Friday, February 26, 2010
If you missed Wednesday's post by Latayne (brilliant!) and the comments by our readers (also brilliant!), take a minute to enjoy a very thought-provoking discussion on the parameters we either self-impose or are imposed on writers by publishing houses or the market.
Believe it or not, this discussion has been going on for quite a while. Prior to 1964, the year of her death, Flannery O'Connor wrote an essay on the aim and purpose of fiction. The essay was included in a collection of her work posthumously, Mystery and Manners. She wrote:
Ever since there have been such things as novels, the world has been flooded with bad fiction for which the religious impulse has been responsible. The sorry religious novel comes about when the writer supposes that because of his belief, he is somehow dispensed from the obligation to penetrate concrete reality. He will think that the eyes of the Church or of the Bible or of his particular theology have already done the seeing for him, and that his business is to rearrange this essential vision into satisfying patterns, getting himself as little dirty as possible.
Flannery O'Connor, Mystery and Manners
You have to love Flannery O'Connor. She calls out writers who shirk their responsibility to know the world they live in. I love her chutzpah.
I have to ask this question: How do we get "dirty" and honor God at the same time? (Notice I didn't ask how to please every reader at the same time.)
We look to Jesus.
No one saw the world more concretely than Jesus. A whore washed his feet with her tears. He not only made wine, he drank it. He touched leprous skin. He invited himself to a tax collector's house for lunch. And, I'm thinking, he heard naughty words there. Caked with blood, spittle, sweat, and dirt he took the nails for us. Gruesome. Violent. Definitely off-putting. That's crucifixion, the purest act of love.
To follow in the steps of Jesus, to write in a God-honoring, "dirty" way, we must see the world--as best we can--as Jesus sees it, with empathy, detail, and love. And so it is for the Christian writer to observe and portray the beauty and brutality and pain and suffering and redemption all through the eyes of love.
There will always be someone imposing rules. It's our nature. It's much easier to operate with rock-solid parameters. I believe our calling is higher. Our writing--and everything else in our lives--is a product of our relationship with Jesus--subject matter, theme, genre, word usage, voice. Every element is fruit of the faith with put in Jesus, the manner in which we allow ourselves to be loved and love so shallowly in return. Before art and through art, we love Jesus.
It takes a great deal of courage and a solid foundation of faith to look at the world as concretely as O'Connor suggests and as Jesus modeled. I pray for that courage and faith daily.
Can the kind of fiction O'Connor is advocating happen in today's CBA market? Who is getting "dirty" writing fiction for the CBA today and doing so artfully? How have you gotten "dirty" in your fiction? Is Flannery O'Connor, well, wrong?
Wednesday, February 24, 2010
Like most people who write novels from a Christian worldview, I struggle with parameters. How much violence is too much? How should discussions about sex be handled? Where is the line between gritty, timely, relevant description and that which is salacious and offensive? We’ve touched on this issue here on NovelMatters before but the controversy is perennial.
Some people think I stepped over that line in Latter-day Cipher. (Look at some of its reviews on Amazon.) In this novel, I described the acts of a man who wanted to enact the old Mormon custom of punishing apostates by shedding their blood (a practice known in Mormon history as blood atonement.)
Long ago, before I ever wrote a novel, I had a theory. I thought that it would be proper for a Christian to write within the parameters of the Bible. (I thought it was my original idea. Probably not.)
Should be fairly straightforward, it seemed: Just talk about what the Bible talks about, in the way it talks about it.
Sounds good? Well, let’s see. That would allow discussions of incest, gang-rape, murder, corpse desecration, child sacrifice, and other horrific subjects.
It would contain very little of what we call romance (except that steamy Song of Solomon, but in the narratives – almost nowhere.)
And it wouldn’t address a boatload of “hot” issues like global warming, drug abuse, or social media. (Or any media except books and letters, for that matter.)
You see the problem?
Could this be done? Is it possible, without descending into legalism, to set such boundaries? And what role would the Bible play in setting such boundaries?
I found that some publishers have their own lists of which words can and cannot be used. But aside from just vocabulary, how have others of you who are writing “realistic” Christian fiction handled this issue?
