Friday, July 30, 2010


In her excellent post on Wednesday, Bonnie touched on our need for validation, and where one should or shouldn't seek it. No matter who we are or what we do, we need validation. We need to know that what we spend a good deal of our time doing isn't wasted time. That it matters. As writers, oh how the time adds up. We can spend months, even years working on a novel or non-fiction book, and feel every minute as if we're walking a tightrope without a safety net. A book can release to great reviews only to garner mediocre sales numbers. As we wade through the disappointment, how do we determine which one tells the real story? Maybe neither. Or maybe both.
"Validation is an illusion," Bonnie says. Well, at the very least it can be fickle. We have to take it all with a grain of salt, and most assuredly we must consider the source. Best friends and mothers are not the most reliable validators. Because they love you, they love your work. Or they'll say they do to keep from breaking your heart. Bless them, but don't rely too heavily on their praise. By the same token, good reviews don't guarantee a best seller. See what I mean? Fickle.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

How to Avoid Looking Silly in Public

In the past two weeks, we’ve covered diverse ground on Novel Matters. Week before last we talked about various aspects of marketing, from word of mouth, to social networking. Then, last week, Katy Popa pointed out how easy it is to be caught with our metaphor around our ankles. She said, “Metaphors are not toys. If you don't know how to handle them they can hurt you - or worse: they can make you look silly.”

Today, I’m going to combine these two topics and (and paraphrase Katy’s quote to suit my purposes) talk about life in the public eye.

Social networking is not a toy. If you don’t know how to handle it, it can hurt you – or worse, kill your writing career.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Roundtable: Words of Encouragement

Recently, a good friend shared with me that after many years of writing in snatches of time and late night/early mornings and doing battle with discouragement, he finally has the attention of a New York agent. The agent loves his manuscript and is working with him to fine tune and rewrite it. When he finally gets that book contract, I will share his name and book release date. Even though he has not yet signed on the dotted line, he is absolutely elated that a professional in the publishing industry has validated his work. No more wondering whether his manuscript sings or stinks. He's on Cloud 9 right now. He is jazzed about therewriting process and the loss of sleep is no longer a problem, I think.

As writers, we work so long with insecurity and self-flagellation over our writing, wondering if it's really worth the time spent away from family, late nights and bleary-eyed mornings, getting so close to success, only to have it slip away. Of course, we write because we love it or we would come to our senses and get a normal hobby that wasn't such an emotional roller coaster. But at some point, we all need to have some encouragement, some validation to keep going.

My first true encouragement came from a much-published author who I'm sure has absolutely no recollection of me or the impact she made on a newbie writer. Her name is Lauraine Snelling, and I took her fiction track at Mount Hermon the first time I went to the conference many years ago. She gave us the opportunity to turn in our proposals for critique, and I rushed to turn it in and waited on pins and needles for her response which would come through the normal submission channels of the conference. As it turned out, she came over to me during the book signing event and asked me why the manuscript hadn't been published. I said I didn't
know and asked what was wrong with it. Her response was, "Absolutely nothing." That manuscript was never published, but her encouragement, her validation was all I needed to keep going. Thank you, Lauraine!

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Assault and Battery of Metaphors

Lean in closely. Are you listening?

Metaphors are not toys.

If you don't know how to handle them they can hurt you - or worse: they can make you look silly. Here's proof, from a unwitting author who shall remain nameless (because I don't know her name):

"As far as my writing career goes, this project could be the gravy on the cake."*

Oh, I hope it isn't; I do. But if she writes like that, she could find herself sitting on the bench.

Right next to Barack Obama, who said in 2008:

"Now, Senator McCain suggests that somehow, you know, I'm green behind the ears."

Maybe somebody should look.

Next to him will sit - however unwillingly - Sean Hannity ("That may sound great on paper") and Rush Limbaugh ("...who were going to fight you hook, line and sinker.")

Sometimes the gaffs are so glaring, you wonder - hope - they are intentional. Perhaps, you think, the speaker is making a joke:

It's as American as killing two birds with one apple pie. Gary Swing, Colorado candidate for House of Representatives

So silly, you think. You don't have to be an expert to spot a mess like that.

But be careful! Botched metaphors aren't always obvious. Because so much of our language is figurative, we forget that certain words paint pictures. Which means we'd best pay attention to what they are painting, or we could end up with something truly bizarre:

Over all, many experts conclude, advanced climate research in the United States is fragmented among an alphabet soup of agencies, strained by inadequate computing power and starved for the basic measurements of real-world conditions that are needed to improve simulations. The New York Times, 11 June 2001**

At first I thought of crackers, fragmented in the alphabet soup, and it almost worked. But then he strained the soup - so there went my crackers - and said we - or someone - was starved. Which was no surprise if he is going to go around straining the crackers out of the soup.

We must be so careful.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Care and Feeding of Metaphors

We have a winner! Laura Davis wins a 5-page weeding of her manuscript by Patti Hill. Thanks to all who commented. We enjoyed the conversation very much!

