Wednesday, June 30, 2010


We talked a lot last week about our characters, even talked about taking them to lunch. The truth is, I do. I take them everywhere I go. They're never far from my thoughts. Even the ones I no longer write about are like old friends you call and chat with once in a while. That's how real our characters are to us. If not for the fact that we're novelists, our make-believe friends could get us locked up for a very long time.
The book I'm writing now has my first ever anti-hero for a protagonist. Wise Geek defines anti-hero this way: "The main character [in a novel] is referred to as the hero or heroine of the story ... When the main character is deeply flawed, however, lacking in the attributes we most often associate with heroism, we have the anti-hero." And my current protagonist is most definitely flawed.
The challenge is to figure out a way to endear to my readers a woman who, on the surface, is easy to dislike. Now more than ever I need to know and understand this woman and show her fears and vulnerabilities, her deep-seated needs and desires, in order to override what she displays on the outside. My premise is validated by an April 23, 2008 Writers Digest article, "Defining and Developing Your Anti-Hero," which says, "One trick to creating an anti-hero is to fashion his primary traits so that his essential nature and personality are clear to you as you craft each scene he appears in. Then you need to know the why of these traits and beliefs --- in essence, how he came to be." Or in the case of my anti-hero, she.
When it comes to anti-heroes there are plenty of resources to fall back on, for Hollywood has made an industry out of the anti-hero. Bogart, Cagney, Bronson, Newman, McQueen, James Dean, all anti-heroes. Han Solo, Captain Jack Sparrow too. It's harder to come by female anti-heroes, especially in film, but the quintessential literary female anti-hero would have to be Scarlett O'Hara. Her male counterpart, in my mind, is Jane Austen's Mr. Darcy.
David Copperfield, one of my all-time favorite novels, begins: "Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show." I love that opening, but my experience is that most of us are more anti-hero than hero. I know I am. In that regard I tend to better relate to my current protagonist than to, say, the angelic Elizabeth Bennett. I can be moody, uncooperative, irritating, sarcastic ... and that's on a good day. But does that mean I want to read about a person like me? If the story is compelling, yes. If the anti-hero isn't cliched and one-dimensional, yes. If there's a point to the story, yes. In other words, I don't want to read or write about an anti-hero for the sake of having an anti-hero as my protagonist. This story isn't an experiment to see if I can pull it off. It just happens that the story I'm telling belongs to an anti-hero. It's her story so she gets to be the star.
As a reader, how do you relate to a protagonist that's deeply flawed? Are you willing to give her a chance, or would it be a turn-off to you? What would make an anti-hero tolerable to you? Intolerable? Can you think of a contemporary novel you've read and enjoyed where the protagonist is an anti-hero, particularly a female? I'd love to hear from you.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Deadlines Can Kill You--Read This First!

Several of us at Novel Matters are closing in on d-e-a-d-l-i-n-e-s, deadlines! It's do or die time. My heiny aches. Self-doubt squeezes my throat. I forget to brush my teeth. Sleep? Whenever. The phone is unplugged. My dreams have turned Kafkaesque. I'm a bug scurrying over plot lines and word choices. This is NOT glamorous. But this is part of the writing life.

So how do we cope?

No matter what time I go to bed, I set the alarm for 5:30 AM. The sun is only just brightening the horizon above the Book Cliff mountains. Meadowlarks sing. The air raises goosebumps on my arms. The corn is another inch taller. I sing with my iPod or chat with Jesus. It's new. Fresh. Good. I can't write or hold a thought for the beauty in the middle of a cornfield. As my muscles get a workout, my brain is at rest.

And so, ladies of Novel Matters and fabulous readers, how
do you deal with the deadlines of your life?

Patti's selected topic for our roundtable means it's confession time for me. My secret is out: I've never had to deal with deadline crunch before. My first novel published by NavPress, Every Good & Perfect Gift, was already completed when I signed the contract, so there was no deadline issue there. The edits, thankfully, were minor, so that wasn't an issue either. My second book with Nav, Lying on Sunday, was finished a bit ahead of deadline, but again, that book was the second book in a two-book contract, and was half written when I signed the contract. So it was easy to finish it on time. The only deadline issues I've ever had came with the final edits for Lying on Sunday. They were due shortly after the death of our son Brian. Nav graciously extended that deadline, which I was able to meet. Call me crazy, but I'd like to experience that deadline crunch one of these days. After all, it's a right of passage for an author, right?

And speaking of Call Me Crazy, have any of you heard the new song by that title on Mercy Me's new CD
The Generous Mr. Lovewell? I love it. It's a great CD.

