Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The End is Where We Start From

We talked on Monday about the steps each of us undergoes in beginning a new novel. There are as many different variations on how to do this as there are authors. T.S. Eliot quotes, "What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from."

Some authors do begin with the ending and write backward from there. This certainly wasn't the case for the screenplay for Casablanca. I was disturbed the first time I watched our DVD and discovered that the filmmakers didn't know how the story would end until it came down to a point in filming where a decision had to be made. Would Ilsa stay behind with Rick, or choose to do the right thing and honor her duty and her husband by leaving with Victor Lazslo? I have to admit that I wasn't so surprised at their flexibility with the moral dilemma as I was with the fact that they couldn't see that the personal sacrifice and growth in the characters of Ilsa and Rick WAS the story.

How important is it to know the ending of a story before putting it on paper? Most of us have at least a vague idea of how our stories will end and structure them toward that. There are many factors to consider when choosing an ending. What do you consider the most important? Has an ending ever gotten away from you despite your bestlaid plans and forced you to change course?

Monday, September 28, 2009

Round Table Discussion - Starting a New Novel

Ahh, the rush of new ideas. The inspiration flowing through your veins, the thrum of themes, the envisioning of new characters. Heady stuff.

Then comes the moment you must begin to think logically about your grand ideas. You fall from the clouds of inspiration and land on the road of logic. How can I make this work? Writing, it seems to me, is the marriage of excessive imagination and cold hard logic. Spinning dreams, then tacking their feet to the floor. Before I started my current work, my editor told me she wanted me to try outlining the novel. There are a great many complexities in my next book and outlining made sense. Now that I've finished outlining, I can see the merit in outlining for any kind of novel regardless of complexity. It helped me think about character and plot elements ahead of time that, left on my own, writing scenes and narratives, would have taken much longer to think about and develop. At first, I was nervous that outlining would "squelch my muse", cramp my style. But I got over that soon enough. I was the one outlining - so I was calling the shots, and deciding how it would work. I'll be outlining my next novel as well.

For me, each novel I've written (make that one complete one and two partial ones, including my WIP) has begun with an image rather than an outline or a plot. The plot has arisen out of the image. For Latter-day Cipher, the image was that of a woman lying dead on a forest floor, with the sunlight in sheets on her body and a secret inside her. For a book that's almost complete which is a prequel to Cipher, the image was a "disaster apron" used to get newborns out of a hospital nursery in an emergency. For my WIP the image is of a lithopedia.

Actually, I've been using and talking about "controlling images" for years in conjunction with writing non-fiction. It is a concept or image that, true to its name, controls the content of the chapter or section (or more rarely) the non-fiction book I'm writing. The structure of the actual written piece is dictated by the strength and nature of the image.

Am I weird? Does anyone else start this way?

Latayne, you're such a global thinker! For me, I get my ideas from...wherever, and I definitely need to nail them down. I'm not proud. I'll expand a concept from a podcast (as for Seeing Things), snatch my friend's royalty (she was the queen of Sleepy Eye, really), or noodle over my worst fears (all of my books).

And I'm very much an outliner. Here's a picture of my cumbersome method. Every column is a chapter. Each character has his or her very own color of sticky note (no sharing or I lose the pattern). I write what happens in each scene on a sticky note. As I place the notes, I'm mindful of rising antagonism and tension. The nice thing about the sticky notes is their flexibility. I can shuffle those puppies around until I like what I see. This works well for me because I'm so visual. I've never tried to travel with this method of outlining, for obvious reasons.

I think and stew over a book idea for a long time before I put anything on paper. I keep a notebook with me for ideas for plot points, settings, occupations, symbolism, motivations. I do research until the information starts repeating itself. Then I make a rough, loose outline and flesh it out more and more, each section impacting and expanding the next, until the story is told. At this point, I make Excel spreadsheets like family trees and a timeline, plugging in plot points, births, deaths, dates etc. to make sure that it is all logical. When I'm sure that I have all my facts straight and know where the story is going, I can relax and enjoy the freedom to be creative because I know the bones are solid and strong.

