Monday, May 31, 2010

From Scene to Shining Scene

Happy Memorial Day, especially to those who have served our great nation in the military to protect our liberty. God bless you all.
Scenes are the building blocks of fiction. No matter the tense or point of view, nothing puts a reader into the story like a good scene. Sandra Scofield, in The Scene Book: A Primer for the Fiction Writer says, "The scene is the most vivid and immediate part of the story." She's right, of course. Scenes are what draw the reader into the circle of activity, connecting him or her to the characters and plot of a novel in a way the finest narrative can't do. Each has a purpose, and the purpose of a scene is to grab the reader by her pearls and pull her into the action.
A scene may contain description, dialogue and/or internal thought in any combination, but what it must have is action. Scofield writes, "All too often, the apprentice fiction writer gets caught up in the thoughts of characters and forgets to make something happen in a scene. The writer forgets that actions cause reactions." Avoid talking heads in your fiction. Flesh out your characters, show us what they're doing while they're delivering their lines. But don't give them something to do just for the sake of activity. Give us action beats to go with the dialogue, but make those beats count for something. Make every line and every action important to the story. Don't waste an opportunity to show us what the character is thinking, feeling, wanting, by the things she does in any given conversation or span of silence. Make her actions speak louder than her words. Contradict them, even. For example, consider:
"I'm going out," she said to Martin. "I won't be long." She ran her finger over her grocery list to make sure she'd not forgotten anything.
"I'm going out," she said to Martin. "I won't be long." She twisted her wedding band round and round her finger, then tugged it off and slipped it in her pocket.
The characters and dialogue are exactly the same, but the actions tell two entirely different stories.
Think of scenes as vignettes in your story. To be effective, your vignette needs a beginning, middle and end. It should be self-contained, or it leaves the observer hanging, confused. That's not to say that each scene you write needs to answer every immediate question. On the contrary, delayed information is what keeps the reader turning the page, no matter the genre. TMI certainly applies here. Give it in doses, when absolutely necessary, to keep taut the line between you and your reader. That's what tension in fiction is all about. And tension "is caused when a question is raised and the reader's sense of anticipation is heightened." Again, this is from Sandra Scofield's primer, which I've added to our Resources page, and highly recommend, no matter how long you've been writing.
Scenes are where you, as writer or reader, find yourself present in the telling of a story. You connect with one character or another and suddenly you have a stake in the game. What happens to these people matters now. Here's one of my favorite scenes from Katy Popa's To Dance in the Desert:
"What you need are lighter clothes," said Una, fingering the long polyester sleeve of Sophie's blouse.
It was one of two blouses she'd worn on alternate days since she'd first shown up at the Studmuffin. She'd pushed her sleeves up, but they were just too tight to push far.
"I didn't bring many clothes with me," she said.
"Well, come on then." Una stood. "Let's go see what I've got that'll fit you."
Sophie held back. Her eyes scanned Una's outfit, and Dara resisted a chuckle.
"Some of my clothes are quite ordinary," said Una. "Aren't they, Amy?"
"Just the ones you don't wear, Gram."
"Well, there you go, then."
Amy's place had the haphazard charm of a home furnished with yard-sale finds, but Una's piece of it left nothing to chance. The bed was covered in moss velvet to match the draperies. The headboard, dresser, and tables were all carved mahogany with flashes of gold touched to the rosebuds. She had an actual dressing table skirted in the same gold chiffon that filtered light between the drapes.
And by her bed was a crystal vase with a single white silk lily.
Una opened a dresser drawer and pulled out a sleeveless shell, soft blue. "This should do the trick," she said. "It's really too big in the top for me. I used to be bigger, but ..." She waved her hands around her two cleavages. "One too many trips to the knocker press!"
"It's what she calls a mammogram." Amy smiled.
Sophie chuckled, just a little.
"It's a better name," said Ivy, settling into the green brocade reading chair.
Una shook her head. "Take a warning from me, girls. You can't put these things through the pasta press and expect them to bounce back every time. One day they just give out, and what have you got but cooked lasagna to stuff in your brassiere?"
Jane sat on the bed. "I once heard of a woman who yanked herself out of the wicked contraption too quickly, and they curled up just like gift ribbon."
"Well, that would keep them off your knees, at least," said Una.
Sweet little Amy grinned like she'd hoped exactly this would happen.
Sophie had started laughing--holding her hand up, still hiding her teeth, but she was audibly laughing.
Dara caught her eye, and the two burst out in a mutual snort. Then Jane and Una snorted, and Ivy and Amy, and they had themselves a pig party right there in Una's boudoir.
There's more, but even this part of the scene is self-contained, not a word or action wasted, right down to Katy's choice of boudoir for Una's bedroom. That alone tells us something about the character. Can't you picture yourself there with these women, jumping into the conversation?
Here's an exercise for you. Observe someone whose path you cross today in your activities. It may be someone you notice behind the wheel at a stop light, someone hurrying into an office building, or peering into a mailbox. Create a complete scene, with beginning, middle and end, using one set of action beats. Then change the initial action beat and rewrite the scene. See what a difference it makes.
On Wednesday we're pleased to present some observations about staging the scene by Arthur Plotnik, renowned author of Spunk & Bite: An Author's Guide to Bold, Contemporary Style. You won't want to miss this.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Is the God of Fiction Too Small?

