worlds we love are really our world - no matter where the writer picks it up and moves it to. And the reason we love the places we travel when we read is because, in the end, they all feel like home.

Monday, June 1, 2009

From Prequel to Sequel

I loved Sharon's last post because it brought to mind all the wonderful fictional worlds in which I have been privileged to spend time with fascinating characters. It's a wonderful thing for an author to create something so real that people want to linger there long after the story is over. Sort of like picking at the bones of a Thanksgiving dinner, sitting with glazed eyes nursing a cup of coffee, relishing the sense of connectedness. Taking time to appreciate all the hard work and preparation that went into the planning and the purchasing and the mixing and the baking of it. It's so much more gratifying to a writer when, instead of inhaling the story and moving on, readers comment about how much they enjoyed spending time with the characters and didn't want to let them go.

We're all familiar with book and movie sequels and how rare it is for a sequel to surpass the original in quality. Sequels often lack the punch and surprise of meeting the characters for the first time and journeying down unknown roads alongside them. But for die-hard fans, any sequel is better than none because it allows them to return to the world they love and stay awhile. In response to Sharon's last post, I commented that Anne Shirley's world at Green Gables was memorable and as rich and diverse as any fantasy world. People couldn't get enough, so a TV series aired with stories about orphan Sarah Stanley's adventures which involved characters from the Green Gables books. It was a weekly fix for fans, and even though Anne wasn't featured, it was still her story world. Now a prequel is out, titled Before Green Gables by Budge Wilson, which offers fans a chance to reconnect with favorite characters and a familiar setting.

I checked out other prequels and wasn't at all surprised to find that a majority were connected to science fiction, such as Prelude to Foundation by Isaac Asimov, and the Dune and Star Wars books. Star Trek took us to strange new worlds, but the latest movie is a prequel to the show where it all began. Also well represented were fantasy worlds such as Marion Zimmer Bradley's Avalon and Narnia in The Magician's Nephew. I had forgotten that C.S. Lewis's book was a prequel to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Wardrobe was written first, but it was necessary to write Nephew to explain a few things, such as why there was a lampost in Narnia, and other pertinent info that would tie things up in the end. And before we assume that an author's intentions for writing a prequel or sequel were entirely mercenary, we should consider that they might simply be missing some very old and dear friends.

Do you have a favorite story that you wish had a prequel or sequel so that you could revisit the characters and the setting? Share it with us and you'll be entering a chance to win Bonnie Grove's new release, Talking to the Dead.

The very real world of make believe

I'm thrilled to announce our June Giveaway is the newly released -- drumroll, please -- Talking to the Dead, by our very own lovely, talented, feisty, Canadian Bonnie Grove. Leave a comment for a chance to win her incredible debut novel.

Welcome to our new followers. We hope you enjoy the time you spend with us. Please join in on the conversations. We love to hear from you.

And don't forget our exclusive Audience With an Agent Contest. Agent Wendy Lawton of Books & Such will read the winning entry. Submission guidelines are under the "Promotions" tab. Please read and follow the guidelines carefully.

I've really enjoyed the last few posts here at Novel Matters, and the comments our visitors have made as well. Bonnie's post on 5/22 was very entertaining, caused us all to laugh. What's especially funny is, it wasn't far from the truth. As writers, we're never "off." We're working 24/7, our minds never quite shutting down. Inspiration can and does strike anywhere, at any time. Those who know us best recognize the moment of inspiration, and patiently wait as we scramble to preserve our thoughts on paper, or, uh, something close to it. Unlike Bonnie, I don't keep a notepad handy (note to self: you should), so in a restaurant or in the car I usually find a paper napkin to scribble on. At church it's the bulletin, in the restroom it's ... well, you get the idea.

Our stories are hard taskmasters -- they never give us a break. Even in our dreams, inspiration prances by like a butterfly looking for a net. I have learned to keep a notepad by my bed, for though I'm personally seldom inspired by dreams, I am terribly inspired in the time before I go to sleep. My mind in its relaxed state is a fertile ground of creativity. Scenes, dialogue, it's all there, like a movie playing just for me. That's when I hear my characters' voices the clearest, when my fictional world comes alive. I used to get up and run to my office to jot down my thoughts, because I've learned the hard way I will lose them if I don't. I was like popcorn, popping up time after time till the taskmaster finally let up enough for me to go to sleep. Then a friend, God bless her forever, gave me a pen that lights up. Now I don't have to get out of bed -- or wake my husband -- to capture the inspiration.

But while a free-wheeling imagination may produce the material for the novel, it takes disciplined time at the keyboard to write it. Latayne said it so well: "I absolutely must have extensive, uninterrupted blocks of time to first travel to, and then reside in, a fictional world. I can’t write a novel in short spurts." I heartily agree. Most of us can't just slip in to write a sentence or two, then slip back out to rejoin the real world. Interruptions can really mess up the flow of things. But neither can we turn off our fictional world just because we aren't at the keyboard. No, the life of a novelist is far more schizophrenic than that.

Our characters, their problems, and the world in which they live must first be real to us in order for them to be real to our readers. We have to know them well enough to tell their story, to make it believeable, otherwise who's going to care?

So I just have to wonder, what's it like to be Stephen King? If you could sit down and chat with any author, living or not, about one of their fictional worlds, who would it be and why?