Friday, October 29, 2010

Unfettered Writing

If you knew that you would never be published (or for those who have a book or so under their belts, never published again) would you continue to write? You should, because exercising that creative muscle would at that point be all about the process and not the boundaries, either real or imagined. I’m not talking about writing with ungodly abandon, but writing unfettered.

On a recent flight, I happened to pick up Southwest’s magazine and found the perfect example of writing unfettered. In October’s edition, Neil Gaiman’s short story Orange was featured, and I loved that his writing strayed outside the normal expectations of a salable story.

The opening lines are: ‘CONFIDENTIAL POLICE FILE’ and ‘(Third subject’s response to investigation’s written questionnaire).’ Then it lists the answers phrased so that you know the question without reading them. His treatment was so unconventional that I had the feeling he didn’t care about the ‘rules.’ He appeared to be having a ball.

So imagine there’s no one telling you this is the way it should be done, this is what sells. What elements of story can we address with the freshness that comes from writing for sheer enjoyment? Here’s a starter list:

  • In whose perspective should the story be told? Consider all the possible characters who may have a fresh perspective and don’t just round up the usual suspects. It could be a very minor or surprising character with some tie-in before the end.
  • What is the unique premise? Is the premise itself unique, or is it enough that the treatment be unique? Neil’s story has both.
  • When does the story start? Try writing from the end forward or out of sequence, if disjointedness is a reflection on the protagonist.
  • Why should we care about the characters? Is the quest truly life changing? Does it suggest danger or risk-taking, whether physical or through inner turmoil?

It’s true that Neil has earned the right to color outside the lines, and there is a definite trust factor established for him to produce a salable product that will delight his readers. But he didn’t get to that point by fettered writing.

Are there elements of your story that could use a fresh perspective? We’d love to hear from you.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Teeth and Bones Editing Contest: Is Editing Worth All the Pain?

Several weeks ago Novel Matters held the Teeth and Bones Editing Contest - and Ellen was our
winner. Since that time, she's been through some intense stuff. As I promised in the contest, it was truly
my teeth on her bones. It hurt. Lots.

I don't relish that fact. But I am so proud of Ellen. She's taken her story to a whole new level (and it didn't happen in one sweet leap, either. It was more like a long trek up Mount Everest), and I couldn't be more proud of her.

The truth is, writing is difficult. It takes a level of dedication and creativity that is more rare than it may seem to the casual observer. A typical conversation I have with people who tell me they have a novel in the
Person: I want to be a writ

Me: Are you crazy

Person: You wr i

Me: Yeah, but I'm crazy

Here's Ellen's own words about the editing process she's been through.
The substantive editing process has been enlightening and . . . stressful.

The first week I struggled to absorb Bonnie’s instruction concerning concept, central moral problem, storyteller and characterization. I wrote a new beginning to define some of these elements and attacked the synopsis, the third such rewrite and not the last, altered some plot points, pondered one major concept that was called into question (decided to keep it, but with a backup plan) and learned more about the central moral problem of my hero.

Week two, I hit bottom, cried and moaned “I-don’t-have-what-it-takes,” then got back on the keyboard, found additional resources online and redid that synopsis (that hadn’t made synopsis status yet), deliberated over my hero’s faults (to be real, he had to have some) and submitted the new synopsi s
and ch.1.

Week three, Bonnie applied the line edit and I found myself in a sea of red. Really, really thought I might drown. Hours of rethinking later, I had a new improved ch.1, original ch.1 now ch.2, more plot points defined (why didn’t I think of these before?) and that troublesome synopsis in rewrites four, fiv
e, then six.

Week four, I submitted the edited ch. 1and hooray! It passed muster. At week’s end, I submitted the edited and retooled synopsis. Will it make the cut? Still wading through that sea of red on what is now chapter 2. I have a new list of scenes to write and realize I’m only one third through my novel, not half way, especially when I finish applying the ed it
ing process.

I am very thankful to have had this opportunity. It’s been an extreme learning experience and timely. More than ever, I’m sold on the idea of crafting a synopsis before writing the story. Hopefully, my writing has improved a notch and will reflect the new skills I’ve learned. Perhaps most important, I’ve learned to be flexible and open to alternatives throughout the writing process. I am in awe of each of you writers that has undergone this process multiple t
So, Ellen is off and running with her new story, right? Uh. Not so much. It's been a week or so since she wrote these paragraphs, and in that time she sent me a new synopsis to read. I was nearly 3/4 of the way through the synopsis before I read a couple of lines that really got me. And I thought, "THIS is where the story starts!" I wrote Ellen, asking her to please not hate me, BUT, I think the novel should start much, much later into the story than she had planned. Oh, and if she agreed with me, then the novel would have a different theme, plot, and character arc.