Only two more followers needed to reach the 200 mark! We so appreciate your partnership in exploring the craft of writing and the passion of reading. Number 200 wins one book from each of us. AND if you share your favorite flower in your comments, I'll choose someone out of a hat to win a three-book set of my Garden Gates series. I've sprinkled flowers from my garden throughout the text, my gift to you at the beginning of this Memorial Day weekend.

Dearest readers and friends~ You've been absolutely brilliant this week, offering comments to reinforce and challenge ideas about showing emotion in fiction and the place for sarcasm. More graciously, you've seeded new ideas. Thank you for coming ready to participate. If you missed a day, be sure to scroll down and read the discussions. It's never too late to comment. Maybe we should rename our blog Novel Matters et al.

My question for you today: Is there room for mystery--and I'm not talking whodunit--in Christian fiction? Let me explain.

Let's go back to Abram. (This is not a Bible study, but this is a question that springs from some Scripture exploration. Hang in there with me.)

Abram went on quite a wild ride with God. He was minding his own business back in Ur. He knew what to expect from life because he was entrenched in his culture. He was a landowner with some standing in his community. His father was around for 205 years to offer advice--"Go for the two-humped camel. You'll never be sorry for the extra cargo room." The household idols, like a punching bag, gave him a place to vent. His heartache was his wife's barrenness. His greatest test, surrendering the son who answered all of God's promises.

On the other hand, there were no laws. The Ten Commandments hadn't been given yet. No Tabernacle. No Ark of the Covenant. No exodus. No synagogue. In essence, God was a distant idea from the time of Noah.

Simply, Abram was a man in the desert with a barren wife.

Until God talked to him.

God didn't lay down the law, he made outlandish promises to an old man with a barren wife: "I will make you into a great nation...and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you."

Oh, really?

And God did just that. (Thanks, God.)

God encountered Abram, soon to become Abraham, in an incredibly personal, extravagant, unexpected manner. He's still doing this through today Jesus Christ. Yay!

With this in mind--plus the fact, for one, that Jesus never healed the same twice--is there room in Christian fiction for a powerful, humongous God who defies explanation? Do you want to know any other kind? This is a God who doesn't always give the protag the man of her dreams? Who doesn't resolve life's questions in 95,000 words? Who may use disease, mayhem, and/or an irritating relative to express his power and love? And who, when he touches us, he will definitely leave a mark? He will show up in the most surprising places, like in the deserts of Ur, to a pagan who cannot accomplish God's promises on his own, although he tries. (Don't we all?)

Don't get your BVDs in a wad. I know. I know. The parameters of revelation in Scripture are sacrosanct. Also, hope is the best sort of resolution, very necessary in fiction--and the only resolution many of us are given--in fiction and life.

Our Novel Matters writers are masterful at that very thing. Lest we seem too self-serving, let me direct you to a book I've referred here before, The Passion of Mary-Margaret by Lisa Samson. If you haven't read it yet (Why not?), I don't want to ruin the book for you, but Jesus is a character in Lisa's contemporary women's fiction masterpiece. She tickled my imagination and made me hunger for the incarnate Christ. I want my fiction to do that, too.

Don't you?
So, what about it? Have you read something lately that expanded your perceptions about God? Please name them! Also, and I know you will, let me know if I'm running as fast as I can in the wrong direction. That's what we do for one another around here.

Be sure to thank a serviceman, past or present. My salute goes out to my step-dad, a WW II veteran and my brother-in-law, Bob, who served gallantly in Viet Nam. I'm also remembering my dad, William Irvin Kegebein, who supported the troops in Guam during the Korean War.

Who are you thanking? Feel free to add your salute here. It's let-it-all hangout Friday.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A No-Touch Zone for Christian Writers?

This is going to be one of those posts that people look at and say, “Well, how about that.” I don’t imagine there will be many comments. And yet it’s on a subject that I’ve never seen discussed on a web site devoted to the craft of Christian writing.

It is the subject of sarcasm. Well, that should be a no-brainer, you might say: Sarcasm has no place in Christian writing. The very root and origin of the word means to “cut flesh.” Some milder versions of this rhetorical/literary technique include satire and irony. A familiar example of this kind of tone of writing was Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, in which the author suggested combating world hunger by encouraging cannibalism. And sarcasm is a staple of current television script writing.

Characters in Christian fiction say sarcastic things – the bitter, too-oft-bitten cowboy masks his pain with sarcasm. The teenager answers questions with more questions and sarcasm. A woman in a crisis of faith asks questions of God with sarcasm. Most of the time, such language is condemned because Christians shouldn’t use or promote sarcasm.

And yet…..

We find it in the Bible and people who say it aren’t struck by lightning. It comes out of the mouth of the blind man whom Jesus healed. The Pharisees hammered and hammered his parents and him about how the miracle occurred. In frustration, the man finally retorted, “I told you already and you did not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples, too?” (John 9:27).

And believe it or not, even God used this kind of language. In Job, God responds to the beleaguered man’s questions with questions of His own. God describes the incomprehensible miracles of creation and nature and asks Job over and over again where he was and what part he played in these wonders. He questions Job about light and darkness and their origins, and then says, “Surely you know, since you were already born! You have lived so many years!” (Job 38:21.)

I want to write in a way that pleases God. I want to reflect His preferences and the way He thinks about things.

So – if He uses sarcasm, can I as a Christian writer use it in such a way as to show that I approve of it as well? Do you know of any examples of effective (and approving or approved) use of sarcasm by a Christian writer?

