Friday, January 29, 2010

The Invisible Word

We've not mentioned all month long what our giveaway book is for January, so here it is. Everyone who comments on this post between now and Sunday will be entered in a drawing for a copy of Elizabeth George's Write Away, one of my favorite books on the craft of writing.
One of the pleasures I've had since becoming a published writer is the opportunity to judge writing contests. I love reading the entries -- which range from a budding writer's baby steps to a writer ready for publication -- and offering counsel where I can. I've also been asked on occasion to read a full manuscript by an aspiring author. I find that most new writers make a common mistake in dialogue that identifies their work as that of a novice. It comes in the form of dialogue tags.
Tag lines are words that precede, interrupt or follow dialogue, to indicate the speaker. The preferred tag, if there has to be a tag at all, is simply he said/she said. But in an effort to use variety, many beginning writers write something like, "I love it!" she enthused. Or "I hate it!" he groused. There are two glaring mistakes in both examples. First, the exclamation point should not be necessary to express the emotion of the statement. The statement should stand on its own. Second, enthused and groused and other words like them should never, ever be used in tag lines.
Or how about this: "I don't know how you could say such a thing," she complained. "Oh, really? And why is that?" he questioned. "Because, I love it," she frowned. Ah me. The first line of dialogue is obviously a complaint, so she complained is redundant, as is he questioned at the end of the question in the second line of dialogue. And in the third line, well, it's impossible to frown anything you say. Words can be accompanied by a frown, a frown can stand on its own without any words whatsoever, but words cannot be frowned. So beware the verbs you use as tags.
A first manuscript I recently read for a friend of a friend made me aware of this problem like nothing I've ever read. The author used the following tag lines in just a few short pages: she agreed; he remarked; she sighed; he sang; she nodded; he answered; she commented; he soothed; she ventured; he grinned; she sulked; he exclaimed!
Oy vay! Never once did he say or she say. Just as you cannot frown words, you cannot nod them, soothe them, venture them, grin them, or sulk them.
Elizabeth George, in her exceptional book Write Away: One Novelist's Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life (a book every aspiring writer should read and read and re-read), writes:
"Sometimes a writer just starting out thinks that she needs to be especially creative with her tag lines, believing that the repetition of said lacks snap and personality. Actually, said is a little miracle word that no one should abandon. What happens when a writer uses said in a tag line is that the reader's eye skips right over it. The brain takes in the name of the speaker, while the accompanying verb -- providing it's the verb said -- simply gets discarded ...
But this isn't the case of all those fancier tag lines: snarl, moan, snap, hiss, wail, whine, whimper, shout, groan, sneer, growl and all the rest of them. These call attention to themselves, and while you might use them judiciously -- although, frankly, I discourage you from using them at all -- must use them with the realization that they will leap out at the reader. The situation is this: When the writing (and of course by that I mean the writer) is really doing its job, the reader will be aware that someone is shouting, snarling, thundering, moaning, or groaning. The scene will build up to it so the writer doesn't have to use any obvious words to indicate the manner in which the speaker is speaking.
I have another book that deals with all aspects of dialogue, which I purchased years ago because of its title alone: Shut Up! He Explained. Is that great or what? William Noble concurs with Ms. George when he writes:
"... a passage of dialogue is best followed by "said." Anything else -- "shouts" or "exclaims" or "retorts," for example -- is just wasted motion. No verb ... should substitute for said ... A writer should be able to phrase dialogue so the impact of the words would be clear."
Said is an invisible, miracle, stealth word. It does its job without drawing attention to itself. When writing dialogue, do as much as you can without tag lines. Instead of writing, I'm going to the beach house on Thursday," I said. Consider "I'm going to the beach house on Thursday." I don't tell her the rest because I'm still trying to fool even me. Not only do you identify the speaker, you advance the story at the same time.
Dialogue is the heart of good fiction. Stilted, canned or cluttered dialogue will kill an otherwise great story. We've listed a number of excellent books on our Resources page that address the topic of dialogue. You're sure to want these in your writer's library.
Do you have any questions about dialogue we can talk about? Have any really good examples of dialogue? How about some really bad ones?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Pretend You're a Man--It's Good for You!

I bounced, galloped, pedaled, paddled, and scampered my way through grade school. Sitting for long periods of time still makes me itch.

I itch a lot.