Monday, February 22, 2010
I know Camy Tang is an Olympic-class knitter. Some authors travel: Diann Mills once journeyed near the war zone in Sudan - on her own, all 97 lbs of her - to research her next novel.
What do I do? I walk. I take pictures. And everywhere I go, I make a game of noticing things other people might not.
How about you?
You mean, besides take a daily shower, Katy?
Well, I walk miles each day with my dog, Tillie. Being out in the fresh air, where my mind can wander as well as my feet, gets blood flowing to my brain again. But to truly regenerate, I must draw deep into a forest or scritch along a desert trail or snowshoe to a lake shrouded with mist. No matter what, this happens once a week, weather permitting and sometimes not.
I also collect characters in airports. That's why God created cell phone cameras. I arrive home with a "wanted wall" of characters and notes scribbled on boarding passes.
I have noticed that the worse thing I can do for my creativity is spend too much time in front of the computer. When the computer crosses the line from being a tool to being a lifestyle, I know I must step back and into the arms of the people I love.
I sure am boring. Hope the rest of the girls come up with something more interesting.
"I felt the wind on my face for the first time in weeks. Its freshness, the joy of it, caught me by surprise."Once, when I was very stuck for words, I took my daughter to the park and pushed her on the swings. After awhile she was playing on her own and I sat down and wrote an entire scene while I watched her push sand around. I've found it doesn't take a profound change or adventure to get my wheels turning again.
Friday, February 19, 2010
Welcome to all our new visitors and subscribers! We'd love to hear from you!
Our spring Audience-with-an-Agent Contest is underway. If you'd like a chance to have your manuscript read by agent Janet Grant of Books & Such Literary Agency go to our Promotions page and follow the guidelines.
Some debates are just plain fun:
John Lennon or Paul McCartney (yes, Sharon, we know)
Davy Jones or Mickey Dolenz (or Michael Smith or Peter Tork)
Old Elvis or young Elvis
Ginger or Mary Ann
Capt. James T. Kirk or Jean-Luc Picard
Best Bond - Sean Connery or Daniel Craig (or Pierce Brosnan, or Roger Moore...)
Best Angel - Farrah Fawcett, Kate Jackson or Jaclyn Smith
Goobers or Raisinets
Debates can define us:
Dog-person or Cat-person
Snowbird or beach bunny
Morning person or night-owl
Health nut or junk food junkie
Vegetarian or carnivore
Democrat or Republican
Glass half-empty or half-full
Cheerleader or skater-girl
For writers, I could add 'SOTP or outline'. This debate is the literary Mason-Dixon line, dividing the author camp into those who write by the 'Seat Of The Pants' and those who outline extensively in advance. Writers will tell you it's the way they're wired to write, and to do anything less is like putting a stubby golf pencil into the left hand of a right-handed person. It can be done, but it's not gonna be pretty.
I've tried it both ways, and I've always leaned toward being an outlining control freak. I created extensive character bios, personal timelines, family trees and plotted how to get from the title page to the end. I wrote chapter summaries and drew maps of homes and rooms and cut out widget people from magazines so I'd have a clear picture of my characters. And it all worked! There's absolutely nothing wrong with these tools. Even Tolkien drew maps to keep Frodo from wandering off the face of Middle Earth. But now I'm wondering whether it's the best fit for the manuscript I'm working on. Outlining just doesn't feel right. Is it possible to be ambidextrous in a literary sense?
There's an element of control in outlining that appeals to me. It's safe. The characters have a certain amount of freedom within established boundaries. Extensive plotting has its own economy which amounts to less time spent rewriting. It's a bit like having your trip planned out by AAA before you leave home so you don't worry about getting lost and having to stay at a crummy fleabag hotel. But, doesn't it make you wonder what surprises could be waiting in that unexpected layover?
Frankly, SOTP scares me to death. I once found myself three-quarters of the way through a manuscript and realized I had tangled a cat's-cradle of story lines into a huge knot. And, oh, the rewrites! (Can you tell I hate to rewrite?) But it felt magical to have the character take me by the hand and tell me her story. To have her push open a secret door and say 'look in here - bet you never thought of that.'