Monday, May 24, 2010

Character Emotions and You

But some emotions don't make a lot of noise. It's hard to hear pride. Caring is real faint - like a heartbeat. And pure love: why, some days it's so quiet, you don't even know it's there. ~ Erma Bombeck

No wonder we writers struggle so much with the depiction of character emotions. Overplay them and you slip into melodrama. Underplay, and the reader misses them altogether. You have to understate (not underplay) in such a way that the reader is taken by surprise with feelings that burst from his or her own heart - not from your pen - and you have to build those feelings one by one till they crescendo at the end of the story into something unforgettable.
Chekhov instructed us to make the hero's state of mind clear from his actions. Show, don't tell. But I would add to that an elegant secret I have observed in stories I have loved: skillfully establish a character's interior life through everything she says and does, and when the big moment comes, the one thing she most fears or most longs for, you can simply state what happens, and end the chapter. We already know what she feels.

I find writing emotion particularity difficult in first-person. The temptation is to spill it all out there. "My heart folded in on itself." "A cold finger of dread traced my spine." "A bubble of panic popped in my gut." Used minimally, this works. But there are just so many ways a body produces emotions. In first-person, the challenge is to show the POV character taking action on their emotions. In fact, it's such a challenge, my mind has gone completely blank.

Let me flip through the pages...yes, here's an amazing example. In this opening lines from What We Keep by Elizabeth Berg, we know how the first-person POV character is feeling by what she sees and how she sees it:

Outside the airplane window the clouds are
thick and rippled, unbroken as acres of land. They are suffused with
peach-colored, early morning sun, gilded at the edges. Across the aisle, a man
is taking a picture of them. Even the pilot couldn't keep still--"Folks," he
just said, "we've got quite a sunrise out there. Might want to have a look." I
like it whe
n pilots make such comments.
It lets me know they're awake.
She's nervous about flying! Subtle. Very subtle.
It's funny, I'm the opposite of Patti. I love writing first person, and for me it's the easiest POV for conveying emotion. (And I love What We Keep. I read it a few months ago at Patti's suggestion. It's excellent.) But emotion is never easy to write, because, as Katy said, it's so easy to turn into melodrama. Conveying the emotion you want to convey without overstating or resorting to just saying, "She was angry, sad, afraid, etc." is not easy. But this is truly the time to show, not tell if you want your reader to really get submersed in your story. The fact that your character picks at her thumbnail till it bleeds tells us plenty about what she's feeling. Or if she holds her middle as if it's the only way to keep her guts from spilling out, that tells us too. When I'm writing an especially emotionally charged scene, regardless of the emotion, I try to literally put myself there. I want to see what my character sees, hear what she hears, know what she knows, understand the stakes, weigh the consequences, then I can share what she feels. To do that, I have to draw on my own emotional experiences, and that can be uncomfortable at the very least. But it gets me into the moment. Then I rehearse the scene as if I'm playing the part. When I can honestly feel what she feels, I'm ready to write the scene, and hopefully make the reader feel it.
The best advice that I've heard about emotion in characters is to use crying very sparingly. This builds on what Katy said about understatement. It is much more powerful to show your character contemplating something that symbolizes their sadness (for example, the toy of a deceased child or replaying the last voicemail from a spouse who has left) than to show the raw emotion itself. Of course, there is a natural place for tears (I've used it myself) but readers grow tired of overuse. I once read a novel by a New York Times bestselling author where the protagonist had lost a loved one and cried on every other page. The sympathy I felt for the character drained away quickly and I grew impatient with her. Crying is a tricky emotion to portray. State it simply or have your character wipe away a tear rather than give a description of full-blown sobbing. Tears can detract from a scene.

There is a scene in the movie Always that has stayed with me over the years. Holly Hunter is sitting in the semi-darkness of a dreary, sparsely furnished room with a look of utter despair on her face after the death of a loved one. If she was crying, I don't remember it, but even now I still sense her pain and hopelessness. The atmosphere was thick with it, and the emotion was more powerful because the room (description) embodied her sadness.

What these other wise women have said is a wake-up call for me, because I recognized that I've got that cryin'-thang going on in my novel. But because I'm writing an historical I just call it weeping and thought it's okay. Not.

The other challenge I'm having -- and I'm hoping some readers can help me out with it -- is how to show character emotions through silence. In other words, people often respond to my protag by not saying anything at all -- for variety of reasons. Now, in music, you can write in several measures of rest. How do you do that in fiction? How do you make sure the reader doesn't just trip along to the next line of dialogue and instead, like the characters, lets it sink in? I mean, you can only say, "They sat in silence a long time" so many times. And now I can't say, "They wept in silence," either.

She does not contemplate the ebb of time as she loves to do. To daydream the ticking moments, dream of holding firm to seconds, minutes, hours. She knows they are ideas, contemplations we all agreed to about how best to divide the day. But she's not thinking about this now as fingers poke and jab at her keyboard. Jut, jut, backspace, misspell, backspace. She doesn't look at the clock, she knows enough what it says. The bright light in the window is enough. Peck, jut, backspace. Fingers tatter at the keyboard, piling words like stones, one on top of the other. A hasty alter on which she will offer up her thoughts to the blog readers. Jut, clack, backspace, misspell, backspace, delete, peck, jut, jab.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Where To Begin

We are still glowing from the results of our 'Audience With an Agent' contest. So many wonderful entries made it very difficult to narrow down the choices to six finalists. Thank you for giving us the opportunity to read your work.

