Wednesday, December 21, 2011
Monday, December 19, 2011
The lithopedia that I depicted in the first lines is a symbol of the dilemma of the narrator as well. As the author of
This excerpt is Lucy’s (my hero’s) ordinary world, a world where she is in charge but still nearly a child herself. She’s visiting her mother’s bedroom as if it is a shrine, hoping to gain the courage to do what she must do.
This excerpt is actually a discard from The Wonders of America, a story about a single mom trying to learn the meaning of family in time to save her daughter from a life as lonely as her own. And who are her teachers? Her daughter's father's family, as united (or not) and dysfunctional as the nation it lives in.
So why is this excerpt discarded? Because I am learning from these wise and wonderful authors, and understanding better what the story is about, and how it must be told, and where it wants to go.
I might keep the line about the Antichrist, though.
Saturday, December 17, 2011
My keepers won’t let me out of their sight. If they think I’m going to fill my pockets with seashells like a wannabe Virginia Woolf and walk into the Pacific as if it were the River Ouse, they needn’t worry. That isn’t how I have it planned. Though they’ve pretty much crashed my site when it comes to the logistics of just how I’m going to pull this off now.
This is the haunting beginning to Latayne Scott's completed manuscript A Conspiracy of Breath.I carry the wrapped child in front of me, in the crook of my aching arm, his head above his curled feet, as if he were alive. As if he had ever been born, or named, ordrew breath, or saw his dying mother’s eyes. As if she had ever seen his.
After Mother’s funeral I sat on her bed, fingered the peaks and valleys of her chenille spread and plumped her pillow to lean against the headboard. This was her world. A globe. A jelly glass of sharpened pencils. Bottles and bottles of pills. A tattered tower of crossword puzzles and a dictionary with a broken spine. A tub ofPonds Beauty Cream. Three library books, one with a bookmark only pages from the end. A picture of Papa, me, and the twins. And a Bible swollen with use.
“Miz Branch?” a voice called. “It’s Eric Russo. There’s something I think you need to see.”I opened the door and said hello to him through the screen. Eric was one of those polite boys with the acne and hair that needed washing and shoulders rounded like he was shielding himself from a blow. He held a paper in his hand.
These are words of my lost hope. Lost or taken, I can’t be certain, although I once was sure about the order of my life, of the people who came and went, what things occurred and what did not. Does it seem strange to speak about the things that did not happen? As if absence can be marked by the fact of it. How can a person catalogue the life that did not take place?
Christina tried to warn me about my boss.
"He's not the antichrist - I'm not saying that. Because everybody's going tolove the antichrist, and nobody likes Chuck. It's his one saving grace. But you watch him."
This last but not least excerpt belongs, of course, to the wonderful Kathleen Popa from her work-in-progress The Wonders of America.
We hope you enjoyed our Christmas contest as much as we did. On Monday, we will post a roundtable discussion about these novels, and explain the context of the excerpts. We invite you to join us on Monday to share your writing and reading insights and ideas.
For now: Did you guess correctly? Is there any author reveals that surprised you?
Friday, December 16, 2011
Christina tried to warn me about my boss.
"He's not the antichrist - I'm not saying that. Because everybody's going to love the antichrist, and nobody likes Chuck. It's his one saving grace. But you watch him."
I don’t pretend to understand much of what she said, but I knew Chuck, and I did watch him.
Just not near close enough.
The day it began was pleasant, at first - just that. The birds were singing their usual amount. The sky was blue, with a haze on the edges from a recent forest fire someplace to the south.
My friends had dropped by for coffee before I left for work. I called them “the Eena's,” Christina Alvarez and Serena Ortega, sisters who raised their families in adjoining halves of a duplex across the street.
I stood at the kitchen counter, browsing through the stuff my daughter had brought home from school.
The paper I held in my hand informed me that Claire Danes was my great-grandmother. Well - not Claire, but Yvaine, the fallen star she played in Stardust.
Her mother - my great-great-grandmother - was Pocahontas, and her mother was Cleopatra. On the other side of the family tree, a bit further back, was Mary Poppins.
"She got a 'D.' Minus." Christina pointed. "So stop smirking. It's not funny."
"Her teacher's got no sense of heritage."
"No, you know who doesn't have a sense of heritage? You! You have no sense of heritage. No sense of family. Lily, you have no family."
"Did you even offer to help with her homework?" She punched a finger to the inkjet paper Sierra had been given as a history assignment.
