Monday, November 29, 2010

The Reader in Me

Throughout the year we devote most of the space on our blog to discussions about writing. But like most writers, I'm also an avid reader. Occasionally, I hear a novelist or editor say they don't have time to read fiction, and honestly, I don't get it. I know time is precious, but I'd give up an hour (or more) of sleep a night before I'd give up reading fiction. It's the nightcap I look forward to. In 2009, I began keeping a log of the novels I read throughout the year. So far in 2010 I've read 52 novels. The total will probably be close to 60 before the year is through. Plus I read all the entries for our Audience with an Agent Contest, and judged 21 entries for the ACFW Genesis Contest. That doesn't count the non-fiction books I read, or the books on the craft of writing, which I place in a division all their own.
This year I added a grade score to each of the novels I read. Of the 52 novels on my list, 15 received an A, which includes plus and minus; 18 received a B; 9 received a C; 3 received a D; and 7 received "no grade," because, in my mind, anyone who has the tenacity to write a novel and get it published deserves not to get an F, even if I don't care for the book.
So today I'm going to put on my reader's hat and share with you my favorite novels from 2010, those that received an A in my book. I have to start with Where the River Ends by Charles Martin, because it received an A++ from me, as do almost all of his books. Charles is one of my favorite authors, and this is an excellent novel. He's interviewed this month on She Reads, our sister blog. You can read the interviews here, but be sure to scroll all the way down to get all the installments, including a great interview with Charles' wife, Christy.
I'll also add A Conspiracy of Breath by our own Latayne Scott, which also received an A++ from me. Sorry, it's not yet published. (Don't mean to tease.) The others I'll list alphabetically by author:
Try Darkness by James Scott Bell
What We Keep by Elizabeth Berg
Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins (read 2 x in 2010; gave it an A both times ; )
Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
Lost Mission by Athol Dickson
The Sea Wolf by Jack London (I've read at least 5 x over the years)
To Dance in the Desert by Kathleen Popa (3rd time)
The Last Sin Eater by Francine Rivers (3rd time)
They Almost Always Come Home by Cynthia Ruchti (2nd time; 1st time I had the privilege to read an endorser's copy)
The Help by Kathryn Stockett (2nd time)
Some Wildflower in My Heart by Jamie Langston Turner
On my wish list for 2011: (believe me, this list is only in its infant stages)
Paradise Valley by Dale Cramer
Life in Defiance by Mary DeMuth
Wonders Never Cease by Tim Downs (loved his Bug Man series)
Almost Heaven by Chris Fabry
The Rivers Run Dry by Sibella Giorello
Listen by Rene Gutteridge
The Mountain Between Us by Charles Martin
Resurrection in May by Lisa Samson
Anything by the amazing women I blog with
The last page of my WIP
So what about you? What were your favorite novels in 2010? And what title/author would you add to your wish list?
As a thank you for your invaluable contribution to the discussions here, I'd like to offer Every Good & Perfect Gift, Lying on Sunday, and/or A Heavenly Christmas in Hometown for $8 each between now and December 15. Email me through my website if you'd like to place an order.
And just for fun, for any Bill Cosby fans, you might enjoy watching these videos. They take a few minutes to load, but they're worth the wait. Here's part 1 and part 2.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thanksgiving Roundtable

We love spending the bulk of the year exploring different aspects of the writing process and publishing industry, and today we want to take time to recognize what we are most thankful for.

Okay, so I'll start, and I'll begin at an unlikely spot: rejection. No one wants it - that feeling of failure and disappointment when someone calls your baby 'ugly.' You get defensive and you take it personally.But rejection can also be thought of as re-direction. The experience is more about what isn't right than what is wrong. It can determine the direction your book will take through a process of elimination until it finds the right place to land. I am grateful for the rejections that channeled my books to the homes they found and that God's intention for my story will be accomplished, even if the writing of it was for my own benefit alone.

I am especially grateful for fellow writers who challenged me to begin the writing process and to persevere over the years. For those who were brave enough to be honest and straightforward. For those generous with praise and encouragement, perhaps even in the midst of their own discouragement. For fellowship along the way, I am thankful.

Thanksgiving was last month for us eager Canadians, but I'm happy to add my cheer to the U.S. Thanksgiving. I'm thankful for change. I've gone through many changes in my adult life (bet you have too), which I found difficult, uncomfortable, tragic, sometimes terrifying, and always too frequent. But those changes brought me here. If I

hadn't changed my life I wouldn't be risking it all as a writer. I wouldn't be part of this community of writers on Novel Matters. If my life hadn't changed I would have missed out on so much today. So via la change!

