Friday, July 29, 2011

Useful Writing

I recently realized that I can do multiplication in my head until I get to the 7s, 8s, and 9s. Anytime I multiply one of them by any of the other two, I have to stop and think. Why? Because I can remember being very excited about learning multiplication tables up until I got to the higher numbers. Then I lost interest.

Similarly, I am an okay touch typist with letters, but have to look at my fingers to type numbers. As a teenager with no manual dexterity, learning to type was a humiliating and taxing experience. I finally got all the letters mastered but when it came to the numbers I figured I’d be writing non-mathematical things. I lost interest.

My first novel is unfinished. I lost interest. And I don’t believe it would be resurrect-able without major work, because it’s a suspense novel about a kidnapping, dependent upon the isolation of one of the characters in an age before cell phones. The first thing today’s reader would ask would be, “Why doesn’t she use her cell phone?” The novel isn’t useful.

The poet Marge Piercy emphasized that she wanted her poetry to be useful.

“What I mean by useful is simply that readers will find poems that speak to and for them, will take those poems into their lives and say them to each other and put them up on the bathroom wall and remember bits and pieces of them in stressful or quiet moments. That the poems may give voice to something in the experience of a life has been my intention. To find ourselves spoken for in art gives dignity to our pain, our anger, our lust, our losses. We can hear what we hope for and what we most fear, in the small release of cadenced utterances. We have few rituals that function for us in the ordinary chaos of our lives.”

I lost interest in numbers because they didn’t seem useful to me.

Join me in the recesses of our own hearts, each of us. By what rubrics, on what bathroom walls, do we find proof that our writing is useful, according to Piercy’s definition of usefulness?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Art is Community

Writing is a solitary pursuit. Long hours holed up with ideas and a blank screen, sympathizing with God’s ex nihlo brand of creation. The loneliness is deceiving. In the midst of it, the writer almost believes she is, after all, alone. That the ideas she spins are hers alone and she bends low over each one bidding it grow. Almost. But anyone who engages in art in any way knows there is no aloneness inside this place. That art is, in fact, an act of community.

A writer tells a story, and if she does it well, it will be the story of her aching place (keeping in mind that the aching place isn’t always about darkest pain, but also about the grandest ache of all; selfless love). The story goes ‘out there’, into the eyes of readers, into their minds, under their skin. And the reader discovers she too has an aching place though she’d never been able to express it before. She believed her aching place was alone, hidden, private. But art exposes that lie. We are not alone with our feelings, we share them. They mingle together in the air we pull into our lungs.

A Scream Goes Through the House, Arnold Weinstein says it this way:

“[. . .] art [. . .} offers us a shocking new picture of human arrangements, a picture that is insistently collective, relational, and extended. In art we can find and tap into a reservoir of feeling, and this encounter not only breaks open our solitude but also makes audible and visual to us the emotional lines of force that bathe individual life, separate us, yet connect us to one another.”

The power of art via story (the novel, or otherwise) is something to be treated with extraordinary care. There is an implicit obligation in the creation of art, not just to the art itself, but to the culture we live in and to the people of that culture. We cannot be content with a world filled with mere entertainment (I’m not against entertainment), when we can be a part of a world filled with meaning and connection (which offers a whole new level to what it means to be entertained). Neil Postman was a media critic who wrote extensively about media of all kinds: “When cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when a people become an audience, then a nation finds itself at risk.” This quote was in reference to TV in particular, but there’s a grain of truth for writers as well.

If art is the true connector of people, as Weinstein argues, then Postman’s observation rings clear; we have the opportunity to connect with each other on a deeply human basis, far beyond the water cooler giggles over the base behavior of the newest reality TV star (I’m not against water cooler giggles), or the worn out story of a woman who can only find wholeness if loved by a man (I am not against being loved by a man). Rather, the solitary writer can reach into the world, sharing her secret aching place, watching as it twines together with the fabric of other people’s souls and stretches out beyond the limits of what time can show her. She can write and share herself, and receive to herself the art (aching place) of others in order, as James Joyce says in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
, “That I may learn in my own life . . . What the heart is and what it feels.”

What thoughts do you have on art as community? What is the obligation of the artist/writer to the culture she/he partakes in? How have encounters with art given voice to your own aching place?

Monday, July 25, 2011

A Picture Worth A Hundred Words (Or So)

Patti, Debbie and Sharon inspired me last week to pay more respect to my life-long tendency to people-watch, and to weave stories from what I see.

Today - even though it's Monday - let's have some fun. Let's pull an old photo from the public domain (click here for a larger view), and weave a paragraph around it. We
ladies will go first, and then, please, dear readers, do join in.