Latayne here. I've had writing deadlines -- books, articles, Webzine research for a large site and dissertation-- for 35 years now. Done several all-nighters in a row at special request when someone else has dropped the ball for an assignment, which is why I have an earned reputation for never, ever missing a deadline commitment. Got a system. Here are the essentials:


Dry roasted almonds and other non-sticky foods in a container with a hand-sized opening and no individual wrapping.

Takeout food. Those which can be eaten with one hand while scrolling down (fried chicken, taquitos, for instance) or even better, consumed through a straw.


No gum because I will forget I have it in my mouth and chew it till my jaws clench, or gasp and choke on it, or put it in between note cards for my WIP because the dog is between me and the trash can. Or he has turned over the trash can.

All liquids on the desk have a lid. Because I dance with the upper part of my body when it's really, really good.

To-do lists for my husband that keep him away from the house and involve no tools whatsoever for any reason. He requires that all lists be printed because he can’t read my handwriting otherwise. Also, sticky notes and duct tape on light switches: handwritten bloody oaths against anyone who turns on a ceiling fan in a room where I have note cards spread out. (Or who puts any foreign object on my desk or the piles of paper surrounding it.) And their little dog too.

Coffee with cream.

A folding screen between me and the door to my office. So people don't say hi. No matter who they are.

Some notes to self: Feed dog. Cut fingernails. (You can tell how close I am to a deadline by the length of my nails.) Look in the mirror at least once every other day.

Latayne, I can picture you there, screened in, sipping hot coffee through a straw, muttering bloody oaths while you hunch over a keyboard. There is something so YOU about that kind of genius. And the end result is magic.

Well, I'm glad Sharon kicked off the true confessions, because I have one too. I'm crazy. No, no. I mean it. Stop smiling knowingly over your coffee mug. I'm honestly nutso. When it comes to deadlines.

I love them.

Who but a deadline loving crazy person would enter university with a one year old and a three year old at home, while holding down a part time job, and while the hubby is working three (count 'em) three jobs while we refused to use daycare. I wrote paper after paper while raising kids, turning in newspaper articles (my part time job), and sleeping on my feet. I changed diapers while jotting notes for a paper on the role of the CIA in the Iran hostage crisis of 1979 (took a history class for fun). I dozed off a few times while writing a paper entitled The Role of Automatic Thoughts in Aaron Beck's Cognitive Therapy. Pushed my little girl on the swing and in between pushes I composed a paper on Keats using his voice and style (and in the same count as Autumn). Never missed a deadline.

When I started writing for publication and began working with an editor, I applied the same motto to that work as I did to university: Pull up your big girl britches and get it done. It's amazing what you can accomplish when you simply give yourself no other option. Also, when I was finished I resembled a little piece of poop, dangling from the end of a stick.

Like I said, crazy.

I'm with you on the gum, Latayne. I gave up gum several years ago when my TMJ (turbo-muscular...jaw pain) got the better of me due to deadlines & stress in general. I miss it - gum that is. Bazooka and Juicy Fruit, in particular.

The closer I get to a deadline, the earlier I get up and go to bed. It's hard to go to bed before sundown, but I've done it. I've found that early morning is my most productive time to write. Since I have a full-time job, I use vacations and holidays and mornings and lunchtimes and occasionally I write a bit at night between dinner and falling asleep on the couch. Once I dozed off with a glass of water in my hand and it slid out of my grip and dumped into my lap. Luckily, it missed my laptop.

Mornings, it's coffee. For the rest of the day, it's iced tea. If I'm desperate, Doublestuff Oreos and milk, dunked to perfection, but not soggy to the point of decomposing. Sugar is key.

My husband keeps a photo above his desk that he won't let me burn. (And no, I won't show it to you!)

It's me, just before I turned in To Dance in the Desert. I hadn't slept properly in weeks, or exercised, or had a haircut or even bothered to blow dry after washing. I'd been subsisting for months on Hot Pockets (because I could hold them in one hand).

The wonderful thing about my husband is that he thinks I'm beautiful in that picture. I'm not. I'm exhausted and sick and inclined to scratch the face of anyone who interrupts me. It's a scene out of The Exorcist. And all for nobody's deadline but my own. I'd told the editor who had expressed interest in Dance to expect it on a certain date, just to force myself to get it done.

I'd lost two weeks of writing time because of a medical crisis.

But I did get it done.

When I wrote
The Feast of Saint Bertie, I determined to find a better way. I cooked big pans of chicken breasts on Sundays and made meals of them for the rest of the week. I took walks around my local lake every morning no matter what. Haircuts were still optional. Sleep? Well it was less optional than it was when I wrote Dance. There was no sense gaining time that I would lose later because I made myself sick.

Sharon, you'll get your crazy wish. Just you wait, my pretty.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Natural Consequences

Giveaway Alert!!! We will randomly choose someone who posts a comment on today's discussion, and that person will win Safe at Home by Richard Doster.