When sweet Patti and I were at the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids, MI in April, we heard the astounding story of Kate DiCamillo, who began her writing career as a 29-year-old working in a book warehouse in the children’s section. This award-winning author of Because of Winn-Dixie and The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup, and a Spool of Thread related that by reading the books she stocked, she began to have some ideas about what makes good writing. But Kate soon discovered that exposure to good writing was not enough, talent was not enough, and even hard work was not enough (though she says it is a major part of her success.)

DiCamillo said that while people can teach others many writing skills (and Patti’s post on Monday brought out some marvelous techniques for identifying and pruning extraneous language, for instance), no one can teach metaphor. You either have the skill of creating it or you don’t. This isn’t exactly news: Aristotle who lived over 2000 years ago said

The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor. This alone cannot be imparted by another; it is the mark of genius, for to make good metaphors implies an eye for resemblance. –Aristotle, Poetics

I … dunno about that genius bit. But I know that my mind has been percolating as I finish a novel (my regular thinking is Mr. Coffee ™ drip system; when I’m writing I’m a Bunn ™ pourover coffee dispenser with the water always boiling ready to spill into brew.) Yep, I’m full of metaphors.

Well, most everyone who reads this blog is a writer. Do you think in metaphors? I bet you do. I’m going to get you started with a list of writing metaphors from my hot little carafe, so to speak.

  • Last week I referred to the oft-quoted saying that writing is easy, all you do is sit in front of a keyboard and open a vein. Writing my present WIP is more like doing your own bone marrow extraction.
  • If I’m successful in luring readers into my literary world, it will be by slathering them with an emollient atmosphere until they feel so weightless in it that I can pull them along with invisible spider threads.
  • Rewriting feels like a heifer chewing cud: I do it because of my faith that the result will be great; but if I have to be involved with the process one more time I fear I may regurgitate and not be able to swallow it again.

Come on! What does writing feel like to you?

Monday, July 19, 2010

Weeding Your Manuscript

Contest Time! Every writer packs his/her manuscript with unnecessary words or phrases. I do it and Stephen King does it. Right, Steve? The best way to heighten your awareness of clutter is to ask someone else to bracket the words that can be deleted without losing meaning. If you leave a comment today, you'll be eligible to win my services. I will bracket the clutter in the first five pages of your manuscript. I am very kind.

I have made this letter a rather long one, only because I didn't have the leisure to make it shorter.
-- Blaise Pascal

Extraneous words are the weeds of a manuscript. A garden with weeds is still a garden, but its enjoyment is diminished. Likewise, a novel’s enjoyment is diminished by unnecessary words.

Note: I’ve bracketed words or phrases [in my text] that can be deleted without changing the meaning of the sentence.

And I am the [absolute] queen of unnecessary words. I pound out a [quick] rough draft, and must, with a pen as a hoe, thrash out redundant words and phrases.

In editorial lexicon, redundant words and phrases have a name, pleonasms. It sounds like a disease, and it is death for the novel. Pleonasms fatigue the reader and make her cranky. This is counterproductive for the novelist who wants her reader to [completely] indulge herself in a story.

In everyone else’s writing, pleonasms glow in the dark, attracting the editor’s pencil like a moth. However, they’re invisible in our own writing. Our speaking habits leach into our written words. It takes practice, vigilance, and a determination for excellence to unclutter our writing.

Are you game?

Start with adjectives. First of all, adjectives are not evil. They are [absolutely] necessary for clarity in the English language. I know workshop teachers are telling you to strike every last adjective [out]. That would be a mistake. Here’s a passage from a novel I just finished reading:

This is not a vivid place. Our only strong hue is green, and this we have in every shade: the emerald velvet mosses, the glossy, tangled ivies, and in spring, the gold-greens of tender new grasses. For the rest, we move through a patchwork of grays.–From Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks


Rather than eradicate adjectives, let’s start by eliminating only the redundant.
Example: Unexpected surprise and end result

Surprises are unexpected by the qualification of being a surprise, and a result is something that happens at the end of an event, leaving us with the [fully] adequate nouns, surprise and result, no modifiers needed.

Onto the [much] maligned adverb. In the hierarchy of [naughty] writer sins, overusing adverbs is ranked among run-on sentences and passive voice. The adverbs of manner—like cheerfully, appealingly, assiduously, etc.—seem to focus our rage.
Example: The theater is completely filled.

There is no other way for a theater to be filled than to be filled completely. "Completely" can go.

And now for the truly insidious redundancy in writing, the pleonastic clause. In our drive for clarity, we tend to overstate and bog down the pace of our sentences.
Here’s a [common] example: She sat down in the chair.
Where else is she going to sit? If she does sit someplace evocative, like a throne or a thorn bush, please include that.

Prepositional phrases provide a helpful cue [for me] when looking for weedy words. For instance, I’m forever striking the phrase “for me” out of my writing. If a first-person character is talking about herself, the phrase isn’t always necessary, as in this sentence: Looking back, I believe it was important [for me] to put some distance between my past and my future.