I don't want to give the wrong impression. I may have been one of those kids who always colored inside the lines, but the colors were out-of-the-box. I once made my third grade teacher angry for using vibrant pinks, turquoise and purples on a special fall leaf project that she chose for me to complete. Didn't I know leaves weren't that color, she demanded? Well, apparently not!

I'm getting some great ideas here. I like Patti's post-it board especially, being a visual person, too.

My muse is neurotic, driving me to outline obsessively, and then flying off in new directions, disregarding the spreadsheet I so carefully crafted - on excel, like Debbie. Still, I like having an idea of the big picture, and an outline helps me do that, even if I ignore it.

The advantage is that I can stop writing the outline if I get bogged down, knowing that by the time I get to that part of the book, everything will be different anyway.

But all the while I'm thinking, there has to be a better way. Maybe I'll get myself a poster board and some sticky notes. What's a flaming creative like me doing with a spreadsheet, anyway?

PS: No Latayne, you're brilliant.

Oh, man, it's confession time. I'm only admitting to this because it's how I've done it with each novel I've written, and I couldn't pretend I've done it any other way. So, here goes: I start a novel with a beginning and an end in mind, and only a vague idea of how I'm going to get from the first page to the last. What's more, I work out the plot points as I go along. Spontaneity is the name of the game. Outlining scares me more than writing the novel, and, Patti, much as I love you, your method would cause me to hyperventilate.

When they say there's no right or wrong way to write a novel, this probably isn't what they have in mind. I know, I'll never be asked to teach a workshop.

But there may be hope for me. My WIP is an experiment, because I'm using Jeff Gerke's How to Find Your Story this time around. It's a multi-page worksheet that helps you consider plot points, theme, characterization, and all the things that outlining does for you. But for someone like me, who hates even the thought of outlining, spreadsheeting or synopsizing, it holds my hand through the process, prompting me to nail down details at the outset, with the intent of making the writing more smooth and efficient, and eliminating loose ends, etc. etc. I like the fact that I can be as detailed (or not) as I want to be with each specific point, and I can skip points altogether if I so choose.

Patti's post on Friday really hit home with me. Because I'm fearful every time I start a new book. And I stay afraid until I get to the last page. And until someone reads and validates it. Maybe Jeff's worksheet will eliminate some of the fear -- but I doubt it. But if it makes the story more cohesive from the get-go, which it has, that's a good thing. And anything that makes this process easier, is extremely welcome.

So, authors, which of us do you most relate to? And, readers, have we blown our cover?

Friday, September 25, 2009

Fear and the First Line

Latayne and Katy, thanks for the wonderful discussions. I've been following with great interest as I travel through the deep, rainy, flooded, humid south. Send water wings!

I'm a good distance into my sixth novel, my first historical fiction, and I hate my first line. In fact, I'm not at all sure where the story begins, although now that I'm over a thousand miles from my manuscript, I'm beginning to see things differently. A little cut-and-paste. A new first scene. That's all it needs.


I'm scared.

And fear kills creativity.

And so, I'm done with fear. Fear of disappointing my publisher and readers and myself. I'm headed for the pirate life, at least when it comes to my writing. (My dog will still expect morning walks on schedule.) I'm reckless. A carouser with words and ideas. I swing my sword and jab. Dialogue. Description. Narrative. Take that!


I never expected to be dealing with fear at this stage of the game, but with three of my books already out of print and the publishing world obsessed with the bottom line--as I know they must be--well, I'm c-o-n-c-e-r-n-e-d (Christian-ese for terrified.) I just can't get this story right.

Am I so different? I'm most bold when I feel safe. And this world is not safe.

But Jesus is. He is the one I write for, the one I long to please. I'm sorry to say that I've let things go topsy-turvy now that I'm a "player" in the publishing world. It's time for a course correction. As one of my favorite Sarah Groves songs says, "I live and breathe for an audience of One." That's my goal, anyway.

Is fear keeping you from moving ahead with a writing project? How do you deal with fear of failure? Do you have a writing ritual to remind you for Whom you write? Share!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Oh Please Don't Go, We Love You So!