I held my hands up. "What could I do? She never even told me about this."
"And why didn't she tell you? She didn't know she could."
"Not listening." I covered my ears. "You can't make me feel guilty for working and supporting my - "
"I work. And my kids know their family."
Of course they did. Every Thanksgiving and Christmas, Easter and Memorial Day the street was lined with the cars of the Ortegas and Alvarezes.
"That's because you have a family,” I said. “You said yourself - "
"Sierra has a family. And so do you."Wonderful, isn't it? Give it your best shot. Leave your guess in the comments section. Return on Monday for our Christmas Roundtable. The conversation continues!
Wednesday, December 14, 2011
These are words of my lost hope. Lost or taken, I can’t be certain, although I once was sure about the order of my life, of the people who came and went, what things occurred and what did not. Does it seem strange to speak about the things that did not happen? As if absence can be marked by the fact of it. How can a person catalogue the life that did not take place? The cancelled meeting, the person who did not come, the blister that never raised on my foot. I can do this because everything is always happening, all at once inside each of us. I carry in me the same primordial instinct as did my ancestors and the ancestors before them. The footprint of time is stamped deeply into my DNA and my body tells me of the things that never happened to it, but could have. Should have. And in another time, did.I’m not crazy. I don’t need to be told what is real. These are the days I live with my eyes closed. The days of absence.This place within these pages is the only place where no one can touch us. No one can approach, encroach, or rip away. We are safe here in the pages of this book. My journal of the other life I lead. This is the journal of my fondest hope, the place where I have found my truest feeling, my deepest emotion, my most real self. The true life I found lying within the husk of an empty future.I’m not crazy. None of this is real. Yet it is more real than my hands, which write it.Now it begins.A life takes up residence so deep within me its existence can’t be detected on earth.A secret that is buried weightless inside of my flesh. A heart not yet beating, yet it complies with steady contractions of my own heart. In time, it will take on flesh that is forged by will—constructed—life that is sprung from God’s imagination.From the beginning, the two of us together extend and contract, one begins and one ends, each contained by the other. My body’s darkness possesses his body, and inside of his forming body he possesses our now shared soul.It is a boy. I know this in the way women know things. He has a name, it’s the one that has dwelt in the back of my mind from the time I was old enough to have my thoughts turn to such things. A name I don’t speak or allow myself to think. Not yet.They say you should wait until after the first three months—the first trimester—that it’s within this fragile time so many babies slip from the womb. But he is solidly inside of me. I know this, too in that same female knowing way. He is a stone set in the sediment of a tranquil river. A resident, and not just a stranger passing through. The certainty of him seeps in. But still, I wait to speak his name. I know he doesn’t blame me.I lie in my bed, and together he and I rest in our shared secret knowledge of one another. I sing him songs that until now I didn’t know I knew the words to. As if his presence has brought the memory of music back to me. This sits right and good. Like another miracle being dragged. That is what this is: a cluster of miracles one following on the other’s heels.
Monday, December 12, 2011
“Miz Branch?” a voice called. “It’s Eric Russo. There’s something I think you need to see.”I opened the door and said hello to him through the screen. Eric was one of those polite boys with the acne and hair that needed washing and shoulders rounded like he was shielding himself from a blow. He held a paper in his hand.“I think this might be yours.”He briefly met my eyes and looked away, rubbing the back of his neck with his other hand. I unlocked the screen and took the paper from him.…and Sophie was not the type of woman to ‘go gentle into that good night’ without raging…My name rested at the top left corner.The page wasn’t even wet.My voice came out pinched and accusing. “Just where did you get this, young man?”He cleared his throat. “On the riverbank. There’s more, too. Thought you’d wanna know.”“On the riverbank?” I asked, not comprehending.“Yes, ma’am. All up and down both sides. I saw it on my way home from delivering the paper to the Jolleys.”More pages. Not in the river. On the riverbank. On…The growing roar in my ears made it difficult to hear what he was saying, and it alarmed me when he opened the screen and reached out, but in the end he kept me from hitting the floor by carefully lowering me onto the rug where I sat with my head between my knees.
Friday, December 9, 2011
After Mother’s funeral I sat on her bed, fingered the peaks and valleys of her chenille spread and plumped her pillow to lean against the headboard. This was her world. A globe. A jelly glass of sharpened pencils. Bottles and bottles of pills. A tattered tower of crossword puzzles and a dictionary with a broken spine. A tub of Ponds Beauty Cream. Three library books, one with a bookmark only pages from the end. A picture of Papa, me, and the twins. And a Bible swollen with use.