On Wednesday, it was our privilege to interview Andy Meisenheimer and Renni Browne of The Editorial Department (TED) - publishing's oldest full-service freelance editorial firm. I urge you to check out their services when you feel your manuscript is ready, and also to buy Renni's book (written with Dave King), Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. This is the book I hear recommended most often at writers conferences by agents and editors. As you read, exercises and checklists help you apply what you have learned. Have plenty of highlighters on hand. My copy is a rainbow of color!

Love it or hate it, rewriting is a necessary evil. So, where do we start? For lack of a better plan, we often start at the beginning of a manuscript, tweaking and trimming, cleaning up grammar and punctuation as we go. But what happens if the entire chapter needs to be deleted? We have just invested more time and energy, polishing our words to a glow and fallen more deeply in love with them. What's the answer?

Another fine book on revision is Getting the Words Right by Theodore A. Rees Cheney. In it, he states:
"Seventy-five percent of all revision is elimination of words already written; the remaining twenty-five percent is improving the words that remain."

His 'formula' for getting the words right can be simply stated as 'reduce, rearrange, reword.' He begins by reducing chapters, sections and paragraphs, then progresses from sentences to words and then to shorter words. The words that are left are the ones we tweak and polish because they are the 25% that remain.
It's a simple place to start.

Most of us find it painful to cut chapters or large sections of our writing. The words represent characters or scenes we have labored over lovingly and have brought us joy. Perhaps for their creation we have sacrificed time away from other activities (or family) or hours of sleep. Making a file for these cuttings is not only comforting, but beneficial. We never know what important information might be woven back into the story.

The majority of the time, I find that I never miss the sections I have to cut. I save them in a file and never revisit them. What has been your experience? Do you find that it gets easier the more you trust your instincts? We would love to hear from you.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Editorial Department - An Interview with Andy Meisenheimer and Renni Browne

The publishing industry is not for the faint of heart. It's an industry on the move, always shifting, morphing. It's one of the reasons why we love it so much. And why it's good to find resources that have the author's interests at heart. Today, we'd like you to meet TED. The Editorial Department is publishing's oldest full-service freelance editorial firm with a longstanding reputation for candor, integrity, and overall excellence. What sets us apart from others in our field is our 30 years in the business, our high rate of success with conventionally published first fiction, our literary agent matchmaking program, and our commitment to candid, respectful, practical feedback from experienced editors with a proven track record of success. Our old friend, Andy Meisenheimer is back to tell us about it, and he's brought a friend!

Thanks for having me back, Bonnie and crew. Things have definitely changed for me since I was last here. I’m a free agent now, editing for publishers, other companies and individuals, and dabbling in a few new things as well.

How is freelance editing different than your previous position as an in-house acquisitions editor?

First off, there’s no gray cubicle. My corner office has a wide oak desk my grandpa used to own, a loveseat my dogs like to curl up on, my best friend’s drumset (I take ten minute breaks and play along with Mates of State), bright blue paint, soft carpet, and a big fat wall of whiteboard material I picked up at Home Depot for cheap. Granted, I get plenty of stomping from the four-year-old in the family room above me, and a dog who sits outside my window attempting to kill a squirrel solely through the power of his voice, but it’s totally groovy.

I think you meant, how is the editing work different, right?

It’s probably not all that different. Circumstances have changed, but the situation’s still the same: there’s a manuscript, and it needs to be better. It’s my job to help the author make it better. I still see manuscripts at all different stages—even though I’m not in-house, I’m still working on some that go straight to copyediting before getting published traditionally. One thing is definitely different: variety. I’m working on a much wider variety of genres, and I’m working on books that are going to get published in a much wider variety of places.

Is your approach to editing the same?

Because I’m working on a lot of different types of manuscripts at different stages of the process, I’ve had to learn to adapt my editing style significantly. This can be hard at times, but it’s great in the end—I’m learning more skills and tools that I can apply in different situations as the manuscript or client calls for it. Which means, I hope, that I’m becoming a better editor as a result.

My approach to publishing is also different. Being a freelancer also has its advantage in this time of change in the industry. I don’t have to worry about organizational restructuring. I don’t have to worry about the decline of print. In fact most news of change in publishing is good for me, because it means more opportunities for the independent editor, the independent writer, and the independent publisher. As a free agent, I can adapt to changes much quicker. The possibilities are only increasing.

How do your individual clients find you?

I am terribly proud to do most of my individual client work through The Editorial Department or TED, a freelance editorial firm founded in 1980 by Renni Browne. I also get referrals from publishers and agents who know me from my in-house days and have prospective authors and clients who need help, and I get some people stumbling across, but on my website I’m directing people to approach me through TED. There’s a lot of advantages for both editor and writer in working with TED.

What’s your availability like?

Right now I’m surprised at how booked I am. I think I’m solid for the next eight weeks or so. But I don’t think I’ll always be that busy. Current clients get precedent over new clients, though, so waiting in the queue has its advantages in the long run.

TED is about being “highly personalized”. What does that mean to a potential client? What can they expect?

The worst thing you can do to your manuscript is give it to someone who is going to slap some generic rules on it and declare it critiqued. The advantage to TED is that we treat each manuscript on its own terms, evaluating it against the conventions and latest trends of its genre and applying guidelines of the craft as they serve to make the manuscript better. We also have the freedom to create customized services for you at TED, so if there’s something your manuscript needs that isn’t covered by our current service offerings, that’s not going to stop us from helping you. We’ll just create something that fits your needs exactly.