I once had folders brimming with hundreds and hundreds of rejection slips. You know the old writers' threats about papering their offices with rejection slips? Well, I literally could have done it. I kept them from the time I was in high school until my mid-forties. I had a card catalogue too, with the names of magazine articles, poems, and books and kept meticulous track of to whom I submitted, what dates, and when they rejected me.

I had this fantasy that there would be a future date in which I would be so famous that people would pore over my rejection slips in some museum and be amazed at my persistence. Maybe some beginning writers would be inspired, I mused.

Where are those cards and rejection slips now? I don't know whether to be proud or ashamed to share this.

I reached a point about ten years ago when that dream of being so famous seemed idolatrous to me. It seemed self-focused to imagine anyone would care about my path to publication. So one hot August day I threw away all those rejection slips. I even threw away the hand-written first drafts (about 15 spiral-bound notebooks, as I recall) of The Mormon Mirage. To be honest, to this day I don't know if I was getting rid of an idol or depriving someone in the future from an insight into some legitimate history. I don't know if it was humility or depression that fueled that decision.

In some landfill in New Mexico, those papers from my past are gone, but for me, not forgotten.

They are a memorial in my mind, of what God has brought me through to this day.

I am grateful for my failures and what they have taught me. I am grateful for my hard-bought redemption by Jesus, for my family and faithful friends, for a church that has put up with me for 38 years, for incredible material blessings, for readers and last of all for Bonnie, Debbie, Katy, Patti and Sharon.

Somehow my part of this post disappeared overnight, so I'll try again. I'm extremely grateful this Thanksgiving season for my husband, our family, and a loving God who has taken good care of us through a very difficult year. But in regards to my writing life, I'm so very thankful for you: my NovelMatters sisters, who strengthen and encourage me, who keep me going when discouragement would easily set in. And you: who visit our blog and add to our discussions through your thoughtful and stirring comments. I pray your dreams come through as you continue to use the gifts and talents God has given you. I pray you all have a blessed Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Redeeming the Time

The morning after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, my husband, George broke an orange pitcher.

I came unhinged. I screamed things and threw things better left unsaid and unthrown. I tore at my hair. I wailed. I collapsed to the floor.

I over-reacted in grand style.

In my defense, I'll add that this was a vintage Bauer Pottery piece of a type I've seen listed for seventy-five to a hundred dollars. More than that, it was the pitcher I'd dropped ladybugs into for safekeeping when I was four. This pitcher was special.

Still, I'll bet you've already guessed that my meltdown had less to do with broken pieces of pottery and more to do with broken towers, broken lives, and a broken sense of security.

Weeks later, George walked in from the garage and presented me with the orange pitcher, now mended with an industrial epoxy resin he uses for auto body repair. Sound far-fetched? Take a look. I think you'll agree it's more beautiful and more meaningful than it ever was before, and for the first time ever, it's a one-of-a-kind, fresh and unique new creation. It now sits in my office as a reminder that my husband is a wonderful man, and that redemption happens, all the time.

Have you noticed? We are told, in Ephesians 5:16 to redeem the time. This time we're living in now. We're supposed to redeem it. To mend and re-name it, just as Jesus re-named Abraham and Sarah, and Peter and Paul, and you and me.

"For the days are evil," it says, and it does seem so. No matter where you live, you see and feel the uncertainty, the diminished hopes brought on by a global economic crisis.

If you're a writer, you've spent years struggling with the tension between a perceived pressure to write to the market, and a desire to write something fresh and unique. The truth is that the market loves fresh and unique things if they strike the right chord (you and your publisher get to guess what will do that), but if nothing strikes that chord, the market will settle for the familiar. Fewer and fewer publishers still in business are in a mood to guess, so more and more seem to settle for familiar names, familiar styles, familiar themes.

"Ha!" I hear you say. "Redeem that, if you can."

A few months ago, there was a big fire in a nearby town that destroyed several homes. Many homeowners were devastated, but one woman, I am told, felt an unexpected sense of freedom. It seemed that someone had dumped her entire box of blocks, and now she had an opportunity to put them back, but better, more thoughtfully this time.

Is it possible we have the same opportunity?

I was recently inspired by the article on the Harlem Renaissance, in The Intellectual Devotional by David S. Kidder and Noah D. Oppenheim:

"Much of the foundation of the Harlem Renaissance was set by the African-American historian and social theorist W.E.B. DuBois (who) asserted a new sense of black cultural consciousness and pride, inspiring a generation of young writers and artists to create a distinctive African-American voice."

A distinctive voice, woven by many, among them Langston Hughes, who wrote his poems to the beat of jazz music.

Might it be time for a Christian Renaissance? I mean, don't those two words just fit together?

Do we have (can we find) a culture distinct from the wider society, something we can take pride in and nourish into something new? A distinctive Christian voice that we can cultivate, infuse with a music all our own?