I touched all of these things—balanced a pencil on my finger, smeared cream over my face, spun the globe to run my finger along its worn equator. The Bible crinkled when I picked it up. I fanned the pages to release the smell of ink and old leather. A photograph fell into my lap.
And there she was, my mother, a teenager standing self-consciously in front of an old car. One hand covered her mouth to hide the gap in her teeth, something she’d done even as an adult, but her eyes were smiling. She wasn’t alone in the picture. A small girl, much younger and as fair as butter, hugged Mother’s waist. The little girl’s head tilted back as she laughed. They were salt and pepper, light and dark.
Who is she?Who is she, indeed? The author, I mean. Who is she? Give your guess in the comments section for a chance to win $50 toward one of George Popa's beautiful sculptures or a cookbook.
Wednesday, December 7, 2011
Monday, December 5, 2011
My keepers won’t let me out of their sight. If they think I’m going to fill my pockets with seashells like a wannabe Virginia Woolf and walk into the Pacific as if it were the River Ouse, they needn’t worry. That isn’t how I have it planned. Though they’ve pretty much crashed my site when it comes to the logistics of just how I’m going to pull this off now.I hate women who meddle.Okay, that’s a strong statement even for me. I just wish I’d forgone the request to borrow the beach house and come without anyone knowing. Broken in or something, a stealth trespasser. But I wanted them to know where to find me, when this is over, and I’m paying the price for it now.I cast a glance at my red-polka-dotted stepmother, who stops every few feet to shake the sand off her flip flops, not caring how ungraceful she looks. A sand crane she’s not. But she is the organizer in all of this meddling, I’d bet my life on it. Ha. Not much of a bet. I bark out a laugh at my secret joke, and I swear I hear a seal bark back a reply.Sissy turns her face my direction, and covers her eyes with a cupped hand against a sun that’s dipped past its zenith. "What’s that, Bristol love?"I pretend her words get lost in the wind, like a kite sailing off without a string. Oops, there they go... As a diversionary tactic I reach down, pick up the remains of a starfish and hurl it Frisbee-like into the waves. My efforts are as lame as everything else in my life, as the very next breaker brings it back to my feet. I bend down and pick it up again, my boomerang starfish. And I’m pounded with the thought, where is my boomerang baby? Oh, God, where?
Friday, December 2, 2011
Readers say they want reality. Publishers say too much reality is a downer and downers don’t sell. They say people who are in the midst of debt, depression, bankruptcy and loss don’t want to read heavy topics. Readers need something distracting and uplifting and the sales numbers bear it out. So we try to tell our stories in positive, uplifting ways but if the story subject is heavy to begin with, how do you even market the book? How do your write back cover copy that conveys both realism and hope – something that will make readers want to take a chance?
How much reality do people really want?
During the 30s, Hollywood produced movies like Gone with the Wind, Wizard of Oz, Snow White, Captains Courageous, and Stagecoach to distract the public from the problems of the Great Depression. Escapism. These stories couched realism in fancy. A woman survives the Civil War, a girl learns she has power over her situations and another runs from her dysfunctional family. A boy learns what it takes to be a man, and a man becomes a hero. Let’s face it, these are great stories, regardless of the financial climate.
Latayne and Patti led us into some great discussions on authentic writing this week, and many of you shared from deep places in your lives. So much potential for great storytelling! And while there are wonderful, authentic stories in the Christian market that require us to wade with the protagonist through swift, muddy waters to the shores of spiritual growth, there are others that simply distract us from our problems for awhile. A bit of escapism is okay, too.
For those of us who prefer the swift, muddy waters, it is quite possible that we are not the target audience of Christian fiction. If so, where does that leave us as readers and writers? Tell us what you think.
Wednesday, November 30, 2011
Monday, November 28, 2011
One day in Jerusalem we went to the site that people traditionally identify with the tomb of Jesus. Now, I’m staking my eternal soul on the fact that Jesus rose from the dead, emerged from some tomb outside Jerusalem. But from an archaeologist’s point of view, the tomb I visited is in the right place but probably several hundred years off on the dating of it. I suppose for that reason I felt reverent there, but not emotional at all.