Posts like Latayne's last can break a writer's heart. As a reader, I happily chimed in with a short list of books I never finished. But as a writer... well, did you notice the things we were saying?

"I grew so impatient with the book that I stuffed it down into the seatback pocket along with the airsickness bag. I was going to leave it on the plane." "Maybe someday I'll force myself to trudge on through it." "I don't want to waste the time I have." "Truthfully? I toss a book aside if I'm not loving it."
Ouch! How better to describe a writer's nightmare? Our characters can roll their terrible eyes and gnash their terrible teeth and show their terrible claws like Maurice Sendak's Wild Things, but it's no use: the readers say "no," then climb in their boats and sail away.


As Bonnie said, it's intensely personal stuff. Those authors who wrote the books we didn't read - if they notice this post at all, if they even find their computers under all those royalty statements - they can console themselves with the knowledge that they are in terrific company. PD James? Anita Diamant? Barbara Kingsolver? I neglected to mention that it took me years to get past page one of The Hobbit.

Still, Latayne has reviewed both of my novels, and I can tell you that she is a very kind reader. What could induce this sweet lady to leave a perfectly good, well regarded novel in the pocket next to the vomit bag?

For answers, I looked up Original Sin by PD James on Amazon and clicked on "Look Inside the Book," to read her first sentence:
"For a temporary shorthand typist to be present at the discovery of a corpse on the first day of a new assignment, if not unique, is sufficiently rare to prevent its being regarded as an occupational hazard."
Are you bored already? Me too (and the rest of the page is no better). Because the book is a mystery, so of course it begins with the discovery of a dead body, and of course the body is found where bodies are not usually found, by people who don't usually find them. Please, Ms. James, take a break from answering your piles of fan mail and say something that surprises me. Make that first paragraph sing!

Because, as Sharon said, if the writing is bland or cliche, or if the characters don't engage, we can lose our readers before they get to the good stuff. There has to be something wonderful - something surprising, compelling and delicious - on the very first page.

Ah, but how to do that? I'm going to open the question for discussion: what makes a first page sing for you? What method do you use to make your own first paragraphs memorable. We want to know your thoughts.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Abandoning Ship on Reading a Novel

I once asked Andy McGuire, who at that time was editing Latter-day Cipher, for a book recommendation. He told me that I should read P. D. James because she wrote literary mysteries; and also because she was a Christian.

So I selected a James novel, Original Sin, for airplane reading since I am traveling to present seminars a lot recently (I’ve been on three trips in the last three weeks.) I say airplane reading because of those rules against portable electronics – you can’t use a computer, e-reader or even audiobook player unless a plane is over 10,000 feet in altitude. So it’s low-tech reading for those of us who want to continue reading while the airplane attendants describe how to use your seat cushion for a flotation device and then take your drink orders.

On the second leg of my trip to Montana I grew so impatient with the book that I stuffed it down into the seatback pocket along with the airsickness bag. I was going to leave it on the plane. Too many characters, I thought, action too slow; and though there were some delicious murders and some yummy descriptions, the whole thing seemed pedantic.

But someone I respected had recommended this book, and so I trudged on. Little by little the plot began to both thicken and engage.

By the time I neared the denouement, I was re-reading each paragraph, then going back and re-reading the last chapters. It was like a dessert whose last bite I did not want to take – instead I scraped around the dish, licked the spoon, smelled the last wafting aromas, searched between my teeth for morsels before finishing it off.

It was one of the most memorable climactic scenes I have ever read. I was so glad I gave the book a chance. It deserves every accolade it has received.

Have you ever been tempted to dump a book that you nonetheless went ahead to finish? What made you want to abandon it? What kept you reading? Are you glad you did? Why?