I set the timer for 30 minutes during my writing day. The trill releases me to move about for five minutes to keep my blood from turning to sludge. This is the only way I can be a writer.

Two years ago, a double-whammy injury made me sedentary for most of a year. As you’ve probably already guessed, the limitations nearly drove me insane. And since I am of a “certain” age, my body isn’t bouncing back.

I’m walking daily—through wind and sleet and dark of night—and contorting myself through stretches and Pilates.

And still the muscles growl and bite.

My physical therapist tells me to stick with it.


My brain needs a regular workout, too. I keep a book of crossword puzzles handy, read delicious novels, and journal daily with a feverish hand. A writer needs more, something to spark the creative genius within. Some call them writing exercises. Not me. I do plenty of exercises, thank you very much. I call these activities games.

Writing games prod us to look at something with fresh eyes, to be male though female, to remember the summer of ’88 or ’62 or 2079. Perhaps a writing game will give you that rare opportunity to have a sit-down with your cat. To meet your great-great grandmother at her favorite Disney World ride. To describe two very different feet.

Let’s play!

Here are five, quick “games” from Elizabeth Berg’s book, The Art of Writing True. Choose one or all. Whatever you do, have fun! To make this more interesting. If you're a woman, play the game as a man. If you're a man, yep, you've got your pink thinking cap on today.

Use these three words in a sentence: dream, heart, gold.

He’s so weird! He likes to eat ___________ and __________ together!

Write the first line for a love story.

Write the last line for a tragedy.

An odd smell, a mix of __________ and __________

Since I'm asking so much of you today, for all who play I'll put your name in a hat and pull out a winner. The prize is one of my novels. Your choice! Ready, set...go!

Monday, January 25, 2010

Roundtable Discussion: Lo-Tech Solutions to Author Problems

At the Mount Hermon writers' conference last year, one of the most interesting segments was a small group setting in which several writers, agents and editors shared their favorite gadgets for writers. They ranged from the new Kindle reading device to backup and storage solutions.
However, some of the most useful things are not expensive nor even electronic. Take the screen that I use in my office. Three-part screens can be ordered online for just over $100 or are often for sale in consignment and second-hand furniture stores. Mine is a sombraje screen (made from peeled cottonwood branches) and is characteristic of New Mexico, where I live.

Here is a photo of my screen in its current use. I am writing a novel based in the first century, and the main character's life intersects at points with that of the Apostle Paul. Those are little maps of his missionary journey at the top of the screen, and below (partially hidden by the manila file folders) are timelines of his ministry along with secular history.

I said this is its current use -- kind of a folding bulletin board. However, I usually have it between my desk and the door of my office. We have so much
company in my home that putting the screen there keeps guests from feeling they have to say "hi" as they go down the hall, and keeps me from feeling guilty when I am writing to meet a deadline and have people visiting other family members. It's kind of a compromise between a closed door and a welcome mat. And it works very well!

Low-tech is the way to go for me. I'm not against technology; computers are my friend - but I'm not a gadget gal. I've tried learning Scrivener but the timing was off, and I ended up back in Word to write my next novel (blessedly nearly finished). I'll try again when I'm less crunched for time. My low tech lovely is the simple writing journal. Each novel gets its own journal. Long hand writing helps my memory. I start rough sketching plot and character sketches long hand in a journal.
For my upcoming novel, Time & Time Again- an atmospheric, slightly chilling story, I chose this journal:

As I contemplate another novel, I have started a new journal. It's lovely to have these hand written books on my shelf beside the finished product.


A very lo-tech device I began using three manuscripts ago is my character collage. I've written about it before, but it's a useful way to keep my characters in front of me, and keep their physical traits straight. When I begin a novel I spend days creating and naming my characters. Occasionally I'll write several chapters using a name for someone only to find it isn't the right name. Then I have to go back and figure out who they really are. I know when it's wrong, and I know when it's right.
Once I "cast" my novel, I spend days looking at "headshots" until I find the face that goes with the character in my head. I print a small photo of it onto a sheet of paper, then go looking for the next character and add that photo to the collage. This gives me a visual of each person in my novel and makes them more real to me as I write.
That doesn't mean I describe them in intricate detail. I prefer to leave much to the imagination of my readers, because their vision of what a character looks like may not match the one I give them. Who hasn't seen a movie from a book they 've read, only to be disappointed that so-and-so looks nothing like they're supposed to? But it's a great visual aid for a writer. Case in point -- and it couldn't have happened at a better time: I'm watching Alex and Emma, and Emma says to Alex the author, "I hate it when ... authors use a name like John Shaw. I picture in my mind thin with a stylish mustache and then when you finally get around to describing him he's a fat old fart with a hole in his teeth." So the collage is mostly to keep my characters before me.
The collage also keeps me from getting away from my story for very long, because it's right there by my computer where I spend most of every day. Right now I'm looking at a beautiful 3-year old girl who's asking me to tell her story. I'm doing my best, Kinsey. I really am.

