Monday, January 31, 2011

Its Own Reward

Welcome to the first day of our book talk on Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. Whether you've read the book or not, feel free to jump into the conversation, which, of course, at Novel Matters is always about writing. Mostly.

I didn’t get very far in the book. Anne has too many nuggets in the introduction to Bird by Bird, and it was hard to pick just one idea to reflect on. I scanned the first chapter too, and I don't have much hope of getting through the book soon. Help me set the pace, won't you? I respond well to a cracking whip.

I first read Bird by Bird about ten years ago. I totally missed--or dismissed--the part about "the small pox-infected-blankets of getting published" in the introduction. I believed anything I wrote would be published, and the publishing world would thank me with a bulging bank account and the adoration reserved for queens. Please note: I also read and believed a book about painless childbirth. This is my nature. I'm optimistic with a rick-rack of delusion decorating my hem.

But Anne knows her stuff. Writing is writing. It's a wonderful art form for expression and playfulness, although it's tougher to display on the living room wall than a watercolor painting. That doesn't make it frivolous, even if our words don't get published. Writing is a tool of refinement in Jesus' hand. Showing up each day is an act of devotion and trust. And our characters--those little connivers!--drag us into topics to explore God's character like no Bible study ever could. There is a fellowship of creativity with Jesus that leaves us breathless. On walks, in our cars, usually in the shower but seldom at the computer, he leads us through a story, pelts us with mind-twisting questions, and reveals himself in a gifted word, phrase, or idea.

"That thing you had to force yourself to do--the actual act of writing--turns out to be the best part. It's like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward." (xxvi).

And so, like Anne, I encourage anyone compelled to write to do so.

What nuggets did you pan from the introduction? How has writing become its own reward for you? What do you tell starry-eyed wannabes about the writing life? If you knew you would never be published, would you continue to write?

Let's read "Getting Started" and "Short Assignments" for our time together on February 16th.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Walking on Air

“Whenever I see a sight like these clouds, I think maybe everyone is wrong; maybe you can walk on air. Maybe we should just try. Everything could have changed without our noticing. Laws of physics, I mean. Why not? I want it to be true that such miracles occur.” What We Keep, Elizabeth Berg

This is the voice of a woman in need of a miracle, someone who wants so much to find answers and is willing to consider more than what she's always believed.

Sharon's post got me thinking about voice, and I pulled some great examples from recent & favorite reads:

“I have been afraid of putting air in a tire ever since I saw a tractor tire blow up and threw Newt Hardbine’s father over the top of the Standard Oil sign. I’m not lying.” The Bean Trees, Barbara Kingsolver

A teen-aged girl from a small Southern town tells her story.

“Late afternoon. We were playing, my gang against his, and when he ran at me again, bully that he was, bigger than me, and catching me off balance, I felt the power go out of me as I shouted: “You’ll never get where you’re going.” He fell down white in the sandy earth…” Christ the Lord, Anne Rice

Jesus as a child - you just want to know what he was like as a kid.

“At night I would lie in bed and watch the show, how bees squeezed through the cracks of my bedroom wall and flew circles around the room, making that propeller sound, a high-pitched zzzzzz that hummed along my skin.” The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd

I still find myself wondering if the bees were real or a figment of this young girl's imagination, although they were very real to her.

“’It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

I love the wry humor in this, since Lizzy is in no hurry to be married. Even if she didn't directly say it, you can hear her pointing it out, can't you?

“I was born in 1904, so that when I was pregnant in 1943 I was near enough to be past the rightful age to bear children.” Jewel, Bret Lott

There is so much about Jewel's situation in this first sentence.

“It’s hard being left behind. I wait for Henry, not knowing where he is, wondering if he’s okay. It’s hard to be the one who stays.” The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger

Her loneliness and heartbreak is palpable. I felt for her before I even knew her.

"I'm ninety. Or ninety-three. One or the other." Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen

Such spunk shows in these few words. If he were young, he would say, "Whatever."

‘Susan Scott is a wonder. We sold over forty copies of the book, which was very pleasant, but much more thrilling from my standpoint was the food. Susan managed to procure ration coupons for icing sugar and real eggs for the meringue.” The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows

She sounds like the kind of person I would like to know - upbeat, positive and excited by life.

I recently returned a book to the library after only reading three chapters, and it was due to my frustration with the main characters. They had no distinct voices. Readers should be able to tell that a character is a poor farmer living in the deep South during WWII without having to be told! I'm not advocating the use of dialect. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers suggests using word choice, cadence and grammar to impart this rather than to distract the reader with dropped endings or phonetic spellings.

From comments we've received, voice is a strong determining factor as to whether or not a reader sticks with a book to the end. I started the same book 3 times and finally finished it, and I realize that there was no particular voice established until several chapters into the story. But the book had a voice of its own, and that's what I was getting for the first chapter or so. It turned out to be a very good story, which I will post on in the near future.

Have you struggled with a book's voice and been glad you persevered?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

What Did You Say?