Ellen is a trooper. She spent some time fiddling with my ideas and agreed. Suddenly, after so much work, so much planning, thinking, changing, crying, praying, planning and rethinking, we were on to something that both of us got pretty excited about. A story to really sink your teeth into. In many ways, it's a different story than she had first started to write. In other ways, it's the same story (at least in terms of the background and the characters and certain events

t a sample of the changes and growth Ellen has experienced? Absolutely! Here is the original first paragraphs Ellen submitted to me. Right after is Ellen's edited work with the new direction of the novel.
The young boy snapped awake, the pinching grip on his shoulder roughly yanking him from his deep sleep. The bed jerked under the kick of a booted foot as a voice in the dark snapped. “Five minutes!”

e’re going hunting. Great. Patrick jumped from his bed. It wouldn’t bode well for him if he caused father to wait. Not that he was his real dad. No, this was his stepdad. And having a peaceful day with him meant… how did mom put it? Stepping on egg shells. Yes, you just did what you were told to do and hoped it would be enough…to avoid a whipping.
And the new beginning:
The handwritten missive began, ‘My Precious One.’ A chill swept his body through rising anguish. He plunged on reading words of proposed comfort that assaulted him like hot coals. The final words, Abba Father, crumpled in his fist as he wadded the letter and threw it on the floor. Decision made, his heart was as stone, hardened to both his past and his future, the present now irrelevant.

With eyes red and swollen from his earlier grief, Patrick plunged his heel onto the balled letter, stomping and shredding as hate shredded his heart, cries of denial filling the room.

“Never. NEVER. I do NOT accept you as my Father. Leave me be.” The words screamed from his mouth. “I DENY YOU. I DENY YOUR RIGHT TO ME, GOD. LEAVE ME ALONE.”

He did not stop until he was hoarse.

He’d expected to find that letter waiting for him. As always, it had been simply addressed Patrick. When he walked away, the letter lay in pieces on the floor.
So, in the end, we have a new beginning. And I know the journey is far from over for Ellen, but she's on a bright (exhausting) track.
What do you think? Do you have the dig in deep gumption it takes to be a writer? Do you think your bones can stand the editor's teeth? You'll soon have another opportunity to find out. :)
Mean time, please take a minute to offer your warm thoughts for Ellen, and to share with us your thoughts (fears?), and hopes for an editing process of your own.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Is it Ever Time to Self Publish? A NovelMatters Roundtable Discussion

Last week we talked about the steps involved in finding an agent and a publisher, and the truth about how long it can take to become a published author. Latayne meticulously listed the basic steps in the process of seeing a manuscript through to publication. Even those of us fortunate enough to have an agent and perhaps even the interest of a publishing house, the list can overwhelm. I asked myself countless times, "Will it really ever happen?" as I waited years for a contract to be offered. When at last I did receive that contract I felt like I had finally broken through to "the other side." But there's no guarantee that once you're contracted, you'll remain contracted.
So why bother? If the chances are so remote, if the wait is so incredibly long, why bother? Because we write to be read. That's the long and the short of it. In light of that reality, is self publication a viable option, and if so, when might we rightly choose that path to get our books into circulation?
Yes, self publication is a viable option, but not for every writer and not for every book. In 2004, I ultimately chose self publication for A Heavenly Christmas in Hometown. After spending a couple of years seeking a publisher for my Christmas novella it became apparent I wasn't going to find a publisher for a specialty book without a NAME and a publishing HISTORY. So I chose to self publish. I market to churches and Christian high schools the full-length play I wrote from the book in hopes of creating a platform from which to sell it. While it's slow going I continue to persevere.
But a word of caution. More than once I've started reading a book, and within a few pages checked to see who the publisher was. I was willing to bet it was a self-published book, because it was obviously in need of an editor. Spelling and punctuation errors, as well as poor sentence structure were dead giveaways. So if you're considering self publication, invest in an editorial service in order to put the best face possible on your book.
And speaking of platforms, if you consider self publication a speaking platform is a must. Let's hear what the other authors of NovelMatters have to say on the subject.

I'll have to say that I'm learning just how big a difference a speaking platform makes for a self-published book. Recently I was the speaker at a two-day seminar in Texas. Not only did the church sponsoring the event buy a copy of The Hinge of Your History: The Phases of Faith for every single one of the 150 women at the seminar, I sold about 60 other books to individuals.

I can guarantee that those people wouldn't have all bought books under any other circumstance. And now I'm getting repeat orders for books, and other invitations to speak. Word of mouth is great -- but the spoken word in such a setting, I'm convinced, can be even more powerful. I am grateful to God for such a wonderful opportunity, and it's inspired me to begin collating endorsements from this time and previous ones so that I can make a special page on my web site just devoted to topics on which I speak.

Latayne is so right. Her audiences are in her charming presence for a reason, a very specific reason that matches the content of her books. I speak at least once a month on topics related to fiction and art and faith, but my audiences are mixed. Some are fiction-lovers, some not. And the fiction lovers divide themselves in genre camps, and so it takes hard selling to get a mystery reader to pick up (and pay for!) a contemporary women's fiction book sans mystery. I sell books in these venues, no doubt about it, but not at the rate Latayne is speaking about.

And so, I'm wondering how I would get the word out that my story is Pulitzer material? I have a small following who might buy one of my self-published books, but is it worth the investment, especially in these tough economic times? In short, I don't know. I'm moving on to the next project and hoping like crazy a publisher picks up Goodness & Mercy. If things are looking bleak once I finish my new project...Oh. Sorry. I forgot myself. Jesus highly disapproves of worrying about tomorrow. Instead, I'll try to get a whole lot smarter about self-publishing.
Have any of you gone the self-publishing route? If so, was it for fiction or non-fiction, and how successful was it? If not, under what circumstances would you consider it?