So, I've decided to trust my character's lead this time. It may be a winding road, but by the end of it, I'll know her pretty well. I'm sure I'll have to give her direction from time to time, or steer her clear of a distraction or two, but her story's worth telling and I'm going to listen close and type fast.
You probably already know which side of the SOTP/outline debate you're on. Do you think it's possible to do both, and have you tried it?
Wednesday, February 17, 2010
1) Write to the right audience
You have an amazing story - now picture yourself reading it aloud, - to an empty cow pasture. The story is fantastic, but no one is listening. How can you ensure your story will find an audience? By knowing your audience before you write. Part of it is to understand the genre you write in, but it goes beyond that to the actual people who will read (and love) your story. Think of specific people in your life and write to them. Knowing your audience will sharpen your fiction, keep it on track, and help you use the perfect words to express the story.
2) Let go of your inhibitions
A sure-fire line to kill a great story? "Oh no! I could NEVER write that!" I'm not talking porno or profanity, we're all sick to death of being bombarded with those things. I'm talking about holding back from asking the bigger questions, poking evil in the eye, having a character act in a way that you would never act, or think things you would never think. By avoiding difficult conflict, you're killing off the best parts of your fiction, the parts that examine questions we all have. Wrestling with story is wresting with life. I say, "Let 'er rip!"
3) Make space
Grab some real estate in your home and make it your writing space. Guard it. Don't let junk mail pile there, don't let kids toys and other people's cell phones clutter your space. You don't necessarily have to have a whole room, just a space to call your own. By taking your writing seriously, you'll train everyone in your household to take it seriously too. If you're feeling cramped and crowded in, it will show up in your writing.
4) Clear your mind
A writing life can be a cloistered one - all that tip-tapping away on a keyboard, deep in thought, lost in a storyline that doesn't quiet make sense yet. Make a habit of getting out there in the world. My Dad calls it, "Blowing the stink off" and every writer needs to do it. Writing is a reflection of life and it's issues and you need to experience those things in order to write about them. Take breaks, call a friend, get out of the house and clear your mind - it sets the stage for fantastic fiction writing.
5) Read dense books
Like to write zippy cozy mysteries? Got a passion for chick-lit? Great! But you owe it to yourself to get out of the wading pool and swim in deep waters. Get lost in a classic book, or discover a shining new literary talent. Find a book that challenges the assumptions of your life, examines questions you've never asked and boggles your mind. Wrestle with the text, suffer through the passages you don't understand, or care for. Read outside your favorite genre - Your writing will blossom.
6) Be passionate
Find the things in life that move you, thrill you, anger you, enthrall you. Then chase them for awhile. Rub up against people who aren't like you. Find that gutsy, lusty, go-for-the-gusto part of you and embrace it. Great fiction is filled with passion for living, for people, and for stories. Throw open the doors of your heart and embrace your red-hot joy for living.
7) Stop trying to explain
Fiction must be about human experience. Many writers, in an earnest attempt to convey a meaningful message, resort to heavy-handed, neatly wrapped packages (especially endings) and hollowed out characters who only exist to serve the message. Give your characters depth and let them live out the story instead of trying to live up to your message. Remember, life is messy - therefore fiction needs to be messy.
8) Be Unique
Every writer looks to other writing for inspiration - each of us stands on the shoulders of writers before us. But there comes a time when you must leave the road others have travelled and forge your own path. You must tell your story your way - not the way your favorite author would, not the way your Pastor's wife would, not the way your Great Aunt Bea would. Fling your own words around the page. Dig deep, and trust your instincts.
9) Try something new that scares you
It's been said, "Fiction is conflict". Writers love to dream up characters and then throw them into all sorts of harrowing circumstances. But when was the last time you had a heart-pounding adventure? How can you recreate the feelings, sensations, and inner dialogue of someone in peril if you haven't left your house for ten years? Find something that makes your pulse jump and go experience it!
10) Admit life isn't simple
Okay, you have a great story, wonderful characters, a theme, an outline - everything is ducky! But check again - have you tied too neat a bow on the whole package? Have you let your characters get sloppy, make mistakes, and put their foot in their mouth? Is your story a journey with pit-stops? Life isn't a simple tale, and your fiction shouldn't be either. We all like happy endings, but it's so much more interesting to leave a few threads loose.