Now that our blocks are dumped, can we take a few risks, experiment and play? Could we start a movement?

The impressionists did in the 1870's. They rejected the photo-realism of previous artists and painted reality with movement and light mixed in. Their paintings, they believed, were more realistic representations of what the eye actually sees.

The post-impressionists agreed, and they didn't like it. Where was the spirit? The emotion? These artists, my beloved Van Gogh among them, filled their paintings with meaning, with realities the eye can't see. (Can you imagine a world without Starry Night?)

The modernist authors of the early part of the last century explored ways of depicting objective reality when recent thought had called into question the existence of objective reality.

The Inklings, CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien among them, sought ways of writing stories so infused with spiritual realities that readers might feel that they'd been touched through the veil by something - or someone - holy and transcendent.

Throughout history movements have been propelled by artists and authors in bad times with little to no hope of recognition, but with an insistence on new ways of creating that allowed them to say things that screamed to be said.

So much screams to be said right now. Of course, we may have to sort out what it is, in order to write it (or while we write it) but what higher calling?

And what better place to redeem than the desert? Didn't God say so himself?

"See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland." Is. 43:19

If we started a new Christian Renaissance, how might it sound on the page? What might be different? If it were an art movement, what colors and what strokes?

What is our culture, anyway?

Do join in. We love to read what you have to say.

Friday, November 19, 2010

A Universal Grammar

One of the things I do when I’m not writing or scaring people at shooting ranges is my studies on Representational Research.

Basically, it involves the triadic structure of the Godhead, of reality (the part you see, the part you don’t see, and the links between the two), and even of language.

We communicate information through three methods – the iconic (through the senses such as sight), by indexing or pointing, and linguistically.

Quit yawning, I’m about to get to the relevant part, the part about writing.

You see, the Bible depicts all kinds of communication, and not all of it is through words. Some of it is iconic. You learn from seeing something: The Israelites were told to pile up rocks from Jordan’s depths to commemorate the crossing of that river. And that would provoke questions, the linguistic part where the parents would explain the rocks. The same thing took place every Passover: The bitter herbs and salt water and unleavened bread teach.

I’m always amazed at the passage in Psalm 19 that says:

The heavens declare the glory of God;

the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

Day after day they pour forth speech;

night after night they display knowledge.

There is no speech or language

where their voice is not heard.

Their voice goes out into all the earth,

their words to the ends of the world.

Look at the language words: declare, proclaim, pour forth speech, voice, words.

Here’s what I’m thinking. This psalm shows that the inanimate skies communicate. What do they communicate? About God, who He is and what He does. (Romans 1:20). And they do it in a way that supercedes English or Chinese or even the Hebrew or Greek in which the Bible was originally written.

There must be a universal grammar, we might say, for communicating the things of God. Something that can carry the message even without words, across cultures, into hearts.

How much more precisely do words carry that message!

I hear people talking all the time about trying to catch market trends in writing. Nothing wrong with that.

But the novels that end up communicating to people at a level like the resplendent night sky, in the universal language of God, with deep eternal truths that feed the souls of readers – that’s what I want to write, don’t you?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

From Life Comes Fiction

Thanks to Sharon, Monday started a little brighter. If you missed her post about her close encounters of the spider kind, scroll on down to read her hilarious story. But you better empty your bladder first.

At the end of Sharon's post, she suggested her experiences may become part of a story. I believe all fiction is at least part autobiographical. According to John Truby (Anatomy of Fiction), the theme is how the author believes the world should work. Right there you have deep personal involvement of the author in her story. But that's a topic for another day.

Our lives do seep into our stories--in language, what our characters value, and the details of life that allow our readers to suspend disbelief. My youngest son once said, "Mom, it's a little weird to see parts of my life in someone else's story." True but family life is too rich to not use.

While I don't use personal experiences verbatim, I certainly draw on my life experiences--but only when it's more interesting than usual, like Sharon's beasts. Almost always, anything from life has to be cranked up a notch to make it story worthy. (Before I forget, here's my pitch to keep a journal handy at all times. You never know when Spider Wars will commence.)

Here's an example of how a piece of my life made it into one of my books. In my Garden Gate series, Mibby is left a widow with a young son and an unfinished remodeling project. I know remodeling well. We've lived in our house for 24 years, and, well, I watch too much HGTV. This was a natural cross-over.

A few years back, we added on a master bathroom. I made sure I was showered and dressed each day of the project before 8 AM when the contractor and his minions arrived. I was running late one morning, but it was only 7:45, so I jumped in the shower. I had just worked up a lather of shampoo when I heard male voices outside the bathroom door.