Friday, September 18, 2009

Paper Doll People

Multi-layering, or depth, in writing is as important as depth in painting. One-dimensional art is color-book drawing compared to the painting of, say, Rembrandt or Gauguin. In literature, the comparison may not be as stark on the surface, but the experience is just as flat.
Patti's comment to Bonnie's post on Monday gives us a great visual of what I mean. "Subtext is the difference between looking across a glinting lake, and swimming through the bottom weeds, letting them slide across your body." What a great analogy. But how do you add that kind of depth to your writing? How do you make it three-dimensional so that your readers want to dive in? Subtext, about which Bonnie so capably educated us on Monday, is one very important way. Conflict and unique plot--or a unique method of conveying the plot--are equally important. I'm about to begin life on the refrigerator door by Alice Kuipers, a story which consists entirely of notes between a mother and daughter, posted on their refrigerator. Unique? Absolutely. I can't wait to, well, dive in.
To me, one of the most important elements to three-dimensional writing is characterization, to follow Debbie's lead from Wednesday's post. This is true even in plot-driven stories. As Lajos Egri says in his book The Art of Creative Writing, "living, vibrating human beings are still the secret and magic formula of great and enduring writing." Does this mean we must never write about ordinary people? Certainly not. Lori Benton, in her comment Wednesday, made the point, "the characters that have touched me most deeply and stayed with me the longest...were ordinary folk placed into extraordinary circumstances, called upon to find the mettle...to journey through those circumstances."
In fact, "ordinary people in extraordinary situations" is the hearbeat of good fiction. Nothing else allows us to dive into a character's world as deeply as relatability. That doesn't mean I only want to read about characters like myself; but it does mean the character that will hold me in their story world has to have flaws, fears and failures...because I do. They must be misunderstood, and have goals and desires they're willing to stake everything on. They can be young or old, male or female, human or hobbit--but what they must be is real.
Nothing kills a character or a story more completely than cliche. "Cliches are like fast food hamburgers. No matter what city you eat them in...the burgers taste the same." So says William Brohaugh in Write Tight. He's absolutely correct. And cliches are more than overused phrases. They're overused plots, overused character traits, overused anything; the complete opposite of fresh and inviting. The heroine isn't always beautiful. The bad guy doesn't always wear black. The protagonist's life isn't--cannot be--smooth sailing if I'm to care about them. Don't give me paper doll people, don't give me perfection, please. Give me someone to yell at, to cry with, to learn from, even to abhor, or I'll be a stone skipping over the surface of your book on my way to deeper water.
Who's the most unlikely character you've related to lately? Why? What have you learned from that?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Perfectly Ordinary Characters

I once attended a seminar taught by a Hollywood screenwriter who said that her company was looking for Christian stories, but that, unfortunately, Christian writers usually wrote small stories about small characters. The conflict was generally internal and the story slow on action. Hollywood was looking for big stories with big characters. Small characters and small stories generally do not sell movie tickets or TV pilots.

I was reminded of this while revisiting one of my favorite how-to books, Stein on Writing by Sol Stein. He makes a very sobering statement: "I have seen talented writers hurt their chances of publication because they persist in writing about "perfectly ordinary people"...characters who are seemingly no different from the run of people we meet who do not seem in any way distinctive." He goes on to say that readers do not want to meet or read about the same boring people they know in real life. But what does it take to make characters extraordinary? Since as Christians we strive to insinuate God's truth into our world, shouldn't our characters be as real as we can possibly make them? And the real people that I know are pretty...normal. Maybe predictable. Even boring. (Did I say that out loud?) But come to think of it, while I love them, I wouldn't necessarily want to read about them.

How many times have you tossed aside a book after reading the first chapter or paragraph, because of an uninteresting hero/heroine? You saw a predictable character with no spark of anything that would make you want to follow them around for awhile. To remedy this in our own writing, Mr. Stein points out that, for the most effective characters, "their eccentricities dominate the reader's first vision of them." A great example would be the opening scene of Leif Enger's Peace Like a River when his father performs a miracle at his birth, commanding him to breathe. It is one miracle among many, we find. The dysfunctional family in Anne Tyler's book, The Accidental Tourist, refuse to answer their house phone because it could be bad news. At this point, I would like to point out that Anne Tyler's stories are about everyday people with lots of internal conflict, but they all have wonderful defining traits and quirks that make them memorable. The dog trainer in this story is another superb example.

