Sunday, August 30, 2009
If I had only a smidgen of room left in our vehicle, what three writing books would I take? What are the three books I couldn't do without (not including favorite fiction)? There were many that I would hate to lose, but I finally narrowed it down to these three:
1. 100,000 Baby Names by Bruce Lansky. Most useful to me is the listing of popular names by decade, but it has many other listings and, well, 100,000 names to chose from for my characters.
2. The Synonym Finder by J.I. Rodale. It is extemely comprehensive, written in a dictionary style, and the thesaurus that always delivers. When asked what stumped him in the rewrite of A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway answered, "Getting the words right." I wonder what thesaurus he used? Hm...
3. Walking on Water by Madeleine L'Engle. "And for each one of us there is a special gift, the way in which we may best serve and please the Lord whose love is so overflowing." (page 70). Her insights inspire and refresh me in times of discouragement by reminding me that my art is a gift from God and that He will equip me to use it.
So, now that the fire planes are just a hum in the distance, I think I will keep these three books stacked beside my desk within easy reach, just in case - at least until fire season is over.
What are the three most helpful books that you would stack by the door in the event of a quick getaway?
Saturday, August 29, 2009
It's Movie Saturday. And we all know what you get during the summer -- you get reruns.
The video that was supposed to run today had... technical difficulties. We are all reminded that we cannot say bad words on this blog, even if they apply to technology. We'll return to our regularly-scheduled programming soon. And that's all I have to say about that.
So -- for those of you who are new followers, please enjoy the book trailer for Latter-day Cipher. If you're interested in some of the reviews of this book, click here.
Don't forget to leave a comment to be entered in our Saturday Night at the Movies monthly giveaway. We'll announce a winner on Monday!
Friday, August 28, 2009
Monday, August 24, 2009
Well let me tell you, that was nothing - nothing - compared to the kerfuffle raised amongst us bloggers here at Novel Matters before his post even went live. Really, you have no idea. Well - If you were observant, you might have noticed this phrase: “this book sucked but they have such a (killer) brand" If you were impressively astute you might have guessed at the reason behind the parentheses.
But probably not, so I'll tell you: In the original, Andy didn't say "killer." He said something that started with the same letter, only... less seemly.
We couldn't believe it.
Because Andy and his ilk had told us more than once that this word or that word was unacceptable to a Christian audience. And I'm talking about words a lot milder than (killer). So what would we do? Edit the editor?
Believe it or not, we didn't all agree.
I'm a non-swearer myself - mostly. I hardly ever, almost never say a bad word. There have even been memorable occasions when I dropped heavy objects on my foot and bravely clenched my lips against the barrage of expletives clamoring just this side of my teeth.
However, I was raised not so much in church as in Alcoholics Anonymous (my mother stopped drinking when I was seven). And growing up, I knew a lot of very good and brave people for whom naughty language was the native tongue. To this day it's hard - though not impossible - to offend me with swear words.
Not only that, but my personal take is that we Christians sometimes get a bit too precious about the whole thing. Because Jesus said if you call your brother a fool you are in danger of judgment. "Fool" is not a cuss word; it's a put-down. And there are those among us who would never say (killer) but would call you a fool twice a day. So my first reaction to Andy's transgression was "Oh, what the heck."
Oh boy. I didn't even notice Andy had used a no-no word. Let me explain.
Soon after becoming a Christian, I abandoned my bad-girl vocabulary and thought less of anyone who used swear words, whatever their belief system. I asked people not to use certain language around me. The result? I became a holier-than-thou personality and a caricature of a churchgoer. My zeal for the menial built a wall between me and those around me.
And then...one night at Bible study, a young man said something like this: Our most powerful witness is to walk humbly alongside the lost as sinners saved by grace.
As I grow in my ability to walk humbly in this world, my need to edit people's vocabulary has lessened. After all, Jesus probably heard swear words as he hung on the cross. His response was to die for them. This is why I don't have a knee-jerk reaction to swear words.
But I don't use swear words in my novels.
Because they would be a stumbling block to readers, and I love my readers. We are the body of Christ! Besides, creativity without any strictures is not creativity at all. The challenge for the inspirational writer is to convey intensity of emotion with truly powerful language and action. Honestly, it would be a lot easier to use swear words.
And so, I voted to leave Andy's original words. There are so many other things more worthy of our passion.
When Andy sent me his guest post via e-mail I read it through - not with the intention to edit, but because, well, because I could. I loved its meaty goodness, it metaphorical bent, and its insider fun. This, I thought, is (killer).
I set about scheduling the post, but a wee voice in my head said, "(Killer) though it is, some may not appreciate the vernacular [My inner voice sounds very much like Stephen Fry]. I sent out a quick e-mail to my co-bloggers: Andy's post contains the word (killer). Are we okay with that? The six of us took the back roads getting to the answer.
