Monday, February 28, 2011

Huzzah for Hollywood Roundtable

This year marked the 83rd Academy Awards and I thought we might have a little bit of fun. The title of this post is a nod to The King's Speech which won Best Picture. Before the awards ceremony, I read a reviewer's post that favored Speech over The Social Network because in contrast, Speech had one central, very likable character with whom people could identify. We love well-defined, sympathetic characters who rise to inspire us. We need them.
That said, we know that books don't always translate well to the silver screen, but some movies are able to capture story nuances where others aren't so successful. I've laid out several options for this Roundtable today. We get to answer as many of the following as we'd like, and we hope you will jump into the fray with your answers:

1. What book-turned-movie was the most successful in your opinion and why? Least successful?

2. What book would you love to see made into a movie and who would you cast in the major roles?

3. Which book-turned-movie do you think was an improvement over the book?

4. Is there a movie that inspired you to read the book?

Okay, I'll g
o first.

#1 I think
To Kill a Mockingbird would be my choice for most successful movie version. The casting was excellent. Whenever I pick up the book, I hear Gregory Peck speaking through the character of Atticus Finch and the essence with the story was treated with great care. I understand that Snow Falling on Cedars was a cinematic flop. I really enjoyed the book, but I won't spend money on the video unless it's shows up on Redbox for $1.

#2 I would love to see the movie version of
Peace Like a River. I think Cameron Bright (& up & coming younger actor) would play Reuben Land and Jeff Bridges would play his father, Jeremiah. I see that a movie version has been 'in-development' since 2005 and it currently has a release date of 2011. Billy Bob Thornton is the only cast member listed right now. I still think Jeff would be a better Jeremiah (no offense, Billy Bob).

#3 I thought The Painted Veil was better as a screenplay. I think they stayed really close to the story but improved the ending. It was also a movie that inspired me to read the book.

Thanks for asking question #3, Debbie. I read The Horse Whisperer after seeing the movie, and I was sooooo disappointed in the book. First and foremost, I considered the female protagonist of the book weak and sniveling. She didn't feel fulfilled. She was married to a nice guy who loved her and was a terrific father, and yet the cowboy--strong and silent, of course--totally got her. Ack!!! And the ending in the book was very, very contrived. Redford not only added spectacular vistas (including his face), but while the two main characters were definitely attracted (dance scene!), the wife left the ranch with the intent of saving her marriage, and the cowboy didn't have to die to make that happen, like the good father and husband was the woman's consolation prize. In short, Redford added nobility to the story.

As for #2, I can't wait for Hunger Games to hit the big screen.

After reading
"The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood," by Rebecca Wells, I watched the film and loved every minute. To understand the finer points of character motivation, you'd want to read the book, but I thought the film was wonderfully cast. The characters were so much like old friends, I felt like waving.

I'd love to see
"The Help," by Kathryn Stockett, on the big screen. Also, "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society" by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

#3 & #4:

My all-time favorite film is "Chocolat." I read the book after (by Joanne Harris), and was stunned to find that the film was such an improvement. The book is much darker, with little of the humor and wonder found in the the film, and (it's been a few years since I read it, so this is from memory) less compassion.

What a great Roundtable topic, Debbie. As I read Question #1, the first thing that came to mind as the most successful was To Kill a Mockingbird, then I saw it was your answer too. I don't mean to duplicate, but it tops my list, so I'll let it stand. The least successful, hmm ... I'll have to give that some thought.

#2. Again, I don't mean to duplicate, but like Patti, I'm so anxious for Hunger Games to come out. I'm a huge fan of the series. Hailey Steinfeld (True Grit) is being considered for the role of Katniss Everdeen. That would be terrific. I'd also love to see What We Keep made into a motion picture. I'd want Rene Zellwegger to be Ginny, Diane Kruger to be Sharla, and Helen Mirren to be their mother.

#3. I enjoyed reading The Notebook, but I loved the movie. I thought all the principle actors were terrific, especially Ryan Gosling.

#4. Circle of Friends inspired me to read the book, which led me to become quite a fan of Maeve Binchy.

I tried to read the Lord of the Rings and felt like I was pulling my feet through molasses. Then I saw the first film and a fire broke out in the theater and it was evacuated ten minutes before the ending of the film. But it didn't matter, I hated it. Not until I was hosting an eleven-year-old when his parents were in divorce court for three days did I learn to appreciate Tolkein. To distract the young boy, I had him talk me through all three films and now they are among my favorites.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Wading and Plunking

There's almost nothing I'd rather do than fish. No kidding. I love it. For me there's nothing like being out on a lake in a little fishing boat with my husband. I never go without him, because, you see, we have this agreement. He doesn't iron his own shirts, and I don't bait my own hook. It's a wonderful agreement. Except that I've done a lot more ironing than he's done baiting in the past couple of years. But he told me just the other day he's going to Montana in June for business, and that he's taking me with him so that after the business we can spend a couple of days fishing. There's almost nothing I'd rather do than fish in Montana. I can hardly wait.

So Bonnie's post on Monday about "hook" vs. "invite" made me chuckle, especially when I went to the TBR shelf of my bookcase and found that Hooked by Les Edgerton was the very next writer's book I planned to read. It was right there beside Truby's book, The Anatomy of Story, which I stuffed back on the shelf after wading my way through the first two chapters a few months ago, underlining everything in sight, while simultaneously scratching my head. Like Katy, I do plan to read it. Really. I do. And soon.