My primal brain reacted quickly. I stepped out of the shower without rinsing or drying and stepped into my clothes, naked no more! I stood like a post, praying HARD the men would finish their business and go away. God, oh so graciously, answered my prayer within minutes. The contractor left with the subcontractor moments later.

Take note: I did not have to write this situation down. It was burned into my wee little brain, and I showered, from then on, by seven.

Back to Like a Watered Garden--when Droop (protag's contractor named for his low-slung jeans) needed to talk to Mibby (I know, another weird name), here's how my experience morphed into in Mibby's world:

I had just worked the shampoo into a lather when I heard the heavy rapping of knuckles on the bathroom door and a male voice calling my name. I turned off the water to listen.

"Is that you, Mibby? I'm back."

Suds flowed down my forehead. With my eyes closed, I stepped out of the shower and pulled on my shorts and T‑shirt before I felt decent enough to answer him. "Uh, Droop, I'll be out in a minute."

"I don't need nothing," he said. "I just didn't want to scare you again."

The shampoo stung my eyes. "Thanks, Droop. Thanks very much."

"No problem." His heavy boots moved away from the door and then returned. "Mibby?"


"We got a problem with the flooring."

A bubble of worry tingled along my spine. Whenever Droop had a problem, he fixed it and continued working. If we had a problem, it meant I would be spending a lot of money. Either way, I wasn't dressed to kill, or to think.

"I'll be right down."

People I know and love--or watch in restaurants--also make it into my stories. My sweet friend, Nancy, is the basis for Louise in the Garden Gate series. I gave Louise a Louisiana drawl and shaped her like an orange, but her heart is all Nancy.

I taught with Nancy. She made it her mission to slow me down and love me like crazy. One day, she stopped me in the hall (no kids around) and turned her back to me. With a twinkle in her eye, she looked over her shoulder and nodded to her bum. She asked, "Do these pants make my butt seem too small?" You can see how someone like Nancy needed to be fictionalized.

These are pretty "light" examples. Most of my books address some burning question or fear I'm wrestling in real life, yet another topic for another day. How has your life made it into your stories? Tell us how you've drawn from the people you know to develop characters?

Monday, November 15, 2010

A week in the life of ...