The book club I participate in just read Havah by Tosca Lee for our January selection. It's a remarkable novel about Adam and Eve, before and after the fall, from Eve's perspective. Tosca did an amazing job of filling in the gaps and telling a story of how it might have been to be the mother of all mankind. We all enjoyed the book, and gave it an A, but early in our discussion my daughter Mindy said, "I ended up loving the book, but it took me a while to get into it because I couldn't find her voice." Sometimes we just don't click with a story but we're not sure why, so I'm glad Mindy was able to identify the problem, and then to continue reading until she did find the character's voice, because ultimately she really enjoyed the novel.
Voice is such a vital element of fiction. Without it a story can be flat and one dimensional. We may see the words, but they don't come to life in our heads and hearts. As readers, we all bring something of ourselves to a character's voice. I may hear Harper Lee's "Scout" differently than you hear her, but there's no question that we'll hear her voice, because it's written with such texture and clarity. I could already hear Scout's voice by paragraph two of To Kill a Mockingbird when she said, "I maintain that the Ewells started it all, but Jem, who was four years my senior, said it started long before that. He said it began the summer Dill came to us, when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out. I said if he wanted to take a broad view of the thing, it really began with Andrew Jackson."
Who couldn't love a girl who talked like that? Who couldn't wait to hear the whole story? There's a wonderful cadence to her voice, and certainly an accent. And my very favorite "voice" is going to have a southern accent. Maybe it's my family roots (I'm California born and bred but my parents and grandparents were from the South) but I can get lost in a southern accent and forget entirely to come up for air. If you ever watched Ken Burns' Civil War series, I fell in love with author and historian Shelby Foote, who I could have listened to for hours on end, even if he was merely reading the dictionary. That's just me. So while we all bring something different to a reading experience, we as authors have to give our readers something to work with, and that's where cadence, word choice, sentence structure, etc., come into play.
We agree that some writers books can be hard to understand, way too subjective, conflicting, and even elitest, but there are some exceptional ones we recommend (see our Resources page), as our Roundtable discussion this week bears out. Elizabeth George, in Write Away, says, "The narrative voice of your novel is the point-of-view character's defining way of speaking and thinking. Mind you, I'm not referring to the point-of-view character's style of dialogue, however. I'm referring to the tone that comes through the narrative itself ..." Case in point, the excerpt I used from To Kill a Mockingbird above is not a passage of dialogue; rather it's narrative. But it's as entertaining as dialogue thanks to Scout's distinctive voice.
In The Help by Kathryn Stockett, it takes only a few chapters to be able to identify the three POV characters, even without the chapter headings, by their voice alone, because Ms. Stockett has given each her own distinct characteristics. Elizabeth George says voice comes from background, education or lack thereof, position in society, distinctive use of language, vocabulary, tone and "most important ... attitude. More than anything that you can do to illustrate voice for your reader, the character's attitude will differentiate one character from another."
Jim Scott Bell, in Plot & Structure, says, "No two characters should sound exactly alike ... the words they use should tell us something about who they are." Think of the people you know. Most of the time you don't have to ask who's calling if they fail to identify themselves on the telephone. You know them by their voice. Characters should be as easily identifiable a good deal of the time. To accomplish this, you have to know your characters. They must be distinctive in your mind if they're to be distinctive to your readers. I've learned over time the value of writing character profiles before I begin writing a novel. Some writers create profiles of a character's life from cradle to grave, that go on for pages, even for minor characters. I have no doubt there's great benefit to that, but my profiles tend to be leaner, which allows me the great pleasure of learning new things about a character as I go along, but that new thing should enhance what I already know about that character, and not detract from it.
Here's an exercise for you: Write a half-page passage that includes dialogue and narrative from a POV character. Don't use attributes or character description. Then write a similar passage for an entirely different character. Maybe someone of the opposite sex, twenty years younger or older, or who comes from a different part of the country or world. Ask someone to read the two passages and tell you what they know about the each person. How close are they to describing the character you created?
What favorite fictional character springs to mind when you think of voice? Have you read anything lately that lacked voice, and if so, how did that impact your reading experience? (You don't have to name names.)

Monday, January 24, 2011

Writing Books We Have Loved - A Roundtable Discussion

Excuse me. Hello? I'm sorry for elbowing my way in here. I have a copy of Bird by Bird for Heidi, but I still need your address. Please click on "contacts" to send your snail mail address, and I'll mail the book right out. We start our discussion next Monday. You may now proceed.

Last week Patti gave Anne Lamott's "Bird by Bird" away to five lucky readers, and I'm delighted for each of them. I too read the book several years before I published my first novel, and yes, it comforted and encouraged me, yes, I clutched it to my heart, and no, I won't loan it to you. Bless Anne. Bless Patti.

After I read her
post, I went to my bookshelf to find other books I won't loan to you, writing books that stirred me up to be not only a writer, but a certain, stubbornly individual kind of writer.

As I scanned the books, I caught sight of the smallest one, nestled in like a first beloved toy crowded to the back of the shelf.

The book was "Zen and the Art of Writing," by Ray Bradbury. It's not the small paperback you can buy at the store - and I suggest you do. It's the Chapra Chapbook Series edition published in 1973 that my professor made me buy in my freshman year of college. It consists of the title essay plus one more, The Joy of Writing. The price on the back reads, $2.50. I notice now, you can buy one on eBay for $25.00. I'm not selling.

Here's a sample, to remind you that good writing is not about money or reputation. It's about juici
ng out what you and you alone can give the reader:

"Notoriety and a fat bank balance must come after everything else is finished and done. That means that they cannot even be considered while you are at the typewriter. The man who considers them, lies one of two ways, to please a tiny audience that can only beat an idea insensible and then to death, or a large audience that wouldn't know an idea if it came up and bit them."

Yet another writing book to add to my list. Thanks, Katy!

I own an embarrassing number of writing books, but I only return to a few. One is by one of my favorite authors, Elizabeth Berg--Escaping Into the Open: The Art of Writing True. I enjoy Ms. Berg's writing, because her narrators are so stinking honest. Laughingly so. Gut-wrenchingly so. And that's the kind of writer I want to be, honest. That honest is born of passion and courage.

She says it like this:

Passion is everywhere: in love, in religion and politics, in cooking and gardening, in learning, in art, in d
evotion to one's family, in solitude and the search for self. But if I had to come up with one word to describe what writing passionately is all about, the work would be "risk." Because that's what emotionally intense communication requires: You must be willing (and courageous enough) to show others the most private parts of yourself, holding back nothing. But first you must be willing to show those parts to yourself, to acknowledge in a conscious way their presence in you.

Confession time: Most writing books make me nervous. They spend a lot of time on helping new writers find ideas and that's not my problem: Ideas stalk me and mug me in the middle of other things I should be doing.

For me, a writing book has to be practical. Nuts and bolts. And the book that helped me the most in that regard is an actual workbook with tear-out pages where I learned, by filling in those pages, how to pace the action of those ideas.

The book is Evan Marshall's The Marshall Plan Workbook: Writing Your Novel from Start to Finish. I'm sorry to say it is out of print but even the copies you can get second-hand (be sure and get a new one-- you need those pages!) makes it worth the money. Here's my favorite quote from Marshall:

". . .In general, the key is to keep characters' emotions at the forefront; write about issues, whether large or small, that people care about; tell your story in an interesting manner; pay attention to your story's pacing; and wind up your novel on a satisfying note. You will be writing the kind of novel you most like to read, but you will also be writing to please your readers."

And the workbook showed me how to do that.