But back to Hooked. It's a nice little easy-to-read, easy-to-follow book on beginnings, and nothing but. Edgerton writes, "...a story is a movement from stability to instability to a new stability." I like that. It makes sense to me, like simple math. And then he says, "What is different about today's story structure is that the first part of the equation--stability--has been shortened considerably and, in many cases, completely omitted ... Many times that period of stability is only implied." Well, he's the expert, but personally, I'd rather wade into a story than be plunked into it, as though I'd been pushed off the dock way out there in the deep end of the lake. There are genres where implied stability is perfectly suited, but the type of fiction I write and mostly love to read has more of a wade-in feel than a plunked-in feel.
Here are some of my favorite examples of wading in:
"Mae Mobley was born on a early Sunday morning in August, 1960. A church baby we like to call it. Taking care a white babies, that's what I do, along with all the cooking and the cleaning. I done raised seventeen kids in my lifetime. I know how to get them babies to sleep, stop crying, and go in the toilet bowl before they mamas even get out a bed in the morning." The Help, by Kathryn Stockett.
"Outside the airplane window the clouds are thick and rippled, unbroken as acres of land. They are suffused with peach-colored, early morning sun, gilded at the edges. Across the aisle, a man is taking a picture of them. Even the pilot couldn't keep still---'Folks,' he just said, 'we've got quite a sunrise out there. Might want to have a look.' I like it when pilots make such comments. It lets me know they're awake." What We Keep, Elizabeth Berg.
"Lying on her daughter's bed, Dottie Puckett heard sounds as if they were magnified a hundred times that day. She heard the usual things you'd expect to hear--an airplane, distant traffic, the air conditioning turning on and off. And she heard other things, too--a high-pitched motorized whine from somewhere nearby, the chatter of a squirrel outside the window, a tree branch brushing against the gutter, the coursing sound of water through a pipe, her own breathing. Sounds told you a lot. Today they told her that people and things were going about their normal business in spite of what had happened here at this house only three weeks ago. Though everybody thought she was mild-mannered and good-natured, Dottie knew that what she felt right now was closer to anger than anything else. Not that she was angry at the planes and cars and water pipes, for goodness' sake, but why is it, she thought, that I have to go on breathing in and out when Bonita is lying in a box a mile down the road?" By the Light of a Thousand Stars, Jamie Langston Turner.
"Likely it was only two dreams crisscrossing paths, one snagging on the other in passing, but somehow the face that walked by me this morning, not four feet away, got tangled up with one from my past. The way-back and way-faraway, all quiet and almost forgotten, got yanked up and placed alongside today, where two minutes before I'd have told you I was: in Boston. At the Public Garden. Not a stone's throw from Beacon Hill, where I live and work, and pay as much for my own private parking space as folks back home do for a decent slab ranch and enough acres for the dogs to tree themselves something other than city-soft squirrel ... And I swear time backstitched on itself, and at that very moment, I was barefoot--not with black pumps stowed under a park bench, but the right kind of barefoot. The kind of barefoot that went with the truck bed of a pickup. I was back with the wind standing my ponytail straight up over my head, the Blue Hole just around the next curve. And I was tracing my cheek where a kiss had just landed." Blue Hole Back Home, Joy Jordan Lake.
Contrast these with James Scott Bell's thrilling suspense novel, Try Dying: "On a wet Tuesday morning in December, Ernesto Bonilla, twenty-eight, shot his twenty-three-year-old wife, Alejandra, in the backyard of their West Forty-fifth Street home in South Los Angeles. As Alejandra lay bleeding to death, Ernesto proceeded to drive their Ford Explorer to the westbound Century Freeway connector ... Bonilla stepped around the back of the SUV ... placed the barrel of his .38 caliber pistol into his mouth, and fired." Plunked. Most definitely. With the former stability not even implied. And exactly how a fast-paced suspense novel should begin.
But back to fishing. I love to drop my line in the water and begin to entice; to wait as the bait lands, then sinks to just the right depth; to tug ever-so-slightly two or three times while the worm works its magic; to let it sink a bit more, then tug again. And then ... to feel the hit, to sink the hook, and reel in. I love it. Here is the writing equivalent to my fishing method from the opening to my WIP. "Grief, it is said, is a sea that ebbs and flows. Comes in waves that roll over the shore, then recede in a dizzying, lose-your-footing-in-the-sand sensation, leaving you unsettled but standing. Well. Whoever said that never felt the tsunami effect, the drowning, sucking, tidal wave of grief. I know, because I haven't come up for air in five days short of a year. A suffocating, black hole of a year, each day collapsing in on itself like sand too long unwatered. Eighty six hundred, forty hours; five hundred eighteen thousand, four hundred minutes; thirty one million, one hundred four thousand seconds of a smothering nightmare I can't wake up from. A long slow terror, like free-falling in the dark with no cord to pull. I don't plan to be here for the anniversary five days from now."
I understand completely where Bonnie's coming from when she says, "But 'hook?' If I recall, it ends badly for the fish. I prefer 'invite.' Semantics, right?" Right. She'll be happy to know that, often, for the fish I catch it's not an unhappy ending, because I typically catch and release. Especially in Montana. And that's what I like to do with my readers. Catch and release--but hopefully not to swim completely away. I want them to stay in the pond with me, so the next time I cast in, I might draw them back.
And speaking of lines, I laughed and laughed over Dina Sleiman's comment on Katy's post Wednesday. "I got my nose pierced last year, and it's so freeing because no one expects me to be normal anymore." I love it. It would make a great opening line for a novel. And, Dina, for that line I'd like to send you one of my novels. Just email me with your address and tell me which one you'd prefer.
Everyone else, leave a comment telling me what you think the "anniversary" of my novel deals with and your name will go into a drawing for a copy of Lying on Sunday or Every Good & Perfect Gift, winner's choice. Be specific with your guess. And creative.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Impractical Tips for Writers

It's Bonnie's fault.