Whenever you ask a novelist a question, expect a long, well thought out multi-dimensional response. It's to be expected. Ask six novelists and, well, I hope you packed a lunch. Those of us who agreed to leave in (killer) agreed for very different reasons. Those who preferred an edit did so for very different reasons. Me? Well, I was more like Pontius Pilate, trying to wash my hands of the whole thing. Edit Andy? Well, gee - how would that go over? I actually like this guy as a person as well as an editor. But risk offending readers? No!
It was a gong show for awhile there. What if I just posted a disclaimer? [Early risers may have seen it Friday morning before it was unceremoniously deleted]. What if we added dashes? If Lisa Samson* can get away with it, why not us? So many issues to consider. For me, the decision to change it became clear when I asked myself, "What compelling reason do we have to leave (killer) in? What great purpose is the word serving?" The word didn't strengthen Andy's idea, wasn't necessary to convey meaning - it other words; editable.
We want to hear from you - naughty language in your Christian fiction? Where do you draw lines? [Keep in mind, in an interesting and deliberate oversight, we left in the word "sucks"] Do you put a book down if it contained certain language?
*Lisa Samson employed the use of dashes for profanity in her latest, The Passion of Mary Margaret.
Friday, August 21, 2009
Remember if you comment on any of the posts this month, you qualify yourself for an autographed copy of The Mormon Mirage (Zondervan, 2009.) In fact, this is the book mentioned later in this column. So, speak up!
I often hear published writers often talking about how the Lord has advanced their careers, or put them in advantageous positions in landing a good agent or happening on just the right editor at a conference. And surely He does work that way.
But for some of us, there are two sides to the story.
I believe there was a certain point – in fact, a day and hour -- in my life at which the Lord told me that He wanted me not to write for money nor recognition, until He released me from that stricture. He shut me down completely. I had been a published writer since I was in grade school. Suddenly I found myself in an open-ended situation in which it felt that my very breath was restricted. Not for days, or months, but for years.
For about eight years in fact, I continued to write but did it anonymously and/or without publication. When He began to release me it was to write business articles about utilities – gas, electric, sewer, water, and nuclear --and about military, financial, and technological subjects. All my religious writing I kept to myself or posted anonymously on a web site. My books all went out of print except one. The most popular one I offered free for download to anyone who wanted it.
I prayed for a very long time before I felt He would allow me to approach an agent. Year after year, prayer after begging prayer, His answer was “no.”
When He released me to write for the Christian marketplace, I knew it. I can tell you the day and place when I knew He was going to let me contact Janet Grant (and only Janet Grant). And in other cases, publishers approached me for books I’d been working on during that dry, dry time.
He’s a tough Master, but He knew what was best for me. It surely didn’t feel “glorious” at the time, though. There was no sense of being honored. I was under discipline, and I knew it. I’m not proud of that.
When he underwent great trial, Job asked the question, “When God sends us something good, we welcome it. How can we complain when he sends us trouble?”
I believe I must be a better writer than I would have been if I’d kept trying to market my work during those arid years. I have concluded that there is no such thing as "lost time" in God's economy of obedience.
In fact, I wonder just how different the quality of Christian writing as a whole would be if God put those kinds of restrictions on everyone.
Or maybe He is doing that, but we’re not listening?
Have you ever felt that the Lord hemmed you in or restricted you? What was the result?
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
Sunday, August 16, 2009
A big 'thank you' to all who posted comments to Andy Meisenheimer's post on Friday, and a huge 'welcome' to folks who stopped by for the first time. Did you know that we will choose one lucky person to win a copy of Latayne Scott's Mormon Mirage? Every time you post a comment, your chances multiply.
I just finished reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. What a great story and what a creative way to have it unfold! This story about the German occupation of the Channel Islands is told exclusively through letters exchanged between the characters after the war is over. It handles a weighty and horrific topic in an approachable style by using the distance created by the use of letters and by interjecting subplots which lightened the tone, at times cutting away to a budding romance and points of humor. If it had been written any other way, I don't think I would have finished it, but I'm a lightweight. The right- or the wrong - book can leave me with bad dreams. (Like The Historian - shiver! I stopped reading a third of the way through.)
This unusual story structure led me to consider the art involved in the shaping of stories, and how it can both enhance and hamper a reader's enjoyment. Take, for example, The Time Traveler's Wife. The main character travels through time unexpectedly and against his will. As an adult, he travels back and meets his future wife when she is only a child. Later, when she meets him as an adult, he doesn't know her. At times it was a mental workout to keep up, but it was worth it. (I offer a word of caution about the sometimes gritty content.) If I put the book aside for too long, I had trouble picking it up again, like dropping a string in Cat's Cradle. But I was invested in the story enough to see it to the end, and the structure was intriguing. The flashbacks weren't there to provide backstory - they were the story.