It [really] helps to read a manuscript [through] two or three times to weed out redundancy and/or unnecessary words. I read using an accent to slow me down. ("Cheery-o, this is a smashing manuscript!) It’s magical how the unnecessary words and phrases pop out.

At this point, you may be thinking, "Isn't this my editor's job?" Oh, how I wish it were. It's laborious weeding a manuscript. No one will care about the uncluttered beauty of your manuscript as much as you.

How do you weed out unnecessary words? Will cluttered prose force you to put a novel down? At what stage of your writing do you weed? Any tricks to share for making redundant words and phrases pop? Do you have a pet phrase you’re forever weeding?

Friday, July 16, 2010

Social Network Marketing

Ariel Lawhon started us off this week talking about Word of Mouth as a valuable means of promoting our work. She and Marybeth Whalen know a thing or two about word of mouth when it comes to promoting the work of Christian authors. They developed She Reads (our sister blog) for just that purpose. In less than a year's time they have 10,000 visitors a month, and more than 120 bookclubs under their umbrella. We here at Novel Matters appreciate the great work they're doing on behalf of Christian fiction.

Bonnie concluded her post on Wednesday by saying, "... and while aspects of Word of Mouth will likely remain a mystery, there are foundational beginnings -- the rock first thrown into still waters -- that set things in motion ..." The social network is like concentric circles on the pond. Often you make an initial splash, but then one by one the outer circles disappear until there's not even a ripple left where the rock went in. That's not at all what you want. You want your circles to ripple out and cause more circles that ripple out and cause more circles that ripple out, until the whole pond is affected. That's what you want, what you hope for.
Mostly, that doesn't happen.
But when it does, it's quite a thing to behold. Two examples: The Shack and the Twilight series. Both are phenomenally popular ... and both are overwhelming evidence that a book doesn't have to be well written to create a tsunami effect on the pond. I read The Shack after my brother told me about it, just as the buzz was getting started. I wasn't far into it when I stopped and turned back a few pages to see who had published it. I would have staked my life that it was a self-published, non-edited book ... and would have lived to see my next birthday. Unfortunately, The Shack is making news again because the author and, ahem, editors -- I use the term lightly -- are suing each other for authorship and royalties. Nice. And I finally caved and read Twilight after people I love and respect (who shall remain nameless) went on and on about it. I attempted to read it, that is. Halfway through the first book I literally threw it across my rather large living room. "How could something so poorly written Sell So Many Books?!" I asked my envious self. While there's some comfort in the fact that The Shack and the Twilight series will not be remembered by anyone as literary classics, I'd love to have their sales numbers -- all created by reader buzz. (I'll resist the urge to say, "Shame on you, readers!")
Okay, I'll take my tongue out of my cheek (and send a book to the first person who can give me the etymology of that ridiculous phrase -- and I don't just mean the Wikipedia definition. Really, tell me how the phrase originated, because I mean, how do you do that? It's not so easy. Go ahead, put your tongue in your cheek and try saying your full name. Now try it on the other side. Even harder, right?) and get back to the subject at hand. So what are some of the ways to increase book sales by word of mouth through social networking? And does the time spent really pay off? Because anyone who's logged in to Twitter or Facebook knows an entire evening can be gobbled up before you know it. I conducted an informal poll with some of the author loops I participate in and most everyone who responded cited Facebook as their most productive social network site, followed by Twitter and Good Reads. But remember, those are just the results of my very informal, poorly-participated-in poll. "Social networking has been invaluable," says one author who responded. "It is the gift that keeps on giving." And for some, that's the absolute truth.
Janet Grant, of Books & Such agency, who represents three of the authors here on Novel Matters, recently sent an email to the Books & Such loop, reprinted from an article in "The Book Marketing Expert newsletter" on the benefits of Internet marketing, which made a number of good points. Here's an important one:

"Don't get too myopic on doing just one thing for your marketing. The truth is, you need to do a lot of different things, balanced out over a week or a month for your marketing to really make sense."

After the release of Every Good & Perfect Gift and Lying on Sunday in 2008, my own social network buzz-creating efforts barely caused a ripple on our hypothetical pond. Of course, I know more about social networking now than I did then. But still, barely a ripple. So there are things I will do in the future that I didn't do the first time around, and things I did that I won't next time. For example, I won't pay someone to do a blog tour for me when my next book releases. I have enough contacts on my own to work on that myself. I will continue to increase my Facebook friends, and hopefully reach the readers among them each time I have a new release. I will try to reach as many book clubs as I possibly can, and offer to "participate" in their group discussions via Skype or telephone, unless they're close enough to personally attend. Of all the personal appearance things I do, visiting with book clubs is my favorite, probably because it's one of the more intimate ways to interact with readers. And of course, I will do my utmost to put out a novel that my readers won't be tempted to hurl across their living rooms.