The other advantage to TED is that we’re all different in our editorial styles and strengths, and there’s no

effort to make us impersonal or detached. The editor-author relationship is vital to a manuscript’s success. If one of my authors from my days as an in-house editor came to me through TED, they wouldn’t find the experience much different than before. Except maybe I’d be happier. And smarter. And they’d have to pay me.

At what stage in a manuscript do you prefer to start talking with a client?

It’s always nice to have a full manuscript to deal with. But I’m happy being a part of any stage of a manuscript where I can help. I have at least two clients with partial manuscripts.

Does TED take on everyone?

We try to help everyone we can. But there are times when a client isn’t ready for editorial feedback.

I asked Renni Browne, founder of TED, to stop by too, let you ask her a few questions about TED. Renni has been editing for over forty-eight years. She is co-author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, the bestselling title on editing, now in its fifth printing and second edition from HarperCollins.

Renni, you started TED in 1980. What prompted you to launch this company?

I'd been an editor in mainstream publishing since the mid-sixties and knew publishers were doing less and less editing on the books they brought out—or were rejecting good books just because they needed editing. The vacuum was widening and I knew the time-consuming process of working closely with writers didn't fit the new publishing landscape. A company of experienced editors could help fill the vacuum.

Who should hire a TED editor?

Writers who take their work seriously and want candid, professional help.

We often hear about the art of crafting excellent fiction, but there is art in editing, yes?

Absolutely. A good editor is highly creative in responding to the challenges of a manuscript. Two examples: the editor looks for opportunities to increase its impact on the reader and makes suggestions to the author. And at the line editing stage, any change the editor suggests is in the voice of the author, not the editor.

You mention the decline of in-house editing. There seems to be a shift in publishing where more of the effort of both writing and marketing are falling on the shoulders of the writer. You seem to be saying that the editing of their work falls on them as well.

This is the reality of the publishing landscape today. Huge numbers of published writers, including ones that hit the bestseller list every year, hire their own editors. Many writers who are fortunate enough to have editors at their publishers who give them feedback still hire their own editors. Agents and publishers say they want "pre-edited" manuscripts. And as I've often said, really good writers still need editing. Your book is your child, and who among us can be 100% objective about our own offspring?

Would you advise an author to work with an in-house publisher and an editorial service like TED?

Certainly. Right now I'm working with a writer to help her meet her publisher's deadline. It's her second novel, and once her editor there sees it she's undoubtedly have some suggestions. (This author is one of the lucky ones.) But what she's seeing will be the very best manuscript the author can produce. Which, of course, is very much to her advantage in all sorts of ways.

I’ve heard literary agents report that in 2009 they have seen increases in queries up to 300%. Have you seen an increase in the number of writers trying to enter the marketplace in the last number of years? If yes, to what do you attribute the influx?

Yes, more are taking the leap. The expansion of self-publishing--and the fact that self-published books look better, cost less to produce, and are taken more seriously--has encouraged more writers, to judge by how many approach The Editorial Department.

TED offers more than editing services. One program that caught my eye was the Agent Matchmaking Program.

Agent Matchmaking is something we offer an author whose manuscript after editing is clearly publishable, something we think at least one of the many, many agents we deal with might like to represent. Agents trust our submissions because we only send them strong, marketable manuscripts. We have one full-time staff member whose only job is to make these matches, and several of us (including me) also get involved in getting an author's manuscript into the hands of a top literary agent.

TED has a blog and an E-zine as well as a website. It seems you’re generous with the information and help you offer for free. Isn’t it risky to give away so much content?

I like this question, because I've written some of the freebies! It's a big web site, and we try to make it as writer-friendly as possible. A lot of our writers hang out at the site for a while and then eventually decide to hire us--maybe just for the $35 critique of their opening. If they do that, they nearly always send the full manuscript in for Evaluation or Annotation. And sure we want to make money, but we also really want to help writers, most definitely including first-timers. And think about this: the more they know, the better for us once they submit.

Thank you Renni and Andy for stopping in today. You've pointed out some of the challenges of the industry today, but you've brought us energy and hope as well. We appreciate the advice and wisdom you've shared.

How about you, faithful reader? What take-away did you get from the interview? Are you feeling overwhelmed as a writer, or revved for the challenge? Do any of you have experiences with editing you'd like to share? We'd love to hear them! As always, this is a community - and we want to hear from everyone!

Monday, May 17, 2010

That's So Cliche

We are so excited to announce the finalists of our 2nd Audience-with-an-Agent Contest. We had more than 50 entries, and we enjoyed reading each and every one. It was difficult to narrow the field to our top six choices, but these are the finalists (listed in alphabetical order by title). Congratulations to all! We hope to announce the winner on Wednesday, June 16. Thank you all for your participation!
Bringing Back Bobbie, Mary Lotz
Dismantling Spider Webs, Nicole Amsler
Noble Efforts to Engulf the Moon, Wendy Miller
Perfectly Formed Pearls, Emily Downs
The Seduction of Pastor Goodman, Cynthia Beach
Three Legged Ladder, Susanne Elenbaas
I recently judged a number of entries for a national Christian writing contest. The writing level ranged from novice to ready-for-publication, but almost every entry contained at least one instance of cliched writing. (Sorry, I can't add the doohickey for cliche, so we'll just pretend it's there.) That is, employing phrases long overused, which are as common as dirt, in our vernacular. The same problem held true for some of the entries in our own Audience-with-an-Agent Contest, though, I'm happy to say, at a much lower frequency. Examples of cliched phrases would be "stately elms" ... or stately pines, oaks, saguaro cacti, or any such thing "standing sentinel" over some estate or other. "A smile played at her lips" or tugged, pulled, yanked, or otherwise coerced her mouth to move in an upward manner. Eyes that are "deep blue pools," "majestic" necks or pieces of furniture, or "intricately carved" anything ... all cliches. "Pregnant pauses" are way beyond their childbearing days. And speaking of beyond, "a ghost of a chance, smile, prayer, idea, etc." should be put to rest once and for all. "Pounding hearts," "tousled hair," "marshmallow clouds," "long ribbon of highway" all get the ax. William Brohaugh, in Write Tight, says, "Using cliches robs you of opportunity to surprise readers. 'Bitter cold' doesn't surprise. 'Barren cold' does ..."