So, the challenge is to give our characters some defining, eccentric characteristics that reveal something significant about them and also set them apart without presenting them as clownish or over-the-top. This requires that we know them so well that it seems only natural that this bit of information would manifest itself in that way and not seem contrived.

What characters do you remember due to some eccentric quality? What authors are especially good at accomplishing this? Do you have a character in your manuscript that displays an eccentric quality? We'd love to hear!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Subtext in Fiction

I hear it too - the swirling discussion that patters like rain on a roof - rain that never stops, though it may diminish to mist for a time, but will, invariably, begin to pour again. It starts in the book store or the coffee shop, or the writer's conference, or inside the pages of a book, and one person leans in to the ear of another and says, "Christian fiction?" And the answer comes, "What is wrong with Christian fiction?"

The question is so used now it's thread bare - but we use it still, because, most likely, no one has come up with a more useful answer. Recently I listened in on a roundtable discussion involving representatives from Christian retail stores. The host asked something like, "Is Christian fiction growing up?" The unanimous response was, "Yes!" (oh joy!) followed by a singular punctuating voice that said, "Finally!" (oh dear!)

It made me wonder, "How do they know? By what standard are they measuring this perceived maturation?" I've asked around, and while there is general agreement that the quality of Christian fiction is on the rise, no one could put their finger on any one measurement. And when I stumbled on a possible answer for both the question and the reason no one can point to it, I had to smile.

I smiled because the answer is one of the most difficult things in fiction writing to talk about - subtext.

Subtext is more easily recognized by its absence - oh blah, the story is flat and cliched - than it is by its presence -the words lingered long after I put the book down.

What lingered? The tight writing? The apt similes? The arching metaphor? No, the subtext. Charles Baxter says subtext is ". . . the realm of what haunts the imagination: the implied, the half-visible, and the unspoken." He also uses the phrase, "unspoken soul-matter".

Subtext is created by crafting together elements of story which point to deeper meanings than what is being played out on the page. Elements such as staging, dialogue, description, inflection, irony - yes the very things we use to create plot, we also use to create subtext. And it is wholly intended. It is crafted, meant to be there, lingering below the surface, unexpressed but as solidly present as the characters themselves. They are the invisible threads that hold the story together, make it compelling, and give it meaning.

In Gilead, Marilynne Robinson creates John Ames, a Reverend, elderly and ill who writes to his too young son about his life in hopes of imparting something of himself to the boy who will grow up without his father. Listen to all that is not said here:

"And memory is not strictly mortal in its nature, either. It is a strange thing, after all, to be able to return to a moment when it can hardly be said to have any reality at all, even in its passing. A moment is such a slight thing. I mean, that its abiding is a most gracious reprieve."

The unexpressed yearning in this short passage caused me to lower the book to my lap and stare out the window, thinking for a long time. It made me want to call my children in from the backyard and hold them.

There is a small but growing number of Christian fiction writers who have allowed their theology to move from obvious and stated, to the realm of subtext where - though whispered, and even unspoken, it speaks to the the soul of the reader with great efficacy.

It is difficult to discuss sub-text, but that shouldn't stop us trying. Can you point to a book that has lingered with you - spoken to you in whispers? Can you point to a scene in a book that spoke of something with such clarity without actually speaking of it?
Writers, how have you begun to use subtext in your writing?

Friday, September 11, 2009

And the Finalists are . . .

We are delighted to announce the 6 finalists in our exclusive Audience-with-an-Agent contest. We were pleased with the participation of both American and Canadian authors, representing a variety of genres, and loved poring through the chapters and synopses -- to play the role of agent and editor for a brief time. It was difficult to choose the 6 finalists, and we took our responsibility very seriously. We thank you all for your entries and wish you the best in your writing endeavors.
We also thank agent extraordinaire Wendy Lawton of Books & Such Agency, who will read the finalists' submissions. This is an incredible opportunity for unpublished authors, and we thank Wendy and Janet Grant for their participation in this contest. Janet will read the finalists' entries in our next Audience-with-an-Agent contest set for the spring of 2010. So get your manuscripts ready and watch our NovelMatters blog for contest information.
And now, the finalists are (in alphabetical order) ...