Friday, October 22, 2010

Time to Get Real?

Let's review the week, shall we?

On Monday Patti revealed that even she, a multi-published author with a gift for writing straight to the heart, even she worries that no publisher will buy her next novel or the one after that. Even she is out there looking for a day job.

Even she finds it hard to write sometimes.

Then on Wednesday, Latayne detailed for you just how long it takes to get a novel published - if it gets published - and just how many obstacles there are along the way.

And then you checked your bank account, paid what bills you could. And asked yourself, perhaps, if it wasn't high time you got real about your chances of ever being a published author.

No. It's not.

It's never time to get real until you understand that "real" is not the materialist, worldly ethos that places a dollar sign at the bottom line of everything. You've got to remember that any God who would be born in a feed trough and die on a cross for us is capable of anything. He's certainly capbable of asking you to lavish your creativity - if only for a time - with no promise of reward beyond the satisfying click you feel when you place the right word in a good sentence.

Will you indulge me? May I share something I wrote five years ago, titled, "What I Really Think"?

Because it still is what I think.

There’s a message hid inside of you.

In fact, the world’s jam-packed with meaning. It’s no accident that butterflies and eggs and seeds make such fine metaphors for rebirth; that wind and fire, water and wine are apt images of the Holy Spirit; that the ocean brings to mind the depths of our own souls. Even the giant water bug Annie Dillard writes of in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, the predatory insect that poisons its prey and then leisurely sucks it void – well, you’ve already thought up a connection or two for that one, haven’t you?

God is the original artist. He hides terror in a beetle, and crystalline beauty in an invisible jellyfish. The more you look at anything, the more you see–any child or scientist knows that.

And this artist God, who saturates creation with metaphor and meaning, this God made you in his image. Certainly you’re not the lone exception in all creation. There is meaning, too, in your soul.

Grasp this. If you don’t, no matter how many words you put on paper, how much paint on canvas, no matter what you do, your message will die with you. You will borrow the message of another and make a dime store copy. You will discount the images, words and phrases that burn in your gut day after day, because they don’t form themselves into something you understand, they don’t fit any outline you can explain.

You will above all suppress the struggle raging inside you, because – well, who knows where that will go, if allowed to run rampant?

“Nothing important is completely explicable,” says Madeleine L’Engle in A Circle of Quiet. That’s because, frankly, you and I only understand small things, like the recipe for green bean casserole.

Big things, like messages in our souls? We don’t comprehend those any more than we know how the bumblebee flies. To excavate that message and expect it to fly–that takes faith.

In The Elements of Style, E.B. White says, “Writing is an act of faith, not a trick of grammar… Let (an author) start sniffing the air, or glancing at the Trend Machine, and he is as good as dead, although he may make a nice living.”

Or he may not.

In your comments, why not share a line or two where you felt that click, that right word in a good sentence. Then read your lines to yourself again. The secret no one says out loud is that those are the moments that make you a writer.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Truth About How Long it Takes to Get a Book Published

I don't do much author mentoring, because I have learned a painful truth: The vast majority of people who say they want to write a book for publication are not willing to submit to 1) the discipline of learning to write well and 2) then going through a frustrating and time-devouring process of personal inactivity (that's code for "waiting and waiting and waiting") to see it through.

I'm not a good example of the norm for getting your first book published by a major Christian publisher, because as a young author with a few magazine article credits, I made a chance comment about being a former Mormon to a published author I'd just met. She said, "I have a publisher who would love to publish a book by you," -- and within a few months I had a contract with Zondervan. Not the norm. Did I say, "not the norm"? (I see it as the power of God, operational and irrepressible. And the book has stayed in print, with only one small hiatus, for 30 years.)

But now, even with over a dozen published books, I submit myself to the process that may have only slightly fewer steps than that for a complete neophyte. For the sake of those of you who wonder what you might reasonably expect (divine intervention excepted, that is), here is an approximate timetable of the process.

I begin by saying that two things must precede this process: You must have something unique and compelling and marketable to say (and if for the Christian market, inner assurance that you've been called to be a writer), and you must be able to write well. Please do not inflict yourself upon the overwhelmed professionals of the market if you have not fulfilled those two requirements.

Since most Christian publishers today do not accept unsolicited manuscripts, and if you do not win a contest (like our "Audience with an Agent" contest) or meet an editor or agent who requests your materials personally at a conference such as Mount Hermon, I will start the process steps with the acquisition of an agent.

Please bear in mind that this is an approximation of the process which any number of factors can greatly lengthen or shorten.

1. Author completes a non-fiction proposal (including polished sample chapters) as per the style sheet or instructions on an agent's Web site. This must be as perfect as he can make it because rarely does an agent ask for a rewritten proposal. At this point a very wise (and relatively inexpensive) strategy could be to pay a publishing industry professional to read and evaluate your proposal before sending it. (Our own Sharon K. Souza offers such a service which I highly recommend.)

2. Author seeks that agent with the completed proposal. If submitting to multiple agents, the author carefully fulfills each agent's specific guidelines that may include parameters such as word count, line length, and manner of submission; and indicates in the cover letter that the author is pursuing multiple agents.