Where is a man when you need one? It's a question I often ask myself. Out loud. The answer this time? Cuba. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
My husband Rick is a commercial builder. We have banked at the same bank in our small town for many years. We know the tellers, the managers, the president, and they know us. Well, most of them anyway. I was at the bank last week, being helped by one of the tellers, when another of the tellers stepped over to chat after she finished with her customer. "How's Rick?" she asked. "Is he home or away?" For 25 years Rick has traveled the world for missions, building churches, Bible schools, orphanages, etc., and everywhere I go people ask about him. He's been in Siberia in December, and has had a lot of wild adventures. I have the luxury to pick and choose which trips I tag along on (I opted out of Siberia), but mostly I stay home, write, and enjoy a time of solitude.
So in answer to Joyce's question, I replied, "Rick's in Cuba this time." She got a funny look on her face, then she began to laugh. "Did he come in to get cash before he left?" "Yeah," I said. (He always does. The cash is from whatever team he takes with him, for whatever project they plan to work on, and it's usually a fairly large amount.) "That explains it," Joyce said. "Yeah? Explains what?" I asked.
A new teller waited on Rick--one who's not familiar with him or his ministry--and just to be conversational as she was helping him with this large amount of cash, he mentioned he was leaving for Cuba that night. When he left the bank she turned to Joyce and said, "Someone taking that much money to Cuba? It's gotta be drug money!" Joyce had been tied up with her own work and had no idea who the new teller was talking about, but after talking with me Joyce put 2 and 2 together, and we had a good laugh. "Please," I said, as I prepared to leave, "tell her it's A: drug money or B: a missionary going in to build a church." I know, Cuba/church building? Drug money is more believable. But it's the truth. I swear.
But back to my original question. Where is a man when you need one? Mine could be anywhere in the world, but I can pretty much guarantee if something's going to go wrong, it will go wrong when he's out of the country. Like the time the phone rang at 6 o'clock one morning when he was in the Philippines. We were living in the country on 5 acres and I wasn't one bit happy about it. Though I loved the house he'd built us, I didn't like how far out in the country it was (I'd write 'Back Side of the Moon' as my return address on all correspondence), and certainly didn't like being left alone out there. I answered the phone that morning and a rude woman who did not identify herself said, "Your cows are in my yard." Not being a country girl or a morning person, this took a minute to compute. Your cows are in my yard ... your cows are in my yard ... your cows ... MY COWS!!!! Yes, we (spelled R-i-c-k) had two longhorn cows--named after our granddaughters, so fat chance they'd ever become steaks--and they'd gotten out of our pasture. I leapt out of bed, threw on some clothes, stuck my contacts in my eyes, and jumped in my car. But where was I going? I had no idea who'd called. So I drove around the "neighborhood" looking for Rick's cows. I felt like Little Bo Peep. Not having any luck finding them I went back home, wondering what on earth I was going to do, when my phone rang again. This time--I swear I'm not making this up--it was a friend who lived on the 5 acres behind us, and she says, "Sharon, are you looking for your cows?" Am I looking for my cows?!? How did she know that?!? "Yes, as a matter of fact ...!" And she told me where to find them. Amazingly--and I'm not making this up either--a used-to-be-cowboy-turned-carpenter worked for our company, and he came and rustled up the herd and mended the fence. When Rick (who'd made the mistake of laughing about it when I told him over the phone) got home, there was a For Sale sign in the yard. Not making that up either.
But back to this time, and Cuba. A week ago Sunday night I was in my bedroom watching TV and addressing Christmas cards when a racket shattered the relative quiet--and it came from right above my head. Startled, I jumped up and tried to assess the what and the where as I speed dialed my daughter, because, as we all know, misery loves company. I had no idea what was going on, I just knew it was LOUD. It sounded like a whole family of something had moved into our attic space. With my daughter on the phone, I went outside, hoping against hope that whatever it was was on the roof, and not somewhere INSIDE my house. Alas, it was not to be. I declined my daughter's invitation to spend the night/week on her sofa, and listened in fear and trembling as this thing moved around upstairs above my head till after 3:00 a.m. At one point it sounded like it was dragging something across the floor up there. I kid you not.
I called Clark Exterminators first thing Monday morning. A young man--who was my new favorite hero even though he wasn't a cowboy--came within the hour, but alas yet again, he could open the access to the attic space, but he couldn't actually go in and do anything about what might be up there. It seems they have rules, and that, in my opinion, was the stupidest. What he could do was set a mega-mouse trap just inside the attic space, which he could reach while standing on the very top of my 6-foot ladder, without actually being in the space. Well fine. But let me tell you, A: this was no mouse, mega or otherwise! And B: out of 3,100 square feet of living space, the 16 x 20 inch opening in the ceiling that goes into the attic space happens to be right above the chair I sit in at my computer. So now not only was I afraid of whatever had moved in, I was terrified I'd hear a SNAP! while sitting here trying to write.
So this...whatever it is...had me on edge all week. I'd hear its nocturnal wanderings after the sun went down, and was jerked awake at 2:00 in the morning Wednesday, while it carried on above my head till after 4:00. Elizabeth Berg, bless her heart, kept me company.
As if that weren't enough, I walked into my kitchen one evening to find a spider scurrying along the edge of my island. By now you must be thinking I live with the Addams family, but no. I grabbed my broom and swiped at the spider...and knocked it right into my purse. A brown spider in a brown purse. @*##+##@. So, using the handle of the broom, I upended the purse and shook out all the contents--checkbook, lipstick, cough drops--and sifted through everything, with the broom handle. But no spider. Then, using the sweeping end of the broom, I pummelled the snot out of that bag...but never found the spider or its remains.
You don't even want to know the one-sided conversation I carried on with my absentee husband all week, who was blissfully without cell phone or email access. Trust me, that bliss lasted only until he landed back in the USA, at which time he had the sense not to laugh. And I'm very glad, because I love where we currently live.
You may be wondering what on earth this has to do with writing. Maybe nothing. Then again, if you come across a mad woman in a cowboy hat with a broom in one of my novels you'll know exactly where the inspiration came from.

Friday, November 12, 2010

In Search of a Gimmick A She Reads Guest Post by Ariel Allison

On Monday Bonnie described how she knows an idea is book worthy. And on Wednesday, Debbie helped us see that breaking the rules can sometimes work to our advantage. And they got me thinking…about my mother.

Let me explain.

July 2010: my children sat on our dining room table watching my mother sort scrap metal. Mostly cut up cookie tins, random pieces of wire, nuts and bolts, that sort of thing. I was in the living room, timing how long before they got bored and wandered off in search of mayhem. (My children typically have the attention span of gnats) Three hours later they were still helping their grandmother arrange bits and pieces of discarded “junk” on a painted wooden structure. They asked questions:

“Tootsie,” (her choice of grandma name) my oldest said, holding up the innards to what I suspect was once a blender. “What about this thing-a-mah-jiggy?”

And she’d take it. Set it against the emerging picture. Stand back. Pull at her earlobe. “Maybe. But don’t you think it would frighten someone if we used that for her eyeball?”

“I think it would be fun.”

“Right you are.” As a mother of six, she has learned not to second-guess the creative instincts of children.