At Novel Matters, we try to post in themes each week, and the Monday writer gets to pick the theme. So for instance, since Bonnie wrote on Monday a brilliant, you-won't-read-it-anyplace-else post about starting a novel, it would make sense if I wrote an equally brilliant post about ending a novel.

Only I can't.

The reason I can't is that recently, on Bonnie's advice, I fetched John Truby's "The Anatomy of Story" out of the cob-webbed corner where I had flung it in anger, dusted it off, and began to read again. So just this moment I think I know nothing, nothing about writing a beginning or an end or any part of a story. Bonnie says it will get better. And I trust her.

I do.

But there's more. For over a week, in her emails, Bonnie has woven this fantasy that we bloggers at Novel Matters will all live in the same town and share an upper story loft. We'll teach writing workshops in the mornings (you'll all be there) and host evening poetry slams in our café where we will serve organic, fair trade coffee, groats and chocolate. She says I can wear silk kimonos day and night, and maybe get a tatoo, and we'll all spend our days writing about truth, beauty, freedom; but above all things, love.

She has no idea what she's feeding in my psyche.

She doesn't know that I think the movie, "Moulin Rouge" is unutterably deep and profound, or that the song I have sung in the shower (or these days in my upper story claw foot tub) for my entire life has been "Those Were the Days" à la Mary Hopkin. Right now I could sing it all the way through for you, every word. But you don't want me to. That last note is a doozy.

I do trust Bonnie though, and the reason is that she completely understands my desire to write no stories that have been written before. Judging by your comments on Monday, I suspect you understand too. The reason you love her you-won't-read-it-anyplace-else advice is that like me, you have guessed that the fastest way to write stories that have been written a hundred or a thousand times before is to write in the way all those hundreds and thousands of authors have written.

You've set yourself a bodaciously difficult task, my friend. You will have to be reckless and brave.* If you walk this path you will be misunderstood and cranky, you will fail more times than you don't, you will learn more about your dark side than you want to know, and people will think - rightly - that you are peculiar, even without the kimonos and tattoo. And with all of that, you'll get no guarantee of success. I and Bonnie, Patti, Sharon, Latayne and Debbie will walk beside you, along with a great cloud of authors and poets and artists. But we will all be with you in spirit, so you won't always see us, and you will get lonely.

I hope you will stay the course, nonetheless, because there's a prize to be won.

He or she who endures to the end will learn the true and deep meaning of worship, and that worship will ripple in ways beyond your control or imagining.

The Novel Matters ladies recently bought me Crossway's newest treasure, "The Four Holy Gospels," illuminated by Makoto Fujimura. It is a gift so lavish it still makes me weep, but as I have read it morning and evening, allowing words and images to weave together in my thoughts, my thinking about the ultimate best purpose for art has transformed. I have seen that, as an artist (or writer) worships through her work, communing both with God and her reader, then deep calls to deep, and the waves swell and crest. Things happen. Things change.

On Fujimura's blog I came across a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, "The Artist Of the Beautiful." Please read it today. You will feel that your deepest secrets have been exposed by a man who was long dead when you were born. You will feel understood as never before. You will learn what it is you write for.

Then put on your silk kimono and come back here to talk truth, beauty, freedom; but above all things, love. Or if you want something more specific, tell us about a time when the mix of art and worship have changed your life.

We love to read what you have to say.

*And you will have to watch next month for a Novel Matters Holiday you can make your own.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Unhooked. Writing an Inviting Novel Opening.

Marian! You are the winner of a signed, and personalized copy of Talking to the Dead! Please contact me at our email (click the "contact us" button above) with your mailing address - and who you would like me to make it out to, and I'll get your book to you right away!

It’s simple semantics. But it’s not just semantics. I’m referring to my reluctance to use the term ‘hook’ when discussion the opening lines of a novel. I’ve no quibble with the concept of the need to offer the reader something grand off the top that keeps them reading. But ‘hook’? If I recall, it ends badly for the fish.

I prefer ‘invite’.

Semantics, right? Perhaps. But may I suggest there’s more at work here? Come read over my shoulder, and I’ll try to explain what I mean.

Scattered on my desk you’ll notice heaps of papers. Some from my computer printer, others bound in a book and given a nice cover with the author’s name on it. Let’s start with the computer paper. Contest entries, writers asking for my thoughts on their work, novels I’ve read for various reasons that have not found their way to publication. They represent hours of work and a great deal of soul searching. I approach them with respect. They weigh as much as a human heart. Still, look here how the writers try to ‘hook’ me with their opening lines.

One has decided to drop the reader into the middle of an ongoing argument between two characters. Yelling, tears, accusations – throwing of various objects. Dramatic stuff, to be sure. But does it belong at the beginning of a novel? 99% of the time, no (there are always exceptions to prove the rule). The problem with starting with an argument is the reader has no idea who the characters are. Even if every other logistical aspect of the scene can be dealt with, explained, and presented with a red ribbon – the heart of the problem with this hook beginning is the reader has no emotional connection with the characters. What would you do if you walked into someone’s house and found the couple that lives there arguing? Yay. Me too.