Monday, February 15, 2010
I don't regret the fact that I was the one to stop working to raise Ruthie. When we brought her home from the hospital I hovered over you every time you even held her. I knew you were her father and half responsible for her in every way, but I have to tell you, Martin, as far as I was concerned, she was really all mine. I made her baby food, I picked out her toys and her clothes, I took her to school every first day, I pulled her shades down for her naps, I took her to the doctor, I braided her hair and buckled her shoes and mounted her artwork on the refrigerator. And I wanted to. I wanted to. Once she got into the teen years, you and she seemed to get closer and that was fine with me, too. I had had my hands to her when she was still wet, was how I saw it. Now I could step back -- keep watching, but step back. And then back further.
She looked startled, like our little exchange had been suddenly tossed, then retrieved -- and no reason for either. But she took -- after a second -- the rope-end of talk I held out.
Friday, February 12, 2010
This led to Latayne’s question: Why aren’t CBA books found on “Keepers” lists more often? She bravely listed her reasons. Marybeth's and Latayne’s insights are thought-provoking. Consider going back to read both of these finely crafted blog posts.
Allow me to stir the pot a bit more by asking: Why do Christians who buy inspirational fiction prefer more formulaic storylines in an America of long ago?
I think there is a strong spiritual element to this question. Warning: I’m not a theologian. (Haven’t I said that here before?) I’m just trying to understand our market. Try this out and feel free to set me straight:
As Christians, we all live in a place of great tension. The Kingdom has come in the person of Jesus Christ. Eternity has started for us. We’re members of His family. We’re Heaven-bound and God-connected. We worship a living God, eternal and holy. We’re loved, saved, grace-doused. Hallelujah!
And yet . . .
We aren’t in Heaven yet.
Friends get cancer. Our children rebel. Husbands leave. Prayers aren’t answered the way we hope and certainly not as soon as we would like. Smut is everywhere. We’re seeing our values dissolve before our eyes. We can’t trust the schools, and some have been deeply wounded by the church (little c).
We are between what is and what will be. We live, for now, in the Land of Ought-to-Be. We have high expectations of living out our faith, but this proves challenging in its application. We desire praises and not profanities to flow from our lips; we’re desperate to be healed every time we pray, to love one another sacrificially, and to be Christ-like in the way we live, work, and play. But because we’re in the Land of Ought-to-Be, we fall far short of these expectations.
Some Christians have a lower tolerance for the dissonance of the Land of Ought-to-Be than others. Those on one end of the continuum crave a literary vacation spot where the world is on their side. They also need their faith and life-style affirmed.
On the other end of the continuum, readers are more comfortable with open-ended questions, and a view of the world that is as menacing—or more menacing—as true life.
Now that I have this working model of why some Christian readers like certain kinds of fiction, what am I to do?
I write the stories God dangles before me like a jewel in the sun, pursue excellence in form and content of my prose, and pray my audience finds me. And BTW, I enjoy a literary vacation, but the story must be well-written.
Did I even come close to understanding this phenomena? What’s your take?
Wednesday, February 10, 2010
Monday, February 8, 2010
She Reads exists to honor Christ by connecting readers with novels that:
- inspire through excellent writing
- explore deep issues of faith
- initiate change in the reader’s life
Each month, the She Reads book club will offer a current title as featured selections. Readers have vast differences in taste and for this reason diverse genres and authors will be chosen.
Why should I join She Reads?
Readers who join She Reads receive a number of benefits, including:
- Connection with other readers on the She Reads blog who are passionate about great fiction and uplifting stories.
- Information via the She Reads newsletter that will keep readers up to date on their favorite authors, and books, with a few surprises thrown in for fun.
- Reviews of newly released titles written by a variety of readers, writers, and industry professionals.
- Options to create a She Reads book club or bring an existing club under the She Reads umbrella.
- Relationships developed within the intimate setting of a regular book club meeting.
- Fun planned study guides with activities and interesting facts developed specifically for the She Reads book club.