Where did I become emotional? At the synagogue in Capernaum, first excavated early last century. When I realized that it was built by one of my personal heroes (the centurion of “astonishing” great faith in Matthew 8:5-13), and that Jesus had taught in the very synagogue this Roman man built for his Jewish neighbors, I trembled. I took a picture of the actual floor tiles where Jesus once stood to teach. I had someone take my photograph standing right next to where Jesus did.
I let myself yield to emotion there because I knew my feelings could rest securely on an authentic foundation. I could enter that story. In fact, I knew I must enter that story as I stood there.
I wondered about why some Christian fiction rings true, and is helpful and nourishing—and why other books that may mention religious things leave us feeling uneasy and dissatisfied. Could it be because we don’t feel we have a reason to believe the story? Like me respectfully standing before an open tomb and thinking, “This cave is like where Jesus was laid, but almost certainly is not the actual place,” I wonder if sometimes readers think similarly:
“This is like real life, and the characters are very close to authentic, but I’m not buying into their situations because both author and reader know it’s just a story.”
Now, a good book doesn’t have to re-tell a Bible account to be true. But if there were a formula for writing authentic Christian literature, it would be a priceless commodity indeed. And yet we know it when we see it, the story that has a foundation as solid as two-thousand-year old stone pavement.
What are some of the characteristics of such authenticity? Can you share with me any books you’ve read recently that were authentic in just the way I’ve described?
Friday, November 25, 2011
Storyworld is exactly what it says it is: the world in which your characters live, breathe, and have their meaning. It goes beyond setting. It is the expression of your characters. Storyworld “shows” your hero’s personal growth as it morphs and changes throughout the story.
In this way, writing fiction is the opposite of real life. John Truby puts it this way, “In good stories, the characters come first, and the writer designs the world to be an infinitely detailed manifestation of those characters.”
The key here is “manifestation of those characters.” Storyworld isn’t separate from your characters. It isn’t a rigid space that existed before your characters came into existence. The space your story takes place in (a house, a town, a city, a jungle) represents your characters. And it changes as your characters change.
Where do you begin building your storyworld for your characters? It starts by knowing exactly what kind of story you are writing. I’m not referring to genre. I’m talking about story structure, the bones of the kind or type of story you want to tell and how you want to tell it.
This is a difficult step that will take a great deal of time to work out. I’m against formulas in fiction writing as a rule, but I will offer you this “formula” for puzzling out how to decide story structure because it is an organic one rather than paint by numbers.
Story process + original execution = Story structure
Here are some examples of this formula:
The Time Traveler’s Wife: A time traveler learns to love his wife and leave a legacy for his child knowing he will die at age 43. (Story process: love story. Original execution: he is a time traveler, plus the ticking clock of his approaching death)
The fact that The Time Traveler’s Wife is a love story means that the storyworld is largely made up of man-made, indoor spaces where people are thrown together in intimate ways. Apartment, house, crowded bars, even the library where he worked. He moves from man-made space to man-made space and each move is more claustrophobic than the last. Only the sprawling meadow (a natural arena that juxtaposes the man-made arenas in the rest of the book) by Clair’s childhood home provides a utopia for Henry. There, he falls in love and becomes a man. This made it all the more poignant when Henry meets his demise in the meadow.
Notice the amount of detail that went into creating this shifting, intimate, and yet menacing world? The storyworld expressed Henry, not the other way around.
Here’s and example from John Truby’s book The Anatomy of Story:
It’s a Wonderful Life: Express the power of the individual by showing what a town, and a nation, would be like if one man had never been born. (Story process: dystopia to utopia = fairy tale. Original execution: An angel shows George two versions of his small town.)
Storyworld: Two different versions of the same small town in America.
Because the structure of It’s a Wonderful Life is a fairy tale, it requires a kingdom in which the characters live and our hero rules over (in this case a small town). And, because the original execution is two towns, every element of the first kingdom had to have a contrasting element in the second version (which also had a different “king” the banker, Mr. Potter). No detail could be missed from the buildings, to the town’s name, to the weather, to the moon overhead.
Your storyworld is no less detailed.
The good news is, your storyworld has set boundaries which you erect around it. The drama of your novel will take place inside of these walls. When you think of your novel, you need to think in terms of contained space. Where are the boundaries of your story? Is it a town, a city, an island, a house, a boat, a shoreline, a hut, a jungle, etc.?