I have 5 writing books that, like Katy, I wouldn't loan out. They're the ones I go to time and again and never fail to find what I need. But since our assignment is to choose one and only one, I went with the book that has a boatload of multi-colored tabs stuck to page after page. That book is Write Away by Elizabeth George. The jacket boasts that "bestselling author Elizabeth George offers would-be writers exactly what they need to know about how to construct a novel." And the book certainly delivers. As a bonus, each chapter begins with an entry by Ms. George from Journal of a Novel. The entry that begins the chapter titled "The Value of Bum Glue" reads:
"This is the moment when faith is called for. Faith in the creative spirit within me, which is part of what I've been given by God; faith in the process; faith in my intelligence and my imagination. If I've managed to imagine these characters and this situation into being, doesn't it follow that I should also be able to imagine my way through to the end of the book? It seems so. Thus . . . I suit up and show up. I sit down at the computer and I do the work, moving it forward a sentence at a time, which is ultimately the only way there is to write a book."

I'm torn between two lovers (feeling like a fool. . . loving both of you is breaking all the rules) - at least when it comes to waxing eloquent about writing books. I've read several (skimmed most), but only two have rocked my writing world. When I started writing I lacked no hutzpah. But I didn't know how to wield it. Enter Arthur Plotnik's risque Spunk & Bite: A writer's guide to punchier, more engaging language and style. This is the modern response to Strunk and White's Elements of Style. Art gives practical, gutsy advice and examples of how to write out in style - the kind that gets noticed, even published. Here's a sample from his introduction: "With so many gifted authors already sniffing their way to publication, with so man diversions grabbing mass attention, no writer can afford a writing-as-usual attitude. Language or style that is less engaging, less stimulating than the competition is, frankly, dead on arrival. Whether you strive as a journalist, novelist, poet, copywriter, corporate communicator, student -- or even as a yearning presence on -- something distinctive, some umami-like deliciousness has to emanate from your words or off they go to oblivion."

After that pep talk, Art's book emboldens the writer to unthink, bend some rules, and embrace her inner hutzpah. (A side note: since I read his book several years ago, he and I have struck up a writing friendship of sorts. He even quotes me twice in his upcoming book. Yep. Little ol' me!)

My second book o' choice is the meaty goodness of John Truby's The Anatomy of Story. I applied myself to this book as I have to university courses. It was painful, but worth every jabbing chest pain. It's not a book to encourage yourself with, it's a textbook and includes the looming impression that there will be an exam at the end. And, of course, there is. It's called your novel.

John states the mission of the book in three succinct points (but don't let that fool you).
  • "Show that a great story is organic -- not a machine but a living body that develops.
  • Treat storytelling as an exacting craft with precise techniques that will help you be successful, regardless of the medium or genre you choose.

  • Work through a writing process that is also organic, meaning that we will develop characters and plot that grow naturally our of your original story idea."
Both these books have moved me as a writer. They made me plop at the authors' feet and say, "Guru me , baby!"

Well, Katy stole my thunder. My all-time favorite how-to book is Ray Bradbury's "Zen" so I chose a little blue book by Les Edgerton titled Hooked. In particular, his chapter on story-worthy problems vs. surface problems gets to the heart of what hooks a reader:

A story-worthy problem always relates more to the psychology of the protagonist and has to be big enough, dramatic enough, to change the protagonist's world and force him on a journey of change. Surface problems, on the other hand, are more like bad situations that reflect the actual story-worthy problem.

What transforms a story is the inner psychological problem of the protagonist being laid bare on the page.

The best sources for significant story problems reside within yourself in the form of your personal demons.

Seriously good stuff. The book is easy to read with loads of examples and ends with insights, titled, "Agents and Editors Speak Out on Beginnings." Now, get thee to the bookstore.

Friday, January 21, 2011

To UnPlug or Not to UnPlug - That Might Be the Question.

From the moment Johannes Gutenberg stepped back to admire his invention to this very nano-second there has been noise about how crazy the publishing industry is, and how difficult it is understand. Don't look now, but we're in the throes of change (e-books, e-readers, kindle, iPad, e-Zine, indie presses, Google scanning every scrap of paper it claps eyes on, Amazon poised to take over the world).

IS self-publishing the wave of the future? How DO you make a name for yourself in this biz? Who really decides what gets published and what doesn't? Do I need an agent? What do can a publicist actually do for a novelist? Do I sign with a small publisher, or hold out for a larger one? How can I know how long a publisher's sales reach is? Should I micro-blog every thought/emotion/idea/hope/failure/personal conversation I have? Should I read and respond to all the other writer's who are micro-blogging their every thought/emotion/idea/hope/failure/personal conversations? It's enough to make an author's eyes bug out.

As Latayne pointed out this week, it's easy to become overwhelmed and flirt with unplugging. Hers is a question I've struggled with on and off for years now. I don't have definitive answers (and different approaches work for different people), but I thought I'd share my perspective with you, and perhaps you'll find something of value for your own journey.
The ticking bomb for me wasn't so much the social networking piece (I've whittled it down to this blog and Facebook - tweeting on rare occasions), as it was the information overload about publishing, writing, publicity, marketing, self-promotion, and number watching. It's a time suck, but more than that, it's confusing to read all these blogs and website that say different things.
If you feel like I do, then read on. I've come up with a blessedly short list of tips to help us writers stay sane while we press on toward our goal. Maybe.

1) Understand the industry in general. A working understanding how publishing functions is different from analyzing every scrap of data about publishing that gets published on a blog or web site. Instead of fretting over the details (every writer's journey is different) strive to understand the major players, how they work, and how they work together.

2) Only worry about what you need to know right now. The publishing world is filled with important details - the good news is, you don't need to know all of them. If you're a beginning writer working on your first novel, you don't need to understand the often difficult dance of choosing a book cover. You need to focus on the process of becoming a better writer. If you are looking for an agent, then immerse yourself in the details of agents - (which, for fiction at least, means you have a completed, polished novel ready to go). Research hard, practice proposal writing, triple check you're querying a specific agent correctly. After you sign with an agent, then move to the next step on your journey.

3) Pay closer attention to your personal journey. Stop reading everything on earth about the publishing industry. I can go from calm to freaked out in the time it takes to read one article from the NY Times. It's better to pay close attention to what is happening to you and your work, then if you run around all over the blog-sphere reading general advice. (Uh, except for THIS blog, of course.)