I'll go first:

So far as she cared, Frank could keep the house with all its dusty carvings and stained glass windows. What Meredith and the girls needed was a whole lot of distance. And her husband's Packard was a distance making machine; she'd learned that just a week ago. Seven days wasn't much time to learn to drive, and the first seventy-five miles over the Cascade Mountains had been a bit rough. Lily and Pansy didn't mind, but Alice had just this moment decided that she wore the pants in the family. She didn't like eating Jujubes for breakfast. She didn't like sleeping in the car, and she didn't like her mother's driving. Well fine. Let her take the wheel a while. They only needed distance.

I know the only way to say this is to say it fast and straight out. And the only way to do it without tears is to do it in front of an audience. The girls barely count, because to them there never was such an adventure as this. But while Daddy's off collecting his pay, which he hopes will take us a few more counties west -- pay for a job so beneath a man of his goodness and ability I might add ... a job not even Denny Parker, the scoundrel of Broken Hollow, would have taken before the world lost its footing -- I'm just gonna say it out loud to Mama. Then I'm catching the Greyhound back home. Because I'm not leaving Jess. Not ever. Not with the likes of Naomi Bidwell waiting to show him her dimples. And a whole lot more.

Mama and me gave up sleeping in the rumble seat and counted enough shooting stars for a lifetime of good luck, something I wasn't expecting to gather on a camping trip with my cousin Betty. Just goes to show there's always a silver lining, just like my daddy keeps telling me. With so much luck in our pockets, Mama decided she'd had enough of camping and wanted to go home. Even with Betty sticking her tongue out at me every few minutes, the thought of going home made my stomach sour. The pineys smelled so fresh and the air lay soft on my skin. Back home the air made my skin sticky. And the smell? Let me just say I lived downwind from Grundstetner's hog farm. No matter how many times I yelled Fresh strawberries! nothing ever changed.
Aunt Lucy's eyes went all squinty when Mama told her to drive us home. "Are you kidding me, Raelyn? We're almost to the farm."

Mama climbed out of the rumble seat. "We ain't talking about this here." She tipped her head toward the lake and Aunt Lucy followed her. More than anything, I wanted to follow along, but sure if I did, Mama would tan me good. The tanning wouldn't hurt as much as stupid Betty laughing and snorting at me, trying to hold back my tears.

Betty looked at me with the same squinty eyes of her mother. "Your daddy's a bad man."

It didn't make no sense to waste words on Betty. She believed whatever she wanted to. And
the wronger she was, the more she believed it. In two shakes I was out of the car. I pulled her baggie pants to her ankles and pushed her hard into the dirt. If I earned a tanning, I wanted it to be for something worthwhile, so while Betty bawled, I ate her candy bar.

"She ain't coming back. She got into his truck and they lit out." Georgia squinted toward the horizon. "Probably in Idaho by now."

Clara huffed and tucked her hands beneath her arms for warmth. "You don't know nothin'. She wouldn't leave. She promised Mama she'd watch out for us."

Daisy started to cry and Clara pulled her close, wrapping their Mama's old quilt around her shoulders. "Now look what you done. Don't cry, Daisy. Aunt Sadie wouldn't leave us."

Merle snorted. "She'd leave us if it wasn't for the money in that valise."
Georgia reached down to the floorboard and opened the latch on the valise. "Like I was saying," she pulled it open to show the black emptiness, "she's gone, gone."

It's funny what you think about when the moment you've been waiting for actually comes. I should have been rehearsing what I planned to say to her, should have been going over the words in my mind so I'd get it right.You only get one chance and after what she'd done, I wanted it to be perfect. But I wasn't practicing my speech as I walked toward Velma's Packard. I wasn't even thinking about my daughter who Velma had taken more than four days ago. I tucked Velma's own daughter, Bea, behind me pulling her along as I walked through the trees toward the woman who had ruined my life. And all I could think about was how strong the pine smelled, how it was nothing like the pine-in-a-bottle stuff I used to clean my kitchen floor. How real things aren't anything like we imagine they would be. How Velma's Packard looks peaceful sitting in the middle of a circle of cars. Like maybe it's a camp out and we're all here to experience a wilderness weekend instead of a posse to take back my girl from this crazy woman. As I put my hand on the roof of that old Packard and open my lips to say something--all that fills my mouth is pine air.

Git in the back, she told me. Git out right now, she’s ordering us all right now. Now git back in. Rearrange that quilt so the hole shows. No, these clothes aren’t stupid they’re vintage. I can hear you when you mutter stuff like that under your breath. Yes, people used to wrap up their heads like this – you wouldn’t really want to travel for hour after hour with the wind whipping your hair follicles in circles till your scalp felt like it had been sandpapered, would you?

No, the car doesn’t have to run, this isn’t a movie.

Pullease. Just sit still for one more take.

And if I catch you texting one more time. . .