By contrast, Isabel Allende's Zorro is largely narrative with limited dialogue. She had an interesting and very human perception of the man behind the legend, but I kept wishing she would show me instead of telling me. Hmmm...
Story structure should take into consideration the nature of the story and should be complementary. For example, Gilead is written in the form of a long, rambling letter full of wisdom (along with regrets) from an elderly father to his young son. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is told in the first-person viewpoint of an autistic teenager, using the charts, maps and diagrams he uses to break down his world into comprehensible chunks, along with prime numbers for chapter headings. Some stories are more suitable as allegory (The Screwtape Letters) and some are best recorded as diary or journal entries (The Princess Diaries). Structure should never get in the way of or detract from story.
While having a great story is, of course, the most important part of the equation, having an interesting or unique structure can greatly enhance it. How important do you think story structure is, and what are some interesting treatments that you have read? How much of story structure is art?
Friday, August 14, 2009
Andy Meisenheimer is in his seventh year at Zondervan, his tenth year of marriage, his third year of fatherhood, and his first year playing in the band Group Dancing for Dutch People, an accordion duo cover band he co-founded with band member Jim Kast-Keat. While at Zondervan, he has worked with important, influential and talented authors writing in many different impressive genres. One author writes, "Andy is the nerdy yet paternal editor you always wanted," though Andy was quick to edit that sentence down to its essence: "Andy's super cool." However, better than all of that, Andy lives with his best-friend-and-muse Mandy and their three-year-old cutest-little-boy-in-the-world near Grand Rapids, MI. They are the best part of his life.
When are you inclined to take a chance on something "out of the box" -- away from a proven formula -- and how far are you willing to go with an untried theme, style, etc?
The problem with something out of the box, an untried theme or style, is that it requires people to actually immerse themselves in a new experience. It can’t be reduced to sound bytes and flashy ads. It can’t be pitched as “Jaws meets Harry Potter”. Instead, much like an annoying girlfriend, it asks for commitment, and then like marriage demands that you open yourself up to growth and become vulnerable with your weaknesses—and sometimes look up a word in the dictionary. But some people just want something mildly amusing to read during lunch break.
I like to cook meals for my wife and kid. My blessing and my curse is that I rarely have exactly what a recipe calls for, and so I fudge a little. And then sometimes I augment recipes with my own ideas. But I preface each meal with “well, hope this worked!” It might sound scary, but my family’s learned that there’s a decent chance that my cooking is going to taste better than McDonald’s, and might even taste better than a good restaurant. And it’s definitely going to be made with healthier, fresher ingredients and cooked in a healthier way than McDonald’s.
I love that kind of cooking.
In your experience with actually meeting authors who produce what you regard as excellence, what common traits to you see in them as persons?
Brilliant writers, in my experience, are writers who are constantly writing really crappy stuff, and then tossing it or rewriting it eight times. They are the ice skater on the rink late at night, performing the same move over and over and over again; they are the painter at the museum imitating the paintings they see before them; they are the football star watching the replay frame-by-frame; they are the musician sitting around jamming with friends; they are the actor learning Shakespeare; they are the architect drawing plans that are both beautiful and functional. They are constant critics as well as studious observers of good storytelling. They have an appreciation for pulp even as they pursue literary genius. They are confident when they need to be and yet they have their trusted advisors who can say most anything.
Give us a glimpse into an ideal author/editor relationship.
Sometimes this Certain Author calls just to hear my voice. Sometimes he claims that my voice is the one he hears in his head as he writes his characters. His wife is the only one with more power over his stories than me. He’s writing his book in third person because I decided it was time to do some third person writing, and because it’d be best for his story. He couldn’t do it, wrote some first person, and so I rewrote it for him in third person. He sneaks in certain things he knows I’ll cut just so he can feel good accepting that cut. He reads the edited novel with tracked changes hidden just to see how brilliant my editing is. If he has another child I don’t think naming the kid Andrew Robert would be indecorous. We share book recommendations and gab about the craft of writing. I write in the margin exactly what I’m thinking, and he writes back exactly what he’s thinking. We know and respect each other’s style. I’m an editor, and he’s a writer. We both want the book to be a work of the highest order, and the best work he’s ever done. And deep down we know that if the other ever went to jump off a metaphorical cliff, we’d be there to say “hey, maybe don’t do that.”
But each one is different. But I don’t think symbiotic would be so terrible of a one-word answer. Now half my authors are going to think I’m weird—the other half, that is, that doesn’t already think that, and appreciate that about me.
How do you balance art and business?