When my children were small I read a childrearing book that greatly influenced the way I thought about my children and how to discipline them. It was Help! I’m a Parent! by Dr. Bruce Narramore. (And I still highly recommend it, BTW.)

One of the most important things I learned from this book was that if possible you should let your child experience the natural consequences of disobedience. Of course the range of possibilities was narrow – hot stoves, busy streets, and other dangers shouldn’t be experienced firsthand. But not picking up toys, dawdling before school, and other misbehaviors were ideal.

One thing that makes a novel satisfying is when good is rewarded and evil is conquered; that is, when natural consequences take their course and justice is served. When the author does not make that happen, there’d better be a good reason – and a bigger point to be made.

One of the reasons I love the Bible so dearly is that it shows the long-term consequences of good and evil-- in generations long after some sins were committed.

There are novels considered “great” which ignore such rules. But I never found them satisfying, edifying, or insightful. I remember reading The Crying of Lot 49 in college and turning the last page and saying, “Yeah, what?” (Which was apparently the author’s desired reaction – to show pointlessness. As a struggling college student I thought the pointless part was having to pay for the novel.)

What novels have you read recently in which good is not rewarded or in which evil prevails? Would you consider such a book a moral book? Do you know of any such books published by Christian publishers? If so, tell what your impression was of the book(s).

Next week for the topic of the week I'll be discussing unlikeable/amoral/immoral central characters, including those who seem to triumph.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Take Your Character to Lunch Day

I'm going to share some quotes with you, short snippets from two of my favorite novels. When you have read them, you will want to know the characters who said these words. You will want to read their stories:

"Truth. It feels cool, like water washing over my sticky-hot body. Cooling a heat that's been burning me up all my life. Truth, I say inside my head again, just for that feeling."
— Kathryn Stockett in The Help

"...and at the table next to her was a little boy in a soccer uniform sitting with his mother who told him, The plural of elf is elves. A wave of happiness came over me. It felt giddy to be part of it all. To be drinking a cup of coffee like a normal person. I wanted to shout out: The plural of elf is elves! What a language! What a world!"
— Nicole Krauss in The History of Love

See what I mean? Don't you want to know what might have happened to somebody to make her so passionate about truth that she feels it on her skin? Or why another person might jubilate over such an ordinary moment of time? In a few words whole characters have materialized in all their mystery and complexity. Wonderful, isn't it?

I read passages like these and determine to create story people just as rich. And then I look at the character creation sheets they pass out at workshops:

Place of Birth:
Favorite Color:

Questionnaires like these might help me track certain details so I don't turn the blue Toyota that drives through Chapter 6 into a green Honda by the time it arrives in Chapter 14. But by themselves they do little to help in character formation, not if what I'm after is the texture of a human soul.

For that, I might want to take my character to lunch. Sure, I'll ask her place of birth and favorite color, just to break the ice. But eventually I'll want to know about her childhood, and I won't let her get away with a simple answer. You know characters, don't you? She might answer, just peachy, when I suspect it wasn't, not living in the town she lived in, with a brother who ate salamanders on the back porch... So I study her body, searching for clues. I lift the cuff of her gabardine jacket to reveal a tiny tattoo on her wrist, a salamander swimming inside a teardrop. "Tell me about this," I say, and then wait out her silence while she looks away and studies her fingernails, till at last she tells me about the summer day when she was ten.

Once the ice is broken, any character will spill her guts if you listen. She wants the story to get out; otherwise she never would have brought it to you in the first place.

Let it go deep enough, and this gut-spilling will give you a story-tellers dream come true: characters with histories and scars, attitudes and points of view, and the little spark of something that makes us stand in wonder at their uniqueness, their transcendence.

And all of these things will lend a priceless quality to your novel: subtext. It's the way your characters say the things they say, the things they never say or always say, that tells us that there is more to this story, an untold past that the reader may never know but only guess at.

One of the best books I have ever read on the creation of story-people is Getting Into Character by Brandilyn Collins. Here's a bit of what she has to say:

"Understanding the use of subtexting in dialogue is particularly difficult for inexperienced writers. Often a new novelist's tendency is to use WYSIWYG conversation because he has not yet grasped how to convey meaning without actually saying it. Since novels call for at least some dialogue in the majority of scenes, a lack of subtexting presents a major problem for a story. When a novelist learns how to employ subtexting effectively, dialogue that had once been lifeless and on-the-surface is transformed into vibrant interchanges between characters, pulling the reader into the story."

I'll bet you've found some vibrant characters in your own reading. Why not share snippets from their stories that made them leap from the page?