There are plenty of other girls that would like to get their start. Ever heard of a resume?

You’re not looking at your mom glaring at you, but I am.

Just sit still.

Just sit still.

Good grief.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Paying Attention to Detail

I had a writer's imagination long before I had a clue I could write, before I ever thought I might one day write a book. I had imaginary conversations with people real and fictional, and wondered if anyone I knew did the same thing. I was pretty sure it wasn't normal, but I was loathe to give up the practice. Then, when I began to write, I felt like a part of me had clicked into place and, finally, there was a valid outlet for all the imaginary things that went on inside my head. It seems I was "in the writing frame of mind" that Debbie wrote about before I knew there was such a thing.

I've always been a people watcher. I was the quiet one in the class or the crowd, soaking in the details of everyone around me. For a long time I thought it was the artist in me paying attention to detail -- and it was. For years I drew, then painted, and people were always my subjects. But I wanted their faces to say something to me. (Here's a typical drawing from way back when.) But my people watching was so much more than the active eye of an artist. It was learning the intricacies of characterization; the multi-faceted layers of story. It was growing into the realization that "story" is a way to communicate what's important to me (as did my artwork), hopefully in an intertaining way -- unlike the novel I'm currently reading, which is nothing more than a treatise on the author's pet issues. Notice the plural form of the noun? In fact, it reads like a checklist of what's near and dear to her heart (please forgive the cliche). It's as if she fashioned a garment for the sole purpose of having a framework on which to attach her favorite sequins. It is, in fact, a popular novel, but not with me, even though this is an author whose other books I've loved.

That's not what I mean by writing about what's on my heart.

The posts this week, as well as the comments -- we learn from you too! -- reminded me that paying attention to the world around us involves all the senses. That was driven home on Wednesday as I stood waiting for my take-out order at Panera Bread. (If you've never had their Frontega Chicken Sandwich, you must!) An elderly couple crossed my path on their way to a table, and the first thing that I took note of was the woman's red hair -- the color of which cannot be found in nature. I was also aware that the stark color didn't go with the loose folds of powdered skin that hung from her face, or the stoop of her shoulders, or the arch-support shoes she shuffled in. But again, people watching doesn't stop with the eye. And in this case it also involved my nose, as they passed with a conflicting array of scents: perm solution, spray starch, and perfume that hasn't been advertised in glamour magazines in decades. Those smells were definitely at odds with the fragrance of freshly-baked bread and homemade soup that filled the eatery, but they took top billing in the space I occupied for a good ten seconds or more.
I also love catching snippets of conversation when I'm in a public place. They're such great springboards for characters and scenes. Even things my family and friends say find their way into my novels. Those who know me well, know there's nothing sacred, nothing "off the record." Ever.

So what about you? When did you know you were meant to write, and what dimensions has that added to the person deep inside you? The one no one knows but you.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Writing Frame of Mind

I appreciate Anne Lamott’s advice and Patti’s candor in challenging us to remain inspired and in the writing frame of mind. It’s imperative to keep a notebook nearby. I’ve written before about my handy-dandy notepad that lights up when I pull out the pen. It’s great for those ideas that come at the edge of twilight sleep. I keep a journal with me for my current WIP with lots of lined pages for jotting down ideas as they come and space to stuff a timeline & photos of the characters. It’s messy – I don’t encumber the flow with neatness or organization, except that I may have tabs for setting, characters and plot. I’m the only one who sees the jumble of illegible words. Unfortunately, for me inspiration never comes when I’m sitting with my notebook in my lap drumming my fingers on the table.

You can’t look at inspiration straight on, as Ray Bradbury points out. “It isn’t easy. Nobody has ever done it consistently. Those who try hardest, scare it off into the woods. Those who turn their backs and saunter along, whistling softly between their teeth, hear it treading quietly behind them, lured by a carefully acquired disdain.” (Zen in the Art of Writing) It’s a bit like love. You can do your best to cultivate the possibility but you can’t make it happen.

I hear where Patti’s coming from. I hate to admit it, but pain is a great leveler. So is the realization of your own mortality. I bumped up against both about 13 years ago when I underwent treatment for breast cancer. There were no instructions. Like Patti, I had to look away from the woman I was at times, but through the process I learned to cut myself some slack. And I knew, overwhelmingly, that God cut me slack, too. Every day. So that not long after, there was a very grumpy man in front of me in the grocery check-out who left a bad impression on the checker. After he left, she made a comment, and without thinking, I said, “Maybe he’s in pain.” Did I have insight into his frame of mind or was he really just an old sourpuss? Who knows? But the next time I write about a sourpuss I can dust it with compassion.