Broken Arches, Jean Knight Pace

Disenchanted, Janet Ursel

Kindred, Lori Benton

The Remarkable Love of Tony Campello, Connie Brzowski

The Watchman, V.B. Tenery

When Valleys Bloom Again, P.J. Davis

We offer our heartiest congratulations to each of our finalists!

And now a word from Wendy ~
I have the distinct honor to be guest blogger on Novel Matters today in celebration of the closing of the Novel Matters Audience-with-an-Agent competition. Soon I will be receiving the final entries.
Let me say a few words about contests first. There are many who refuse to compete -- whether it is in a baseball game, a beauty pageant or a writing competition. They'd argue that competition is fundamentally damaging. Yeah, well ... good luck with that. We live in a world with competition for almost any valuable spot. If you want to become an actor, an athlete, a musician or even an astronaut you're going to be up against stiff competition. The same with that job you're hoping to land. If life were simpler maybe competition wouldn't be necessary, but the reality is that if you are seeking to be published, the competition is intense.
By sending your work to a writing contest you're saying, "I'm ready for the competition. Put my work up against my fellow writers' work and let's see how it fares." Bravo! That's the kind of attitude it takes to compete in this industry. And guess what? It's exactly what happens when your published book comes out. It goes to the bookstore shelf with all other books that made the cut and begins to compete for those few book dollars in the reader's wallet.
It goes without saying that judging a writer's work is subjective. It's not like grading an algebra test. One story may take a grand prize from one judge and not even make the cut with another. The same thing happens with reviewers after you are published. That's why, when you are starting out, you want to get your work in front of as many eyes as possible.
For those of you who entered and did not final: You are still winners. The bloggers of Novel Matters are some of the finest writers in our industry. They are influential and well connected. They've read your work and they'll be watching you. It's part of getting your name and your work out there. When you are published you'll find that they will be amazing cheerleaders for you. The competition was tough, but you offered your work for critical review. Huzzah!
For those of you who made the final cut: Congratulations. I look forward to reading your work. I'm going to treat myself to a venti Starbucks and set an afternoon aside to read your entries. I hope I'll be able to give you some valuable (albeit subjective) comments.
And if among the entries I see something I just can't put down -- something that seems commercially viable, told with a compelling voice -- I'm going to ask for more. Representation is based on far more than just a winning entry, of course. For me it's about a combination of the book and the writer. We represent writers for a whole career so it's akin to falling in love for a lifetime. I love what Henry Blackaby recommended in Experiencing God -- you look for where God's already at work and you come alongside. That's my philosophy for signing a new client. If I see God already at work in your writing and in your life, I want to be on your team.
So congratulations to everyone who entered. I'm honored to be part of the process. May God continue to bless the work of your hands.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Staying Healthy in a Writer's World

This is my last post before the ACFW Conference in Denver. Are you going? I'll be there and I'd love to meet you. Please say hello.

And, we are two days (yes, just two giddy days!) away from announcing the winners of our first Audience with an Agent Contest!

Katy opened a great conversation on Monday. Writers tend to be passionate, wanting to squeeze the last minute out of their writing days. Not surprisingly, we get lost in our fiction worlds, and leaving is like saying goodnight after a lovely date. We want to linger with our characters. They're bolder than us and get out of the house more.

It's true and you know it.

Our bodies pay the price. Sitting bones weren't meant to be parked in front of a computer all day. Hands weren't meant to endlessly tap on a keyboard. And a neurologist with a New York Times best-seller says multitasking is tough on creativity.

Personally, I've had my struggles with headaches and backaches. You name it; I've tried it. I'm still tweaking things, but here are the things that have helped the most. I hope you'll share what you've learned too.

1. I walk 2-3 times a day for 10 minutes. My physical therapist claims this keeps good blood and oxygen flow around my spine. My dog, however, suggests 4-5 walks a day. You'll have to set your own goals.

2. I stretch the medial nerves that run through my wrists. I had carpal tunnel release surgery seven years ago and still wear my splints for extended times at the computer. (They do not come in fashion colors!) For exercises, Google stretching exercises to prevent carpal tunnel syndrome.