We love to read what you have to say.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Three's a Crowd, or Four or Five...

Is it just me, or does it seem like too many characters are clamoring for their own viewpoints lately? I'm reading a book right now by a bestselling ABA author who is confusing the heck out of me. She's an excellent writer and the story is compelling, but when I finally sit down to catch up on my reading after a long day at work, I find that I can't easily jump back into the story. A day or two goes by, and the characters are like dropped threads in a tapestry. Get them mixed up, and you have a mess on your hands. I really want to know how it ends, so I flip back a few pages to see which character's name is conveniently printed below the chapter heading. Hmm...Poindexter. Which one was he again - the retired college professor with unmarked graves in his backyard, the bi-polar guy who paints the Golden Gate bridge for a living or the major league umpire who's on the take? It makes me want to pick up a different book that doesn't involve so much work on my part to read.

There are three basic options available for viewpoint which apparently can now be further defined (third person limited, close third, distant third-yikes!) but how do we know which one is the best choice for the story? Here are some that were obvious choices:
  • The Time-Traveler's Wife alternates between the first-person viewpoints of both main characters. They are both fully invested in the story, present at the action, and labeled with name tags. It's a love story, so both their thoughts are vital to the story's development.
  • Water For Elephants is told in the viewpoint of one main character as a sort of memoir, which is a logical fit for first person, single viewpoint.
  • Bel Canto is told in an omniscient viewpoint since the story involves the fate of a group of people who are held hostage. It doesn't identify with one main character, but drops into the thoughts of several individuals to tell the story since they are all equally affected by the events. Stephen King also does this viewpoint well.
  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is told through the use of letters between acquaintances, which are by nature, first person. There is one main protagonist whose character arc is the longest, but the viewpoints of others are important to the story.
  • Gilead is an elderly father's first person account of his life to his young son, which is also best told in single viewpoint.
  • To Kill a Mockingbird is told through the first person single viewpoint of a child. As the powerful events are recounted through her filter, we see the issues distilled down in their simplest form.
  • Gone With the Wind is told in third person and largely in the viewpoint of Scarlett, although other viewpoints are used. Again, hers is the largest character arc.
When an idea first presents itself, we usually 'see' it in a certain viewpoint, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's the correct one. I have gone so far as to write several chapters in one viewpoint and written them over again in another, just to see which works best for the story. If first person makes the telling of the story awkward, I find third person is the most flexible. The objective is to find the best voice for your story without causing the reader confusion or cause them to stop reading.

For our writers, what made you choose the viewpoint for the manuscript you are currently writing, and for our readers, which viewpoint do you prefer to read? We'd love to hear.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Spin What You Know

Thank you, everyone for your kind wishes and congrats over Talking to the Dead winning at The Word Guild Awards. Tossing those warm fuzzies right back at you! Mwah!

How can you take what you know, and spin it into a story that will speak to the world? I'm thinking it begins by asking simple, yet complex questions.

In praise of Colum McCann's novel, Let the Great World Spin, Dave Eggers said, "Leave it to an Irishman to write one of the greatest-ever novels about New York."
I checked the back flap author info, and sure enough, Colum McCann lives in New York City with his family (born in Dublin, a stay in Japan, now in The Apple). McCann knows New York. He lives there - he's familiar with it's nooks, shops those out of the way places. Maybe rides the subways under the city, the elevators above it. It's a classic example of an author writing what he knows.

But that's not the question, here. The question is what makes Let the Great World Spin one of the 'greatest-ever' novels about New York? I can't speak for McCann, but I've made some observations while reading this novel about how McCann took what he knew and put a spin on it. Here are my imaginings of the steps McCann took:

He looked at his city (traveled through it, walking, riding, talking to people) and began to piece together an image of New York City as a whole. New York is a city divided - boroughs aligned with fear and poverty, Harlem, Queens, The Bronx, and addresses that define people more precisely than any adjective could. Park Avenue. Upper East Side. The Village. He knew all this going into the novel, of course. But he took the next step - he did what all great writers must do, he looked closer and asked himself, "What does this mean?"

It means, in part, that New York is a microcosm for American society, a sort of petri dish in which an entire nation can be observed in miniature. And in discovering this meaning, he would have asked himself the question, "How do we continue to live with each other in the face of these polemic divisions?" He would have examined the divisions - the choices and circumstances that leads some people to The Stroll, others to Park Avenue, and still others to the wild party scene, gulping the landscape like some many glasses of champagne, and, unbelievably, to walking on tightrope between the World Trade towers.

After this process, he would have turned his attention to the hinge question, the one on which the whole shooting match either works, or falls apart. He asks, "How does this city connect us to one another?"