If your story structure requires multiple worlds (for example: Harry Potter, Alice in Wonderland, Wizard of Oz, Pleasantville, etc.) you must connect the worlds in some fashion. My newly completed manuscript takes place on an island off the East coast, but I have a man-made space on the mainland that I need to include in my storyworld (it symbolizes futile attempts to attain wellbeing outside of the character’s organic storyworld); therefore I used the system of ferry service as a bridge between the two worlds. That meant that I needed scenes on the ferry, and that the ferry itself be organically part of the larger storyworld.
This is only the tip of the iceberg, a brief introduction to the topic of storyworld. There is a great deal more to consider based on the specific story structure you will use, and the original execution you will employ.
The key is to remember that the world your characters live in is a manifestation of those characters.
Thoughts? Also, feel free to ask any questions or for clarification. I’ll do my best to engage with your ideas and ponderings and together, we might come up with something helpful.
Wednesday, November 23, 2011
n. in criminal law, conditions or happenings which do not excuse or justify criminal conduct, but are considered out of mercy or fairness in deciding the degree of the offense the prosecutor charges or influencing reduction of the penalty upon conviction. Example: a young man shoots his father after years of being beaten, belittled, sworn at and treated without love. "Heat of passion" or "diminished capacity" are forms of such mitigating circumstances.
See also: diminished capacity heat of passion Twinkie defense ~from Law.com
I once worked at an incarceration facility for juveniles. More recently, I sat on the jury for a criminal trial that was major enough to make headlines in my small county. From these experiences and so many more, I've come to the opinion that there are always mitigating circumstances.
That's not to say that criminals should be excused - the needs of real and potential victims must be considered first. I'm saying that people have reasons for the things they do, that those reasons come to them from the world in which they've been placed, and when we understand that world, their actions can be utterly, and sometimes tragically logical.
To state it from a writer's perspective: Story emerges from character, but character emerges from a world.
Two novels have left me muttering "story world" in my sleep of late: One is Bonnie's new, as-yet unpublished manuscript. (I know, I'm so blessed!) I want this story to be bound into a beautiful cover and delivered to your eager hands, so I can't reveal much about it. But Bonnie has done a masterful job of showing the reader something more than a setting - not just a context or environment designed to serve the story, but a community which is part of - effected by and in return, effecting - a larger world.
Okay, that's all I'm going to tell you, for Bonnie's sake, and for yours. I'll talk instead about another remarkable novel I listened to this week: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, by Lisa See.
In the first few paragraphs, the narrator, Lily, gives us our first clues about the societal influences we must understand if her story is to make sense to us:
For my entire life I longed for love. I knew it was not right for me—as a girl and later as a woman—to want or expect it, but I did, and this unjustified desire has been at the root of every problem I have experienced in my life.
Many people you and I know feel themselves to be unloved, and their experiences are echoed in countless characters in countless novels. What sets Lily apart is the assumption that her need for love is unjustified - because she is a girl.
Hoping they would show me even the most simple kindness, I tried to fulfill their expectations for me—to attain the smallest bound feet in the county—so I let my bones be broken and molded into a better shape.
I listened for even five minutes, and already I hurt for a child born into such a culture, and wondered what would become of her. As I learned the answer, I also learned more about the culture that produced the woman Lily became, and about the greater world that produced the culture.
I learned about the political and economic events that formed and later changed my character's assumptions, and the way those changes within her would help to form a new world that would change other characters.
I also learned to see my own culture through new eyes. Values parents taught their children in Snow Flower that were so appallingly foreign at first (a little girl's feet must be forcedly broken and stunted to resemble a chili pepper in shape and size ...) became disturbingly familiar at the last (... so that she will appear delicate and beautiful and attractive to men).
Because both novels, Bonnie's new manuscript and Lisa See's Snow Flower revealed such rich story worlds, their characters were painted more vividly, their stories made richer, more haunting and full of meaning.
How about you? Read any stories lately that showed you something more than setting, that showed you a world? Please tell us all about it. We love to read what you have to say.
Monday, November 21, 2011
It's Thanksgiving. Hard to believe! Christmas is only five weeks away! And I haven't even begun my shopping . . . except for the copies of Novel Tips on Rice I purchased for some special friends. Consider giving a copy of this fun and useful compilation of some of our favorite recipes to that hard-to-shop-for friend or colleague on your shopping list. The graphics are amazing, and the quality is excellent. But, trust me, you'll want one for yourself as well.