Here’s another manuscript that attempts to hook the reader. This time the author chooses to drop the reader into a character’s dream (or nightmare). Some interesting things happen and then an alarm clock rings and the reader needs to start all over again getting the feel of the REAL story, and the REAL character, and the REAL story world. Annoying. But the biggest problem with starting with a dream or nightmare is that it is very difficult to ground the reader in the setting, plot, and characters of the story. Vague. Symbolic. Perhaps interesting. But not at the front of the novel.

Here’s a novel that begins with a terrible car accident. Lots of twisted metal and shattering glass. Messy. This opening works fine if this novel falls into the mystery genre – a well-written car crash could be just the thing to get mystery readers off and running. But this isn’t a mystery novel (and this isn’t a blog about mystery novels), and that makes the choice to open with an accident risky. I’d say an 85% chance of not being able to make this work. If I pick up a novel and read of glass cutting into people’s skulls, and blood everywhere, I’m going to recheck the back cover to see if I’m reading the literary effort I thought I was reading. There IS a chance you could make this work if you back up the story to the hours, or even minutes before the accident happens and give us a fantastic intro to character and storyworld.

These are three examples of writing that attempts the letter of the law of ‘hook’, but misses the spirit. There are other examples we could look at, but lets move over to some of these books I have here and peek into a few of these.

As we read these, keep in mind those two words mentioned above: character and storyworld.

Here’s some favorites of mine:

“I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old. And you put your hand in my hand and you said, You aren’t very old, as if that settled it.” (Opening lines of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead.)

The exquisite beginning is a wonder of character (an old man and a young child), their relationship (isn’t it interesting that Marilynne Robinson choose to reveal the emotional relationship between the characters before she revealed their biological relationship?), and the story world – the pages of the old man’s journal which comprise the entire novel. Simple, deep. Perfect.

“Those who saw him hushed. On Church Street. Liberty. Cortlandt. West Street. Fulton. Vesey. It was a silence that heard itself, awful and beautiful. Some thought at first that it must have been a trick of the light, something to do with the weather, an accident of shadowfall. Other’s figured it might be the perfect city joke – stand around and point upward, until people gathered, tilted their heads, nodded, affirmed, until all were staring upward at nothing at all, like wating for the end of a Lenny Bruce gag.” (Opening lines to Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin)

McCann’s opening is the textbook of creating storyworld in the first words. There’s no doubt where we are – Where but New York? And even though we don’t know exactly what is happening, we find ourselves on West Street looking upward into the New York sky and thinking, Yeah, I see it too. He doesn’t just hook us – he places us in the middle of what is happening. He turns us all into New Yorkers. Spot on.

“Afterward I lived in Paris, in the same apartment where I had painted the Brooklyn Crucifixion. I married Devorah, and we moved to the Rue des Rosiers. Some years later, Devorah gave birth to a girl, and we named her Rochel, after Devorah’s mother, of blessed memory, who was taken away in the July 1942 roundup of French Jews. We called her Rocheleh, beloved little Rochel.” (Opening lines of Chaim Potok’s The Gift of Asher Lev)

Chaim Potok has a way of wringing every drop of significance out of ordinary words. Here he simply speaks to the reader (in a manner of fashion), saying, “Look there’s a book before this one – you might know it. If not, we can simply catch up a bit now. We’re all in this together. We’re friends. Or we will be.” Straightforward, yes. But when he tells us of Devorah’s mother and the name Rocheleh we are pulled into a family of love and terrible loss – even if the author doesn’t say so.

“The mark burns upon him all the time now. Its hurt is open and shameful like a scab picked until it bleeds. In years past he could find ways to forget it or at least misplace his awareness for a while; it was never easy but he managed. These days he cannot. There is nothing to fill Cain’s time so the mark does this for him.” (Opening lines to David Maine’s Fallen)

Tell me you’re not sitting there picturing the mark. I am. What shape? An image? He’s old, something very few people on earth had experienced at that time. What does one do when one ages, anyway? Anyone familiar with the biblical story of creation (hello Western Hemisphere), is drawn into the myth, the theology, the story of Cain. But not the expected. Here he's not the passionate youth who took his brother’s life. Old. Useless. At ends. A whole new way of looking at Cain – and a wholly effective way of inviting the reader into character and storyworld.

In the end, there’s nothing wrong with using the work hook to describe the author’s intent for the opening of a novel. But I’ll continue to use the word ‘invite’ when thinking about how to open my novels. My hope is to invite the reader into the storyworld and into the community of character.

How about you? Do you hook ‘em? Invite them? Set the scene? How do you talk about the opening of a novel? Any favs you’d like to share?

Friday, February 18, 2011

Inside The Three-Inch Frame

Patti’s post on Wednesday, and her call to write what you can see through a one-inch frame about your childhood, led me to a photograph of myself. It’s an old Brownie camera photo, about three inches by three inches, but it’s a good, tight frame. And it’s filled with details.

In my nonfiction book, The Hinge of Your History: The Phases of Faith, I wrote about the fact that our lives have hinge points at which everything changes. For Sarah in the Old Testament, living a life where everyone saw her as a childless old maid, the hinge was the miraculous birth of Isaac.

For me, one of those significant changes occurred at the point of this photograph. Take a tour of this photo with me.