I like to think of myself as observant, but I climbed the front steps yesterday without even noticing that the yard had been mowed and the hedges trimmed while I was at work. My husband shakes his head at me sometimes. I was probably wondering what was thawed for dinner as I crossed the threshold, or whether he’d thought to pick up cat litter. The pressures of everyday life can fit me with blinders and prevent me from being present in the moment. And writing in snatches and stolen moments makes it difficult to look outward and stay in the writing frame of mind. But if I ‘steal’ those moments at the same time every day, I train my creativity to click on at that time. If I park myself on a bench at lunch, I can sharpen my observation skills on the people who wander past.

What have you found that cultivates your creativity and helps you stay in the writing frame of mind? We’d love to hear!

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Writer as the Cheese

Welcome to the continuing conversation on Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Sure, the book has been around for a while, but when have you had a chance to chat it up with fellow writers? This is your chance. No need to read the chapter, although it’s fabulous. You’re professionals. Speak up. We learn so much from you.

The book is organized in five parts, and we’re starting the second part today: The Writing Frame of Mind. My husband would consider this a bit scary. He’s been an observer of my frame of mind for several decades, and, well, he often has to ask, “Are we talking about one of your characters now?”

We storytellers are gifted with a certain set of proclivities, some more finely tuned than others. But there is good news: Those proclivities can be sharpened and refined. And that’s what we’ll be talking about today, the chapter titled, “Looking Around.”

My husband claims to be free of the whimsy gene. Where I see a woman strutting like a hen, he sees only a field of gray smudge. When driving down the highway, I’ll ask, “Did you see that?”


“Sorry, it wasn’t ESPN.”

“Oh. Then no, I didn’t see anything.”

Out comes the notebook and I write all about the runaway steer being chased by a cowboy on horseback. Before you think my husband a dolt, he diagnoses lawn diseases at twenty paces. The man’s a genius.

We’re writers. We should be the most observant people around. That’s how we learn about the world and how it works. That’s what Lamott is proposing in this chapter. There are so many quotables in this chapter that I will comment on several.

The writer is a person who is standing apart, like the cheese in “The Farmer in the Dell” standing there alone but deciding to take a few notes.

Lamott isn’t saying to remove yourself from life. Where would we get angst for our stories? Heavens no, she is saying that it’s all there for the taking. Pay attention. Keep something handy to write on or tip-tap on. See the world as your library. You’re always learning, always gathering.

Your job is to see people as they really are, and to do this, you have to know who you are in the most compassionate possible sense. Then you can recognize others…I am learning slowly to bring my crazy pinball-machine mind back to this place of friendly detachment toward myself, so I can look out at the world and see all those other things with respect.

Lamott’s theory is this: If you can’t be compassionate about your humanness, how will you portray your characters compassionately, and then how will your readers relate? Who knew being a writer required so much internal work, but it does. It really, really does.

Just as I was gaining the interest of an agent and a publisher, I ruptured a disk in my neck. For 15 months, I lay as motionless as possible to reduce the pain until the docs agreed what was going on. In the meantime, I learned quite a bit about myself, and it was shocking. Pain flays you open and there I was, the real Patti. I had to avert my eyes at times, but then I took pity on the girl and saw that she was doing the best she could. Not coincidentally, I learned quite a bit about God and his compassion too. That blip in my schedule made me a better writer by forcing me to know the real Patti and like her. If I were you, I would skip the spinal cord injury part and make peace with who you are. You’re wonderful! God thinks so. And take notes!

This is our goal as writers, I think; to help others have this sense of –please forgive me—wonder, of seeing things anew, things that can catch us off guard, that break in on our small, bordered worlds…I think this is how we are supposed to be in the world—present and in awe.

A trip to Africa will do this, so can a trip to the grocery store or out to the garden. Making observations and writing them down will train you to be present and to see the world around you with wonder. Your readers will join you. Here are six things I saw anew today:

  • Are the hummingbird vines being stingy, or are they awaiting some clarion call?
  • Two grim-faced sparrows wait inside the birdhouse for lunch to be delivered.
  • Grocery shoppers lean into their duty, pointing the way with their noses to dinner. Something easy and exquisite, hopefully.
  • The woman read the label with such reverence, I expected her to clench the jar of Prego to her heart.
  • The sofa cushion smiles with use.
  • Nasturtiums the size of lunch plates nod in the breeze.
It doesn’t hurt to have a two-year-old around, either.

How are you as an observer? Are you compassionate with yourself? Do you agree this is necessary to be a good storyteller? I can think of some counterexamples in literature, but I like the idea of giving myself room to grow. And you? Do you see things others miss? How do you cue yourself to be stay in the present? How do you realize compassion for your characters, even the stinkers?

Friday, July 15, 2011

In Their Own Words

I don't feel I have much to add to Bonnie's excellent video post on revision, so I thought you might enjoy hearing what some well-known authors have to say on the subject.