3. I keep bite-sized veggies in the fridge. My personal preference is baby carrots. I'm hoping to turn orange before the end of my current WIP.

4. I take breaks to get off my bum that don't disrupt creativity. Katy had it right. Cooking works but so does meditation, prayer, and gardening. Red alert! Dusting is the death of creativity. So is the television. I learned this the hard way.

5. Since my husband developed heart disease, we're more mindful of eating a balanced diet. This used to mean eating something caramel for every chocolate delight I slipped past my gullet. And that was after I took a college-level nutrition class. Now, I choose my nutritional resources carefully and pay attention to my protein intake as much as my fiber or dairy. I feel better and more alert. To prove it, my eyes are open past 5 pm.

6. My husband works weekends 10 months out of the year, so we take two weekdays off. For some reason, it is harder for us to relax on a Tuesday or Wednesday than it is on a Saturday or Sunday. After many years of marriage, we've finally figured it out. Each week we choose Tuesday or Wednesday to be our sabbath. We're not legalistic about it, but it has helped us to say, "This is a special day. Let's give our hearts to God and kick up our feet." Try it. It's okay. You won't spontaneously combust--at least, we haven't yet!

7. The Bible is the mind of God in book form. I try to explore Him daily.

How do you keep healthy? Have you found a magic pill? Why is staying healthy so difficult? Is there a perfect chair? keyboard? desk? monitor? Is heaven our only hope?

Monday, September 7, 2009

You Mean I Have to Cook Dinner Too?

We at Novel Matters are wildly proud that two of our bloggers, Patti and Debbie, have new novels making their debut this month. The only dilemma is, which do we offer first as a prize to one of our readers? Turns out, this month the prize will be Raising Rain by Debbie Fuller Thomas. (Next month's prize will be Seeing Things by Patti Hill.) All you have to do to be eligible to win is leave a comment on one of our posts during the month.

Is there a writer on earth who hasn't, in one way or other, compared the production of a book to childbirth? Can we not see how cliche it's become to refer to a novel as "my baby," or to say we are sending our children out into the world when we really mean we are submitting our manuscripts for publication?

Maybe we see it, but the cliche persists for the reason all cliches persist: it's true, so very, very true.

For instance, one way writing a novel is like having children is that it is all-absorbing. You go to sleep thinking about your characters and wake up the same way. Day after day they disrupt your life, demand attention, wear your patience, and yet you love them, and the proof is that daily you submit yourself to their abuse.

The other way writing a novel is like having a baby is that you gain weight - at least if you're not careful.

My first time, I was not careful. For six months, we ate Hot Pockets for dinner. That's only a slight exaggeration. Sometimes my husband brought home hamburgers.

I am not a person who ought to gain weight on purpose, so when I began to write a second novel - on purpose - I figured I needed a better plan.

It turned out to be chicken breasts. Where I live, you can buy skinless, boneless chicken breasts in what they call "Family Packs." Someone at the store has assumed we all have enormous families, because there are about seven or eight big-enough-for-two chunks o' meat in there.

So the idea was, at the beginning of the week, to put all of those breasts into a Pyrex baking dish, dump a can of broth or onion soup on top, and bake. Then, throughout the week, we would have:
  • Chicken tacos
  • Chicken and veggie stir-fry
  • Chicken wraps
  • Chicken and bean soup
  • Chicken Caesar salad
  • Chicken over pasta
  • Chicken surprise (Bet you've already guessed what the surprise is.)
It was worlds better than Hot Pockets, which I'd learned to dislike. And I didn't gain weight.

However, a couple of recent events have me rethinking my plan once again:
1) I watched Julie & Julia, a wonderful film. Now I have Meryl Streep on my desktop wallpaper, I've got the soundtrack playing on iTunes, and I have a new desire to cook sensually and joyfully. But not lobster - this girl doesn't drop living creatures into boiling water, though she's happy enough to eat the results when someone else does. And not boef bourguignon - I do want to get my writing done as well.