3. Agent typically takes several weeks/months to respond to proposal. Many proposals which have not followed guidelines, are inappropriate for the agent's profile, are unremarkable, or are poorly written are never seen by the agent. An assistant weeds them out and rejects them.

4. If the agent likes the proposal, the agent will typically research the author’s Web presence, confirm any claims the author has made about himself if possible, and use any other resources the agent has (including talking to other agents.) If agent likes what he sees, he signs an agent's contract with author. Author may want to have a lawyer look at this contract. (An author should never sign with an agent who also offers editorial services for hire, or who works with a vanity publisher.)

5. Agent will correspond with author for additional information such as specific marketing plans, then tweak proposal. Agent then asks editors if they want to see the proposal (this action is called a pitch.) Sometimes an agent will not pitch to editors with individual projects, but will wait until making appointments with editors at an industry event like ICRS (the Christian book industry's annual conference), where the agent will maximize the editors' time with one-on-one sessions in which the agent tells the editor of multiple authors' projects appropriate for that publishing company. Therefore, a pitch can be inactive for several months before such a conference.

6. At a conference or other face-to-face meeting, an editor will usually tell the agent which ideas are appealing and she would like to pursue by seeing a proposal. If the pitch was via email or phone conversation, the editor expresses interest, sometimes quite a while after the conversation.

7. The agent sends the proposal to the editor. If the agent has pitched multiple projects to multiple editors, this may take a week or more as the agent returns home and tries to catch up on emails, etc.

8. If editor wants to pursue the proposal he/she received, he/she takes the proposal to a publishing committee. These meet sometimes only two to four times a year, some more often. Sometimes a publishing house has more than one committee to evaluate a book.

9. Marketing people do analyses, publishing committee members all read proposal.

10. If the publishing committee(s) decides to publish the book, the publisher sends a book contract to the agent.

11. Agent negotiates the publisher's contract. (This sometimes takes quite a while because of such things as electronic rights, royalty rates, and delineation of publisher’s commitment to marketing.)

12. Agent sends final publisher's contract to author.

13. Author reads carefully and then signs contract -- and only then can author correspond directly with the editor who is assigned to work on the book (sometimes not the acquisitions editor who first asked for the proposal or book.)

14. The author completes or rewrites the contracted book as per company guidelines. The contract specifies a deadline, and since many processes (such as catalogue listings) depend on this deadline, the author must never miss the deadline. Often first-time writers have to do extensive line edits or revisions after submitting what the author considered to be the "final" manuscript. (Here, too, is where a publishing professional’s evaluation and pre-editing can help. Some of us NovelMatters writers use such professionals to tweak our manuscripts before submission, even though we are experienced writers.) The writing/rewriting process can take months to complete -- or longer.

15. Editor approves the final draft of the book. Author may or may not be included in such decisions as cover art, though an agent usually insists on this.

16. Author looks at page proofs to catch last-minute errors.

17. Usually several months, sometimes much more time--even over a year-- transpires before the book appears in print. Some books are not scheduled for release for years or more after the contract is signed because of full publication rosters. Other projects get “bumped” by higher-profile books with time-sensitive subject matter.

Sometimes the process has "extra" steps. For instance, since my first book, The Mormon Mirage, was controversial and I was relatively unknown, the publisher sent my proposal (and then later the entire manuscript) to an expert in Mormonism to read. This evaluation (completely separate from the selection and editing processes) held up the publication for several months.

Published authors, do you have anything to add to my list? Those of you who are pre-published, what do you think?

Monday, October 18, 2010

Resistance is Futile!

Win a set of my trilogy, The Garden Gate series, by making a comment today and having your name entered into a drawing. I'll notify the winner after 5 PT. By the way, thanks for coming along today.

The warrior and the artist live by the same code of necessity, which dictates that the battle must be fought anew every day.
~ Steven Pressfield from
The War of Art

If you write copy for election advertisements, you don't have to read this. Resistance doesn't know your name. But if you have chosen the artist's life, no matter the medium, and you're bleeding from battle, let's talk.

Pressfield articulates the struggle precisely in his tidy tome, The War of Art. Resistance, he says, is "a force of nature. It acts objectively." So when you answer the call to create (or anything else you can't finish in a nanosecond), you will come across a pernicious energy that seeks to kill the artist within.

Resistance comes in many forms. Doubtless, your nemesis is on this list: procrastination, fear, spouse, relatives far and near (including children), jobs and bosses, bad days, good days, feeding the poor, baking PTA cupcakes, giving blood, TROUBLE, a headache, automobiles that don't work and those that do, promises made in haste, the clock, a beautiful sunset, a moonless night, and people who feel guilty because they've given into resistance while you sat at your computer typing the Great American and/or Canadian Novel.

Whatever prevents you from creating is by definition resistance.

Wait! Don't comment yet. I'm not saying that spouses and children et al are inherently bad. NO!!! They are good and worthy of your love and nurture. That's what's so sneaky about resistance. It can be good things that keep you from creating.

We understand one another, don't we?

We don't slay the tools of resistance, we manage them. But that discussion is for another day.

I've written six novels. I know what it is to be a warrior artist, but I have a new-to-me source of resistance.