So, what have you read lately that caused you to participate in word-of-mouth promotion? Let's add to each other's TBR pile. I'll start. Where the River Ends (and anything else) by Charles Martin. It's not a new book, but it gets an A++ rating from me.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Word of Mouth Beginnings: Your Proposal and Your Agent

On Monday, Ariel Allison, from our sister blog SheReads kicked off Marketing Week here on Novel Matters by reminding us that the most powerful tool in Marketing is Word of Mouth – when readers, lots of readers, fall in love with a book and help other people to fall in love with it too. She pointed out that the genesis of the word of mouth phenomenon begins with years of dedication to the craft. The determined, consistent effort to write, and then write better.

If step one of creating unstoppable word of mouth is honing the craft of writing over years, then step two is harnessing, and wielding the power of two indispensible marketing tools: Your proposal and your agent.

Since the proposal is often the means by which a writer attains an agent, let’s start there. We’ve all heard about the ‘hook’ – that definitive, defining sentence (how many times have we heard it needs to be a sentence? We have even been told how many words this magical sentence should contain – seven. I have to roll my eyes at these ridiculous formulas that would have writers believe that their creativity must be conscripted to jots and diddles of certain size. But that is another blog post). The hook portion of our proposal is not meant to be some catchy jingle, some dazzling display of Jazz Hands to show off how clever and gifted the author is. It is meant to breathe the first contagious strands of Word of Mouth excitement about this novel. It is designed to convey the emotion and depth of meaning contained in the novel. It’s crafted to get the reader excited – not by the jiggle in the writer’s walk, but though conveying the pure power of story.

Arielle Ford, in her article How to Create A Bidding War for Your Book Proposal, says the hook should be “[. . .] something so fascinating or cutting edge or heart warming that publishing VIPs can't help but turn the page.” In other words, it needs to convey the power of the story so strongly, that no one, not even word weary publishing VIPs can resist.

The goal of the hook isn’t simply to get you noticed and published, it’s to get you noticed, talked about, and published. Word of mouth excitement about your novel is fueled in-house. When publishing professionals get excited about a novel, they talk about – to everyone they know. Other pub pros, friends, spouses, book clubs, booksellers.
You want to be talked about in-house, but for the right reasons. Not because of razzle-dazzle misfire, but because of your ability to present the experience of the story in abbreviated form.

Ah, but what if you are not “in-house”? What if you have no ability to gain the attentions of publishing VIPs? Enter the literary agent. Your knock out proposal, including that pitch perfect hook, needs to reach out and grab the attention of agents. Preferably lots of agents. Because when it comes to creating word of mouth, finding the right agent is key.

A writer friend recently confided to me, “Experience has taught me that a bad agent is worse than no agent at all.” Online lists abound on what constitutes a good or bad agent – but for the purpose of this post, I will assume you are aware of the agents who are truly connected, recognized, and established in the publishing world.

Snagging a great agent is no easy task. It can take all sorts of time, lead up all sorts of blind alleys, and leave the writer exhausted. But it is worth every moment, every e-mail, every conversation, and every failed lunch date. Because the three most powerful qualities of an agent are these:

1. The fit
2. The excitement
3. The agents dogged efforts to promote your work to publishers, both before and after the manuscript is sold

Fit refers to the mutual relationship between writer and agent. Is the agent ticking your boxes? Can the two of you communicate well? Do you like each other? Do you understand each other?

The excitement belongs the agent, not you. Is the agent genuinely excited about you and your work? (Hint: Has the agent read your work? Or did they have an assistant read it? Can the agent point out specific parts of the novel that he loved?) This goes hand in hand with fit (I’ve heard of many, many times when an agent has been over the top excited about a writer, but the fit wasn’t there for one side or the other, the writer needed to keep searching), but it also stands as it’s own point. An agent who demonstrates his affection for your project, communicates and articulates what it is about your work that gets his juices flowing, is an agent you want on your side. And for more reasons that the obvious. Remember, we are talking Word of Mouth Marketing.

The agent who is excited about a work is the agent who will fight for it. She will sell it with all the emotion of a new parent. She will take hold of the ear of publishing pros and pass on the joy – and get the novel sold. Hurray! But hold up, it doesn’t end there. In a knee knocking article entitled
Necessary Agent, Jofie Ferrari-Adler speaks both on and off the record with editors from major publishing houses on the subject of agents as in-house advocates after a project has been acquired. And it brings us back to the question of what constitutes a good agent. Ferrari-Adler offers this definition:

An agent who understands that at a time when there is an industry-wide blockbuster mentality that makes it harder than it’s ever been for editors to find the institutional support it takes to publish serious work well, it is more important than ever for agents to be fearless, savvy, and relentless advocates for their clients after their books are under contract. An agent who understands that the long and winding road to publication is fraught with trouble, and that her role has evolved into a symbiotic partnership with your editor. An agent who understands that in today’s publishing industry, your editor needs her constant presence and support—needling, brainstorming, cajoling, and sometimes even harassing. An agent who understands, in short, that your editor needs her help.
Word of mouth marketing is truly organic. It is the ever widening ripples of shared human experience. And while aspects of Word of mouth will likely forever remain a mystery, there are foundational beginnings – the rock first thrown into the still waters – that set things in motion long before the book hits the shelf: The time you take to perfect your craft, your proposal which encapsulates all that is unique and moving about your story, and your agent who works tirelessly as an advocate of your work both before and after the manuscript sells.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Word of Mouth - Guest Post by Ariel Allison Lawhon of SheReads

Please welcome Ariel Allison Lawhon from our sister blog SheReads. She's talking Word of Mouth as a marketing phenomenon. It's a wonderful post, and it kicks off a week of talking about the other side of marketing - not the author breaking her back to promote (and that happens), rather organic marketing that springs up spontaneously. Welcome to Marketing Week!