4) Relax. Yes, the numbers are stacked against us. Yes, it's difficult to break into publishing. Yes, it's difficult to remain in publishing. Let's make peace with the truth. Then we can all take a deep breath and continue on our journeys. The fastest way to relax? Believe in yourself. Keep the vision in front of you and keep walking toward it - by writing, and writing, and writing some more.

I bid you good writing.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Unplug me?

You may have noticed that sometimes we poke a little fun at Amish books. (Could that be because Amish books sell like hotcakes, and our books sell like personalized birthday cakes? That is to say, there are lots of people named Elizabeth who would like a cake with that name on it, hundreds of thousands in fact. But the vast majority of the world would pass on it.)

I’ve heard explanations for the popularity of “bonnet” books. One is that people yearn for the simplicity and close relationships of such cloistered societies. Another explanation is that they’re the Christian subgenre equivalent of what we’d called a “locked room” book in mystery novels: Everything happens in a microcosm, or shows that microcosm reacting to the outside world. It’s tidy and neat.

You know what I yearn for that the Amish have? A lack of connectedness to the world. (Now, lest you remark upon the utter hypocrisy of someone posting on the Internet about how great it would be to not to be connected with the world, hear me out.)

I've done the heroic co-pushing with my publishers of my books. In fact, one of my publishers told my agent Janet Grant that I was “a publisher’s dream.” I spent most of a year (and probably most of my writings earnings) helping get the word out about my books when they were released about 18 months ago, by good publishers. As a result, I have thousands of Facebook, Shoutlife, SistahFaith, and Twitter friends. There are reviews of my books, and videos and discussions about them and me all over (the Web of) tarnation.

Recently, I read a long post by a published author who spoke of the “new rules” for authors. Because our economy is hanging publishers upside down and shaking them until their pockets come inside out (my image, not the author’s), he said we must do things differently. He said to disobey the system, shun publicity and crowds, not seek them, write for yourself and not an audience nor a niche, and embrace what the world would call failure.

Yeah, I’m all up for that big bear hug.

I can’t recommend the article because it is profane, anti-religious, and I (and apparently a lot of others, judging from the comments) couldn’t figure out if he was serious.

But it struck a chord. A chord of wanting to be disconnected. Not just so I can be a hermit, but so I can focus on actually writing. To not feel guilty if I don’t follow strangers back on Twitter when they have sought me out. To get up in the morning and not feel neglectful for dragging myself away from scores of emails from more strangers, some of whom who might really need me (and when you write on leaving a cult, a lot of people really believe they need you.)

The Amish call to my soul, I believe, because they are disconnected.

Now, talk me back from a tipping point here. What reasons should I stay connected? I mean, other than answering emails from people in real trouble, and posting and reacting here on Novelmatters, why would I want to continue being “connected”?

Well, another reason is that agents, editors, publicists, and other industry people say we are not attractive to a publisher if we are not connected. To the hilt.

What say ye?

Monday, January 17, 2011

Let's Talk Shop

At the genesis of my writing journey, I possessed a freshly inked degree in English Literature and a passion for story. I'm not sure what pushed me from simply reading novel-length stories to actually believing I could create one (it was probably the week before Christmas break or after a week of lunchroom duty), but several years before I quit teaching to write, I coyly perused the writing resources section at Barnes & Noble for a book on how to write a novel.

I started with a how-to book on mysteries, because I'd been playing with a cathartic storyline during my 20-minutes drive to and from school. Happily, I forgave that person and turned my attention toward contemporary women's fiction--my favorite read.

Only my husband knew I was tiptoeing along this path. I'd seen other teachers leave on sabbatical to write children's books and come back empty-handed and rather sheepish, so I kept mum and kept reading. It was very lonely. Singular. A bit strange, playing with characters and scenes while supposedly concentrating on cooking or driving or--sigh--a conversation.

The more I studied the craft of novel-writing, the more neurotic I became. So many balls to keep in the air! I needed nitty-gritty help from someone who balanced on the knife-edge of perfectionism like me.

I must have confessed my frustration to a stranger at the checkout, because someone suggested I read Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. I loved her voice immediately. Finally, someone more anxious than me--but not much. Anne and I connected on a level that empowered me to face a blank computer screen day after day after day. I owe her.

In my dream life, Anne and I are sipping iced tea on a lanai overlooking Kealakekua Bay. Humpbacked whales are breaching offshore as yellow tangs do their synchronized swimming thing in the shallows. We hardly notice. It's all about the art. The breeze lifts the corners of our manuscripts as we talk shop. Well, she talks shop. I listen, trying to absorb everything she says.

This scene will not happen, but I have picked Bird by Bird up again. I really need to hear Anne's voice. I'm wondering if ten years of writing novels has changed how I will receive her wisdom. I'm wondering what I missed the first time around. And I'm hoping I have something to add. I might even disagree with her on certain points. And while I've recommended this book more than any other writing book, I've never actually discussed it with another writer.

How crazy is that?

Over the next few months, I'll be responding to what I read in Bird by Bird, and I hope you'll join the conversation, whether you choose to read the book again or not. Let's do it. Let's talk shop over Anne's book. Starting on January 31st, I'll be responding to something I've read in Bird by Bird when it's my turn to post. I'm not sure how far I'll get for that first time, maybe the intro and the first 20 pages.

I have 5 copies of Bird by Bird to give away! Be one of the first 5 to say you'd like to talk shop over Anne's book, and I'll send you a copy.

In the meantime, what great writing books have you read lately? I'm studying The Anatomy of Story by John Truby. I don't think I'll ever finish it. Dense. Very dense.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Back to the Chair

Sharon's post on Wednesday resonated with me, and judging by the comments, I'm not alone. It's difficult to keep up a level of enthusiasm and confidence in your skills when you're being stared down by a blank page.