Bonnie stole my thunder about having a journal for each book, so I'll add that I divide mine with tabs for characters, plot, setting, and research. It's the most useful 'device' I have to help me write. My second-best gadget is a lighted notebook that I keep on my nightstand. It has a pen inserted in the top. When you pull it out, the writing area lights up. When you return the pen to the slot, the light goes out. I can't tell you how many times I have used it in the middle of the night when I have an idea and there's no way I would remember it by morning. It's not bright enough to disturb my husband, either. My son found it at Brookstone in the mall last year.

This is how it looks when it's lighted. It fits in the palm of my hand and is easy to grip as I write. That doesn't mean I can understand my handwriting any better - after all, it's probably 4:00 in the morning - but it gives me something to work with. Thank you, son!

Low-tech suits me fine! I need a reminder to remain focused on the moment in the story I'm writing. If I think about all the remaining chapters and trying to write a satisfying ending and meeting the d-e-a-d-l-i-n-e, deadline, I turn to cognitive jelly. So, from a cue I found in Bird by Bird by Anne Lamont, I made up this tiny sign--1" x 1.5" and put it in a tiny frame. "Write only what you can see through me." I write one sentence, one paragraph, one scene at a time. It's simple but a great stress reducer.


Friday, January 22, 2010

Oh, Just Cut it Out

Yikes! Did I just write "just" in the title?

Oh no! In my opening paragraph as well?? And after Bonnie did such a great job, telling us not to use the "J" word!

You see how very really diabolically easy it is to do the wrong thing? "For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing." That's the human condition. (That's also Romans 7:19, TNIV.)

Flawed as I am, I'm going to stick with the theme Bonnie and Debbie established, and add a few don'ts to the list. Only mine are slightly different, because they represent not only bad writing, but also bad theology - if you turn your head the right way:

Derivative plots and themes

When Francine Rivers said of Bonnie Grove, "Call her the Jodi Picoult of Christian Fiction!" we all cheered for her. When Latayne Scott's Latter Day Cipher was compared with The DaVinci Code, none of us were surprised, because she had explored the secrets of the Mormon church in a way that was fully as engaging as Dan Brown's novel - though more faithful to the truth.

Still, the thing I love about Bonnie Grove is that she is unreservedly Bonnie Grove, not Jodi Picoult. And Latayne is not Dan Brown. Both of these ladies can scare you, and amuse you, and thunder-strike you in ways that are truly their own.

Sometimes I see covers on bookstore shelves that broadcast - by their artwork, title, and back cover copy - that this Christian author is exactly like that general market author, only with a Christian message. It makes me feel creepy, because 1) it may well be that the general market author has actually told a story with a great, even a Christian message, though more subtly than his imitator, and 2) part of the Christian message is that each person - each author - is an orignial, made in the image of God, with a story and a style all her own. When I see a derivitive work, it seems to me like a failure of faith.

Straw characters

I've met them in too many novels. The unbelievers whose arguments against belief are simple-minded, thinly veiled excuses to protect the debauched lifestyles they would have to surrender if ever they knelt at the altar.

Don't write characters like that. It's lazy. It's not nice. And somewhere, some time, some unbelieving reader will see herself in your character and find herself ill-treated. Because maybe she lives by a moral code that in many ways resembles yours. And maybe her reasons for unbelief are honest reasons. Give her your respect. Explore her questions with her. And beware the easy answer. She's wrestling with angels. Hand her a towel.

God Saves the Day

The plot is simple: Main character gets into trouble. He loses his wife and his truck and his dog. He walks down the aisle and has a talk with God. His wife comes back, a check comes in an unmarked envelope so he can fetch the truck back from the bank, and his dog comes home - with puppies!