Word of mouth sells fiction. We know that. It’s

drummed into us at marketing workshops and writer’s conferences. Some statistics go so far as to say that 80% of novels are sold on word of mouth alone. Yet no one seems to really know what that means or how to utilize it.

Does a well-orchestrated blog tour equal word of mouth?

A marketing campaign?

Can it be organized, duplicated, or harnessed?

May I suggest that true word of mouth is far more elusive and organic? It is spontaneous. And it leaps from the chest of a reader when they close the book and realize they were moved, as novelist and Rhodes Scholar Christopher Morley so aptly puts it:

“There is no mistaking a real book when one meets it. It is like falling in love, and like that colossal adventure it is an experience of great social import. Even

as the tranced swain, the book-lover yearns to tell others of his bliss. He writes letters about it, adds it to the postscript of all manner of communications, intrudes it into telephone messages, and insists on his friends writing down the title of the find. Like the simple-hearted betrothed, once certain of his conquest, “I want you to love her, too!”

Word of mouth, I believe, originates with one foot in the author’s world and one in the reader’s. They are equal participants in the phenomenon (which should come as good news to all us writers slaving away in the spare bedroom with stale coffee and a second-hand PC). For instance, the most talked about novel in the last two years is undoubtedly Kathryn Stockett’s, The Help. While most people know of her instant success, few are aware that before landing an agent, much less a publisher, she worked with an independent editor for over a decade. Kathryn Stockett did her part, enduring the “grueling” process that spanned five years and “I-don’t-know-how-many-drafts” until The Help was perfected. That degree of dedication to the craft and to the characters bleeds onto the pages of her novel. And it got people talking.

I borrowed The Help from my sister while snowed-in over Christmas and read it in two days. The moment roads were clear, I went to the bookstore and bought a copy for myself. Since then, I have recommended it countless times, all the while displaying that besotted expression Mr. Morley describes above. (Can we have a moment of silence for that chocolate pie? Best revenge ever.) And I am only one of countless readers that responded with such enthusiasm. In a recent interview, Amy Einhorn, publisher of The Help, had this to say about the role readers have played in the novel’s success:

“It’s been incredible how well the book is doing, thanks in big part to the hand-selling of booksellers, and the word-of-mouth recommendations from readers. It’s nice to see that at the end of the day, with all the marketing bells and whistles that we all try, this is what it all comes back to.”

The argument can certainly be made that advertising, promotion, and marketing thrust a book into the public eye, creating a bigger mouth, of sorts. However, the only thing that can explain the long-term success of certain novels are the love-struck readers who buy copies for friends and talk about it every chance they get. And while we as authors can not control marketing budgets, reviews, or publicity, we can control the quality of our work.

Honestly, it makes me a little uncomfortable to think about how long Kathryn Stockett spent writing her debut novel. I have to wonder if I’m willing to, as Anne Lamott says, “Commit to my characters and capturing each one’s voice and truth, instead of committing to a finished novel.” Will I invest five years in a story that may never see publication? That sort of dedication is difficult to muster in today’s publishing climate. Yet when I ponder the books on my shelf – the ones that truly moved me – and I learn the stories of angst-filled writers crafting them over long periods of time, I realize that I love those books because the authors did as well. Loved them enough to slave over them.

And that leaves me with two questions.

As a reader what novels got your mouth moving? Why?


As a writer, are you willing to spend years – and possibly invest in outside editorial help – to

create a novel that will inspire similar devotion in your future readers?

Friday, July 9, 2010

Defining Character Traits

We've been following up on a topic that Sharon started with her post about anti-heroes last week. Thanks for propping the door open for us, Sharon. All kinds of wonderful things are slipping out! And as Katy said, many are stepping out from real-life.

Last Friday night, we joined our son and his friends at Tango Yogurt (a happening place in our small town). We were enjoying our dessert on the patio beneath giant orange umbrellas and it wasn't long before we noticed something odd about a man sitting inside the shop. He was large, middle-aged, dark-featured, well groomed, stony-faced and wore dark sunglasses - at 8:00 at night. He sat alone in a small iron cafe chair that pitched him slightly forward at an angle that suggested he was ready to spring. He looked like a bouncer...or a creep. Why the sunglasses? Who could tell where his attention was focused? Was it on the lone girl behind the counter or the eager children who came in with their parents? Was he looking through the shop window at the young women in our group? We stole nervous glances at him for forty-five minutes and never saw him move. Families with excited children and teens milled around inside choosing flavors of yogurt and toppings, but he sat immobile. We grew nervous about what would happen at closing time if no one else was around. Was imagination getting the best of us, and should we stay, just in case? Whether out of curiosity or concern, we arrived at the unspoken agreement to wait.