Mark Twain:

"You need not expect to get your book right the first time. Go to work and revamp or rewrite it. God only exhibits his thunder and lightning at intervals, and so they always command attention. These are God's adjectives. You thunder and lighting too much, the reader ceases to get under the bed, by and by." "The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is that you really want to say." (Exactly what our Bonnie said in her post.)

Robert Cormier:

"The beautiful part of writing is that you don't have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, a brain surgeon. You can always do it better, find the exact word, the apt phrase, the leaping simile."

Michael Crichton:

"Books aren't written -- they're rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the 7th rewrite hasn't quite done it."

John Irving:

"More than a half, maybe as much as two-thirds of my life as a writer is rewriting. I wouldn't say I have a talent that's special. It strikes me that I have an unusual kind of stamina."

Thomas Wolfe:

"What I had to face, the very bitter lesson that everyone who wants to write has got to learn, was that a thing may in itself be the finest piece of writing one has ever done, and yet have absolutely no place in the manuscript one hopes to publish." (This one gave me that "ugh!" feeling.)

Dorothy Parker:

"I can't write five words but that I can change seven."

John Hersey:

To be a writer is to throw away a great deal, not to be satisfied, to type again, and then again and once more, and over and over."

William Kennedy:

"When you write ... some things that come very late in the creation change what you were conceiving back when you started. Therefore, you have to go back and revise."

Judy Blume:

"I'm a rewriter. That's the part I like best ... once I have a pile of paper to work with, it's like having the pieces of a puzzle. I just have to put the pieces together to make a picture."

Anne Tyler:

"It all depends on how you count, but I'd say the book (Noah's Compass) took four drafts. That's three longhand drafts before I entered it in the computer, and then I copied the computer version into longhand again. I read that fourth version into a tape recorder and then listened to the tape recorder while I followed along on the computer screen to pick up any minor changes I had made." (Wow, does THAT make me feel like a slacker!) "Ridiculous, I know. But it's more or less the way I've always done it, except for the three or four earliest books which I wrote without revising, under the mistaken impression that revising was a form of cheating. Nowadays, I love revising. I think of Draft One as work and the revisions as play."

Nora Roberts:

"I'll vomit out the first draft: bare-bones, get-the-story-down. I don't edit and fiddle as I go, because I don't know what's going to happen next. Once I get the discovery draft down, then I'll go back to page one, chapter one, and then I start worrying about how it sounds, where I've made mistakes, where I've gone right, what else I have to add, where's the texture, where's the emotion. I start fixing. And then, after I've done that all the way through again, I'll go back one more time, and that's when I'm really going to worry about the language. And the rhythm, and making sure that I haven't made a mistake, that I've tied up all the loose ends reasonably. It doesn't necessarily mean everything ties up for every reader, because some want it one way and some want it another, and you just have to be true to the story, so it's all plausible at the end of the day."

Ann Patchett:

"The way I work, I spend about a year putting a book together in my head. And when it's all laid out, I start to write. I do 95 percent of my revision in the first 50 pages. I'll throw out the 50 pages over and over and over again. Once I get that straight, then I'm on track, and I don't do a whole lot of revision. By the time I get to the end, I'm finished. I'll brush it up, but it goes off."

I enjoyed reading what other authors have to say about the topic of revision (and hope you did too) even though some of the comments are at odds with my own style. I HATE revision. HATE. IT. I do my best to write the first draft as though it were the last one. Whether or not I succeed is debatable, I'm sure. But that's just how I'm wired. That's not to say I don't make changes once I've finished the manuscript, not at all. I just do my best to keep them to a minimum, because, honestly, I can look at a clean screen and my imagination starts to play. But once I've written a page, a chapter, or a novel, I find it incredibly difficult to go back and "flesh it out" or expand on it.

I have so much to learn.

What about you? Where do you fit in to the revision dialogue? You love it, you hate it? You tolerate it? Talk to us.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Editing the Novel's Opening-A Novel Matters Video

The take home message of this video:

1) Just start writing. At some point after the planning, you must start writing. It's important to remember you will come back and change your beginning.
2) Editing happens. Editing is a part of the creative process, not something that happens outside of it. You are supposed to make changes. They are supposed to be big. It's normal.
3) Be kind to yourself. Kill the darlings in your manuscript when editing. Don't kill yourself! You haven't missed the mark simply because you needed to make big changes. You're just finding the perfect path to tell the story.
4) Share your thoughts about writing a novel's beginning!

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Reading Rules - A She Reads Guest Post by Ariel Allison

Today's post is from Ariel Allison, co-founder and director of our sister blog She Reads.

I play a game with my children every time we sit down to read. I call it “The Reading Rules” because my four boisterous children need to be reminded what is(and is not) civilized behavior while reading a story.