Back and forth like this for hours, until a woman’s face emerged from the flotsam and jetsam of discarded objects. Once satisfied with the results, she nailed the pieces in place and christened it with a name. (“Wink” in case you’re wondering)

Viola! Art on my dining room table.

I took mental pictures the entire time. My boys with their grandmother. Learning. Being creative. Playing with dangerous metal-cutting tools. Fun times.

Fast forward to October 2010: I’m working on a new novel and I’m struggling to put the pieces together. It feels like a disjointed heap of mental junk. There might be a picture in there, somewhere, but I can’t find it. So I call my mother.

“I don’t know what I’m doing.”

She laughs. “You must be on the right track. I almost never know what I’m doing. I just know what I like.”

“But how did you know you were supposed to do this. Of all the art you could have made, why tin collage?”

“I found my gimmick.”


“People stop and look at my work because I have deviated from the expected boundaries. A Jazz Quartet made from clipped metal. A man proposes through the medium of cookie tins. Essentially, the same story told in a different way.”

Even though my mother didn’t give concrete advice on the specifics of my novel, she gifted me with something far more important: she helped me understand my gimmick. Some refer to it as a brand, but in reality the semantics don’t matter. We’re all trying to tell the same stories in a fresh way. And, thanks to her, I understand my method a little better.

What about you? Are your stories oil on canvas? Stained glass? Perhaps paper mache meets steam punk? Do tell!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Tinker on Mars

Last week, just before boarding a plane for a six hour flight, I picked up a paperback at Hudson Booksellers in the Nashville airport. My thirty-second choice was based on four things: the intriguing cover, the size (191 small pages), the endorsement by Marilynne Robinson and the Pulitzer Medallion on the front. It had all the earmarks of a winner and I wasn't disappointed.

The book is tinkers by Paul Harding. (His debut novel, BTW and, no, the title was not capitalized) The story drew me in from the start and the prose kept me reading. Like this description of a dismantled clock: "Such a crooked and flimsy device could only keep the fantastic hours of unruly ghosts." At times his style reminded me of Ray Bradbury's, the kind of short, crisp sentences that leave a minty-fresh taste in your mouth: "Lightning crawled down the mountain and drank at the water, lapped the shallows with electric tongues..." So creative. I read with a pen poised to bracket particularly inspiring passages.

I admit that I was both puzzled and encouraged by the success of this book because it bent and broke a lot of rules that we all learned in Writing 101 at the School of Hard Literary Knocks. Here are some observations that wouldn't normally get past the editor's desk or would otherwise work against its success:

  1. Multiple POV & tense changes. The kind that have you backtracking to figure out whose head you are in at the moment.
  2. Long sentences. I mean long. Stream-of-consciousness long. One sentence had 386 words and 30 commas. And two question marks, which did little to impede the sentence, since it did not actually come to a stop at either one.
  3. Lack of punctuation. I finally realized that the capitalized word in the sentence meant someone was speaking at that point, sans those helpful quotation marks.
  4. Sentence structure. Some had so many clauses that I forgot the point before the end.
  5. Small publisher: Bellevue Literary Press, a small 3-year-old, non-profit affiliated with New York University's School of Medicine. What are the odds they would produce a Pulitzer winner? The last small publisher to do so was in 1981.
  6. Time travel. Not really - it just felt that way, with the main character's hallucinations transporting him back to his childhood and further, and back again.
  7. Long passages from a manual on clock repair. I understand that these were important to the story and paralleled his father's writings, but they began without warning. Just a slight indent of the paragraph, and me momentarily scratching my head.
  8. Slight overuse of a few favorite words. The words 'sibilant' and 'boreal' and 'arboreal' were used several times. I didn't have a problem with them (they are ethereal and slightly sensual) but it registered that my editor would have pointed it out and asked for a word change because they were very distinctive.
Basically, I'm tickled pink that an author who was allowed to defy so many rules was awarded the Pulitzer, but I'll admit that I see the wisdom in those rules. More than once, I had to step back from the story to orient myself. That's precisely what we don't want as writers. Our stories should be seamless so that our readers look up at the end in wonder that they are still sitting on a familiar couch in their own home or a window seat on a crowded plane making its approach. But I guess it's a good thing I'm not a judge for the Pulitzer Award!

All in all, it's a remarkable, ground-breaking book. I will read it again and force myself not to highlight or mark sections, but to absorb it all together as a solid entity. Do you have a book that has made you wonder how the author got away with major rule breakage?

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Captivated Idiot

It’s the most common question a writer is asked, “Where do you get your story ideas?” If you haven’t thought of a response to this, now is the time tocome up with your sound byte answer.