I proofread for a friend who is a court reporter. It's an interesting job most of the time. But since the court proceedings take place in a state I don't live in, and I wouldn't be in the courtroom in any case, I'm a completely objective reader. I have nothing but words to go on. No physical attributes, no endearing or exasperating expressions or behavior. No first impressions as far as looks, clothing, jewelry, hair style, nothing to pull them into favor or disfavor. The result is that at times I'm unsympathetic to a particular person when my friend the court reporter is inclined to be otherwise -- because all I have to go on are the words out of the mouth of the witness, attorney, judge, etc. Nothing but their words.
That got me thinking that a reader who picks up one of my novels -- or yours -- is in the exact position that I am as a proofreader of court transcripts. They know nothing about these people or their stories until they hear them speak. It's my job as a writer to make my characters come alive, and the best and most important way is through the words I put in their mouths. I can pile on the description and attributes, and to a certain extent that's important, but that won't make my characters or story resonate with the reader. So what will?
My daughter Deanne would tell you character affiliation begins with the name. If the name doesn't fit or otherwise isn't right, it jars her out of the story before she even gets into it. I completely agree. I spend a good deal of time selecting names for my characters when I begin writing a novel. I find that I can't get the momentum going if I don't have the names right. I may give a character a name at the start of my WIP, but it will pester me and interfere with the writing if the name is wrong. So I try to get it right from the start. And I always know when it's right. And when it's wrong. One major regret I have is that I allowed my agent and editor to talk me into changing the name of my protagonist in Every Good & Perfect Gift. The name I first gave her was the right name, and I wish I had stuck with it. But it is what it is.
Here's an example I ran into a couple of years ago of a name that just didn't work. A young female writer I knew, early 20s, very attractive, was writing a supernatural suspense novel, kind of a cross between Peretti and Dekker. I knew nothing about the story she was writing as she began to read from a chapter, but it drew me in immediately with its tone and action until I realized the protagonist, who I perceived was a young woman much like the author, was named Mabel. Mabel. For a 20-something, cutting-edge protagonist in a supernatural suspense novel.
I talked to her about it on several occasions. I told her the name jarred me out of the story. I had visions of a woman my grandmother's age the moment I heard it, and I was confused. Wait, Mabel? Then who's the protag, because I thought . . . ? I said it was completely wrong for the character she had created, particularly given the genre, but for some reason she was married to the name. I told her about the prejudice of my daughter, who would put the book right back on the shelf and that would be that. To no avail.
A more important element that will cause our characters to resonate with readers is the depth with which we write them. Superficial doesn't cut it. Neither does white hat/black hat. By that I mean, good guys are not all good, all the time; and bad guys are not all bad, all the time. Characters and stories written with a white hat/black hat mentality fall into the category of melodrama. It's our job to plumb the depths of the characters we create, and present them to our readers as fully formed and three-dimensional as possible. They have foibles and failings and we have to let them show. We have to know them as well as we know ourselves. We must know what they'd say or do in any given situation, and why they'd say or do it. They can surprise us in many ways, but they must stay true to the nature we've given them.
And the most important element of all is dialogue. Words and how they're spoken mean everything. I can forgive less-than-stellar elements in the novels I read, but if the dialogue is forced, shallow, unnatural, uncharacteristic of the speaker, or doesn't measure up in any number of ways, that's usually what will cause me to give up on a novel. And believe me, it takes a lot for me to put down a book that I've begun.
Let's try an exercise. I'm going to write a scene using nothing but dialogue. No dialogue tags, no speaker attributes, no description, no setting, nothing but dialogue. Can I draw you into the scene? Can I cause you to be sympathetic to one party or the other, and the right party at that? Let's see.
"I said I don't want to go."
"That's what you said, but I know what you meant."
"No. That's what I meant. I don't want to go."
"I can change your mind, you know."
"I wouldn't count on it."
"He'll be there."
"I, I don't know who you mean."
"Really? Just how many guys do you know who'd subject themselves to that kind of torture, all in the hopes of seeing you, even from a distance? Besides me, of course."
"You're twisted, you know that?"
"Yeah, I'm twisted. Right around your finger."
Now it's your turn. Write a brief scene using nothing but dialogue.
Friday, November 18, 2011
The weekend before Thanksgiving may be one of the worst times to hold a garage sale, but that's what we're doing on Saturday. We spent the last weekend digging and sorting and piling stuff into boxes. It's amazing the things we kept for years 'just because.' I emptied a five shelf unit that was piled with books two rows deep and plugged in all catty-whompas to make them fit. Now there are three boxes of great books that will hopefully get snatched up and treasured.