- Online Community for those who can’t participate in a monthly meeting (or don’t live near an existing club), via the She Reads blog and Facebook group.
- Pre-selected novels they can trust and appreciate – an important aspect in today’s economy where every buying decision requires a second thought.
- Access to authors they love through print interviews, meet and greets, conference calls, etc. Each selected author will participate in two conference calls with the first 100 guests (per call) who sign up. This will be a free service and a chance for readers to have their questions answered by the authors themselves!
- Free books from time to time via contests, giveaways, and publisher promotions.
Of all the diversions of life, there is none so proper to fill upits empty spaces as the reading of useful and entertaining authors.
~ Joseph Addison ~
I thought of this recently as I made my weekly visit to the library. I passed books on the shelf that I had read and loved and smiled at them like old friends. I watched a woman picked up a book that had been a favorite of mine and, on impulse, I recommended it to her. "That's a great one," I offered. "A good choice."
She looked at me with narrowed eyes as though trying to remember when she had asked my opinion. I grinned and continued with my search for a book that would inspire that same kind of passion in me. I did not look back to see if she took my advice and checked out the book I recommended.
As a writer, I want to write the books that people keep. Once I borrowed a copy of Gift From The Sea from a friend. I remember just as I was about to walk out with it my friend stopped me. "Hang on!" she said. "I want to write my name in it so I can be sure to get it back. This one's a book I want to keep." She paused. "It's special to me."
Isn't that every writer's longing? To write a book that readers want to keep, if for nothing else than to know it's there, to smile at it on their shelf? So what does a keeper look like? I thought of the books I have kept. In spite of my ever-shrinking shelf space they earned a permanent spot. These books are:
Moving. The book moved me emotionally. I connected with the plot, the premise, the outcome. I wanted to keep it because I wanted to preserve the connection.
Memorable Characters. I have spent time with these characters and loved them. When the book ends, I find myself wondering how they're doing. I wanted to keep the book because I wanted the characters close by.
Makes you think. Whether it's a surprise ending or a moral dilemma the character faced, the book kept me enthralled and made me ponder life from a different angle or made me dig deeper into some of my own beliefs. I wanted to keep it because it earned my respect.
Masterful writing. When I read the book I caught myself going back to re-read certain sentences or paragraphs because the writing was just that good. I wanted to keep the book because the writer created an amazing work.
Motivates me to be a better writer. When I closed the book I thought to myself, "I wish I had written that book... or thought of that premise... or created those plot twists, etc." Reading good writing inspires really good writing. I kept the book because I want good writing close at hand.
My co-director at She Reads, Ariel Allison Lawhon says, "The beautiful thing is that every writer can control the elements that make a book a keeper. We can't control marketing or promotion or cover design or even the title. But we can write really good books." The next time you are thinking about your novel, don't think about getting published or the brand or the title or anything else. Think instead about the books you have kept and how you can write a book that is a keeper.
Ariel and I thought we'd make a brief list of the books we consider keepers. We would love for you to share yours!
Ariel's list: Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen, The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, Kathryn Stockett's The Help, Keeper Of The Bees by Jean Stratton Porter, anything by George MacDonald or C.S. Lewis, and all of the She Reads selections,
Marybeths' list: all the She Reads picks, Kathleen McCleary's House And Home, Prince Of Tides by Pat Conroy (the book that cemented my desire to be a writer), all of Lee Smith's titles, Susan Meissner's Blue Heart Blessed, Love Walked In by Marisa De Los Santos, The Pact by Jodi Picoult
Friday, February 5, 2010
Perhaps at this point you need only decide which one you will attend. Would a list help? You can find one at Sally Stuart's website, complete with dates and web addresses and contact information.
Let's now assume you're going, and just for fun, let's suppose you can bring only one treasure home from the conference. Which will you choose?
- a friend
- an agent
- a book-contract
I have a little experience here. The day I came back with a book-contract, my husband threw a party. When I signed with my agent, Janet Grant, he merely took me out to dinner - not because it was less special, but because only a week had passed since the party.
Long before all of that, however, the day I came home from a conference having found a brand new writer-friend, I simply emailed her. No party, no dinner out, just an email. And yet...