We often speak in cliches in our everyday conversations, but it's the kiss of death to good writing. Cliches snag the reader as she moves through passages of otherwise good writing, and take her out of the moment. If a phrase or adjective comes immediately to mind as you're writing, like one of those kids in class who's always sticking his hand up, as if to say, "pick me! 'pick me!" I suggest you discard it without a second thought. See what I mean about the use of cliches in our everyday speech? They're the proverbial workhorse, helping us convey an exact thought with a minimum of words. When I say, "She was as cold as ice," you know precisely what I mean. Enough said. Or as my 3-year-old grandson said to his mother the other day when she was encouraging him to be nicer to his baby sister, "Mama, no more words."
But words and phrases aren't the only cliches that worm their way into our writing. Plots can be cliched as well. Take for instance the following plot and see how many novels you can name that fit the description:

Disillusioned girl returns to her small hometown due to (fill in the blank) a. loss of job, b. ailing parent, c. inheritence, d. Other, only to run into her high school sweetheart who jilted her a. for the head cheerleader who mercilessly enticed him, b. without knowing she was pregnant with his child, who is, of course, the spitting image of him, c. to join the Special Forces and go to Fallujah, d. Other. This happens, of course, when she calls a. a carpenter to repair the inherited house that is falling in around her feet, b. an exterminator to rid her inherited house of unwanted pests, c. a broncobuster to help her break the inherited stallion that will ultimately help her regain her lost confidence when she finally rides the beast that threw her when she was a girl, d. Other. The moment their eyes meet a spark ignites between them. He reaches for her, but she runs away a. denying to herself that she ever loved him, b. denying to herself that she loves him still, c. denying to everyone that she really prefers his older brother, d. Other. She spends the next 10 chapters avoiding him like the plague, while continually running into him, but at the moment of crisis he suddenly appears out of nowhere, in the nick of time, to save her from a. a falling roof, b. the bite of a rare reclusive arachnid for which he just happens to have the anti-venom in his pickup truck, c. the runaway stallion she can't rein in after it's spooked by a nepharious side-winding rattlesnake while she's checking the multiple herds of cattle on her inherited ranch, d. Other. When she finally comes out of the coma, they declare their love for one another, walk the aisle, and live happily ever after. On her inheritance, as it happens.


I know, I know, there's nothing new under the sun. So what's a writer to do? Well, believe it or not, there are still plenty of inventive plots out there, but you can take an old story, put a completely new spin on it, and make it fresh and exciting. Consider: Prejudice in a small southern town costs the life of one person and forever shapes the young female protagonist -- and her brother and his best friend -- whose world is rocked by the events. If you're thinking To Kill a Mockingbird, think Blue Hole Back Home instead. It's altogether a different story ... that rises to the par of Mockingbird.

As a reader, do cliches and other examples of weak writing turn you off or do you hardly notice them? If they do turn you off, will you lay the book down as a result or, short of that, cross the author off your list for future reference? As a writer is it difficult to avoid the cliche trap?

It's been a while since we had a book giveaway, so ... do you know a familiar plot told in a refreshingly new way? Leave your answer on Comments and your name will go into a drawing for your choice of Every Good & Perfect Gift or Lying on Sunday. And, as always, thank you for visiting Novel Matters and sharing your thoughts with us. We appreciate all of you so much.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Start Flapping!

I read Ariel's and Latayne's posts on why they don't read certain books--and all of your comments--with a mix of delight and terror. On one hand, I cheered what we all find annoying--clumsiness, predictability, and weather reports. My personal dis-qualifier is clutter. Superfluous words are like fingernails on the chalkboard to me.

On the other hand, I held your comments up to my work in progress like a template and found myself swimming in a sea of self-doubt.

Oh dear, I write in first person.

Is there enough rising antagonism to hold a reader?

Why are there so many characters in this story? Could some of you please go home?

It's a miracle, really, that we connect with readers at all.

Rather than slump into depression, I gave myself a pep talk: You can't please everyone, Miss Patti! You will not sell your books to every English-speaker in the world. But you will find an audience, albeit a small one, if you write to please yourself. (This sounds selfish, but it is writing to what God created me to write.)

Wait! My self-lecture isn't over until I recite these words from Henry James:

"Art derives a considerable part of its beneficial exercise from flying in the face of presumptions."

I have a particular example for what James is talking about that delights me. After hearing Kate DiCamillo speak at the Festival of Faith and Writing, I bought her novel, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane to read on the plane. DiCamillo writes young adult fiction brilliantly. You may know her from The Tale of Despereaux and Because of Winn-Dixie.

I'm so glad she ignored one of the golden nuggets of fiction writing: Avoid passive characters like the plague. They're boring, the worst kind of insult an author can inflict on a reader.