For background: The door to publishing opened readily for me. I held out my indulged manuscript, and a publisher swept it up, and then four more. I'm too embarrassed to share the self-important thoughts that filled my fat head in those first months.

Fast forward to several months ago: I ate my self-important thoughts. My book sales didn't warrant more risk, so I'm publisher-free. With a lance in my gut I battled resistance to finish my work in progress, but now what?

What to do? What to do?

My dragons have mushroomed in size. And my sword is a toothpick!

What to do?

After prayer and counsel from my husband, I spent the weekend filling out applications, polishing an odd resume, and cursing the invention of cover letters. I need to find a job. A real job. During a recession. Help!

The notion of having a job and writing at the same time isn't the greatest source of resistance I'm facing (not yet). No, it's worse than that. There's the very real possibility that my poor sales performance will dampen my writing career, meaning publishers may shy away from this poor-performing author. And so, my stories may not reach an audience.

I'm trying very, very hard to sharpen my sword on what Pressfield says, "...the artist cannot look to others to validate his efforts or his calling...He must do his work for its own sake...Do it as an offering to God."

My sword is still nicked and dulled, but this is where I want to be again, writing for the pure joy of creating, whether I have an audience or not.

Can you relate? Are you steeped in the battle to create? Is it possible to find joy in writing without an audience? What causes resistance for you? How do you battle on? Let's talk!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Confessions of an Ignorant Author

It doesn't feel at all like fall just yet where I live in northern California, so to help me remember it's already the middle of October, I'm giving away 2 copies of my Christmas novella, A Heavenly Christmas in Hometown (which is also a full-length play if your church is looking for a Christmas program). Just leave a comment to be entered in the drawing.
The posts this week have been interesting and informative, and I can tell by your comments that you agree. But quite frankly I wasn't sure how to follow. So I'm going to make this True Confession Friday. I've heard the term archetypes, but before Bonnie's illuminating post I couldn't have carried on an intelligent conversation about what an archetype is and how to apply it to my writing. I checked the indexes (or indices if you prefer) of my favorite writing books and couldn't find the topic in a single one. So I googled the term. Now I can pronounce it correctly (ark-i-typ), give you a list of the most common archetypes used in literature, and possibly give you a literary example of most of them.
That's True Confession #1. True Confession #2 is that I heaved a sigh of relief when I read Karen Shravemade's comment to Bonnie's post on Wednesday. I love that we trust one another on this blog enough to admit what we don't know or understand, and that any number of people -- readers and writers of this blog alike -- will gladly teach what they know without passing judgment on the one asking. Megan Sayer's comment to Karen's comment is a perfect example. By the way, I'm adding Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey to the next book order I place and I'll read it as soon as it arrives.
What sprang to mind as I thought about all I don't know when it comes to the mechanics of writing, for lack of a better term, is that I tend to believe a writer at heart employs by instinct those techniques and aspects of novel writing s/he perhaps can't even define. Maybe she couldn't lecture about the finer points of archetypes and character arcs, subtext, the difference between narrative climax and dramatic climax, or catharsis as it applies to literature. But s/he knows how to tell a gripping story that includes every one of those elements. If we're writers, we're readers, and we absorb more than we perhaps realize about what it takes to write a good novel.
I love the environment we've created, with your help, at NovelMatters. I hope this is a place you feel safe enough to bare your soul, to admit what you don't know and to share what you do. We're in this together. I think that, more than any other, is the message we want to convey. I look forward to meeting you at writers' conferences, and to seeing your names on the covers of extraordinary novels. But I also look forward, every week, to your input to what we write here. Thank you for engaging with us, and if all you've done is lurk in the shadows up till now, jump in. Become part of this community. Learn from us and let us learn from you.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Archetypes in Fiction

On Monday, Ariel Allison wrote about the power of the parable’s of Jesus, highlighting the genius behind the seemingly simple stories about lost boys, lost coins, vineyards, and sheep. It was a meaty post, and many things stood out for me. But one word in her post jumped off the page at me: Archetype. And I thought, when was the last time you had a rollicking conversation about archetypes? Far too long. Care to dig in with me? I’ll be following Ariel’s excellent example of using the parables of Jesus to explain and expound on the use of archetypes.

When it comes time to craft characters for a novel, the perennial advice from writing gurus, rings in our heads: Create characters readers identify with.

But how do we construct relatable characters from the fodder of our imaginations? The answer is, of course, multi-fasciated, but found solidly in the mix is the use of archetypes.

An archetype is a psychological pattern within a person (character) that quickly conveys the status, stature, power, and even morality of a character in a way that is nearly universally understood.

Psychologist and DWM* Carl Jung brought us the term and definition of archetype in his theory of personality. But there is no need for the writer to possess a degree in psychology in order to understand and use archetypes to their advantage in fiction. What the writer truly needs is to understand literature and to be able to recognize archetypal characters in fiction. This isn’t as heady or difficult as it might first appear. To pull from Ariel’s quote from the
Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, archetypes are “master images that recur throughout literature and life.” A sort of psychological short hand that aids in deepening our understanding of a character and why she behaves the way she does. All it takes to is a love of reading, and a keen eye.