Of course, I kept several shelves of favorites which contain a mixture of both CBA (Christian) and ABA (mainstream) trade paperbacks. In light of our great discussions this week, I considered why I chose these particular ABA books and whether they demonstrated elements of hopefulness and transformation, which the CBA books did naturally.
Here is a selection of the ABA books I kept:
Peace Like a River, Shadow of the Wind, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, To Kill a Mockingbird, Time Traveler's Wife, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Seabiscuit, Snow Falling on Cedars, Gilead, Pride and Prejudice, Water for Elephants, Jewel, The Miracles of Santo Fico, The Picture of Dorian Grey, Cold Sassy Tree
In these books I found characters who persevered, who revealed characteristics of God, who gave sacrificially, who gained new perspectives, who developed tolerance for others, who believed in a dream, whose faith was restored, who kept their word when it hurt, who didn't back down from a righteous fight, who protected what was good, who found the best in others, who never stopped loving.
Did I love each and every one of the characters? No, but they either redeemed themselves in some way or got their comeuppance. No unsatisfying, ambiguous endings here. In contrast, there are many books that I've begun and put down again. While I believe we should give a book a chance once we've started reading, we need to fine tune our discernment. I'm not referring to violence, language or sexuality, I mean when the book impacts your outlook on life in a negative way, it's time to listen to that inner voice saying 'enough!' Step away from the book.
BTW, right now I'm just getting into Marilyn Robinson's Home which takes place in the same town as Gilead during the same time period. I'm just now acquainted with the elderly pastor, his spinster daughter and her blacksheep brother. Their relationships are complicated, and I have a good feeling that they will come to an understanding and find closure in the end. They are the kind of folks I enjoy acquainting myself with. And one of them is vaguely familiar...
We know that CBA books include elements of hopefulness and transformation, but what ABA book has made an impact on you in this way? We'd love to hear!
Wednesday, November 16, 2011
Monday, November 14, 2011
Last Wednesday, Bonnie wrote in her post Transformation and Redemption in Story, “…redemption isn’t what we think it is. It’s better than that. It is a state of being that allows us to experience our fully aliveness. People don’t want to transform into churchgoers, they want to transform into wholly alive human beings with the courage to face difficult, even impossible odds…”
How often do we rush to redeem our characters? To make them into “churchgoers” as Bonnie phrased it. As authors (and readers) I wonder if we are so obsessed with seeing good come from bad that we sacrifice the terrifying and honest process that creates redemption.
Frederick Buechner gives a glimpse of that transformation in his book Wishful Thinking:
“Of the seven deadly sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back—in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”
I wonder what that would look like if applied to a character? What courage a writer must show to allow their Hero to savor his anger! And how deliciously uncomfortable for the reader to witness that self-cannibalism. Oh but what a revelation for every person who touches a novel like that!
So what about that responsibility of the Christian writer? Must we connect each dot and hold the hand of our reader as we lead them toward that redemptive revelation? Explain it with flow charts and the four spiritual laws? Isn’t that what “religious fiction” is supposed to do?
Frederick Buechner didn’t think so and neither do I. This from a lecture he gave to a Book of the Month Club:
"Maybe it's all utterly meaningless. Maybe it's all unutterably meaningful. If you want to know which, pay attention to what it means to be truly human in a world that half the time we're in love with and half the time scares the hell out of us. Any fiction that helps us pay attention to that is religious fiction. The unexpected sound of your name on somebody's lips. The good dream. The strange coincidence. The moment that brings tears to your eyes. The person who brings life to your life. Even the smallest events hold the greatest clues." (emphasis mine)
That, I believe, is the responsibility of a novelist. Not to guarantee redemption, but to tell the truth. To show what it means to be “truly human.” Consequences and all.
Question for you: as writers do you find yourself tempted to redeem all of your characters? Or are you willing to let them fall for the greater good?
Friday, November 11, 2011
Recently I had the privilege of sitting in an excellent workshop at the Breathe Conference in Grand Rapids Michigan where Cynthia Beach, author and professor at Cornerstone University, gave some practical tips on “Creating the Best First Line.”
Here are four of her suggestions:
1) Attend to Grammar. Using subject-verb-direct object structure creates a fast pace and expectations, whereas an introductory phrase-main subject structure sets the tone for a slower pace. Use of the words were, was, and are set the tone for boredom. You don’t want that.