In DiCamillo's story, Edward is a china rabbit. He can't move or speak. He is hopelessly subject to the whims of a succession of owners. He spends a good deal of time on the bottom of the ocean and under increasing loads of trash in a dump. He is an observer of life.

And yet, once I started reading, I couldn't stop. DiCamillo takes a china rabbit on an adventure that transforms him, and me, forever.

All we said this week about what we didn't want to read has spurred me on to tighten my craft while flapping my wings with the goal of shattering presumptions.

Please, please, please share any works of fiction you believe fly in the face of presumption and do it so beautifully that they have become a favorite.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Why Put a Book Down?

Ariel’s post on Monday was provocative. She mentioned several factors that cause people not to read a book, and she noted that many times we make such decisions based on recommendations from others.

But perhaps now more than ever, a prospective book buyer can evaluate before buying: Some online booksellers give you the opportunity to read a sample chapter or to search within a book you might be interested in.

But of course you don’t buy (or, if in a library, check out) every book you sample.

Why not? I’d like to get the discussion started with--

Eight things that will cause a reader to put a book down

1) Nothing itches enough during the first chapter that would make you want to scratch the second chapter.

2) There is no compelling reason to care about the protagonist. He or she could go straight to hell and you’d wave goodbye, because they’re just characters in a book.

3) You can predict the next plot development. And the next

4) The protagonist (or what she loves) is in tepid water.

5) The story isn’t believable – either illogical or not true to life.

6) The story is too true to life. (Most of life is quite ordinary and doesn’t make good reading.)

7) The book’s outer appearance – art, cover copy, endorsements—writes a check the writer can’t cover.

8) Stereotypes. Of any type.

How about you? What causes you put a book back on the shelf?

Friday, May 7, 2010

Showing vs. Telling: An Assignment

In church one Sunday morning a long time ago, someone quoted a pentecostal lady preacher he'd once heard:
"It ain't what's goin' on, honey. It's what's
really goin' on."

She was talking, of course, about the spiritual realities that have everything to do with the "reality" we see all around us. For me, those things have always been the most interesting part of any story. Think of the prodigal son's "good" brother who ended up on the outside of things, and taught us that there is more than one way to go wrong. Likewise, the "good" people who passed the wounded man on the road to maintain their ceremonial cleanliness, leaving it for the Samaritan to get his hands dirty and show us what it means to be right. On the surface: the dutiful son, the hated Samaritan. But they tell us the deepest truth by what they do.

Every day people tell us much more than they say in the way they move their bodies, the things they don't say, the things they repeat again and again and again. You've seen friends insist they're fine while their eyes fill with tears. You've done it yourself, and you've compulsively said "I don't care" when you only wished you didn't.

For this weekend I'm going to suggest an assignment for your inner investigative reporter. Why not have him or her tail along outside your body for a couple of days, then write down all the stuff you might write in a journal. The difference this time is that you won't say "I smiled but I wanted to punch his face." Instead you'll show this by all the indirect, sub-textual ways you communicate your anger. Or fear, or sadness, or love.

Then before Monday, perhaps you will stop in here at Novel Matters and share just a sentence or two from your assignment? We love to read what you have to say.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Showing vs. Telling: Subtexting

In Bonnie's fabulous post on Showing vs. Telling, she mentioned two major components - POV and subtext. I thought that today we would dig further into subtext.

Subtext is elusive and often revealed by dialogue. Randy Ingermanson (the Snowflake Guy) summed it up on his website, Advanced Fiction Writing. You can check it out here.

'Roughly speaking
, subtexting refers to the art of putting a whole different layer of meaning under the surface, so that the dialogue is not really about what the dialogue appears to be about.'

Subtext can be implied or it can deliberately disguise. Some authors use it to state a belief, further a cause or even hint at a relationship that may offend the sensibilities of some readers. In any case, a good writer utilizes subtext rather than writing 'on the nose'. 'On the nose' dialogue states what the author wants to say in no uncertain terms and sounds unnatural and contrived. In normal conversation, people often don't say what they really mean. If April is asked if she's upset that her boyfriend broke up with her, she may reply that he was a loser anyway and by-the-way, she's having the stupid tattoo they got together removed from her...shoulder. Her friends will give each other knowing looks behind her back, and although she never admitted to being hurt, they know she is.

Subtext can be witty. Think of Nick and Nora Charles of the Thin Man (am I dating myself?). Seriously, you should rent a few of the Thin Man movies if you haven't seen them already. Their relationship always simmers just below the surface and often complicates whatever murder they are investigating.

Nick and Nora's subtext may be easy to spot, but in most cases, the writer has to trust that his readers 'get it.' Subtlety is the signature trait of subtext. By nature, it is elusive and felt more than seen. And it makes for a much better story. Without it, the story will seem contrived and moralistic.

What stories can you think of that do this well? We'd love to hear from you!

Monday, May 3, 2010

Showing vs. Telling - What IS Showing? Really.

You know how we love to talk about how pat answers and cliches in fiction do more harm than good - leaving the story flat, the reader unsatisfied?

Yeah, well I feel that way when I read or hear people talking about Showing Vs. Telling in fiction. Mostly what I hear is pat answers and what is increasingly becoming cliche definitions. I understand this is mostly an attempt to find a simple answer to a complex question, yet I get the feeling that in our search we've forgotten that the question IS complex. Multi-faceted. Difficult.

Ah, difficult. How we do run from difficult. All of us do it to varying degrees. But the vision of the fiction writer is to embrace difficult (do you recall Patti Hill's wonderful imagery of wrestling an octopus into a mayonnaise jar?) We eat difficult for breakfast.