It's just bad theology. Because sometimes God saves the day, but most often he just saves us.

And one way he saves us is through suffering, and part of what that salvation means is that we have found something more precious than the things we once held dear.

Authors, go forth: Write about that precious thing.

And all of you, both authors and readers, please add to my list in the comments. What elements of bad fiction strike you as bad theology on the page?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

More Stuff That Has to Go

I'm following up on Bonnie's last post on words that detract from our writing, and I think we should vote some more stuff off the island. Now I'm sure we all know these need to go, but a little review never hurts. And sometimes, where there's a rule, there's an exception.

1. The information dump. I don't know about you, but I easily fall in love with my research. And while I may find it fascinating that bats always turn left when exiting a cave, or that elephants are the only animals that can't jump, unless these facts influence the direction of the story or give insight into a character, they have no place in my manuscript. There needs to be a reason for inclusion. For example, take author Elizabeth Peters' character Amelia Peabody, the turn of the century archaeologist-sleuth. Amelia often pontificates on Egyptian history, but that's who she is -an outspoken, well-educated woman proving herself in a man's world. In one scene, she went on for a very long paragraph, and since the author has a Ph.D. in Egyptology, the word 'gratuitous' came to mind and I skimmed it. In the last sentence of the paragraph, Amelia tells the readers that she knows they skimmed it and to go back and read because the information was important to the case. With all the earmarks of an information dump, here proved an exception to the rule. I loved how she used humor to make her point.

2. The backstory overload. This is closely related to the information dump, but more of this information is crucial to the story. Like watching your neighbor's 8mm home movies - you take for granted that he was born and moved through the stages of life to adulthood, but you're only interested in his story in the here and now, and perhaps a few things that would explain how he became a millionaire anime video game creator or a successful brain surgeon by the age of 25. Unfortunately, too often this information comes before we have gotten to know or care about him - or 50 pages into the story, which has been the line of demarcation given by publishers in recent years. (I hear this line is flexible and open to negotiation ??) Backstory lightly sprinkled to create tension and whet the readers' appetites is quite different. An exception would be if the backstory is the real story, as in The Princess Bride, or an immediate trip to the past is crucial to the story, as in The Time Traveler's Wife.

3. Stereotypes & its ugly twin, cliche. By stereotypes, I'm not referring to cultural differences or profiling. I'm talking about the one-faceted, predictable cardboard character who is manipulated by the writer for a purpose. He/she could be the inhabitant of a small rural town or a trailer park or an obese person, a trophy wife, soldier, Democrat, Republican, feminist or priest. The only way to avoid this trap is to know your characters to the bone and treat every one with respect. A cliche is 'anything that has become trite or commonplace through overuse,' such as a plot, setting, character development, use of color, or a phrase (strong as an ox). Even a story device can be cliched. "On Star Trek, every time there came a problem that was too difficult to handle the writers would have someone travel back in time to solve it...Every hospital show has to have a young idealistic intern and an old, cranky administrator..." (see here ) Years ago at a conference, I learned that having my protagonist describe herself by looking in a mirror was cliched. I promptly rewrote my opening. I can't even think of a good exception to this rule, can you?

Good news - unique, fresh ideas and genuine writing get to stay on the island! They are hidden like jewels on a treasure hunt - so worth the time and effort to discover them.

Can you think of a stereotype or cliche in the making? What about phrases such as being 'kicked off the island?' Oops!

Monday, January 18, 2010

Words We Don't Need

Wordsmithing is futzy stuff. Tweak, twist- we forever hover over and nudge words into place, only to pluck and plop them elsewhere. Writing is sensory. It’s only right when it feels perfect. When we read it and sigh, or exclaim, or clap our hands and experience the undulations of emotion though the backdoor of words.

Writers and readers can do that – fully feel the lives and emotions of people who exist only on the page. For them, words are as pungent as sliced onions, as shocking as a plunge in a cold creek. For the writer and the reader – words are transformed into the stuff of life.

How does a writer take the human experience and transform it into dots and dashes in such a way that it transmits truth to the reader through the telling of a story that is a complete fabrication? One way is the writer’s pursuit of clarity.

Clarity in writing is an exercise in vigilance. The most complicated, complex ideas can be conveyed beautifully in simple language. And the simplest ideas can become hopelessly obtuse if bogged down in useless wording.