The setting is Northeast Elementary School in Farmington, New Mexico, at the height of the natural gas boom in the early 1960’s. My parents moved there and bought a peach orchard, clearing enough trees to form “Rose’s Trailer Spaces” on Schofield Lane to accommodate the floods of people who moved there from “back east” in trailers (most of them eight feet wide, thirty or forty feet long) with their many children. We children played “gas station” and “fort” in the abandoned chicken farm coops next door. To this day, chicken manure has a good, “right” smell to me.

In the background of the picture is a little person who is not impressed with what is happening with me. What would I have noticed about that girl? See how cute, how little-girl, her shoes are? See what I’m wearing—brown oxfords, because I had weak ankles and couldn’t wear regular shoes until I was a teenager.

The woman in the picture is Marie McCarty. She was my second-grade teacher who announced that someone was having a city-wide contest for students to write about fire prevention. I took the announcement home, and in a very uncharacteristic spasm of interest, my father helped me walk through the house and write about an escape plan, should our second-hand salmon-and-silver-colored trailer catch on fire in the peach orchard.

The essay won second prize, not first. The second-grader who won first prize for our age group wrote a poem. I immediately concluded that poetry was better than prose. I confess, I still think so.

My hair is blonde and curled. I really, really, really wanted straight black hair like an Indian maiden. (I also begged my parents to drop me off at the Navajo Reservation and let me live in a hogan.) To get those curls, I had slept all night in tiny pink curlers that looked like perforated baby fingers split down the middle, with straps that kept them in place. (Before we got the creepy fancy curlers, my mom used rags.)

I’m wearing what was at that time called a squaw dress. It was pale pink with copper and black braid on it. My mother made one for herself and this one for me. I remember her muttering curses at the sewing machine as she sewed, one eye shut because she had eye problems, wearing a gigantic unyielding brown back brace the size and shape of a washerwoman’s basket.

Mrs. McCarty is giving me a certificate and a five-dollar bill for winning second prize. I am very proud. One of my classmates called me “moneybags.” You could get money for writing? Who knew?

But none of these details are as formative of me as a writer, as another detail you can’t see. Notice how my skirt poofs out? In those days, all little girls wore these stiff, tiered, scratchy net slips. They printed tiny hexagon shapes into your thighs if you sat very long. You endured them, but they could never be allowed to peek from your hem or one of your friends would come up to you, wide-eyed and alarmed and tell you in a harsh whisper, “It’s snowing down south!”

I had several slips. When I wasn’t wearing them, they hung on the back of the door of my bedroom, where I slept on the bottom bunk and my brother on the top.

I was not yet aware that I was extremely nearsighted. When we had the stand-in-line-read-the-charts vision tests at school, I always got in the back of the line and memorized what the other kids said, because I knew not being able to see was a moral failure of some sort, because my dad got mad the first time I brought home a note saying I needed glasses.

So at night, I would lie in bed and try not to look at those fluffy slips which took shapes and menaced me. I was convinced sometimes that George Washington was looking at me with disapproval. Other times the pastel layers would blow in a breeze and make changing, reaching landscapes where I couldn’t hope to get a foothold and might slip into its depths and never be found again.

I was ashamed because I couldn’t see, and ashamed that I could.

Every night I slept at the far edge of the bed, my back against the trailer wall, with all my dolls at my feet and a space in the bed for Jesus who I’d heard never had a place to lay His head.

Every night, I fought a battle with the terrors and the unknowns of my own imagination.

The battle never stopped. Every day, fifty years later as I write, I do the same.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

A Three-Inch Frame

(Comments are disabled for this post. Come back tomorrow to hear the story behind the photograph.)

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Good-bye, Fantasy Keys!

Susie M. Finkbeiner, you've won a chocolate bar in the Valentines contest! Thanks for entering your wonderful haiku in the comments of Monday's post. Please contact us, and send us your mailing address. Mwah!

me back for our second book talk on Anne Lamott's classic, Bird by Bird. We're covering two chapters, "Getting Started" and "Short Assignments." Haven't read the chapters? No problem. We have an open forum here. Chat away!

Getting Started

I probably wouldn't have made it through Anne's first day of writers workshop. Warm-up exercises? Why not spend the day at the department of motor vehicles? Good grief, let's get on with it. Get to the game. Get to the problem at hand. Get to the story. I'm a yellow Lab with a swashbuckling tail who is either running at full-tilt or taking a nap. Come on! (Mixed metaphors duly noted. So sorry.)

But I get what she's after, this truth-telling about ourselves. No one is likely to see or care what we scribble in journals, but this is where it starts. To tell the truth about our characters--the way life works and sometimes smells like rotting garbage or feels like a paper cut to the heart--we must tell the truth about ourselves, at least to ourselves.

I'm embarrassed to admit that it took a year of "pre-writing" before I started my first novel. Not far into the experience, I realized the story's premise forced me to face down what I feared most. My character would have doubts, follow rabbit trails, treat those she loved cruelly. She would not deal well with loneliness. Act stupidly because of it. Just like me. She isn't me, of course. Let's be clear on that. But Mibby and I share a lot, some things better left in the back of the refrigerator. To begin Like a Watered Garden, it came down to a decision-- tell the truth or go back to teaching. I typed until my fingernails splintered.

"Good writing is about telling the truth" means going after writing like we should go after life--eyes wide open, the Divine embraced, never forgetting that redemption weaves a thread of hope through the darkest evil. It isn't our job to prettify our lost paradise, writers. It is our job to show we have a victorious King. He has surrendered no ground. Our darkness is light to Him.That's where we're dancing, crying, doubting, and calling out to the One Who hears.