And this is the story he tells - a city that, on the surface divides according to income, skin color, education, opportunity. A city with invisible walls that hem people in, and keep others out. But then, he takes up at the threads of the last question "How does this city connect us to one another", and he pulls. He brings the answers to the foreground where we can see them for the first time. It feels like a magic trick - TA-DA! and I can see what was only moments before invisible. I am made aware that the beating heart tucked away in a high-rise in the Bronx, gazing down at the hookers below, is connected to my own beating heart. He opens our eyes to the fact that the stranger we pass is, in reality, nearly related to us. That his existence matters to our own, and that ours matters to him.
And that is what makes it one of the greatest novels about New York. Because, in the end, its a novel about all of us.

This week we've been talking about writing what you know. As you do, ask yourself these simple, difficult questions:
What does this mean?
How does this reality affect us?
How does this reality connect us?

These questions will lead you to other questions - ones tied specifically to your subject matter, your story.
How have you taken what you know, and examined it more closely? Let your assumptions slide, and searched for the invisible threads?
Have you read a novel that has done this? We'd love to hear!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Congratulations to our Bonnie!

We are so proud of Bonnie! Last night her phenomenal novel, Talking to the Dead, won "Best Contemporary Novel" at Canada's The Word Guild's annual awards ceremony!

You go, girl!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

At Home in Story World

I've been on an Elizabeth Berg binge of late, reading one Berg novel after the other, right down the line, according to year of publication. Almost every time I check one out at the library, no matter which library I use, the clerk helping me makes a comment about Elizabeth's books, how much they enjoy her writing, how popular she is, etc. And I always agree. I love her writing. I can step into most any of her story worlds and feel right at home. Is this a result of Elizabeth "writing what she knows," as Marybeth discussed on Monday? For example, does Ms. Berg know what it's like to have a mother walk out on her (What We Keep)? ... have a husband who dies after depleting their life savings (Home Safe)? ... run a boarding house after a costly divorce (Open House)?
If we had an opportunity to sit down for a cup of tea with Elizabeth -- isn't she lovely? and wouldn't it be nice to be so familiar with her? -- and ask her about the stories she's written, she probably would say she doesn't know the specifics of each scenario, but what she does know is the relationships contained within the stories she writes. She knows what it is to be a wife, a mother, a friend. And after all, it's the relationships that I love about her writing. And it's relationships I love to write about. Like mothers and daughters, and daughters and mothers. There's no end to the story possibilities there!
How much, exactly, do you have to know about a topic to create a story world your readers would want to inhabit all the way to the last page? Is it enough, as in Marybeth's case, to just know about the mailbox, and use it as the central "What if ..." of a story? I say, "Absolutely!" That's where all my stories (published and unpublished) begin. "What if ..."
... a young boy makes a decision that leads to his sister's death, then struggles to deal with his guilt (Hub of a Daisy)?
... a woman's world is forever altered when she loses a lifelong friend to catastrophic illness (Every Good & Perfect Gift)?
... a woman's world is rocked and rocked again with news of her husband's death, then of his infidelity (Lying on Sunday)?
... a woman experiences a crisis of faith when the unthinkable happens (Unraveled)?
I don't know what it is to cause someone's death, but I do know how it feels to lose a sibling. And I do know how it feels to carry guilt for decisions I've made.
I don't know what it is to experience infertility, but I do know what it is to lose a close friend to Early Onset Alzheimer's. I've lost two in fact to EOA.
I don't know what it's like to be a widow, but I do know what it is to have a comfortable life interrupted by devastating news.
I've never had a crisis of faith, but I've experienced things that have made me ask the hard questions of God.
So maybe it's a blend of what we know, taking us into what we don't know, because of who we know. Convoluted? Perhaps. But a lot goes into the writing of a novel. We can't know everything about everything. That's where research comes in (and the Internet has put a world of facts at our fingertips -- so much easier than in the old days), but we're not writing term papers, so we have to be expert weavers, seamlessly inserting our research as threads that blend with the whole. And beyond that, we have to give our imagination permission to run free.
When you open a novel, what are your expectations when you read the first page? Do you read as an interested observer, or as a participant in the story? Whose voice do you hear word by word? Do you read a novel to learn something, or to experience something? Or both? What are some story worlds you've found easy to inhabit, and why?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


We're excited to announce that as a result of our 2nd Audience-with-an-Agent Contest, Janet Grant of Books & Such Literary Agency has requested the full manuscript for . . .

Bringing Back Bobbie by Mary Lotz.