In my limited experience, I’ve discovered a handful of words that distract from clarity – words we don’t need in fiction writing. See if you agree with my short list:

1) Significant. A word with this many syllables should be important and useful, but in fiction writing, it isn’t. It’s vague – and while there are times a story calls for a slight of hand, a cloaked clue, it doesn’t require willy-nilly words that take up so much room and say so little. Consider a sentence I heard on the radio the other day: “The bomb went off in a crowded downtown area causing a significant amount of damage.” Tell me, news announcer dude – how could a bomb go off in a crowded downtown area and cause an insignificant amount of damage? I’m voting this word off the island!

2) Because. This is a useful word in everyday conversation, but it doesn’t belong in fiction. The word because is an explaining word – Suzy smacked Jane upside the head because Jane took Suzy’s best shoes without asking. This is a great sentence when chatting around the office water cooler. But, if you are writing a scene in which Suzy smacks Jane upside the head, the reader should be fully aware of what is going on and why. If you need to explain to the reader why something happened, you need to back up and take another run at the story. “Because” is built into the story. Casting my vote – off the island!

3) Just. I’m amazed how often this four letter word creeps into my writing. I do a universal search of my manuscripts to search and destroy this word. Why doesn’t it belong in writing? It doesn’t say anything – it’s meaningless. We tend to lean on this word crutch because we think it adjusts the emotional impact of our sentence. We use it the same way we may use adverbs in an attempt to punch up the emotional volume of a sentence; I’m just disgusted! (I’m disgusted). We insert “just” to dial the emotional tone down. I’m just kidding. (I’m kidding). Alternatively, we use it to add a sense of immediacy. I just can’t believe what I just saw! (I can’t believe what happened). No matter how you use just, it’s a filler word – one we don’t need in fiction writing. Just- pack your bags, you’re outta here.

Other words I do search and destroy missions on:

Real (really)




At all

Began to

Managed to

What have I missed? What word crutches have you kicked to the curb? How has it improved your writing? Please share because I’m just certain we can learn a significant amount from your really, very real experiences!

Friday, January 15, 2010

Be Yourself

"Joy in the act of creating ... When was the last time you enjoyed the writing process?" Ariel Lawhon
"Lap up masterful writing. Savor it. Celebrate it. But do not compare your writing to anyone else's." Patti Hill
Good insight from Ariel and Patti this week. If you haven't yet read their posts, I hope you will.
To answer Ariel's question, the last time I enjoyed the writing process was ... well, the last time I wrote. But here's the thing. It's been a while. Typically, I love slipping into my fictional world, getting to know my characters -- and often being surprised by them. I love the unfolding of their stories, many of the intricate details unknown even to me until I stumble upon them. I truly love the process.
But having put my writing aside for the sake of the long holiday season, I'm finding it difficult to get back into the process. My characters knock at the door, telling me all sorts of things about themselves, and wait for me to pick up the thread and get back to weaving. But I look at the loose ends and think, WHAT am I supposed to DO with them? Yeah, there are a lot of morals to this story, like Don't put the writing aside, whatever you do! But that doesn't help me now.
I mean to get back to it, I really do. Right after I clean the toilet and fold the towels.
And when I do, I plan to BE MYSELF. I don't plan to copy all those other excellent writers I so want to emulate. The Joy Jordan Lakes, the Elizabeth Bergs, the five fabulous women I blog with. No, I plan to be me. I pledge to be me. If I only knew who that was exactly.
Years ago I had a Sandi Patty album -- yes album. As I said, it was years ago. There was some humorous dialogue on this live album that comes to mind from time to time. Patti's post jarred it to the surface again. Sandi talks about trying to find who she was as a young singer. In the 10th grade she had a big identity crisis, and was very impressionable. There were a lot of great singers she admired, but she was drawn in particular to Karen Carpenter. She said, "I not only wanted to sing like Karen Carpenter ... I wanted to BE Karen Carpenter." Then she goes on to sing a portion of "Jesus Loves Me," Karen Carpenter style. "I was so immature as a sophomore," she continues. "I realize all of this now because I was such a mature senior in high school, and I realized it was so silly and so ridiculous and so immature of me to want to be Karen Carpenter ... because NOW I wanted to be Barbra Streisand." And again she sings a portion of "Jesus Loves Me," ala the funny girl.
In the 10th grade I wanted to be Janis Ian, Rembrandt, and Jose Feliciano, in that order. Today I want to be ... I guess more secure in what I do. I want to feel that I've arrived, but I've no clue what that means. I want to write the stories the Lord has planted in my heart, and do it in such a way that they touch other hearts. There's nothing easy about the process, about discovering your voice as a writer, about knowing just how to tell the story that lives in your soul. But "easy" isn't a condition of what we do. Birthing is hard work. It takes the most private parts of you and exposes them to the world.
But where would we be if Tolkien had ignored the little hobbit in his heart? If Harper Lee hadn't given voice to Scout? If Dickens had never picked up a pen? It makes me sad to even consider it. Many people want to have written. Relatively few want to write. Whose voice may you be silencing with your reticence? What tale may go untold for fear of failure? With the gift of another new year let's pledge to be true to our call, giving birth to the stories only we can tell. Let's be content with the peculiar style that is ours, ever striving to improve our craft, but not held back because we aren't someone else. So thank you, Patti and Ariel. Your words were the swift kick this writer needed. Look at me, I'm weaving again.
What about you? What story are you NOT telling? What sidetracks you from your writing -- and what gets you back on track? And tell us, who did you want to be in the 10th grade?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Writer's Cure-All for Joylessness