So what are they? Archetypes are not stereotypes. Stereotypes are negative generalizations about populations of people based on any number of outward statistics such as gender, race, skin color, ethnic origin, hair color (blonde joke anyone?), income, education level, etc. Archetypes, instead, are psychological sketches of human roles which have both positive and negative attributes (Jung referred to negative attributes as “shadow”), and are understood to be neutral, rather than stereotypical. Quick take home point: Stereotype points a finger and attacks the outward appearances. Archetype explains a way of being inside a human role.

So, if you’re writing a slice of life novel about a woman born and raised in the deep south and you describe her as: An outspoken, charming, social climbing, southern woman, you’ve described her in a stereotypical fashion. If, however, you describe her as a southern woman who uses her wits and charm to build an empire, you have described her archetype (Queen).

Let’s look at some examples of archetypes used in the parables of Jesus:

Wise man (e.g. Matthew 7:24-27)

Trickster (most commonly seen as a thief or enemy such as in Matthew 13: 24-30)

Father/King (There are many examples of this archetype in Jesus’ parables, often understood as a metaphor for God the Father. Some examples: Matthew 25:14-30 [an example of a vengeful, or angry master], and of course, The Prodigal Son parable, and also in the numerous parables about the shepherd tending the flocks [e.g. John 10:1-5].

Lover (Matthew 25:1-13 - the parable of the ten virgins)

In each of these stories, Jesus conveys immediate depth of meaning by sketching an archetype - a human role and function - and expounding on in order to teach a universal truth. He uses the universal to teach the universal. In only a few words Jesus was able to create characters each of us can readily identify and relate to.
Notice that these characters were not all sympathetic. That in no way impedes the readers ability to understand and identify with - on some level. We don’t need to like the character, we don’t need to agree with what the character is doing in order to relate to him.

An advanced technique is to take an archetype and give it a twist, giving the reader fresh, even shocking insight into human nature.

The sheep and Goats parable (Matthew 25: 31-46) turns the Father/King archetype on it’s head by depicting the King as hungry, naked, and in prison. This serves to deepen our understanding of God’s connection to humanity - that he experiences the sorrows of life on earth acutely, suffering along side us.

In the Parable of the Rich Man (Luke 12:16-21), Jesus turns this archetype on it’s head in another way, by depicting the ruler as greedy - a trait that resides in on the shadow side of the King/Father archetype, but then he adds a second, surprising dimension to the King/Father by making him a foolish man.

Jesus took the archetype of the Trickster - someone normally understood as sly, self-serving, and powerful and applied it to the religious, the Pharisees - people who would understand themselves within the role of Wise Men, or even Father.

There are, of course, many other archetypes we find in literature (and in life). Are you game? Can you point us to an archetype you’ve noticed in your reading, and give us an example? All comments welcome - this isn’t a pass or fail test, we’re discussing and playing with concepts. Ready? Go!

* DWM Dead White Male. While the subject of archetypes is helpful in discussing fiction, it’s important to understand the foundations of modern psychology were far from universal. Psychology was founded by western and/or North American white males, and remains riddled by their prejudices to this day.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The God of Story - A She Reads Guest Post by Ariel Allison

I think of him first as a storyteller, this Jesus of mine. That might sound sacrilegious to some. He is after all Savior and Redeemer. Lion and Lamb. But to me, I would not know him as any of those had he not spoken to me first in the gentle whisper of story. Given half a chance, I would sit at his feet and listen even now. I’d follow him through those dusty streets. Stop and ponder in that crowded marketplace. Or lounge on a grass-filled hillside. Prodigal sons and lost coins, rich fools and fig trees, talents and tares – I would cross my legs and sink to the floor, chin on hands, to hear his stories. So kind of him to write them down so I can read them at my leisure.

This has been a long year for me. And I find myself grappling with Story. I am a student, learning and listening. Over and over again I return to the parables. And I wonder what they mean to me as a writer.

Spend any time in Christian circles and you’ll eventually hear this: “Jesus knew how important stories are. That’s why he spoke in parables.” Those thirty short anecdotes sprinkled through the first four books of the New Testament are the subject of countless sermons. Yet I’ve never

seen them used to teach the craft of storytelling.

Several weeks ago this realization led me to a friend, a former NFL player and PHD in Biblical Studies. The book he handed me weighs more than my two-year-old.

“Do I need a doctorate to read this?”

He gave me a cheeky smile and a bone-rattling pat on the back. “If you want to understand the God of story, this is the book.”

Turns out, the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery is a fascinating read – if you have time to absorb all 1058 pages. Sorry to say I skimmed. My interest then, and now, lies in a mere two pages beneath the heading of “Parable,” a portion of which reads:

The narrative qualities of the parables are a virtual case study in the “rules” of popular storytelling as we find them in folk narrative, including a reliance on archetypesOnly one of the characters (Lazarus) is named, yet as we encounter the characters of the parables we sense that we have known them already. They

are universal types, possessing the traits that we and our acquaintances possess. Never has such immortality been thrust upon anonymity. We do not need to know the name of the woman who first loses and then finds her lost coin: she is every person. The family dynamics of the parables of the prodigal son and the two brothers whose father asks them to work in the vineyards could be observed at any family’s breakfast table… We come to realize that it is in the everyday world of sowing and eating and dealing with family members that people make the great spiritual decisions and that God’s grace works.”