Very carefully. We don’t all work for a rich anonymous benefactor whose sole concern is excellence in the literary arts. So like any editor who wants to enjoy life, I try to make sure I acquire at least a few people whose work I believe to be of the highest quality, even as I do my job and acquire the potboilers that feed my family. Do I believe it has to be that way? No. Does the company I work for have the same eye for that balance as I see it? Not always. I’m on a journey just like you. But my job is to keep looking, and keep pitching good books to my boss.
I’ll tell you the one thing I do that keeps me sane. When I’m on my own time, I spend it with my wife and kid—talk about quality—and when they’re tired of me, I read good books.
How do you think one should balance art and business as a writer?
Unfortunately, the internet allows aspiring writers to waste way too much time focused on business. Reading blogs about writing, writing blogs about reading, creating a brand and websites and tweeting and facebooking and revising your work according to the latest “rule” of writing. No editor or reader is fooled into thinking that your stuff is gold because someone’s got a great blog or tagline or brand or website or facebook. There is one and only one way to get the kind of loyalty you want from your readers. Good books. No one says “I loved this book but since I can’t follow the author on twitter, oh well. I guess I’ll just never read them again.” And conversely, “this book sucked but they have such a (killer) brand! I’ve got to read more.” Writers should focus on art until they have a business. Which in today’s world, many of you should just realize your dreams and publish your books yourself. Use that internet connection for a better purpose. And if your book’s as brilliant as you’d like it to be, you’ve got nothing to worry about.
Thanks for asking questions and letting me answer them. The blank page really scares me. That’s why I’m an editor.
Wednesday, August 12, 2009
Her post got me thinking. . . which isn’t much of a surprise. Novelists are contemplative people. It’s our nature and our practice. I’ve blogged before about the disruptive power of writing a novel. I’ve learned through experience that being reflective and contemplative, while immensely helpful in many ways, has a downside. Here is a recent example of how our ruminative practices can interfere with life:
Steve kicks the tire of a sandy brown mini-van. “What do you think?”
I stare at his foot. Moses comes to mind. He struck a rock twice and then wasn’t allowed into the Promised Land.
Steve clears his throat. “Lovely?” (He calls me Lovely)
I shake my head. “Disobedience is tricky, isn’t it? It isn’t a simple case of cause and effect. Do or don’t do. It’s motives, and meanings.” I pull out my note book, start scribbling down words.
Steve straightens his spine as if bracing for a gale. “Is there something you want to tell me, Bonnie?”
I point to the ground with my pen. “Your foot. Reminded me of Moses.”
Pastor Steve needs no further explanation. He switches tactics. “Would Moses buy this mini-van?”
Later, we’re driving home in our new mini-van. From the backseat, Ben hands me a paper from his backpack. “It’s about the penny drive for the school.”
I scan the note. I’m aghast. “You can’t participate in this, Ben!”
Ben and Steve speak as one. “Why not?”
“It’s unethical!” I wave the paper around like a manifesto.
Steve smiles at the traffic. “Mommy has been reading philosophy again.”
I cross my arms in front of me and adopt a schoolteacher voice. “Penny drives are exclusivist. They reward the wealthy simply because they are wealthy. And they punish the poor.”
Heather squeaks from the backseat. “I don’t want to be punished.”
Ben says, “Punished how? Like a spanking?”
Heather holds her breath.
I turn in my seat so I can face my children. “Meritocracy must be challenged at every opportunity.”
“I was wrong,” Steve says. “Mommy is reading sociology, not philosophy.”
I tap Heather’s knee. “Breathe Sweetie, no one is going to punish you.”
Her brown eyes shine. “I didn’t mean to be merry-talk-city.” She turns to Ben. “Did you?”
He shakes his head. “No way! I’m never going to be merry-talk-city.” He thinks for a moment. “Or smoke.”
Heather picks up his cause and points to the heavens. “Smoking is bad!”
Ben hollers, “Smoking must be challenged at every opportunity!”
Steve sighs. “You’re going to have them walking around slapping cigarettes out of people’s hands.”
I turn around and face forward. I stare at the paper in my hand. My voice is small and quiet. “Well, there are worse things they could do.”
That night I kiss my husband goodnight.
He says, “So you are writing about Moses?”
I stare at him as if he’d sprouted a third eye. “Why on earth would you think that? Moses?”
“You were thinking about Moses at the car dealership today. I figured. . .”
I flap my hand at him. “I’m not writing about Moses. Someone else has already done that. It was you kicking the tire that brought up Moses.”
He grins. “Must have been a macho, patriarchal sort of kick, eh?”
I think for a moment. “Are you aware how much early twentieth century Christian literature was misogynic?
Steve turns the light out. “Tell you what,” he says in the dark. “I won’t kick any more tires if you won’t keep me up half the night talking about misogyny and Moses. Deal?”
My mind whirls.