As great as the contract was (it was a dream-come-true), and as proud as I am that the uber-professional Janet has agreed to represent me, it is my writer friends who do the most, day by day, to encourage me, and to restore my sense of humor and perspective when things get stressful. I don't think I could be a writer without them.
So I hope when you go, you will make it your first goal to find at least one friend at the conference.
Then what will you do when you get back home?
First, attend to your correspondence. Send thank you notes to anyone who advised or helped or encouraged you. Like Bonnie said, it's all about relationships.
Then contact your new friends. Consider throwing a little party - even if it's only a happy-dance. They are worth celebrating.
Then follow up on any promises you made. Did an editor or agent ask to see more of your project? Fantastic! Study Wendy Lawton's guidelines for creating a book proposal. Get it done, and send it off.
Next, pore over all those notes you took while at the conference: new directions for your writing, marketing ideas, organizational tips. Form them into a to-do list, and get to work.
Oh, and one last thing: get some rest. You've hardly slept all week.
Wednesday, February 3, 2010
Not all writers conferences are created equal. They usually fill specific needs. A day or local conference is generally a place where writers reconnect with old friends, make new ones and learn a new trick or two. These are usually relaxing times that reassure us we are not alone in the universe and send us home rejuvenated. The longer conferences draw writers from across the nation and go a step further by incorporating face-time with editors and agents and offering manuscript critiques. It's a wonderful opportunity to take our writing to the next level, but it can be a bit intimidating. Being prepared and professional will build confidence. Here are some ideas that may help:
1. Prepare a one-sheet. A one-sheet is a page used to present your book or series idea. One-sheets aren't mandatory, but they serve as useful reminders for brain-weary editors and agents who hit overload by the end of the conference. One-sheets contain your contact information, a professional-quality photo of you (not too large), a brief bio including any writing credits you may have, a one-line pitch and a longer paragraph briefly outlining the book. They are easy to create on programs such as Microsoft Publisher which offers templates to choose from. Nothing flashy - 12 point Times New Roman with the book title in bold. If you have a blog or website, include them in your bio.
2. Print business cards. There are several quality on-line companies that offer excellent rates for business cards. Simply upload your own photo or choose one of their icons, fill in the template and pick from a variety of colors and fonts (make sure they're easy to read). You'll need to decide whether or not you wish to include your street address. A post office box is best if you have one. Vistaprint is one good, reliable site. Allow several weeks for delivery unless you're willing to pay for a rush order. Printing your own cards is another alternative. Just don't go to the conference empty-handed. Also, keep a few of your business cards tucked behind your name badge in the plastic holder so they are available when you need them.
3. Find out about appropriate attire. I know I'm preaching to the choir, so forgive me for stating the obvious, but you will only get one chance to make a first impression. Business casual is usually the norm at conferences, although a camp setting may be a bit more laid back. I'm not suggesting that you go out and buy a new wardrobe, but you want to be taken seriously. You've worked hard to get to this point, and you want to send the message that you are a professional. An editor who is interested in your writing needs the assurance that you would represent them well in public and to the media. It's about the whole package.
I hope you find these suggestions helpful and are able to plug into some conferences this year. Which ones look promising to you?
Monday, February 1, 2010
Finalists will be announced on May 15, and Janet Grant of Books & Such Literary Agency will announce a winner from the finalists on June 15.
You won't want to miss this remarkable opportunity. We look forward to your submissions. Please follow carefully the Guidelines below.
- Open to US and Canadian fiction writers
- 1 submission per person, fiction only
- 1 chapter, up to 20 pages, plus 1-2 page synopsis
- 1" margins, double spaced, Times New Roman 12 (synopsis may be single spaced)
- Pages should be numbered and your last name and title should appear in the top left hand corner of every page.
- Books & Such Guidelines apply
- e-mail your submission to firstname.lastname@example.org. In the subject line, type: Audience with an Agent Submission
- Attach your submission as a single file as Word document (one file containing BOTH your synopsis and first chapter)
- Six submissions will be selected and sent to Janet Grant. Being selected does not guarantee offer of a contract for representation