Many thanks to Ariel for her guest blog on Monday. She captured the longing of all writers, especially this one, to enter into the joy of writing and creating. From Ariel's own admission and the comments of our readers, this is easier said than done.

I confess to being a writing curmudgeon from time to time. It’s easy to blame the obvious culprits: deadlines, reviews, disappointing covers, distractions of any kind, or cranky fan letters. Every writer faces these challenges. Not all writers lose their joy. Reading Ariel’s post made me dig

deeper for broader themes related to malaise among writers with the intention of coming up with a Writer’s Cure-All for Joylessness.

Here are my offerings:

1. Stay connected with the Creator.

The beginning point of all creativity is Jesus (even for those who don’t give Him credit, but this is a question for another blog). My joy and creativity are directly tied to my relationship with Him. If I settle for a cursory prayer and a day of sing-along-with-the-radio worship, my soul is diminished, my creativity constipated. Our creativity dance requires a partner, and we are blessed beyond counting that Jesus has tapped us on the shoulder. Always say yes to Him. Enter the dance.

2. Stay connected with people outside the writing world.

Cuddle up to the folks who care about things besides plot points and character development. This will keep your life in perspective, and your feet will stay warm. Join them in doing things that have absolutely nothing to do with writing. Hike a trail. Take a class. Cook a meal. Skip stones. Count the stars. Jane Hamilton once told an interviewer that unless she putters in the garden or rides her horse every day, she has nothing to write worth reading. Get out there and live—with nice people!

3. Stay connected with other writers.

This sounds like contradiction, but it’s not. You need like-minded people who are truthful and generous. For me, this is my critique group, the lovely ladies of NovelMatters, a church-based small group for writers, and several online writing chums. I could not write without these people. These relationships are a two-way street. We love one another enough to “speak the truth in love.” These folks don’t let me get away with extraneous words or sloppy metaphors, and I love them in kind. And we are generous with one another—promoting, teaching, and soothing. There is no room for competition or high school gossip. The groups of writers I associate with come closest to what I imagine the Body of Christ to be like. Don’t miss out!

4. Pace yourself.

Pick a deadline (self-imposed) for your manuscript that allows for sick days, holidays, a mission trip, etc. And give yourself plenty of time prior to your publisher-induced deadline for self-editing. Count the days between now and your deadline. Get out your writer’s calculator with the big numbers. Divide the target word count by the number of days. You should come up with a reasonable daily word count. I go through this bit of calendar gymnastics to avoid panic. I don’t write well with a gun pointed at my head, metaphorically speaking or otherwise!

5. Don’t compare.

Lap up masterful writing. Savor it. Celebrate it. But do not compare your writing to anyone else’s. God made you a one-of-a-kind writer. And as many writers as there are, there are ways to compare yourself to others…How fast they can write. What their marketing department does to promote their books. Their place on the best-sellers list. Their web site. Their opportunities to self-promote. Their erudite blog entries. How do they do it all? Be you. Enjoy God’s hand on your unique and valued life.