At times like this when I'm struggling with BIC. (Butt In Chair) I feel my desire to write expiring. It's such a familiar feeling. Not so long ago, before I was published, it was my constant companion, and I was better at dealing with it. I had unbridled hope but no expectations. I had a calling, a love of story, a character crush. I was 'fed' by the act of writing. Satisfied and satiated.'s temporary, I know. And when I'm in need of a break or a distraction that leads back to the chair, I can usually count on:

1. Closet cleaning: My daughter moved to a more permanent college-living arrangement two years ago, and her old closet space is just waiting for utilization. As Sharon pointed out, tackling a job that doesn't take a lot of brain power can free your mind to work on plot issues or twists. To quote Agatha Christie, "The best time to plan a book is while you're doing the dishes" and I quite agree with her.
2. Favorite movies: I put on a movie I love that is so familiar I can get other things done and save my undivided attention for the best parts. Usually, I choose either The Philadelphia Story, What's Up, Doc, Casablanca or Dirty, Rotten Scoundrels. Fun stories. Great characterization. The stuff that feeds my imagination and stirs the pot of ideas.
3. Cooking: Homemade soup, cobblers and chicken pot pies. Apple butter. Homemade marinara with roasted roma tomatoes. Comfort food. I'm not saying every dish is a winner, but the act of combining the ingredients and playing with my options reminds me how gratifying it is to create and to take a chance on a new twist.
4. Good books: This may be a book from my TBR pile (just finished Snow Falling on Cedars) or a favorite read that I skim for my favorite parts. Ray Bradbury's Green Shadows, White Whale is one such book. What a storyteller! Rubbing cosmic elbows with writers through their thoughts and words is bound to pay off, isn't it?
5. Reading about writers: Author biographies or essays about their faith can be very inspiring. I have two essay collections that challenge me to think: Shouts and Whispers (Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub.) and Going on Faith (Marlowe & Co.)
6. Be-ing time: I take my journal to the canyon rim or the American River and unravel to the tune of rippling water and birdsong (while keeping a nervous eye out for four-legged predators). Madeleine L'Engle said in Walking on Water, "...take time away from busyness, time to be. I've long since stopped feeling guilty for taking being time. It's something we all need for our spiritual health, and often we don't take enough of it." In the long run, being is more important (& productive) than doing.
7. Keeping friends: I cherish my writer friends at times of dryness. They tell me it's only a temporary state of affairs. Worry and stress constrict the flow of creative juices, they remind me. The sluggish economy works to discourage me. Above all, stay true until the day that I feel released, not simply discouraged.

In Walking on Water, Ms. L'Engle shares a story about a clockmaker who was asked to repair broken clocks and watches. Many had been abandoned by their owners, and he could only repair the ones which had been kept wound because they were the only ones that could remember how to keep time. "So we must daily keep things wound: that is we must pray when prayer seems dry as dust; we must write when we are physically tired, when our hearts are heavy, when our bodies are in pain." Keeping things wound, building in memory - that's what BIC is really all about.

Have I missed anything? What helps you in times of dryness or discouragement? We'd love to hear from you.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Funnel of Inspiration

You who have followed us for a while have undoubtedly noticed that, with the exception of Latayne's The Hinge of Your History: the Phases of Faith, none of us has had a new book published in the past number of months. That can be, and quite candidly is, a discouraging situation for all of us. The publishing world has been hit by the downturn in our economy as many industries have, but even apart from that there are many changes taking place in the publishing world, and we've all been affected.
It's discouraging to find yourself without a contract once you've been published, particularly if you're multi-published, as all of us here are. That said, none of us is back to square one, because we all have agents who believe in us and are doing their best to find publishing homes for our novels.
So how do I deal with discouragement? One way is to encourage myself with comments from readers. I love the quote Marybeth used in Monday's post, how as Christian writers "...We should also wish to make [our readers] better" George F. Handel. It's quite gratifying to read a note from a reader who not only enjoyed your book, but who took something away from it, something that helped them grow a little in their Christian walk. Like the comment Megan Sayer wrote on our blog regarding Lying on Sunday a couple of weeks ago. It really boosted my spirits. I think helping the reader grow, no matter where they are in their relationship to God, is the goal of most Christian writers. Not just to entertain, though entertainment is certainly part of what we strive to offer, but to help advance the kingdom of God in our own small way.
How else do I get the upper hand over discouragement? Well, as they say, misery loves company. So I share my writing woes with my closest writing friends -- Bonnie, Debbie, Katy, Latayne and Patti. They understand me like no one outside my immediate family understands me. Truly, it takes a writer to know one (or maybe the spouse and children of one). They've been exactly where I am, and if nothing else they can wipe my tears or share them, and they can and do pray for me. I can't stress enough the importance of having a close writing friend or two. We here at Novel Matters are excited because we see relationships developing between our readers, who, like us, may not live in the same state or even the same country -- perhaps not even on the same continent. But you're developing friendships, and we hope those friendships go beyond greeting one another on our Comments page. We hope you'll find critique pals and kindred souls who know just where you are and can encourage you as you write.
Then there are those days when I close the door to my office, ignore the wooing of my characters, and find other things to do -- things not even remotely related to writing. Cleaning the pantry comes to mind. Mostly I don't do that. Mostly I keep to my work, plodding away on plots and word counts, but there are days ... And when I have days like that, when cleaning the pantry or the junk drawer or whatever else calls to me, I decide, "Why fight it?" I turn on the oldies and roll up my sleeves. But trust me, it's not wasted time. Because for as long as I can remember, when I have a problem to work through or a defeat to deal with, I clean. These days you could eat off my floor. (We won't talk about the windows.) I talk out loud to God while I'm doing it, too. Out. Loud. I lay my issues before him like Hezekiah spreading out the letter from Sennacherib, king of Assyria, who was determined to conquer Judah, and boasted that not even the God of Hezekiah could prevent it. Oh yeah? Overnight, God wiped out much of his army, and Sennacherib fled back to Nineveh "and stayed there." I love it. (For the whole account, read 2 Kings, chapters 18 & 19.)
And beyond that, I determine on a daily -- sometimes hourly -- basis to be true to my call. Philippians 2:13 is one of my favorite scriptures: "For it is God who works in you both to will and to do His good pleasure." (Sorry, my quote is a blend of KJV and NIV.) God gave me a writer's heart, and short of a transplant, a writer I will stay. And as someone who believes very much in the sovereignty of God, I acknowledged long ago that it's my job to write, and His job to take my offering and do what He wants with it, when He's good and ready. Does that stop me from saying to Him on occasion, "Come. Let us reason together ..."? Not on your life. I'm not above twisting the arm of God. In fact, I'm dangling from it as we speak. I just happen to know it doesn't get me very far.
So my encouragement funnels down from the praises of those I don't know, or don't know well, to family and friends who walk with me on this journey, to that still small voice inside that encourages me that when I've done all I know to do, to stand. And so I stand. Or more accurately I sit, BIC, and pour onto the page the story that churns in my heart. That's how it has to be for all of us, because when all is said and done, it's the inner conviction that keeps us going.
We have some fun and some helpful resources planned for this year at Novel Matters, such as our Novel Tips on Rice recipe book that we offered in December. If you haven't yet downloaded it, you can find it here. It's a fun and a free resource we put together under the ultra-talented leadership of Katy Popa. Need a website? She's the person to talk to. Visit her at Cottonbond. We'll have contests and opportunities for the writers and readers among us, and we'll do our best to help you on your journey. We look forward to your interaction with us and with each other. 2011, here we come!