Consider this recent episode:

Me: Boys, what are the reading rules?

Boy #1 (eight-years-old): No talking while you read.

Boy #2 (six-years-old): No asking questions til’ you’re done.

Boy #3 (four-years-old): No hitting.

Boy #4 (two-years-old): I pooped.

This, as you can imagine, sent the conversation straight down the toilet (pun intended). Spasms of giggles. One child plugged his nose and ran around the couch. Another flailed on the floor. But now they were inspired. And hyper.

Boy #1: And no picking our nose.

Boy #2: And no eating our boogers.

Boy #3: Boogers taste yucky.

Me: Please don’t tell me how you know that.

Boys 3 and 4 had, by this point, twisted off to the point of unmanageable and were sent to bed. It took an additional five minutes to corral the attention of the older two back to the task at hand: learning which of the four houses the Sorting Hat assigned Harry Potter. Even at this age, they are sensitive enough to plot that they rooted for Gryffindor. And of course, by the time we reached the end of the chapter, they were not disappointed.

What does this have to do with a literary blog you say? As a novelist, avid reader, co-director of She Reads, a national book club, and a contributor to Novel Matters, I wanted to suggest that my children are not the only uncivilized readers out there. Many of us could use a few Reading Rules as well. Here a few:

Rule #1: No Judging A Book Unless You’ve Read It

I confess I’ve done this. I’ve formed an opinion about a book based solely on reviews and how my fellow writers/readers panned it, even though I hadn’t so much as held the book in my hands. This rule can be tricky considering my role at She Reads. I have the opportunity to read dozens of books every month. And the truth is that I often find myself in the position where I do not care to finish them. But if I’m being honest, that does not put me in a position to judge the entire book – only the portion I’ve read. I could name more than one novel that began better than it ended. Or vice versa. Recently I was so irritated by the first line of a novel that I snapped it shut and haven’t picked it up again. By doing so, I disqualified myself from all intelligent conversation about that novel. So the rule that I apply to unread or unfinished books is to say, “I’ve not read the novel,” or “What I read didn’t interest me.” And I leave it at that.Any other judgment is unfair to the author and the book.

Rule #2: Think Before You Review

This rule could also be stated “think before you request.” With programs such as Amazon Vine and mass blog tours, readers are now in a position to acquire books they would normally never purchase. Not a bad thing, but it’s easy to request a novel when there is no personal cost, only to toss it aside later or give it the dreaded one star rating because it fell outside the bounds ofpersonal taste. I could give you a list of novels and authors and genres that I go out of my way to avoid. I know not to read those books for review. To do so would be unfair. See Rule #1.

Rule #3: If You Don’t Like A Book Tell Us Why

There are few things less trustworthy than a book reader/reviewer who loves or hates every book. I’ve found some blog tour participants to be guilty of this and I would wager it has to do with workload. Much easier to slap up the book cover and a few sugar/acid coated thoughts about the novel. Yet honest critique is invaluable to an author. I believe that most authors go into publication already aware of the weak points in their novel. Thoughtful critique that mentions her thin narrative or contrived dialogue can help her hone those skills on the next book. To read that it was “awful” or “useless” or a “waste of time” (all popular review phrases) does little to help her understand or apply critique. Nor does it help to see a glowing but bland review. If we’re going to publically critique the work of another let’s be honest. And fair.

So what do you think? Do you agree or disagree with any of these rules? What others ruleswould you add to the list? For the advancement of civilized reading, please do share!

Friday, July 8, 2011

Logos... or logos?

I'm going to loan my copy of "Gilead," by Marilynne Robinson, to a friend. I cherish this wise and beautiful book, with all the fingermarks and highlights I left when I first read it. So I'm taking a brave step, loaning it out - epecially since my friend has been known to leave borrowed books in the library dropbox - even ones he borrowed from people like me.

I wrote my name and number on the fly sheet.

Then I downloaded the Kindle edition of the same book so I wouldn't miss it too much, and carefully transferred all my highlights. And experienced again, line by line, the reasons I love this book.

Here's a favorite passage:

Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?

It makes me think of Latayne's post on Wednesday, and how it took my breath away to imagine the caterpillar liquifying within its chrysalis. Can you bear to think of it? And yet we know the feeling. I can't help but see this obscure bit of knowledge as a post-it note from God, tucked in our pillows for us to find. The rocks cry out. The heavens declare. And so do butterflies.

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.
Romans 1:20

There you have it: scriptural permission to read the oldest book of the Bible between the leaves of the trees, and butterfly wings. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God... Through him all things were made." The Logos, the animating Word of God, left his mark in the world he made, and we can still find it there.

Wonder is such a pure thing, and it's always been the thing I wanted most to pour into my writing.