My goal for this post is not to be the teacher in the front of the room with all the answers. I'm so over myself about needing to have all the answers. Instead, my goal is to open the discussion and invite you to wrestle with the complexity of creating the story world through the device of showing.

What Showing ISN'T.

We often see people explaining showing vs. telling in terms similar to this: Telling is just saying what a character is doing. Showing is describing what the character is doing.

Not so much.

It isn’t enough to describe events in detail – there must be a purpose for both the details you are describing and the characters that are performing the actions.

What is often left out of the showing vs. telling discussion is that there are reasons why a writer would choose to use either telling or showing at different points in the story. There are aspects of your story you are best to tell - details of time and place, clothing details, sometimes setting a scene up quickly requires telling because to show it all would distract from the story.

Showing isn't detail - showing is story.

Telling isn't lack of detail - telling is story.

How often have you heard "Show, don't tell"? Does that mean you are being asked to describe things in detail? Yes and no.

Let me give you and example:

She hurried down the path toward the dark palace, the cloak draped over her arm. The birds over head sang their goodnight song. She shouldn't have stayed so long at her friend's house. She walked faster, picking the hem of her skirt up with her free hand. She pushed a low hanging branch out of the way as she hurried past. She reached an opening in the trees that lead to the valley that would take her to the doors of the palace. She stopped and draped the cloak over her shoulders and tied it at her throat. She checked inside the bag that was slung across her torso. Fire sticks, water, a small cloth, her Father's book of Hope and a forgotten apple.

She pulled the apple out of the bag and bit into it. She made quick work of the apple and threw the small core and stem into the forest behind her. She slapped at her dress, removing most of the dust from its folds, then took the small cloth from her bag and wiped at the stains around the hem of her dress. She replaced the cloth and stepped into the grassy meadow. It was wet with evening dew. She picked up her skirts and rushed on toward the place gates.

Showing galore, right?


For all the detail about what the character is doing, the passage is still telling. It’s flat. A list of mundane activities being spelled out in succession. It doesn't connect us to the story world.

The above passage is missing essential components of showing - and this brings me to the point I made at the beginning of this post - the literary device of showing is complex. It isn't one thing - it is made up of several other devices used together to create the illusion of reality.

I want to touch on two components of showing that I feel are essential. Point of View (POV) and subtext. Then, I want to invite you to share your perspectives, insights, and knowledge.

Parts of Showing


POV is a pillar of “showing” – it’s a brace for the concept, because POV not only introduces characters to the reader, it grounds the reader immediately, creating a safe and trustworthy place. Without POV what we are left with is a picture of what a character is doing – but we don't know or care about the character. POV establishes how the reader will relate to the novel and the subject matter. It sets the tone and takes the reader by the hand, leading her deeper into the story.

Let me just say, I'm not talking about whether you tell your story in first person or third person or if you write in present tense or past tense. I'm referring to POV as the presenting characters in a well rounded sense, utilizing character information from their mental, emotional, psychological, and spiritual aspects. POV that is a multi-dimensional presentation of character that begins the moment the novel opens and continues to develop until the end of the book.

Let’s get back to our example. The author of this scene tells us the character hurries and races, but there is nothing to ground us to the character – who is she? What is she thinking? Why are her actions important to me as a reader? There is no glimpse of the inner world of this character. And that, in part, makes the scene telling rather than showing.

A second component of showing that I want to talk about is subtext.

I started my creative life as an stage actor - I still have sawdust between my toes. A huge part of learning to act was learning to portray subtext, the hidden but most truthful motivations and meanings of a characters words and actions.

Subtext is more easily recognized by its absence - oh blah, the story is flat and clichéd - than it is by its presence -the words lingered long after I put the book down.

In his book, The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot, Charles Baxter says subtext is ". . . the realm of what haunts the imagination: the implied, the half-visible, and the unspoken." He also uses the phrase, "unspoken soul-matter".

It may sound mysterious, but it isn’t as vague as it may sound at first brush. It is the art of leaving something unsaid about the stated theme and mood of the book. Your story has a plot, setting, a theme, a message – all of which are stated in the book, through story and the things you explore.

Subtext is used to paint depth of meaning into the pages of your story. It is felt by the reader more strongly than if you stated the meaning. It is the ultimate tool of showing vs. telling.

Rather than me giving definitions of subtext – lets do a short exercise.

Settle on a character. Could you from the book you are currently working on, one you're recently read. Or one you make up for the exercise. Got one? Good.

So, your character says, “I don’t understand why you’re arguing with me.”

Imagine a scene – a snapshot in your mind where one character is saying this to another character. Very quickly – what are you seeing in your snapshot? Write it down.

Now, think about the same line of dialogue, but add a subtext of meaning – the character still says "I don't understand why you're arguing with me." but what the character is feeling underneath the statement - what the character truly means to say, but cannot is: “I want you to love me.”

Write the scene with this subtext.

What changes in your scene when you add the subtext of “I want you to love me”?

Something that would change for me would be the way the character is standing, perhaps her posture, or what she does with her arms and hands. The expression on her face changes, the tone of her voice – the way she says the words, not in the clipped tones of someone in charge, but in pleading bleats that trail off, and lack conviction.

Okay, those are two components of showing. But, of course there are more. This is complex. Share your thoughts. What confusing things have you heard about showing and telling? How have you worked with the device in your own writing? Can you share a great example of telling? Share!