Please note: Anne uses "bad" words in this chapter. Let's not allow words to distract us from the fabulous lesson taught here. Most probably, being published isn't what you hope it is. It hasn't been for me, although it's many other things--some like creme cheese filled delights of any name. Others maddening. Still others weird. Writing, however, is what you hope it to be. Writing compels us to live more fully, look for God everywhere, and enter into the joy of creating.

Short Assignments:

This chapter set me free in two very important ways: First, I loved knowing I wasn't the only one playing with the gap between my front teeth to avoid writing, and second, I'm easily overwhelmed. Big jobs set my heart a-pounding until I figure out the first step and have an idea about step two...and three. Anne's advice to give ourselves short assignments--a paragraph, a piece of dialogue, some description--makes writing a novel doable for flighty folks like me.

Here's my head chatter as the computer whirs through its warm-up: "Today, I'm going to write the scene where Lucy, Goody, and Mercy arrive at the farm. Period. I don't have to write straight through to the end. I don't even have to know the end. In fact, I don't have to know what I'm writing tomorrow. I'm going to write what I can see through a one-inch frame. That's it! Get to work. Grr."

A recommendation: When you hit page 100, hit the print button. You won't believe the heft of 100 pages. Fan the pages. Toss the pages in the air. Spread them on the floor and do a happy dance right in the middle of the crinkling pages. Go ahead and scare the dog to death and roll on them. In short, write small; celebrate big.

What does it mean to you that "good writing is about telling the truth?" How do you remind yourself to take one step at a time in the writing process? Anyone care to plug their noses and jump in, meaning write a short paragraph about their childhood? What does your pre-writing chatter sound like? What did I miss? Anything? Anything?

Monday, February 14, 2011

Consume vs. Create

This post comes to us from Ariel Allison - the wordsmith behind our sister blog, "She Reads." The message in red at the end comes from us.

On Friday Katy Popa wrote a genius post for She Reads that at first had me choking on my coffee and then left me paranoid that she’d hi-jacked my webcam and had a ring-side seat to my creative process - sans the cat, she lives outside. If you’ve not read it yet, do so immediately. I’ll wait.

Ah, welcome back.

Told you it was good. South American catnip. El Capitan. I’m still chuckling.

Here’s the thing about Katy’s post that resonated with me, and what I’d like to pull from today: creating anything, be it a novel or crème brulee or a song, is hard work.

And I suspect it’s the reason why so many of us spend the majority of our time
talking about writing instead of tapping out prose during the embryonic moments of our day. So in an effort at full disclosure, I have a "really ugly truth" of my own to share:

That's me writing at 5:00 a.m. It ain't pretty, folks.

The cover charge for my participation in this mystery called Art is paid in the commodity of sleep. It costs me every day. It's hard to get up, as my husband says, at the "butt-crack of dawn." But the alternative is no easier. Not for me during this season of life:

["The Many Faces of Distraction"][/caption]
A friend recently wrote that “it is easier to consume than create.” And he's right. It's easier to soak in a well-crafted story than persist through a first, second, or twenty-third draft in effort to spin that perfect yarn. It's easier to lick crème brulee from a spoon than to stand over the ramekin with a pastry torch, browning the sugar just so. Far easier to hear a song than spend hours in the studio recording, mixing, and mastering a single. This is true of any art form. Drinking in is easier than pouring out. (I would add that it’s also far easier to critique than create, but that's another post.) It is easier to sleep in.

For Katy it meant a night of lost sleep in order to fulfill her blogging commitment. For me it means getting up far earlier than I consider healthy or decent. It means peeling myself from between the sheets when my alarm blasts out its shrill reminder:
create, create, create.

It is so much harder to create than to merely consume. But the rewards. Oh those rewards, like cracking that thin layer of caramelized sugar, they are sweet.

Tell me friends - so I know I'm not alone - how you pick up the tab for the grueling honor of creating?

Since this is February, we authors at Novel Matters must jump in here for a teensy Valentines message for you, dear reader:


And because we are so glad you've all stopped by, we want to send one of you a bar of Green & Black's fair trade Chocolate. (Of course it's fair trade. We love you too much to support injustice in your name.)

Here's what you must do to win: In the comments, when you answer the question Ariel asked at the end of her post, if you phrase your answer in the form of a haiku, we will enter your name in the hat.

You know what a haiku is, right?
Three short rhymeless lines
The writer mustn't stress out
This game should be fun

And once again,


Friday, February 11, 2011

If At First You Don't Suceed

Within the last few weeks we’ve mentioned books that took several attempts at reading before they fully hooked us. One of those for me is Snow Falling on Cedars – part murder mystery, part love story, altogether literary. The story opens on the small fictional island of San Piedro on the Washington coast where a man of Japanese descent is on trial for the murder of a local fisherman and war veteran. I put the book aside twice before I was able to make the investment required to finish it. These are some of the things the author did extremely well which made me glad that I did:

  • The use of setting to establish the tone. “San Piedro is an island of five thousand damp souls…” which had “a verdant beauty that inclined its residents toward the poetical.”
  • The storm completely cuts off the town from the rest of the world while the inhabitants are confronted with their prejudices stemming from WWII. The local reporter wishes “it would snow recklessly and bring to the island the impossible winter purity, so rare and precious, he remembered fondly from his youth.” He gets his wish and a lifetime of memories surface during the proceedings. The town’s power is restored just at the close of the trial as the jury is deliberating.
  • The use of the metaphor of the salmon racing to spawn and meeting an insurmountable obstacle, mirroring the defendant’s own situation. “He imagined them slamming against his net in astonishment at this invisible thing that finished their lives in the last days of an urgent journey.” He was so close to realizing his own dreams, only to be locked away in a cell accused of murder.
  • A pivotal moment when the reporter realizes that his father had more integrity than he. He is spending thoughtful moments in his deceased father’s office when the power is restored to the house, and he “heard water moving in the pipes and the drip from the taps he’s left open.” His father’s influence moves in his life once more, including the knowledge that he must forgive and move on after life's disappointments.
As I was reading this book, I knew I wanted to post some of its beautiful passages, and these are just a sprinkling. It's not a 'Christian' book, so a word of warning to sensitive readers. But there's nothing like finding yourself in the hands of a skilled story teller.

What extraordinary examples of setting and/or personification (the storm) stand out in your mind?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Magical Realism

Katy began her post on Monday by saying, "A cherished writer friend recently planted a flag in the literary sod and vowed to build a brand on Magical Realism in fiction." I'm also friends with the writer, and when she said she wants to write "Magical Realism," I thought, What a great way to define what she writes. Wish I could be so spot on describing what I write. And then, after reading some of the really good comments to Katy's post, I began to think, Hmm, maybe our friend wasn't the first to coin the phrase.

So when I began typing "Magical Realism to Google it, I was very surprised when my search engine finished the phrase for me, then opened up to a Wikipedia page, and many other pages on the topic. Shoot, there are whole books on Magical Realism, and I'm just now hearing the term. Honestly, I'm blown away by all I don't know.

According to Wikipedia, Magical Realism is defined as: "an aesthetic style or genre of fiction in which magical elements are blended into a realistic atmosphere in order to access a deeper understanding of reality." But I suppose you already knew that. Wikipedia lost me, like a dropped stitch, in the ensuing paragraph then picked me up again when it said, "Today there are many varieties of writers whose work is categorized as 'magical realist' to such an extent that critics and readers alike are confused as to what the term really means and how wide its borders are."
That would be me.
While exploring the subject, I read an interesting article on Magical Realism by Bruce Holland Rogers titled, "What is Magical Realism, Really?". That doesn't mean I could make a coherent presentation about Magical Realism, but it gave me a little more information I could somewhat grasp. Mr. Rogers said, "If a magazine editor these days asks for contributions that are magical realism, what she's really saying is that she wants contemporary fantasy written to a high literary standard -- fantasy that readers who 'don't read escapist literature' will happily read. It's a marketing label and an attempt to carve out a part of the prestige readership for speculative works."
In the Comments section of Katy's post, Megan Sayer said, "The church needs to champion this, not be afraid of it." I couldn't agree more. And Niki Turner in her comment, which made me realize there was more to the subject than I first understood, said, "I always wonder why we, as Christians, have such difficulty merging the supernatural with the natural. That realm, with all its 'magical' qualities, should be more real to us than reality."
It should, but it's not. And we could probably go back centuries to find when the church first began to disavow the miraculous in its midst. But if biblical truth contains the miraculous, the numinous, the fantastic and sublime, why shouldn't a Christian's work contain the same kind of truth? Why do we not only shy away from such things, but consider them taboo? There are plenty of artists and authors who aren't necessarily on the Creator's side who have no qualms about spotlighting a world we can't see with human eyes. If we believe all we read between the pages of the Bible, we should, as Megan says, be championing the supernatural in our work and in our lives.
In the little bit of research I did on the topic, One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, was the most often cited novel that fits the category. What other books have you read, or would recommend on Magical Realism? And am I the only one who didn't know it's a recognized genre?

Monday, February 7, 2011

Get Out Your Purple Notebook

A cherished writer friend recently planted a flag in the literary sod and vowed to build a brand based on Magical Realism in fiction. I cheered. Someone gets it, I thought.

Rightly or wrongly, it seemed that this writer understood that the tradition of Magical Realism uniquely - and ironically - suits itself to Christian Fiction.

Why ironically? Because when we think of Magical Realist Fiction, we generally think first of novels written in places where the Western European, "Christian" culture has colonized and marginalized the native culture, and those novels often subvert the imposed worldview and re-claim, re-dignify the lost or nearly-lost native worldview.

Oh my. Don't I sound like a school-marm on the lecture circuit? And this after Bonnie's brilliant post last Friday that had us all laughing all weekend.

But remember her step number three?

Invent a perpetual motion machine. Give it a catchy name. Then, hide it in a closet for at least one year. After the appropriate amount of time has past, take the machine out of the closet, tinker with it until it moves at double the speed. (This step ensures you are able to do the impossible – at least twice.)

Good Magical Realist fiction does the impossible, with grace. So bear with me, and consider that perhaps the colonizing culture was more rationalist than Christian. I know, the church was always deeply a part of Western colonization, but would I get in much trouble if I suggested that at least on occasion the church had first and long before been colonized itself by the Enlightenment mindset (too enlightened to believe the impossible), than by its native Biblical perspective?

Certainly by now The Age of Reason has outgrown its need to get the church on its side, and, it seems to me, left a sadder world as its legacy in its last days.