But in truth – well, it’s complicated. At least it has been for me. I have all sorts of ideas swimming in my head. I have weekly story epiphanies. I know you do too. Ideas everywhere.
Inspiration may be everywhere, but how do I know which of the hundreds of bright sparks in my head will turn out to be the long burning kind – a star, rather than a super nova.

There are lots of stories out there. Good ones. But not every story is ‘novel worthy’ – meaning simply because I can take an idea, stretch it across a plot, populate it with characters, and give it a title doesn’t mean it’s truly able to sustain a novel length treatment.

As I said, I’ve learned this the hard way. Hundreds of thousands of words written that will never see the light of day. Stories I thought were terrific, but, when I stretched them over the length of a novel turned threadbare. The wonderful ideas I had spun turned out to be more theme than story, more back story than novel, and I ended up with the kiss of death: Thin narrative. A rice paper novel.

Do I regret writing all those words that will never be read? I’m philosophical about them. Those long mistakes have helped me understand myself and my process better. They have been lessons for me. Still, it’s a path I don’t care to walk again.

Over time I’ve come to understand what needs to happen to those ideas I have so that I know which one is worth writing – which idea is novel worthy. I must become The Captivated Idiot. It goes like this:

The idea – comes out of nowhere. Often when I am in conversation with someone – this happens often, creative conversations blossom the imagination. And I’m captured by the notion of ‘what if’. The “hey wait a second” moment when everything slows down and I stare the idea in the eye, ask, “Who are you?” And wait for an answer. Does it talk back? Do other ideas bunch at its back?

The deepening – I’m staring at the idea. It’s staring back at me. Not the plot, but themes – moral arguments about living well (this is my understanding of theme). I poke at the idea and find it has substance. Now I’m getting excited. I start listing questions, not the who what when where questions of story and plot. Rather, questions like, what’s behind this? What hidden thing might be controlling the actions of others.

The waiting – I’ve learned over time that the next thing I must do is also the hardest thing for me. After I’ve spent time with an idea, made notes, gotten very excited, maybe even researched a few points, I have to walk away. I have to leave the idea alone and let it sit in a dark corner. I have to wait. Only time will tell me if my idea will burn steady like the sun, or if it will implode on itself like a supernova into a black hole. There is no substitute for this step.

The return – After some time has gone by (I know, you want to ask, how much time? The answer is I don’t know. Sometimes it is weeks. There are ideas I have on hold that I have had in mind for more than a year. All I can tell you is when the time is right, you’ll know. You simply know.) But after that right amount of time has gone by, I return to my idea. I read through my notes, I get my head thinking about the themes again. And then the acid test – after the waiting, does this story idea turn me into The Captivated Idiot?

The Captivated Idiot – This is a story that grabs hold of me and won’t let me go. I find myself ruminating about the story the way I daydreamed about boys when I was fourteen, on a nearly unconscious level. I can’t NOT think about this story. I can’t help but plot the novel. The characters show up on their own, shake my hand and take a seat. I’m utterly captivated. There’s no getting away.

But captivation must partner with the second component to be considered novel worthy. Which life question is this story focused on, and do I think I know the answers to this life question? If the answer is yes, then I pass on the story. For me, I need to write stories that explore questions I don’t have the answers to. My approach to fiction is that my story is part of an ongoing discussion about what it means to be human, and therefore I must come to that discussion in all transparency.

I must come to the story as the idiot, not the expert. I write novels about the very things I don’t understand. The things that scare me. At the moment, I’m writing a novel with the theme of community formation. I’m writing it because I am at a place in my life where I admit I don’t have a clue how to begin to build a community. That there is much about love and loneliness for me to explore. I’m not writing
A Girl Named Fish because I think I have answers. I’m writing it because the story has turned me into The Captivated Idiot. I can’t NOT write this story, and I have so many questions about the theme in this book that I’m convinced other people have questions about it too. That other people struggle to reach out, wonder if they should, fear they cannot.

What do you think? Do you want to become a captivated idiot? Do you explore your questions in your writing? What is that like for you? We’d love to hear all about it.

Friday, November 5, 2010

What Would Katniss Do - If You Wrote the Book?

Do you play the game I play? When I read a novel, I ask myself from time to time, where would I go with this story, if I were the author? What would happen next? How would it end?

Writers can never just read a book, can they?

When I read (or rather, listened to the audio of) The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, I spent the final third of the book trying to figure out how Katniss Everdeen should resolve the love triangle woven into her story. Should she turn to the left, or to the right?

She did neither, and I enjoyed one of those satisfying moments that begin in disappointment, and end in Of Course! It couldn't have worked out any other way.

But truly, it could have. I'd spend a good deal of time devising lots of other ways things could have gone - though none of them would have been as good. One mark of a great ending is that it seems inevitable, though unexpected.