Near closing time, he stood. He reached down onto a chair beside him which was blocked from our view and picked up a bouquet of orange lilies. He walked through the crowd, out of the shop right past us, smelling of aftershave, and we heard him say into his Bluetooth, "I'll be fine." He headed for a white minivan, walked around to the passenger side and carefully placed the flowers on the seat. Then, he got in on the driver's side and left.

Were we surprised? You bet. And chagrined. The man who at first appeared to be sinister, now looked like he'd been jilted. He was man with a heart who was waiting for a blind-date that probably walked through to secretly check him out and then decided against contact after all. His disappointment was palpable, and we felt embarrassed for having misjudged him and for witnessing the indignity of his situation.

I thought about the poor guy all weekend.

Good writers can surprise us with first impressions of their characters, revealing defining traits and making them memorable. Here are a few intriguing character descriptions or important scenes that give insight in a few lines. The authors carefully chose the physical descriptions for what they reveal about the character's nature.

"The stranger remained silent and motionless, enveloped in the blue smoke of a cigarette that never seemed to go out. I realized he didn't smell of tobacco, but of burned paper. Good paper, the sort used for books." from
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

"As one tends the graves of the dead, so I tend the books. I clean them, do minor repairs, keep them in good order. And every day I open a volume or two, read a few lines or pages, allow the voices of the forgotten dead to resonate inside my head. Do they sense it, these dead writers, when their books are read? Does a pinprick of light appear in their darkness? Is their soul stirred by the feather touch of another mind reading theirs? I do hope so. For it must be very lonely being dead." from
The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

"He rowed standing, facing forward, a tottery business; twice as I watched one of his narrow sweeps missed the water completely and he lurched like old Quixote, hooting to himself...Forth he came through the parting mists. To this day I don't know what took hold of me as he approached." From
So Brave, Young and Handsome by Leif Enger

"I don't know how many times people have asked me what death is like, sometimes when they were only an hour or two from finding out themselves...I used to say it was like going home." from
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

"I edge up to the glass and raise my face, squinting against the sunlight. It's so bright it takes a moment for me to make out what's happening. Then the form takes shape. In the park at the end of the block is an enormous canvas tent, thickly striped in white and magenta with an unmistakable peaked top - My ticker lurches so hard I clutch a fist to my chest." from
Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen

"Don't you see," he asked, his voice soft. "This poor child will most likely have a serious heart defect. A fatal one. I'm trying to spare us all a terrible grief." He spoke with conviction. He believed his own words. The nurse sat staring at him, her expression surprised but otherwise unreadable, as he waited for her to say yes. In the state of mind he was in it did not occur to him that she might say anything else." from
The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards

"At the moment Ethan Frome, after climbing to his seat, had leaned over to assure himself of the security of a wooden box-also with a druggist's label on it-which he had placed in the back of the buggy, and I saw his face as it probably looked when he thought himself alone. "That man touch a hundred? He looks as if he was dead and in hell now!" from
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

"Ruby looked at us from a distance as if we were contagious. She wore bright lipstick that made the spittle at the corners of her mouth a milky pink. Her hair floated above her scalp in a blurry auburn haze. She patted it gently, as if to make sure it hadn't gone anywhere. "Margaret, we best get going," she said. "This rain is ruining my permanent." from
Feeling for Bones by Bethany Pierce

With so many great literary examples, and all the interesting people in the world, we should be able to avoid creating boring characters. Can you give an example of a character who (for better or worse) sticks in your mind? It may even be one from your own manuscript. If so, let us know what significant trait you used to give insight into his/her character. We would love to hear from you!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

People are Characters

Growing up, I had a great-aunt and uncle who had once begun to quarrel while standing at the kitchen sink, washing dishes. Given their reputation, the topic of the fight may well have been the proper rules for playing Canasta.

But things built to volcanic proportions, and when a plate slipped from my uncle's hands and shattered, my aunt decided, if that was the way things were going to go, she could give as well as she got. She grabbed a bowl and chucked it to the floor. Rising to the challenge, my uncle smashed another plate. And so it went, until they hadn't a single dish to eat from.

They lived in a cheap apartment. The walls were thin.

Which was how it happened, the next morning, that a clutch of neighbors appeared at the door with a box of dishes, and a sign that read, "Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!"

Isn't that wonderful?

My brother tells of a grandfather and grandmother who used to fight often and loudly... and with guns.

He says his father drove a packed family car onto the property once to see Grandpa running zig-zag across the meadow, faster than an old man ought to have to, while Grandma stood on the porch, taking aim, and shooting. She spotted the car coming up the drive, broke into a smile, and put the rifle down. "Pa!" she called. "Come on back! The kids are here!"