Monday, January 10, 2011

Make Them Better - A She Reads Guest Post by Marybeth Whalen

"I should be sorry if I only entertained them, I wish to make them better." George FriedrichHandel

The other day I received an email from a friend who wrote a nonfiction book that makes people act better, strengthens their walk, and causes them to be more holy. As I read her account of the salvations that were happening and lives that were being changed, I had a moment of despair. "All I do," I thought, "Is write stories. What difference am I really making?"

No less than a day later, I got an email from a teacher at my son's school. She was gushing-- if one can gush in an email. She shared the story of a student at the school who was openly anti-Christian. This student saw my novel on the teacher's desk and asked to see it because she knew it was by "Matt's mom" (my other name). The teacher quickly offered to let the student borrow the book and was happy to see her carrying it around everywhere she went for several days. A few days later, the teacher wrote, the student came to her saying she had read the book, absolutely loved it and had cried off and on while reading it. The teacher went on to explain that this was the same student who had tried to sabotage the See You at the Pole event just afew weeks earlier by arriving early and having her mom blare music with the car doors open while they were trying to pray around theflagpole. She said the student is very sensitive to anyone even mentioning church. She could not believe the girl had not only read a Christian book, but loved it.

Later it dawned on me that that same student wouldn't have picked up my friend's book even if Matt's mom had written it. Because of her hatred of all things Christian, she would have avoided it, maybe even asked the teacher to put it out of sight. But she picked up my novel because it was a love story and her teenage heart could tolerate that. She got drawn into the story, lost herself in it, never realizing that what really had her enthralled was a whole differentlove story. In the pages of this novel, this young lady was encountering the great lover of her soul.

I can't claim that the girl came to Christ as a result of reading my novel. But I Corinthians 3:6 did come to mind: "I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow." I had a part in this girl's process. Perhaps a bit of her barrier came down as she read about how God pursued Lindsey, my main character. Maybe she dared to dream that God would pursue herthat way.

We write novels to tell great stories. We write novels to entertain. But we also write novels to deal with faith and to allow our characters to experience things that challenge their faith, and take the reader along for the ride. As Handel said, it is not enough to just entertain them. We should also wish to make them better. When we do that, we can feel confident that our novels are much more than manuscripts. They are ministries. And we are honored to be a part of someone's process-- some we will hear about, and some we'll never know aboutuntil we get to heaven.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Help Us Dream

Will you find it surprising that the phrase from Jeff's interview in Wednesday's post that stuck with me most was not the one about mutant alien vampires who will eat my brains?

No, the one I kept hearing again and again was "All the dispossessed authors and readers are beginning to walk around in the sunshine and find each other. And that’s only going to increase." It delights me to think that the Novel Matters community is one of those sunny places where great things can happen.

Here you have begun the kind of friendships we so often have urged you to seek. I love it when I see comments on our posts that are not addressed to us, but to other Novel Matters readers. I hope you will find ways to contact each other by email, or if you are so lucky as to live near each other, by phone or even in person.

Here you have shared the kind of epiphanies Megan shared after Latayne's post on Monday. If you are a writer, I urge you to take those kinds of emotional, life changing experiences as opportunities to study a novel, to reverse engineer it by asking what the author did that affected you to such an extent. This will teach you valuable things about writing those kinds of niche novels you love that you may never find in a book about writing. (And there is no better teacher than Sharon Souza.)

I'm going to let you in on a secret, and to give you an assignment.

We six at Novel Matters are at present actively dreaming of ways we can change our site to offer you more. In fact, tomorrow we will have one of our fabulous conference calls (you really have to listen in sometime) to dream of ways we can make this little patch of sunshine a better place to form community, to introduce readers to great writers, to encourage the great writers among our readers to write their very best and send it out into the world.

So here is your assignment: tell us what to talk about tomorrow. What would make this an even better place for you? Please do dream big. It's what we like to do around here.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

An Interview with Jeff Gerke - by Nick Harrison

The following is an interview Nick Harrison conducted and published on his blog November 16, 2010. I thought it was a terrific interview - lots to chew on here. We're re-running it on our blog with Nick's gracious permission. Enjoy!

As promised, today I have an interview with Jeff Gerke, one of my favorite people in our industry. Even if you don’t write speculative fiction, you need to read this interview as part of your assignment to keep up on what’s going on in the publishing world.

Jeff has been called the de facto gatekeeper of Christian speculative fiction. After his own six novels were published (under the pen name Jefferson Scott) and his time spearheading the launch of a fiction imprint dedicated to Christian speculative fiction at a major Christian publishing company, Jeff branched out on his own to launch Marcher Lord Press, an Indie publishing house billing itself as the premier publisher of Christian speculative fiction. His popular fiction how-to book The Art & Craft of Writing Christian Fiction is available through Amazon or Marcher Lord Press and his new craft book from Writer’s Digest Books, Plot versus Character, released in October 2010. Books Jeff has edited, acquired, and/or published have won the Christy Award, the ACFW Carol (Book of the Year) Award, the EPIC Award, the Indie Award, the INSPY Award, and the Foreword magazine Book of the Year Award. Jeff was one of three finalists for the 2010 ACFW Editor of the Year Award. Jeff lives in Colorado Springs with his wife, teenage daughter, 10-year-old son, and 2-year-old adoptive daughter from China.