Congratulations to Mary, and to the other finalists. We want to thank all of you for your entries. We really enjoyed reading your stories. We urge you not to be discouraged. Continue to make your manuscript the best it can be. Take it to writers conferences, enter other contests. Don't give up. If you've read our blog for any length of time, you know our path to publication was unique to each of us, but perseverance was the common thread. Press on. We wish you all the best.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Write What You Know - A She Reads Guest Post by Marybeth Whalen

Please welcome Marybeth Whalen to Novel Matters. She is the co-founder of our sister blog She Reads, a wonderful connecting place between readers, writers, and book clubs.
I've heard this adage since I was in creative writing class in high school. And while it might be true, it's been repeated so often that I don't think we even hear it anymore. Like a favorite Bible verse, do we even stop to really ponder what it means?

What would it mean for you to write what you know?

I have found that writing what you know can be invaluable. The trick is to find that thing that you know that no one else knows about.

I had been visiting the mailbox on Sunset Beach, NC for years and years. So long, in fact, that I can't even remember when I first started going or how I first learned about it. I loved the mystique of the place, the folklore attached to it. I loved going there and reading the letters from people all over the world left for the Kindred Spirit-- the anonymous person who tends the mailbox. I loved leaving the occasional letter myself. But it wasn't until two years ago that the idea occurred to me that the mailbox would make a perfect centerpiece for a romance. It was already a romantic place. But surely someone else had already had the idea... right?

I searched Amazon, Barnes and Noble and the library. I went to the bookstore in Sunset Beach and asked the book mavens there if they'd ever heard of a book that focused on the mailbox. When they said no, I whispered a silent, "Yes!"

The mailbox-- at least as far as the subject in relation to a novel was concerned-- was mine. I had found something no one had done, about something I was uniquely aware of. This month my novel,
The Mailbox, is being released. My unique angle on a beach romance paid off.

We all have things like this if we learn to look for them. That ring that was your grandmother's with the mysterious story attached to it. The family tall tales of your great grandfather, the horse-riding evangelist. That little out of the way vintage soda shoppe you've been going to for years with the sassy, gum-cracking waitress who must be 90 years old if she's a day.

Nicholas Sparks mined the story of his wife's grandparents to create
The Notebook. Kathryn Stockett delved into her history with her family's maid to create The Help. In the same vein, Joy Jordan Lake wove bits and pieces of her adolescent experience with racism into the Christy Award winning Blue Hole, Back Home. Bonnie Grove used her counseling experience to tell the story of a woman who started hearing her dead husband talking to her in Talking To The Dead. The writer of Steel Magnolias created the play based on his sister's death as viewed through the friendships of the strong southern women he'd grown up around. He took something that was uniquely his and packaged it in such a way that it resonated profoundly. (Who hasn't cried during that funeral scene?)

The trick for all of us is to look around, to pay attention to what we've experienced, felt, thought or been piqued by and wrap a novel around it, focusing on the uniqueness of those experiences, feelings, and curiosity. My friend Ariel finds endless story ideas through the newspaper and magazine articles she reads. Her novel
eye of the god was sparked by an article she read in Life Magazine in high school on the curse of the Hope Diamond. This article caused her to begin researching the curse, and over time a novel came out of the information she had acquired. She was passionate about it, and that passion lives and breathes on the pages of her novel. It became uniquely hers and she was able to uniquely share it.

Any of us can tell a story about friends or motherhood or WWII or a vacation. But can we set those stories somewhere interesting that most other people don't have access to? Can we have characters who do fascinating jobs that most people don't know about? Can we find a unique motif or object to center the novel on that is part of our culture or geography? Publishers will tell you that selling a novel does depend on the writing-- absolutely-- but it also depends on bringing something new to the table-- approaching a subject that's been done a million times in a way that is fresh and exciting.

What do you bring to the table? Start looking around, paying attention, and discovering how to write what you know... that no one else does.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Reading as a Writer

Are you preparing a proposal for your agent to present at ICRS? Several of us at Novel Matters are doing just that. It's like finals week at my house. Anyway, I decided to have a little fun with today's post. Prepare to make a true confession about your vacations.

Also...we're announcing the winner to the Audience-with-an-Agent contest. Janet Grant is requesting a manuscript! Be here on Wednesday, June 15th for the grand reveal. This is so exciting!!!

On a recent trip to Seattle, my husband and I went looking for a grocery store to restock our ice chest before driving across the Great American Desert. Not too surprisingly, we drove by a garden center. Dennis, the original nose-to-the-ground guy, actually craned his neck to get a better look at that garden center.

“Do you want to stop?” I asked.

“Could we? You wouldn't mind?” He managed a U-turn on Seattle’s narrow streets and parked the car.

Imagine an art history major visiting the Louvre for the first time. That was Dennis in that garden center. We manage to find ourselves at garden centers on most vacations, even New Zealand. We’ve owned our garden center for 27 years. Visiting someone else’s garden center is a great way to find new ways of doing things. There are also plant envy issues to deal with.