My brother-in-law would make a great writer, and I have no idea if this story is true. But I hope it is.

Which brings me to the first rule of character development: Your reader is going to spend hours, perhaps days with your protagonist. It's the equivalent of a weekend, cross-country drive. Give your reader someone who makes the trip worthwhile.

In the same book Patti quoted on Monday, The Fire in Fiction, Donald Maass describes what I mean:

"In your circle of friends, who is the most outrageous? Do you have an acquaintance who will blurt out anything, wears horrible bow ties or skin-tight jump suits zipped down to the naval, flies to Borneo on a whim, flirts with your mother, shoots cactus tequila, believes in astral projection, named a cat Richard Nixon, does calculus for pleasure, drives a hot pink hearse, got arrested once in Omaha? No? Wouldn't it be fun? It would be great to meet some outrageous characters in manuscripts too, but I rarely do."

This doesn't mean that all your characters have to be slap-stick cartoons. Sharon is writing a book about a woman whose child was stolen - an utterly unique woman with a distinct voice. Latayne is writing a novel about Priscilla of the Book of Acts - but hers is like no Biblical story you've read before, and the characters will unnerve you by the depth of their nuance.

No, characters should be real people. But be careful. I never saw my great-aunt and uncle fight. Around me, he was stately, a gentleman, and she an elegant lady. It was others who told me the truth. Most folks don't present themselves as real people. They clean things up for the public, arrange themselves to blend in. And the average person believes the charade.

Writers mustn't be fooled. They must see beneath the surface of their family, friends, acquaintances... and by extension, their characters.

I'm listening to an audio-book, Christ the Lord: the Road to Cana, by Anne Rice. I chose this book because I am also reading Latayne's manuscript, and because the two books are so similar in such intriquing ways. Let me close with a passage that stunned me. The point-of-view character is Jesus. How's that for a challenge in character voice?

"What, you mean they don't say strange things about Yeshua?" said Jason, staring at Joseph, and then at me. "You know what thery call you, my mute and immutable friend," he said to me. "They call you Yeshua, the Sinless."

I laughed, but I turned away so that it didn't seem that I laughed in his face. But I was actually laughing in his face. He went on talking, but I didn't hear him. I fell to watching his hands. He had beautiful smooth hands. And often when he went into a tirade or a long poem, I merely watched his hands. They made me think of birds.
Today in the comments, let's tell stories. Who are some of the "characters" you have known in real life? Can you tell us about them without embarrassing or incriminating them? If not, then tell us about a favorite, well drawn character from your reading.

We love to read what you have to say.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Project! The Art of Voice in Fiction

I’m eyeball-deep in a writing challenge, a sort of shark tank for the ever-developing writer. I’m writing in four—count ‘em!—four voices. My greatest fear is making them all sound alike. And so, I’ve been studying the topic of voice, reading The Fire in Fiction by Donald Maass and Write Away by Elizabeth George, and listening to a podcast with Anne Lamott. Allow me to share what I've gleaned from these skilled teachers.

Elizabeth George defines voice (how brave of her) like this: “The narrative voice of your novel is the point-of-view character’s defining way of speaking and thinking.” Voice is the tone that comes through the narrative, and tone is the product of knowing my characters better than myself.

Before I started writing my current work in progress, I knew all about Lucy, Ada, Mercy, and Pete. I'd created very detailed backgrounds for each. Their voices were determined by their level of education, formal or acquired. And even though they are American-born, they have positions in society and family histories wrought with material. They're nice, of course, to a point (no anti-heroes this week), but the better I get to know them, I discover their prejudices and biases, their inclinations and desires, their bad habits and poor hygiene habits. Each of them has a well-developed belief system, even if they can’t express it. It's my job to know this about them. Once my characters are fully developed, they have unique, powerful voices.

Maass is especially adamant that characters must offer strong opinions to have a voice worth appreciating. This made a little light glow over my writer head. A character who makes judgments about her world is far more engaging. Consider the importance of opinion in your narrative, your story. Perhaps you've walked past a window of mannequins and thought something like this: Good grief, ugly must be the new black this year. No one older than eight could squeeze into that skirt. They must be selling fashion design diplomas on QVC.

Seeing in your head is fun, interesting, provocative. We give that same thrill to our readers by sounding opinions through our POV narrator.

I’ve rambled on. Indulge me another point.

Donald Maass also has this to say about details in relation to voice: “Even the most ordinary people have a life that’s unique. The details that make it so are a secret source of what critics glibly refer to as voice…Details are an automatic voice all in themselves.”