6. Avoid vanity searches!!!

I can’t say this strongly enough. As it is, writing requires a level of benign madness. You don’t need more voices in your head, especially unkind voices. Skipping around the Internet to read reviews opens doors to the two-headed, four-tailed, slobbering, sneering Self-Doubt monster. Yes, reviews can be encouraging. Let your editor send those to you. The best, most successful writers I know don’t read their own reviews. Reviews don’t teach you anything you don’t already know. And trust me; the bad reviews repeat themselves over and over in your head. And thus, creativity is stymied; joy is squelched.

I keep a Frederick Buecher quote on my desk:
"The place where God calls you is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet."
How do you foster joy in your calling as a writer or creative person in any area?

Monday, January 11, 2010

Think Like A Reader - Guest Ariel Allison Lawhon of She Reads

Today's post come from Ariel Allison Lawhon, author of eye of the god.
She writes, reads, and lives in Texas with her husband and four young sons.

She co-directs the nationwide online book club She Reads, and is slowly learning to think like a reader and enjoy her books in every stage.

She Reads and Novel Matters have come together as sister blogs - building a bridge between readers and writers to form a creative community around the love of books.


"That's What I love about reading: one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you on to another book, and

another bit there will lead you on to a third book. It's geometrically progressive - all with no end in sight, and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment."

~The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Reading fiction gives us pleasure. We wouldn’t do it otherwise. Think about the countless hours you’ve spent between the pages of a novel. Your bookshelf, your library card, and your night stand are all evidence of a love affair with the written word.

So why do many of us also write fiction? For the same reason, I believe. We enjoy it. Our hard drives are littered with chunks of narrative. Notebooks filled with story ideas. The blinking cursor beckons us to come and create.

Readers and writers are not so different then. We’re bound by a love of books. We enjoy stories and characters and prose. We connect over paper and ink.

I am reminded of Eric Liddell’s line in Chariots of Fire, “I believe God made me for a purpose...and when I run I feel His pleasure.”

We could just as easily say, “When I read I feel His pleasure.”


“When I write I feel His pleasure.”

Deriving pleasure from creation is something that God modeled for us in the first few chapters of Genesis. The way He worked and then called it “good” at the end of each day. He was proud of what He did even though it was unfinished. God didn’t wait for the reviews to come in after the project was complete. He found his joy in the act of creating. The messiness of it. The way it lumped together, incomplete until the sixth day.

God did the very thing we do when we sit in front of a computer. He created. And because we are made in His image, we create as well. I marvel at the way He enjoyed the process. And I am ashamed that I’m ever looking to being done with my novels, instead of embracing them as I wrestle and revise. That’s where my joy and purpose should be found.

So when was the last time you truly enjoyed the writing process? Not the final draft or getting published or the favorable reviews, but the down-in-the-trenches act of firing out words like a gatling gun? Because that is when we connect with our readers. When we enjoy our writing, it passes through to them on a level we can neither tap into nor control. It’s a meeting of the minds – an emotional connection that allows us to understand one another. Readers are smart. They know if we’ve enjoyed our work. They can feel it. And they respond to it when we do.

So our challenge is to maintain our joy in the act of writing. At the end of each day’s work, we need to declare it good. Let’s think like our readers and find pleasure the book we’re crafting. Because if we don’t enjoy it, they won’t either.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Narrative Transport

Every once in a while I read something that so aptly describes something related to writing and reading that I want everyone to read it.

Such is the case in the following brief quote from the foreword to a collection of short stories of a rare genre: Christian science fiction. The book is Leaps of Faith, edited by Karina and Robert Fabian.

I was a teenager when I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time. Afterwards, I wanted to believe it was true: that somehow, somewhen, elves had walked the earth, men had lived heroic, tragic lives, and curious creatures called hobbits had once saved everyone from evil triumphant before sinking back into well-earned obscurity. . .I didn’t analyze it at the time, but allowed myself to be swept up and away by the power of mere words on a page.

Three decades later, I can put a scientific name to that experience: narrative transport. It describes our capacity to be taken out of our mundane lives, immersed in another world and our feelings irresistibly tied to those of the story’s characters. Whether this capacity is hardwired by evolution, designed by God, or both, it appears there is part of us that can only be accessed by stories. Storytelling is as ubiquitous in human society as religion is, whether that culture is past, present, or future. We tell stories because we have to. We are made that way.