Still, my novel, To Dance in the Desert could have ended in a wedding.

Patti's Queen of Sleepy Eye could have ended in a double wedding.

Sharon's novel, Lying on Sunday could have ended in a murder.

Debbie's Tuesday Night at the Blue Moon could have ended with the child switched at birth being sent to a foster home.

Bonnie's Talking to the Dead could have ended with Kate leaning into the winds of life, a solitary figure in the dark - aren't you glad it didn't end that way?

Latayne's Latter Day Cipher could have ended with a Bang that would have said so much less than the whimper.

Maybe there's a book you've read that you would have written another way, if you'd been the author. Please, do tell. We want details.

We love to read what you have to say.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Eternity in our Hands

Patti’s excellent post on Monday, regarding how to squeeze in writing time was inspirational for me. Thank you, Patti!

And now our Patti joins the workforce along with Debbie and we lift in prayer both our heroines who go ahead of us to show us how to balance the writing life with employment outside the home.

I love (and often mention) the generalization we can derive from Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000 – where the lunch of a little boy could do the work of a man laboring for five months. Two completely incommensurate things, a small amount of bread and fish and the sweating of a man for 150 days. That gives me courage and tells me that God doesn’t need what I think is needed to accomplish His purposes. And if a writer is called to write, God can and will maximize resources – including hours and minutes – to get them to accomplish His outcomes.

Not only does the finished product of a book reflect the way God has enabled an author to write, the book itself illustrates the relationship between time (the realm of where we live) and eternity (where God lives).

William Blake illustrated an aspect of this when he wrote in Auguries of Innocence:

To see a world in a grain of sand,

And a heaven in a wild flower,

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,

And eternity in an hour.

You see, a book teaches us about eternity. Any book that tells a story. I often demonstrate the relationship between time and eternity by holding a novel in my hands. For instance, if I have Gone with the Wind before me, I can open it to the burning of Atlanta, or the death of Melanie Wilkes or Scarlett’s first meeting with Rhett Butler. I can enter that timeline at any point, going backward or forward to an event, even though the book has a “sequence.” That’s because I am outside that timeline. I am in another realm, one not dependent upon the timeline of the novel.

That’s a picture – an imperfect picture, to be sure – that illustrates the difference between time and eternity. They’re not commensurate either. One has sequence, where one event follows another—that’s time. But eternity surrounds time with something we know little about – except that eternity controls time, and in a very real sense, can best be described as not-time.

We as authors have a near-divine privilege, outside the timelines we imagine and craft. We get to create worlds. We supervise sequences. We keep our characters from disaster, or teach them very important lessons through painful circumstances. But we care about them, because we know others are watching what they do and drawing conclusions about their own lives.

And this knowledge, this calling to write, points me back to God.

Oh, Lord, You who dwell outside my sequences, I surrender to your Authorship.*

Write my life for me!

*Hebrews 12:2

Monday, November 1, 2010

Just Give Me 15 Minutes!

Contrary to what many of you might imagine, a career in letters is not without its drawbacks--chief among them the unpleasant fact that one is frequently called upon to actually sit down and write.
--Fran Lobowitz, Metropolitan Life

Truthfully, I don't know who Fran Lobowitz is. She's correct, of course, but I'm in a bit of a panic. Just looking for employment has diminished my writing time to almost nothing. What will trying to write be like when I'm actually working a job, juggling relationships and responsibilities?

I've given this some thought.

Finding time to write will take much more than discipline. (I've requested a seat-belted desk chair for Christmas in case I'm wrong.) And a schedule can corral just so many minutes. A housekeeper is out of the question, given I'll earn less than she would in an hour. No, this will be much, much harder than creating a new schedule and delegating house chores.

I have to change my thinking.

Ouch! Yes, this smacks a little.

I've always equated quality writing time with oceans of unclaimed minutes of stillness. I do believe really good fiction requires more time, but not necessarily in wide swaths of time, just the kind of time that allows for tons of rewriting counted in years.

Let's consider the worst case scenario: I only find 15 minutes to write each day. Can I still be a novelist?

Let's do an experiment. I'm going to hop on over to Word and write for 15 minutes to see what I can accomplish.

I'll be right back...

I'll never look at 15 minutes the same again. I wrote 450 words or 1/222th of a novel! At that rate, I'll have a rough draft in 222 days. This is encouraging because I'm pretty sure I can find an hour a day. I waste an hour a day, easily. How much better to claim that hour as a prize and not a limitation.

This is going to be an adjustment.

For those of you who aren't Paris Hilton, how do you find the time to write? What adjustments in your expectations have you had to make? Do you negotiate with your family? Is it more productive to write very early before work, or do after-work hours work best? How do you do it? Help!