Once inside, Dennis bent to read a tag on a shrub. “Oh man, I wish we could grow these at home.” (Please note: Seattle gets 38” of rain a year. In a lush year, we receive 9" in western Colorado.)

“What is it?” I said, rubbing the glossy leaves.

Shrubagreata grandiflora fantastico.” Actually, he provided the spot-on Latin name for the shrub. This is my interpretation.

“Should I take a picture?”

“Maybe if we planted it on the east side.”

I snapped a picture. Dennis, wistful, took notes on signage, display, and product placement. We left the garden center with new ideas and the reassurance that our small-town garden center was above average. We also left with a shrubagreata grandiflora fantastico in the backseat. It died.

My husband’s passion is people who happen to buy plants. Mine is storytelling, so I do exactly the same thing, only with books. I read as a writer.

Reading as a writer means I pay attention to how an author has described a character in a fresh way, like Sue Monk Kidd describes Rosaleen in The Secret Life of Bees: “She had a big round face and a body that sloped out from her neck like a pup tent, and she was so black that night seemed to seep from her skin.”


I can’t and won’t copy that description, but I will look at my characters more carefully to find that common image and surprising comparison that paints an instant picture.

Describing the appearance of a character is one thing. Showing the inner conflict of a character requires incredible self control. Tell too much up front and what’s the point of finishing the book? The just-right amount will propel a reader into the story.

Christa Parrish is masterful at character development in Watch Over Me. Early on we get this glimpse into Abbi’s head:

How her mind had wandered from prayer to hair, she couldn’t remember. But it happened that way when she ran, her feet penitent against the loose stone at the start, her petitions spilling into the open space with each breath. And then, twenty or so minutes later, she slowed for a quick drink and realized she’d been making mental lists…
Parrish takes what is common to us all and uses language that provides a keyhole view of her character’s inner life. I love it!

And this might seem silly, but writers love a fresh use of punctuation or the lack thereof. Lately, we’re seeing punctuation used more in the manner it was originally intended, as cues for speech patterns: Sit. Down. Now. There’s no doubt the speaker is talking through her teeth.

I just finished Lisa Samson’s Embrace Me. Samson uses dialogue attribution tags (says, asks, etc.) sparingly. This keeps the dialogue moving along at an engaging, natural clip. She takes this to the next level by not using the attribution tag at all:

She turns around and crosses her arms. “Go thirsty then, big shot. It’s you choice.” And proceeds to make herself a cup of tea. “Go home then. I’m’ sure it’s more exciting there than this gloomy place.”

Gloomy? What’s so gloomy about Shalom?

I look around me. Cracked walls, buckled linoleum floors severely lacking that lemony fresh glow you see on television commercials.

“Anything’s better than that trailer.” Bobby. [Just Bobby!]

While reading Embrace Me, I was never confused about who was speaking. I’m not quite sure what I think about this technique, although losing attribution tags wouldn’t disappoint me. Whether I experiment with attribution tags or not, I appreciate the nudge Samson gives me to think about how I use them.

Writers love to think about things like this. I know. We’re strange.

The best possible reading experience for me, however, is like jumping into a vat of chocolate. I don’t worry about deciphering the recipe. How much cocoa? Butter? Milk? Nope, I open my mouth and start gulping. To think about the recipe would be a precious waste of opportunity.

And so, I’m curious, do authorial devices jump out at you when you’re reading? Do you find some language too conspicuous and distracting? Do you ever highlight a passage or a word in a novel? Do you visit odd places on your vacations? I won't tell.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Yawpy Endings

In Katie’s wonderful post on Monday, she encouraged us to look for “yawp” in novels—but, more importantly, to have the courage to create yawp.

I’d like to drill down on that concept a bit. It seems to me that courageous and inventive writing has to both sustain yawp through the novel, but must also to pull together elements at the end for a final punch.

Sometimes a good novel whittles away all the rest of the plot to end with a satisfying distillation of themes in the book. I’ve used this quote before, but I love it, from Toni Morrison’s Beloved:

She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.

Contrast that to the ending of The Great Gatsby. Instead of using a closeup as in Beloved, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s verbal camera pulls way back and looks at the history of the setting, zooms in on the main character of the book, and then ends with a still shot of a universal truth:

Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning——

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Both these novels are courageous and yawpy. What other novels can you offer which had a strong yawpy ending?

Monday, June 7, 2010


Every time - so far - that I have written a post from a state of weariness so deep I could barely walk from one end of a thought to the other, the post has turned out better than many I have written fully rested.

You may be in for a treat. It's been a great but long week.