--Dr. Simon Morden

How about you? What book has effected such a "narrative transport" for you?

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

No Better Time to Fall in Love

Fact: One of my New Years resolutions is to read the Bible through in one year.

Fact: I make this resolution every year.

Fact: I probably know Genesis better than any other book of the Bible.

You know why, don't you?

Ten or even five years ago, I might not have told you what a Bible-reading failure I was. But somewhere around the age of %@ (oops - typo!) I took up the practice of self-acceptance. Since that time I have realized that my resolutions, however broken, have led me to read much more of the Bible than I might otherwise have done. I've given myself permission to start in other books besides Genesis, and when the day inevitably comes when I find I have fallen hopelessly behind, I've decided it's okay to scrap the schedule altogether and just read Habakkuk or Titus or any book that catches my eye.

In short, I've learned to stop flogging myself, and start enjoying myself as I read, and read, and read.

Funny the things you notice when you enjoy yourself. For instance, I have observed that biblical authors seem to take little thought for their readers' sensitivities. The writing can be sensual, gruesome, even vulgar at times. The message is often obscure, mysterious, wide open to interpretation. The Bible can shock and offend and drive you crazy.

I love this book.

You do get, don't you, that this is a post about writing? I'm inviting you to loosen up. To charge through the temple overturning tables if you must. To wrestle with angels and make demands. To dance naked for joy.* To love with abandon.

Especially to love with abandon. It's the first rule of life... and of writing.

In an earlier post, I said that what I'd learned from Walter Wangerin Jr. was to love my characters. (Did you listen to the story I linked to? If you do, you'll hear what I mean.)

To start the year off, I'm going to give you a few writing prompts to help you find what it means to love your characters:

  1. Write about someone you've known and loved for a long, long time. Tell what it is about him or her that steals your heart away. Do not - do not use any adjectives like "kind," or "funny," or "dependable." Don't even tell what they do. Don't write that your husband rubs your neck when you're tired, or that your best friend always remembers your birthday. That's not the stuff we want. Pick just one moment. Write details about the look that crosses her face in a specific moment when she's angry and doesn't want it to show. Or about the way he moves his body when he finds something funny. You get the idea.
  2. Write about someone you don't like, and do something similar. Place him or her in a situation doing that big thing you can't stand, and in the middle of that awful thing, write about the small gesture that reveals that person to be made in the image of God.
  3. Write about yourself in the same way, in love. Don't say "I did," or "I felt," but "I touched," "I moved," "I turned."
  4. Make someone up. Make them unique and wonderful, full of unexpected responses and hidden beauty.
Fall in love. Then start writing.

*You don't have to take everything I say literally.

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Blank Page

Happy New Year and congratulations to all who won books during our 12 days of Christmas giveaway. We hope it added to your holiday enjoyment. Soon we will announce the details of our second Audience With an Agent contest, and we anticipate many more wonderful entries. Polish up that manuscript and stay tuned!

What a privilege to write the first post of the new year at Novel Matters. Today I have a helper - Neville. We are pet-sitting for our daughter, and this guy's a real sweetheart. He generally gets bossed around by our two female cats who treat him shamefully. He's a literary cat (named after Neville Longbottom) and the first cat I've ever known to have the hiccups. Anyway, I digress...

We stand at the beginning of a new year. For some, it's a bright new year full of possibilities, but for others it's intimidating in its dark potential. You may see on the horizon the road dust of issues headed your way. Rest assured that God is in control and He can sculpt story from the events of your life. For good or...not so good, this is a year in your story. Whether you're a writer or a reader, this would be a good time to sharpen your pencil, bend your ear to the voice and write furiously. The blank page of the new year will fill, and we are entrusted with the telling of it, even if it is to simply remind ourselves that our Lord is faithful.

Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) says in her short story 'The Blank Page' (from her book Last Tales):
Where the story-teller is loyal, eternally and unswervingly loyal to the story, there, in the end, silence will speak. Where the story has been betrayed, silence is but emptiness. But we, the faithful, when we have spoken our last word, will hear the voice of silence.

What authors would you say are true to story and hear the voice of silence when the book is done?

May God bless you richly in the new year, and may we be loyal story-tellers!