I'm less inclined than some to feel persecuted or marginalized as an American Christian (I realize things are different in other places), but at the very least, as one who believes that Van Gogh's stars tell the Gospel truth, that the world is charged with the grandeur of God, that he dances and whispers sweet somethings in our ears, that rocks cry out and donkeys speak and a virgin brings forth a son and water turns to wine and the lion will lie down with the lamb... at the very least I often feel lonely.

You too?

Then take a look at this short list of the attributes of good magical realist fiction:

• It blends the mundane with the fantastic so seamlessly as to challenge perceptions of what is real and what is not.
• It elevates the mundane to the sublime.
• The story’s message is subversive to the dominant worldview.

Got any angels in your closet? Do you see something sublime in a lunch of bread and fish? Has this list brought something wondrous to mind?

Then please write it down in your purple notebook.

But first share it here, please, in the comments. We love to read what you have to say.

PS: For inspiration, try the Magical Realist classic, "One Hundred Years of Solitude," by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Or try two newer novels, "The History of Love" by Nichole Krauss, and "Peace Like a River" by Leif Enger.

PSS: "I am after painting reality impressed on the mind so hard that it returns as a dream, but I am not after painting dreams as such, or fantasy." - George Tooker

PSST: "My most important problem was destroying the lines of demarcation that separates what seems real from what seems fantastic" - Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Friday, February 4, 2011

How to Write a Novel

We'd like to welcome our friends who have clicked over from the Authors and Appetizers blog in order to download our free e-cookbook, Novel Tips on Rice. We're thrilled you are here, and we hope you enjoy cooking with us! Welcome!

What a week. Patti (channeling Anne Lamott) dared us to make writing its own reward. Double-dog dared us. And I got thinking – why can’t books sales be the reward? Bad Bonnie. Then Latayne rattled our cage by inspiring our artistic angst to hide out in the cave of nom de plume. Or not. Would writing under another name be its own reward?
I tell you, I’ve been soaking in uncertainty this week. I needed to take one giant step back and examine my motivation for writing novels, and my utter insanity for doing so using my real name. So, in order to ground myself, I’ve worked on a step-by-step list of how to write a novel. Perhaps you might find it useful.

Step 1:
Please choose one of the following options:
a) Give birth multiple times. (You may also choose to give birth to multiples. Triplets work well)
b) Have all of your body hair waxed off in one afternoon. (It is preferable that you have this preformed by a person who does not speak your language) Repeat weekly for one year.
(This step ensures you have vast experience with pain, AND attempting to reason with characters who are indifferent to your needs.)
Step 2:
Commit acts of Random Bizarre Behavior (RBBs) in public places. Record people’s reactions to your behavior in a purple notebook.
Examples of possible RBBs:
- Enter a crowded elevator and begin singing The Battle Hymn of the Republic at the top of your lungs. Be sure to flail your arms around, especially during the chorus. Interrupt yourself often by asking others in the elevator to give you more room.

- Enter a busy shopping mall. Shake hands with everyone you see and thank them for their excellent customer service.
- Approach a female stranger. Address this stranger as “Aunt Bea”. Demand to see pictures of the new baby.
- If you are approached by a police officer: calmly and patiently explain that you voted for ‘the other guy’. If this fails, claim you are Canadian and don’t know better (this only works if you are in the US).
(This step exposes you to the full range of natural, spontaneous human reactions and emotions needed to create believable characters.)
Step 3:
Invent a perpetual motion machine. Give it a catchy name. Then, hide it in a closet for at least one year. After the appropriate amount of time has past, take the machine out of the closet, tinker with it until it moves at double the speed.
(This step ensures you are able to do the impossible – at least twice.)
Step 4:
Knock on a stranger’s door. Tell the stranger you are the love child they gave up for adoption. Mention you are unemployed. Repeat this several times until you are numb to all rejection.
(This step ensures – well, you know what it ensures.)
Step 5:
Take all of these experiences and divide them into chapters. Give it a plot and a catchy name. If possible, include vampires.

It’s possible to be on more than one step at the same time. So, which step are you on? Do share!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Alias or Not?

Recently an agent I know asked one of her clients to consider writing books outside her genre. Now, the author is a novelist and the agent wasn’t asking her to write non-fiction, just a different type of novel than the ones which had gained her reputation.

(For an established writer, that can feel more than disorienting. It can feel threatening or even provoke thoughts of “selling out,” or at the very least, take time away from one’s familiar genre. On the other hand, these are tough times. Many unpublished writers would jump at a chance like that, to prove themselves marketable. And from a biblical point of view, even the Apostle Paul stopped traveling for a while and made tents to support himself. But that’s an issue for another day, another column.)

One of the strategies that a publisher sometimes asks of an established author is to publish the “new” genre writings under a nom de plume. Pen names represent a time-honored practice—you didn’t think that Mark Twain, George Orwell, George Sand, Zane Grey and Lewis Carroll were the authors’ birth names, did you?

What other reasons do people have for choosing pen names? One reason is to create a type of distance from one’s own real name. I know that when I was an insecure teenager, having the birth name of Celeste Latayne Colvett had no advantages I could think of. So I really, really, really wanted to change my name to Jody Sue to prove that I was golly-gee-Molly-Mormon okay.

I myself published a children’s book, The Dream Quilt (Waterbrook Press) under a pen name, the first names of my two children, Celeste Ryan. There may be a reason to dust it off and use it again.

So, readers, what is your favorite pen name? Do you have or do you want to have a pen name; and if so, what is it?