And that’s the power of story, isn’t it? To see ourselves in the narrative. To squirm and wrestle.

To celebrate. I find it interesting that overt religious references in the parables are rare. Jesus never inflects his images, never says, “Oh, by the way, that bit about the Prodigal Son is really about you and God. Wanted to make sure you caught that.” Instead, he lets me see my reflection in the story. He leaves me to wonder which part I play.

And I learn from this, tapping my thoughts onto a hard drive while my babies sleep. That’s what it means to show instead of tell. He doesn’t have to elaborate. I am shown the holy in the routine: planting and harvesting, a wedding invitation, baking bread, lighting a lamp, traveling to a distant town. The parables teach me to trust that readers understand the unspoken language of story.

A final folktale feature of the simple stories Jesus told is their reliance on archetypes – master images that recur throughout literature and life. We think at once of such motifs as lost and found, robbed and rescued, sowing and reaping, sibling rivalry. Often these archetypes tap deep wellsprings of human psychology.”

Master images. Master storytelling. Simple and profound and, honestly, beyond the reach of my current abilities. I wish I could say that I fully understand how to apply the literary tools found in the parables to my own writing. But the truth is that I’ve only scratched the surface. Yet even as I struggle to learn this craft, he says, “Come, let me tell you a story.”

Friday, October 8, 2010

Heart In Hand

I want to take the opportunity to publicly thank Sharon, Katy and all the fabulous authors and presenters who made the writers conference a success! I especially want to thank the writers in attendance who invested their time and money in a day's training, which for some I'm sure was like sticking their toes in the water, not sure if they would sink or swim in the writing pool.

For about a month before the conference, I'd stood in the foyer on Sundays at a sign-up table at my church (where the conference was held), and I noticed something. Some people approached the table with outright curiosity. These were people who were actively writing or had always felt the urge to write. They wandered away perusing the brochure, promising to register. Others passed by, checked out the brochure and replaced it, saying they had writer friends they would send our way. Then, there were the lurkers. Drive-bys. People who walked past without making eye contact, glancing down at my sign and continuing on several times during the morning. They stood across the room checking out my table from the side of their eyes. If they gathered the courage to stop and actually speak to me, without exception they had a story to tell. A hurt, a wound that they yearned to share, wisdom gleaned from their experiences or just felt the need to vent. Some hurts were physical, obvious, but others were deeply hidden.

What is it that compels us to share our experiences but at the same time struggle against it? I think the biggest factor is fear. We are afraid to put the words on paper because others may not give validation to our hurts and traumas. We must relive painful memories in order to write about them. We feel a stigma attached to the experience as the victim. We wonder what other people will think of us, or possibly those we expose. And although writing it all down may be cathartic, it doesn't necessarily mean that it will sell.

Here are a few things to consider:
1. Your experience may not be enough for a book treatment. Consider writing a personal experience piece for an edition of Chicken Soup or a magazine (even online) for example. It could reach many more people that way and can be a great way to break into print.
2. The hard truth is that publishers don't generally buy memoirs unless the person is a celebrity or the writer has a unique voice. If you feel strongly that it should be in book form, then make your story segue into the bigger issue. For example, a person who was molested as a child may write a book about child abuse and include their experiences.
3. If you are writing about an issue, you may need credentials as an authority (degree in psychology, etc.) or a co-writer who fills the bill in order to be taken seriously.
4. Disguise the facts in order to protect the privacy of others, including your family. Putting your experiences on paper is about sharing truths learned, not about getting revenge. A good publisher can tell the difference.
5. By all means, journal while you are in the thick of the experience and moving through it. But step back from the issue for a period of time before attempting to share it with others to develop a broader perspective.
6. Use your experience as background for a fictional character or story premise. Some readers find it easier to read about fictional characters enduring these hardships than real people. But be prepared to suggest a happier resolution than you possibly found to be true.

Does the need to share an experience resonate with you? We'd love to hear from you!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

You Can Do Great Things...

The past few days have confirmed ten times over everything my association with this blog and these ladies - and you - have taught me about the power of friendship and collaboration to get things done.

The First Annual Sierra Foothill Christian Writers' Conference took place on Saturday in Auburn California, and we three coordinators, Debbie, Sharon and I, are delighted at the the way it all worked out. I created the website, Debbie and Sharon brilliantly worked out the finances and logistics, and we all chewed our nails, wondering if we could make it work. Then the moment came, and we opened the doors and found ourselves surrounded by hopeful writers eager to learn ways to move forward in their craft. And by golly, it looks like they went away happy at the end of the day. Success! We spent the next two days getting over ourselves, but also planning ways to make the second annual conference even better - now that we think there will be a second.

If you were there, thanks so much for coming. We were thrilled to see you, and hope you will return.

If you weren't there, we'd love to see you next year. But here's a consolation prize, the big lesson the day brought to me: You can do great things. You just can't do them by yourself.*

My association with the five other ladies on this blog has brought me great joy, and that's the best part. But it has also made possible a list of accomplishments that reads like someone else's life, not mine:

  • Two books published.
  • A blog worth reading and a wealth of interesting, interested readers who have made it into something truly wonderful.
  • And now, a writers conference that promises to help many others find their way to their own list of dreams fulfilled.