And it's never been more needed. In "The Divine Commodity," Skye Jethani writes of a letter he got from his daughter's kindergarten teacher that hints at the way we have replaced the Logos of God with the logos of commercial brands.

Dear Parents, Here is your child’s first kindergarten “homework”! Please help your child find “logos” such as the ones displayed on this page to help reinforce the concept that he/she can already read! They may be on bags, boxes, cups, cans, etc. The children feel great about their ability to read them. We will use them for sharing and also to create a display in our classroom. Thanks for helping!!!

Squirming just a smidge, Jethani and his wife tested their daughter and learned that she could indeed read Pizza Hut, Target, and Disney. Even her water, that stuff Jesus walked on, bore, on the bottom of the glass, another word she knew: IKEA.

Just in case you can't pinpoint the reason this disturbs you (it does, right?), let me suggest that the flashing message of a consumer culture runs counter to the message God so lovingly planted in the pages and leaves and butterfly wings of his Word.

Your television will tell you: Blessed are the strong, the rich, the ones with the most toys.

Disney will show you the catterpiller, the butterfly and even the crysallis - from the outside. But they won't tell you what goes on inside. That's too much like theology. It's too troubling... until you've been liquified, and then it comforts to know that our watery remains are imaginal fluid, the magic stuff that builds our wings.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Imaginal

,I have never used the imagery of a butterfly’s metamorphosis in my fiction. (I did use it in my first book, a non-fiction, and have regretted it ever since.) The reasons are many. First, it is overused. Secondly, butterflies in general have been co-opted as a transgender symbol, and – that’s not me. Thirdly, for all the emphasis on and descriptions of transformation in the Bible,

the butterfly is never mentioned there. There are the death of seeds and fragile clay pots and living sacrifices, but nary a butterfly.

But recently I learned something very interesting about the metamorphosis of a butterfly. I guess I never thought about the actual mechanics of it; that is, what goes on inside the chrysalis. I guess I thought the ensconsed worm began to sprout appendages and wings.

The fact is that the caterpillar disintegrates completely before the transformation can start.

In the words of poet Carol Lynn Pearson:

When the caterpillar within the chrysalis has liquefied, special cells – called “imaginal cells” – begin an amazing process. They cluster together in small islands, communicate with each other, and coordinate the activity that will create the adult butterfly. . .

Art Prints

Liquify. That can’t feel right. It must feel like destruction.

Imaginal cells. The very word speaks of visualizing something, of reifying what is formless, of the power of representations that precede and form fact, as surely as God’s own words “Let there be light” preceded and formed the light itself.

Communicate with each other – out of this ooze of destruction comes language.

You understand what I am saying, do you not?

You write Christian fiction and you perceive that there are others that want this kind of personal destruction, this reduction to raw materials so that you can be something better, write something higher. Inside you, just as deep calls to deep, you are filled with the imaginal cells that can organize within you.

And on another level, you yourself are an imaginal cell as you communicate with others, yearning across this primordial vastness of synapses and cyberspace. You know, without saying it, the truth of the Epistle to the Hebrews: that we can only be made complete with others.

This, then, is the ooze of the transformation of Christian fiction. I am convinced of it.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Happy Holidays

Today is July 4th, Independence Day in the United States, and only a few days past Canada Day. Holidays are great opportunities to get some much-needed R & R or to spend time with our families, but I’d never really considered them as fertile ground for story until I attended a conference class on script writing.

Although the presenter at the conference had written scripts for Hollywood, script-writing was not the limit of her experience. She pointed out that holidays can add an important dynamic to a script, novel or play and can increase the story's longevity. For treatments in which the holiday is the backbone, the story cannot stand without it. Think "It's a Wonderful Life," Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," or "Holiday Inn" (which spun off 2 others: White Christmas & Easter Parade). We watch/read these and others like them every year which makes them lucrative. For many people, they become family traditions. Ray Bradbury's novel, "The Halloween Tree," is one such novel that follows a group of boys as they race through time to save a friend, all the while learning about the origins of the observance. Without Halloween, there is no story. Many popular authors write Christmas or Valentine's Day novels or novellas because they sell so well and make great gifts.

The presenter also challenged us to think of other stories that perhaps weren't so obviously about the holiday, but would be greatly impacted by its exclusion. "While You Were Sleeping" with Sandra Bullock was one of these. Setting the story around Christmas and New Years makes us sympathetic to the main character's loneliness and lends credibility to her motives. We especially want her to get both the guy AND his family because her loneliness is magnified by the holiday season. But the story is not so steeped in the holiday that you need to wait for Christmas to watch again.