2) Attend to Length. An opening sentence of fewer than 17 words sets a face pace, research shows. Anything longer than that will be processed by the brain as more complex or difficult. Of course a literary or thought-provoking work doesn’t usually introduce itself with mini-sentences, right?
3) Attend to Specifics. The more specific the words you use, the more likely they will create in the reader’s mind a mental image with impact. You want impact, don’t you?
4) Attend to Theme. Many very famous books capture their themes in their first sentences, such as Out of Africa: “I had a farm in Africa. . .” We understand the weight of the past tense. We feel the exotic story coming.
Take the first line of your WIP. Put it through the Beach grinder. What do you end up with? (And we've invited Professor Beach to respond to you, here on the blog. You'll love her!)
Wednesday, November 9, 2011
I wasn’t convinced.
One day he raised a finger to the ceiling and declared that most popular of postmodern edicts: “There is no ultimate truth!”
I cleared the earwax out of my ear and said, “Come again?”
He passionately re-exclaimed, “There is no ultimate truth!”
I liked the guy so I refrained from rolling my eyes. “Except,” I said. “That by proclaiming that there is no ultimate truth, you are in fact proclaiming an ultimate truth.”
I said, “Don’t you really mean to say that there is no ultimate truth except this one, that there is no ultimate truth?”
“Except,” I went on, “If you believed that, then you would be soundly in the camp of the religious who would declare that they too hold to one ultimate truth. And in doing so, does that not unmask the whole thing as simply looking for another way to redeem ourselves?”
His surprising answer was that he began to cry.
In that moment I understood two things: 1) I was so going to fail this course, and 2) I had grown weary of the cultural meat grinder of postmodern deconstructionism.
On Monday, Katy pointed us to a video called The Arc of Storytelling by Bobette Buster. The whole video is interesting, but I’m focusing on the content from around the nine-minute mark to the end, which is where she talks about story as the vehicle by which we understand by “seeing” that transformation is possible, and redemption is attainable.
Every one of us has come through that meat grinder of postmodern thought. We’ve focused our questions and attention on deconstructing the notions of what it means to be human, and of pretty much everything we see, touch, think, hope for, and believe. But what I have noticed is that entire generations of people are weary, frightened, and hopeless. And these deconstructed people are looking for stories that show them they are more than the sum of their parts.
Transformation and redemption
Bobette Buster focused on transformation as the key story element that captures audience (reader) imagination and elevates that story to the position of “success” or “worth keeping”. I like how she phrases this by pointing out the transformation brings the character fully alive. It’s more than proving we are capable of change, it’s the hope that we can (will) become people who meet life head on with gusto, verve, purpose, and passion. Yes, purpose. Not mindlessly wandering from home to work to the TV set, to bed, and then start all over again the next day. But to know what it is we’re here to do, and then have the guts to go out and do it. Fully alive.
Buster ties the concept of transformation to redemption, which she means not in the theological sense per se, but in a more general sense. Still, redemption is more than the second chance; it’s a state of being in which transformed, fully alive live. The place where we understand that regardless of circumstances we are supported by someone or something greater than our self.
The generations who grew up inside of postmodern deconstructionism are still looking for the redemption story their guts tells them is out there. Even after been weened on the notion that such a thing doesn't exist. Stumbling, getting lost, losing hope, finding it again, they are searching.
For these people, ultimate truth is an answer they must be left to discover on their own (hence their distain for preachy stories with an agenda), but they are looking to story to remind them they are more than the sum of their parts, they have purpose, and a hopeful future. That they can be the heroes of their own lives.
Writers who are people of faith need to keep two things in mind: transformation is a journey that cannot and should not be summed up in a single prayer. It is a journey, and that fact must be respected in our story. Secondly, redemption isn’t what we think it is. It’s better than that. It is a state of being that allows us to experience our fully aliveness. People don’t want to transform into churchgoers, they want to transform into wholly alive human beings with the courage to face difficult, even impossible odds, with courage, knowing there is “an inexorable force in the universe there to support you if you keep going, you will discover the faith, the courage to move on.”
Until we can approach the concepts of transformation and redemption sensitively, and understand the journey that they entail, rather than racing to the finish line, we will be stuck in the postmodern meat grinder, proclaiming that our ultimate truth is better than that guy’s ultimate truth.
To put it another way, “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”