None of these things would have happened without my friends.

Let's talk about you now: what could you accomplish if you had friends to encourage, to help, to come up with ways and means?

Do you have such friends? Are you a collaborative sort of friend yourself, or could you become one? What could you accomplish, if you had someone to help?

*Ad copy on the handout for my web-design business, Cotton Bond.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Along the Spectrum of Divine Words

The older I get, the more sensitive I have become to music. Some writers can’t write without music in the background, others enjoy it, but for me the melodies -- and sometimes some unfortunate phrases -- get stuck in my head. (How would you like to have “angels in the architecture” (Paul Simon) and “The people who walk-ed in darkness” from Handel’s Messiah playing over and over in your head?)

Mysterious words get stuck in my head too. For instance, I once had the name “Homer Rodeheaver” running just under the surface of my consciousness for weeks. Since this happened before the Internet, I couldn’t find anyone who could identify that name. Only when I happened to notice the fine print under a hymn title in a hymnal did I discover I’d been looking at his name for years as the copyright owner of “The Old Rugged Cross,” “Beyond the Sunset,” “In the Garden” and many other songs I sang.

But the flip side of my weirdness is that sometimes original phrases pop into my head. Though sometimes I sit and try to finesse a description of a subject I’m writing about, more often the description emerges fully formed.

In such a case, how should I evaluate it? I want to believe that it is the cooperation of the Holy Spirit, stimulating my mind. Even when I’m writing a nonfiction article or book for the secular market (I write often for Military Officer magazine, for instance), I believe that God helps me with research, sources, and organization of my materials.

It seems to me that there’s a spectrum of divine involvement in the lives of people who deal with words. At one extreme is the idea of verbal inspiration such as many people believe resulted in the writing of Scripture itself. At the other end is cursing, blasphemy, and foolish talk that excludes God.

So where on this spectrum do you believe your writing falls?

Friday, October 1, 2010

Fiction: A Keyhole View of Faith

The discussion about subjectivity has been very interesting, first with MaryBeth's story on Monday about the book club gone rabid and on Wednesday with Sharon's report from the ledge. I have a story too.

Back during my teaching days, I belonged to a book group of fellow teachers. Instead of lesson plans and playground mishaps, we talked books for two solid hours. We met once a month, taking turns choosing the novel and hosting the group, which meant baking something gooey and chocolatey.

I loved that group! They introduced me to their favorite writers--some loved, some loathed. And not since my days as an English Lit major had I experienced the shear delight of discussing the shared experience of reading a book, usually a relatively private matter. Pure. Heady. Indulgence.

The group grew closer as we shared our lives and values because talking about stories is talking about life. We disagreed without rancor, laughed freely, and celebrated our unique take on a story--unless there was a Christian element to the story. Nothing brought emotions to the surface quite like an obsessive-compulsive missionary (The Poisonwood Bible) or a preachy post-rapture pilot (Left Behind).

Honestly, fictional murderers are held in less contempt than Christians, and why not? Most literary Christians (in mainstream fiction) are despicable, or, at least, have questionable motives, always.

And so, a desire was born in me to be a writer who provided a keyhole look into the life of someone who followed Christ. We aren't always our best behind closed doors, but we're not always the worst either. For anyone in my book club to read a book like that, it would have to be, well, not a prairie romance. (Note: I'm not opposed to prairie romances, but my book club is.)

I write with that book club as my audience. They're agnostics, Buddhists, Baptists, Mormons, Methodists, Universalists, and absolutely nothing at all. I don't know if any of them have changed their viewpoint of Jesus, but that's why I write as authentically as I can manage. Just in case.

Five books later, the only book clubs I attend are ones I'm invited to appear at. (Writing this, I'm thinking that has to change.) Recently, a friend's daughter invited me to appear at her book club. I walked into a room of 20- and 30-something career women.

Oh no.

Seeing Things has a 72-year-old for a protagonist and Huckleberry Finn as one of the antagonist. I prepared to be skewered.

Not so. They asked wonderfully thoughtful questions that came from careful reading. They listened to my answers and peppered me with more questions, all respectful. Hog heaven!

And then, the hostess sidled up to her question. "Are you religious?" She didn't let me answer. "Because Birdie reminds me of my grandmother, and she was always praying or reading her Bible. When Birdie talks about lowering her family through the roof to Jesus, I see it. It's right there. I finally get what prayer is."

She looked through the keyhole! She saw my protag using the story of the paralytic lowered to Jesus as a model for praying for her family, and it made sense. I could have hung up my spurs and ridden into the west right there and then. Sigh. Thanks, God.

But I won't.

I have another story in mind.

There's always a chance someone might look through the keyhole again.

That's what keeps me writing. Not the possibility of awards. Or the nil to none possibility of getting rich or famous. Or the hope of a movie deal. Writing is our art, and our art reflects the beauty of Christ.

Do you keep an audience in mind as you're writing? Who are they? For those of you who belong to a book club, what keeps you coming back time after time? Do you read your reviews? Thought I'd sneak that question in.

Have a great weekend and thanks for a thought-provoking week.