Here’s an example of details fueling voice from Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See:

Three days before my wedding, I began the ceremonies associated with the Day of Sorrow and Worry. Mama sat on the fourth step leading to the upstairs chamber, the women of our village came to witness the laments, and everyone went ku, ku, ku with much sobbing all around. Once Mama and I finished our crying and singing to each other, I repeated the process with my father, my uncle and aunt, and my brothers. I may have been brave and looking forward to my new life, but my body and soul were weak from hunger, because a bride is not allowed to eat for the final ten days of her wedding festivities. Do we follow this custom to make us sadder at leaving our families, to make us more yielding when we go to our husbands’ homes, or to make us appear more pure to our husbands? How can I know the answer? All I know is that Mama—like most mothers—hid a few hard-boiled eggs for me in the women’s chamber, but these did little to give me strength, and my emotions weakened with each new event.

I walk each morning while listening to a podcast called Pen on Fire (highly recommended). The hosts interview the most amazingly talented storytellers, like Anne Lamott. In a recent podcast, the host asked Lamott what advice she had for new writers on the topic of voice. Lamott is the perfect writer to ask. She has a distinctive voice and isn't afraid to give opinions--some that make me wince.

Lamott answered with typical honesty that nothing comes easy for her, including voice. If her writing sounds "conversational and natural," this only happens by writing "draft after draft after draft." Also, she sees improvement with her writing as she ages. What her pride demanded she keep in as a younger writer, age allows her to jettison. I found this encouraging. By the time I'm as old as Methuselah, I should have the voice thing down.

This is only an opening discussion on voice, but these fine authors and writing teachers have offered great pointers for developing voice for our characters. First, know your characters. Second, allow your characters to voice opinions. Third, add details that ground your character's voice in a culture. And last, be prepared to work for voice...and welcome birthdays.

Details of a story line may fade, but the voice remains forever in our memories. Share a story you have read with a distinctive voice. Any ideas about how the author achieved this? What helps you develop a unique voice in your stories? Is it okay to use yourself as a model for voice?

Friday, July 2, 2010

Non-Heroic Main Characters

Sharon's post on Wednesday was wonderful. A week or so ago in a post I said I'd like to discuss unlikeable/amoral/immoral central characters, including those who seem to triumph. We’re not talking here about pointless novels, but those in which the central character is not a hero in the ethical/moral sense, at least through most of the novel.

In the following points, I realize that my descriptions for the sake of brevity are simplistic and inadequate, so please bear with me for the sake of a basis of discussion. Here are some examples of the type of main character I’d like to discuss.

1) I know I gush about a lot about the quality of the writing in The Great Gatsby, but its central character, Jay Gatsby, is someone whose yearnings for the unattainable Daisy make you forget that he probably is a criminal who has made his money just to impress her and to convince her to commit adultery with him. His love is all-encompassing but one-dimensional, yet when he dies, it is devastating.

2) Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a novella I re-read last week for the first time since college. In it, a narrator describes a man he admires who died with the words, “The horror!” The narrator, who is fascinated by this man’s exploits and god-like colonialist power, feels treacherous in lying to the depraved man’s fiancĂ©e by telling her that his dying words were her name.

I also read "The Snows of Kilmanjaro" by Ernest Hemingway. What a tour de force description of a man who has used people (specifically women) his whole life to finance his writing career, which he realizes as he is dying, was focused on unworthy subjects when he could have written about the really interesting people of his life, such as the poor. But the real cheat of Hemingway (from the Christian point of view) is that this man doesn’t really regret (as 2 Corinthians 7:10 defines regret) or repent of these things. In fact, he would go back and do his self-focused deeds just the same if he’d been given the chance. He even scorns and patronizes the dogged love of his wife – yet dies peacefully believing he is going to the place of the gods.

Another book I read recently was Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much is True. Its protagonist is a suffering person but a rapist and someone who has unfairly treated and judged many people in his life. The reader cringes at how he relates to others through almost the entire book. When he does act morally it’s often because he feels guilty or wants to accomplish something. However, he comes to realize how to forgive and how to achieve wholeness, or “roundness,” as the book puts it. I was glad I stuck with this man’s story, someone who was often paralyzed by ambivalence and his own victimization.

So the point of all this is not a series of book reports. This is a blog about writing.

We saw last week that we were unable as a group (NovelMatters ladies and those who commented) to cite an example of a Christian book in which the protagonist/ending allowed for the triumph of evil or injustice. And yet we have to assume that those *“non-Christian” books such as I listed put the burden on the reader to step back and say, “No, these characters are not people I’d like to live in the same house with, but my distance from them and my own moral compass tell me to assess them and see that they are a lesson in how not to live my own life.”

My question is this: What are the benefits and risks for a Christian writer who wants to tackle the daunting task of creating a non-heroic main character?

*I realize that Wally Lamb is a Christian writer whose writing is superlative. However, as I recall, I Know This Much is True (the only book I have read by Lamb) mentions Christianity only peripherally (one character decides to return to church, there is talk of Catholicism as a cultural issue) and -– even more significant -- some of the protagonist’s final understandings come through insights he derives from Native American Religion and Hinduism. The protagonist does achieve catharsis through forgiveness, but that quality is not exclusively a Christian trait; nor does the novel tie forgiveness to Christianity. (If you’ve read the book and want to argue my conclusions, I’m all ears. But first answer the other question, please.)