2) In simultaneously cooking dinner for friends and finding a use for a gigantic zucchini I'd been given, I rediscovered the recipe for ratatouille. I'd forgotten how much I loved chopping fresh vegetables and herbs, simmering a big pot on the stove, tasting, adjusting seasonings, and tasting again. And to think that it was all vegetables! A person like me needs a lot of recipes for fabulous vegetables.
So I thought I'd put the question to you. No, I'm not asking for recipes (though I'd be loath to refuse them), but for your thoughts and best ideas for surviving well this life of writing stories. What difficulties have you faced and conquered - or not conquered? How do you keep your house decent, your family loved, your boss happy? Or maybe just: how do you keep your health?

Please, do tell.

Friday, September 4, 2009

What We Wish We Lost

After a stimulating week of discussion about what you’d like to keep, I want to turn our attention to those things we’ve written and published that we wish would go away forever.

When I was in my 20’s I wrote an article for a Christian women’s magazine. It was entitled “How to Squeeze More Time Out of Every Day.” It detailed how I had two children, helped run a political campaign, had several church ministry jobs, wrote books, baked my own bread, cooked everything from scratch…

What was one of my brilliant solutions to lack of time? It was to wean yourself back from sleep until you were only sleeping five hours a night. I did it, why couldn’t everyone else?

I look now at the photo of myself and think, how did somebody so young get so stupid so fast. I hate whoever wrote that smart-alecky article and think now that most normal women who read the article should have hated me too.

Oh, I wish that article was never written. Thank goodness it’s not on the Internet. That’s one big reason I love the Lord so much – He can wipe away all our sins and remember them no more.

What have you written that you regret?

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Ever lost it?

Congratulations to Patti and Debbie on the release of their latest novels, Seeing Things and Raising Rain, which were released yesterday. Woo hoo, girls!
We're so thankful that Debbie's home is safe from the fires burning in northern California, but our hearts go out to those who have suffered such devastating loss throughout the state.
Debbie's post on Monday got me thinking about all that can be lost in disasters of any kind, but especially fire. Years ago, a fire claimed a U-Haul trailer-load of my family's possessions, which included my high school yearbooks, photos of the Beatles concert I attended at the Hollywood Bowl, and many of the drawings I'd done throughout my high school years. I can't imagine losing everything, as many are experiencing once again here in California due to the fires burning up and down the state.
What about our work as authors? Ever "lost" part or all of a manuscript due to computer glitches, not saving correctly, or consumption by the demon that possesses your computer? I have. That moment you realize a day's work, or worse, has been irretrievably launched into cyberspace feels like stepping "off a cliff where the falling seem(s) never to stop" (to quote Elizabeth Berg) -- a huge sinking sensation at best.
The story is told that Hemingway was traveling with his wife Hadley -- love the name! -- from Paris to Bavaria for vacation. Too late they discovered a valise holding a substantial portion of his unpublished writing was left on the train. It was never recovered. Apparently among the material lost was the manuscript for The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway's first major novel. He went on to rewrite it, even stronger than before, it's said. But talk about a sense of falling off a cliff! Okay, first of all that valise would have been handcuffed to my wrist, and secondly, it would have been handcuffed to my other wrist.
I love the inspiration that comes as I write. Which is why I hate editing. It's like I'm suddenly straight-jacketed, with much of my creativity stifled. And I've never been able to recreate lost material. Hemingway may have done a bang up job, but not me. I try, but the magic is gone. Because of that, I'm that much more careful not to lose it in the first place! I have a flash drive that I save my work to (those days I actually remember to do it), but I never take it with me when I leave the house. My "back up" would be destroyed right along with my computer files should the unthinkable ever happen. But since meeting several years ago Katy and I have critiqued each other's work, sending chapters via email as they're completed. That gives us a safety net, knowing that if we lose a chapter, or our hard drive crashes, someone else has a copy of our work. In my case, I'd lose the notes I add to the end of my manuscript document -- the ideas I jot down in the middle of the night when my creativity likes best to frolic -- but that's nothing compared to losing the actual work.
So what about you? Have you ever lost a significant portion of a manuscript? If so, how well are you at recreating a scene or a chapter? And how do you safeguard your work?