Sometimes, rather than setting the story on a holiday, it's enough to include the holiday in a scene to show, for example, relational dynamics, the passage of time or a character's motives. In "Catch Me if You Can", Frank Abagnale calls Tom Hanks' FBI character on the phone on certain holidays which provides Hanks with some of the information he needs to finally catch him. (BTW, here is a very interesting disclaimer by Mr. Abagnale about the book and movie here.) There is also a pivotal scene in Anne Tyler's "The Accidental Tourist" set at Thanksgiving dinner which gives a revealing look into their family's dysfunction and manipulation. The Christmas scene in "Little Women" gives us a taste of Christmas during the Civil War and insight into the character of the young women. I included scenes involving the family at the holidays in "Tuesday Night at the Blue Moon" because holidays are highly significant and challenging after the the death of a loved one.

Have you incorporated any holidays in your writings, and what was the purpose? Can you add any books/movies/plays to the list and why do you think the holiday was included in them?

Friday, July 1, 2011

Is Kvetching Absolutely Necessary?

Yay! We have a winner!!! Marian, choose one of the books listed below. I'm looking forward to hearing from you. Thanks to all for your comments.

Thanks so much for taking time during your Independence Weekend celebration to drop by Novel Matters. You deserve a special treat. If you comment today, I'll enter you in a drawing for one of the four books I mentioned on Wednesday in our roundtable discussion, your choice--Home, Mudbound, Half Broke Horses, or The Book Thief. Yes, it will have been gently read, by me, but books shared among friends are the best.

So, here we are for our book chat of Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. We're focusing on the chapter, "Plot Treatment" today. Remember, reading the chapter isn't a prerequisite for participation. Yammer away with me!

Everyone I know flails around, kvetching and growing despondent, on the way to finding a plot and structure that work. You are welcome to join the club.
Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

Just to summarize:

Lamott spent two-plus years writing a beautiful story where nothing happens. Her editor refuses the manuscript, and, after a period of depondency, she gathers herself to try again. She rearranges pages, paragraphs, and scenes on the floor of her apartment. Satisfied that she has a string of story pearls, she travels from San Francisco to New York to discover she'd only managed to make the story prettier. The story brimmed with witty writing, stunning imagery, and well-developed characters doing absolutely nothing.

You've read novels like that. You wait and wait for the story to start, all the while marveling at the clever use of language and the fresh description. Within pages of the end, if you get that far, you're still wondering when the story will begin, which means there are wants and conflict to care about. Evidently, Lamott is lucky to have an editor who pushes her to "build" a story with sound internal logic before actually publishing it.

Here's a bit of wisdom from Lamott's story: Lamott went back to her editor, head in hands, and asked for help. He tells her to write a plot treatment for her story, which turns out to be a chapter-by-chapter super-charged synopsis. (Side note: A synopsis is a great way to discover holes, gaping or otherwise, in your plot.)

After the plot treatment, she says, "The book moved along like the alphabet, like a vivid and continuous dream."

I'm such a Girl Scout--be prepared and all that. Lamott's process of writing a complete manuscript, three times, sounds like pure torture to me. Perhaps you see her experience as a glorious, organic process you hope to emulate. Go for it. Absolutely, go for it.

Not me. I do tons of thinking about structure and plot before I start a novel--and I'm doing more now than ever. That doesn't mean I don't tweak, delete, and augment along the way, that the muse doesn't whisper in my ear, that I don't hit a wall at 30,000 words. I do, I do. I've been asked by editors to shore up a sagging middle and strengthen an ending, but, egads, rewrite a manuscript three times? Lamott has persistence. Perhaps that is the true wisdom of this chapter--listen to your mentor and keep trying until you get it right.

But let's go back to plot and structure. (I'm reading two books on the topic right now: Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell and The Anatomy of Story by John Truby.) Notice Lamott didn't discuss the how-to of plot and structure in this chapter, only that the struggle for plot and structure is worth the prize. I expected her to recommend a plot treatment or other such tool, but she didn't. I find that curious, especially since she experienced success once she'd had a plan.

I'm learning that plot and structure is so much more than deciding to write by the seat of your pants or to outline every scene and sneeze. Plot and structure is the logic, the motivations, the reader's satisfaction, the author's world view...sadly, it's too big of a topic to develop here. Sorry.

I hope what you'll take from this chapter of Lamott's book is that plot and structure make beautiful writing entertaining. It's worth all the agony and kvetching. Whether you work a plan or rewrite to strengthen plot and structure, it's hard work. No way around it.

Do you consider plot and structure before you start writing? Where have you learned the most about plot and structure? Do you have a story like Lamott? Have you done complete rewrites to bolster plot and structure? What kept you sane? Motivated? Do you outline? Write a synopsis? A plot treatment? Do you believe plot and structure can happen organically as you write? I'm so curious about this topic. Tell me everything!