While I was busy doing more than my usual work and family and social things, Sharon*, Bonnie and Debbie posted some wonderful advice on the staging of scenes and the surviving of a writer's life. In trying to think of a topic as helpful as theirs, I keep circling round to the question: Why exactly is it, that I so often write better when I am tired (and perhaps you do, too)?

My theory is that the censors in our brains that tell us what we can and cannot say in print are a pack of old hags** who badly need their beauty rest, and so they turn in early. Don't stay up too late, they warn. And do please try to behave yourself.

I'll try.

But now that they're out of earshot, I'm going to tell you something I would never tell them: the thing that makes me drop a novel fastest has nothing to do with style and everything to do with yawp! - or rather, the lack of it.

You did watch The Dead Poets Society, didn't you? I'm referring to the line from Walt Whitman's poem, ''Song of Myself:"
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

We Christians rarely sound barbaric yawps. And we need to.

A few premises for Christian authors:

  1. You live in a fallen world.
  2. So does your reader.
  3. You have not - have not - come out unscathed.
  4. Neither has your reader.

I emphasize #3 because so often we pretend that in the act of redeeming us Jesus also unscathed us, so that we no longer bear the marks or even the memories of our wounds. It's a nice thought, and it might be pleasant if it were so, but it's not, and it's not biblical. David made no pretense of living in a powder pink world, and neither did Isaiah or Solomon or Jeremiah or Paul... or Jesus. Redemption - "re-naming" - is meaningless in a powder pink world.

Your reader needs to hear from your barbaric self.

I love to read books that shock me with some fresh recognition of a dark part of my experience, that make me wipe my tears and say, "yes, yes, it's just that way," and then walk me through to the bright light of redemption. I love authors with the courage to look at their own lives with such searching honesty. I know that they have done deep soul work, that perhaps they have journaled tired, so that the words came out uncensored.

In your comments today, I'd love it if you would share the "yawp" moments you have found in your reading. You writers: how have you accomplished it in your own work, and how did the experience affect you?

We love to read what you have to say.

*Bless Sharon for quoting that segment of Dance that I thought my publishers would surely cut - but they didn't.

**Definition for hag:
1. An ugly evil-looking old woman
2. Eel-like cyclostome having a tongue with horny teeth in a round mouth surrounded by eight tentacles; feeds on dead or trapped fishes by boring into their bodies

Thursday, June 3, 2010

What I Wish I'd Known

In a few weeks I will have the privilege of speaking to a Sacramento writers group and I am hoping that you might help me out. My topic is "What I Wish I'd Known" as it pertains to writing or the writing life. You don't have to be a published author to have discovered what you wish you'd known when you first put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). Sometimes many years pass before a writer sees his or her words in print, and in all that time progress is made, mistakes are addressed and shortcuts are found. Wisdom is gained. This is where you come in.

First, I'll offer a few insights I learned of my own:
  • 'You're only as good as your next book.' I always thought this sounded like something said to keep the author's pride in check, or used as a book contract negotiation tool. But it's true. An author sends off one 'baby' and births another, if she gets the chance. Once again she stands at the lonely intersection of Creation and Vulnerability and scavenges for an idea, a character or a plot. There are no guarantees that she will sell another book or that people will like the book once it's published. So, the same effort should be put into each book produced, even though you had the luxury of spit-polishing the first one for five years and had to write the second one in a matter of months. It's hard to do consistently.
  • 'Humor is subjective and doesn't always translate well to the written word.' Okay, I think most of us have written something, for example in an email or a Facebook post, that seemed so witty at the time but fell flat and sounded plain stupid. As we mentioned in Latayne's earlier post of May 26, sarcasm without accompanying visual or tonal cues can be misunderstood and offense can easily be taken. On the other hand, if you have no gift for humor, you may simply bore the pants off the reader, which is just sad. This is one of those times that it's better to be safe than sorry.
  • 'Writing feeds me.' If life gets in the way and too much time goes by before I can write, I get grumpy and out-of-sorts. Basically, I'm starving. There is something about the creative process of peopling fictional places with living, breathing characters who want something so powerfully that they grow in spirit and soul that nourishes me. This is one time I shouldn't skip meals.
I polled different writer friends and here are two of the thought-provoking words of wisdom I received (without giving away the entire list):

Randy Ingermanson says:
Focus on improving your craft. Once you have good craft, the contacts with agents and editors will be easy. If you don't have good craft, any contacts you might make with agents and editors will be useless.

DiAnn Mills
True success is a hundred pages without an adverb.

Can you think of something you have learned along the way that would have made the journey easier? It could be a practical labor-saving device, an incredible book or website, or a quote or bit of inspiration you received, for example. As I said, you don't have to be a published author to have gleaned wisdom from the process. You just have to keep your eyes open. What can you share with us today?