Nick: Jeff, you’re passionate about speculative fiction and yet many readers don’t know exactly what it is. Could you define it for us?

Jeff: Speculative fiction is an umbrella term that includes a number of subgenres like science fiction, fantasy, time travel, vampire, post-apocalyptic, dystopian, supernatural thrillers, superhero, horror, alternate history, and urban fantasy. Or, as I like to say, anything weird. Christian speculative fiction is anything weird from the Christian worldview. Christian speculative fiction adds two subcategories not included in secular speculative fiction: end times fiction and spiritual warfare fiction.

Nick: Speculative fiction is a hard sell in CBA. Is it because, as publishers fear, the market is small? Or is the market there, but publishers are just failing to reach that market?

Jeff: The market isn’t small. Every time Ted Dekker comes out with a Christian novel, it sells 100,000 units. And of course there were the millions who bought the Left Behind books. Same potential audience. But these readers don’t always identify themselves as fans of SF or fantasy—they just know they like Ted Dekker. So between Dekker releases, they’re not scouring the shelves for other books like those but from different authors.

The audience who normally reads Christian fiction is not the same audience who reads Dekker and Peretti and Jenkins. Christian publishers have done a great job reaching the core fiction demographic, the dear ladies who love their bonnet and buggy fiction. But Christian publishers have, perhaps understandably, not devoted much energy, time, or money toward developing other audiences. You can’t put an ad for a vampire novel in Just Between Us magazine and have a good response.

Nick: Some publishers seem more willing to take on speculative fiction if it’s aimed at the YA market. Is it true or a myth that to be successful with speculative fiction in the CBA market, it must be aimed at younger readers?

Jeff: It’s true that, to have your best shot at getting your fantasy published, it had better be YA. YA is sort of reaching the home school market, but only with fantasy. Other Christian speculative fiction, even if it’s YA, will not be well-received.

Home schoolers love Christian fantasy. If you go to any Christian writers conference that has a teen writers track, and you ask the teen writers what they’re writing, they will unanimously say, “Fantasy.” I like to say that this is the generation that is going to save us (well, those of us longing for Christian speculative fiction). Because in 10 years they’re going to be running Christian publishing companies—and they’re not going to be publishing Amish fiction.

Nick: Is there something that can be done to change the future for speculative fiction in CBA or will it always be this way?

Jeff: So long as traditional Christian publishers are allowed to exist with their current publishing model, CBA will not change. For them, it’s all about the bookstore-publisher dyad. Whatever the women who walk into Christian bookstores want is what traditional Christian publishing companies publish. Those dear ladies want Amish, so publishers keep giving it to them, and rightly so.

But bookstores are dying. Not coincidentally, the traditional Christian publishing model is dying. Traditional Christian publishing companies are shrinking and scaling back and trying to wait out the recession. But I believe it’s not just the recession causing the diminishing of this model. I believe it’s a model whose time has passed. There’s no weathering the storm and then going on like usual afterward.

We’re in the age of the small press, the micro-publisher, the niche publisher, and the self-publisher. The Internet has transformed how we think. It used to be that if we had an idea for something (book, car, restaurant, knowledge, etc.), we’d ask the people we knew if there was any such thing. We might even go the library. But if we couldn’t find it, we’d figure it didn’t exist, and we’d settle back to hope someone created it in the future. Now, we’re pretty sure that whatever it is we’ve thought of, someone else has thought of it, made it, and is offering it online. Google is 100 times more powerful than a visit to the library—and 1,000 times more convenient.

Gone are the days when people think, if they’ve never heard of a Christian science fiction novel exploring what would happen if sharia law dominated the future, that such a thing simply doesn’t exist. Now they keep searching online until they find something like that (A Star Curiously Singing by Kerry Nietz). We’re pretty sure we can find whatever it is we’re looking for. And if we can’t find it, we feel like someone needs to do it—and maybe it should be us.

A large percentage of Christian fiction readers don’t want to read about Hannah’s secret love for Josiah the Amish carpenter. They want to read about mutant alien vampires who will eat your brains. Or they want to read Christian military thrillers (Operation: Firebrand by Jefferson Scott). Or they want Christian literary fiction. These people, this majority of Christians, are not being served by traditional Christian publishing. That’s the kind of situation that is not going to last. An artificial imbalance like that will be naturally self-correcting in time. That’s what we’re seeing now.

After Marcher Lord Press rose up and showed people what a small, indie press dedicated to Christian speculative fiction could do, several other similar presses have sprung up to help meet the needs of that demographic. Similar presses are rising up to fill other niches, like Christian poetry, true crime, military/men’s, literary, and more. All the dispossessed authors and readers are beginning to walk around in the sunshine and find each other. And that’s only going to increase.

It’s a great day to be a writer and reader of a kind of novel that has previously been squelched by the traditional Christian publishing paradigm.

Nick: You struck out on your own with Marcher Lord Press in an effort make speculative fiction more visible for Christians (and presumably non-Christians too) who enjoy that genre. When you began, were you confident you’d succeed?

Jeff: I was certainly not confident MLP would succeed. I was under so much stress the six weeks before the launch that I thought I wouldn’t survive. It didn’t help that I had titanic problems with the online storefront/shopping cart software right up until the night before the launch.

The good news was that I hadn’t exceeded my conservative budget parameters. I also knew I was going to be able to break even on any given book with only a handful of units sold. Whereas traditional Christian publishers need to sell ~12,000 units to begin to break even, I knew I’d break even on about 300. I was hopeful I could sell at least that many. But I was not remotely sure I would. We’d spent the previous 12 months spreading the word about the impending launch, and we had a big prize giveaway contest going for launch day, but even so, I had no idea if it would fly.

Praise God, we’ve been in the black since day 1 and continue to be there. It’s a very lean model that is pretty much designed to exist and even flourish in a recession and with a niche audience, and of course to scale upward if the recession eases.

Nick: You’ve received several good reviews in Publisher’s Weekly. That must be gratifying.

Jeff: It’s been amazing to receive positive reviews in PW. For a small press, we’ve been mentioned in PW an inordinate number of times—4 times in 2 years—with a similar number of mentions in Library Journal. It’s incredible for a small press to be able to put a positive quote from PW right on the front cover of one of our books. The front cover quote forK├Ânig’s Fire by Marc Schooley includes the phrase “gold mine” from PW. Very cool.

Nick: In addition to speculative fiction, there are other genres in CBA that don’t fare as well as in ABA. What advice can you give writers who are writing in a genre that’s currently out of step with the market?

Jeff: Anything that does not appeal to the core Christian fiction demographic will not fare well in CBA. That’s simply a consequence of what that readership wants. Christian publishers would actually be unwise to publish books their constituency doesn’t want. That’s a good way to go out of business. It’s hard enough finding a hit without producing books you know won’t appeal to your market.

My advice to those of you/us who don’t write fiction that appeals to that market is to keep writing and to keep looking to the horizon. Your help draweth nigh. You may have to give up on the old publishing dream of massive advance, multi-city book tour, and tremendous marketing support. But in the age of niche publisher, someone is going to think your “off-beat” book is the very thing they got in to publishing to publish. Just ask Stuart Vaughn Stockton, author of Starfire, a far-future non-earth SF about computer-using dinosaur people. No one in CBA would touch that. But I did, and it was up for ACFW Book of the Year this year.

We’re on the very threshold of the heyday of the obscure novel genre!

Nick: Do you have any advice for publishers who are scratching their heads over failed attempts to publish speculative fiction?

Jeff: Yes: stop doing it. Every other one you put out will fail too. It’s because soccer moms and grandmoms don’t want SF or fantasy or horror. They want bonnet girl meets Amish boy. Give them that, and stop trying to give them what they don’t want. How many times do they have to say no before we get it?

I personally think CBA houses should choose to redefine themselves now, instead of waiting to be redefined (or deleted) by the market forces that are only going to squeeze harder in the months and years to come. They should get rid of all but about eight people—most of them editors, with maybe 1 sales guy and 1 marketing person. They should break into 3-5 versions of Marcher Lord Press, each one serving a niche they’re known for. Go small, save money, be king of a niche…and prosper.

But people in traditional Christian publishing houses have everything to lose by the paradigm shifting, so they may be tempted to just plug their ears and keep doing what they’re doing until they finally have to close their doors.

Unfortunately, the world will not long mourn the demise of what has been the norm for decades. So long as people find ways of getting what they want—and they will now, more than ever—they’ll be happy.

Nick: Jeff, can you name some names of those who are doing it right in CBA? Is there an editor or publishing house that “gets it?”

Jeff: I always think Thomas Nelson seems to be the most willing to try new things, especially with their fiction line. I almost always like what Michael Hyatt and Allen Arnold come up with. Zondervan’s last round of layoffs and hirings seemed to indicate they were moving toward e-publishing aggressively. That’s probably good.

But I think it’s the new, small houses that truly get it. Houses like Splashdown Books and Written World Communications and Port Yonder Press and, if I can include my own company, Marcher Lord Press. These and others like them will be the leaders for the next 5-20 years.

And watch out for those new presses that will spring up under the guidance of now-adult home schoolers. Those will be the real leaders for the next generation of Christian fiction publishing.

Nick: Do you have any additional plans for the future you’re at liberty to share?

Jeff: There’s a change in the works that, if it happens (and it very well may not), would be a game-changer for MLP. It would allow me to do more books per season, branch out into YA, explore graphic novels and computer games and blended media apps, maybe look into Christian film, become kind of a patron for other small Christian presses, do a lot more marketing, and get back to my own fiction and screenwriting.

If that doesn’t happen and we continue just motoring along as we have, I’ll be fine with it. Hopefully we will continue to win major awards and steadily establish ourselves as the premier publisher of Christian speculative fiction.

Nick: Who are the authors you enjoy reading, and what’s on your nightstand right now?

Jeff: People are always amazed to hear that I don’t read fiction for pleasure. I’m interacting with it about 70 hours per week. And even though I love it, in my down time I want to do something else. I play games on the PC or the PS3. On the nonfiction side I’m re-reading Search for Significance and the excellent little summaries I get from getAbstract.

Thanks Jeff. This was very informative. I passed around the following quote to my colleagues here at Harvest House and got some interesting responses.

“A large percentage of Christian fiction readers don’t want to read about Hannah’s secret love for Josiah the Amish carpenter. They want to read about mutant alien vampires who will eat your brains.”

A great note to end on.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Exceptional Writing, Exceptional Techniques

Let’s start out this year by congratulating exceptional writing.

I read a lot of books. I have to admit, most books leave me with just one memory of what I liked about them. I may remember a single scene or a turn of phrase or perhaps a clever plot point.

But a book rises to the top of my favorites lists when it leaves me with many memories. Furthermore, I classify it as a significant book when those qualities not only impress me, but change me.

Such a book is The Passion of Mary Margaret by Lisa Samson. As a reader, I was impressed with the way she dragged me along with her protagonist into situations that demanded a moral decision and then demonstrated how courage and obedience to God can enable someone to not only survive a “hard teaching” from God but triumph in it.

This book changed how I look at romantic love. I will never be the same after reading this book.

I hope that more readers will want to buy this book. This book is good reading because of its unusual premise, the clever “frame” format, a wealth of compelling details and wry dialogue and humor and gut-wrenching scenarios.

I also hope writers buy this book to study its craftsmanship. I learned from it. For instance, it takes skill to effectively pull off a first-person narration with that many flashbacks without frustrating the reader. There are too many examples of other subtle literary proficiencies to list in a single post, but one I particularly admired.

Previously here on NM we’ve discussed how to insert the literary equivalent of what we call a “rest” in music – what would in a movie be filled with music or something else while a character stays silent in the midst of a conversation.

Samson inserted a pause by giving a description:

Halfway to the dock, Gerald took hold of my arm with his other hand. “Stop just a minute, Mary-Margaret. I’m getting a little breathless.”

We stood in front of a span of eelgrass, the ribbon leaves swirling in the gentle ebb of the water.

I’m sorry.”

He rested his hand atop his head, then rubbed. “Used to be I could drag you along.”

Did you see it? Not only is the reader snagged away from the next line of dialogue, made to wait, to count out a caesura, but the description is itself of something that is silent and filled with motion that designates time.

That’s exceptional writing, and I salute Lisa Samson. May God give her a long life and many more books to bless us.

What exceptional Christian book have you read lately?